Bad Times at the El Royale

A few weeks ago on the Lambcast, I mentioned this film as one of my most anticipated of the Fall season. That it opened on the same weekend as “First Man” and I still have not seen that film, is a testament as to how great my interest was. It has a compelling cast, an interesting setting and the trailer hints at violence, double crosses and surprises that will delight us. For once the ads don’t lie. This movie has a whole set of twists and turns that are character based rather than plot conveniences. The narrative is non-sequential and as a result build tension but releases that tension in very unexpected ways. There was only one moment that did not seem true to the story, and it gets explained in a less than satisfactory manner, but this was a minor quibble in a film filled with unexpected treats.

The set up is slow but it reveals character secrets in a sly manner that keeps us guessing and anticipating. Some characters seem likable to begin with but turn into something else, others are obnoxious but have something valuable to them anyway, and all of them are only connected by the fact that they are at this one particular location. The “El Royale”  may be modeled after the Cal-Neva club in Lake Tahoe. Stradling the border of California and Nevada, the club was a resort for the celebrity class but also an investment by shady characters in the underworld. Frank Sinatra was an owner of the club and some of his friends in the organized crime world had dealings with the gambling and celebrities. None of that comes up directly in the story, but it is strongly hinted that the resort in the film is owned by the underworld, and even though they have lost their gambling license they still have ways to make the investment pay off.

After the arrival of the guests at the hotel, the story slips from a chronological structure to a series of flashbacks centered around each of the occupied rooms at the mostly empty resort. The characters are revealed by room number and the back stories are filled in. There is a criminal seeking a hidden cache of cash that we learned about in the opening of the movie which was set ten years earlier. A vacuum cleaner salesman appears to have a bug problem and there may or may not be a kidnapping taking place. The script, written by Director Drew Goddard, is not unlike his previous film “The Cabin in the Woods”. It turns a series of seemingly unrelated character pieces into a whole by the end of the movie. In my opinion this was much more successful at making the twists work because the film is less gimmicky and relies on the characters so much more. Jeff Bridges is the biggest name and his role gives him a chance to stretch a few muscles that he has not relied on in a number of years. While he is playing a grizzled character, it is one imbued with a odd sense of defiant melancholia. Cynthia Erivo plays a down trodden singer who is a lot sharper and world wise than she at first appears. She is also a remarkably good singer who manages to make a couple of scenes work really well as a result. Jon Hamm’s character is confusing at first and aside from some potentially insensitive racial comments might be viewed as a good guy in all of this. The film is set approximately 1970 but as I said, it trails back at times to story threads from a decade earlier.

Dakota Johnson keeps her clothes on in this film and is reasonably well cast. This movie mixes the gangster story with a horrifying twist on a late sixties nightmare of a Manson style cult. Such a cult requires a charismatic center who seems to make sense but is even crazier than the world he thinks himself to be, enter Chris Helmsworth. It’s not hard to believe that lost souls could fall under his spell and when we get to the question of real evil in the story, he leaves no doubt where it resides. The director wisely lets us imagine some things about the back stories which may actually be grimmer than what we see on the screen. If there is a revelation of an actor in the film, it is young Lewis Pullman,  who as a bell/captain manager of the hotel, has secrets he is actually desperate to reveal. If any of the stories are under developed, it might be his, but I only think that in hindsight because I suddenly want to know more, not because I need to know more.

Comparisons to Tarantino films are inevitable because of the crime milieu, the non-linear story telling and the sometimes humorous dialogue that the characters exchange. There are sudden moments of violence and characters that we have come to connect with may turnout to be mistakes or to be short for this world. I think it was all well balanced as a story but it kept me off balance as a viewer. The casino setting and the time period are great ways to make the story feel more real since characters like this have to exist in another dimension anyway, but it still has to be one that is familiar. It also then justifies the use of a whole lot of great music as backgammon as well. This is a show piece for all concerned. The actors get to sink their teeth into characters that will be completely memorable, and the director gets to show off his style while entertaining us and keeping us in suspense. As far as I’m concerned, it was a “Good Time” at the El Royale.

