Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute To Dana Andrews Begins

Carl Rollyson’s Hollywood Enigma is the definitive biography of the remarkable Dana Andrews

Dana AndrewsRBC Weekend Film Recommendation takes a break from recommending movies this week in favor of recommending the next best thing: A book about the movies! And with it I commence a month-long tribute to Dana Andrews. I have always found him intriguing because he was such a towering star in the 1940s, anchoring films of superlative quality that were also wildly popular with audiences, including A Walk in the Sun, Laura and of course The Best Years of Our Lives. But beginning in the 1950s his career dissipated very rapidly and few people today even remember his name. What happened to this talented and toothsome actor, who seemed poised to dominate the screen for decades as did similar performers such as Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck?

That’s one of the central questions addressed by Carl Rollyson’s fine recent biography Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. Nothing else written about Andrews over the years pulls together so many sources of information so skillfully, making this likely the definitive biography of the man for all time. Crucially, Rollyson obtained the support of Andrews’ family and with it access to home movies, letters and anecdotes that get beneath the glossy images that the Hollywood publicity machine creates for its stars.

Rollyson makes clear that Andrews’ path to Hollywood was neither certain nor easy. Dana’s domineering, colorful father was a Baptist preacher in Texas and money was at times tight in the large Andrews clan. Dana and his siblings worked at odd jobs to keep the family afloat, and even as he was later getting a foothold in Southern California theater, he was still driving trucks to make ends meet during The Great Depression. His humble origins may have accounted for why, throughout his life, he remained an unpretentious regular guy more comfortable with the average person on the street than the glitzy Hollywood types who came to surround him when he became a star. It also helped account for him later becoming an avid New Dealer who loathed the political rise of Ronald Reagan (Both Reagan and Andrews would serve as President of the Screen Actors Guild).

Through extracts from love letters Rollyson movingly conveys the central conflict of Andrews’ young adult life. Dana had moved to California and was excited by what he might achieve there. But he was still strongly attached to his long-time girlfriend back in Texas. A painful choice had to be made and he ultimately broke off the engagement with the girl-next-door and married a woman he had met in his new life. Yet he stayed lifelong friends with his first girlfriend, whom he probably recognized understood him and loved him in a way that the many women who later swooned over the famous star never would.

After success in theater, Andrews began to land movie parts of growing significance. He was the epitome of a certain kind of masculinity that was cherished in that era. Outwardly strong, noble and fearless on screen, he simultaneously conveyed, in a minimalistic and naturalistic way, churning emotion underneath. Clearly, he had a handsome face, but it was what was going on underneath that transfixed most movie-goers. Rollyson dissects Andrews’ most critical roles well, helping the reader understand both Andrews’ talents and how some directors (but not others) knew how to maximize them.

In the mid-to-late 1940s, Andrews was one of the most beloved, most highly-paid movie actors in the world. But how many people remember him today compared to Bogart, Peck and Fonda, or even Fred MacMurray, who attained similar heights in that era? Andrews’ steep decline fascinates Rollyson and he goes a long way towards sorting out why it happened. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute To Dana Andrews Begins”

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Time for Drunken Horses

The first internationally released Kurdish language film, A Time for Drunken Horses is a shattering experience

un-tiempo-caballos-borrachos-L-bw0FZuI remember the Kurdish area on the Iran/Iraq border as a land of stunning beauty and inordinate risk. No movie captures both realities better than this week’s film recommendation: A Time for Drunken Horses. Made by then-unknown Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi in 2000, it’s the first widely-released film in the Kurdish language, one of many virtues that help it bring alive this part of the world in an authentic way.

The Kurdish villagers (most of whom Ghobadi had play themselves on screen) eke out an existence by smuggling goods back and forth across the snowy, mountainous border. In addition to avoiding border guards who mete out lethal summary punishments, the smugglers must also scramble to evade armed bandits who raid their caravans. Crushing poverty is the lot even of those smugglers who succeed, but they are too economically desperate to abandon their dangerous business. The film’s plot centers on an orphaned family led by a heroic 12-year old boy named Ayoub. He provides for his siblings by smuggling, but his profits are too small to save his deformed, pained and ill brother Medi. Though an operation will only extend rather than save Medi’s life, Ayoub takes on increasingly dangerous work out of love for his sickl brother.

