Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural, his debut novel, in 1952, the year the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. The tale of once-promising baseballer Roy Hobbs was almost universally praised upon the novel’s release, with many championing it as the first great novel about baseball. Critical consensus, though, agreed that the actual baseball — the strategy, the technicalities, the game — mattered less than the fable at hand. In some ways the myth behind Roy Hobbs was more interesting than Roy Hobbs. The original New York Times review from August ’52 typifies this stance in describing the novel thusly:
a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the “natural” player who operates with ease and the greatest skill, without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment.
Continue reading The Natural (1984)
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.
Continue reading Countdown (1968)
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.
Continue reading The Judge (2014)
It’s tough to find defenders of The Killer Elite. Watching the film without any knowledge of the chaotic production or of director Sam Peckinpah’s personal, financial and artistic woes at the time probably makes for a bland and unexciting viewing experience; sadly, a little background on Peckinpah effectively makes it even worse, as it’s hard to watch The Killer Elite without noticing that the gleefully indulgent heart characteristic of his best films seems to have vanished.
The set-up ain’t bad, although that hardly ever matters in the hands of a capable director. James Caan and Robert Duvall star as CIA-contracted assassins and friends who have worked together for years. Duvall’s George betrays Caan’s Mike, shooting him in the elbow and knee and leaving him badly crippled. The rest of the film follows Mike as he recuperates, retakes his post at the shady government operations agency, and ultimately seeks revenge on his old pal George.
There are plenty of rumors associated with The Killer Elite that may or may not be true. First is that Peckinpah took the project specifically as an attempt to recreate the financial success he had with the Steve McQueen-starrer The Getaway, which marked the last financially successful movie Peckinpah would direct. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was both more in line with Peckinpah’s Western sensibilities and more of a box office flop, and so it is admittedly easy in that regard to draw parallels between The Getaway and The Killer Elite. The fact that the project may have been more associated with money than with any real passion pretty much sets the thing up for failure out of the gate.
Continue reading The Killer Elite (1975)