TCM Film Festival Day Three

The original plan was to see “Kiss Me Deadly” and try to squeeze in a program called “Crackin’ Wise” and finish off the day with a nitrates screening of “Spellbound”. None of those three things happened. This was still a jam packed day and there were other programs to see that held all kinds of allure for me.

His Girl Friday

The first change of the day began before anything had really started. I was with my daughter and while we are not locked at the hip, I do enjoy taking in the films at the festival with her as much as possible. Although I wanted to keep a Noir thing going by seeing the Mickey Spillane based “Kiss Me Deadly”. I have seen it before however and missing it was not going to hurt that much. Amanda had not seen His Girl Friday before and that’s where she was headed so I chose to tag along. There was another reason I chose this, my friend Michael, who is a blogger here in Southern California, was going to see this and I hadn’t seen him in almost a year so this would be a good chance to catch up because he was going to see Rosalind Russel and Cary Grant as well.

Sure enough we caught up with him and we spent several screenings together for the rest of the festival.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel are great in this rapid fire remake of “The Front Page”. The switch in gender and relationship from the previous film works really well, and Ralph Bellamy gets pushed off as a third wheel in another picture that he stars in. Author Cari Beauchamp, an Academy Scholar and contributor to numerous publications, walked us through some background on the film and mentioned something that particularly interested me. The average person speaks at a rate of 120 to 150 words a minute, according to Beauchamp, Grant and Russel both exceed 200 words a minute in most of their scenes. Even with that active pace and shap direction, because of the two late nights in a row, I dozed in a couple of spots. I may have missed five to ten minutes of the film, fortunately, I’ve watched it a number of times. Amanda was very entertained by the whole thing.

Bullitt

Jaqueline Bisset was scheduled to appear at this which was one enticement to see this movie, but she had to cancel at the last minute for a family emergency. Host Eddie Muller was particularly disappointed, but vowed to try to get her on the program next year. [My suggestion is a screening of “The Deep”]. Miss Bisset however was not the main reason I wanted to see this screening. The car chase that begins and ends all car chases was the main draw. This looked like the movie that was going to have the biggest crowd at the festival, despite being perceived by many of the fans as outside the “classic” studio period. I had just seen a story on CBS Sunday Morning about the Mustang that was featured in the film.

Amanda also has the wits to recognize McQueen as the King of Cool. She dotes on him almost as much as her favorite, Robert Shaw (tomorrow). McQueen’s image was everywhere at the festival, including the “Essential” passes that we wore around our necks for admission to every Festival activity.

The sound design on this movie is tremendous and when the Charger and Mustang take over the streets of San Francisco, it is a wonder to behold and especially to hear. I saw “Bullitt” in it’s original theatrical release in 1968. My older brother Chris took me, it was playing with a long forgotten George Peppard film, “House of Cards”. I remember describing to my friends on the playground the violent shotgun killing of the witness, but especially detailing the car chase.

McQueen looks so cool in his turtleneck sweater and blazer, the sunglasses cap off the effect and you have an authority figure that the rebel generation of the 1960s can relate to.

An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation

This was flat out my favorite program at this years TCM Film Festival. The gathering of talent and history was incredible and the stories these women shared were fascinating insights into the world of animation, particularly at the Disney Studios.

Mindi Johnson introducing Ruthie Tompson

To begin with, author and animation historian Mindi Johnson, introduced us to Ruthie Tompson, who as a little girl was a model for the kids featured in Disney’s original Alice shorts, which mixed animation and live action, before Mickey Mouse. If you can do math, you will have figured out that Miss Tompson is not exactly a kid. Here she is in her 108 years of glory.  She sounded great and made just a couple of remarks as an introduction to the rest of the program. She ended up going to work for Walt and did ink and paint on the first real Mickey Mouse short, “Plane Crazy” which was screened as part of the audio visual presentation put together by the host.

What followed that introduction was a long line of innovators in the animation arts. Mindi Johnson described the bungalows that the inkers worked in and showed us a variety of pictures that illustrated the labor intensive process that was required to get these cartoons in shape. When color entered into the scene in more abundant ways, the painting process became more complicated and the women who participated in putting these shorts together began to be designers in addition to the detailed ink work they did.

On the program, there were women who contributed to every Disney Feature Film ever released, including Pixar films and Roger Rabbit.

