Bird, Coon and Skousen, Garrone, Huston, Paradisi

Tomorrowland (Brad Bird, 2015). There’s nobility in Brad Bird’s oft-stated aspiration to use Tomorrowland to reanimate the futuristic optimism of his youth, countering the long meander into an endless procession of sci-fi dystopias. Intent is one thing. Execution is quite another. Bird’s second outing as a director of live-action features is a muddled, overbearing squawk of condescending nonsense that too often barrels headlong into disastrous inane storytelling choices. As a grizzled, grumpy outcast of a once-proud secret nation of innovators, George Clooney is in the mode of hammy, insistent twitches that rightly earned him derision when he made his initial attempt at leveraging ER stardom into a big, impressive movie career. Bird aims for Spielbergian wonder and gentle, approachable quirk (a scene featuring Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key as proprietors of a deceptive nostalgia shop smacks of the colorful busyness that defined eighties films under the broader Spielberg brand), but only winds up illustrating how difficult it is to pull off.

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 2015). Years ago, Jim Windolf wrote an article for Vanity Fair that is a pure delight. It detailed the quest of a few boys, middle schoolers at first, to craft a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A documentary on the same subject should be a natural, with the amateur footage providing its own argument about the thrill of creation. Instead, it winds up a fitfully effective entertainment, mostly because co-directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen choose to frame their documentary around an attempt by the now grown-up fledgling filmmakers shoot the one sequence that sat too far beyond their youthful reach. Kids banging around their basement to replicate a Hollywood blockbuster is fun. A middle-aged guy having an agonizing phone conversation with his fuming boss to take one more half-day off of work for a vanity project is far less so. Raiders! is best when it keeps its focus firmly retrospective.

The Misfits (John Huston, 1961). Best known as the final completed film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (and essentially the last significant screen work by Montgomery Clift), The Misfits is more than a mere curiosity. Written by Arthur Miller (married to Monroe at the time, though the relationship was splintering), the film delivers the agonizing, downtrodden lives of people who can’t find their footing in mid-twentieth-century America, as mores were rapidly changing and whole ways of life were drifting away like clouds of desert dust. Miller’s writing has a aching poignancy and brutish honestly to it, and director John Huston handles the material with characteristic empathy and clarity, even though his senses were notoriously dulled by the ample opportunities for decadent excess available in Nevada. All the actors are very strong, with Thelma Ritter delivers an especially jagged and enjoyable performance as a longtime Las Vegas resident who has taken Monroe’s divorcing beauty under her wounded wing.

The Visitor (Giulio Paradisi, 1979). This is the sort of wild-eyed science fiction-horror hybrid that could only burble to life in the feverish incubator of the late nineteen-seventies.  Adopting the more approachable and yet ridiculous billing of Michael J. Paradise to not unduly jar U.S. audiences, director Giulio Paradisi works here with the ever-nutty Egyptian filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis (who’d take co-writing and co-directing credits a couple years later on Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron’s directorial debut). The Visitor delves into bizarre mythologies involving outer space forces that occasionally plant a demonic being on planet Earth to wreak havoc. In this instance, it’s a little girl named Katy, (Paige Connor) introduced in the film by exploding a basketball hoop during a close game involving the fictional Atlanta Rebels, owned by a man (Lance Henriksen) who’s evidently cultivating the powers of the girl for a boardroom of shadowy executives in exchange for NBA glory. That’s only the beginning of loopy invention, with Katy increasingly terrorizing her mother (Joanne Nail) and snarling at the blowsy housekeeper (two-time Academy Award winner Shelley Winters) with a keen eye for the devilry afoot. Still, I need to admit the movie is packed full of things I’ve never quite seen before, like a car crash that leaves the occupant trapped instead the flaming vehicle because it got burrito-wrapped in the chain link fence when it went careening off the road.

Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015). All right, so full-on narrative craziness can take hold around thirty-five years later, too. Matteo Garrone delivers his first English language film with this adaptation of fairy tales written by Giambattista Basile. Interspersed with each other, the different stories land with varying degrees of success, depending in part of the skill levels of the players Garrone has recruited. “The Two Old Women,” for example, might rush to a satisfyingly gruesome punchline, but the wholly characteristic drowsiness of Vincent Cassel in a key role is bound to blunt the story’s progression. In contrast, Garrone judged wisely with “The Flea,” as Toby Jones is perfectly equipped to highlight the ickiness and pathos that both reside there. Tale of Tales may be something of a mess, but it’s an admirably fearless mess.




Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Nine

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#9 — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

I find it weirdly wonderful that one of the greatest films about the corrosive greed at the core of the United States identity doesn’t take place within the nation’s borders at all. Instead, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre finds broken citizens scuffling around within a northern neighbor, looking to make their fortunes by yanking out some of the gold they just know is up in them thar Mexican hills. The story artfully explores basic human emotions that range across vast swaths of people in very different cultures, but it feels like a pure expression of the capitalistic character of the U.S., especially as minor suspicions simmer and then boil over into catastrophically destructive impulses. Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre repeatedly while working on his There Will Be Blood. The reasoning for that unique preparatory choice is abundantly clear: Anderson’s compulsion to create cinema that spoke to the totality of a country’s foundational development — in his case, both capitalism and religion — already had a blueprint. If he wasn’t necessarily going to follow precisely the same plan, he had the instinctual wisdom to realize it could only help if the earlier film’s reflected essence was somehow imprinted on his psyche.

Adapted from a 1927 novel of the same name (written by B. Traven), it’s easy to see the underpinnings that could have been a fine but plain drama, the sort of grimy potboiler than Hollywood turned out with production line efficiency in the nineteen-forties. Simplicity fell away as an possibility once the project found it’s way into the hands of John Huston. An already well-seasoned screenwriter when he made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon, released in 1941, Huston was working from his own script for the first time since that auspicious opening to his career literally calling the shots. He brings to the project a rascally cunning and a blazing cynicism. As the fragile alliance between a trio of prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston) begins to blister and burst, Huston adopts a brilliant tone of florid gallows humor, pushing the characters into ever-increasing heights of highly fraught dismay. Maybe more than any of his rough contemporaries, Huston had a skill for bringing a muscular sense of urgency to his work, and that serves him especially well here. The film itself seems to sweat.

Throughout his career, Huston was also a marvelous director in his work with actors. That gift was rarely more evident than it is here (I’d argue that only his late career triumph Prizzi’s Honor tops it). The director’s last name is there in the cast list as well, and his father, Walter, deliver’s a marvelous, Oscar-winning turn as the senior member of the crew, the one who’s actually got significant experience mining for gold. The character could have been little more than a colorful figure at the fringes — throughout a lot of his career, Walter Huston was relegated to exactly that position — but there’s a shared commitment to instilling it with real insight and pathos. And then there’s Bogart, one of Huston’s great collaborators. The steeliness and confidence that defined his usual film persona is cast aside here. Bogart’s embodies his character’s disconcerting edginess, the vestiges of wiliness that have rotted into ugly need. Without abandoning the star power on his natural onscreen command, Bogart plays a largely unsympathetic character with brutal honesty. He carries the very thesis of the film on his tensed shoulders. Given the ambition of Huston’s vision, that’s an especially impressive feat.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-One

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#41 — Key Largo (John Huston, 1948)

I typically put John Huston in the category of classic Hollywood directors whose excellence is best measured by their absolutely command of craft. As the vocabulary of classic narrative was still being shaped, Huston was one of those in the cinematic blacksmith shop, swinging his mallet at the glowing red steel. Unlike some of his immediate predecessors (and rough contemporaries) on this timeline — John Ford and Howard Hawks are the two who immediately come to mind — Huston embedded a slightly shiftier personality into his art. He had a flair for the torrid that put him slightly out of step with the chaste times in which his career began. He didn’t overtly play around with double entendres or otherwise try to stealthily shuffle his fictions past the various censors employed by the industry, but some of his best films are infused with a sweaty anxiousness, a prevailing sense that everything can get so much uglier so quickly. These films teeter right on the cusp of what’s prohibited, constantly threatening to topple in.

Adapted from a stage play by Maxwell Anderson, introduced in 1939, Key Largo is a splendid example of Huston’s ability to twist drama into the woozily discombobulating, as if the celluloid itself is suffering from a fever edging ever upward. The film places a batch of raggedy souls together in a hotel located in the Florida Keys. A hurricane is bearing down on the island, which is trouble enough. Then it’s revealed that a mysterious guest of the establishment is the vicious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), and the raging weather outside doesn’t make him any more solicitous to his fellow travelers. The film becomes an ingenious exercise in ratcheting up the tension, with Rocco persecuting the others as he waits for one of his shady dealings to commence, the rising winds roughly equivalent to building rapidity of everyone’s collective pulse. Huston’s pinpoint command of telling a story is invaluable, but he brings additional craftiness to the picture, most notably with tracking shots that snake through the hotel, greatly mitigating any stagebound quality without eliminating the claustrophobic confinement which is, after all, one of the narrative’s most distinctive strengths.

