film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Defiant Ones (1958)

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I knew what this film was about going in. I did not expect it to be funny. Not the whole thing, mind you – but there were definitely running gags and moments that made me laugh out loud.

The main plot is actually a little laughable for other reasons. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis star as “Noah Cullen” and “John Jackson” respectively, a pair of prisoners on a Southern chain gang who have been shackled together one day on a work detail “because the warden has a sense of humor”. But as their crew is returning from a job, their truck gets into an accident – and Cullen and Jackson escape in the confusion. With the police almost certainly on their tale, the only way that these two can make good on their escape is by learning how to work together.

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So, yeah, it’s your standard “black person and white person thrown together by circumstance, they challenge each other’s prejudices, lessons are learned” kind of plot. This might have felt groundbreaking in the 1950s, but is pretty simplistic – I’ve always come away from such films with the notion that the white character hasn’t had their prejudices changed overall, but rather that they’ve learned to make an exception for this one guy. Poitier does have some good monologues about how he resents the expectation that he always has to be “nice” and “not cause trouble” just because of his race, and it is likely that resentment which lead to him ending up in prison (he tells Curtis his story at one point, how he assaulted another man during a struggle in a way that sounds very much like self-defense). It’s exactly the same complaint we’d hear today. But Curtis responds with some nonsense about how “well, that’s just the way things are and you can’t change that”; he hasn’t learned a thing. Both characters end up with a good amount of respect and loyalty for each other over the course of the story – but does that extend to each other’s race as a whole? I’m not so sure. I didn’t buy this kind of thing with Driving Miss Daisy, I didn’t buy it in Green Book, I don’t buy it here.

But that’s all a separate issue from whether it’s fun to watch these two specific men hash things out and come to trust each other – and you know, it is. Each man gets his turn to outsmart the other, each man gets his chance to tease the other. There is some early squabbling and disagreement about what their plan should be, but there is way less of it than I was thinking – and remarkably little of it seems race-based (Curtis initially proposes heading south to a relative who can cut their shackles, and Poitier has to remind him that “being down South would suck for me even after we’re free, dude”). It might have been tedious to see them repeatedly squabbling about who was “in charge”, but fortunately they don’t – they seem to actually get that working together and listening to each other will help them both. There is one uneasy scene where they are facing a lynch mob, and Curtis does appeal to the mob to spare him because he’s white – but the very next scene, he genuinely seems to realize that he was using his whiteness as privilege and seems to regret that. Even better, he seems to figure out how to use that privilege to both of their advantages later on.

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And that’s just the main plot. The ongoing police hunt for the pair of fugitives is just as rich a story – and even funnier. The hunt is overseen by local Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who has a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards the search; he regularly overrules the much more aggressive Captain Gibbons (Charles McGraw) who wants to call in additional officers and set up road blocks and escalate the manhunt to a 24/7 fully-militarized operation. I’m sure the intent was to present Muller as fair and open-minded – he has a conversation with a buddy from the local paper in which we learn Muller was once a lawyer – but really, as I told Roommate Russ after the film, it comes across more like if Tommy Lee Jones’ character from The Fugitive was about 3 weeks away from retirement and just didn’t care any more. The rest of the search party is surprisingly quirky; there’s a running gag with the dog handler treating the bloodhounds like pampered poodles, insisting that they get the best food and that they have rest breaks every couple hours. The reporter following the case regularly teases Sheriff Muller about how the search is going.

But my favorite is one guy named “Angus” who has no lines whatsoever, but carries a transistor radio permanently turned on and tuned to a jazz station to the great frustration of Captain Gibbons. There’s a running gag where every other scene or so, as Gibbons and Muller are in the middle of a debate about how to conduct the search, Gibbons eventually interrupts himself to turn to Angus and snap “will you turn that thing off?” And Angus complies. Finally, about mid-film when the search party is on a break, there’s another Gibbons/Muller debate, and this time Gibbons just turns to glare off camera. The next thing we see is the radio propped up against a rock – and after a beat, Angus’ hand timidly reaches down and turns it off. …Best of all – I have learned that Angus was played by former child actor Carl Switzer, best known for playing “Alfalfa” in the Our Gang comedies.

Extra Credit, film, movies

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 2

Alright! This brings us halfway through this years’ list of Best Picture nominees. And I think this pair of films has another common theme – “don’t trust the trailer”.

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Sound Of Metal

So, I knew what this was “about”, I thought. Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a drummer for the thrash-metal band he’s in with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) who is suddenly forced to contend with sudden-onset and near-total hearing loss. Now – you kind of think you know what you’re going to get with a descriptor like that, yeah? Lots of music, lots of performance scenes, some melodramatic “omigod I can’t hear you!” conversations, a montage of “adapting to being deaf”, maybe a miraculous recovery or some other triumphant ending.

Yeah, almost none of that is in here.