This is an achingly sad film that tells a painful story in an unsparing fashion (Analogies to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves are inevitable and accurate). But it’s watchable because of the astonishing performances of the young actors and the inspirational courage and love of the family upon whom the story centers. As a director, Ghobadi is wise enough to never descend into mawkishness or to idealize the moral character of the poor, some of whom are portrayed here as greedy and conniving. Nor does he make the mistake of so many films of this sort by lecturing or scolding the audience (e.g., by having some character deliver an earnest speech about the callousness of wealthy Westerners). Rather, he lets the audience feel their own emotions and draw their own conclusions about the characters’ bleak lives.

Saed Nikzat’s cinematography captures the harsh gorgeousness of the region. Nitzat also, wonderfully, lets the camera linger in extended shots so that they audience can immerse themselves in the events portrayed rather than have their attention jerked around by constant jump cuts and close ups. The camerawork is so skillfully done that watching this film at times feels like a melancholy form of meditation.

A Time for Drunken Horses is a powerful piece of cinematic art that deservedly raised the profile of Iranian film worldwide. It will not make you happy, but it will stay with you in a way that is precious beyond words.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior film recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: True Romance

After making the second best film of all time that deals with the frustrations surrounding homosexuality in inhospitable environments (I’m referring of course to Top Gun (1986); the top prize goes to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) unless someone chooses to correct me), Tony Scott directed his honed craft of concealing a romantic narrative underneath hyper-violent high-stakes capers in this week’s movie recommendation, True Romance (1993).

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 23.18.35Christian Slater plays Clarence Worley, a comic book salesman fluent in the language of cult-pop one liners and nerd irreverence. For his birthday, while attending a Sonny Chiba marathon at the local cinema, Clarence meets a prostitute named Alabama, played by Patricia Arquette. When the two instantaneously fall in love and get hitched the next morning, Clarence resolves to liberate Alabama from her indenture to her pimp Drexl (one of Gary Oldman’s more sinister creations). In doing so, he haplessly makes off with a suitcase that he expects contains Alabama’s effects, but that instead contains rather precious cargo belonging to some powerful associates of Drexl. The rest of the movie follows the couple across the country as they try to dispatch the contents of the suitcase. During their journey they reconnect with an old friend and an estranged father, and they become embroiled with brutal mobsters, enterprising cops, indolent roommates, and some of Hollywood’s most burned-out or talentless wretches.

The story is one of Quentin Tarantino’s first, and his stamp is clearly visible. Among other things, fans of his later work will recognize the self-indulgent fondness for gore, obscure movie references (Sonny Chiba was later cast as the sword-smith Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill), and swipes at the vapidity of Hollywood exec culture. Scott’s ability to harness A-list acting talent is a great foil for Tarantino’s slick script. The cast is so star-studded that they make sense together only in a film as replete with machismo as this: you’ll find cameo appearances by Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Val Kilmer, James Gandolfini, and a slew of other actors all known for their bravado.

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 23.20.44Three performances in particular are commonly cited as standouts. As the layabout stoner Floyd, Brad Pitt showed that his repertoire extended far beyond traditional ‘effortlessly good-looking’ roles. However, the mesmerizing scene between Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s father and Christopher Walken as the mob boss with an agenda deserves to go down as one of the great master-classes in how to combine nail-biting tension with uproarious comedy. It’s spellbinding.

The film is uncommonly violent, as is Tarantino’s wont, so you’d have to remember the title to recall that it is intended first and foremost as a romance movie. However, as romance movies go… there’s just a tad too much racism, cocaine, death, and violence against women for this to qualify as a good date film. But hey, maybe it’ll work for you.

This is one of my favorite films of all time. Watch it, revel in yet another bit of 90’s fun, and try – just try, I defy you – not to enjoy yourself.

