The Train Robbers
directed by Burt Kennedy
Somehow I missed this totally entertaining film, despite my love for John Wayne, Ann-Margret (and Ben Johnson)! An absolutely gorgeous LOOKING film (it was cinematographer William H. Clothier’s final film), it stars John Wayne as a hired gunslinger, Ben Johnson as his right-hand man, and Ann-Margret as the widow who hires them. The opening sequence is masterful, with Ben Johnson standing by train tracks in the middle of a desert area, staring off into the distance. He’s in a “town”, but the town consists of a barn and a hotel, and a water tower. Rickety structures standing up in the middle of the desert, isolated. The film starts with a series of shots of empty rocking chairs rocking in the wind, shutters rattling against darkened windows, emptiness, desolation. It’s a very moody picture, filled with sandstorms, lightning strikes, pitch-black darkness, and fiery sunsets. Landscape and weather are used intuitively. Ann-Margret shows up and decides that she will ride with the men to find the buried gold out there in the desert. John Wayne had already lost a lung at this point, but he is still big, strapping, strong, and you can see he is doing many of his own stunts. Incredible. The dynamic between him and the much younger Ann-Margret is terrific. You can see that he is drawn to her (because, hell, she’s Ann-Margret), but, as he barks at her when she gets sentimental towards him later on, “I’ve got saddles older’n you.” But it’s a joy to watch the two of them work together. Ricardo Montelbaun plays a mysterious cigar-smoking character in pinstripes who appears to be tracking them on their journey for unknown reasons. The supporting cast, Ben Johnson and the other gunslingers, are all wonderful, with great scenes showing each character. There is a magnificent set – clearly not on a studio lot but legit out in the Mexico desert – of train tracks overrun by sand, and, half-buried in rolling sand dunes, a rusting train. This was built for the film, and it is a masterpiece of a set – like something from out of a dream, a train stranded in the sand. During the final shootout, John Wayne, realizing that they need to operate in darkness, reaches up with his rifle and smashes out the lantern above him. It’s just one example of many of how important gesture is, and how powerful he was onscreen, physically. He held nothing back. AND. I hadn’t seen the film before and TOTALLY did not see the final twist coming. I won’t give it away in case someone out there hasn’t seen it. But my jaw dropped. It’s like The Sting, where you realize that the film itself has “stung” the audience (that FBI office wasn’t real). The “sting” in The Train Robbers makes you re-think the entire film. I loved that it went that way.
directed by Alex Proyas
I saw this when it first came out and am very grateful I saw it on the big screen. It’s a magnificent vision, an imaginary world, an imagined city built from different eras and time periods, from snatches of dreams and memories, crowded with different styles and remnants of past eras. Automats and Art Deco lobbies. It’s a marvel of production design. And yet unlike so many films where you can say the same thing, this one is also filled with a sense of psychological menace, mystery, and pain, which puts it in line with some of the great noirs. It has a noir sensibility, and some of the scenes look like they could have been lifted right out of Edward Hopper (dark streets, lit-up lonely Automat windows, one or two people at the tables). Rufus Sewell wakes up in a bathtub in the second-grimmest bathroom in cinema history (the first being the one in Trainspotting), and he has blood on his forehead, and he is filled with panic. He doesn’t know what has happened. He puts on clothes, goes out into his hallway, to see two men in fedoras coming down the hall to get him. Why, he has no idea. From that moment on he is on the run through the dark city. The city is an odd one. Everyone falls asleep, spontaneously, for about 5 minutes at midnight every night. Cars stop on the roads. People slump in doorways. Why? Clearly influenced by Metropolis, there is a city beneath the real city, an underground world inhabited by bald identical drones, complete with gigantic death’s-head. Some of the shots are direct steals from Metropolis and have the same sense of grinding industrialization of the human potential, very disturbing. Jennifer Connelly plays a luscious and troubled nightclub singer, and Kiefer Sutherland plays a mad scientist, basically, roped into helping the underground metropolis control the aboveground one. Rufus Sewell is fighting for his life, he is accused of murder, but he didn’t do it, or at least he has no memory of doing it. He has no memory of being married to the nightclub singer. He is being chased by these horrifying black-trench-coated creatures who fly through the air over the sleeping streets of the metropolis. There’s an Angel Heart aspect to this as well: because as he gets closer to understanding what has happened, there is no relief in his deeper knowledge. It just gets more and more terrifying. Alex Proyas wrote and directed, so this is his vision. It’s a beautiful film, stark and disturbing.