After the presentation, there was a book signing at the Roosevelt Hotel Lobby. Amanda and I scrambled over there, bought a beautiful copy of Mindi Johnson’s book, and then had it signed by all the women on the panel.

I frankly pity any animation fan who was not there for this wonderful look at the hidden history of outstanding women in the field.

Heaven Can Wait

We headed back to the Main Chinese theater and reconnected with Michael for our next screening, the comedy “Heaven Can Wait” which was nominated for nine Oscars in 1978, including the big one, but walked away with just the prize for set decoration. This film had Warren Beatty’s influence all over it. Three of the actors were nominated [including Beatty] and the film was co-directed by Beatty and Buck Henry , who was one of the guests for the presentation. We saw Henry last year at a screening of “The Graduate”, and he was a little more mobile then. This year he did not get out of his wheelchair. He was also a bit more cryptic and slow with his answers, but when he interjected a comment, the wit and sharpness are still there.

Ben Mankiewicz lead the discussion and Dyan Cannon, nominated for her role in the film, took the lead on most of the background, allowing Buck to participate when he was good and ready and not before. 

This film is a loose remake of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was screened last year at the festival although I missed it. This was the 40th anniversary of the film, although Dyan Cannon did not want to acknowledge that, I know what she means, it just does not seem possible that it was that long ago.

The movie is a featherweight story of a heavenly mix up with some body swapping comedy and slapstick humor from Charles Grodin and Miss Cannon. Amanda had never seen it before and she enjoyed it while recognizing that it was largely a frothy entertainment from the decade of cinema that she most loves. Ben made mention of the fact that Cannon was at one time married to Festival favorite Cary grant, and she quikly volunteered that their love life was great. It was a big laugh and she does have a book coming which looks back on that time so that should be interesting.

The Big Lebowski

The one thing that could lure me away from the nitrate screening of “Spellbound” that was was originally planning on, was the last minute addition of Jeff Bridges to the line up of guests to talk about the Coen Brother’s stoner film noir. Lebowski is twenty years old this year, and I know many classic film fans would probably find it’s inclusion problematic because of it’s recent vintage. I did hear a few people complaining because there is a Fathom Screening in conjunction with TCM coming up later this year so maybe this showing was superfluous. Forget that, the movie is entertaining as hell and still completely weird. Which was pretty much a description of Jeff Bridges as well.

Just as Mel Brooks and William Friedkin had, Bridges barely sat during his time in front of the audience. He roamed the stage and actually lead us all in a Buddhist style chant before the interview actually began.

Eventually, Ben managed to corral him and get him to sit for some questions. It is probably well known that much of The Dudes” costuming came directly from Bridges own closet, including the sweater jacket that is so iconic. Bridges mentioned that co-star John Turturro was not quite sure that the film was something he thought much of, but after several years he has come around and it seems that it may be his most recognized part.

Bridges had very nice things to say about the late Ben Gazzara, who had been a contemporary of his father. Even though the subject might have called for it, and in California, the laws do not frown on it, I did not detect the scent of herb in the air. Bridges loopy conversation might suggest that he was taking advantage of the new policy, but I suspect he was mostly high from the warm reception he got from the crowd at the festival.

Only the Brave

Most of us will never have to do anything that is heroic in a death defying manner. We will get chances to take heroic positions or act in a manner that is consistent with our principles, but very few of us will be called on to look death in the face in order to protect others. That is one of the reasons that films like this work for me. I have to live vicariously and deploy my empathy for men and women who put themselves on the line every day. Our military, police, firefighters and other first responders have something in them that makes them step forward and say, “My Turn”. Sometimes the stakes of those voluntary actions are grave and this is one of those stories.

I think people have a general understanding of what firefighters in a structure fire face. Everyone has probably heard the saying about those souls, “When everyone else is running out of the building, they are running in.” The people who fight wildfires are working in a completely different environment. There may be no place to run. They set backfires rather than extinguish fires, and their incident may go on for days not simply hours. “Only the Brave” is a film about these types of heroes and the work and sacrifice they go through. I really enjoy films that show me lifestyles and working conditions that are new to me. The cultures and labor of these people can be fascinating. Military stories based on true events, like “Dunkirk“, “13 Hours” or “Lone Survivor” carry with them the weight of history. Even when a story is fictional, like “Battle L.A.“, with aliens invading the planet, the opportunity to watch dedicated people do the things they are trained for inspires me. “Only the Brave” emulates those films by showing us similar kinds of struggles but in a much less familiar context. There are thousands of war films, but movies about dangerous occupations where you don’t carry a gun are much more scarce. The most comparable film to this that I can think of in the last few years is “Deepwater Horizon“.

