Charles Bronson Film Festival Day 1: Breakout

In between “Death Wish” the most influential starring vehicle of Bronson’s career, and “Hard Times”, the most accomplished performance in his career, came this movie, an exploitation picture based on a real event but sold as a fictional story [something that never happens these days]. The premise of “Breakout” is simple. Robert Duvall is an unjustly imprisoned American in Mexico. His detention has been arranged for by the company he worked for because he has information that would be damaging to them. His wife is trying to arrange an escape from the prison and she hires Bronson’s character to carry it out.

Nick Colton is a somewhat shady bush pilot who is willing to run afoul of the law if necessary. Unlike the TV promo you see above, in the film, his price is not $250,000, it’s actually $1200 at first. Bronson plays Nick as an almost comic character; he is full of bravado, bullshit and big ideas.  At first he doesn’t realize what he got himself into and the initial attempt at escape fails. The second attempt involves Randy Quaid in drag, and you know that’s not going to get it done. Finally he latches onto the idea that the film is based on, he will land a helicopter in the prison yard and lift the prisoner directly out of the fortress. Of course, he is not really a helicopter pilot and there are plenty of other complications.

Originally, the film was cast with Kris Kristofferson in the role but Bronson stepped in when he left the project. Robert Duvall was a successful actor but he was not yet the movie star he would become. Between 1972 and 1975 he made ten films that were not “the Godfather” including pulp material like “The Killer Elite”, “The Outfit” and this film. As the imprisoned executive, slowly losing touch with himself and becoming physically weaker as each day passes, Duvall turns in a competent performance with one really memorable scene. When he attempts to bribe his way out of the prison, the ruse that is being used is that he will occupy the wooden casket of a fellow prisoner who had died. The captain of the prison knows this is happening and basically tortures the man by pretending to bury the casket while Duvall is in it.

After this plot fails, he basically turns the planning of an escape over to his wife. Unfortunately, someone she is close to leaks information to the company and subsequently each escape is thwarted. She does however need to communicate with her husband to keep him abreast of the plans she is making and that forces her to participate in the conjugal visitations the Mexican prison system allows. She is humiliated by the guards who search her and she discovers that her husband is slowly going mad. This puts even great pressure on her plans to succeed. Bronson’s real life wife Jill Ireland plays Duvall’s wife in this picture. In spite of the fact that she loves her husband, she has a slightly flirtatious relationship with Nick, he is clearly attracted to her but never makes any move.

The other female cast member is Sheree North. She was a ubiquitous presence on TV and the movies in the 1970s, usually playing a blousey woman caught up in some criminal activity.

She ends up as a distraction to the guards at the prison during the helicopter landing. She comes on to her old boyfriend Nick after she and her husband agree to participate in the plan for a fee. It is a typically sexist role from the 70s that adds little to the plot but does allow a little cheesecake to be pushed into the movie and to make the star a part of that sequence.

The flying scenes in the movie are nicely shot and there is one clever setup that has a convertible Cadillac, a Piper prop plane and a helicopter, all leaving the airfield at the same time moving off in different directions. They then come back together and travel in a single shot to a rendezvous point in Mexico.  It may be the one artistic moment in the film, most of the movie is gritty and straight forward in the way it is told.

For years my memory failed me and I believed that the money shot of the movie was a helicopter eviscerating one of the bad guys.  I was completely wrong, it was not a helicopter and Bronson was not flying it, rather the bad guy gets killed by a large prop plane as he is about to shoot Duvall and Bronson. It was a very effectively staged shot and I’m not sure why I remembered it as a helicopter moment except that the helicopter is a key player in the film and maybe I just talked myself into it. If you are interested in seeing that shot, it is in the clip below.

As a Bronson film this is a little different. Charlie is avuncular rather than sullen, he is ineffectual at times rather than a model of competence, and his action scenes don’t involve him in gun-play and only minor fisticuffs. While “Jaws” is often given credit for the start of blanket releasing, this picture used the same strategy of widely available prints and substantial advertising. A month before the shark movie made it a standard practice for big time Hollywood fare, “Breakout” make back it’s budget and returned a profit on opening weekend .

