PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 2010, Warner Home Video
Few moviemakers have divided American movie critics so rancorously as Clint Eastwood once did -- and maybe as he does again with his new picture Hereafter. Part of the reason is that we've know him as an actor and director so well for so long, that we tend to take his work personally.
Hereafter was written by Peter Morgan, the British bio-drama specialist who wrote the scenarios for The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon, and it was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. It's a supernaturally slanted but soberly done, clear-eyed and unsettling drama about life after death, an intelligent, nondogmatic film that accepts the possibility of soul survival.
The movie twists together three story-strands on the theme set in different countries -- one about a French newswoman (Cecile de France) who nearly dies and recalls what it was like, one about an American factory worker (Matt Damon) with a seeming talent for communing with the dead, and one about a lower-class British boy (George McLaren) who's lost his twin brother in a fatal accident and desperately wants to find him again.
Hereafter is a workmanlike, well-crafted film, and, predictably, it never goes all mystical and M. Night Shyamalan-ish on us. But it packs some wallops, beginning with a stunning vision of personal apocalypse that haunts the whole movie thereafter: a wondrously well-staged and very convincing tsunami. As we watch, swept along by the kind of technology Eastwood and his usual collaborators rarely exploit, a great wave roars like a huge gray specter out of the sea around the city, and it smashes down, flooding the streets, submerging the buildings, and drowning all visible people. That tsunami fatefully captures TV newswoman Marie LeLay (de France), who's on a holiday with her lover-producer Didier (Thierry Leuvic), as she shops for curios from street vendors.
In images of spooky inexorability, Marie races the wave, unstoppable. Death seems near, here, inevitable. She and we both see the oft-mentioned white light and dark figures supposedly glimpsed by many people pulled back just from the brink of dying.
Then, at the last minute, she's pulled back to life and air by matter-of-fact rescue workers, combing the ruins. Marie eventually becomes a true believer, sacrificing her job, her reputation, a book contract, some friends and her lover (newsbabe-magnet Didier) to investigate and write instead about the white light and the afterlife she barely missed.
Interwoven with this first Hereafter tale is the second, involving George Lonegan (Damon), a boyishly frank San Francisco factory worker who was once a famous, and apparently legitimate, psychic. George dumped it all to preserve his mental and emotional well-being, and now is being pulled back against his will toward his old métier and life (and those huge old paychecks) by his determined mover of a brother Billy (Jay Mohr).
Following George's path, briefly or not, are an old man (Richard Kind) in search of his departed wife, Derek Jacobi (himself) whom fan George meets at a book-signing, and a cutie-pie, flirty fellow cooking school student (Bryce Dallas Howard) who unwisely summons up his gift.
Last of the stories, and the one that usually would have held the screen by itself, is the tale of two London twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) who live with their drug-addicted, poor mother (Niamh Cusack) and are torn apart when Jason is killed in a traffic accident. It is Marcus, scouring the Internet for some way to reconnect with his lost brother, who finally sets all the interconnecting threads and wheels in motion.
Ever since his 2003 TV film Henry VIII, scriptwriter Morgan has mostly done dramas drawn from real life and history -- and he and Eastwood give this movie the feel of reality heightened, of something that might actually have happened, even though we know it didn't. That mix of mythic storytelling and stylistic realism is part of the director's signature, and also that of his team: cinematographer Tom Stern, editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach, and production designer James J. Murakami. Eastwood's Hereafter composer was his longest-lived colleague of all: himself, doing another of his Windham Hill streetwise Erik Satie-gone-Thelonious Monk turns. He still makes a hell of a picture.
Last Tango in Paris (A)
France/Italy; Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972, MGM, Blu-ray
Marlon Brando is Paul, an American expatriate in Paris, who's just lost his wealthy wife to a suicide (or maybe a murder, maybe by Paul), and whom we first see disheveled, in a raincoat, howling in the street, torn apart it seems with anguish and loneliness. Maria Schneider is Jeanne, a smart, voluptuous, chic young Parisian with a bit too much eye makeup, engaged to a fatuous, madly enthusiastic young cineaste named Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who is shooting her (and himself) for a dumb-sounding reality TV show that he's concocted. ("If I kiss you, it may be cinema!")
Reality lies elsewhere. Paul and Jeanne cross paths under an elevated train bridge, where she witnesses Paul's despair and his screams of "Fucking God!" She's intrigued, wary, walks away as he sobs. But they meet again shortly afterwards when he turns up in a flat she's looking at. They have an empty conversation without exchanging names (she's guardedly friendly, he's morose) and then have quick, explosive sex with most of their clothes on, crying, moaning, against a wall, on the floor; when he pulls out, she rolls away like a cat.