And then there are the two stars of the film, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though the married couple are forever embedded in film history as one of the most iconic screen pairings — surely second only to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — they were only in four movies together, all of them released within a five year span. Key Largo was the final one. While it may lack some of the astounding spark of the first films together, their tandem work reflects an ease and comfort that is just as satisfying. They play off of one another with keen certainty, a belief in the safety provided by the collaboration. Robinson gives the film’s best performance, bringing surprising nuance and intricate shading to a role that could have easily been little more than a blustering thug and still been effective, but its Bogart and Bacall that give Key Largo its touch of added soul. As Huston masters the tactics of the film, his primary players give it a marvelous inner life. Of course, the contribution of Bogart and Bacall owes something to Huston’s artistry, too. Among the director’s many gifts was a well-developed instinct to know exactly how to take advantage of what was in front of him as he peered through the lens.

Ford, Hancock, Huston, McDonagh, Robespierre

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.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty

#20 — The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
There are gateway films for everyone, those features that unlock something inside that inspires a previously absent appreciation for, say, foreign cinema or art house fare. I can’t actually pinpoint what opened most of those doors for me, but I’m fairly certain I know the first film that made me open my eyes to the vast wonders to be found in classic cinema. Like a lot of young people, I suspect, I found any movie that had a copyright date too much before my birth year to be a little musty and dull. Then one day I watched The African Queen, I think on a PBS station, and it all changed. I don’t know what my age was, but it was fairly young. And it’s not that the film plays out as especially modern, or even did then. In fact, I’d argue it feels more like stereotypical “classic cinema” than a lot of John Huston’s other features from around that time, which are often steeped in an urban toughness that translates across time, wrenching them out of the past. The trademark muscularity of Huston’s filmmaking is certainly there, though. That could be what I responded to. Then again, maybe it was nothing more than the abiding quality of the film that gave me the equivalent of a thud to the head to jar me from my judgmental stupor. Regardless, for delivering to me a way to connect with the sort of fare that makes up the programming schedule of Turner Classic Movies, I owe it a solid debt.

Based on a 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, The African Queen is largely set on the boat of the same name. Skippered by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), the vessel is used to transport missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) from her station in West Africa after her brother (Robert Morley) dies after an attack by German soldiers after World War I breaks out. The plot isn’t especially complicated from there: the journey is beset by travails that both travelers endure with prickly determination and mounting affection for one another. It’s not just the accumulated descendants of this film that make the story’s path utterly familiar. At the time of its release, The African Queen was surely more satisfying in its familiarity than stunning in its unexpected turns, even if the location shooting in the wilds of the Congo was indeed fairly unique for the era. As much panache as Huston brings to the framing and pacing of sequences, the sturdiness of the storytelling is what truly endures.

The African Queen also provides enduring evidence of the value in inspired movie star casting. Bogart nabbed his Best Actor Oscar for his performance here, and it was justly awarded. He is thoroughly enjoyable as he levels his brash temper and easygoing charm in equal measure, wonderfully finding nuance in a resolute avoidance of that very quality. So much of the appeal comes from putting him up against Hepburn in full-on chin-forward certainty mode. It is a complete reversal of these two stars most famous and successful screen pairings — Bogart with the seductive cool of Bacall and Hepburn duetting to Spencer Tracy’s slightly stammering soft shoe approach — and the need to constantly prove themselves to someone just as formidable, just as headstrong brings out a sharpness that plays especially well in the crushing authority of nature. It is fully believable that their bonding in a battle against the world, quite literally, would lead to deeper affection. No wonder The African Queen made me actively want to discover more films just like it.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Thirty-Four

#34 — The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)
It’s all right there in the name of the film: the promise of soot and grit and anger, the heat of savagery played out on pavement, the hardness of untamed wild disguised as urban civilization. There are few cinematic titles as instantly evocative of of the bleak storytelling to which it is affixed. The Asphalt Jungle technically conveys nothing of the film’s plot, its characters, its timeframe. Hell, it takes some imagination to tie the title to the film’s setting. And yet it carries forward everything that the film is about, all its gunpowder horrors and bruised authority. It is a crime drama. Of course it is. It is about a criminal called Doc (Sam Jaffe), fresh out of jail and immediately seeking out collaborators for a jewel heist. He assembles his team, each with his own clearly defined role, one freshly recruited crook suggesting another, always with the assurance that trust is a precious commodity and this new guy is the only guy who can do the job and not crack under pressure or pull off a double-cross. If there’s honor among thieves, it damn well doesn’t come automatically or even easily. Multiple stabbings in a series of backs isn’t a guarantee either, but every one of them is white-knuckling the hilt of a blade.

