Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962). This beloved film classic only had its notoriety bolstered when Martin Scorsese remade it in 1991. Though my helpless affection for Scorsese is well-documented by now, I must concede that the the original is far superior, largely due to the performance of spectacularly relaxed menace by Robert Mitchum as recently sprung convict Max Cady, who decides to terrorize the prosecutor whose testimony was instrumental to his incarceration. Mitchum is so good developing a fearsome quality out of little more than the way he glares across a room or strolls into a scene that the film becomes paradoxically less gripping as it escalates. When the tension ratchets up in the last act as the family takes refuge on the titular waterway and Cady’s threats become more overt, the film starts to drag, feeling conventional instead of inspired.
The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934). This World War I drama follows a platoon of British soldiers wandering the Mesopotamian desert after a sniper guns down the one member of their group familiar with the terrain and the mission they were supposed to carry out. Ford directs with a wholly characteristic easy command of visual storytelling, keeping the film bounding along even though the squabbling and disparate band of brothers now looks as timeworn as can be. There’s an appealing offhand grittiness to most of the performances, although Boris Karloff’s turn as a bible-thumping soldier who goes mad in the heat is a few notches too intense, even for the era.
The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010). Affleck’s second feature as a director is much like his first one: sturdy, serious, a little pedestrian and dominated by an unyielding affection for the working class culture of Boston. Much as he clearly respects the downtrodden, rough-edged characters, Affleck sometimes unconsciously adopts the benevolent condescension of a social tourist. He’s like the white, suburban kids who longs to have the survivalist cachet that comes from rapping about a hard life on urban streets. His real talent as a director lies less in his empathy and more in his command of the physicality of individual scenes. The movie is about heists, and Affleck stages those sequences with a focus on the pounding relentlessness of the work needed to pull them off. These aren’t empty action sequences, designed for kinetic glamor; they’re manifestations of the characters’ collective drive and effort. The sweat and strain of these scenes feels real. Each of the actors is afforded a nice moment or two. Surprisingly, it’s Blake Lively who delivers the fullest performance of the film, investing her character with an aura of perpetual disappointment that makes the steps she takes to keep herself numb to the world acutely poignant.
Pirate Radio (Richard Curtis, 2009). This really should be a movie that I find difficult to resist given the way it romanticizes radio DJs as heroic rebels roughly on par with the beautifully haggard souls who strap on guitars to make gloriously ear-splitting rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. Unfortunately, Richard Curtis is such a haphazard writer and director that the film becomes an incoherent mess. As he did with his previous directorial effort, the dreadful Love Actually, he assembles a batch of insipid short stories and trundles them off in search of a unifying narrative spine, demonstrating little to no interest in imposing it himself. So this story about a floating radio station that runs afoul of the British government in the turbulent nineteen-sixties drifts along, swamped by its own quirky comedy and ugly self-aggrandizement. Based on actual events, Curtis seems to have convinced himself that this ship of single-spinning seamen basically invented rock radio, a conceit he tiresomely drives home with repeated images of listeners sitting rapt before their receivers. Curtis may believe it, but the film he made to prove his point isn’t convincing in the slightest.
All Good Things (Andrew Jarecki, 2010). Jarecki follows up his phenomenal documentary Capturing the Friedmans with a toe-dip into the realm of fiction filmmaking. In some ways, he’s within arm’s reach of the his earlier masterpiece, again examining a New York family wracked by insidious, criminal scandal. In this instance, the story is inspired by the sordid tale of Robert Durst, the scion of a wealthy family who was suspected, though never convicted, of murder, though tweaked enough (and then presumably aggressively vetted by lawyers) for Jarecki and the screenwriters to draw decisive conclusions about their main character’s guilt. Ryan Gosling plays that part, though he never quite gets a handle on the role, stumbling through the film exhibiting a muddled mix of anxiety, wounded charm and poor anger management skills. Kirsten Dunst is much better as his wife, watching her world spin out of control and agonizingly attempting to set it all right.