Saturday, November 28, 2020

Mank: A Review (Review #1433)


In Sunset Boulevard, cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis said via voiceover, "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along". Few film figures get as little respect as screenwriters. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the subject of Mank, would no doubt likely hold Gillis' worldview as Gospel. Mank is a well-acted, exceptionally crafted film with excellent production values, yet just like many a motion picture, a pretty facade can be enjoyed without being embraced.

Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) attempts to write a screenplay sober, and as he does so he endures many bothersome figures attempting to keep him dry. There's fussy John Houseman (Sam Troughton), forever flummoxed by Mank and slightly fearful of what his boss, wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) will make both of their progress and the end result. The British secretary Rita (Lily Collins) has her own burdens along with suffering Mank's manner.

Mank reflects as he works on his script on his life in Hollywood: his relationship with his younger brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), his informal mentorship of Charlie Lederer (Joseph Cross) and his general irritation with the industry that he has thinly-veiled contempt for especially as embodied by MGM boss Louis B. Meyer (Arliss Howard). Mank, however, has a soft spot for Charlie's aunt, film star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), mistress to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). 

As Mank works on his script, it soon becomes clear that it will be a biopic in all but name of Hearst. Whether Mank cares if everyone knows is unimportant: Mank is going to get back at Hearst and Meyer for their machinations against Socialist California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair which led to a friend's suicide when he was all but forced to create what we would now call "fake news" against Sinclair. Mank finishes his script, but the dueling divas of Mankiewicz and Welles over authorship of Citizen Kane would last their lives despite or perhaps because of their shared Original Screenplay Oscar.

Citizen Kane is held as "the greatest film ever made", and if you know this or have seen Citizen Kane your enjoyment of Mank may increase. If you don't, then you may wonder why people tolerated Herman Mankiewicz, let alone found him some kind of genius. Of particular note is why Hearst and Davies would want him around. Davies may not be as big a mystery: Mankiewicz seems like someone the generally dumb but good-natured Davies could find witty and a nice sounding board.

To be fair though, when the future Professor Kingsfield describes you as a "Blonde Betty Boop", you wonder whether Davies was in on the joke or just the butt of them. At their first meeting, Davies remarks that "Pops" wants to shift her into sound films but is concerned her Brooklyn accent will make it hard. Quips Mank with regards to one of her silent films, "Your Flatbush was showing", causing Davies to laugh.

That, apparently, is the height of Mankiewicz's clever comments. 

Hearst's embrace of Mankiewicz is harder to fathom. Judging from Mank, Herman did nothing but ridicule Hearst's politics and was terribly gauche, but yet Hearst insists he loves having Mank hold court at Hearst's fabulous Xanadu of San Simeon.

A lot of Mank seems geared towards Mankiewicz's anger about audience manipulation, how the studios used their resources to persuade the California electorate of Sinclair's supposed danger. This manipulation (and a suicide that resulted from it) appears to be what motivated Mankiewicz to expose Hearst for the world to see. It seems curious now, given how Hollywood filmmaking openly embraces the idea that it not only should but must use film and television to shape hearts and minds, that Mank would suggest that it might not be a good idea. To its credit it does give Mankiewicz a reason for his dark portrait of Hearst, but it still feels like screenwriter Jack Fincher seems untroubled that Davies became collateral damage in Citizen Kane's portrait of "Susan Alexander" as talentless drunk harpy. 

The script does not give one a reason to believe Mankiewicz was a fun guy, or a witty one, or anyone really worth caring about. 

Mank does have a much better cast than it should have the right to, with David Fincher getting good to great performances from his cast. Gary Oldman does an exceptional job as the drunk, cantankerous Mankiewicz, one who is self-destructive but also one who loves his craft, even if he does not love what he does to pursue it. Be it the angry drunk railing to Hearst's face about how he is a Don Quixote-like figure or the more aware Mankiewicz looking out for Lederer or brother Joe, Oldman holds your attention. 