Hell or High Water

It may be a little early for Awards forecasting, but my dopler has been keen a couple of times in the last five or six years so I might as well take a shot with this film. I see at least two strong acting contenders and a screenplay nomination that will depend on what opens between now and the end of the year. This is easily the most Award worthy film I’ve seen this year so far and I am giving it my highest recommendation. If is manages to get to a theater in your neck of the woods, you should go and see it. It is not perfect in plotting but the dialogue is fantastic and the spine of the story is compelling and relevant.

 

We don’t exactly know why, but two brothers are on a mission to rob a series of bank branches that belong to a local institution in Texas. The robberies are planned and there is a definite element of thinking to the strategy, but in execution, the robbers appear to be less than sharp.  The Texas Rangers become involved and a wily soon to be retired investigator has his own theories about how to flush the criminals out. That’s as much of the plot as I’m willing to give up because there are some surprises along the way that you will not want to have spoiled for you. The context of hard times and the stubborn independent streak of West Texas make the film feel fresh in a dozen different places. There is much humor in the film but some of it will seem politically incorrect and might irritate SJW. There is a sense that things are not as they should be and that is partially due to race and class. In the end we are going to be conflicted because both sides in the conflict have given us something to root for.

 

There are three parallel relationships that keep our interest in the film, let’s take them one at a time. First the two brothers in the movie could not be more dissimilar.  Chris Pine plays Toby Howard, the younger, very handsome brother who has always been a straight arrow, if not always a success. His older brother Tanner is a wild child, disowned by his mother, convicted by the state of various crimes, and probably guilty of patricide. Ben Foster has been an actor in the periphery of stardom for more than a decade. His Charlie Prince in the remake of ” 3:10 to Yuma”  was a flashy part but not big enough to score with critics groups. This part should change that. Tanner is a truculent loser with a sense of self that is humorous at times and frightening in other moments. The two brothers bicker, reminisce, and joke with one another like brothers might. They have not always been close but they understand each other really well. Pine is excellent but his role is the less flashy of the two, and Tanner has some of the best one liners in the film. Both my daughter and I laughed hard at his umbrage when his brother tries to substitute Mr. Pibb for Dr. Pepper. He may not be the smart one, but he is the spark plug that makes this story compelling.

 

The second relationship that is important to our appreciation of the film is the partnership between the two Texas Rangers on the trail of the pair. Gil Birmingham is Alberto Parker, a Native American in the most cowboy job a guy can have. His partner is old timer Marcus Hamilton, a laid back Jeff Bridges. Marcus goes by instinct and cleverness. Alberto is the more traditional Ranger who sees tweekers  behind most of the crimes they investigate. It seems that these two are friends most of the time but the jabs they give one another are sometimes done without the sarcastic smile that would indicate that the speaker does not really mean what they are saying. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has a ear for what is real and what is tense.Their conversations range all over the place but are deepest when looking at the changing roles of different groups in Texas. Both of them know when they have been put in their place by a local waitress with definite ideas of what it is they should be ordering to eat. The importance of this relationship is what sets up the last of the three major pairings in the film.

Toby and Marcus are the third side of this triangle of male relationships. Bridges is using his gruff mumbling voice in this film, a lot like he did in the dud “R.I.P.D.” from a few years ago. In that film the character was overdone but in this film the quirks are perfectly balanced with the thoughtfulness of the character. The gravel in the voice is less affectation and more earned. The climax of the film will surprise some people but not fans of 1970s films. The unfulfilled confrontation between the two smart guys in the film is some of the best character dialogue you will hear in movies these days. Bridges and Foster are exterior performances which is why they will get deserving notice but that should not overshadow Pine who becomes a better actor each time he is in a film. His work in this final scene will prove that to anyone willing to watch.

