THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jim Morrison’s lyrics, “This is the end. Beautiful friend. This is the end” have been interpreted to have many meanings over the years, and they also seem just right for what is likely the final on screen performance from one of the few remaining iconic movie stars. Robert Redford claims this is probably the end of his nearly 60 year acting career. If that’s true, he couldn’t have selected a better project for his victory lap. The film itself is a nice mixture of mass appeal and the independent projects that Mr. Redford has long supported. As for the character he plays, it too fits him like a glove.

Filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off last year’s indie favorite A GHOST STORY) has adapted the story from a 2003 “New Yorker” article by David Grann, and it’s based on a true story – one that’s a bit difficult to believe … well, at least until Mr. Redford brings Forrest Tucker to life. Mr. Tucker escaped from San Quentin at age 70, and it was just one of his 16 prison escapes during a lifetime of robbing banks and getting caught. The story is that Tucker simply enjoyed the work, and went about it in the most gentlemanly possible way – often described by bank employees as polite and nice. It’s the perfect character for Redford’s trademark twinkle and grin acting style.

Most of this portion of the story takes place in 1981, and the film captures not just the era, but also the essence – something much deeper than clothes and cars. Starring alongside Mr. Redford is Sissy Spacek as Jewel, and their chemistry allows the quiet moments between their characters to work as effectively as their (sometimes) playful verbal exchanges. Tucker’s “crew” is manned by Danny Glover as Teddy, and the great Tom Waits as Walter. Waits is always fascinating to see on screen, and here he gets one especially good scene to shine. They are referred to as “The Over the Hill Gang” (in contrast to “The Hole in the Wall Gang” from Redford’s classic BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

Casey Affleck (reunited with director Lowery for the third time) plays Austin Texas detective John Hunt, who spent a great deal of time chasing Tucker, and actually put the puzzle pieces together. Tika Sumpter appears as Hunt’s wife, Gene Jones is memorable as a Bank Officer, and for you Austin music lovers, Lefty Frizzell’s granddaughter makes a brief appearances. Other far too brief appearances include Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Keith Carradine (weirdly brief), Robert Longstreet, John David Washington, and Elisabeth Moss. The parade of familiar faces can be a bit distracting, but it’s understandable why so many wanted to work with Lowery and Redford.

Joe Anderson’s cinematography is terrific, and the film is oddly devoid of violence. If not mistaken, I believe we only see Tucker’s gun once … and that’s in a glove compartment. There is a certain easiness and warm fuzzy to the film, somewhat conflicting with what we would expect following an armed bank robber!

Of course, the reason we buy into the gentlemanly outlaw is the performance of Robert Redford. Charming and easy-going comes pretty easily to a man that is charming and easy-going. Director Lowery even treats us to a quick clip from young Redford’s film THE CHASE, and does so within a delightful montage of Tucker’s prison escapes. Few actors get such a perfect farewell tribute, and though it’s not quite Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat, at least Redford gets to tip his cap to the fans. Since he’s moving his career off screen, let’s bid a fond and appreciative farewell to the man that once proclaimed, “I’m better when I move”.

watch  the trailer:

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TRUTH (2015)

October 29, 2015

truth Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the book written by Mary Mapes, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power”, and plays like a desperate attempt at rationalizing the actions of a TV producer, a TV news icon, their team of reporters and researchers, and the endless drive for ratings by a network news organization. Telling only your side of the story when a significant conflict is involved, does not encourage thinking people to take up your cause.

In 2004, Mary Mapes brought in her team to dig into the rumors that President George W Bush had received preferential treatment in military assignments and that his military service records were either incomplete, had been altered, or proved that he did not fulfill his service requirements. Ms. Mapes professional relationship with Dan Rather allowed her to bring him into the fold, and resulted in significant air time on CBS and “60 Minutes”. Most of us know how this saga ended … Mapes and her team were let go, and Mr. Rather’s time as the network news anchor was unceremoniously ended. While there may very well be substance to the story they were chasing, both the book and the movie act as Ms. Mapes defensive pleas of innocence.