The Asphalt Jungle was first a novel, written by W.R. Burnett. The screenplay was adapted by Ben Maddow and John Huston, the latter also serving as the director. Huston was closing out his first decade as a helmer, and he had the language of cinema down. He understood the mechanics of narrative and clearly preferred keeping the material lean and tough. He is interested in the psychology of his characters, but also avoids getting mired in it. There are no justifications or overt attempts to extend any sympathy towards his characters. These are bad men. Thus, they do bad things. They can’t be trusted because they aren’t trustworthy. To a large degree it’s as simple as that. With the likes of James Whitmore and that great snarling elm tree Sterling Hayden in the cast as the gang members, there’s not a lot of opportunity for actorly nuance anyway. These aren’t people making art. They’re making a picture. Of course, the modesty of their goals is a major part of what actually elevates The Asphalt Jungle to the rarefied air of artistry.

This is what American film noir looks like when the gallows humor and luscious seduction is stripped away, leaving only the rusting steel girders beneath. Huston was no expert in the world he depicted, spending his sickly childhood in boarding schools as his performer father toured the vaudeville circuit, but he had an instinctual feel for the city’s harsh rhythms. Especially in the early part of his career, Huston was ferociously good at depictions of criminality and duplicity, none of it presented with the commonplace Hollywood sense of high drama, meant to make it look more nefarious but usually serving to soften the impact of what was onscreen. Huston pushed back against the studio’s concerns about the brutality of his stories, his sensibility, his images. He wanted his films, his pictures, to be truthful. More often than not, he achieved just that. The Asphalt Jungle is as real as well-scarred knuckles.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Forty-Six

#46 — Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)
Like most people, I suspect, I have a tendency to think of films of the nineteen-fifties–at least Hollywood films of the nineteen-fifties–as fairly staid and safe, lacking the rush of invention and discovery that characterized the form deep into the forties and as yet untouched by the revolutions that took hold in the sixties and exploded in the seventies. Certainly the consensus list of the best films of this era largely confirms that, with the truly risky largely showing up in the form of the rapid evolution stirred by the emergence of Method acting. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t wellsprings of cinematic wildness. And in the midst of the decade, there were few American directors more likely to deliver something radically, wonderfully unhinged than John Huston.

Beat the Devil, but Huston’s intent, is a wooly mockery of the sort of film noir offerings that the director himself helped pioneer with his very first film, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. He’s once again teamed with Humphrey Bogart, the star also serving as a producer and instrumental in ensnaring Huston onto the picture. Based as loosely as a slipknot on a novel by Claud Cockburn, the film follows a motley collection of hucksters and schemers as they lie in wait in an Italian port city, all plotting to take over a Kenya uranium mine. At least they suppose that’s what they’ll do if they can ever get on the right boat to carry them to their fantasized fortunes. The screenplay was credited to Huston and Truman Capote, then a writer in his late twenties with two highly lauded novels to his name (but Holly Golightly still to come, and the Clutter family as yet unharmed). Supposedly the script pages were spun anew every day on location, with Huston even relying on his well-seasoned character actors to supply some of the wearily hard-nosed dialogue for their roles. After all, was there anyone by this time who could realistically come up with a better Peter Lorre character than Peter Lorre? Throughout the film, Bogart is bemused, the various side characters ooze oily menace, and the female leads (Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida, the latter in her first English language role) exhibit signs that they no longer have the required patience or fortitude to deliver the fatale to go with the femme.

The whole film is a wondrous, beautiful mess. At every turn, it’s completely apparent how close it is to going irreparably wrong, the entire thing careening off a cliff. Given the slapdash quality and the evident lack of rigor to the storytelling–with the possibly for amusement consistently trumping logic–Beat the Devil has every chance to transform in an instant to something miserable. The guardrail is in place, however, due to the clear sense of purpose to it, the way it exudes playfulness, as if Huston is trying to retrieve cinema from the dour self-seriousness he undoubtedly saw all around him. Movies can be a lark, he seems to argue. They can be a little goofy, a little loopy. Above all, they should be fun, dammit, brimming with the unexpected. That’s Beat the Devil. And then some.