Jayne Mansfield’s Car

I wrote this review in 2012, expecting that the film would eventually be released theatrically. It never happened–at least not in the Bay Area. However, as it’s available on disc and pay-per-view, I’ve decided to publish the review.

C Drama

  • Written by Tom Epperson & Billy Bob Thornton
  • Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

When Sling Blade came out in 1996, we all though that writer-director Billy Bob Thornton was the new auteur to watch. Instead, he became a movie star–or at least a well-known character actor. Every so often he returns to writing and directing, but he has never matched the promise of Sling Blade.

Consider his new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car. A southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war, it provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script.

Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving JMC_03951.jpgpatriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him. One of those sons is married, and his wife and son live there, as well. As far as I could tell, no one in this family works for a living.

Early on, Jim gets an important, overseas phone call. His ex-wife, the mother of his children, has died. Although she left him decades ago, moved to England, and remarried, she wanted to be buried back home in Alabama. Why? Because otherwise there would be no movie. So along with her corpse comes the Brits–her second husband and his children from a previous marriage.

So you get a funeral, a culture clash, sex between people slightly related by marriage, and the unintended use of a psychedelic drug. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs.

The film is set in 1969, so youthful rebellion also plays a part. The picture even opens with a very small anti-war march. Jim’s son Carroll (a long-haired Kevin Bacon) represents the counterculture, even though as a World War II veteran, he’s clearly too old for it. He seems to spend most of his time smoking pot, meditating, and running light shows. He has a son in danger of being drafted.

This picture is really about the long-term effects of war. Both Jim and his ex-wife’s second husband served in World War I. That second husband, with the very British name of Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), walks with a cane from a battle wound.

Their sons are also war damaged. Although in some ways Carroll is the most together of Jim’s three sons (he’s the only one not living with his father), Jim suggests that his problems are war-related. His brother Skip (Thornton) has serious scaring all over his body and seems to have never matured past adolescence. The third son, Jimbo  (Robert Patrick), didn’t serve and feels that he missed something. Kingsley’s son Philip spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp–which permanently ruined his digestion and his relationship with his father, who accuses him of cowardice.

The cast is uniformly terrific, or as terrific as the weak writing allows. Among the standouts is Frances O’Connor, whom I’d never seen before, as Bedford’s daughter. Unlike everyone else, she seems to happily embrace life. However, among cinematic sex scenes that I never want to see again, I have to include O’Connor, naked, enthusiastically reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade while…never mind.

Thornton wanted to make a great drama, but he didn’t succeed. Conflicts are heavy-handed and overly explained. And everyone, from the generous but bigoted southerners to the stiff-upper-lip Brits, are stereotypes. The excellent cast pulls the weak script up to the point where it’s reasonably entertaining, but a drama with too many conflicts and not enough depth can only go so far.

The Two Faces of January: The Best Thrillers Take Their Time

A thriller

  • Written by  Hossein Amini, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
  • Directed by  Hossein Amini

The less you know about The Two Faces of January when you walk into the theater, the more you’re going to enjoy it. So I’m going to try talking about this thriller without giving away much of the plot.

Wish me luck.

The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different kind of thriller. Headhunters was funny and outlandish, telling a preposterous story in an entertaining way. But the events in January feel like they could happen, and if you make the wrong mistake, they could happen to you. The picture gives you time to become familiar with the characters, then draws them into a life-or-death situation that seems entirely likely, but impossible to escape.

Screenwriter/director Hossein Amini adapted the story from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Her other novels include Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley–quite a track record. It follows the fortunes, and mostly the misfortunes, of three Americans spending leisure time in Greece in the early 1960s. The period setting doesn’t play an important role; the film could have been set it in the present without losing any atmosphere.

I think I can safely tell you a bit about the three lead characters. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy couple on vacation in Greece. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) has been living in Greece for a year, is estranged from his family back in the States, and is scratching out a living as a tour guide–with some petty larceny thrown in for good measure.

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Rydel knows the culture and speaks the language. In one early scene, he helps Chester buy Colette a bracelet, and uses his linguistic skills and knowledge of the currency to pocket a considerable amount for himself.

Of course there’s going to be a triangle. All three stars are exceptionally good looking (that’s why they’re not just actors but stars). And Colette, much younger than her husband, is obviously attracted to the young and handsome Rydel.

