Film Review: Hustle (dir by Jeremiah Zagar)


As I’ve mentioned in the past, there are essentially two Adam Sandlers.

The first Adam Sandler is the comedic actor who, after getting off to a good start with Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, has appeared in some of the most critically-derided films ever made.  This is the Adam Sandler who has won multiple Razzies for Worst Actor, whose films were often used, in the days before the MCU and DCEU, as an illustration of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood, and who is best known for keeping his friends steadily employed.

The second Adam Sandler is a sad-eyed character actor who has appeared in a string of dramatic and challenging films and who has consistently proven himself to be a sensitive dramatic lead.  The second Adam Sandler plays the same type of characters as the first Adam Sandler but with an added dose of regret.  If the first Adam Sandler specializes in characters with no self-awareness, the second Adam Sandler plays characters who are so self-aware that they’re often paralyzed by ennui.  The second Adam Sandler would probably be a multiple-Oscar nominee if not for the first Adam Sandler.  

If you only knew Adam Sandler from Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems, The Meyerowtiz Stories, and his other dramatic films, you would be totally justified in thinking that he had to be one of our most acclaimed actors.  By that same token, if you only know him from Grown Ups, Jack and Jill, and his other comedies …. well, you would be totally justified in having the opposite opinion.  I think that’s one reason why critics get so much more frustrated with Sandler’s dumb comedies than they do with other comedies.  By the point, we all know how good Sandler can be when he wants to be.

Hustle, Sandler’s latest film, casts Sandler is another dramatic role.  Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a middle-aged scout for the Philadelphia 76ers.  Stan spends almost all of his time traveling across Europe, checking out international basketball players who are hoping for a chance to come to America and play in the NBA.  As a result, Stan is frequently away from his wife (Queen Latifah) and he’s missed his daughter’s last few birthdays.  Stan, who was a college basketball star but who never made it into the NBA because of his own dumb decisions, may make a lot of jokes but one need only look at his perpetually downcast eyes to see that Stan is not a happy man.  The only thing that’s really keeping him going is that the owner of the 76ers, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), is planning on making Stan an assistant coach.

Unfortunately, the same night that Rex tells Stan that he’s going to be promoted, Rex dies.  Rex’s apparently sociopathic son, Vin (Ben Foster), takes over the organization and announces that Stan will continue as a scout.  (When Stan mentions that he hasn’t shared a birthday with his daughter in his years, Vin smirks.  You know, just in case you needed another excuse to dislike the character.)  Stan heads back to Europe.  In Spain, when his plans to scout a local player don’t work out, Stan stumbles across a pick-up game and discovers a local construction worker named Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, an actual basketball player who makes a surprisingly assured debut).  Bo is nearly 7 feet tall, he’s got a daughter at home, and he just happens to be a phenomenal basketball player. 

With the help of a Facetime call to Dirk Nowitzki (one of the many former and current basketball players to appear in Hustle), Stan is able to convince Bo that he actually is an NBA scout.  Stan takes Bo back to America but it turns out that 1) Bo has a criminal record that makes the league weary of him and 2) Vin would rather humiliate Stan than give Bo a fair chance.  Driven to quit his job, Stan devotes his time to trying to get Bo ready to enter the NBA draft.  Not only is Stan trying to make Bo’s dreams come true but he’s also trying to find some redemption for his own past mistakes.  And, of course, Stan is also trying to save his career because it’s not like his daughter’s film school is going to be pay for itself!

Basketball is my least favorite sport, largely because I can’t stand the sound of all those squeaky shoes on the court.  And Hustle is a film that was definitely made for basketball fans.  Between all the player cameos and the jokes about Philadelphia sports fan, Hustle has a very specific audience in mind.  That said, Hustle is such a sweet-natured and sincere movie that it can be enjoyed and appreciated even by those of us who aren’t into basketball (or sports in general).  Hustle hits all of the expected sports movie clichés but, wisely, it keeps the focus on Stan and Bo’s friendship.  Neither Stan nor Bo are portrayed as being perfect.  Instead, they’re two men who are trying to do their best, despite both carrying a lot of emotional baggage.  As such, the film becomes less about getting drafted and joining team and more about making peace with both the past and the present.  Sandler and Hernangómez both give heartfelt performances and director Jeremiah Zagar does a good job of framing the action.  This is a film about basketball that was made be people who obviously love basketball but, fortunately, the rest of us can enjoy it too.

