Sunday, May 3, 2015
All the Pretty Horses: (2000. dir: Billy Bob Thornton) The rule is: you don't make great movies out of great books. The art forms are weirdly incompatible, refusing to transition smoothly except in the hands of a genius. You make great movies out of schlock potboilers: M*A*S*H, Jaws, the Godfather, the Exorcist. The reasons for it are probably more complicated than I'm allowing, but my best guess is that it's because schlock potboilers are heavy on story and sensation and devoid of all things more delicately ineffable and high-falutin', whereas great books are usually great not primarily because of story but because they're beautifully written. And All the Pretty Horses is one of those.
That said, I read the book so long ago and so quickly (the only thing I remember clearly is "Scared money can't win, and a worried man can't love") that watching the movie was almost like going in fresh. I recall a Matt Damon interview talking about meeting Paul Newman when he was just cast as John Grady Cole; Newman looked at him intently and said, "That's a big responsibility, you know," or something daunting like that. No pressure, right? As it is, both Damon and Henry Thomas as Lacey comport themselves very well, as does a young Lucas Black as the star-crossed outlaw boy Blevins.
Thornton brings a whimsical sensibility and a relaxed timing to the piece, both of which are necessary to conjure up some of the book's magic. There's a moment late on when Cole is making a desperate, last-ditch phone call to the woman he loves, a woman he may easily never see again, and when she relents, the cowpoke waiting in line to use the phone grins a silly grin and does a little jig, bringing to mind the dancing soul in Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, or possibly something out of David Lynch's playbook.
Alas, the story is shaped wrong for a movie. It trails off toward the end, although its meanderings are certainly engaging, and convincing love stories, tragic or not, are hard as hell to communicate on film. What we get are the trappings, without the numinosity, without the awkward radiance.
Robert Patrick plays Cole's dad in a single scene (everyone wanted to be in this: Sam Shepard and Bruce Dern also have single scene roles, lending an air of gravitas to this 20th-century, fading, "Old" West), and, between the makeup and the mastery of the actor, this is one of those wasting, etiolated characters who, when he pulls on the cigarette, looks alarmingly like the cigarette is pulling on him.
Balls of Fury: (2007. dir: Robert Ben Garant) Irreverent, madcap zany-fest about a washed-up ping pong prodigy hired by the FBI to infiltrate the inner circle of a criminal mastermind (Christopher Walken, donning the Yellow Peril drag).
Robert Patrick's character is dead within the first five minutes. Did I watch the rest of the movie? are you crazy, asking me a thing like that? I fast-forwarded to Christopher Walken, pausing for anything else I thought might be vaguely entertaining, and was generally disappointed in the hope.
We Are Marshall: (2006. dir: McG) This is Sentimental Hogwash, no question, unabashedly so, but well-meaning, and remarkably well-handled hogwash. In a nutshell: a West Virginia college's entire football team dies in a plane wreck, and both school and town have to find a way to recover from the devastating blow. A bumbling but good-hearted school president, an enthusiastic new coach, and a player who stayed behind due to injury join forces to create a miracle.
The editing is dynamic enough, the music well enough chosen, and the acting good enough that this is better than most entries into the Sentimental Hogwash genre. Also, there's more actual "sportsing" in it than in most "sports films", always a great frustration to me in my search for the perfect football movie (football in the true sense of the word). This one is about American Tackleball, and it doesn't shy away from the ugliness of the game, but the footage itself is well filmed and edited.
It's also filmed using the Teal-and-Orange palette, but it's a boldly warm version which evokes memories of Super 8, which in turn evokes the '70s.
Robert Patrick plays the tough old coach, and, again, is dead by five minutes in.
Saturday, May 2, 2015
Bridge to Terabithia: (2007. dir: Gabor Csupo) Let's take a new look at the Disney Dad. Not the absent father who overcompensates with material generosity during his brief stints with the kids, and not the Dean Jones/Fred MacMurray characters, who are honestly more overgrown kids than adults.