There were times in the film when I was reminded of watching one of those car chase films from the seventies. Not the cartoon ones in “Smokey and the Bandit” but the existential films like “Vanishing Point” or even “Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary”.  The characters success or failure in the chase was not just a visceral thrill but a moment of significance to the story. The cat and mouse game being played in this film is for big stakes, and we can empathize with each side since they both take significant losses. Also like a 70s film, the scenes develop and build they don’t simply start with a climax and show that. There is purpose behind all of the things that happen in the film. Having made the choice they did, the two brothers story plays out as it must, a tragedy and a double edged success. Bridges stands as the looming figure in the lives of the two brothers, and his quiet, ominous demeanor, is one of the great pleasures of this film.

They don’t make Westerns much anymore and the old saying is they “don’t make them like they used to”. Well “Hell or High Water” is both a Western and made like they used to make them. It is thoughtful, violent, clever and performed at a level that will please audiences substantially. I could hear today’s crowd react several times to moments in the film. They do so because they become invested in the characters. That sort of character driven story is hard to come by in the fast paced action films of the day. This movie will provide the opportunity to follow a story, care about all of the main players, and sit in suspense as we wait for the final moments. You will be hearing about this one again. Make sure you are ready to talk about it by seeing it.

Thelma and Louise 25th Anniversary Screening

At some point before this movie opened, I saw a trailer and both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were in a convertible with guns in their hands. At that point, without knowing anything further, I was in. The movie turned out to be a landmark Ridley Scott film that created a media sensation that kept people talking most of the summer. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (though not Best Picture) including nods for the two stars and the director. The end of the film was iconic and much parodied and it still packs a punch today. Although it is a road picture, it also subverts a lot of the traditions of such film stories.

I understand how it is seen as a feminist picture. The subject of how men relate to women in contrast to the way women relate to each other is explored in several interesting ways. Thelma’s husband Darreyl, played by an excellent Christopher McDonald, is a possessive  but disengaged spouse. He sees only what his wife can do for him or how she effects the way he will be seen. Harlan and J.D. are both exploiters of women. One might be less violent and more polite than the other, but his perception of them is the same, they are target rich environments. Jimmy, a breakout role for Michael Madsen, and Detective Slocum, the surprisingly sympathetic Harvey Keitel , both want to help the women in their crisis but have difficulty understanding why they are being shut out in very different ways. [The next year they would be antagonists Mr. White and Mr. Blonde].

Sarandon is the older more mature of the two friends, and she is the one who is most wounded at the start but we never see it. Louise is a walking functioning example of PTSD. As we get hints about events in her past, her motivations and perceptions become more understandable to us. Legal or not, her actions that start the two off as fugitives would be applauded by most in the audience. Thelma is a tougher specimen to examine. She is all contradictions. She starts off timid, then becomes liberated, and then near catatonic. She says it best towards the end of the movie:

Thelma: “But, umm, I don’t know, you know, something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back, I mean I just couldn’t live.”

 

At some point the empowerment of the two women overwhelms their sense of proportion. The patterns that preceded their adventures become paths they can’t avoid. Louise is blinded by her past and Thelma is resentful of it. When people complain about the end of the film, they need to keep that in mind.  Thelma starts her rebellion and freedom from Darryl by simply not asking his permission. Like a teenager, she overdose the vices, drinking to excess, smoking, unencumbered sex and finally robbery. She is acting out against the father figures she sees in her life, especially the unpleasant spouse she has been trapped with. Louise runs because she has been conditioned to do so. She runs from the man who loves her, from the sympathetic police officer that wants to keep her from being killed and mostly she runs from her own past.

There is a star making turn by Brad Pitt in the film. If ever there was an example of lightning striking a career, this is it. He is all charm and hot looks and that is what blinds Thelma to his faults. Louise was suspicious from the beginning but she is that way with nearly everyone. Both women share the lead in making decisions at different points in the film. It’s not important which one made which bad choice, what is important is that they are not going to let any man choose for them. That is the subversive message of the film. I am probably blinded by not being a woman, so some of their choices seem plain stupid to me, but that did not mean I was not entertained or fascinated by these women. Twenty-five years ago, I said to my wife when the film was over, “That was a hell of a movie”. It’s still true.