In the film, Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, and Robert Redford plays Dan Rather. Ms. Blanchett, as usual, is exceptional; and Redford is solid in capturing the essence of Rather (though the hair color variances are distracting). The other key players are: Topher Grace as reporter Mike Smith, Dennis Quaid as researcher and former Marine Lt. Colonel Roger Charles, Elisabeth Moss as Lucy Scott, Bruce Greenwood as Andrew Heyward (President of CBS News), Stacy Keach as Mapes source Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, and Dermot Mulroney as CBS attorney Lawrence Lampher. The film is well cast, but it’s not enough to make up for the weak script and the less-than-stellar direction from first timer James Vanderbilt (who did write the screenplay for Zodiac, and is the great-grandson of Albert G Vanderbilt).

Rather than provide any proof that the story was properly documented and confirmed, Mapes and Rather decry the loss of reporters who ask the “tough” questions. Their defense seems to be that they were brave enough to chase the story and ask questions. A sequence is included that positions these two as the last bastions for true news reporting, and that these days news organizations are more concerned with profits and ratings, than breaking a story. This argument conveniently omits the fact that information flows much more freely today than in “the good old days”. The actions of politicians and industry leaders are constantly being questioned and scrutinized by the endless stream of bloggers and reporters – both amateurs and professionals. There is no shortage of questions being asked, and the ease with which accusations are leveled actually fits right in with the Mapes approach.

The frustrating part of the movie is that it’s a missed opportunity to detail how “legitimate” news organizations go to extremes to document and verify their information and sources, and this is where Ms. Mapes’ team fell short. Without intending to, the film plays more similar to Shattered Glass (2003) than All the President’s Men (1976) … getting a story being more important than proving a story. We are left with the feeling that Ms. Mapes believes asking a question is more important than proving the facts. The cringe-inducing shot of Dan Rather’s final broadcast leaves the viewers with the impression that the objective of the film was to place Mapes and Rather on a pedestal of righteousness. The only thing actually confirmed here is that heads rolling at CBS was the right (and only reasonable) call.

watch the trailer:

 

 


A WALK IN THE WOODS (2015)

September 2, 2015

a walk in the woods Greetings again from the darkness. Bill Bryson is a terrific and prolific writer known over the last thirty years for his books on travel, science and language. His comedic and witty approach makes his work accessible to even casual readers, yet somehow this is the first of his books to receive the Hollywood movie treatment. Envisioned in 1998 as the third collaboration between Robert Redford and Paul Newman (who died in 2008), there is even a scene reminiscent of Butch and Sundance pondering a cliff side jump/fall. This final version instead teams Mr. Redford with a grizzled Nick Nolte.

Redford stars as Bryson (aged about 30 years over the novel) who has had a successful writing career and has a quite comfortable life with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and their family. His problem is that he hasn’t written anything new in years, save the Forewords for the books of other writers. He is feeling unsettled and almost spontaneously decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (more than 2000 miles). His wife is as supportive as you might guess … she laughs at him, begs him not to go, provides documentation of the dangers (bears, bacteria, bludgeoning), and finally agrees only if he can persuade someone to go with him.

Enter Mr. Nolte as Katz, an estranged friend from years ago, who may or may not be on the run from law enforcement. We do know he is overweight, a recovering alcoholic, quite horny (for a man in his 70’s), and in a point that matters little … was not actually invited by Bryson to go on the trip.

What follows is senior citizen slapstick (a new sub-genre for my gray cinema category). The tone is extremely light-hearted … in the mode of The Bucket List, Grumpy Old Men, and “The Odd Couple”. Some of the scenery is breathtaking, but mostly we get face-offs between the intellectual and thoughtful Bryson, and the slovenly horndog Katz. Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his TV comedy work on “The Office”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “The Larry Sanders Show”. Redford and Nolte are (very) old pros who handle the material and surface humor with ease. Nolte brings such a physicality to his performance that it left this viewer wondering if he was really that talented or (hopefully not) that frighteningly out of shape. Either way, it works.

Additional support work comes in quick spurts in the form of Nick Offerman as an REI salesman, Mary Steenburgen as a motel owner, Susan McPhail as a memorable Beulah, and motor-mouthed (and funny) fellow hiker Kristen Schaal whose character would have most hikers hoping for a bear attack.