Since this movie is also based on a real world event, some of you going in will already know the outcome. I know I largely knew what was coming. My daughter did not so she was unprepared for how overwhelming the events in this story would be. Now obviously, this film is an entertainment so liberties are probably taken in events or dialogue to make things more compelling, but there is nothing in this film that does not feel real to a degree. Even the personal stories, which can sometimes be hyped up to make the background more engaging, still seem like they could be everyday experiences for the kinds of people the story depicts.

Miles Teller is a young actor who is making quite a mark on the film business. He was incredible in my favorite film of 2014, “Whiplash”. He has another film out at this same time “Thank You for Your Service”, which is on my “want to see” list. It looks like he has some turkeys  on his resume, but they are offset but some solid performances in quality films like this. Here he plays Brendan McDonough, a young man floating on the edge of self destruction through drug use. He finds a need to redeem himself and a path to do so in joining the firefighting team of Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh, the Prescott Arizona supervisor. This municipal unit is attempting to get certified as a “Hotshot” unit, the first line of defense in wildfires. The film has some local politics and extended training sequences and that may feel a little familiar, but it is a legitimate part of the story. The domestic issues that Brolin’s character and his wife, played by Jennifer Connely, have are maybe a little melodramatic but they are not over the top. Teller is a wastrel, trying to change so that he can be a man that his new daughter can depend on. Of course he has a troubled past and the others on the team are suspicious of him, but as in most workplaces, when people come to know each other and especially rely on one another, those relationships develop. Brendan becomes friends with one of his team mates in the unit, another solid turn by actor Taylor Kitch. In a way, Kitch is getting a chance to redeem his career a bit as well. He went from being the next big thing to anonymous very quickly. It is with secondary roles like this and the recent “American Assassin” that he is moving back to a more solid footing as a film performer.

 

Jeff Bridges plays a senior fire official who is assisting  his friend Marsh in trying to get the team certified. Between Bridges and Brolin, you will want to turn down your sub-woofer for home viewing, because they both have their grumbling low pitched delivery styles going. I like the fact that the towns that these guys help protect appreciate the work the team is doing. The folks at the local store or bar, know what it means to do a job like this. Small town America is full of values where neighbors understand each other more often, even when they are not always agreed on things. Of course an official like Bridges character will have a band that plays at the local rodeo or roadhouse. [Bridges by the way is a talented musician]. People in small towns know each other, they see one another at the grocery store or at the local school. When bad things happen, everyone shares in the misery, and when good things happen, they get to bask in the glory of their home town heroes. Be aware that both of these emotions will be present in this story.

The firefighting sequences in this film are harrowing. We have been prepped to know some of the things that are coming because we saw training exercises that deal with those emergencies. Clearly, the best strategies are not always going to work out in the worst case scenario. As the credits role at the end of the film, we get an even greater sense of the enormity of the sacrifice that families and communities make to help each other out. This movie is an excellent tribute to the spirit of small town folk living big time lives. When a film can be dramatically honest and subtle and it still isn’t over the top but it draws you in and makes you care, then you know it is well done. “Only the Brave” might be seen as a cliche by some, but if it would be seen by anyone, you will have a greater understanding of some of the things that make everyday American exceptional.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Upfront I want anyone reading this to know that I am a big fan of “Kingsman:The Secret Service“. I am a sucker for British Spies and that maniacal dip into comic laced espionage was one of my favorite films of 2015. The cast was great and the over the top violence made the film feel very cartoonish in a good way. As a consequence, “The Golden Circle” enters this year’s movie experiences as one of my most anticipated films. I looked forward to further adventures and there was a promise of a returned Colin Firth, which made me want to know how they were going to pull that off. The advance information also tipped us to the fact that we would connect with the American counterpart of the private intelligence agency, so this stoked my interest even more. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has made several films that I really enjoy, including my favorite film of 2010, so I had great confidence in his ability to pull this movie together. Such confidence has been rewarded my friends. “The Golden Circle” is what you hope it will be for the most part.