This is the dad who is honest and hard-working, fairly successful in his field, well-meaning and genial, whose paternal flaws are generally momentary and rise from existing under the pressure of providing for a family, a responsibility the Disney Dad takes very seriously in his amiable way. His mistake will come in siding with a malicious teacher or authority figure against his son out of temporary blindness, or in discouraging the kid from following his dreams out of the old fear the kid will lose his grip on reality and never be able to hold a decent job. His flaw is superficial, or passing, and, by the end, we see that he really is a stand-up guy, proved by his willingness and ability to learn from his own children.
Disney Dads exist solely to buffer and guide the stories of the kids. That is, they exist exclusively in relation to their own children, and there is a chilling argument to be made that the modern American exaltation of youth may have risen partly from the Disney Dad and his perfect, housekeeping mate existing so centrally in the subconscious of these several generations.
All that is preface to say that Robert Patrick is now my favorite Disney Dad. This movie is flawed; the fantasy part of the story, I think, is not carried off, but it finds success in examining unusual areas of growing up, and so is worthwhile. The paternal scene near the end in which Patrick's dad arrives in the nick of time, not to save his son, but to provide the needed comfort and wisdom, is a lovely one.
I love Patrick in this. His subtlety of expression and what I'm calling his "communicative stoicism" have reached an acme of perfection here.
Black Waters of Echo's Pond: (2009. dir: Gabriel Bologna) In the olden days, actors used to learn their chops on soap operas. Nowadays, and probably following a tradition inspired by the unique and beguiling Roger Corman (who, by the way, gave Robert Patrick his start in the business), the kids learn to act by taking part in this kind of horror film: the kind where there's an intent to party in a secluded place, the outward supernatural plays on the inward human weakness, and various stripes of mayhem ensue.
This is a bad movie, but certainly not the worst of its kind, because about half of the kids are decent actors, and some care went into things like the dark, velvety color scheme. The violence gets pretty gross, and the plot is ridiculous. We start with the opening of a Turkish tomb in the 1920s, -- I guess it's supposed to be reminiscent of Howard Carter and the folks who originally looked in on King Tut. This bunch, though, are hoity-toity English idiots who find an ancient "map" with instructions to build a board-game (you heard me) through which Pandaemonium, the Realm of Pan, will manifest. These are fully grown adults, you understand; probably archeologists, considering the context. Let's build the game! they cry. We must build it! and, by the time the Lord Carnarvon figure, who financed the whole shebang, enters onto the scene (somehow it's all transported to a private island off Maine now), everyone is murdered, but the "game" has been hidden, so that NO ONE WILL EVER FIND IT!
You know what that means. Anyway, the kids play the game, la la la, it summons the devil not through possession but by poking into annoyed wakefulness the personal devils carried within each of them. Bloodshed, mayhem, carnal lusts. When they're really lost, the eyes turn big and black. When did that become the accepted norm in horror films? I think it was in From Hell that I first saw it, but maybe it started earlier than that.
In any case, as usual, Robert Patrick is the great thing about this movie. He is the curmudgeonly caretaker who totes a shotgun and spends his time killing deer and dragging lobsters up out of the sea. He swills his vodka straight from the bottle and has a twinkle in his eye while he tells sanguinary histories of the island to creep the kids out.
And, like so many Robert Patrick movies, the only compelling reason to watch this is if you're looking to experience his entire oeuvre.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
*SPOILER ALERT, both films*
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore: (1974. dir: Martin Scorsese) How strange, in retrospect, that sandwiched in between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, the acme of the '70s tough-guy double feature, Scorsese made what used to be called "a woman's picture". While never as good as his tough-guy films, it stands head and shoulders above today's "chick flicks" in its portrayal of a real woman (Ellen Burstyn, who is amazing, and looks like an attractive but real woman, by which I mean that she never would have been considered for the role if it were cast today because she looks like a real woman, attractive but imperfect) embarking on life as a widow and single mother.
Most of the attempts at humor fall flat, with the notable exception of exchanges between Burstyn and Diane Ladd as Flo, who have a great chemistry. Kris Kristofferson is the cowboy/lover who is so damned perfect that he is completely unbelievable, but he and Burstyn share a nice enough chemistry that they're fun to watch. Especially the first morning-after scene we get, where they're giggling and telling stories and laughing like teenagers.
