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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JFK (1991)

November 22, 2013

jfk1 Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years to the day after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy seems like the best time for me to finally write something about Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film. As a Dallas resident, the hallmark event has never been far removed, either mentally or geographically. I periodically see movies at the Texas Theatre where Oswald was captured. It’s impossible to drive downtown and not regularly pass the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza. The reminders are always present and maybe that’s a good thing.

When this movie was released, it shook the dust off the story and brought much attention back to the crime that had once seemed so quickly solved. The conspiracy theorists embraced Mr. Stone’s work and even those who knew little of the Warren Report were swept up in the details and accusations. It was so easily accepted as an investigative presentation, and it was a way for the people to finally get what they wanted … the answer to what happened and why.

jfk2 Viewing the film this week again for the first time since 1991, it’s understandable why so many were swept up in the frenzy. This is an expert presentation of a staggering number of theories and details and characters. With a run time well over three hours, the only opportunities for an exhale come during the somewhat lame interactions between New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Othewise, it’s a very well written parade of movie stars that is exceptionally photographed and expertly edited. Newsreel footage, reenactments, and dramatizations of events successfully create a mind puzzle. The film grabs you and does not let go … and this is 22 years after release and 50 years after the assassination.

Now don’t mistake that praise for believability. While Stone’s approach has been attacked from all sides, he did publish an annotated script “proving” his details. Still, his blending of theories is staggering: the military, the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, the Mafia, the pro- and anti-Castro types, the Russians, and even a likely corrupt businessman. The latter is Clay Shaw, played with evil enjoyment by Tommy Lee Jones in a role worthy of a movie unto itself.

jfk3 In Stone’s version, Garrison is the voice of truth. He’s the guy that doesn’t buy off on the Warren Report. In fact, this movie version of Garrison represents us as the viewer … the citizens who want to believe our government, but are too rational to accept things spoon fed to us. This isn’t so much a courtroom drama or investigative report, it’s more like a data dump. Stone is delivering all of the little doubts in one fell swoop. In other words, with all of these possibilities and unexplained events, how could it not be a conspiracy? Was it a coup d’etat with LBJ waiting in the wings? That makes sense if you believe defense contractors were unwilling to sit quietly as JFK pulled out of Vietnam. Was Oswald a patsy as he claimed? That argument can certainly be supported. More than one gunman? 5.6 seconds, a tree in the eye line, and smoke from the grassy knoll can lead to that conclusion. The movie serves as our emotional outburst at not knowing why this happened and who was responsible. We like our mysteries solved and this one apparently never will be.

Roger Ebert once said that facts are for print and emotions are for film. Oliver Stone seems to excel at the latter. He gives us permission to be paranoid. He takes extreme dramatic license with two extended soliloquies: Donald Sutherland as “X” (Fletcher Prouty) and Kevin Costner as Garrison in the courtroom. Neither of these events are probable, in fact the courtroom scene is borne from numerous Garrison speeches, quotes and book passages over the years.

This 50th anniversary has brought at least three new JFK inspired films: Parkland, Killing Kennedy, and Letters To Jackie. Three very different approaches to the man and the event that changed the world … it changed our perceptions and our expectations. Oliver Stone’s film gave us permission to do so out loud.

**NOTE: on the anniversary of this event, it’s important to remember that Officer JD Tippett was also brutally gunned down that day by Oswald

**NOTE: the real Jim Garrison appears in the movie as Earl Warren (yes, of the Warren Commission)

**NOTE: Unitended humor occurs with a sweaty John Candy saying “Daddy-O” and when Kevin Bacon says “People GOT to know

 


THE HELP

August 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the controversial best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. It was controversial because it is the story of Jim Crow-era maids written by a white woman. Yes, the book is actually the fictionalized story of a white woman getting black maids to discuss their lives as maids for white folks. Rather than get into some politically correct dissertation on the book, movie or story, I will only comment on the film itself … this very entertaining movie that also manages to deliver a timeless message.  I would call it this year’s The Blind Side, only I like this one more.

 Let me first start by saying that this movie is incredibly well acted. It is quite rare to have so many developed characters in one movie. There are some characters we immediately connect with, while others draw our ire each time their face appears or their mouth opens to speak. The script and these fine actresses utilize humor to point out the shameful behavior of those who saw themselves as superior. The humor doesn’t soften the ignorance or abuse, but it does make the film infinitely more watchable and entertaining. Please know this is not a documentary.