Seyfried does not make Marion Davies into a caricature of the dumb blonde but somehow I never felt she was a real person either. Davies was just there. It was a good performance but I never saw "Marion Davies". Troughton acted as though his research consisted of watching Silver Spoons reruns and making Houseman as stuffy and fussy as possible.   

Mank is blessed with great production: a time-appropriate score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and beautiful Erik Messerschmidt cinematography that captures the time setting. Yet for all its qualities, of which it has many, I felt removed from Mank. I could fill in things because I know the story of the making of Citizen Kane, but Mank seems not very interested in that. 

It could be that Mank is more about today's films and the frustration over audience rejection of those films that if Houseman is to be believed would "ask too much of an audience". "Write hard, aim low", he advises when he finds Mank's first draft too long and complex. 

Mank is a well-made film, but one that I could not embrace.



Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Sound of Metal: A Review


Sound of Metal is in some ways original and some ways familiar. It blends that familiarity and originally exceptionally well, with standout performances and a glimpse into a world most of us do not know.

Rock drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is touring with his musical and romantic partner Lulu (Olivia Cooke) when he starts having difficulty hearing, the sounds coming to him as muffled and disjointed. Whether due to years of hard rocking or a preexisting condition Ruben, for all intents and purposes, is deaf.

His depression and anger is so much that there are fears he may slip back into drug addiction after four years of sobriety. With that, he is reluctantly persuaded to go to a treatment facility that specializes in treatment for deaf addicts. Overseen by Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben shifts from struggling to easing his way into the deaf world.

Ruben, however, still wants to get his hearing back via surgery, secretly keeping tabs on Lulu and selling their RV and equipment to raise the funds. His decision affects his life in ways even he did not expect, realizing that despite what he wants he is in a new world, one that he might actually embrace.

Sound of Metal is a simultaneously quiet and loud film; it's quiet in how it takes its time with Ruben, moving slowly as he begins to crumble and then shifts from sullen to almost happy to desperate to perhaps in the end accepting. It is loud in the literal sense at times: particularly during the rock concert scenes, I had to cover my ears due to the high noise level. The sound work on Sound of Metal is excellent: capturing Ruben's hearing and what a non-deaf person would hear. The various shifts work within the film.

The subtitles that appear in Sound of Metal also work, and that is something extremely rare in film. Perhaps because I tend to put on subtitles whenever I see a film it look a bit longer for me to notice, but it was an excellent decision to carry out the subtitles throughout. It was an equally excellent decision to not put subtitles every time someone signed, letting the viewer experience what Ruben experienced.

At the heart of Sound of Metal's success are the performances. Ahmed is exceptional as Ruben. As co-written by director Darius Marder (screenplay by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder, story by Darius and Derek Cianfrance), Ruben's journey is pretty much to be expected: going from frustrated and angry to possibly embracing his new life while still hungering and scheming to get his old one back. However, Ahmed makes Ruben a more complex person. 

A lot of his best moments are when he is silent, whether expressing rage to irritation or even a bit of joy when laughing with his fellow deaf addicts, Ahmed expresses so much with his face and eyes and body. He also does have excellent moments when speaking. Of particular note is when he attempts to get money from Joe to get his RV back and for him to stay on despite hiding his operation. As Joe observes, "You sound like an addict". It's a brilliant and heartbreaking moment.  

This leads me to Raci, who should be on anyone's shortlist for Best Supporting Actor consideration. He is a caring man but also one who is not ashamed of who he is. "You don't need to fix anything here," Joe tells Ruben when the latter offers to make repairs around the facility but which may be a rouse to get to Joe's computer. The double meaning is clear, and Raci delivers it in such a way as to suggest Joe is telling Ruben his deafness isn't something to "fix". Raci's performance to my mind is as equal if not slightly stronger than Ahmed's, great as the latter's is. He displays quiet strength, pride and no sense of shame about deafness (in the film, Joe can read lips). 

Rounding out the cast is Cooke, an actress I've admired since her work on Bates Motel. She is almost unrecognizable in her makeup, and we see in Lulu a woman who cares for Ruben, perhaps even loving him, but who also has moved on with her life when she returns to Paris to be with her father Richard (Mathieu Amalric in a small role). 