He rents the place, she returns. They decide to keep meeting there, to keep having almost anonymous sex, to fuck each other over and over, while abandoning themselves to desire, and all the fantasies of the body. And dirty words, which bother some audiences more than nudity and sex itself. Last Tango is one of those movies guaranteed to offend squares.
This taboo-shattering classic by Bernardo Bertolucci, in which Brando and Schneider broke barriers, appearing nude or semi-nude and feigning sex (Brando is the more modest of the two), is the torrid memento of a time -- post-Sexual Revolution, pre-AIDS plague -- when quick, anonymous sex happened, if not commonly, then at least quite a lot.
It's a movie borne along on some of the more intense psychological, political and sexual currents of the '70s, and it's starkly, nakedly revelatory of that time's savage kinks and wet dreams. Maybe it's not quite the epochal, revolutionary masterpiece Pauline Kael believed when she wrote her famous New Yorker piece (comparing Last Tango to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"). But it was definitely the sort of movie, the kind of fantasy, that she had probably always wanted from the cinema, and that other intellectual and passionate cinephiles wanted as well.
Brando, one of the movies' greatest actors -- and one who, sadly, really lost his way after this film, taking many subsequent roles, it seemed mostly for the money and eating himself into a premature grave -- is at his peak here. He never exposed himself as much on screen, in several senses. (Paul has part of Brando's own real and fictional biography: boxer, actor, South American revolutionary, Japan, Tahiti.)
Maria Schneider, a newcomer who never surpassed her performance here, is sumptuous-looking, sensual and open.
The movie still shocks -- now not so much by its sexual content as by the unrestrained passion and fury of Brando's performance and the wild beauty of Bertolucci's, Vittorio Storaro's and designer Fernando Scarfiotti's view of Paris.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Classic Legends: John Ford Westerns (A)
U.S.: John Ford, 1948-64, TCM/Warner Bros.
"My name's John Ford. I make Westerns," he liked to say, to introduce himself.
A simple sounding epitaph for one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. But it's clear that Ford -- despite the blue-ribbon prestige of his six Oscars, and despite his mastery of movie genres like the historical drama (Young Mr. Lincoln), the social drama (The Grapes of Wrath), the family drama (How Green Was My Valley), the film noir/political drama (The Informer), the war film (They Were Expendable), the documentary (The Battle of Midway), the sea film (The Long Voyage Home) and the romantic comedy (The Quiet Man) -- was at his happiest and probably best when he could take a company of the actors, technicians and crew people he liked most and go out to Monument Valley, that hair-raisingly beautiful landscape of desert and mountain and mesas straddling Utah and Arizona where he shot most of his westerns from Stagecoach on. And shoot another Western.
Ford (born Sean O'Feeney, of Irish immigrant parents in Maine) had directed mostly Westerns in the first years of his career. Starting in 1917, he was tutored by his older brother, the then star director-actor Francis Ford (later a familiar Ford character actor), and he later worked with star cowboy actor Harry Carey and others, honing his craft, training his marvelous, painterly eye, and refining his sense of how to tell stories in the dark, until he made a career breakthrough in 1924 with the hit Western epic The Iron Horse. Eventually, he rose through the ranks even higher to become the Hollywood studio system's most honored and admired director.
In his movies, for all their seeming historical flaws, for all their unabashed appeal to ordinary Americans and common folk everywhere, for all their shoot-'em-up simplifications, for all their deviations from the truth (which Ford knew as well as anyone and to which he always returned), we constantly see something vitally entertaining, deeply human, lyrical, moving and sometimes extraordinary.
We see the magnificence and horror of a great popular dream of our collective past, and we sense the truth and lies behind it. We see lines of U.S. Cavalrymen riding before the horizon, and stagecoaches racing across the salt flats. We see Navajos singing and passing pipes in their tribal councils, and waiting silently above in the hills. We see outlaws and outsiders, great men and women and the ones who were forgotten. We see the womenfolk and the dances and the gardens and the graveyards, where the old people go to talk and commune with their beloved dead. We see a living, breathing frontier, as it may have looked 150 years or more ago. We see America as Ford wanted to see it, and as, in some important ways, it was.
3 Godfathers (A-)
In a movie Western story that kept being told again and again -- first by Ford in 1919's Marked Men, then by director William Wyler, then by Richard Boleslawski, and finally here, again by Ford -- three outlaws, pursued though a searing desert by Sheriff Ward Bond and a relentless posse, make a promise to a dying mother (Mildred Natwick) that they will save her newborn baby, and try mightily to keep their word.
