We talk subverted expectations, how an artificial performance makes sense on a character who’s pretending to be something he’s not, the way in which forty years of oppression eats into a person’s soul, rejection of familial expectations and the performance of unspoken fraternal duty, and more, in our discussion of Jane Campion’s fascinating, complex, and beautiful drama, The Power of the Dog.
Frances McDormand and a cast of non-professional, real-life nomads unite to explore the life of the modern American itinerant in Nomadland. We consider the line between fiction and reality, the non-professionals who appear bringing their real experiences and stories with them, and discuss what drives a person to their way of life. Like director Chloé Zhao’s previous feature, The Rider, Nomadland is a textural, contemplative film, and perhaps one that grows in stature upon reflection – while José loved every moment, Mike was bored by the tempo, but finds much to praise nonetheless. A film worth taking the time to sink into.
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Why this film was made… is rather beyond us. News of the World invokes the era of fake news in name only, its premise – following the Civil War, a former Confederate captain travels the American south reading out newspapers for a living – interesting in principle but almost entirely ignored in favour of a by-the-numbers, surrogate father-daughter road movie. Paul Greengrass’ direction, eschewing the style and energy that made him famous, is barely an impersonation of that of classic Westerns, full of landscapes and sunsets, signifying nothing; Tom Hanks is as tediously noble and upstanding as ever, his character’s supposedly shady past alluded to rather than detailed, allowing us to feel pleased for his redemption without ever having to dislike him for what he needs to be redeemed for. Helena Zengel, the German youngster who plays Hanks’ mysterious companion, is a highlight, a presence you can’t take your eyes off – though her character is as thinly sketched as everything else.
News of the World is bad, but not offensively so. It’s an unending stampede of clichés and tropes, unthinkingly employed and uncreatively executed. We don’t like to advise people stay away from films, but if this is next on your list, we assume you have already seen every other film ever made.
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In the early 80s, pushing 70, But Lancaster top-lines and gets a star entrance in Cattle Annie and Little Britches. The film, based on a true story, is about Cattle Annie (Amanda Plummer) and Little Britches (Diane Lane) but Burt’s Bob Dooley is the legend, the lodestar, who they want to emulate and with whom they want to join. He’s no longer the romantic lead, but the film’s protagonists have their own non-sexual romance of and with him, and so does the film.
Mannerisms in actors are usually seen as a negative. That an actor resorts to old tricks and lacks the imagination to inhabit character in different ways. But what if those gestures of body and face, those stances that indicate bursts of energy are part of what audiences love and look forward to in an actor’s performance? In Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Burt’s mannerisms bring up whole eras of audience affection, evoke authority, and are shortcuts to character and a base with which to create something new. He’s too old in the film to play the romantic leading man but the film has its own romance with him, his stardom and his own legend that feeds into that of his character’s. And displaying his body is still part of what he does as an actor and a star, even if pushing 70, it’s now filmed through mist (Pauline Kael said he looked like an old water buffalo). Perhaps that’s why he was still top-billed and headlining in vehicles guided by intelligence and social purpose into his 70s and almost right through the 1980s.
One of the reasons I pay no attention to all the Kael haters is that I vividly remember Kael’s review forty years after I read it, and this was a movie I’d never been able to see up to now. And now that I have seen it and re-read it, I agree with so much of what she says. And she’s so funny saying it. On Rod Steiger: ‘Rod Steiger is probably more contained than he has been in years. The last time I saw him—doing his padre number in “The Amityville Horror”—his spiritual agony was enough to shatter the camera lens.’
Pauline Kael is worth quoting at length: ‘here are some remarkable performances—Lancaster’s and Diane Lane’s, and, especially, the unheralded, prodigious screen début of Amanda Plummer. (Actually, everything about this picture is unheralded. It was finished over a year ago, but nobody wanted to release it, because a couple of other Westerns had failed. It wasn’t really released: it was just dropped into a Broadway theatre for a week, to plug up a hole before “Outland” arrived.) As Bill Doolin, Lancaster (who made this film before “Atlantic City”) is a gent surrounded by louts—a charmer. When he talks to his gang, he uses the lithe movements and the rhythmic, courtly delivery that his Crimson Pirate of 1952 had when he told his boys to gather ‘round. The great thing about Lancaster is that you can see the face of a stubborn, difficult man—a man who isn’t easy to get along with. He has so much determination that charm doesn’t diminish him. In his scenes with Diane Lane, the child actress who appeared in New York in several of Andrei Serban’s stage productions and who, single-handed, made the film “A Little Romance” almost worth seeing, Lancaster has an easy tenderness that is never overdone, and she is completely inside Jenny’s childish dependency. And when he’s by himself, naked, soaking at the hot springs (where the marshal traps him), he’s a magnificent, sagging old buffalo. Lancaster looks happy in this movie and still looks tough: it’s an unbeatable combination’.
The film itself is charming and a bit ramshackle. It’s unusual to see a film about women’s desires to be outlaws, one set in a period where those dreams were being shut down along with the frontier, and yet the film doesn’t makes those desires as central to the narrative as it should, constantly cutting to the bigger stars, Lancaster himself of course, but also Rod Steiger and Jon Savage — whatever happened to him? He seemed to be everywhere in this period — and even Scott Glenn (why didn’t he become a bigger star? He’s sexy, charismatic and so good here and in practically everything he did in this period). And the questions I ask above in relation to Savage and Glenn are even more worth asking regarding Amanda Plummer, a debut to compare to Hepburn’s writes Kael, and yet it seems American cinema of this period did not have the space for such an electric and original presence. Its loss. But this is a film that allows us to enjoy and mourn the magnitude of that loss.