It’s trivia time again, RBC. When True Romance was released, Tarantino’s name didn’t appear in the credits (his contribution was recognized only later). Name other films that followed a similar pattern. I’ll allow films credited to Alan Smithee, even though that technically refers to a rather different sequence of events.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Strange Days

Before Kathryn Bigelow became one of Hollywood’s hot tickets for films like The Hurt Locker (2008), and before her public spat with James Cameron, she turned out some fairly unknown but enjoyable films like Point Break (1991) and this week’s movie recommendation, Strange Days (1995).

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 15.52.20The film is set in a deteriorating L.A., in the final moments of the last millennium. Racial tensions are ablaze, everyone is paranoid, and no one is safe (the Rodney King riots from four years before the film’s release loomed large). Against that backdrop, the conceit of the film revolves around a technological device intended for leisure, which transmits signals directly into its user’s brain and allows them to experience a pre-recorded memory – either their own or that of another person – as though it is in the present. An amputee missing both legs can know the sensation of running barefoot along a sandy beach, and an embittered lover can re-live his favorite memories from a long-ago relationship. Except our protagonist Lenny Nero, an ex-cop played by Ralph Fiennes who now deals in the market exchanging these memories, is mysteriously being sent recordings of rapes and brutal murders, and he needs to solve the whodunit before the killer strikes again.

Bigelow has a real talent for constructing engrossing and visually sensational set pieces. Los Angeles has never looked as meretricious as it does here, with the 90s rave aesthetic spilling out onto the cityscape: there’s no shortage of neon, sequins, strobes, and billows of steam. The visual experience is all the more intense when accompanied by prevailing violence and jarring camerawork, especially during the memory scenes. Like most good sci-fi dystopias, there’s more than a hint of film noir to feast on. L.A. is a city in decay after having been used up by people trying to ‘get theirs’ no matter the cost, and the main characters wear an understandable look of exhaustion and resignation on their faces.

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 15.56.51Unfortunately, Bigelow’s talent for visual extravaganza isn’t quite matched when she tries her hand at symbolism. Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith, played by Juliette Lewis, won’t take him back (D’ya get it? It’s like he’s lost Faith!); his best friend Max, played by Tom Sizemore, delights in the coming apocalypse (Hmm… I wonder how Lenny will end up if he abandons all hope and faith entirely?); and his guardian angel Mace, played by Angela Bassett, rescues him from just about every scrape in which he finds himself (redemption through the resolution of race tensions. That’s, like, so deep).

Nonetheless, I happen to enjoy that the central conceit is about the desire for escapism from the present life, and a failure to face up to current problems. It isn’t new, and while it’s been done better elsewhere (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out as one example), this is a good effort with impressive acting from a great cast, and a passable script by James Cameron.

If you can stomach the visceral opening scene of Strange Days, you’ll manage the rest. Enjoy this New Year’s film, but don’t expect it be a calm start to 2014!

[Anytime] Film Recommendation: The Fountainhead

Keith appears not to have reviewed this pearl, so here goes:

I came upon this on TCM recently.  A movie about a heroic architect, with Coop and Patricia Neal, what could go wrong?  If you met Ayn Rand at the appropriate age  and never went back to it, you have a really fun campy wallow in store.  Like everyone else, I read The Fountainhead as a college sophomore or freshman, while I was still connecting up neurons into some sort of functional system.  I didn’t think much of the philosophy, or whatever it is, even then, but it was the trigger that got me interested in architecture as I realized I had no idea what the buildings Rand gauzily described as masterpieces would actually look like, and took some courses to find out more.

Like the novels, the film is drenched in unintended self-parody and clearly marked out with signposts for us.  The heavy is named Toohey. (Rhymes with phooey, get it? Like his doppelgänger in Rand’s other big lift, Wesley Slouch, I mean Mouch.  The failed woulda/coulda/shoulda who compromises his principles has the non-gender-specific moniker Gail. You are never lost or in doubt in Randworld.)  Rand wrote the screenplay, and a preachier, speechier bunch of unplayable lines I have never heard.  The whole thing was some kind of bonfire of postwar Hollywood craziness: Cooper and Neal had an affair during the filming, Rand was on the set meddling (and didn’t like the result), and (I just learned from the linked article) Bogart and Bacall, beloved lefties, were initially cast for the leads–did they read the script?