The ending is too crazy to believe. Kristofferson, a rancher, tries to woo Burstyn back, acquiescing to her demand for change, and offers to choose her over his ranch: "I don't give a shit about that ranch. I'll take you to Monterey right now." They are the words which win her, but any audience member who's ever, I don't know, had any dealings with men at all, will know it's a ridiculous statement, either an outright lie or else there's important backstory about this guy we need to know, like why he's faking being a rancher if he doesn't give a shit about it.
Along with Burstyn and Ladd, the other high point of the film is the very young Jodi Foster, fresh off of playing Becky Thatcher in my generation's version of Tom Sawyer. She's tough as nails and funny, to boot ("So long, suckers!"), with her continued invitations to "get high on ripple."
(1971. dir: Don Medford) This (the early seventies) was the age of ultra-violence heaped ignominiously on top of the usual misogyny of the Western. It's as if the Spaghettis threw everything into disarray, Hollywood moved in and stole all the wrong things from the Italians, co-opting the heartlessness and big violence but ignoring all the quirky things that make those classics great (the silences, the close-ups of sweat and flies, the weird character choices and odd twists, like a guy dragging a coffin behind him, or another guy choosing to shoot the thumbs off his foes instead of killing them).
Oliver Reed is the hero of this movie; you know that because, when he rapes Candice Bergen, it is less brutally then when Gene Hackman or LQ Jones do. And that's about all you need to know about this movie.
It's also related to the "Most Dangerous Game" genre of humans-being-hunted films, but you wouldn't call it one of the best. Mostly it's a love story between Stockholm-Syndromed Bergen and her darkly dangerous outlaw captor, and not a very enjoyable or convincing one.
Gene Hackman, of course, is entirely convincing as the going-all-Ahab-getting-vengeance-on-your-ass pissed-off rich-man husband. It has some interesting musical breaks and some daring editing choices at the beginning, and a richly rewarding cast of journeyman actors playing bad guys of both stripes: the rich kind, and the poor kind.
And, because it was made at that turn of the seventies when existential angst was reaching the fullness of its blossom in Hollywood, it leads up to one of those "aw, what's the use?" endings, in which the only humans (or horses) left standing are the ones who threw in the towel early on, wisely deciding the game wasn't worth the price.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Angels Don't Sleep Here: (2002. dir: Paul Cade) If you look up Paul Cade on IMDB, he has this one credit, as writer/director, and that's it. As far as I can glean from a cursory search, he's a successful Canadian artist, who made this one foray onto the backlot, then skedaddled back north of the border.
This movie is one of the unfortunates. You can see that Cade cared about it initially, had some fun writing it, and somewhere it just went horribly awry. First of all, whenever you have a "thriller" involving identical twins, what's the one "twist" we know for a fact we can count on? The kids are going to switch identities at some point; it's not a twist, because we know it's going to happen. Secondly, it's as if he wrote it with multiple ideas for who the bad guy was, and flipped a coin to choose one, but any character you choose to be the mysterious psycho-killer-in-black can't possibly be in all the places the psycho-killer is supposed to be when s/he's supposed to be there, particularly not the human who ends up unmasked (literally) as the psycho-killer. Which brings us to the third point, which is that the editing is lousy, in that it takes us from a scene in which two people are fighting straight to a scene in which they're fine, or from a scene in which two people are new co-workers to one in which they're talking as if they've been sleeping together for some time. Never mind about the continuity errors, like a photograph that hasn't yet been taken showing up on the psycho-killer's wall, or the detective exploring the psycho-killer's den wearing yesterday's suit.