Instead, it’s a surprisingly poignant story about love, different kinds of loss, and making peace with one’s fate. Ruben and Lou aren’t just a couple and they aren’t just a rock band – Ruben is a recovering addict and Lou has been his sponsor, and that “adapting to being deaf” montage is at a halfway house for deaf addicts she finds him. Joe, the head of the facility, quickly senses that Ruben’s been living on high speed up to this point and is likely struggling to cope with way more than just deafness, and gently leads him to not only accept his hearing loss, but also to find a way to serve society – and also to simply calm down a little.

The film’s sound design also got a nomination, and for good reason. A lot of the sound is from Ruben’s own perspective – the muffled early stages, the weird echoey silence he sits in his first night at the halfway house and watches everyone else talking in ASL, the distorted cacophony as he tries a couple of mechanical solutions that don’t quite work as well as he hopes. Most poignant of all is the first exam from an audiologist, who reads him a list of words and asks him to repeat them; we hear things from Ruben’s side first, feeling confident when he hears anything and repeats the word back. But then we switch to the audiologist’s perspective and realize Ruben’s missing a lot of words. This was a surprisingly quiet film – in the emotional sense.

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Promising Young Woman

Another film, another twist from what the trailer lead me to believe. Carey Mulligan is Cassie, a med school dropout who still lives with her parents – and spending her nights dressing to the nines, going out to clubs and pretending to be drunk, luring ill-intentioned guys to bringing her home and attempting to have sex with her – only for her to spring the trap by revealing her sobriety and lecturing them, leaving them embarrassed and in fear of later retaliation. We pick up fairly early on that something like this probably happened either to her or to a good friend in med school, and was the cause of her dropping out.

But the trailer implies that’s pretty much all there is to her story – a dark-comedy revenge fantasy where she exposes a series of creeps and maybe ultimately brings down the Dean of the school she went to. Something like that. But the plot gets much more personal; Cassie does continue her campaign of revenge, but a chance meeting with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) inspires her to redirect her campaign against the specific people involved in her friend Nina’s assault case – the dean who brushed the complaint aside, the defense lawyer who got the assailant off, the girl who gossiped about how her friend was a “slut” who was “asking for it”. At the same time, though, Ryan also inspires her to move on from the revenge game, when they start falling for each other; he’s a sweet doofus who shares Cassie’s acerbic sense of humor, and their flirting is so fun it even made ol’ cynical me grin. And yet, Ryan was friends with Nina’s attacker, and may know more about things than he’s letting on.

On the whole, this is a much more complex and nuanced story than the trailer would lead you to believe.

I also got a kick out of the film’s shout-outs to Night Of The Hunter – there’s a moment where Cassie’s parents are watching it online, and we’re treated to a quick clip of Robert Mitchum talking about women as temptresses, and later, when Cassie has received a severe shock, the soundtrack borrows the eerie song “The Pretty Fly“. Both clips work perfectly.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes And Diamonds (1958) -- Who's This Guy Again? - Turner Classic Movies

I typically do not do any background reading before I check out any film – I prefer to go into them blind. I figure that a really good story, told well enough, will still resonate with me even if I don’t have any background. The only downside to this approach is that sometimes a story is indeed well-told, but I’m just far-enough removed from the context that I feel like I’m missing some things.

There were parts of this Polish work which had me feeling this way. Set immediately after the Second World War (and I do mean immediately – one of the first scenes features a crowd listening to a news report about German leaders signing the peace treaty on VE Day), this story is about the confusing power struggle that took place in post-War Poland, between Poland’s Communist “Workers’ Party” leaders and the more nationalist Polish resistance movement, the Home Army. Ultimately the Communist Party won out, but the Home Army apparently gave them a run for their money for a while.

Ashes and Diamonds Blu-ray - Andrzej Wajda

Or at least they tried. In our opening scene, we see three Home Army soldiers – Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela) – staked outside a small rural chapel, lying in wait to assassinate Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński) the local Secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party. Maciek and Andrzej are joking around a little too much and nearly miss their shot when Drewnowski warns them a car’s coming – but Maciek gets his gun together in time, shooting both passengers in the car and fleeing with the others for the nearby city of Ostrowiec to check in with their own leader. ….Which is how they learn that Szczuka wasn’t in that car – he was in the one after. So they still need to finish the job.

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Fortunately Szczuka is also bound for Ostrowiec, to attend a banquet hosted by the mayor – who’s also Drewnowski’s boss – where he will surprise the mayor with a promotion. Maciek spots Szczuka checking into a local hotel, and cons his way into getting the room next door – he’ll take care of Szczuka overnight, he tells Andrzej. In the meantime, they can maybe let their hair down a little – there’s a cute girl tending bar in the hotel, maybe they can hang out with her.