Ms. Stockett’s novel has a very loyal following in addition to the naysayers. A two hour film must, of course, take short cuts and trim story lines. Still the key elements are present. Based in Jackson, Mississippi during Governor Ross Barnett’s term, we see the social shark, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), in her full glory of ignorance, entitlement and superiority. We see her minions and followers emulating her moves while trying to gain her approval.

 The story takes off when Skeeter (Emma Stone) graduates from Ole Miss, returns home and takes a job at the local newspaper. Possessing observation skills and humanity that her lifelong friends can’t comprehend, Skeeter desperately wants to tell a story from the perspective of the maids. As expected, the maids are hesitant, but Aibileen (Viola Davis) finally relents. The stories begin to flow and soon the robust Minny (Octavia Spencer) joins in. Others soon follow their lead and Skeeter’s education goes to an entirely new level.

 That’s really all of the story I care to discuss. The brilliance of this one is actually in the details … individual scenes and moments of acting genius by most of the cast. In addition to those mentioned above, Jessica Chastain plays Celia, the “white trash” outcast who so desperately wants to be allowed back into the girls’ club. Ms. Chastain was seen a few weeks ago in the fabulous Tree of Life in quite a different role … I would venture to say no actress will have two roles of such variance this year. Also, Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s cancer-stricken mother, and Sissy Spacek is Hilly’s mother who gets tossed aside before she is ready to go! The great Cicely Tyson makes a brief appearance as Constantine, Skeeter’s childhood maid who was done so wrong after 29 years of service. Mary Steenburgen has a couple of scenes as a big NYC book publisher.

 As I said, this is pure acting heaven, but I must single out Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Viola is so powerful at the beginning and end of the film, and Ms. Spencer is a force of nature during the middle. This movie is really their story and these two ladies make it fascinating, painful and a joy to behold. They both deserve recognition at Oscar time.

There are so many fantastic details to the film. At times, it is like watching a classic car show … the late 50’s and early 60’s models are works of art. The wardrobe, hair and make-up are perfect in setting up the class differentials. The TV and radio segments provide context and timing with the deaths of Medger Evers and JFK. Even the books on Skeeter’s shelf make a statement: To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Native Son, and Gone With the Wind.

This story takes place 50 years ago and director Tate Taylor does an admirable job of bringing Stockett’s novel to the big screen. Mr. Taylor is a longtime friend of Ms. Stockett’s and was quite fortunate to get the directing rights. He doesn’t disappoint. Sure the story is a bit glossy at times … it is geared towards the masses. If you are looking for more depth, there are numerous documentaries and books available on the Civil Rights movement. If you are seeking a very entertaining movie that uses humor to tell a story and send a message, then this one’s for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the book OR you enjoyed The Blind Side OR you want to see quality entertainment presented with humor and a message.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth history lesson OR you are the type that worships all things politically correct.

watch the trailer:


GET LOW (2009)

August 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am not familiar with director Aaron Schneider, who apparently has done mostly cinematography work on TV for the past 10 years. He must feel like a lottery winner getting to direct his first feature film and having a cast with Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek.

This is a very odd film centered on the story of 1930’s Tennessee backwoods recluse Felix Bush, played exceedingly well (no surprise) by Robert Duvall. We learn – slowly – that Felix has been in a self-imposed exile carrying enormous guilt over an incident from 40 years prior. The wonderful thing is that it takes us just about the entire film to discover what caused this guilt and how Felix has dealt with it.

Over that 40 years, the legend of old man Bush has grown with the town people. It is approaching Tall Tale status when he whips up on a local wise-ass on one of his rare visits to town. When Felix realizes that stories have been concocted about him over the years, he heads to local funeral home to arrange a “funeral party” where everyone can come and tell their stories … while he is still alive!  The local mortician is played by Bill Murray and I can best describe his personality as eager opportunist.

While this appears to be a slow moving story, it really isn’t. The real motivation for the party, a reconnection with the past and a cleansing confession all play parts in this fine story. Sissy Spacek plays a painful link to Felix’ past, as well as a key to this latest/last event.

Excellent performances by Duvall, Spacek,  and Bill Cobbs really make this one work. While Bill Murray and Lucas Black hold up their end by supplying a bit of humor and purity, respectively, the story really belongs to Duvall. His ability to convey emotion with a grunt or facial expression is just amazing to watch.

My only real complaint with the film is that it lasted about 2 minutes too long. The perfect ending had occurred and then we are dealt one final, seemingly forced scene. A minor quibble with a film that kept me fully engaged.