The Big Sleep (1946)

Our Director Series on Robert Altman is partially responsible for a look at The Big Sleep, as the overlapping rapid-fire back-and-forth dialogue characteristic of Altman’s films was first characteristic of the films of Howard Hawks. Toss in the fact that the source material is by Raymond Chandler and the fact that William Faulkner himself helped write the screenplay, and The Big Sleep is still one of the finest American film scripts ever committed to celluloid.

Private eye Philip Marlowe has appeared in a few films – notably portrayed by Elliott Gould in 1973’s The Long Goodbye (also Altman) and then by Robert Mitchum in both 1975 and 1978 – but Humphrey Bogart’s time in the role is the most valuable. He’s Marlowe in the way that Sean Connery is Bond: it’s not the only portrayal of the character…but yeah, it’s the only portrayal of the character. Marlowe’s investigation into a whole host of strange occurrences rolled out one after another, starting with the disappearance of one Sean Regan, provides the drive for the film. But one solution inevitably leads to two more problems in The Big Sleep, and there’s little hope of piecing everything together into a neat little answer to “so what actually happened?”

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Witness (1985)

Peter Weir’s first American film was the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, released to commercial and critical acclaim in 1985. The Australian director was originally set to make his stateside debut with The Mosquito Coast, but a last-minute loss of financing would leave time for Weir to make a very different kind of picture first.

As a “Harrison Ford movie” — a label which immediately evokes Raiders and Blade Runner — Witness probably falls flat. John Book ain’t an adventurer, an action hero, or a possible cyborg (or is he?) and Witness ain’t a popcorn blockbuster. You can imagine the studio executives wincing as they reluctantly finance something that, frankly, looks excruciatingly boring as an abstract. Man goes to Amish country. Protects small boy. Woohoo.

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Automata (2014)

Just by virtue of being a smaller, lesser-known project with a scrappy underdog mentality, Automata has an instant advantage over similar sci-fi dystopias of recent memory like Elysium, the Dredd remake, Oblivion and the godawful In Time. The comparison to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and his earlier District 9 is especially unavoidable, as the world-building employed here is every bit as important and every bit as impressive. This is a distinct Earth that’s very unlike our own, but it doesn’t take a second to get used to.

The credits sequence says it all, really: our ecosystem has crumbled and our atmosphere has become unbearable, and so the future humankind invents a whole host of technological solutions: mechanical “clouds” that produce fake rain and shield our planet, massive walls that keep the desert from encroaching upon our cities, and most importantly a vast array of “automata” – robot slaves who weld our machines, cook our food, wash our dishes and wipe our asses when we get old. The credits sequence already pulls a 180 on us, though, by depicting this future as the past. By the time the events of Automata take place, humankind is jaded to the wonders of these technological advances, and the automata themselves seem to have become a bit jaded too.

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Countdown (1968)

James Caan and Robert Duvall starred in quite a few films together in their early careers. In 1969 Francis Ford Coppola would cast them both in The Rain People, and the director would go on to give them each one of their finest roles as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The pair would reunite in 1975 for Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, and the fact of that film failing shouldn’t be faulted to either actor. But their first collaboration was on one of the earliest feature films of the great Robert Altman: the man-on-the-moon drama Countdown.

Altman had years of television and film experience prior to Countdown. His first feature The Delinquents appeared in 1957, around the same time as his James Dean documentary The James Dean Story, both of which led to television gigs on the likes of Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was Countdown, though, that seemed to herald Altman’s career as a film director – he would basically direct a film every single year for the next two decades, which is pretty unheard of in this day and age.

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The Judge (2014)

The Judge looks like your typical ’90s courtroom drama, playing in the vein of The Rainmaker or The Firm, and looks aren’t deceiving in this particular instance. Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as estranged family brought together to face a potential injustice, the film ticks all the expected boxes on the checklist and rarely surprises. Still, The Judge survives on the strength of the performances of the two leads and manages to be a largely enjoyable family drama.