That's one of Sound of Metal's strengths. There are no villains or heroes, just flawed people making decisions they think are for the best. It treats the situation seriously, with no drifting into potential romances between Ruben and the deaf child teacher. It doesn't infantilize or idolize the deaf, instead treating them as people who unlike most cannot hear and communicate with Sign Language. It's to where Sound of Metal almost inspires one to learn the language.

I suspect curiously that the use of subtitles in Sound of Metal may actually throw people off, but it would be a disservice to skip it because of that. With an interesting story and strong performances all around, Sound of Metal wraps the viewer into this world both of the deaf and of Ruben's journey into it. 


Monday, November 23, 2020

Tennessee Johnson: A Review


In real life, President Andrew Johnson and President Donald Trump have much in common. Both were single-term Presidents. Both were seen as uncouth by the "elites" and "swamp" of their day. Both were impeached on flimsy but politically motivated charges by a Congress with a near-pathological hatred against them. Both had the misfortune to follow popular and beloved Presidents into office. Both were irascible, short-tempered men who could not control themselves and who did themselves more harm whenever they spoke (one of the eleven articles of impeachment against Johnson was about him making "inflammatory remarks" against Congress, which oddly was not included as a "high crime and misdemeanor" against Trump).

Perhaps history will be as kind to President Trump as the biopic Tennessee Johnson was to President Andrew Johnson. Historically inaccurate but well-crafted and acted, Tennessee Johnson may give the viewer a wrong impression of the 17th President but on the whole works as entertainment.

Runaway indentured tailor Andrew Johnson (Van Heflin) manages to escape to the safety of Tennessee, where the local community embraces his sewing skills and shelters him. He soon becomes not only an important member of the community but has found love and education through Eliza McCardle (Ruth Hussey). The local librarian and illiterate tailor soon fall in love and marry.

Johnson is a fierce man of the people, unimpressed with the powerful and holding the radical idea that all free (white) men should have the right to vote, not just property owners. His political career rises, culminating in being Vice President under Abraham Lincoln in a unity ticket. Johnson is not afraid to face off against his own people when it comes to secession, up to not following fellow Senator Jefferson Davis' lead in resigning to join the Confederacy.

However, Lincoln's assassination elevates the drunk Johnson to the Presidency, and he's made a powerful enemy in Senator Thaddeus Stevens (Lionel Barrymore). Their war reaches a culmination when Stevens manages to bring about impeachment proceedings against this upstart. Now Johnson has to fight for his Office while attempting to control his temper. Ultimately, he manages to barely hold on.

Tennessee Johnson is open about how while the film is a biopic, it is not without as it puts it "certain dramatic liberties". As such, the film gives us a very polished portrait of the cantankerous Johnson, barely hinting at how belligerent and drunk he could be. While Tennessee Johnson paints Johnson as a decent man who saw Eliza as his muse and comfort, it isn't a hagiography. 

The success of Tennessee Johnson is due in very large part to Van Heflin's performance. He makes Johnson a sense of honor and conviction but also a man of doubts and fears, one who is so intimidated by the idea of Lincoln that he appears clearly sloshed at his Vice Presidential swearing-in. The role allows Heflin to give an elegant and intense performance. He has what all actors want: a dramatic monologue when addressing the Senate trial (which did not happen in real life). At times, Heflin as Johnson seems to almost address the viewer directly.

In supporting roles, Hussey manages to transcend the surprisingly thin role of "supportive wife" into making the First Lady into a stronger figure, loving, supportive but not worshipful. Barrymore is excellent as the villainous Stevens, convinced of his own righteousness in taking down the "evil tyrant" Johnson. 

It's a credit to director William Dieterle that he not only drew out strong performances from his actors but for also sneaking in moments of romance and even suspense when a Senator falls ill and has to all but be dragged back into the chamber to vote. Dieterle ratches up the suspense as to whether Senator Huyler (William Farnum) will vote Guilty or Not Guilty. 