The film is clearly aimed at a very narrow group of movie goers, and it’s likely that group will be pleased with what they see on screen. The philosophical aspects of the book are mostly glossed over here, and for hiking in the mountains, there is an obvious lack of edginess. The objective is laughs, not deep thought. Objective achieved.

watch the trailer:

 


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

April 20, 2014

capt america Greetings again from the darkness. Many were unimpressed with the first Captain America movie, though I have always had a soft spot for the most heroic and genuinely pure of the superheroes. This sequel opens with Steve Rogers trying to acclimate after a 70 year sleep … he thinks the internet is pretty cool. It is a bit surprising that the Russo brothers (Anthony and Joe, known for You, Me and Dupree) are the ones who load up on plot lines within a Marvel movie.

Starting off with big time action sequences, the movie then morphs into a geopolitical weave of intrigue between SHIELD and HYDRA. New to this maze of distrust is Robert Redford … proving once again that Hollywood doesn’t trust guys wearing suits in fancy offices. In a twist, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) find themselves the target of a manhunt by those they work for. Then they drag Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into this … his flight suit is a nice effect. All of this happens after an unexpected action-packed sequence featuring Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson).  The titular Winter Soldier provides an identity twist, as well as some intense fighting.

The multiple plot lines and emphasis on trust issues all correlate pretty well to some of the things going on in the world today. That adds an enjoyable element that really brings relevance to the Captain America character. Because of this, the repartee between Cap and Natasha is limited … we get some, but much less than what we have come to expect from other Avengers-related films. And it’s probably a good idea to go a different direction with the Avenger who really is different from the others. Don’t miss the extra scene in the closing credits … it’s the lead in to Avengers: Age of Ultron movie coming in 2015.

**NOTE: there is the always-anticipated Stan Lee cameo, and it adds the usual touch of humor

watch the trailer:

 


ALL IS LOST (2013)

November 2, 2013

all is lost1 Greetings again from the darkness. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks makes friends with a volleyball. In The Old Man and the Sea, Spencer Tracy talks to the whale. In Harvey,  James Stewart chats it up with a tall imaginary rabbit! It takes the great Robert Redford to show us how to face isolation with silent dignity (save one well-deserved F-word).

Writer/director J.C. Chandor brought us the very good Margin Call (2011), which was filled with many characters and mounds of dialogue. Here, he reverses field with a single character and no real dialogue – only the opening log entry and a couple of SOS calls into a short-circuited radio. This is one man’s struggle for survival. It’s that man vs nature. It’s our man facing mortality and isolation.

all is lost2 So you are probably wondering how this can hold your attention for two hours. The real answer is Robert Redford. At age 77, his screen presence is remarkable. Having never been a “showy” actor, his performance and this movie depend on facial expressions, his body language, and mostly his ability to connect with an audience immediately. In 1972, Redford was Jeremiah Johnson, another man of few words who fought nature (and native Americans in that one), but this one is more immediate with its pending doom.  Technically, All is Lost is exceptional, especially in sound design and in creating a terrifying and believable situation. But it’s Mr. Redford that causes us to feel thirsty with him, and to hold our breath as a storm shoves him underwater.

all is lost3 Alex Ebert’s music is subtle and effective, but let’s get real … Mr. Redford and his mop of red hair are the reason to see this movie. There is almost no back story on this character, other than what we infer from his opening log entry. We know his “I’m sorry” has many meanings to his family, but we soon realize his will to live probably comes from an internal drive connected to his apology. It’s nice to see a role for an older actor that doesn’t included stupid humor designed to make kids laugh. Not much humor in this one, and there is no need to be sorry.

**NOTE: Robert Redford’s acting career spans more than 50 years and 6 decades. Many think of a sexy Robert Redford in one of his numerous roles, but this is the first to pair him with a sextant!