Lisa Reviews A Palme d’Or Winner: M*A*S*H (dir by Robert Altman)


With the Cannes Film Festival underway, I have been watching some of the past winners of the prestigious Palme d’Or.  On Thursday night, Jeff and I watched the winner of the 1970 winner of the Grand Prix (as the Palme was known at the time), Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.

There are, of course, three versions of M*A*S*H.  All three of them deal with the same basic story of Dr. Hawkeye Pierce and his attempts to maintain his sanity while serving as a combat surgeon at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean war.  All three of them mix comedy with the tragedy of war.  However, each one of them takes their own unique approach to the material.

The one that everyone immediately thinks of is the old television series, which ran for 11 seasons and which can be found on Hulu and on several of the retro stations.  The television series starred Alan Alda as Hawkeye.  I’ve watched a handful of episodes and, while the episodes that I’ve seen were undeniably well-acted and well-written and they all had their heart in the right place, the show’s deification of Hawkeye can get to be a bit much.  Not only is Hawkeye the best surgeon at the 4077th, he’s apparently the best surgeon in all of Korea.  In fact, he may be the best surgeon on the entire planet.  Not a single thing happens in the camp unless Hawkeye is somehow involved.  When a nurse is killed by a landmine in one episode, the focus is not on the other nurses but instead on how Hawkeye feels about it.  When bombs are falling too close to the camp, the focus is again only on Hawkeye and how much he hates the war.  If you didn’t already know that he hated the war, Hawkeye will let you know.  Wish Hawkeye a good morning and he’ll yell at you about how many people are going to be wounder by the end of the day.  Even when one agrees with Hawkeye, the character’s self-righteousness can be a bit much.

Less well-known is the first version of M*A*S*H, a short and episodic novel that was published in 1968.  The novel was written by Dr. Richard Hornberger, who actually had served in Korea at a M*A*S*H unit and who reportedly based Hawkeye on himself.  The book is a rather breezy affair.  Reading it, one can definitely tell that it was inspired by someone telling Hornberger, “Your stories about Korea are so funny and interesting, you should write them down!”  The book avoids politics, reserving most of its ire for military red tape.  Hornberger was a Republican who so disliked Alan Alda’s interpretation of Hawkeye that, when he wrote a sequel to M*A*S*H, he included a scene in which Hawkeye talked about how much he enjoyed beating up hippies.

And then there’s the version that came in between the book and the television series, the 1970 film from Robert Altman.  The film retains the book’s episodic structure while also throwing in the anti-war politics that would define the television series.  (Though the film was set in the 50s, Altman purposefully made no attempt to be historically accurate because he wanted it to be clear that this film was more about Vietnam than Korea.)  From its opening, the film announces its outlook, with shots of helicopters carrying severely wounded (possibly dead) soldiers to the camp while a song called Suicide is Painless plays on the soundtrack.  The song was written by director Robert Altman’s fourteen year-old son, Mike.  Reportedly, it took Mike five minutes to come up with the lyrics.  When the instrumental version of the song was later used as the theme song for the television series, Mike Altman made over a million dollars in royalties.