According to Kate Burford, ‘critics would note that Larry Pizer’s cinematography glowed like a Frederick Remington vision’ (loc 2903), except for the clip of Burt’s entrance I’ve extracted above, where one can barely see anything.
In her extraordinary book on Lancaster, Kate Buford includes excerpts from a truly illuminating interview with Amanda Plummer on Lancaster’s acting in Cattle Annie that is worth extracting here in its entirety:
A bit of trivia: Steven Ford, son of the American President Gerald, appears in a small role as a man of the law and is very good.
The Scalphunters is anti-racist Western directed by Sidney Pollack. Burt Lancaster is the trapper whose furs, a whole winter’s work, get stolen first by Apaches, then by a gang of scalphunters led by Telly Savallas. Ossie Davis is the runaway house-slave hoping to get to Mexico and freedom. They have great chemistry and are very funny together. The film begins with Burt rescuing Ossie but planning to sell him, to them after a fight, encased in a mud that metaphorically erases their colour differences, sharing a horse and continuing in their quest to get the furs back. Shelley Winters plays the Western equivalent of a gangster’s moll, a completely stereotypical part, and is rather miraculous with it: nothing has dated about her performance except her hairdo. This gif, your daily Burt, is from near the end of the film:
A political parable, satire, thriller, high-concept actioner, horror, and Western all at once, 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner Bacurau is a wild experience and well worth your time. Set in a tiny, remote village in a near-future Brazil, we’re given a portrait of life within an open, tolerant community under the thumb of a distant but powerful mayor, and shortly after the funeral of one of the town’s elders, things start going awry.
To say more would be to spoil the surprises, and we encourage you to check the film out knowing as little as possible. As a fable, it’s a potent piece of work – themes of political abuses, the ownership and withholding of water conferring power, and the value of community and the knowledge of history are all made manifest as Bacurau straddles its genres and provides its thrills. It’s a film that’s as open to interpretation as it is clear about what it thinks – its clunkiness in this respect a positive for Mike while occasionally a little overegged for José. But quibbles here and there pale in significance to Bacurau‘s boldness and intelligence, and you should see it.
An atmospheric Western, almost a noir. Whilst watching it, I asked myself ‘is it still possible to watch Westerns today’? Here, ‘Indians’ are treated with more sympathy than usual. Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), with his lack of ethics and rampant desires, is the real villain of the piece. But we still see the natives as barbaric, anonymous, and vengefully mowing down beautiful blonde women with adorable babies. If one can put that to the side, and the film is unusual in giving the natives cause — this is a retaliation — or abstract it into symbolism that can stand for something else, Canyon Passage offers deep pleasures of composition and lighting, a world where the sublime natural beauty of Oregon’s mountains, forests and rivers is at the same time a shadowy backdrop to all-too human failings: doubt, desire, greed, want, weakness. Dana Andrews, looking like a sourer version of Mel Gibson in his youth, plays the hero, Logan Stuart. Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) is who he ends up with. Brian Donlevy plays George Camrose, the genial but morally weak friend who keeps getting the hero in trouble. I’d never seen Hoagy Carmichael in colour before and he looks unusually handsome warbling his tunes. A very blond Lloyd Bridges is surprisingly lithe and sexy as a moral anchor of dubious reliability. Patricia Roc is Susan Haward’s rival for Dana’s affections. They all play a game of ‘want vs should’ in beautiful world so wild and densely forested that even the light that manages to seep through is itself the source of a shadows. It’s a world filled with danger, death, and in which moral dilemmas get played out in turn by each of the protagonists in ways that shape their fate. ‘. This can now be seen in a glisteningly gorgeous print on MUBI.
In an incisive introduction to Chris Fujiwarara´s excellent Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (London: McFarlane and Compnay, 1998), Martin Scorcese writes,
Tourneur was an artist of atmospheres. For many directors, an atmosphere is something that is ‘established´, setting the stage for the action to follow. For Tourneur it is the movie, and each of his films boasts a distinctive atmosphere, with a profound sensitivity to light and shadows, and a very unusual relationship between characters and environment — the way people move through space in Tourneur movies, the way they simply handle objects, is always special, different from other films….Canyon Passage (is) an example of the short-lived but very interesting sub-genre of the ´noir western´and a picture that´s very special to me. It´s one of the most mysterious and exquisite examples of the the western genre ever made. When you think of ´westerns´you immediately picture the plains or the desert , vast spaces that stretch on and for miles. But this film, Tourneur´s first in color, is set in a small town in the mountains of Oregon, and it is lush, green, muted, and rainy (one of the first scenes in the movie shows the cramped main street of Portland turned into a muddy bog by a downpour). Even the open spaces in this movie are just small clearings. If you study Canyon Passage carefully you´ll see that Tourneur constantly composes diagonally into small spaces, showing people walking up or down inclines, and it gives you the feeling that this is a real settler´s town….There are some beautiful set pieces in Canyon Passage like the Indian attack and the barnraising, but the overall tone is so carefully controlled that every small variation or nuance has an impact. That´s what makes Tourneur´s films so unsettling, this strange undercurrent that runs through every scene but that somehow enhances the dramatic impact of the whole film.