One of the things that I find attractive about the series is that it is not afraid to be a little politically incorrect. James Bond might be a sexist pig, but his attitude is always tempered by a PG-13 rating. Kingsman goes all out in using sexual exploitation for humorous purposes and that might make the series unappetizing to film goes who want their movies to be socially just. In “The Secret Service” there is a punchline based on a promise of a forbidden sex act. It’s just the thing a 12 year old mentality would laugh at and the film is upfront about that. That joke was one of the widely criticized moments of the first film. Writer/Director Vaughn has taken that joke and turned it into a plot point for this film. I really appreciated that the Princess Tilde returns to this franchise in a greatly expanded role and with a lot more dignity. That however allows the original tasteless joke to be a background to two sexually inappropriate moments of humor in this film, one of them involving Elton John. The other moment will be the focus of criticism by haters for this film. It involves a GPS device and the mucus membrane, and it certainly is a sequence that will make delicate sensibilities squirm. That plot point aside, most of the rest of the film is standard comic violence with over the top moments of gruesomeness.

There is a second aspect of this film that I really appreciate as well. The plots of both of these movies turn trendy social issues on their heads and use them as the motivation for the villain’s plot. Global Warming was the theme of the first film, Drug Legalization is the driving force for this movie. The aptly named Poppy, played by Julianne Moore, is motivated to make her product socially acceptable through the use of international hostage taking. It is a creative plan that to a large degree mimics the plot of the first film but still manages to allow some twists in the story. There is a great shot against the U.N. that puts the U.S. President in the story. Unlike the feckless Obama impersonator in the first film, this character gets lines and is played by a recognizable actor, Bruce Greenwood. His approach to the plot is as deranged as Poppy’s so the two intelligence agencies here are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The only thing missing from this is a satisfying comeuppance for the players, in the manner of the delightful head exploding climax of the first film.

 

Restoring Harry Hart to the storyline of the Kingsman is tricky. Being shot in the face is a pretty definitive exit for a character. I appreciated that the solution here was not a quick fix and it ends up being a secondary plotline in the story. There is a pivotal point with a dog and that also insures additional pleasure for most viewers.  Colin Firth adds so much class to the project and in future episodes (should they be made) his character will lend gravitas to the proceedings. We do lose a couple of characters that really could have made future stories great as well, but in the long run the films have to circle around Taron Egerton’s Eggsy and Firth’s Harry Hart.

The Statesmen organization has several good characters to add to the film. Jeff Bridges is a welcome addition to any film and Halle Berry is a fun match for the American version of Mark Strong’s character of Merlin. At the moment, these are background players, the really active American counterparts are played by Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum. The major drawback that I have with the film is the under utilization of Tatum’s character “Tequila”.  After a solid introduction, he is sidelined for the remainder of the picture. Pascal’s “Whiskey” has to carry the American load and does so effectively for most of the picture. There are some twists that feel a bit forced but they do make for a rousing conclusion to the movie.

While there is nothing as excessive as the church scene from the first film here, there are some great action scenes that use the mix of slow motion and accelerated filming that the church sequence used. This style appears to be Vaughn’s signature touch and although it might be a bit cliched if over used, I thought it was reasonably judicious here. A cab chase at the start of the film and the final attack on the secret lair both take advantage of that style and it works well in those scenes. Much of the rest of the film is presented more traditionally, including initiation rituals for the bad guys and Elton John’s scenes. Oh yeah, did I mention that Elton is in the movie? He is pretty funny sending himself up in feathered costumes and parodying his own drug troubles. Julianne Moore gets to abuse him a little but he verbally gives it right back in great comic form.

This movie can’t quite reach the satisfaction level of the original, few sequels manage to do so. “The Golden Circle” however does entertain and it meets our need to have the action a little bit bigger and the comedy a little bit broader. It is jammed with characters that complicate the story but also provide a lot of jokes. They have managed to bring back a character from the dead in a credible way for an improbable, over the top, spy adventure. I don’t know that it will win over many converts. If you disliked the first film you will certainly not care for this movie. If however, you are like me and took fiendish pleasure in the undermining of political correctness and the shear joy of silly violence just for the comedic effect, than the Kingsman Golden Circle is tailored perfectly for you.