But no, the love triangle doesn’t drive the story. That’s a job for crime and deception. Who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? I think I better stop there.

The Two Faces of January marks Amini’s debut as a director, although he has been an established screenwriter for years (The Wings of the Dove, Drive). Yet he handles the film like a pro. Marcel Zyskind’s photography captures both the beauty of the locations and the terror of the characters’ predicament. The editing by Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris holds and builds the suspense despite the relatively slow pacing by thriller standards.

The slow pacing does a lot to make The Two Faces of January such a wonderful film. Not only does it allow the story and the characters to breath; it also adds to the suspense.

And if you love to be scared at the movies, you really need to see The Two Faces of January. And you need to see it with as much ignorance as possible.

Five Came Back: Great film directors go to war

It’s hard to imagine an America so entirely at war that every aspect of the economy is affected. Where GM and Ford stop making cars to concentrate on bomber planes and tanks. Where healthy young men all but disappear from civilian life.

And where five of Hollywood’s top directors (along with multiple screenwriters, cinematographers, and even one studio head) left their mansions and high-paid jobs to join the army and make training and propaganda films.

imageLast week, I finished Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back, where he describes the military careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. All but Huston were major, established directors when Pearl Harbor was bombed; Huston was an exciting new director who had just burst onto the scene. All of them would be changed by the experience.

Harris also wrote Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which I reviewed back in 2011. The two books have a similar structure, chronologically weaving five slightly interconnecting stories about filmmaking and society. With this second book, Harris has become one of my favorite film historians.

(A bit of trivia: Harris has some marital connections with Hollywood. He’s married to playwright and frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner.)

Capra had the easiest military experience of the five. Hollywood’s most popular and successful director through much of the 30s, his star was beginning to wane (according to Harris) by the early 40s. He spent most of the war stateside, producing and sometimes directing his Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy series, made up from old newsreels and other existing footage. The closest he came to combat was a few months in London, when the Germans were still regularly bombing that city.

By contrast, Stevens and Wyler (and to a lesser extent Huston and Ford) spent large portions of the war on the ground with troops or flying in bombers. In what is probably the best film of the group (at least the best I’ve seen), The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Wyler films a bombing raid from inside a plane. The sense of flight and of danger are palpable.

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

Wyler paid a lot for his patriotism. He lost all of the hearing in one ear and most of it in the other. But that didn’t stop him from making Roman Holiday, Friendly Persuasion (very much an anti-war movie) and Ben-Hur.

Stevens lost something too, although it’s harder to define. He was with the troops that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, and spent his last months in the military documenting the atrocities. Before the war, he was known primarily for comedies. Afterwards, he stuck to drama.

And Ford? Well, his politics swung from left to right over the course of the war.

But my biggest surprise came with one of the most respected, and best, of the military films to come out of the war: Huston’s Battle of San Pietro. I had previously read that most of the picture was what we’d today call cinema vérité–footage shot of what was actually happening. The linear notes in the Treasures from American Film Archives collection says as much, and it certainly looks like it. But according to Harris, Huston arrived after the battle was over, and almost everything was faked. That it fooled so many people says a lot for Huston’s talent.

The Battle of San Pietro

Something struck me as I read this book, although Harris doesn’t hit on it. For their first film after returning to civilian life, four of the five made one of the best and most iconic pictures of their careers. Harris goes into detail about two of these–Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. (Despite the similar names, they are very different films.) The two he mentions only in passing are Ford’s My Darling Clementine and Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Stevens, recovering from the emotional blow of documenting the Holocaust, took longer to get up to speed.

Harris tells his stories in an easy-to-read style. Within the context of film history, he tells us a lot about how a struggle, now on the edges of living memory, that we could hardly even imagine today.

The Zero Theorem doesn’t add up to much

C+ Dystopian satire

  • Written by Pat Rushin
  • Directed by Terry Gilliam

In the 1980s, Terry Gilliam made three sci-fi/fantasy comedies that stood with the best films of that decade. But his best work is now far behind him. His latest movie, The Zero Theorem, although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Quentin Tarantino’s favorite German, Christoph Waltz, stars as a brilliant but reclusive mathematician and computer programmer  sinking into some form of depression. He works mostly at home–trying to solve an impossible problem–while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. That home appears to be an abandoned cathedral

This is one messed-up dude. He refers to himself in the plural ("we" instead of "I"), as if he were the King of England. He insists that he’s dying, even though there’s no reason to believe it’s so. He also believes that someday he’ll receive a phone call which will explain the meaning of his life.