The film opens with Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) arriving at the 4077th MASH in a stolen jeep and it ends with them getting sent home in the same jeep.  Though Duke is set up to be a major character, he soon takes a backseat to another surgeon, the unfortunately nicknamed Trapper John (Elliott Gould).  Much as with the television series, the movie centers around Hawkeye and Trapper John’s antics.  When they’re not in the operating room, they’re drinking, carousing, and playing pranks that are far more mean-spirited than anything the television versions of the characters would have ever done.  (Indeed, the book and movie versions of Hawkeye probably would have hated Alan Alda’s Hawkeye.)  Unlike the television version of Hawkeye, the film’s Hawkeye is not the best surgeon in Korea.  In fact, he’s not even the best surgeon at the 4077th.  (That honor goes to Trapper.)  Instead, he’s just one of many doctors on staff.  They’re rotated in and then, at the end of their tour, they’re rotated out.  Hawkeye loses as many patients as he saves.  The film’s doctors are not miracle workers, nor are they crusaders.  Instead, they are overworked, neurotic, often exhausted, and frequently bored whenever there aren’t any wounded to deal with.  The film emphasizes that the doctors are as professional inside the Operating Room as they’re rambunctious outside of it.  Unlike the television series, Hawkeye doesn’t joke while working.  He’s usually too busy trying to stop his patients from bleeding to death to tell jokes or to complain about the war that brought them to the OR.

Indeed, the film version of M*A*S*H communicates its anti-war message not through indignant speeches but instead through bloody imagery.  The operating room scenes don’t shy away from showing the ugliness of war and they are occasionally so visceral that they almost seem to shame the audience for have laughed just a few minutes earlier.  One of the film’s more famous (and controversial) sequences features Hawkeye driving Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) to insanity by crudely taunting him about his affair with head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).  Burns attacks Hawkeye, a response that actually seems rather justified even if it is played for laughs.  A scene of Burns being driven out of the camp in straitjacket is followed by a close-up of a geyser of blood erupting from a wounded soldier’s throat.  It’s a jarring transition but one that makes a stronger anti-war statement than any self-righteous monologue would have.  While Hawkeye and Trapper are taunting Burns and Margaret, soldiers are still being sent off to die.

The humor in M*A*S*H is often brutally misogynistic.  Margaret is described as being “a damn good nurse” but is continually humiliated because she believes in maintaining military discipline.  One can disagree with her emphasis on following all of the proper regulations while also realizing the Hawkeye and Trapper’s treatment of her is unreasonably cruel.  The scene where Trapper and Hawkeye expose her while she’s taking a shower is especially difficult to watch and there’s no way to justify their actions.  It’s frat boy humor, the type of stuff that you would expect from a bunch of former college football players, which is what we’re told Hawkeye and Trapper are.  (That, of course, is another huge difference between the film and television versions of the characters.)  That said, it’s debatable whether or not were supposed to find either Hawkeye or Trapper to be heroic or even likable.  As a director, Robert Altman shied away from making films with unambiguous heroes or villains.  Just as Margaret could be a “damn good nurse” and a “regular army clown” at the same time, Hawkeye can be both a dedicated doctor and a bit of a jerk.

After 90 minutes of bloody operating room scenes and Trapper and Hawkeye making crude jokes, M*A*S*H suddenly becomes a sports film as the the 4077th plays a football game against their rivals, the 325th Evac Hospital.  The change of tone can be a bit jarring but it’s perhaps the most important sequence in the film.  For a few hours, the doctors bring “the American way of life” to Korea and the end result is a game that’s played for money and which is only won through cheating and deception.  (Future blaxploitation star Fred Williamson made his film debut as the ringer who the 4077th recruits for the game.)  For all of the broad comedy of the game, it’s followed by a shot of the doctors playing poker while a dead soldier is transported out of the camp, wrapped in a white sheet.  Football may provided a distraction.  The money may have provided an incentive.  But the war continued and people still died.

Much of M*A*S*H‘s humor has aged terribly but the performances still hold up and the anti-war message is potent today.  Though Sutherland and Gould are undeniably the stars of the film, M*A*S*H is a true ensemble film, full of the overlapping dialogue and the small character performances that Robert Altman’s films were known for.  One reason why the film works is because it is an immersive experience, the viewer truly does feel as if they’ve been dropped in the middle of an operating field hospital.  Though Hawkeye and Trapper may be at the center of the action, every character, from the camp’s colonel to the lowliest private, seems to have their own story playing out.  This a film where paying attention to the little things happening in the background is often more rewarding than paying attention to the main action.  I particularly liked the performances of David Arkin as the obsequies Staff Sergeant Vollmer and Bud Cort as Pvt. Warren Boone.  Boone, especially, seems to have an interesting story going on in the background.  The viewer just has to keep an eye out for him.  Also be sure to keep an eye out for Rene Auberjonois, who reportedly improvised one of the film’s best-known lines when, after Margaret demands to know how Hawkeye reached a position of authority in the army medical corps, he deadpanned, “He was drafted.”