The architecture we are supposed to admire is “modern” architecture as imagined by the people who gave us the sets of Astaire/Rogers films, or maybe the Wizard of Oz.  The great building that caps the film is, of course, thus because it’s the tallest; Burj Khalifa theory of architecture and all the cluelessness it implies.  If you got the subtle functioning of the names, and I bet many of our deepest, sharpest readers did, you will catch the 642 separate instances of phallic this-and-that, especially including Coop tickling a mountain with a little pneumatic drill held about waist-high.

All in all, though, the idea that a communist could orchestrate the decline of everything by getting the rabble stirred up about architecture, or that an architect could save us from collectivism, is so delicious and loony that it redeems the film. It’s a hoot from start to finish, check it out.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Gilda

Rita Hayworth seduced the world with Gilda, which also features terrific cinematography by Rudolph Maté and a fine co-leading performance by Glenn Ford

gilda-black-dress-useRita Hayworth was a big singing and dancing star of musicals in the early 1940s, but the film that made her an international sex bomb (literally) wasn’t released until 1946. It’s this week’s film recommendation: Gilda.

The plot, which echoes Casablanca in a number of respects, concerns a love triangle in a faraway land, in this case, Argentina. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a cocky grifter who is flat on his uppers. He is saved from a mugging by a mysterious and rather menacing casino owner named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) whom he subsequently manages to talk into hiring him as an aide-de-camp. All is well for a time, though Johnny suspects that the casino is only a front for Mundson’s other, more shady, business. But before you can say cherchez la femme, their relationship changes for the worse when Mundson marries a sizzling beauty named Gilda (Hayworth), with whom Johnny has an unhappy history. Thus commences a love-hate-love relationship in which Johnny and Gilda torment each other while Ballin begins to suspect the truth about their former relationship. Meanwhile, both the police and Ballin’s criminal associates are closing in on his other lucrative but illegal line of work.

This is a star vehicle for Hayworth from the famous moment she first appears on screen with a sensual toss of her hair. She gets to sing and dance as well as act, most legendarily in her striptease style number “Put the Blame on Mame”. Countless American men (and no doubt some women) were sexually enthralled with her forever after.

I know too much about Hayworth to have such an uncomplicated reaction. I feel sorry for Margarita Cansino, the pudgy Hispanic girl and incest victim whom Hollywood turned — at the cost to her of physical and emotional pain — into Rita Hayworth. She never got to be who she really was and virtually every man in her life, starting with her father, exploited her. It’s a credit to her strength that despite understandable, significant emotional troubles she managed to always pull things together on screen throughout the 1940s and be a terrific movie star. Gilda is generally considered her finest hour, and with good reason.

Even though it’s Hayworth’s film, two other aspects of it are extremely compelling. The first is Glenn Ford. He’s kinetic on screen, a man always appraising every angle in search of some advantage. He also manages, despite not having classically handsome Hollywood-type features, to convey enough sexual attractiveness that Hayworth’s desire for him is entirely believable.

The other thing I adore about this movie is Rudolph Maté’s camerawork, which is completely arresting beginning with the opening, rising shot of those big rolling dice. I have praised him before for his work on Vampyr, but the tools of cinematography came a long way technically since that early film. And boy, does Maté take advantage. Perfect use of light and shadow, deep focus shots, close-ups at critical moments, it’s all here in the hands of a master. And thank you again UCLA Preservation team for this crystal clear, gorgeous restoration of the print.

