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Archive for the ‘Robert Duvall’ Category

In Dubious Battle

11 May

In Dubious Battle — directed by James Franco. 1930s Docudrama. 1 hour 50 minutes Color 2016.
★★★★★
The Story: Two fair-wage operatives infiltrate orchard-pickers to strike for fair-wages and stick around to wage a war.
~
John Steinbeck’s novel upon which this film is based is a polemic, with the forced idealism of the period making it difficult to stomach.

The film, however, registers not as a polemic but as spectacle in the sense that the old sand-and-sandals Roman epics used to be. And this is all to the good.

The period is interesting because it revels in the very reverse of the ‘30s glamor for which the Hollywood films of the period were also famous. (Of course, the period also gave us The Warner Bros. side of things, with the dead-end Depression.) Better than the films of that era, this film shows the fix the itinerant pickers are in — and it does it also better than the book. It is there right before us in dramas of shotgun, starvation, and strike.

The present film also crams with the rich character actors such as the ‘30s films used to boast — now in the modern talents of Bryan Cranston, Robert Duval, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard — and each of them is in top form, perfectly cast, and necessary — and each a senior actor. To see them in action is to feel proud of each and every one.

The two infiltrators are played by James Franco, the mentor of the younger, played by Natt Wolff. The forces they set in motion eddy back and forth and roundabout and are not all black and white. So the story, which is told from the point of view of the workers, is not so simple or so sweet.

A huge cast embellishes the film and is never wrong — a hard thing for a director to achieve. No hollow hurrahs echo. Each big turn of events feels grim and authentic. The direction, by which I mean the story-telling, seems rich, simple, and true.

Thousands of strikes took place in those years before the Wagner act that legitimized Unions and ended wage cheating. Millions were out of work before WWII put everyone to work together.

We in the audience are a cast of hundreds, as are those on the screen. We are all in this story. We are all included. So every American child would benefit to see the film. It shows how we once all almost drowned in a lake of imbalance: The Great Depression. A new one is rising: climate-change. Will we rise to the occasion again? Will we fight?

 

The Judge

26 Oct

The Judge – directed by David Dobkin. Courtroom Drama/Family Drama. 141 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A slick lawyer returns to defend his alienated father from a murder charge.

~

“I only defend the guilty because the innocent can’t afford me” is the repost Robert Downey Jr. gives to the untidy lawyer calling him shyster, and it’s all you need to know, because the fact that Robert Downey Jr. is playing the big-city lawyer will tell you all the rest. Downey, with his large, lambent, devil-angel eyes brings his inner mischief to the role. He plays heads on with Robert Duval as his cantankerous dad, the small town judge who is on trial for first degree murder. These are two superb actors, and they make the most of their big fat roles, but nothing they do can rescue the longueurs into which this film falls through over-extension both in length and attempted breadth.

We have rich actors on all sides: the cruelly brilliant Billy Bob Thornton plays the prosecuting attorney and he is given a meaningless scene explaining what he is doing working in that small town. Vera Farmiga plays Downey’s high school sweetheart twenty years later and she is given a meaningless daughter. We are expected to take an interest in matters that have no depth, no dramatic truth, and no place except as extraneous exposition. After all, how fascinating is a herring – even one that is red? Downey is given two brothers, and neither of these, well-played though they are, add to the central situation, which is a father-son situation solely.

It is another example of a film, essentially a courtroom drama, that doesn’t know that things need to pick up in the third act. Instead we have far too many scenes and a courtroom denouement which is disgracefully sentimental, legally impossible, and coated with the sprinkles of a score after enduring which one requires a cold shower. The picture is beautifully shot by the great Janusz Kaminski. The settings and physical properties of the film are first rate. The great talents of Downey and Duvall and Thornton and Farmiga are worth watching for the first two acts, but the picture wearies itself before one’s eyes. You want it to be good, but the screenwriter has betrayed the novel by following it too closely – at least that’s my hunch.

But the real problem is that the film is trying to validate a lie, that lie being that traumatized  relations between family members are resolved by their own efforts. When the unforgivable has occurred, the idea that a two hour and ten minute movie can erase it is claptrap. There is a wonderful scene in a bathroom with Duvall and Downey, true, and to watch Downey and Duvall negotiate this lie without running stark mad is a spectacle worth witnessing. We dishonor the contents of the unforgivable in swallowing such tripe. For shame on the film-makers for asking us to.

 

The Gingerbread Man

02 Apr

The Gingerbread  Man – directed by Robert Altman. Noir. A lawyer leaps to the rescue and finds himself trapped. 113 minutes Color 1998.

★★★

The key ingredient in Noir is casting the female, and this one fails on the basis of its being so badly miscast as to wreck the movie. The female in noir, one way or another, must hypnotize us, or cause us to be desirous of being hypnotized. She should baffle and enchant and fascinate us, against our will if we profess to have a will in such matters. Lauren Bacall appears, and which of us is not helpless to know anything rational ever again? Who is there who can figure out the beauteous Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy? Not I.

In this case we get an actress playing for sympathy or pity or innocence, but the wanness she aims at to achieve this sympathy emerges as a frailty verging on the tubercular. Sympathy is a dull aim for an actor to strive for in a performance. It just won’t do.