The acting is generally good: Kelly Rutherford and Kari Wuhrer in particular carry the sorry-assed female roles with grace and aplomb. Roy Scheider fails sadly in a truly thankless task as the evil mayor (a guy who, on the eve of an election, knocks a cup out of a beggar's hand right in front of a camera crew and nobody bats an eye). The guy who played Bobby in Twin Peaks has the lead and I came away without an opinion about him one way or the other. Channon Roe (you'll recognize Roe from his millions of television roles; I recognize him as the undead bully from the Buffy episode where Xander has his own adventures while the rest of the scoobies are saving the world from imminent apocalypse) gives it a good solid try in another thankless role as the cast-off lover of the assistant DA (who is also the evil mayor's daughter and the ex-girlfriend of the dead twin. We never, incidentally, see the real DA. This girl and her factotum seem to comprise the entire office).
The best part of the movie is (surprise!) Robert Patrick, who gets to wear some excellent suits and brings the only real life to the proceedings as a bent cop. The sole satisfying mystery in the piece, in fact, lies in trying to pin down exactly how bent he is. Does he harbor a secret heart of gold which will out in the end? Will he betray the evil mayor in whose pocketbook he currently resides? Is he truly helping our ostensible hero unravel the enigma of his long-missing twin brother, as he claims? or is he just the crooked opera-lover he appears on surface?
My final gripe is for the cinematographer: set the damn camera down, will you? If you don't want to show us this story, then why are you making the damn movie in the first place?
Body Language: (1995. dir: George Case) When Robert Mitchum first lays eyes on the lousy dame who's going to steal his heart, distract him with kisses, then set him up for a sucker's fall, he knows her from the get-go, and goes along with it anyway. Tom Berenger, on the other hand, is an overpaid lawyer who gets bullied, brutalized, seduced, and set up in the most obvious frame that film has ever seen, by the most obvious no-good femme-fatale on celluloid, and he's utterly clueless from beginning to end, so you can't really feel sorry for him as he slides down his slippery slope into the bed he sat and watched being made for him. This was made for television; it's what they used to call an Erotic Thriller. Which means, like, the lawyer and his trashy stripper do it in the aisle of a K-Mart store. Is that really a fantasy fulfilled for someone? Bathed in the glow of the blue-light special?
Anyway, Robert Patrick is her boozed-up, trailer-trash, chopper-riding husband, and, if you know the genre from which this is gracelessly drawn, then you'll know that she wants him dead, for her own sociopathic reasons. We don't meet him until we're a third of the way in (and most of us are half-asleep), and even then we see him mostly in long-shot until his climactic fight-scene. Which, by the way, he ought to have won, because there's no way that wussy-pants lawyer dude is going to take out Robert Patrick, unless it's specified in the script, which I guess it was.
Survey says: by-the-numbers neo-noir with enough strip-joint footage for titillation and glowing neon lights for street-cred and very little at all to recommend it.
Sunday, April 5, 2015
Cop Land: (1997) Cop Land is a sublime movie, and let me hasten to remind you that I don't even like cop movies, as a rule. This one is extraordinary. It moves at an assured pace, just right to tell the story, never rushing, never lagging. Stallone projects a heavy, world-weary sweetness that is so flawlessly communicated you forget that you ever forgot he could act. He stands out, and this in a movie filled with fine performances.
It was here that Michael Rapaport first caught the world's eye with his admixture of boyish good will and potential violence. In his first scene, we follow him through a titty bar as he says good night to his friends, and there is that combination of smooth camera and smooth, improvisational finesse that reminds one a little of the old De Niro things, the old Scorsese things. Liotta, Keitel, and De Niro are all here, and all have their moments; Cathy Moriarty has a striking turn as an aging and bitter sex-kitten.
Patrick is Jack, one of the stalwart, "bent" cops in Keitel's fold. His role is secondary: he's sort of the hammer in the Keitel character's tool-chest, he spends a lot of time scrapping, but we see his depth in the unspeaking way he looks at his trusted boss after one of their own has been killed under suspicious circumstances.