Downey Jr.’s Hank Palmer is a bigshot city lawyer who returns to his minuscule hometown when his mother passes away. Contact with his father, the county judge, has been minimal at best over the past years. But Hank is forced to stay when a murder investigation targets the judge and an implacable prosecutor (played by Billy Bob Thornton) arrives to put Judge Palmer behind bars for the rest of his life. Only Hank can defend his father and his the legacy of his family.

If you’ve seen the trailer for The Judge, the actual movie will probably just feel like an elongated version. Downey Jr. is absolutely perfect for the role, but I don’t mean that as a full compliment. This is a character he’s played over and over again: immoral, arrogant, power-hungry, never home to see his daughter, aces in the workplace at the expense of his real-world relationships, bound to see the error in his ways through the events of the film. He’s basically Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit (so The Judge is Iron Man 3, basically), and it just would have given the film a much-needed edge if the protagonist wasn’t exactly who we imagined him to be.

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Peaky Blinders 1.1

Originally aired on BBC2, the Birmingham gangster series Peaky Blinders has recently been made available for American audiences (provided they have Netflix subscriptions) who might otherwise have missed out. Starring Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, up-and-coming head of the gang known as the Peaky Blinders, the show recalls many HBO-style period dramas by favoring style over authenticity. But once you rub the Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood out of your eyes, the pilot plays quite well on its own two feet.

Created by Steven Knight (who directed the brilliant Locke), Peaky Blinders focuses primarily on the underhanded dealings of the various gangs of 1919 Birmingham. The pilot episode introduces Tommy as a contemplative foil to his otherwise short-fused gang cohorts, all of whom seem to have the same haircut. Cillian Murphy, as usual, holds the screen with ease. His silences often say more than an entire scene of dialogue between two lesser actors, but we’ll discuss the dialogue again in a second. The flip side of the story – at least in this pilot episode – comes in the form of the indomitable Sam Neill, who plays Chief Inspector Chester Campbell. Campbell, newly arrived to Birmingham, makes it his mission to clean the city of the nefarious gangs.

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The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

After their 1981 collaboration on Gallipoli, Peter Weir cast the young Mel Gibson again the following year in his feature adaptation of the C.J. Koch novel The Year of Living Dangerously. The film would ultimately end up being one of the first collaborations between an Australian studio and a Hollywood studio, and thus the most ambitious Australian film to date. Good news for both the director and the actor, then, that the movie ended up being one of the year’s finest achievements. If Gallipoli was the announcement of Weir as a commanding big-budget filmmaker and Mel Gibson as a major star, The Year of Living Dangerously was the solidification of that announcement.

The storyline(s) are admittedly numerous, often incomplete, occasionally downright implausible. The historical accuracy isn’t necessarily…accurate. Yet none of that really matters in the grand scheme of Living Dangerously because the characters and the atmospheric beauty of the picture are so absorbingly irresistible, and because the meandering and multifaceted plot is probably actually more true to life. Lives don’t play out in neat one-two-three act scenarios, and the subplots each of us tends to engage in hardly ever come to definitive “ends”. Love comes and goes, things become more important or less, people we thought were one way act another – all of these expressions are at the heart of The Year of Living Dangerously, and the overall impact far outweighs that of a great number of films preaching straightforward plots and historical accuracy only to forget to leave some breathing room for a little passion.

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Foxcatcher (2014)

Foxcatcher is a strange and strangely true tale of wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their time with sponsor and “coach” John du Pont. Whether you know the shocking ending of the story or not hardly matters, as director Bennett Miller’s sense of pacing and tone heralds a dark and tragic end from the very first frame. This is Drama with a capital D, and there’s never any doubt that the relationship between these three men is hurtling to that inevitable conclusion.

But what makes Foxcatcher work so well is the willingness to find the motivations that drove these people in the years leading up to the horrific event. Even if you have a vague awareness or clear understanding of what will eventually come to pass, you won’t feel like you’re just waiting for it to actually go down onscreen. The stories of each man – especially Channing Tatum’s Mark – are captivating, and they’re beautifully displayed in some truly impressive performances. Tatum and Mark Ruffalo clearly push themselves physically and emotionally to portray the Schultz brothers. Steve Carell, turning in a rare dramatic performance, is unrecognizable as the toothy and manic John du Pont.

