The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948). Huston’s famed exploration of greed tainting a slapdash partnership of aspiration gold miners in the Mexican mountains is so deviously ingenious that the director booming cackle virtually echoes through the most feverish scenes. The best Tim Holt can do as the most upstanding, straightforward member of the trio is stay upright against the buffeting winds of Humphrey Bogart, all sweaty paranoia and flash fire intensity, and Walter Huston, delivering a just Oscar-awarded turn as the weather-beaten old-timer whose the one member of the party who’s not a neophyte. The film is simultaneously bleakly mean and a comic marvel, flicking away at the spreading rust at the heart of the money-hungry.
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946). This moody western offers a depiction of the Earp brothers initially unwilling relocation to the town of Tombstone, their upstanding inclinations helping to clean up a lawless town. Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp with the sort of lean ease that was his trademark. When he unfolds himself, using a deck post to lean back in an old wooden chair, he looks like a grizzled praying mantis at rest. Much of the story is just another blade on the cycling fan of Hollywood westerns, save maybe for the flintiness in the relationship with Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holliday (Victor Mature). It’s Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography that distinguishes the film. Drenched in impossibly black shadows, multiple scenes play out in silhouette or something perilously close to it. That makes My Darling Clementine into a fascinating experiment in setting mood through visual concealment, a fairly daring choice for a director with rare skill for unfussy narrative mechanics.
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011). In its simplest interpretation, The Guard is just another variant on the shopworn buddy cop film standard, pairing temperamentally mismatched lawmen on a case that is more complicated than it appears. One in uncouth and the other is rigid and by-the-book. The even have the markedly different shades of skin, adhering to the preferred casting methodology in place since at least 48 Hrs. Two elements of the film make the difference. One is the performance by Brendan Gleeson as the slobby Irish cop who reluctantly works with a visiting FBI agent (Don Cheadle). The other is the precise sense of place and culture fostered by McDonagh. It is a quality that pushes the creation past smarts to something approaching wisdom, proving that even the most familiar material can feel fully reinvented if it plays out with an attentiveness to the world in which it is set. The Guard‘s mechanics may be tropes, but it comes across as a film that could have only been made in one place, in one way.
Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013). There’s probably a decent movie that lasts, say, around 100 minutes lurking within this bloated stab at genial prestige. Depicting the arduous process of taking Mary Poppins, the creation of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), from book to screen, the film has some nice moments that capture the pleasures of the creative process (a brief scene showing a key development in the writing of the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” is emblematic of what the film could’ve been). The march to the screen was made especially tough by the persistent dissatisfaction and combativeness of Travers, who resisted any cheerful, Disney-esque softening of her creation. The portion of the film that resides at the studios still presided over by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) are agreeable if imperfect, shaped by the game but ultimately unconvincing portrayals of Thompson and Hanks. The real problem is that the film goes dead anytime tit cycles back to one of the the plentiful flashbacks to the youth of Travers, raised in hardscrabble Australia by a depressed mother (Ruth Wilson) and joyfully childlike but mentally unbalanced father (Colin Farrell). The background that could have been handled in a few deft strokes instead plays out as a sort of parallel film, a really dull one.
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014). Robespierre’s expansion of her 2011 short film garnered hefty praise for its frankness in dealing with abortion as an undesirable but realistic option in a woman’s life, earning further agog marveling because it did so as a sharp-edged comedy. That’s a significant part of its surprising artfulness, but dwelling on that as the film’s signal achievement requires a fairly superficial reading of what’s on screen. Jenny Slate plays a struggling New York City comedian whose rebound one night stand leaves her with a pregnancy that she never doubts she will terminate through the medical procedure that’s been constitutionally protected for over forty years. Simultaneously, much of the rest of her life is crumbling around her. Besides the demolished romance, her day job is going away and even a paycheck to paycheck existence requires a lot of agonizing stretching between the two points. Robespierre pulls it together with a vibrantly alive, caustically witty tone, correctly relying on the charismatic, lived-in, and wildly expressive performance of Slate. A couple moments of cartoonish, fantastical absurdity are the only minor mars on an otherwise roundly winning film.