The element that sends this one over the top as one of the greatest cop films ever made is its aural presence, its soundscape. Exceptional throughout, its most obvious greatness kicks in at the end, after Stallone’s sad-sack but relentless Sheriff is deafened by a gunshot while he goes forward on his quest for justice. Everything slows down, the atmosphere thickens. We hear all sound as if from underwater, through a wall of deep, ambient roar, and accompanied by a distant, haunting bagpipe refrain, a leftover from the cop funerals we’ve witnessed. Then, the first clear thing we hear after a long time is Stallone’s voice, saying, “I can’t hear you, Ray,” to the last of the bad guys. It's really stunning.
Walk the Line: (2005) Dirt-poor country boy transcends poverty, a mean daddy, and drug addiction to become a beloved musical legend and leave a profound, game-changing legacy. Yeah, it follows the musical-bio-of-the-week formula, but this one has a few extra things going for it: not just a very good cast (they all have that), but a better-than-average script (the one that particularly gave me shivers was the section where Sam Phillips is describing to Cash the song he needs to sing instead of the safe gospel he's been doing) and a truly sweet love story. Most of these movies, you have to take it on faith that the fellow in question really found his soul-mate and it's not just Hollywood gimcrackery, but anyone lucky enough to have seen Cash and wife June Carter perform together will have come away with the romantic notion that this was, in truth, a match made in heaven. It lends extra charm to the early scenes in which they're innocently coming to know one another, and it's necessary to shore up the story, which lies balanced evenly across two pillars: the love story, and Cash's daddy issues.
Robert Patrick, as Cash's hard-drinkin', sharecroppin' daddy, performs a crucial task in relatively abridged screen-time, and does it with admirable command, never relaxing into black and white but using a whole sfumato-palette full of minute gradations in grey. You never doubt that he's a real man, with both virtues and flaws, which are communicated in a stoical manner that rings true from a Depression-era dirt-farmer. There are beautiful touches: the panic around his eyes in the life-changing moment when his beloved eldest son is dying and he spits at Cash, "Where were you?" and -- this one really got me, -- when he pulls Cash's cap off his head as he pushes him into his dying brother's room. When they finally have their showdown, over an awkward Thanksgiving supper alongside the Carter clan, it's the son who picks the fight, but daddy doesn't wince, shows no sign of embarrassment or doubt. Patrick's paterfamilias knows who he is, knows he is the alpha-dog, and his face relaxes just barely into a smile as he launches, uncowed, into the proffered duel of words, knowing it's his boy who will roll over in the end.
And, Shelby Lynne, by the way, is just about perfect as Cash's mom, too.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
(2008. dir: Brian Smrz) The worst thing about Hero Wanted is its Netflix blurb, which gives away a crucial plot-twist. If you haven’t read it, don’t; if you have, know that the thing plays better than it reads. I’m not the world’s biggest Cuba Gooding Jr. fan, but he’s good here. The whole cast is. Kim Coates and Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarchy tear it up as bad-assed, petty crooks. Ben Cross gets the Sam Shepard role, which must be fun for him, playing at the gun-toting, grizzled veteran. Even Paul Sampson, the arrogant cat who will lead Reedus down the straight-to-hell garden path that is Night of the Templar in a few years, is well-cast and totally loathesome.
And then there’s Reedus.
I’ll be frank: towards the end of my Reedus-fest I was hitting a wall. Roles that would have inspired enthusiasm in me just weeks prior were leaving me cold. After watching so much of him in so concentrated a period, I was jaded, even blase. I had to give it a rest. Now, after four months Reedus-free (I’m not even watching the Walking Dead this season, check me out), I see him in this, as a sad-sack overgrown kid who just wants to go to the beach, for chrissake, and it all comes back to me. Even in this relatively unobtrusive role, his greatness is apparent. He can communicate the tiniest hurt, defiantly masked, by a few twitches of facial muscles. He can take weak dialogue and speak it like it’s something credible that an interesting person would actually say. And (spoiler alert) his death scenes always kill me.