One of the first major studio films to be openly critical of the military and the war in Vietnam, M*A*S*H won the Palme d’Or, defeating films like Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The Strawberry Statement.  Unlike many Palme winners, it was also a box office success in the United States.  Though controversial, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  However, unlike the Cannes jury, the Academy decided to honor a different film about war, Patton.

Scenes That I Love: “I Love The Smell of Napalm in the Morning” from Apocalypse Now (Happy birthday, John Milius!)


Today, the Shattered Lens celebrates the 78th birthday of the iconic screenwriter and director, John Milius!

While director Francis Ford Coppola definitely put his own stamp on 1979’s Apocalypse Now, the film started life as a script written by John Milius and the film itself is full of dialogue that could only have been written by Milius.  The most famous example is Robert Duvall’s monologue about the smell of napalm in the morning.  Actually, the entire helicopter attack feels like pure Milius.  Reportedly, Duvall’s character was originally named Colonel Kharnage but, by the time the movie was made, his name had become Kilgore.  It’s still not exactly a subtle name but it’s not quite as obvious as Kharnage.

(When James Caan read the script, he loved the role so much that he was offended to not be offered it and, as a result, he turned down offers to play not only Willard but also Kurtz.)

Happy birthday, John Milius!

6 Shots From 6 Films: Special Robert Duvall Edition


4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we celebrate the 91st birthday of one of the finest American actors out there, Mr. Robert Duvall.  Ever since he made his film debut in 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Duvall has been a regular presence in American cinema.  He’s an actor who has appeared in some of the best American films ever made (The Godfather, Network, Apocalypse Now, To Kill A Mockingbird, Tender Mercies, and others) and he’s played a wide variety of characters.  He’s been everything from a lawyer to a cowboy to a network executive to a professional criminal to a cop and he’s never been less that convincing.  He’s got a filmography about which anyone would be jealous.  And, at an age when most actors have retired, Duvall is still working and taking the occasional part.

On a personal note, I have to say that, for someone who was born in California, raised in Maryland, and who started his career in New York, Robert Duvall is one of the few actors to have perfected both the Southern and the Southwestern accent.  Whenever I see him playing a Texan, I always have to remind myself that he’s not actually from around here.

In honor of Robert Duvall’s birthday, here are….

6 Shots From 6 Robert Duvall Films

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962, dir by Robert Mulligan, DP: Russell Harlan)

MASH (1970, dir by Robert Altman, DP: Harold E. Stine)

Apocalypse Now (1979, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Vittorio Storaro)

True Confessions (1981, dir by Ulu Grosbard, DP: Owen Roizman)

The Apostle (1997, dir by Robert Duvall, DP: Barry Markowitz)

The Judge (2014, dir by David Dobkin, DP: Janusz Kamiński)

Cleaning Out The DVR: Seven Days In Utopia (dir by Matt Russell)


Last night, as a part of our attempt to make some space on the DVR so that I can record every upcoming episode of The Bachelorette and she can record the World Series, Erin and I watched the 2011 film, Seven Days In Utopia.

Seven Days In Utopia is a Texas-set (and Texas-filmed) movie about a young pro golfer named Luke Chisholm (played by Lucas Black) who has a very public meltdown while in the middle of a tournament. Feeling that his career is pretty much over, Luke jumps in his car and goes speeding around Southwest Texas. Because he’s not pay attention to the road (which, I’ll be honest, occasionally happens when you’re driving through rural Texas.), he almost doesn’t notice the cow standing in front of his car. Fortunately, Luke swerves and avoids the cow. Unfortunately, he crashes through a fence.