As a side note, "Huyler" is the name used for real-life Kansas Senator Edmund Ross, who cast the deciding vote to acquit and saved Johnson's removal from office. Why exactly Huyler voted as he did is not clear, though to be fair neither is Ross' rationale.

Tennessee Johnson can be seen as a product of its time, showing the need for the government to work together and the importance of "the common man". Again, this film may not be history but it tell an interesting story and is well-acted. At the most, perhaps a remake could be mounted or a film of Senator Ross, a Profile in Courage. On the whole, the film works well and makes for interesting if not accurate filmmaking.



Sunday, November 22, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy: A Review (Review #1430)


My Mom (RIP) always thought the term for poor white rural mountain folk was "hilly-billy". She probably thought this because she thought it would/should rhyme, in the same way she kept calling the 1970's sitcom The Brady Brunch vs. The Brady Bunch. That came to mind while watching Hillbilly Elegy, a film that attempts to tell what should be a serious story but that bizarrely ends up almost mocking the very people it is meant to ennoble. 

Shifting from 1997 and 2011, Hillbilly Elegy covers the memories of J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a child). As an adult, he is at Yale Law School, uncomfortably mixing with the elites and romancing pretty fellow student Usha (Freida Pinto).

As a child though, he grew up in Appalachia among what were once called "poor white trash". There's his unstable man-loving mother Bev (Amy Adams), his no-nonsense grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) and his longsuffering sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett). Bev is volatile to say the least: one moment cheerful and loving, the next moment hysterical and violent. 

The past comes to haunt J.D. when on the cusp of having a second interview for a major law firm, Lindsay calls asking he come back to help with Bev, who has overdosed again. As he makes the mad commute between New Haven, Connecticut and Middletown, Ohio, he recalls the life he led among the poor kinfolk and the tough love Mamaw meted out while attempting to hold on to his future. Eventually, J.D. finds a delicate balance between his hick past and posh present.

It's a strange thing that while I figure both the book and film adaptation meant to be respectful of poor whites, the final result of Hillbilly Elegy ended up making the Vance family look freakish, comical, garish. The entire family came across looking like caricatures of "poor white trash" versus fully-formed albeit economically disadvantaged people. The worst of the lot is Adams, who gave perhaps the worst performance of her career in some misguided effort to win the Oscar she has continuously failed to.

She was comical in her hysterics, the wild shifts and overall broadness of her performance. Scenes that were intended as shocking or heartbreaking instead became hilarious in a bad, almost camp way. There's a sequence where she angrily beats J.D. so psychotically that he fled the car to the nearest house and resulted in the police handcuffing her. Instead of being horrified by this, the overall effect is one of laughter.

To be fair to Adams, director Ron Howard made her do things and crafted scenes that I doubt any actress could have made work. We see Nurse Bev's "descent" into drug use by seeing her roller-skate down the hospital hallway and giggling while Bananarama's Cruel Summer is playing. 

With this sequence, you begin to wonder if it's Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor who are the ones that are high. You watch this sequence in almost stunned disbelief, marveling how experts could see this and not think it wouldn't look funny at the least, an almost literal fever dream at worst.

Adams clearly wants an Oscar win after six failed nominations, but she really should pray she doesn't get a nomination because it would then put her at seven loses, tying her costar Close for most nominations without a win. Adams' scenery-chewing would normally make her an also-ran for awards but the sheer desperation in her performance may elicit almost a sympathy vote.

Hillbilly Elegy may get Close an eighth nomination and maybe her very first win, but it would be a de facto Lifetime Achievement Award because like her fellow frustrated nominee Adams her Mamaw is more oddball than realistic. At the end of the film, we do see footage of the real Vance family, and to her credit Close captures the mannerisms of her real-life counterpart.

That's just the problem though: Close gave a technically strong performance, but Mamaw still came across as caricature than character, let alone real-life person. The large glasses and clothes look closer to a spoof than a serious drama. I left Hillbilly Elegy thinking Close looked more hilarious than heartfelt, as if in this case she knew what to do but could not make herself be. I was thoroughly unimpressed, and my sense is that she, like Adams, could get nominations out of this but even then, Academy members would genuinely pause to ask, "Do we really want them to win for this?"