directed by Will Gluck
One of my favorite films in recent years. I have the wonderful Dennis Cozzalio to thank for writing about this film so beautifully, so persuasively, that I had to check it out for myself. Emma Stone, who, of course, has become a big movie star since then, makes a gigantic impression here. She is a loony comedic presence, her spirit is irrepressible, her sense of what is funny is spot-on. This isn’t some obedient young starlet saying funny lines that makes her seem like she is funny/witty/snarky. This is an actress who understands humor (watch how she drones in her party host’s ear: “How have you been, Mellllanie BosTICK …” Nobody told Emma Stone to make that choice. That is Emma Stone being HILARIOUS.) I also appreciate a film that comments on the degradation of young women in movies such as this one, where your value is automatically LOW, because you are a young woman. What about a movie about teenagers that acknowledges the undercurrents around sex, the pressures, the ambiguities, from the female side of things? I’ve seen enough coming-of-age movies about teen boys to last a lifetime. I mean, of course, if it’s good, it’s good. Make your damn movie. But how I appreciate a film that takes on the situation with a female protagonist. If we only see women/girls through the eyes of men, then we are in a sorry situation. Easy A is a self-conscious film, similar to Will Gluck’s next film, Friends with Benefits, which acknowledges, in scene after scene, how movie tropes and cliches inform how we actually behave. Roles are set in stone, you be the kooky female lead, I’ll be the goofball male lead, and we’ll meet-cute, and etc. and etc. Will Gluck seems interested in how movies and pop culture filters down, how it gets inside of us. A lot of films are self-consciously self-referential and they are annoying and soulless. Easy A is almost a manifesto. It is a rhetorical device. It makes its points. Emma Stone plays a smart girl, a goofy girl, who, in order to get her bossy best friend off her back, tells her that she slept with a guy at a local community college over the weekend. This is a lie. There is no guy from the community college. She is still a virgin. She doesn’t even seem to care about being popular, or being “in” with the in crowd. Her lie comes out of being sick of her friend badgering her about what she did over the weekend (when all she did was sing in the shower and talk to her dog). So the lie gets spread. Suddenly, Olive finds herself branded the school tramp. They happen to be reading The Scarlet Letter in English class, and Olive, furious at how easily the lie spread, AND how disrespectfully she is treated just because people think she has lost her virginity, goes a bit insane, and starts dressing up in tight corsets and black leggings. She sews a scarlet “A” on the bosom of every corset. Her teacher (played beautifully by Thomas Haden Church) is disturbed, and wonders what might be going on with her. “I am glad to see you are taking your reading to heart, but …” Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play her laidback parents, and they realize something is going on with their daughter but they are not sure how to handle it since she’s never had any problems before. Lisa Kudrow is awesome in her small part. It’s a tragic performance, in the middle of a comedy. Amanda Bynes, bless her heart, is very funny as the judgmental fundie who takes on Olive as her own special Jesus-freak cause. I love the script, I love the sentiments behind the script, and I love Emma Stone’s wacky confident performance. Here is something new, here is something other actresses can’t do, here is a truly comedic personality asserting herself in a world that wants her to just be pretty and hang on some guy’s arm.
His Girl Friday
directed by Howard Hawks
I watched it twice last week for a piece I was working on. One of my favorite films of all time. And it is that rare thing: a film that gets better with each viewing. I still don’t know where to look, at times: should I focus on Cary Grant, or should I just track Rosalind Russell? More often than not, Howard Hawks puts them both in the frame at the same time, a dazzling effect because what you know you are seeing, then, is two actors playing a scene like gangbusters. He rarely edits or cross-cuts, there are very few closeups. The takes are LONG. Scenes play out. You can’t believe that these people speak as quickly as they do and you don’t lose one word. A masterpiece.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
directed by John Ford
A love letter to the United States cavalry, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a fascinating look at what is ultimately a failure of a mission, to escort two ladies to a stage coach through dangerous territory where war is heating up. The various Indian Nations have bonded together into a coalition to drive the white man out. Filmed in Monument Valley, the scenery is devastatingly gorgeous and moody. John Wayne plays Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, who is 6 days away from retirement. He X’s off the days on a little calendar in his room. This is a film about growing old. It’s interesting to see John Wayne in that position, almost of submission and acceptance. He is so powerful a persona that it is difficult to think of him stepping aside from anything. There’s a painful scene between him and his commander where the commander basically tells him to let it go. Nathan has one day left in the service, and he has to let the other guys complete the mission, and make their mistakes, and perhaps pay for it with their lives: the two of them took their chances as young men, and now it’s time to let others test their own mettle. John Wayne is absolutely magnificent in that scene. Of course, he then has second thoughts about that whole “no country for old men” business, and has to go out and finish what he started, but in general this is still a film about old men stepping aside, about young men learning to grow up and take responsibility for themselves. There’s a killer scene where the cavalry troop gives John Wayne a silver watch on the occasion of his retirement. Wayne is taken aback, and then he is told that there is an engraving on the back of the watch. Wayne takes this in, preparing himself, subtly gearing himself up for the emotion (which, of course, must be hid and handled), then glances around a bit, before taking out his glasses. An eloquent gesture, as all of his gestures are. He needs his glasses, but he hesitates slightly before copping to needing them. Brilliant. He reads the inscription, and I find myself in tears, although Wayne himself does not shed a tear. Great movie stars can do that. The whole scene reminded me of George Washington with his glasses. Ben Johnson is fantastic here, again (like in The Train Robbers, 23, 24 years later) as John Wayne’s second-in-command. Some people have authority onscreen, others don’t. Ben Johnson does. Mildred Natwick is just marvelous in her small part. I can take or leave Joanne Dru. Nathan has a back story, a dead wife and dead children, (he visits their graves and talks to his wife, beautiful work from Wayne) and we don’t know what happened, not exactly, but in one scene he says to drunk-Irishman-pal Victor McLaglen, gesturing at the photographs on his desk, “I haven’t had a drink since that day.” With John Wayne, you never need things spelled out. He gives you everything, in the simplest way possible. How can you describe why he was so effective? He was a movie star. A great actor. Irreplaceable.