The outlaws are played by John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and, in his movie debut, Harry "Dobie" Carey Jr. (Dobie's father, and Ford's old friend/collaborator Harry Carey, who had recently died, is paid tribute in the credits.) Full of Christ-child and Christmas symbolism that should seem labored but isn't, sometimes corny, sometimes hokey, this lovingly shot and acted movie just overwhelms your defenses.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (A)
Col. Nathan Brittles, played by John Wayne, in one of his signature roles, is an aging commander in a Western fort, with only a few days before retirement and a raft of problems, some almost charming, some deadly. The fort is surrounded by increasingly hostile Indian tribes inspired and emboldened by Sitting Bull's defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn, Nathan's old friend, chief Pony That Walks, is powerless to mollify the young warriors. Meanwhile, the belle of the fort (Joanne Dru) is being pursued by two young officers (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr,), and Nathan's top sergeant, Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) has a secret whiskey stash that could help start an epic barroom brawl, and, of course, does.
The most beautiful of Ford's Cavalry Westerns, and one of Wayne's two or three finest performances. (The way Wayne's Nathan puts on his specs to read his troop's "sentiment" on their goodbye gift to him is a heart-crusher.) This is also the movie with the emergency operation (by Arthur Shields and Natwick) in the wagon in the thunderstorm, the one where Nathan says "Never apologize; it's a sign of weakness," and the one where Ben Johnson, as Plumtree, keeps saying to Nathan, "That's not my department."
Wagon Master (A)
Another great one and one of Ford's favorites. The only black-and-white movie in this set, it's a warm-hearted and lyrical action comedy odyssey about a Mormon wagon train heading West, a sternly religious community led by a hot-tempered preacher (Ward Bond), who hires two charmingly happy-go-lucky cowboys (Johnson and Carey Jr.) to be his wagon masters.
Complicating matters: the Cleggs, a family of bloodthirsty outlaws, including the genially murderous Pa Clegg (Charles Kemper, of Jean Renoir's The Southerner) and hulking Clegg brute (and future Matt Dillon) James Arness, and a wandering troupe of traveling players, including sexy Joanne Dru again and grand ham Alan Mowbray. Wagon Master, with its excellent cast and stunning landscapes, shows Ford at his most brilliant: It's pure poetry, pure comedy, a real masterpiece.
Cheyenne Autumn (A-)
U.S.; Ford, 1964
Ford's last Western, and also his last movie to be shot in Monument Valley, was this long-cherished project about the trials and triumph of the Cheyenne tribe, unhappily relocated to a reservation east of their homeland, and of their arduous trek, against the wishes of the U.S. government, back to their ancestral hunting ground in Yellowstone.
A majestic revisionist epic, Cheyenne Autumn is larger-scaled than anything Ford made after The Iron Horse -- except for 1962's Cinerama saga How the West Was Won, also scripted by James Webb, in which he has one short unforgettable episode called The Civil War. Cheyenne Autumn also offers a last loving look at Monument Valley and an all-star cast that includes Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo, Gilbert Roland, Dolores Del Rio, and Victor Jory among the noble, and occasionally fiery, Cheyenne. (Western movies with largely Native American casts for Native American roles were still a few years away. A lot of Ford's usual Navajo actors are in the tribe here again, though.)
Also in the Road Show-style ensemble: Carroll Baker as the Cheyenne's Quaker teacher; Edward G. Robinson as the U.S. Grant administration's Indian Affairs head Carl Schurz; James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy and John Carradine in a comedy interlude, as cynical poker players Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Major Starbuck; and the mostly likable and highly conflicted contingent of U.S. Cavalry men that includes Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Mike Mazurki, Pat Wayne (Duke's son), Karl Malden and Richard Widmark (who also narrates the movie.)
Once wrongly low-rated as an overly preachy message movie, by myself and other Ford admirers (including my old writing partner Joseph McBride, who here supplies a superb and very thoughtful and informative commentary), this is one of Ford's key works, a major piece of historical reappraisal by the director who (as he sadly said himself) had "killed more Indians than Custer." It's also a movie with strong links to both Ford's official masterpieces The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath.
The Fordian landscapes are as overpowering as ever, and the story is a riveting and historically important one, harmed perhaps only by Ford's reticence about putting too many villains or unsympathetic characters in the cavalry. Malden, a martinet who precipitates a massacre, is really the only one. But, as Joe suggests, if Cheyenne Autumn is a "noble failure," as some have said, its nobility is more important than its failure.
This is the 154-minute director's cut version, with the complete Stewart-Kennedy "Battle of Dodge City" episode, plus all the Overture and Intermission music. The other extras on the overall set include a Cheyenne Autumn featurette narrated by Stewart, trailers and some of Ford's personal home movies.