And what really won’t do is to have cast an Australian actress in a part which she plays as though her father, brilliantly realized as a mean mountain man by Robert Duvall, had not produced an equally unpredictable cracker in his daughter. Instead the actress in question makes no attempt at a hill-billy accent. Instead of someone peppery and full of tang and fun, we get a droop.

In Noir, the female is more important than the male lead in the sense that our entrancement with her paradox is the element which carries us away from any attention whatsoever with the mad mazes of the plot, which we are not expected to follow and indeed which her presence is there to discourage us from following. So it goes that the plot of this film shoots itself in the foot with all the subtlety of a flare gun, as our attention wanes from the actress in question to the scowl emerging in our brains at the unnecessary and far-fetched plot twists to which we are finding our credulity to be subject.

What did it need? It is obvious that it needed Tuesday Weld.

What it does have is Duvall with oh-such-dirty feet, and the excellent Daryl Hannah as the gal Friday, and Tom Berenger perfectly cast as a lower caste barge captain, and the quirky and inventive genius of Robert Downey Junior as a private eye.

Pierre Mignot shot it gorgeously in Savannah, Georgia, a place which does not register as Savannah but registers like all get out anyhow. The lead is played with mighty dispatch and address by Kenneth Branagh, who evinces all the technical chops needed to play a Southern attorney of great muster and confidence. So the film has that. What it has not is a femme fatale. And without that, we are bereft of our sense of our own potential for self-corruption which Noir is intended to trigger and for us to harmlessly enjoy.

 

Thank You For Smoking

07 Nov

Thank You For Smoking –– directed by Jason Reitman. Satire. A ruthless lobbyist for the tobacco industry is taken to task by all who surround him, but wins through to give everyone cancer. 92 minutes Color 2006.
★★★★★
A gem of a comedy made possible only by the perfect casting of its leading roles of the Senator who opposes him being played by William H. Macy, and by Aaron Eckhart as the lobbyist. Macy is one of those actors who is always inherently funny because he is always on the verge of being exposed as humanly fallible. There is that in his broad flexible features which no passing shrapnel can miss. To illustrate it, watch the marvelous little scene in the Extra Features in which he offers his assistant a bottle of maple syrup. Catch the expression with which he ends the scene, his mouth opening slightly, with a tiny shaking of his head. As for Aaron Eckhart, once again he has a role proper to his instrument. Often cast as a leading man, which he is not, here he is ripe in his true vocation as a character lead. For there is in him such a balance between a person who cannot be any better than he is and another perhaps better person he does not know anything about, even by suspicion. This gives him a corner on the market of lovable rotters, such as no actor has had since Lee Marvin expired, although I do not really know how lovable Lee Marvin actually was. Eckhart has more than a scoundrel or scamp in his nature. He is able to play the modern machine-brained swine like no one else, and this is one of those roles. He plays the man who has chosen to be a foxy Yuppie monster –– Eckhart’s every assay into these characters plays like a hostile takeover of all human decency. And we love him for it. Robert Duval brings additional comic weight to the show as does J.K. Simmons, both of whom play Eckhart’s bosses. The piece is brilliantly written and directed. It is filmed like a puppet show, perfectly. Satire is a form of comedy we do not fall off our chairs laughing over. Satire is a form of comedy we remain in our chairs to gleefully relish.

 

The Road

23 Jun

The Road – Directed by John Hillcoat. Escape Drama. A father and his 11 year-old son head for the salvation of the ocean after an apocalyptic scourge. 111 minutes Color 2009,

* * * *

Scriptwriter’s failure. The father is sentimentalized with hugs and kisses and fond looks at his son, and the language which, as him, the remarkable Viggo Mortensen is obliged to speak makes one turn away in shame. The emotion of apocalypse never needs to be spelled out verbally. We do not need to know verbally what survivors’ feelings are. We can see it for ourselves and we can imagine it for ourselves. For the task, the pleasure, and the raison d’etre of an audience is to supply 50% of what is going on. And a picture of this kind, in its desolate tracts, needs to be mute. At other times, the script is darn good. As witness by what power Charlize Theron invests with it in her key scenes, and what Robert Duval brings to it as a decrepit vagrant. The two actors are remarkable in their daring and their clarity of statement. Guy Pearce fares far less well as the deus ex macchina at the end. He appears out of nowhere, as all good D.E.M.s should, and he is abetted in his role by his adoption of yard-long locks and bad teeth, which make him look like no expected savior – a very clever strategy because of its ambiguity. But then Pearce’s family is unnecessarily dragged in, his kindly wife, his same-age children, and a fumbled finale which we, having gone along through this film’s difficulties, must stumble off with. The director should have left Pearce alone on the screen with the boy, for the boy is the thing. Pearce’s scenes lie on the cutting room floor and we can see them, and they are no better than what is included. The cast is international: Mortensen is from South America and Denmark, Theron from South Africa, Duvall from USA, Pearce and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the boy, from Australia. Master Smit-McPhee is simply amazing throughout the film. Not only does he physically resemble Theron, who plays his mother, but he is entirely open and responsive and full – qualities any fine actor might envy. The film as a whole is beautifully produced, scored, edited, and directed. It’s a film about a very hard journey. I would embark upon it if I were you.

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