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.

TCM Film Festival: Fat City (1972)

If you have read on this blog to any depth at all, you know that i am a champion of 1970s films. This whole blog started as a project to catalogue the films I saw in the summers of the 1970s.  There is a sense of danger and grittiness to films from that era. They don’t all end well, there are some very cynical views of life shown, and characters are often flawed in ways that real people are. They have their good points but the imperfections are substantial.fat_city

John Huston as a director is a solid choice for films featuring these kinds of characters. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Beat the Devil”” feel like they were warm up exercises for a movie like this. While it may not be a Forgotten Film for old movie geeks like me, “Fat City” is a movie that probably no one in any of my classes has ever heard of much less seen. The subject matter and the style of the director would be too grim for most cinema goers these days. Heck, I’m not even sure it could be made as an independent film in the current marketplace. The closest comparison to a contemporary movie I can think of is “The Wrestler”. Both feature characters that are flawed and struggling to come to terms with their weaknesses. If you thought the end of  “The Wrestler” was tough, get ready to be punched in the gut because this movie is even more somber.  “Fat City” is a film of it’s day and it belongs in the 1970s.

Susan Tyrell was the actress nominated for one of the least glamorous characters in movies this side of  Aileen Wuornos. Oma is a woman too used up and soaking in alcohol to be of much use to anyone. She sometimes seems like she has a heart but she is completely self centered and simply can’t do anything to help the main character Tully with his own demons. She was one of the things I most remembered about seeing the film when it first came out and the last time I saw it, sometime in the early 1980s. Her subsequent career never seemed to give her a similar opportunity to shine and I recall that she passed away three or four years ago.

The greatest performance in the film is the lead and I am flabbergasted that Stacy Keach was not nominated for his role as the slightly past his expiration date boxer Billy Tully. From the dialogue free first five minutes of the film, Keach is magnetic. He feels so genuine as the abandoned former prodigy, embittered by bad luck in the ring and a wife who he loved deeply but who left him. He is coping with alcohol and working some of the toughest jobs there are to get by. The film is set in Stockton, California, an agricultural center and a city with a hard as flint personality. The actor seems to fit perfectly in this setting and as he starts to consider getting back into boxing, we have so much sympathy for him because he comes across as a guy trying to cope but in over his depth. The boxing sequences are fine but it is his scenes with Tyrell and a very young Jeff Bridges that gives the performance it’s spark. There is a terrific scene where Billy returns to the gym where his former manager is training a new crop of prospects. We know that they stopped working together on bad terms and that the last time the down on his luck Tully saw his former coach, he borrowed twenty bucks from him. Unprompted, Tully acts as if the reason he is stopping by is to make good on that loan. We know how hard it was for him to earn that twenty bucks and how valuable it is to him, but he wants to pass it off as a trifling, to get back in with the crew. Keach gives a warm half smile and a shrug of his shoulders as a way of conveying all of this and it is a great moment.

The boxing milieu of this era may be long gone but it is shown here in all of it’s difficult and hopeful sides. This is a life that seems truly hard, but it has the reward of accomplishment. Ernie Munger, the character played by Bridges is supposed to be an up and comer, discovered by Tully and groomed by his former manager, Ernie is himself something of a mess. He has a lot of potential but some of the same perils that Billy faced. It looks for a while like this movie will be about the two different trajectories these two are on. Instead, it is much more of a character and tone piece. Plot matters less than the feeling of sadness and hope that floats over all the characters. Despite the bad things that happen to each, there ends up being more compassion in this brutal existence than we have much right to expect. A cup of coffee, silently shared, holds the two boxers in each others orbt, long enough to see that although the battle is lost the fight goes on.