The fence belongs to Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall), a friendly rancher who — coincidence of coincidences — also happens to be a former pro golfer! With Luke’s car temporarily out-of-commission, he’s stuck in Utopia for at least seven days. Johnny offers to spend those days teaching Luke everything that he needs to know about golf and about life. Luke agrees, because what else are you going to do when you’re stranded in Uvalde County?

Seven Days In Utopia is one of the few films in my lifetime to have been released with G rating and it pretty much earns that G-rating by being the most inoffensive film ever made. Seven Days in Utopia is almost aggressive in its pleasantness. Johnny is very nice. Luke is very nice. Just about everyone that Luke plays against is pretty nice. Everyone in town is pretty nice, even if they do give Luke a hard time about being a “city boy.” Deborah Ann Woll plays the nice waitress at the local diner, with whom Luke has a very pleasant romance. Woll and Black make for a cute couple and they have a nice chemistry. They’re all very pleasant.

Seven Days In Utopia is one of those films that you end up watching when you need something to watch with an older relative who doesn’t understand why “all the movies nowadays have to use all that language!” It’s an old-fashioned movie. That, in itself, is hardly a problem for me. I like old movies and, despite my love of horror as a genre, I can also appreciate movies that are not meant to traumatize the audience. For that matter, I like Lucas Black and I like Deborah Ann Woll. As for Robert Duvall — I mean, My God, he’s one of the last of the great character actors. He’s Boo Radley and Tom Hagen, for God’s sake! Of course, I love Robert Duvall and Duvall really is probably the only actor who could make an idealized character like Johnny Crawford into a real human being. That said, Seven Days In Utopia is also a rather slow film. The pacing will make you feel all seven of those days and the lessons that Johnny teaches to Lucas aren’t particularly profound once you look beyond the fact that they’re being taught by legitimate great actor Robert Duvall. It’s an nice film and the scenery is pretty but, while watching it, it’s hard not to miss the anarchistic spirit of golfers like Shooter McGavin and Happy Gilmore.

Film Review: The Chase (dir by Arthur Penn)


The Chase, a small-town Texas melodrama from 1966, opens with Robert Redford escaping from prison.

Redford is playing Bubber Reeves. Bubber, we’re told, has spent the last few years in a tough Texas prison, convicted of a murder that he didn’t commit. Now, he’s on the run and he’s probably returning to his hometown. His wife, Anna (Jane Fonda), still lives there, though Anna is now having an affair with Jake Rogers (James Fox). Jake is the son of the most powerful man in town, Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Jake also used to be Bubber’s best friend but now, he’s wracked with guilt about his affair with Anna.

Meanwhile, the townspeople are all worried that Bubber is going to seek revenge on the people who were responsible for him going to prison. Some of them know that he was actually innocent and some of them think that he’s actually the killer that he’s been made out to be but what they all have in common is that they’re worried about what Bubber’s gong to do when he shows up. Maybe they should have thought about the possibility of him getting mad and vengeful before they gave him a nickname like Bubber.

Anyway, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) is convinced that Bubber is innocent but the townspeople still want him to allow them to gun Bubber down as soon as they see him. Sheriff Calder, however, is determined to keep the peace and make sure that the law prevails. He’s a man of unimpeachable integrity, working in a town full of people who are too cowardly to concern themselves with doing the right thing.

As everyone waits for Bubber to arrive. tempers come to the surface, a good deal of alcohol is consumed, and secrets are revealed. It all ends in tragedy, of course. One of the final scenes clumsily recreates the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald. The Chase wouldn’t be an achingly self-serious film from 1966 if it didn’t.

There’s a few obvious problems with The Chase, the main one being that Robert Redford, who was 30 years-old when The Chase was released, looks surprisingly good for someone who has spent the last few years locked away in a tough Texas prison. Redford manage to escape from prison and run through a swamp without getting one single hair out of place. There’s nothing particularly dangerous about Redford in this film, which is surprising when you consider that The Chase was made just three years before Redford’s convincing turn as a laconic (if charming) killer in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For The Chase to work, Bubber Reeves would have to be a force of nature but, whenever Redford’s on screen, you just find yourself wondering how someone who looks that good got stuck with a nickname like Bubber. The townspeople talk about Bubber like he’s a wild outlaw but Redford is just too laid back to pull it off. He comes across less like a wanted criminal and more like a California surfer who has somehow found himself in rural Texas.