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Despite his best efforts to stay alone, other people barge into his life. There’s his boss (David Thewlis), as well as a brilliant teenager assigned to help him (Lucas Hedges). Matt Damon plays the corporation’s ultimate boss. Tilda Swinton does another of her brilliant, chameleon, comic roles as a virtual psychiatrist program.

The very sexy Mélanie Thierry plays the most insistent want-to-be companion. She flirts with him constantly, saves his life once, and seems very eager to have virtual (but not real) sex with him. To what extent she’s acting out of her own desire, and to what extent she’s being paid for the job, is an open question.

The Zero Theorem feels in many ways like a less-effective retreat of Gilliam’s brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior film, it’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Technology–ugly and unreliable–runs everything. One huge bureaucracy rules every aspect of everybody’s life. Only this time, the overwhelming bureaucracy is corporate, not government. The corporation is menacingly named Mancom.

Gilliam fills the picture with imaginative, dazzling, and satiric visuals. In an early scene, a video commercial follows Waltz as he walks through the city. When another man passes him, the commercial changes direction to follow the new target. A party is filled with earbud-wearing guests dancing with their eyes glued to their tablets and smartphones. Every time someone discards a piece of food, a rat comes out of hiding to grab it.

But for all of these visuals, and for all of the fun play with actors like Thewlis, Swinton, and Thierry, The Zero Theorem doesn’t really go anywhere. Unlike Brazil’s protagonist, who’s caught between an evil government and its literally tortured victims, Theorem’s protagonist has little to complain about. His emotional problems aren’t dealt with deeply enough to be meaningful–or dramatic. And we really can’t care if he solves a mathematical problem that we scarcely understand.

With nowhere to go, the climax and ending disappoint in obvious ways.

To be a Gay Japanese-American Sci-Fi Actor and the Subject of To Be Takei

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered on NBC, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. But why not. He has a warm, upbeat personality and a great sense of humor. He’s been a political activist for decades, but always came off as a nice activist. He’s a master of social media. And by publically coming out late in life, he’s provided his story with a happy ending of triumph over bigotry.

Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about an extraordinary man. It’s a typical collection of interviews, video of Takei and his husband Brad Altman going about their daily business (except that this time there’s a camera on them), and old movie and TV clips. But it works because Takei is such an interesting and likeable personality, with has a great life story to tell.

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The bigotry started early. As a young boy living in Los Angeles, he and his family were rounded up by the army and sent to an internment camp for the sin of being Americans of Japanese decent. After spending three years of his childhood behind barbed wire, he returned to a civilian America that had been taught to despise all "Japs."

As a young, struggling actor, he found that his race limited his roles to dubbing Godzilla movies and playing comic stereotypes.

And then there was his sexual orientation. To publically come out was professional suicide, and remained so long after the gay rights movement really got going in the ’70s. So he lived a lie, hiding his long-term relationship with Altman, until he publically came out at the age of 67. But instead of destroying his career, it rejuvenated it.

Kroot’s techniques don’t always work. In one sequence, she cuts between different venues where Takei gives the same speech about the internment camps. Rather than providing visual variety or showing his commitment, the cutting emphasizes that he’s repeating a memorized and rehearsed speech.

Another problem: Although Takei is funny and charismatic, Altman is none of those things, and we see almost as much of him as we see of Takei. It takes a while to warm up to the practical, pessimistic Altman (who now uses the last name Takei). He comes off as a decent person, and obviously the right man for George, but too normal to be a major player in a documentary.

But Takei is interesting, as are the other Star Trek veterans interviewed. (Yes, Takei and William Shatner really do dislike each other.) The film and TV clips are fun. We get a brief section about the gay-porn aspect of Star Trek fan fiction (which concentrates on Kirk and Spock). And it’s rare to see a documentary with such a sense of triumph.

To Be Takei really does feel like a happy ending.

Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

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Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

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