Asztalos did what he could with the role, attempting to make J.D.'s early life one that audiences would care about. He was better than Basso, whose J.D. came across as blank at best. Asztalos had some good moments, such as a long argument with Mamaw about a calculator, but Hillbilly Elegy opted to sacrifice subtlety about J.D. and the Vance family.

There's almost an arrogance, intended or not, about J.D. We see this when he is with Mamaw. He wants to see Meet the Press. She'd rather watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As directed by Howard and scripted by Taylor, it makes clear that J.D. is "intelligent" and his family are "hicks". HE wants to be informed and pursues knowledge of the world. His family wants to be entertained. The film makes it almost as if he is a lotus blossom growing among the muck of yahoos.

Hillbilly Elegy is misguided, as if made by people who look upon the subject as coming from another world. Perhaps in that way, it is not too far off the mark.       


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Tenet: A Review


Perhaps it was too much to place on Tenet, the idea that this particular film would have audiences flocking back to cinemas after the COVID pandemic/panic. There is a difference between "incomprehensible" and "opaque". Tenet is more the latter than the former, though some of the criticisms against it are not without merit.

A figure who eventually adopts the term "The Protagonist" (John David Washington) is part of a military rescue operation at the Kyiv Opera (shades of the 2002 Dubrovka Moscow theater hostage crisis) who finds there's something odd about this mission. The Protagonist finds that contrary to what he thinks, he is not dead but now is part of something larger and more dangerous.

Tenet: a word that leads him, along with his contact Neil (Robert Pattinson) to hop around the world as part of a time-bending plan to destroy the world. In the future, mad Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh) has the technology to essentially travel back in time. From our time-forward perspective, things appear to be moving backwards (shots un-fired, people moving backwards) but from the future-past perspective, they are moving forwards as they travel in the past. 

The Protagonist must now get close to Sotar's battered wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to stop Sotar's plan to simultaneously trigger and avoid Armageddon by destroying the world, leading to traveling both forwards and backwards in time.

A common complaint against writer/director Christopher Nolan is that when not making more commercial fare (such as the Dark Knight films or Dunkirk) his films can be convoluted bordering on impossible to understand. I don't think that is accurate: there is a logic in a Nolan film, though that logic is at times hard to follow. As I understood it, Tenet has people going forwards and backwards in time, with one group attempting to stop another.  

As I said, there's a difference between "incomprehensible" and "opaque". Tenet is not incomprehensible in that if you think on it, you can follow the film. It is closer to opaque in that you feel yourself dropped further and further into a rabbit hole where one is still trying to figure out what happened before before having a chance to figure out what is happening now, let alone how it will all add up by the conclusion.

I would argue that in terms of logic and plot, Tenet should probably be watched twice to see about figuring things out. In terms of other elements, Tenet could have been better. Of particular note is the sound, which has some traditional Nolan muffled voices via masks that can make the following of the story hard if you can't hear it. I didn't think it was that difficult but I can metaphorically hear the complaints as having merit.

The complaint, for lack of a better word, that Tenet is Nolan's sci-fi version of a Bond film also has merit. You have the master villain with some real far-out plot, a beautiful Bond Girl-like figure and a super-agent charging towards a climatic finale. My mind did drift to the idea that stripped of its sci-fi elements Tenet could easily be a Bond film. I also do admit that I did nod off for a bit during the film.

I go back to the 007 comparisons when it comes to the performance. Unlike most Bond films, Tenet plays things more seriously, and the few times Washington is asked to try some quips it sounds forced. Washington is much better when playing things straight, and he is quite strong in the film. He'd make for a good film spy. Washington balances that level of confusion and confidence, though I wonder if giving him such a nondescript term as "The Protagonist" (a title he gives himself) makes him a bit aloof for audinces.

