Wolf (1994)

He’s a wolf – and not just in the bedroom! Jack Nicholson’s turn as publisher Will Randall in the Mike Nichols werewolf flick Wolf is, well, a Jack Nicholson performance. He’s sleazy, hairy, and manic as ever here, and so your enjoyment of Wolf might depend entirely upon your enjoyment of Jack Nicholson. There are other things floating around in the movie to distract you, but Jack’s at the heart and soul of everything for better or worse.

Nicholson’s Will encounters a black wolf one night and suffers a bite to his hand. He soon encounters the slinky Laura Alden, played slinkily by Michelle Pfeiffer, and the two begin a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, as Will’s animalistic tendencies simmer to a boil within him, James Spader’s office yuppie Stewart Swinton schemes viciously for Will’s job at the publishing firm. These three characters swirl around each other as the full moon rises, and eventually Joker and Catwoman and Ultron all meet for a fateful reunion.

So is Wolf actually good, or is it B-movie horror trash? Interestingly, really strong arguments can be made for both cases. The first hour of Wolf is pretty razor-sharp: Nichols delights in the blacks and yellows of a bedroom lit by the harvest moon, and the cinematography is damn-near beautiful; writer Jim Harrison (who penned Legends of the Fall) focuses as much on the back-and-forth of workplace politicking as on the back-and-forth between man and wolf, and the parallels he draws are amazing; to boot, a sparkling Ennio Morricone score doesn’t hurt. These guys make Wolf extremely palatable, and Nicholson knocks what they give him out of the park. The metaphorical rise of the wolf is handled with a subtle sophistication by the leading man, apparent only when you consider how hammy and over-the-top the entire thing could have been.

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Whiplash (2014)

The New York Film Festival opened last week with David Fincher’s Gone Girl and continues until the New York premiere of Birdman to close the festival. In between those films fall a massive spectrum of features, short films, documentaries and retrospective screenings that include entries from some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.

Whiplash isn’t one of those big huge premieres held up by the strength of name recognition and pre-release buzz. Technically the NYFF screening wasn’t even a premiere at all, as Whiplash first popped up at Sundance last winter. But if any “small” flick can surge through festivals like this and have a strong opening later this month, it’s this one. Less tangentially: Whiplash is one of the leanest and most intense films you’re likely to see this year.

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Cop Land (1997)

Cop Land can be classed with recent entries Oblivion and Lawless under the “Decent Movie, Terrible Title” banner that seems more and more popular these days. The lineup is impressive – Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta lead a character actor-fest that includes a bunch of guys with two first names like Robert Patrick, John Spencer, and Frank Vincent. Also, master thespian Method Man is on hand to pick up De Niro’s slack.

The plot is not nearly as stupid as the title, but it is a fairly rote procedural as far as corrupt cop flicks go. De Niro is good cop (duh), Harvey Keitel is bad cop (duh), and Ray Liotta is drug addict cop (duh). Stallone is the only noteworthy one here, surprising as that may be. As naïve heart-of-gold Sheriff Frank, Stallone brings something other than the usual slackjawed tough-guy macho talk to the screen. Frank is Sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, dubbed by De Niro in a trailer-suitable monologue as COP LAND. BOOM, baby. You can almost see the ALL CAPS on the script. COP LAND is corrupt and STALLONE has something to say about it.

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The Yakuza (1974)

Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza was released at a time when depictions of Asia in Hollywood films were either simple vehicles for big stars or grossly Westernized misrepresentations. There are notable exceptions, of course, and The Yakuza is probably one of them. Starring Robert Mitchum as a retired detective returning to Japan for a new case, the film manages to give real playing time to actors who aren’t straight from Hollywood. Chief among these is Ken Takakura, who shines as the conflicted brother of a former love interest of Mitchum’s character.

As was the case with several of his films, Sydney Pollack wasn’t the first director to be attached to The Yakuza. Robert Aldrich, best known for The Dirty Dozen and the brilliant Flight of the Phoenix, was initially slated to reteam with Mitchum after their collaboration on The Angry Hills back in 1959. Aldrich, a fine director, would have done fine with The Yakuza, but it just seems more interesting as a part of the early Pollack filmography. Following Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were and preceding Three Days of the Condor, the Tokyo- and Kyoto-set noir provides a nice break from the Redford-starrers.

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Awakenings (1990)

Penny Marshall’s Awakenings is most superficially compared to Barry Levinson’s Rain Man for a few understandable reasons, not least of which being the two films feature a famous lead actor playing a character with a severe medical affliction. The two films also came out within two years of each other, and some may suspect Rain Man‘s success to have influenced Awakenings.

Starring Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer (an analogue for real-life Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose memoir provided the basis for Awakenings) and Robert De Niro as mostly-catatonic patient Leonard, the film follows both men as they experience a breakthrough with regards to Leonard’s condition. Sayer’s intuition leads to the application of a new drug which brings Leonard and other patients of the ward out of catatonia and into a clearer existence, “awakened” to the world. The continued treatment of Leonard proves a heartbreaking experience for Dr. Sayer.