As for the rest of the cast — well, there’s a lot of them. It’s a big ensemble film and good luck to anyone trying to keep track of who is related to who. Surprisingly enough, Marlon Brando is very convincing as a Texas sheriff, never allowing Sheriff Calder to turn into a stereotype. Less surprising is the fact that Robert Duvall, playing an frustrated husband, is also convincing in his role. Brando and Duvall, of course, would both go on to co-star in The Godfather. (Supposedly, when shooting of The Godfather began, Duvall was the only member of the cast with no fear of joking around with Brando, largely because they had bonded while working on The Chase.) Unfortunately, as good as Brando and Duvall are, they’re both let down in the hair department. Brando gets stuck with a hairpiece while Duvall is forced to go with a comb-over.

Some of the other performers are good and some of them are bad but none of them are particularly convincing as the residents of a small Texas town. James Fox, for instance, is very British. Jane Fonda and Angie Dickinson (cast as Calder’s wife) seem to be bored. E.G. Marshall is believably rich but never believably Southern. The other performers all tend to overact, especially once the people in town start drinking, shooting, hitting, and, in some cases, dancing. Somehow, Shelley Winters is not in the film, even though it seems like she should be.

The Chase was directed by Arthur Penn and written by Lillian Hellman. (The screenplay was based on a play and novel by Horton Foote.) Penn would follow up The Chase with Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, two films that also dealt, for more successfully, with The Chase‘s themes of violence, community hypocrisy, and outlaw romanticism. Jane Fonda would go on to play Lillian Hellman in the 1977 film, Julia. For Julia, Fonda was nominated for an Oscar. For The Chase, she was not.

The Chase is one of those films that wants to say something important but doesn’t seem to be quite sure what. It’s a long and dramatic movie that doesn’t really add up to much. In the end, I think the main lesson to be learned here is not to allow your children to get a nickname like Bubber. There’s just no escape from a bad nickname.

Falling Down (1993, directed by Joel Schumacher)


Earlier today, when I heard that Joel Schumacher had died, I immediately thought of Falling Down.

Falling Down stars Michael Douglas as William Foster, a man who is at the end of his rope.  He’s lost his job.  He’s just gotten a divorce and his wife has taken a restraining order out against him.  On the hottest day of the year, his car’s air conditioning has just broken down.  When he finds himself stuck in a traffic jam, he impulsively abandons his car and starts to walk across Los Angeles, collecting weapons, enemies, and admirers along the way.

Almost everyone who Foster meets annoys him in some way.  A convenience store clerk refuses to give him change so that he can make a phone call.  In the film’s most famous scene, a fast food restaurant refuses to allow him to order off of the breakfast menu, which leads to Foster pulling out a gun.  D-Fens, as he’s now known due to his personalized license plate, is making his way to his daughter’s birthday party, leaving behind  a wake of destruction behind him.  Trying to stop him is Detective Martin Prendergrast (Robert Duvall), who is, naturally, just a day away from retirement.

I think about Falling Down a lot.  It’s always been a controversial film, with critics debating whether we’re supposed to empathize with Foster or not.  The film itself often tries to have it both ways, asking us to condemn Foster’s violence while, at the same time, expecting us to cheer for him when he expresses his frustrations.  On the one hand, you can understand some of his anger.  Why can’t you order off the breakfast menu if you want to?  Who hasn’t gotten annoyed with unnecessary road work?  At the same time, it’s also hard to overlook that almost all of Foster’s victims are more obnoxious than he is.  If the store clerk has been polite when he refused to give him change, would we have still cheered when Foster destroyed the store?  Foster even has an encounter with a white supremacist that’s supposed to assure us that Foster might be an angry white man but he’s the right type of angry white man.