SEE THIS MOVIE: for the extraordinary performance of Hollywood legend Robert Redford OR if you are tired of the incessant cute-talk featured in most movies and shows these days (this one gives your ears a break, though your other senses work overtime)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking guffaws or playful banter (it’s only filled with an excess of undrinkable water)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk_R04LfUQU


BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) revisited

February 5, 2013

butch Westerns tend to be one of most divisive film genres.  “I hate westerns” is proudly proclaimed by otherwise intelligent and open-minded movie goers.  Ask these anti-western types for specifics on what it is they don’t like and their answers often include:  boring/slow pace, hard to relate to characters, simplistic dialogue, too few women characters and too much machismo.  Western lovers wouldn’t attempt to argue any of those points.  Instead, we prefer to believe that some of those are the BEST features of westerns!

What’s fascinating is, despite the haters, westerns have achieved immense popularity through the years.  Some have provided us the strong, quiet hero: High Noon, Tombstone, The Magnificent Seven.  Many have shown us the joy of revenge: True Grit, Django Unchained, The Searchers.  Some provided us with wonderful villains: The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West (nice guy Henry Fonda as a badass).  Still others offered up the conflicted gunslinger: Unforgiven; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  Westerns can even be tearjerkers: Shane; comedies: Blazing Saddles, City Slickers; and animated: Rango.

butch5 The one western which seems to be the exception … it’s even beloved by western haters … is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  It’s a mainstream film with three movie stars, a strong director, a renowned writer, one of the best ever cinematographers, a love story, a #1 charting pop song, enough action (but not too much), and a level of comedy that is witty and quotable.  Released 44 years ago in 1969, it was recently part of Cinemark’s Classic Film series.

Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance Kid) charmed audiences even as they made their way through the west robbing banks and trains.  It’s interesting to note that Steve McQueen was originally cast as the Sundance Kid.  Unfortunately, there was a disagreement over top billing and McQueen dropped out.  Newman and McQueen wouldn’t work together until 1974 in Towering Inferno.  On the bright side, Newman and Redford were terrific together and would team up again in 1973 for The Sting (Oscar winner for Best Picture).  It’s no coincidence that George Roy Hill directed the Newman/Redford duo in both films. He was known as an “actor’s director” and recognized the mass appeal of these two.

butch6 “Much of what follows is true” is our introduction to the film, along with a polychromatic montage of film clips and photographs of Butch and Sundance with The Hole in Wall Gang (renamed from The Wild Bunch, to avoid confusion with Sam Peckinpah’s recent release).  Butch (Robert LeRoy Parker) and Sundance (Harry Longabaugh) were real life outlaws in the early 20th century.  The Wild Bunch is pictured at left.  The real Butch is seated on the right, and the real Sundance is seated on the left.  Of course, many of the facts from the wild west have been displaced by colorful legend and lore.  It’s apparently true that their holdups rarely involved violence and they were in fact pursued by a posse, which in the film is portrayed as the Dream Team of posse’s assembled by Mr. E.H. Harrison of the Union Pacific Railroad.

One of the first real scenes in the movie has Sundance playing poker and being accused of cheating.  And we all know what that means in a saloon card game – it’s time for a gunfight.  The young stud making the accusations is none other than Sam Elliott, making his big screen debut.  Elliott went on to star in many movies and TV shows, and of course used his manly voice for “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner”.  In 1984, Elliott married Katharine Ross (they are still married today).  Ms. Ross became the dream woman of the 1960’s for many after appearing as Elaine in The Graduate and Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

butch2 There are many individual scenes or moments that have become classics over the years: the bicycle scene while BJ Thomas sings “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”; watching the great Strother Martin call Butch and Sundance morons as he spits chewing tobacco while riding a mule; the looks on their faces as Butch, Sundance and Etta arrive in the garden spot of Bolivia.  It also remains one of the most quoted movies with eternal lines such as:  “Who are those guys?” I’m better if I move”  “I’m not crazy.  I’m colorful” “Think you used enough dynamite there Butch”  “Are you crazy?  The fall will probably kill you” and my personal favorite “You just keep thinking Butch.  That’s what you’re good at”.