Stacy Keach received a very nice ovation as the guest before the screening. Eddie Muller, the noir expert and writer was the interviewer and he brought a nice sense of involvement to the event since the author of the novel the film was based on was a professional acquaintance, and his father wrote for the newspaper about fighters just like the ones we see here in the film. Keach was generous with his stories and clearly proud that the film has a great reputation at least among the cinema fans. He was probably already gone from the venue when the film finished which is too bad because the audience response was twice as enthusiastic. There was a literal roar of approval at the closing credits, which validates every positive thing you could say about this movie. This was one of my top three moments from the Festival. An unsentimental masterpiece by John Huston and actor Stacy Keach.

Seventh Son

Fifty or sixty years ago, this movie would have featured the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhaussen. It would have been made with elegant sets made on a limited budget and it would feature actors not entirely familiar to American audiences. Times have clearly changed. This movie is packed with CGI creatures and sets, it has a cast headed by well known Academy Award winners and nominees. Marketing and production priorities have clearly evolved. There is one thing though that has not altered in all the time passed between “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Seventh Son”, fantasy adventure movies still work based on simple story premises and the right attitude by the film makers. The people behind this movie have exactly the right attitude.

This film is a throwback to weekend afternoon matinees and more innocent adventure films of the past. This is not a reinvention of a well know story like “Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters” from a couple of years ago. That film turned CGI into the main reason for seeing a film. It was loaded with violent destruction and blood delivered in 3D. “Seventh Son” also features the destruction of witches, but not by decapitation or Rube Goldberg weapons. This is old fashioned hero magic against the dark forces of the world. With the exception of relatively mild conflagration of witches, the violence here is on the PG level. You could safely take a couple of bright eight to twelve year olds and not have to worry about nightmares or turning them into gore hounds.

I hope that doesn’t sound like a knock on the movie because it is far from it. This is a recommendation for people who are looking for a movie with tradition adventure elements featuring monsters and brave men fighting the odds, but can do without the viscera flying off the screen in their faces. There are five or six witches featured in the story and they all turn into some kind of monster. All of those monsters are of the 50s flavor, they are inventive, dangerous and unlikely to rip people into small pieces just for fun. The sensibility of this picture is light and fun in spite of the dark themes and characters.  Julianne Moore is a witch who turns into a dragon but was caged and banished for many years by a knight with special gifts. That knight must be the seventh son of a seventh son, who becomes what is referred to as a spook, a wandering hero who tames all sorts of dark magic and evil in the world. Jeff Bridges is Master Gregory, the knight who contained her and he is training an apprentice to take over his job. When she finally manages to escape, complications arise and we get a another young hero emerging from the shadow of an older master, the hero with a thousand faces has returned. The Lebowski reunion of Moore and Bridges has none of the knowing self satisfaction of that Coen classic. This movie plays all the characters straight.

When I first saw the teaser for this movie it was almost two years ago. Jeff Bridges had made a similar film that was pretty sad called R.I.P.D., where he is mentor to a dead Ryan Reynolds. I did not hold out much hope for this movie, it looked like just another CGI crapfest that would be as disposable as this morning’s diapers. Imagine my surprise when it turns out to be a simple popcorn story with a fun sensibility that could have been written five decades ago. The look of the monsters is fun rather than gross and the story is pretty easy to follow and includes a little romance, a little revenge and a few secrets along the way.

The very first thing that grabbed my attention and made me have hope for the film was the score by Marco Beltrami. The sound is swashbuckling light at the start. It does not try to overwhelm us with brooding power. Instead it builds the characters and sets a tone that suggests something fun rather than something solemn. While there is a lot of CGI, it did not feel like it was constantly used just to make us gasp, rather it brings the world of the story to life but never ignores the characters. The work is also stylized enough to make it seem like a movie rather than absolutely real. That may sound like another criticism but fantasy films need to be a bit unreal at times to help us suspend our disbelief in the right way. There are nearly a billion people living in India, and from the credits, nearly half of them worked on the special effects for this movie.

seventh_son_ver10If I have negatives they are limited. Bridges is channeling the same character voice he used in R.I.P.D and it sounds too garbled at times. Young star Ben Barnes has a haircut straight from 2015, which seems at odds with the dark ages settings and costumes. Other than those minor quibbles, I found this to be a delightful surprise. What could have been a total waste of time turned out to be a fun time at the movies. If your kids are too old for Sponge Bob, this is the one to take them to this month.