The story is very much focused on Mark at first, following his life in the shadow of his older brother and his introduction to du Pont. Du Pont asks Mark to join him at Foxcatcher, a self-sustaining training ground at the du Pont estate where young wrestlers work together to achieve their goals, and Mark eventually agrees. “What does he [du Pont] get out of all of this?”, Dave asks Mark early on in the movie. This question, like much of du Pont’s character, is never nailed down for certain. While the Schultz brothers work for wrestling fame and glory, du Pont’s goals are a little more complicated.

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Jauja (2014)

The script for Lisandro Alsonso’s latest film Jauja is reportedly only 20 pages long. Though I haven’t actually read it, that short length wouldn’t surprise me after last night’s NYFF screening. Starring Viggo Mortensen as a Danish military man stranded in a nameless South American desert, Jauja certainly isn’t your typical Main Slate festival offering. If anything, the film walks the tightrope between historical epic and surreal experiment, providing plenty of opportunity for reflection along the way. Unfortunately, the fact that the spaces in which we might take time for reflection vastly outweigh the moments that actually demand interpretation proves to be Jauja‘s downfall.

The film opens with a beautiful shot of Viggo’s Captain Dinesen sitting with his daughter, Ingeborg, and right away we get a taste of Alonso’s directorial style without so much as a hint of what may betide these characters. Mortensen, the only recognizable face in Jauja (or in any of Alonso’s films), is facing away from the camera for the entirety of the motionless opening shot. That’s essentially Jauja in a nutshell: the landscape, the framing, the aesthetic, the emotion generated by the imagery alone  – all of this is much more important than the actors, or the characters they play, or the “plot” they partake in.

And make no mistake: Jauja, visually, is stunning. Every shot is carefully composed and lit, and the locations chosen provide Alonso’s camera with enough lush detail for consumption. Many shots seem to stretch on forever, and where most directors would probably work to keep the foreground characters in focus by blurring the backdrop, the reverse is true here. Rocks and clouds and figures far in the distance are as clear as the whiskers on Viggo’s face. Jauja‘s color palate is equally agreeable, and the blue dresses and bright red pants are captured beautifully aside the damp mossy terrain that makes up so much of the film. In this sense, we should admit, the narrative matters less and less.

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Killing Them Softly (2012)

In America you’re on your own. One of the most criminally overlooked movies of 2012 was Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a rough-and-tumble tale of petty holdup artists, mob enforcers and the suit-and-ties that control them (or think they control them). Dominik’s follow-up to his excellent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford retains some of the same cast and makes a few substitutions, and Killing Them Softly is a very different movie from Dominik’s earlier film and from most American crime dramas on the whole.

When two smalltime down-and-outers (played with hilarious gusto by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hold up a mob-protected card game (run by Ray Liotta’s Markie), the local criminal economy crumbles into chaos. It’s not so much that the robbery is botched as the criminals themselves are botched, making it a fairly simple procedure for Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan to arrive in town and put the pieces together. His systematic deconstruction of the situation provides the rest of the drive for Killing Them Softly, but Domnik and Co. enhance the subtleties of every punch and gunshot along the way.

An interesting feature of Killing Them Softly is the way the 2008 presidential election campaign – focused largely on the recession and the floundering economy – plays into the story. Unlike a lot of modern crime dramas, this one is very “bottom-up” – the players we watch are the lowest rungs on the ladder, broke and struggling men desperate to make any kind of score. This isn’t American Gangster or Goodfellas. The highest we go up the totem pole is a glorified messenger played by Richard Jenkins (who is fittingly out-of-place among the rest of the cast), and other than that it’s junkies, drunken hitmen, and enforcers who don’t think twice about shooting a guy. Even Dillon, a world-famous-all-over-New-England enforcer mentioned time and again by nearly every character, appears only once (and happens to be played by Sam Shepard). Addresses from Obama and McCain reach this subfloor of humanity nonetheless, but the blanket statements made by presidential candidates don’t exactly apply way down here.

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