Although it’s certainly a star vehicle for Newman and Redford, and to a lesser extent, Katharine Ross, the supporting cast is diverse and exceptional.  In addition to Strother Martin and Sam Elliott, Butch has an infamous knife fight with Ted Cassidy (as Harvey Logan).  Cassidy is the 6’9” actor who also played Lurch on TV’s “The Addams Family”.  He is not 7’2” Richard Kiel who played Jaws in two James Bond films, though many people get them confused.  75 year old Percy Helton plays Sweetface.  Mr. Helton had over 200 career screen credits dating back to 1915. Henry Jones plays the opportunistic bicycle salesman, George Furth plays the young and loyal Woodcock, and the still active today (at age 86) Cloris Leachman plays the working girl who is so giddy to see Butch again.

butch3 The movie received 7 Oscar nominations and won 4: Cinematography (Conrad Hall), Original Score (Burt Bacharach), Original Song (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”), and Original Screenplay (William Goldman). It was also nominated for Best Picture, but that award went to the controversial Midnight Cowboy and its director John Schlesinger.  It should also be noted that there was a 1956 movie titled The Three Outlaws that featured Neville Brand as Butch, and Alan Hale, Jr as Sundance.  Mr. Hale is best known as the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”. In 1979 a pre-quel was released, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days. It featured Tom Berenger as Butch and William Katt as Sundance.  Mr. Katt is best known as the unfortunate prom date in Carrie.  Most recently, in 2011 Sam Shepard starred in Blackthorn, a film about an aging Butch Cassidy quietly hiding out in Bolivia.

So whether you “like” westerns or not, if you have never taken in the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I would encourage you to do so.  If, after that, you still don’t like westerns, all I can say is “Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

here is one of the short original trailers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X41Ylp02NRs


THE CONSPIRATOR

April 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While not a historical expert, I commend writer James Solomon for his years of research into a fascinating, yet quite dark moment in America. Many have attempted to couch the film as presenting Mary Surratt as an innocent bystander. I would argue that the film is much less about her innocence or guilt, and much more about the state of our country’s leaders and the judicial system at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.

I found the two strongest elements of the film causing quite an internal conflict as I watched. First, the film is simply gorgeous. Costumes, props, sets and lighting all lead to a texture that puts the viewer right into the mid 1860’s. Second, the courtroom (and backroom) procedures generate a feeling of disgust. Although, we have had very recent examples of less-than-stellar judicial process in the U.S., we Americans still hold on to the belief that ours is the best and fairest system in existence.

 It was very interesting to see Kevin Kline as War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Stanton was the guy calling the shots during this time and evidently had quite a power hold on the military, as well as the government. His viewpoint that the country needed a swift and decisive conclusion to this tragedy makes absolute sense … unless you happened to be one of the accused, or their legal counsel.

The lead actors in the film do a very nice job of capturing their characters and holding us in time. In addition to Mr. Kline, James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the Union war hero and reluctant defense attorney for Mary Surratt. Tom Wilkinson plays Senator Reverdy Johnson who, as Aiken’s mentor, recognizes all elements of the procedures. Evan Rachel Wood portrays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter. She has few scenes, but each is quite powerful. Danny Huston is Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney, who clearly has free reign to do whatever is necessary to ensure a guilty verdict. Other supporting work is provided by Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Norman Reedus (from Boondock Saints), Stephen Root, Johnny Simmons and Colm Meaney. The two miscast roles are courtesy of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long.

 I found Robin Wright‘s stoic portrayal of Mary Surratt to be quite mesmerizing. Her strength and motherly insistence on protecting her son was absolutely believable. In my opinion she should gather consideration for an Oscar nomination when the time comes. This is not a showy performance, but rather the foundation of the story.

Lighting of the time was thanks to candles and lanterns, and director Robert Redford masterfully captures that on film. We are always hoping for a bit more light on the characters or in the courtroom. Instead we get the feeling of being present. I did find some of the “buddy scenes” to be unnecessary, but the scenes with Wilkinson and Kline more than offset this weakness.

This is the first film from The American Film Company, whose mission is to present historically accurate films on American history. If their initial entry is an indication, we anxiously await their next projects.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood to be transported back to 1865 and come as close as possible to experiencing the conflict and grief of the young country just out of civil war.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to see the flaws within what is basically a very strong and judicious system