Maciek does end up getting quite friendly with bartender Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), and their whirlwind connection – leading to Maciek questioning whether his job is worth it – is the bulk of the remaining plot. But there are about three other subplots and a couple of character studies thrown in as well, and there were a couple points I was confused how a given scene fit into the story. Some were enjoyable enough on their own merits – like when Drewnowski hears about his boss’s promotion before it’s announced, has a few “celebratory” drinks and turns up at the banquet completely plastered, dancing on the table and hosing everyone down with a fire extinguisher. There’s also a surprisingly poignant moment when an aristocrat character – who only wants to retreat back into his genteel pre-War life – convinces a night club band to play a polonaise for the last handful of guests, encouraging the exhausted guests to join him in that one last dance.

Ashes and Diamonds in Kyiv - tickets to 07 October 2018, 16:00 | Concert.UA

But Maciek’s crisis of conscience over Szczuka’s killing is the main story. He falls hard for Krystyna – harder than either planned – and both sense that they might each find a better life with each other than they currently have. But severing their respective ties – especially in post-war Poland, where the Workers’ Party is getting stronger by the minute – will prove especially difficult.

It’s also shot beautifully with some eye-catching moments. The hell of it is that I can’t really talk about any of them, as it would spoil the story – but there’s a moment with Maciek backlit by fireworks that was particularly well-done, and another moment with Maciek at a garbage dump towards the end (again, can’t clarify). The polonaise dance scene is also eye-catching – the club is lit only by the rising sun coming through the windows, and the camera is focusing on the exhaustion on the dancer’s faces as they half-ass their way through the traditional dance, the aristocrat too caught up in his reverie to notice.

Rick's Cafe Texan: Ashes and Diamonds: A Review

I may have been confused on occasion, but it’s the kind of confusion that is prompting me to speak to a Polish colleague about if he’s ever heard of this film and find out what he thought.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Man Of The West (1958)

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I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about this Western at first – until it suddenly took a hard right out of the tropes of that genre and became a gritty noir.

I think I can be forgiven my initial misgivings, though. The opening credits smack of the usual Western-As-Hero-Narrative, with Gary Cooper as our hero, “Link Jones”, riding a horse just into frame and then inexplicably stopping it short and sitting there long enough for the opening titles to conveniently unspool in front of him. And when he does move on, he ends up in a town where all the businesses have bland generic names, like “Saloon” or “Inn” or “Dry Goods”.

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Jones doesn’t stop in any of these spots, though – he’s just passing through, catching a train to El Paso. A couple locals eye him warily when he’s boarding his horse and pays out of what looks like a huge sack of cash; the sheriff quizzes him briefly about that, asking if he’s heard of an outlaw named Doc Tobin. “No, I haven’t,” our hero says – looking a bit uneasy. But the sheriff is appeased and lets him go.

Truth be told, Doc Tobin is our hero’s uncle. For years, Jones was part of Tobin’s outlaw gang, committing a series of robberies and murders across most of the Texas frontier. But that was some time ago – Jones eventually bailed out of that life and fled to the far West, settling in a small town called Good Hope and trying to go straight. The only reason he’s even back east is because the people of Good Hope want to open a schoolhouse, and have sent Jones to El Paso with their pooled savings to try to recruit a teacher.

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However, the train he’s on ends up getting held up by Tobin’s current gang when the passengers are all at a rest stop. One of the outlaws also grabs Jones’ bag away from him, and the Tobin gang takes the whole train as well, leaving Jones stuck by the tracks in the middle of nowhere along with Billie Ellis (Julie London), a saloon singer en route to a new gig, and Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell), a card-playing con man. Sam and Billie lament their fate, but Jones takes over – he knows where they can find shelter, he tells them. ….Because he recognizes they’re close to the Tobin’s old hideout. Jones turns up at the Tobin’s squat that evening, his new friends in tow, where Jones says he’s come back to rejoin the gang (which he is, but only long enough to find his stolen cash). And Billie is his girlfriend, he quickly adds, when he sees the other men eyeing her. Doc is overjoyed – he’s been planning on one last bank robbery in a sleepy town called Lassoo, and with Jones back, the heist is sure to succeed. So he eagerly starts planning the holdup as Jones secretly figures out whether he can sabotage things.

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The story goes some pretty interesting places, and there were some surprisingly shocking moments. One uneasy scene sees Tobin’s men threaten Billie to do a strip tease for them, with Jones’ cousin “Coaley” (Jack Lord) holding Jones at bay with a knife so he can’t rescue her. The scene actually gets as far as Billie removing shoes, socks, and her shirt before Doc calls a halt to things. Even though Billie stays clothed “enough” during the scene, it still goes on long enough to be pretty damn uncomfortable – and sets up a fantastic moment later where Jones has his revenge on Coaley by methodically divesting him of the very same pieces of his clothes as they fight. Another scene with an attempted bank robbery has a moment where a woman is killed during the crossfire of a gun battle – and towards the end of the scene, after the dust has settled, her husband innocently wanders in asking what happened. Jones is too mortified to explain, and simply blurts out an apology before fleeing – leaving the man to discover his dead wife on his own. The scene ends with him keening for her. It was poignant, and impressed the hell out of me – a lot of the “innocent bystander victims” in most action movies don’t get that moment of someone mourning for them.