Smrz is mainly a stunt-guy with a resume as long as your arm, and he and cinematographer Larry Blanford find some great camerawork, like long, zippy dollies speeding smoothly across action scenes. There's also an ambitious tracking shot in the opening, following a suspicious-looking canine into a seedy neighborhood, lifting up to detour through an apartment and back out the window to reunite with the dog, which crosses paths with one of our ne'er-do-well characters, and we attach ourselves to his journey instead. It's fabulous stuff, and although the backbone of the plot sprawls across some absurdities (the hero takes enough gunshots, burnings, savage beatings, you name it, to lay even a Clint Eastwood character in his grave, and, aside from the odd scar or burn-mark, he looks great), the whole package is tied together with sufficient moxie and conviction to carry it off.
Rating: three stars
Reedus Factor: four stars
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999. dir: Scott Spiegel) Straight off: Robert Patrick is good in everything, and I'm not just talking the ever-classic T-1000. He works hard, throws himself face-first into some outlandishly difficult roles. Things that, when he read the script, he must have thought, "This is just embarrassing." But he's one of those guys, like Walken, like McHattie, those Working Actors. The guys who never say no. You gotta hand it to them. You gotta, in fact, love 'em.
And he's good in this.
That's my preamble on the actor. Now, about the movie.
I'd say at least half, probably more, of folks who watch the first From Dusk Till Dawn come away unimpressed, even scornful. It's a tough ride, grinding away at your suspension of disbelief with its nonstop gore, fetishistic violence, and flights into absurdity. It is, at the same time, groundbreaking, not least for its dyptych shape: the first half is Natural Born Killers and Tarantino bloodlust, the second is bloodlust of the crazy Mexican vampire variety. The cast is great, and Rodriguez's intoxicating combination of mastery over detail and jubilant playfulness elevates even this ridiculously violent blood-bath into an exuberant game.
This first sequel (there are two, plus a television series) is not so lucky. The director, Spiegel, he put his back into it, I have to say. There are death sequences, like the opening in which Tiffani Thiessen is killed by a swarm of bats in an elevator, or that of the obligatory, post-coital, Mexican beauty being bat-killed in the shower, which are composed of literally thousands of quick shots. The shower scene in particular stands as a sort of gleeful tribute to Hitchcock and Psycho. It also stands as proof positive that if you haven't made us care about a story or your characters, fancy cinematic tricks will leave us totally cold.
It is certainly not devoid of friskiness and mischief, but the success of the first one has been set into formula. A criminal gang is mobilized to rob a Mexican bank, vampires (in the form of Danny Trejo and kin) intrude about about forty minutes in to "change" the murderous gang-leader, causing a domino effect until the climactic endgame involves the Mexican police-force, along with one dogged Texas ranger (Bo Hopkins) and the last human criminal (Patrick), waging an all-out war against the four criminal-vamps still inside the bank. Even its coltish exuberance takes on rote dimensions: continuous shots from inside ribcages and skulls, for instance, get old, and probably took more effort to create than was worthwhile. The conversational quirks of the criminals before they turn (discussing a porn film, for instance), have nothing of the spark and delight of the Tarantino-talk which the script is obviously trying to emulate.
Muse Watson, Hopkins, the ever-great Trejo, and, of course, Patrick, lead a decent cast, but the story sort of throws itself whole-hog into mayhem, then disappears up its own metaphorical asshole without ever, well, reappearing.
the Forgotten City (the Vivero Letter): (1999. dir: H. Gordon Boos) This is a dreadful movie, really awful, with nothing to offer outside a couple of good actors slumming and some pretty jungle scenery. It wants to be a Roger Corman B-film, but lacks that odd and irrepressible combination of whimsy, shamelessness and pragmatism which comprise the Corman je-ne-sais-quoi.
An everyman insurance guy (Patrick) is lured to Mexico by an enigmatic call from his estranged brother, and, once there, finds himself embroiled in a treasure hunt alongside a beautiful archeologist and a dying zillionaire explorer (Fred Ward). The plot makes no sense, there are a couple of gratuitous tit shots thrown awkwardly in, some explosions and gunfights, lots of dying, and an utterly ridiculous happy ending. There is no actual reason to watch it, in fact, unless you're trying to overcome a stubborn animus-fixation on Norman Reedus by watching everything that Robert Patrick has ever done. Which is crazy, and why would anyone ever do that? so forget I even mentioned it.