To understand why this film has always stuck with me, you have to understand that my Dad was an engineer.  He worked with a lot of people who basically were William Foster, except that they never got their hands on as much weaponry as Foster manages to do.  Whenever I see this movie and I see Michael Douglas with his nerdy glasses and short-sleeved white shirt and black tie, I’m reminded of visiting my father at work and listening to his co-workers complain about how much they hated the rap music that their kids were listening to.  From those experiences, I can tell you that Michael Douglas perfectly nails the role of William “D-Fens” Foster.  Though the film’s script may sometimes try to present Foster as simply being “a man who has finally had enough” (and that’s certainly the way that Foster would probably view himself), Douglas gives a much more complex performance in the role.  He plays Foster not as being a hero or even an anti-hero.  Instead, he’s a man who has realized that life is never going to be as good as he was told it would be and, watching the world change around him, he’s snapped.  He’s the villain, even if he and some of the film’s biggest fans don’t realize it.  “I’m the bad guy?” he asks and yes, he is.  The tragedy of the film is that he can’t understand how that came to be.  Neither Joel Schumacher as a director nor Michael Douglas as an actor ever suggests that Foster has become a stronger or happier person as a result of his actions.  He never becomes the societal avenger that some may want him to be.  Instead, he just wants to get to his daughter’s birthday party.

When Joel Schumacher’s death was announced today, most people talked about the Batman films that he directed.  However, Falling Down, with its brilliant lead performance from Michael Douglas, is the Joel Schumacher film that will always stick with me.

Scenes I Love: Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall in The Godfather


96 years ago today, Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska.

Unfortunately, Brando is one of those actors who, later in his life, became better known for his eccentricities than for his performances.  Though Brando never stopped being a good actor, it’s undeniable that some of his later performances reveal an actor who often did seem to be a bit bored with the films that he was making.  It’s sad to think that there’s people out there who might only know Brando because they stumbled across The Island of Dr. Moreau on Starz at like 3 in the morning.

Regardless of the reputation that he developed in his later years, Marlon Brando was one of the best actors of all time.  His early performances are still exciting to watch and, even when his work was becoming progressively more eccentric in the 70s and 80s, he still continued to give performances that could grab your attention and leave you surprised by their power.

Of course, my favorite Brando film remains The Godfather so it only makes sense to share a scene from that film on Brando’s birthday.  In this beautifully acted scene, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) informs Don Vito (Brando) that Sonny has been killed.  Of course, first, Tom has to have a drink.  This scene might not be as iconic as some of the other scenes in The Godfather but it’s wonderfully performed by both actors and it reminds us that The Godfather is powerful not because it’s a crime film but because it’s a film about family.

 

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972, directed by Philip Kaufman)


Despite having received pardons from the Missouri legislature in recognition of their military service to the Confederacy, Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) simply cannot stop robbing banks.  The James-Younger Gang has set their sights on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, which is said to be the biggest bank west of the Mississippi.  Cole arrives in Northfield before the rest of the gang and scouts the location.  What he discovers is that most of the town’s citizens aren’t putting their money in the bank because they all assume that it will eventually be robbed.  With Jesse determined to pull off the crime of the century, Cole and Jesse have to figure out not only how to escape after the robbery but also how to get the people to deposit their money in the bank’s vault in the first place.

Philip Kaufman is a director who made a career out of reinterpreting history (his best known film is The Right Stuff) and, when it was first released in 1972, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid was a revisionist western that mixed moments of comedy with moments of brutal violence.  Today, of course, presenting Jesse James and Cole Younger as being ruthless outlaws is no longer that daring of a narrative choice.  In The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Robert Duvall plays Jesse as being the western equivalent of a corrupt businessman, sending others to do his dirty work and not accepting any of the consequences for his own bad decisions.  Robertson plays Cole as being more a free spirit, an outlaw who is determined to enjoy himself.  Both of them give interesting performances but they also seem to be too contemporary for the characters that they’re playing.