The performances and the cinematography help make up for an uneven script, which may simply have had too many cooks. There are some lines to die for, and some sharp dialogue, but the plot structure of the last third is unnecessarily clunky in some respects and too pat in others. Still, Gilda is a very fine film noir that completely holds up almost 70 years later.

p.s. The conventional take on Bosley Crowther’s career as a NYT film reviewer is that he lost touch with modern tastes in the late 1960s (His repeated trashing of Bonnie and Clyde being the death-knell) after a long and distinguished career. But if you read his obtuse, inept review of Gilda twenty years earlier, you will see that he never really knew what he was talking about.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Breaker Morant

The 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant is a triumph for Edward Woodward and Bruce Beresford

400px-Break17I conclude my three week tribute to the magnificent Edward Woodward with a recommendation of what is arguably the best movie of Australia’s New Wave: 1980’s Breaker Morant. As the title character in Director Bruce Beresford’s movie, Woodward delivers a performance with such psychic weight and that it will stay in your mind and heart long afterwards.

The story takes place in the waning days of the Boer War, where the battered but still undefeated Dutch guerrillas continue to resist a much larger British force. To face down the remaining renegades and their ungentlemanly military tactics, the British create an unconventional counter-insurgency force called the Bushveldt Carbineers. The Carbineers are mainly colonials, and include the poetry-writing, cynical and heroic Lt. Morant (Woodward), the free-spirited and lusty Lt. Hancock (Bryan Brown), and idealistic junior officer George Witton, who believes in the goodness of The Empire (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). As the film opens, these three Australians are being court-martialled for shooting Boer prisoners. That they committed the act is never in doubt, but they claim they were following orders from the British high command. Meanwhile, because the British see a conviction as essential for facilitating a peace settlement, they deny complicity and stack the proceedings against the defendants in every way possible.

This is the movie that brought Bruce Beresford to the attention of Hollywood, where he later directed Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. There are a few overly theatrical moments in the film, but overall this is highly accomplished directorial work by Beresford. He also contributed to the superb screenplay, along with Kenneth Ross (who wrote the play), Jonathan Hardy and David Stephens.

Under Beresford’s watchful eye, the entire cast is riveting, including the three actors playing the accused and Jack Thompson as their initially unpromising but ultimately crafty defense counsel. The smaller parts are also well-turned, with not a weak performance anywhere.

Woodward, though British by birth, had a long lasting affinity for Australia and could claim many fans there (including from his music hall tours as a singer) before he made this film. He deservedly expanded that fan base with his bravura performance in Breaker Morant, not just in Australia but world wide. His acting here recalls Michael Kitchen’s style in that he is the most magnetic when he is not speaking. Sadness, pain and well-earned disillusionment are visible in his gestures, his eyes, and his weather-beaten mien. Foreknowledge of doom hangs over his every scene in this film.

Donald McAlpine’s cinematography, with Australia standing in for South Africa, is also a major asset. Shooting in lovely physical terrain, he did everything he could with lenses, filters and exposures to emphasize its bleakness. Lush and colorful outdoor scenes would have otherwise contrasted too much with the downbeat tone of the story.

The film also contains intriguing historical nuggets about the Boer War, the conflict that opened the bloodiest century of military conflict in human history. The war gave us the word “commando” and the term “concentration camp”. The Carbineers were the first special forces unit to employ COIN tactics. And the court-martial portrayed actually happened, although the film is based on a book (“Scapegoats of the Empire”) which told the story entirely from the side of the accused and therefore may not be completely accurate.

Breaker Morant is a devastating, brilliant piece of cinema, a Caine Mutiny of its time and the perfect movie to close out my little three week tribute to the much-missed Edward Woodward.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Too bad, I couldn’t disrespect Mr. Woodward that way. If you don’t want to watch this one check out my prior two recommendations (here and here) in this tribute series.

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files

The British TV Show “Callan” was one of many triumphs in Edward Woodward’s career

416-Edward-WoodwardFour years ago this month, the world lost a remarkable talent when Edward Woodward died. Many Americans know him only as The Equalizer from television, but his career started long before that. Woodward was an extraordinarily gifted actor who was equally comfortable with classic Shakespeare plays, light comedies and grim dramas. Unlike some stage-trained actors, his dramatic skills didn’t wane when he made the move first to television and then to the movies. Beyond all that, he was even an outstanding singer! (Check him out on this Morecambe & Wise clip, he starts crooning about two minutes in and he’s bloody marvelous).