The one and only bit of the plot that I disliked was how Billie ends up infatuated with Jones. To be fair, Jones is treating her decently and there’s probably some Stockholm Syndrome going on – but after only about 24 hours, Billie is talking as if Jones is the One Big Love Of Her Life and how she will be Forever Changed By His Kindness. Jones makes it pretty apparent that he is not interested in her that way, and the whole situation is generally chaotic and messy – Jones even tells her during a private moment that he’s married with two kids, and during another private moment he rebuffs her when she comes on to him. But she still implies by the end of the whole thing that she will be quietly carrying a torch for Jones her whole life now, and I just don’t buy it.

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But that’s a side element to what is ultimately Jones’ continuing search for some kind of revenge – or redemption. It’s difficult to tell which, and maybe it’s both. Either way it was a more nuanced take than I thought the film was taking at first.

Extra Credit, film, movies

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 1

It’s Oscar Season y’allllllllllllllll! I try to watch all the Best Picture nominees each year, and the fact that everything is streaming means it’s a little easier this time. (Incidentally – did anyone see the article in Variety magazine which was fretting about how no one had heard of the nominees? I’d love to know how we would have done when most of these films weren’t even on streaming platforms until a couple days ago.)

I also like to do a quick-and-dirty review of the nominees; here are the first two I’ve seen.

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The Father

On paper, this sounds like it would be one of the more Oscar-baity entries; Sir Anthony Hopkins stars as a man slipping into dementia, with Olivia Colman as the daughter looking after him. But what spares it from feeling like the kind of formulaic “Oscar movie” thing you half suspect came in an Ikea flatpack is that the film attempts to show dementia from Hopkins’ character’s perspective, and so it gets pretty disorienting – conversations repeat themselves mid-scene, different actors show up in various roles, other characters flat-out deny having said things we heard them say not 15 minutes prior. Even the set randomly changes – paintings appear and disappear, wall colors change, rooms fill and empty. It’s a disarming technique which leaves you unsure, even after the film, exactly who certain people were and when certain events took place. The Wikipedia review claims that the events in the film covered “a few years”, which surprised me as it felt like a matter of a few days.

Colman and Hopkins are unsurprisingly excellent in this and both deserved their nominations for their respective performances.

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I had a fairly complicated reaction to this one.

Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow forced to live out of her van after her husband dies and the mining company where he and she both worked shuts down, and the surrounding town – which was almost wholly supported by the mine – dissolves soon after. It was inspired by a non-fiction book addressing the phenomenon of retirees who were forced to do the same following the Great Recession, and the film actually features several actual transient vandwellers in supporting roles, playing themselves (or fictional versions of themselves).

The Great Recession element left me really uneasy at first, since there was a time – not too long ago – when I feared that I was very close to having to do what Fern did. A lot of people fall through the cracks in this country and are forced into lives where they have very few good options, through no fault of their own. And when your only options are living out of a van or rolling over and dying, sometimes…you have to suck it up and live out of a van, and that is a hard life. I’ve recently stumbled upon some Instagrammers who live out of vans as a kind of aesthetic choice, and I’ve always rolled my eyes – it’s easy to do the #vanlife thing on a lark when you’re 25 and have family money to draw on, but having to do it when you’re 65 and you’ve lost your pension and your IRA was devalued….that’s something else again.

But the van life depicted here kind of sucked me in. Fern does find work – transient work she hears about from people she runs into on the road, like seasonal work in an Amazon warehouse or cleaning staff at a National Park. She finds a community of other travelers, the unemployed or the sick or the just plain outcast who help teach each other coping skills or tip each other off to jobs or pool resources. She even finds possible romance – David Strathairn has a supporting role as another nomad who runs into Fern now and again and is obviously taken with her, and tries to tempt her into settling down.

The biggest thing Fern finds, though, is moments of grace. You don’t actually hear from Fern all that much – McDormand’s whole performance is mostly caught up in facial expressions, whether she is stoically trying to cook chicken soup over a campfire or giggling with a campmate over a joke or staring in awe at the Badlands she is driving through. About 30% of the shots are of the scenery Fern is looking at, distant mountains in Arizona or groves of redwoods in California, and another 30% of the shots are closeups of Fern’s face as she looks out towards the horizon or listens attentively to a new friend from the road. But enough of her story comes out that you gradually understand that somehow, deep down, Fern always was kind of wired for this kind of life – and that harsh as it is, there are also gifts in it.