As much as the Twitter attempts to convince me that Robert Pattinson is this generation's Peter O'Toole, some titanic acting force who will be studied by future actors for time and eternity, I am not convinced of it. That's not to say I disliked him: in fact, I think Tenet is the first film where I thought he managed something good. I'm not sold on him but now not almost reflexively hostile.

The clear standout is Debicki, who lifts what could have been a "damsel in distress" role into one that balances Kat's fears with a growing strength. The clear non-standout is Branagh, who seems to have a hard time with accents. He wasn't as menacing as he could have been, probably because the Russian accent veered close to cartoonish.

If there's a flaw in Tenet is that the film is a bit aloof. While everyone is taking this all so seriously there is a remoteness to things. As much as the film wanted me to feel tension I couldn't if the stakes didn't seem or feel real. A major action piece at the airport reminded me of all things the spoof Airplane!, and the lack of emotion with some people equally bordered on spoof. Clémence Posy's Barbara (read, a variation on Q), came across as bored. Here she could see literal time going backward from her perspective and she looked as excited as someone bringing in a ham sandwich.

The other Tenet elements worked well. Ludwig Göransson's score can best be described as "electronic Philip Glass". The action scenes are well-crafted (the opening Kyiv Opera sequence a strong one) and on the whole Tenet is a good film.

Tenet is not a film where you will be totally lost, assuming you manage to stay with it and stay awake.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: A Review


The expression "Saturday night and Sunday morning" may mean something different in the United States than perhaps it does to those involved in this British kitchen-sink drama. To me, it refers to how one can live a pretty decadent, even debauched life only to repent right after (Saturday night at the bars, Sunday morning at church). This "Saturday night and Sunday morning" is about that brief time of freedom for our "angry young man" between the drudgery of Monday to Friday. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a well-acted film that tells a small slice-of-life story.

Factory machinist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) hates his job and isn't particularly thrilled with his working-class life. He sees people like coworker Jack (Brian Pringle) as essentially saps: Jack is pretty satisfied with his life, Arthur most certainly not.

Arthur is satisfied with Jack's wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) whom he has been having an affair with. Arthur may bed Brenda, but he does not love her, let alone the prospect of marriage. Then comes brassy Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) who piques his interests but who doesn't give in easily to our brash young man. He starts dating Doreen while still seeing Brenda and thinks nothing of his double dealing.

That is until Brenda tells him she's pregnant. As she and Jack haven't had sex in months it's clear who the father is. Efforts to induce an abortion fail, with Arthur desperate to get out of this mess. Things culminate at a local fair where Brenda opts to keep the child but Jack, along with his soldier brother, discover the lovers. Arthur still manages to avoid personal scandal and Doreen is staying by his side, but will he fully commit?

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has a stellar performance from Albert Finney as Arthur. Finney makes no effort to make Arthur anywhere near sympathetic. In fact, Arthur seems to almost thrive in being selfish and petty, yet despite his flaws we get some sense of what drives him. Arthur feels trapped in his world, one where if he does marry, he'll be condemned to end his days watching television like his father or worse being a cuckold like Jack. Arthur wants to live, and to him, that means booze and broads without them controlling him.

We see that mix of arrogance and anger early on when he's in an informal drinking match with a sailor. Arthur appears better able to handle his liquor, even up to "accidentally" spilling beer on an older couple. It isn't until he steps to the outside when he stumbles down the pub staircase that we find Arthur is more self-destructive and foolish than antihero.

Finney keeps the audiences' attention throughout Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, down to having opening and closing voiceovers. I found Arthur a very selfish man but not a monster, a credit to Finney as an actor.

Director Karel Reisz also gets great performances out of the rest of his cast. Field's Doreen is nobody's fool, able to stand toe-to-toe with Arthur, but we also see that she dreams of domesticity in the same way Arthur recoils from it. Roberts' Brenda manages not to be either a shrew or a tramp, but a woman who loves the freedom Arthur embodies while also remaining aware of his danger. 

Reisz, working from Allan Silltoe's adaptation of his own novel, brings almost a cinema verite manner to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. At times it does look like a documentary, and we get the sense of what life would be like for a working-class lad in early 1960's Britain. 