In recognition of the delight he brought to countless television and movie viewers over the years, I begin this week at RBC a multi-week panegyric on Edward Woodward. The tribute starts with the classic British television show that made him famous in the late 1960s, then moves next week to one of his first big screen triumphs (The Wicker Man) and then last but not least to a superb later film he anchored at the height of the Australian New Wave (Breaker Morant).

This week’s recommendation is The Richmond Files, the three-part conclusion to the Callan television series. Woodward became a star playing David Callan, a tough, moody and smart British espionage agent from a working class background who tussled with his plummy superiors as often as he did his Soviet counterparts (Terrain later explored so successfully in another RBC recommendation, Charlie Muffin). The mood of the series was set by what became an iconic set of images and guitar notes:

The glum tone and stark themes of Callan put it squarely in the cynical Le Carre camp of British spy stories, which funnily enough co-existed easily in the 1960s with James Bond-mania. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files”

Weekend Movie Recommendation: The Guard

The buddy cop genre has been re-interpreted numerous different ways, but there is a commonly recognizable theme. One cop, oftentimes a more dyed in the wool, seasoned veteran, is entrusted with reining in the maverick impetuousness of a younger new recruit with a ‘top scores in the academy but he’s a liability’ backstory (for example, think of the Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, and – albeit in a different way – 48 Hours series). Instead of inserting the kid who doesn’t play by the rules into the calcified routines of the cop nearing retirement, this week’s movie recommendation, John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard turns the dynamic on its head for hilarious effect.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 02.41.28Don Cheadle plays Wendell Everett, the FBI hotshot who is as by-the-book as they come. He imposes upon Gerry Boyle, the foul-mouthed, booze-swilling, prostitute patronizing, veteran played by Brendan Gleeson, to assist in foiling a conspiracy in Boyle’s rural Irish town. Everett is displaced to a country in which his traditional training has left him ill-equipped to conduct investigations of his own. Boyle is not especially concerned with providing the necessary guidance, either: he is content leaving Everett to grapple ineffectually with the local Gaelic language problems and casual racism, while he exchanges information for weapons with his IRA confidant.

As the duo works together to solve the plot, they eventually establish a rapport that enables Everett to dispense with the haplessness of his investigation. For his part, while we’re introduced to Boyle in the opening scene as a man who’ll drop acid just to escape from the dreariness of it all, the character development culminates with a man who learns to take pride in his uniform and do the right thing when needed.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 02.41.42Mark Strong sends up his earlier work as one of Guy Ritchie’s favorite London mobsters. He turns in yet another wonderful performance, this time as the henchman with a crippling case of existential angst and more than a passing interest in Bertrand Russell. The excellent supporting cast also includes Fionnula Flanagan, who plays Boyle’s dying mother Eileen. Boyle’s scenes with his mother are heartfelt and bittersweet. Her wistful regret that she hasn’t lived excitingly enough to have taken drugs, for example, makes Boyle’s rampant escapism all that much sadder.

The film is distinctively Irish, and it shows through not just in the charm of Gleeson’s wit. The script is razor-sharp, and goes to show how much can be done on a low budget with an ensemble of talented actors. McDonagh does a wonderful job both in his direction and in his selection of colors and set locations. County Galway is a beautiful place, and he could have easily let the landscape dominate the screen; instead, McDonagh uses the washed-out colors of the cliffs and the rural expanses to show how unexpected and out of the ordinary Boyle’s and Everett’s investigation is.

It’s a wonderful film, and it is guaranteed to make you laugh. Enjoy, RBC.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRsMLuCP8a0

I think it’s time to dust off the RBC movie trivia game. Name buddy cop films in which there is some awareness of the buddy cop trope – typically, this will take the form of a self-referential joke (for example, in Last Action Hero, the cops at the station were all partnered with someone who clearly didn’t match), but I’m intentionally leaving this open-ended.