Like most revisionist westerns of the early 70s, the film is full of hints that the old west and the time of the outlaws is coming to an end.  There’s a steam engine sitting outside of the bank and Kaufman spends almost as much time focusing on people reacting to that as he does on the planning and execution of the robbery.  When the robbery does finally occur, it’s not an easy robbery like you might find a 1940s western.  Instead, it’s a violent comedy of errors that leaves much of the film’s characters dead or wounded in the streets of Northfield.  The contrast between the quirky comedy of the first part of the film and the violence of the robbery is occasionally interesting but it often feels forced.  Sometimes, Kaufman seems like he’s trying too hard to be Sam Peckinpah.  In the end, Kaufman often doesn’t seem to be sure what he’s trying to say with this film.  He seems to be suggesting that Jesse and Cole are soon to be relics of a bygone era but why then cast Duvall and Robertson in the roles and have them play the roles like two mid-level hoodlums in 20th Century New York?

It’s an interesting but muddled film that never quite works.  For the definitive film about the James/Younger Gang, check out Walter Hill’s The Long Riders.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Tender Mercies (dir by Bruce Beresford)


The other day, on this very site, I mentioned that the 1983 film Tender Mercies was one of the films that David Lynch turned down.  

In his memoir, Room to Dream, Lynch wrote that he was sent the film’s script while he was looking for a project to serve as his follow-up to The Elephant Man.  Lynch wrote that he liked the script, which was written by Horton Foote (who had previously won an Oscar for adapted To Kill A Mockingbird), but that Lynch also felt that it just wasn’t the right project for him at the time.  Tender Mercies was eventually directed by Bruce Beresford and Lynch mentioned that he felt that Beresford did a “brilliant” job.

After I posted the article, it occurred to me that Tender Mercies is not a film that’s as well-known as it deserves to be.  It received five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.  Robert Duvall won his first (and, to date, only) Oscar for playing the lead role.  It’s an acclaimed film but it also plays it in a rather low-key style, particularly when compared to some of the other films that were released in the early 80s.  (1983 may have been the year of Tender Mercies but it was also the year of Scarface, Flashdance, Return of the Jedi, and Risky Business.)  As such, it’s a film that’s been a bit overshadowed over the years.

Tender Mercies takes place in rural Texas.  Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is a former country-western star whose career has collapsed due to his alcoholism and his own self-destructive behavior.  One morning, a hungover Mac wakes up in a roadside motel.  Not having any money on him, Mac asks the motel’s owner — Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), who lost her husband in Vietnam — if he can work at the motel in return for a room.  Rosa Lee agrees, on the condition that Mac not drink while he’s working.

As the days pass, Mac and Rosa Lee grow closer and Mac becomes a surrogate father to Rosa Lee’s young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard).  Eventually, Mac and Rosa Lee marry and Mac becomes an accepted member of the community.  However, Mac remains troubled.  His ex-wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley), has built a career on singing the songs that he wrote for her but she refuses to consider anything new that he’s written.  His teenage daughter (Ellen Barkin) stops by the motel and announces that she’s running away to get married.  There’s tragedy but there’s also hope and forgiveness.

Tender Mercies is a simple but affecting film about a good man who is struggling to deal with the fact that he was once a very bad man.  What makes Tender Mercies interesting is what doesn’t happen.  The first time I saw it, I spent the entire movie expecting Mac to fall off the wagon and break everyone’s heart.  Instead, Mac manages to keep his promise to his new family but what he discovers is that being sober doesn’t automatically exempt one from pain or guilt.  He still has to deal with sadness and disappointment but now, he has to do it without using alcohol as a crutch.  Instead of getting his strength from booze, he now gets it from love.

It’s a wonderfully sweet movie, featuring naturalistic performances from Harper, Hubbard, and especially Robert Duvall.  It seem appropriate that, after making his film debut as Boo Radley in a film written by Horton Foote, Duvall would win his first Oscar for another film written by Foote.  Duvall plays Mac as a plain-spoken and weary soul who is still just enough of a romantic to find some sort of redemption in the world.  It’s a great performance and it’s a good film and I’d suggest checking it out if you ever need a good cry.