Perhaps this is why it didn't hit me as hard, the passage of time and the idea of upward mobility watering it down a bit. Also, some sections such as a sequence involving Arthur shooting pellets at local gossip Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris) seemed more curious comedy than true to the the lives of unquiet desperation so many post-war youth led. Almost everything involving Mrs. Bull seemed more like early Eastenders or Coronation Street, or at least precursors.

That's a minor complaint on the whole thought. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a showcase for early Albert Finney and a time capsule of when the "angry young man" ruled the thoughts of the British. It's a curious thing about the British: seemingly worshipful of the lives of aristocracy while simultaneously fascinated with the working-class. 


Sunday, November 8, 2020

Let Him Go: A Review


Grief, loss and bonds of family good and bad are the themes in Let Him Go, a sparse, quiet, moving film with three dynamic performances that push the film even higher.

After the death of their son, retired sheriff George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) sadly see their daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) marry a Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), making Donnie stepfather to their grandson Jimmy. Donnie is bad news: Margaret sees him abuse both Lorna and Jimmy and her fears grow worse when the Weboys leave quickly.

Margaret decides to search for them, a very reluctant George going with her. Using the few clues they have the Blackledges track them from Montana to North Dakota, where George's instincts tell him the Weboys are dangerous. This is confirmed when they meet the extended family, in particular the matriarch Blanch Weboy (Leslie Manville). She's a cold, brutal woman who terrorizes her criminal, brutal sons and who despite Jimmy not being blood relation will not let Jimmy go back with the Blackledges, let alone have Lorna go with them.

A botched escape costs George dearly, but it also sets him on a fiery collision course with the Weboys. With the help of shy Native American Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart), the Blackledges and Weboys have one last encounter where not everyone survives.

Let Him Go appears to draw inspiration from both No Country for Old Men and Unforgiven, though it is not as nihilistic as the former or mournful as the latter. There is a sparseness, a quiet elegiac manner to Let Him Go that holds the viewer. 

The film is very quiet, but it is a quiet confidence. Every disagreement that George and Margaret have does not have a massive buildup, but instead a soft yet strong manner. Even in the times when there is open menace, the quiet manner makes it all the more tense.

The scene where George and Margaret must dine with Blanche is filled with tension and menace. All the elements work to give this scene a richness and power that holds you and ratchets up the tension. There's writer/director Thomas Bezucha's staging, where we start without seeing Blanche's eyes.

And then there's Leslie Manville's performance. Manville is simply extraordinary in Let Him Go. Thoroughly unrecognizable, her Blanche oozes menace, contempt, hatred and evil, a woman who has so cowered her bullying, brutish sons that she brooks no opposition.

Blanche does not bother hiding her cruelty, the falsehood of her demeanor clear to all who see her. If she were in just that one scene, Manville would be almost a certain lock for her second Best Supporting Actress nomination. However, she returns, this time more spiteful and nasty, making Blanche into such a loathsome villain that you almost cheer when she gets what she more than deserves.

Manville is able to dominate the screen without chewing the scenery, making Blanche a realist person, a massive credit to her as an actress and Bezucha as director.

Almost as a counter, Lane and Costner are more quiet but no less commanding. Lane's performance is equally strong. Margaret is not naïve or foolish as she is quietly confident. Her quiet moments, grieving her son, communicating with the shy and wounded Peter, agony over having Jimmy pulled from her, make Lane's performance a deeply moving one.

Costner essentially took a backseat to Lane, and yet by withdrawing he simultaneously shone. In his silences, his reticence, Costner reveals the shrewd, suspicious and supporting spouse who while seeing the difficulty if not impossibility of rescuing Jimmy also is quietly sparked to action.

While their roles were smaller, both Carter and Stewart left strong impressions as Lorna and Peter, each wounded and abused in their own way.

Let Him Go is as I said a very sparse film in just about every element. Bezucha's adaptation of Larry Watson's novel is not filled with big dramatic moments apart from the fiery finale. The cinematography is also as sparse and empty as the Dakotas and an uncharacteristically quiet Michael Giacchino score has a deeply mournful, quiet manner.