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Sam Peckinpah is nearly always divisive in his filmmaking, but perhaps never more so than with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Unlike The Wild Bunch or Straw DogsAlfredo Garcia (or BMTHOAG, as it may be lovingly referred to) isn’t necessarily controversial because of the level of violence. While other Peckinpah films seem set as classics even in spite of their explicit scenes of brutal violence, most people just can’t decide whether Alfredo Garcia is any good or not.

The set-up comes in the wake of the proclamation that serves as the film’s title. Alfredo Garcia has impregnated a young girl, and her powerful father offers a million dollars to the man who delivers him from the neck up. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a rundown bar who eventually becomes tangled up in the hunt for Garcia at the prospect of a large payoff. His girlfriend, played by Isela Vega, comes along for the ride – and needless to say there are vicious consequences. Soon the head of Alfredo Garcia is in Bennie’s possession, but a darker drive swells up within him and his plans change.

Why would people dislike Alfredo Garcia? For starters, the set pieces from the first half of the movie leave a lot to be desired. In fact, there aren’t very many set pieces at all between the initial “Bring me the head!” scene and a mid-movie altercation with two biker thugs. This altercation serves a) to begin to show a few cracks in the otherwise happy-go-lucky demeanor of Bennie (as Warren Oates brilliantly snarls “you two guys are definitely on my shit list”) and b) to show the promiscuity of Bennie’s girlfriend. Both of these revelations are compounded and built upon in later scenes, but during the scene in question the sense of urgency and pacing of Garcia seems lost.

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One Hour Photo (2002)

The eyes of Sy Parrish deserve a spot alongside the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in the hallowed Eye Symbolism Hall of Fame. Over the course of One Hour Photo we become increasingly aware of the fact that Sy, lonely photo tech at the local SavMart, is always peering into other lives, always consuming with his gaze, always watching. His eyes are obviously as much a part of his “hunting” arsenal as his camera – but they also provide a look back the other way into Sy’s dark and tortured soul.

Robin Williams is brilliant with dramatic material (see Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, etc.), but the actor on display in One Hour Photo is a being unlike anything else in the extensive Robin Williams filmography. Sy the Photo Guy is a creep sure enough, a stalker of the first degree, and with a guy as manic and riffy and fantastically off-the-wall as Williams in the role you’d think Sy would be likewise larger-than-life. Not so. The opposite is in fact true – Sy is impossibly withdrawn, deadly quiet, suspiciously reserved as he observes and interacts with a couple and their son whenever they get their photos developed. The fact that we know Williams as a massive screen presence only makes the silences of this turn more unsettling.

And director Mark Romanek deserves as much credit for that as Williams, because the entirety of One Hour Photo is a spare but deceptively rich character study. Romanek has stuck mainly to music videos (and made the greatest music video of all time, Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”) but will hopefully create a film as quality as this in the near future. It’s Romanek’s direction and framing that calls attention to the deeper aspects of Sy’s psyche, in particular through a few key shots and sequences concerning the watchful eyes of Sy Parrish.

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The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Peter Weir’s directorial debut The Cars That Ate Paris, like a few other movies from the early career of the Australian filmmaker, tends to defy most attempts at classification and at fitting it comfortably into one genre or another. Most slap “horror-comedy”, a broad and unsatisfying label, onto films like this. While it’s certainly funny and creepily disquieting by turns, shoehorning The Cars That Ate Paris into a genre just so we may talk about it as “this kind of film” or “that kind of film” quickly becomes a useless exercise.

Set in the fictional hamlet of Paris in rural Australia, the film follows young Arthur after his brother George dies in a car accident just outside the town. The Parisians welcome Arthur and console him, but it soon becomes evident that Paris is no ordinary town. Arthur himself hardly seems to notice any questionable behavior apart from a few odd comings and goings – but we become aware very soon that the town of Paris thrives on car accidents from the dangerous outskirts roads, and that the townsfolk engineer accidents for their own benefit.

Silly set-up, no? What characterizes the tone of The Cars That Ate Paris is just that: a silly, comedic set-up that suddenly takes a darker turn, a bubbly Sunday drive turning instantly into a fiery wreck. While calling the entire thing a “horror-comedy” is too easy, it can be said that the tone of the film hinges on those two genres without ever slipping over into either for too long. The pivoting itself can provide comedy or shock, and Weir and Co. bring us back and forth over the course of the film more times than I care to count. The effect turns the film into a kind of tonal collage that’s tough to pin down at any one point in time.

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The Drop (2014)

The Drop is a film borne along by performances rather than by story or visual gusto or sharp dialogue or anything else. The late James Gandolfini gives a very James Gandolfini-like turn as mobster-minded Cousin Marv, which is to say that he’s still an immensely enjoyable actor even in a typecast role. Tom Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, bartender at Marv’s place and occasional collaborator in things less legal. Marv’s place is a drop bar, where mafiosos and mafioso wannabes from across Brooklyn launder their dirty money on any given night. The Drop starts with a robbery of the bar, which leads to complications for Bob’s otherwise straightforward life.

