The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

The passing of cinema giant Richard Attenborough has prompted a return to some of his greatest and most overlooked films. Be on the lookout for reflections on his acting, his directing, and on the occasional documentary film if and when I confuse him with David Attenborough.

Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix remains a masterclass in ensemble filmmaking. The big names — James Stewart, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Hardy Kruger, George Kennedy, and Attenborough himself, among others — promise more than enough entertainment during the opening credits. It’s the characters, though, that impress past the set-up, and each and every man is drawn to be a unique and interesting person. Consider:

-Jimmy Stewart is Captain Towns, ostensible main character and old-timey pilot who believes his know-how to be worth more than any technical mumbo-jumbo. He’s essentially Waldo Pepper a decade before Redford was Waldo Pepper.

-Attenborough and Kruger arguably share second fiddle. The former is the lovable drunk who could have been a pilot if not for his addiction, and thus has been relegated to the duties of a navigator. Kruger’s Dorfmann is the stubborn and brilliant plane designer, holding a secret that he doesn’t even realize. Both are endlessly watchable.

-Finch, Borgnine, Ian Bannen as “Ratbags” Crow, Ronald Fraser as Sgt. Watson — usually this tier of an ensemble cast is in there just to fill out the field, to inform the “real” characters in the tiers above. But Borgnine’s oafish Cobb, for example, ends up having a deceptively complex character arc; Finch’s Captain Harris ventures out alone to find help, refusing the assistance of Cobb on the basis of his poor physical condition (and, it’s implied, his pathetic mental capacity). Cobb can’t comprehend this and defiantly charges into the desert after Harris, only to die in the heat. He scrawls one final message in the sand in his final moments: his name, “Cobb”, one of the only things he’s sure of.

-George Kennedy isn’t an Academy Award winner at this point, and he has very few lines throughout the course of Phoenix. But his downtrodden face and his futile punches at his own leg when a fellow passenger succumbs to death early in the film still provide a major insight into his character — and that pain comes full circle when the makeshift aircraft finally roars to life at the climax of the film, Kennedy roaring along with it.

-Even those who die in the initial crash — occurring less than ten minutes into the 2.5 hour film — are memorable and complete, are inhabited much more so than any supporting characters in today’s ensembles. Bill has his ouzo and Tasso has his bouzouki, both shown as men with things that they love. Both are then shown crushed in the wreckage, the dripping ouzo bottle and the demolished instrument inches from their still hands. These aren’t throwaway characters (“we loved you so, so-and-so”); their deaths have an effect on Stewart’s Captain Towns, as he feels responsible, so we feel their deaths are important as well. And in less than ten minutes!

So take Last Vegas and Expendables and other “ensembles” and forget them (oh, you already did?). Consider, too, that this isn’t the kind of ensemble connected by the whole six-degrees thing, wherein films like Crash and Babel and Love, Actually posit that the cast is intertwined by themes and experiences that are common instead of experiences that are actually the same. In the tradition carried on by the likes of Murder on the Orient Express and Traffic years later, The Flight of the Phoenix is an ensemble film in the truest sense of the phrase, and because of that is wildly entertaining.

Advertisements

Evidence of Blood (1998)

A late-’90s made-for-TV flick by no-name director Andrew Mondshein starring hardbody sex idols David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell? Sign me up!

While there’s literally not one thing to get excited about when looking over Evidence of Blood on paper, it passes with a push from a realistic script and fairly believable twist ending. Strathairn stars as crime novelist Jack Kinley, who returns to his smalltown home (as all such protagonists seem to do) and gets embroiled in a decades-old murder mystery (as all such protagonists seem to do). McDonnell and the rest of the supporting cast sport drawling Southern accents and go around wondering why city boy Kinley can’t just let the past be the past, for Chrissake.

Also notable here is the overused protagonist-has-suppressed-the-one-thing-that-cracks-the-case trope, wherein Kinley’s childhood nightmares end up informing the whodunit in a highly convenient way. Was that trope overused in 1998, though? Does it matter?

The script, again, is realistic to a fault and quite solid as far as made-for-TV flicks go – and sad, then, that the aforementioned “quirk” of the protagonist is not only unrealistic but also jarring in such an otherwise true-to-life landscape. These “quirks” are super prevalent today, apparent in Dr. House and every “gifted” crime investigator on CSI and NCIS and LAPD Whatever. Hell, even Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective had spells of hallucinations amidst his obsessive and manic mannerisms.

Is no main character interesting enough without these kinds of fabricated “connections” ingrained somewhere in their psyche? That screenwriter Dalene Young and/or book author Thomas H. Cook (maybe it worked better in the novel?) succumbed to this trope is ultimately what sets this writer-solving-a-mystery story below stronger efforts of similar sensibility, like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The framing and cinematography may also be what set Evidence of Blood aside as TV fodder rather than something fit for theatrical release, and Kinley’s dreams and premonitions fade in and out of the reality of the story with barely a trace of care or subtlety. They just happen. In better hands, the weak points in the story could still have been fashioned into compelling viewing, which is to say that in better hands Evidence of Blood could have been a heck of a lot more affecting.

Child of God (2014)

Welcome to Review Basket! Reviewbasket? Different title altogether? Probably. Yes! But for now, let’s start doing what we’re here to do – namely, churning out quick reviews of every movie on the freakin’ planet.

I know you’re thinking A brand spanking new movie review site simply MUST start with James Franco’s latest film Child of God, and so it shall. Anyone familiar with the seemingly frantic shuffling of personalities calling itself “James Franco” will almost immediately recognize Child of God as a work by degree-holding Lit-Crit As I Lay Dying Franco, rather than fuck-the-po-lice Pineapple Express Franco. That much is obvious, but the question is whether or not it makes Child of God any more enticing or worthwhile.

And the answer: sorta. Sorta kinda. CoG is a much more controlled effort than Franco’s As I Lay Dying, partly due to the nature of the books from which these films are adapted and partly, I think, I hope, due to the fact that Franco is learning how to actually direct a movie. It helps that Scott Haze plays Lester Ballard, the heart, soul, and entirety of the movie, and he’s so spot-on creepy that for the majority of the runtime it probably didn’t matter who was behind the camera.

I’ve no doubt that Franco understands the novels of Cormac McCarthy, and yet bringing it to the screen and representing that understanding on film seems to be another matter altogether. The novel retains value today not only because of shock value but because of, among other things, a dichotomous representation of Lester: Lester himself is dregs, despicable, disgusting, cast out, but the writing that he lives in is elevated, beautiful, nearly biblical in the simplicity of it all. Franco’s directing is getting better, I think, but it’s hardly on par with what we’ve just described. One of the opening shots of the film is of Lester painfully going to the bathroom and wiping his ass with a stick, which we’re treated to in great detail from a rearward angle. Shocking, yes, representative of Lester’s condition, yes, but hardly elevated or beautiful or nearly biblical in the simplicity of it all.

Overall, Child of God is worth a watch for Haze’s performance alone. The book is perhaps one of McCarthy’s lesser-known novels, even among his early “Appalachian” set of efforts, and it doesn’t approach the genius of McCarthy’s later efforts in Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy. Let’s hope Franco doesn’t get ahold of any of those.