Let Him Go may be a bit longer than perhaps it should be, primarily through the flashbacks. However, that is a minor quibble, for Let Him Go is a deeply moving, beautifully acted film that I think will move audiences.  


Monday, November 2, 2020

Raintree County: A Review (Review #1426)


It is somewhat hard to watch Raintree County without remembering that the film came at an especially tumultuous time in the life of one of its stars. Montgomery Clift was in a horrific car accident during its troubled production, causing physical and emotional scars that eventually doomed him. Even if Clift had not been overwhelmed by his personal problems, Raintree County would still be a low-mark in his cinematic oeuvre, a slow, dull, almost nonsensical affair barely saved by its leads.

Indiana idealist Johnny Shawnessey (Clift) is lured away from his true love Nell (Eva Marie Saint) by fiery Southern belle Susanna (Elizabeth Taylor). John struggles with many things in this relationship, though oddly his efforts at reconciling his abolitionist views with marrying into a slave-owning family is the least troubling part. Susanna is to put it mildly flat-out bonkers.

She keeps a creepy doll collection that she hangs over their bed. She may have had a hand in the murder of her parents and loyal "mammy" (though the term is not used in the film). She may also be, horror of horrors, "Negro" herself (or as she puts it in her determined Southern accent, "Nee-grah"), as she is driven to near-insanity on the thought that her "mammy" may actually be her biological mother.

Enter the Civil War. Initially, Johnny does not join the military, but once Susanna has gone back to Georgia and taken their son with her, he joins the boys in blue to find them both. A long search reunites Johnny with his son, but by now Susanna is institutionalized. He brings her back to Indiana where one of these meets a grisly end.

It was probably a surprise to viewers to see a film where Montgomery Clift is playing the sane and calm one in the midst of all the rambling, sometimes confusing storyline. I should say "storylines", as Millard Kaufman's adaptation of Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s novel at times is chaotic and/or unclear. Raintree County spends perhaps a good half hour or more on an extended tangent involving a randy Professor (Nigel Patrick) and a footrace with a local man, Orville "Flash" Perkins (Lee Marvin). You keep waiting for them to pop up again, and they do eventually, but by that time you've lost interest in the film as a whole.

Moreover, as you watch Raintree County, you kind of think the Professor's story would make for a more interesting film than that of the love triangle of Johnny, Susanna and Nell. Raintree County to its credit has its three leads doing good work in this tawdry tale of the Old South. Clift works hard to make Johnny an idealist, even if at times he comes across as rather dim (why would he agree to stay with a woman who faked a pregnancy to snag him). Taylor is fully committed to make Susanna into a tragic figure, though her wild Southern accent and near hysterical manner make her hysterical in the laughable sense.

"You HATE ME! YOU HATE ME BECAUSE I'M SOUTHERN!" she screams out at one point. I figure that maybe the filmmakers wanted to say "colored", the vague suggestion of miscegenation hovering over this but never fully rationalized. Still, Taylor was hell-bent on going all cray-cray, making Saint's more demure Nell look less rational and more slightly bored.

Bless Lee Marvin, who decided he was in a whole other film altogether and acted as though Raintree County was about Flash. Same goes for the parody-ready Patrick as the Professor, whose whole character started out as a joke and never shifted. 

If Raintree County  has anything good in it, it's in the technical aspects such as the score and costumes, but apart from that it's a slog to sit through. Clift, Taylor and Saint did the best they could, and it's a credit to director Edward Dmytryk that everyone managed to survive this cure for insomnia, but there's nothing to make this worth your time. 

Raintree County could best be described as Gone With the Light Breeze, a Southern epic romance that fails to be epic or romantic. 

One final note: the constant mention of "Raintree County" brought back to mind the endless repetition of "Moses" in The Ten Commandments. One could make a drinking game over how often "Raintree County" is mentioned, and be positively drunk before Taylor goes really off the deep end.