Watching The Drop certainly isn’t akin to watching paint dry, but for the first couple acts it’s pretty close to watching Tom Hardy watch paint dry. Bob finds a battered puppy whimpering from a trashcan outside a house near the bar and – oh, gee – damn near immediately starts a relationship with the girl who lives there (played by Noomi Rapace). A few double crosses later and the dog turns out to be one of the links in the robbery case, because of course it is. This predictability continues through to the very end when Bob is revealed to be a lot less timid than he appears, because of course he is.

Hardy, as usual, is commanding. So Bob’s character is predictable, yes, predictably one of those potential secret-holding phantom menaces from movies like A History of Violence, but it works in The Drop‘s favor that Hardy plays that type of character so well. He’s more fascinating as the simmering powderkeg than as the explosion, more spellbinding as the lion in the cage, which is exactly what Bob appears to be and indeed does end up being at the end. Granted, Hardy is phenomenal when playing characters that are fully unleashed (as in Bronson) and fully restrained (as in Locke), but Bob Saginowski isn’t written anywhere near as well as Hardy’s most memorable characters. It’s Hardy holding the screen, not Bob.

Gandolfini, likewise, is playing a snapshot of Tony Soprano but playing it well. Dennis Lehane has written some great crime novels that have been translated to successful films like Mystic River, and The Drop certainly has his streetwise vibe about it. He fails to do anything besides check the major boxes, though, and it’s the actors who have to make up for the inevitable sluggishness one experiences when retrodding familiar material.

The Drop is worth watching if you’re sick of your Netflix queue, if you’re bored on a transnational flight, or if you just enjoy Hardy and/or Gandolfini. There’s little doubt that you will enjoy them here, but past that The Drop is hard pressed to offer anything else.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Starring Robert Redford’s burly mane, Jeremiah Johnson is the story of an absolutely incredible beard and the mountain man who carries it around on his face. The beard just wants to live a quiet life, moving gently in the Rocky Mountain breeze and catching a few snowflakes, but other forces dwelling in the range cause trouble for the beard. As seasons pass in the valleys below, the beard wisens to the truths of the world and becomes a broader, more understanding beard.

Sydney Pollack directed five or six films – five including 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and six if you count 1968’s The Swimmer, which Pollack eventually took over without an actual directing credit – and plenty of TV before he got to Jeremiah Johnson in 1972. Not long before production began, it was Clint Eastwood in Johnson’s role and Sam Peckinpah set to direct him, but the pair clashed and Eastwood said “Dirty Harry sounds a lot less dangerous” (paraphrased) and Redford was cast in his place. Having worked together on This Property Is Condemned in 1966, it was Redford who secured Pollack as Peckinpah’s replacement. Contrary to what one may think when watching Redford ride around on horseback for two hours Jeremiah Johnson actually cost quite a bit of money, and it was money that the studio wasn’t prepared to give out after advancing Redford a hefty salary. Pollack mortgaged his house and financed parts of the film himself, all the while strictly adhering to the budgetary and time constraints the studio laid down.

In short, you wouldn’t blame Pollack for being a bit sour after such a stressful production. But the director cited it as a great trial-by-fire learning experience, essentially because the money he was risking was his own. It probably helped that Johnson did well and remains a bit of a mountain-man classic today.

The kernel of the film, at least for me, comes when Jeremiah sits by a freshly-killed dinner with his de facto family – a wife he was all but forced to marry and a son he was all but forced to adopt. First, the irony of a man sojourning to the Rockies to live a life of quiet solitude and ending up married with a kid is a rich one. As they sit around munching rabbit or whatever Jeremiah teaches his non-English speaking wife a new word: “Yes”. He then asks her some questions about himself, the last of which is “I am a fine figure of a man, yes?” Now, this lady has no idea what in the hell this guy is talking about. She’s goaded into answering all the same, showing off her new word “yes”. Jeremiah sits back satisfied.

A definition of manhood in any form, validity apparently notwithstanding, keeps cropping up in Jeremiah Johnson. He achieves legendary status among some of the puny town-dwellers, achieves something of a nemesis status among a tribe of Crow Indians, and achieves something that begins as pity but matures into respect with two like-minded mountain men. What of himself? Does “being a man” equal “living a full life”, or is there a gap there somewhere that leaves this manly man’s man ultimately unfulfilled?

Pollack and Redford manage to pull an extremely strong narrative out of what could easily have been a semblance of shots of Jeremiah riding a horse. The beard helps. Tragically, the beard’s career went sharply downhill following Jeremiah Johnson and was hardly ever seen in Hollywood again, sinking into a drunken oblivion and leading a shattered existence that would one day serve as the basis for Leaving Las Vegas.