Tuesday, July 2, 2013


There are two pretty grotesquely awful moments in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's semi-biopic of America's 16th President, and they, coincidentally or not, come at the very beginning and very end of the film.  In the opening scene Lincoln is surveying a battlefield and two soldiers, mostly unbidden, recite the Gettysburg Address at him (one of the soldiers is played by Lukas Haas, which is either a very sly cameo or an indication that Lukas Haas is further down the Hollywood food chain than I would have thought.)  Perhaps there's an interpretation for this scene that I'm missing, but all I read is a filmmaker who feels that the 16th President needs an introductory moment to lay out who he is and Why This All Matters.  On the other end of the film there are essentially two endings, both equally execrable, first with Lincoln's assassination and then with a flashback to the 2nd inaugural address.

These scenes, all three of them, show a distinct lack of trust in the audience to place the events of the film in context on their own, something which comes up over and over (and over) with Spielberg, which is perhaps why he's always been more of a populist filmmaker than a critical darling.  And it's a shame, because Lincoln is mostly a well-crafted biopic that manages to draw a vivid portrait of its subject matter without ever (except for the aforementioned scenes) feeling like a trip through the Big Events, the jukebox musical version of a biopic (think Ray, for instance).  Tony Kushner's screenplay takes one specific event (the push for the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery once and for all in the United States) and uses it as a prism to explore Lincoln as a whole man rather than an amber-preserved historical figure, and it is a very effective script, with a major assist going to Daniel Day-Lewis' almost preternaturally gifted performance.

I'm on record that I generally prefer a star turn performance (say, Brad Pitt in Moneyball) than a method-y, over-accented performance, but it's kind of impossible to look at what Day-Lewis is doing in Lincoln and not be awestruck.  This would be a career capper if he hadn't just put one in a few years ago in There Will Be Blood, but his Lincoln is as small and sweet and lived-in as Daniel Plainview was large and apocalyptic and just downright weird.  (Throughout much of Lincoln's very long pre-production period, Liam Neeson was supposed to play the role, and whatever anyone thinks of latter-day Neeson he would have been several steps down from Day-Lewis.)  Tommy Lee Jones has the film's second showiest role as Thaddeus Stevens, and it's nice to see him put in the effort for a change (no one checks out of a film that he doesn't care about faster than Jones), and Sally Field is on hand to lend her own gravitas to Mary Todd, but other than Day-Lewis the best parts of the casting come from character actors given meaty parts - TV favorites David Costabile and Walton Goggins both get nice showcases as members of Congress, S. Epatha Merkerson shows up in a small but pivotal role as someone close to Stevens, and the trio of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson get all of the film's funniest non-Lincoln moments as a trio of operatives working behind the scenes to press members of Congress on the passage of the Amendment.

And that's probably the most surprising part of the film; not how serious Lincoln is (and he is) but how funny and charming the film allows him to be.  He has a tendency to speak in folksy stories and homespun wisdom, while the characters around him look on half in admiration and half in exasperation; it's obvious that this is how his friends and family are used to being delivered wisdom by him.  It's a clever conceit, one that (I think) is mostly historically accurate, and it takes some of the stuffiness out of what is, at base, another one of those stories about the men of Congress passive-aggressively sniping at one another and then eventually taking a monumental, historical vote.  I wish Spielberg had had the faith in the audience to bookend his film with scenes that fit the tone of the rest of the movie, but we still got a pretty damn good Lincoln movie anyway.  A-

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Space, the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Her five year mission: to explore strange new worlds.  To seek out new life and civilizations.  To boldly go where no one has gone before.

(I could not think of a way to talk about this movie without spoiling it.  You have been warned.)

J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of Star Trek was (mostly) a triumph of outside-the-box thinking.  Tasked with both honoring the copious continuity of the already-established Star Trek universe, and allowing the beloved characters from the original series to have fresh new adventures, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman cut the Gordian Knot with a time travel plot that, while it may not have made a lot of logical sense, created a universe which honored the past while not being beholden to it.

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and company return in Star Trek Into Darkness no longer having to justify their own existence, able to simply have their own adventures, wherever they may take them.  A new threat to Starfleet in the guise of cadet John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) emerges, first blowing up a Starfleet intelligence outpost in London and then, when the top brass gather together to determine how to respond, attacking the meeting and in the process killing Kirk's mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Harrison escapes to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos and Kirk is sent on a clandestine mission to assassinate him by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller).  But neither Harrison nor Marcus are what they seem, and Kirk is faced with a series of difficult choices as he slowly uncovers the truth.

Harrison, of course, is no such thing, and is in fact the infamous Khan Noonian Singh, genetic superman and primary antagonist of Star Trek II.  Where the Khan of Star Trek II was completely driven by his hatred of Kirk, this Khan is mostly indifferent towards Kirk, and seeks his revenge against Admiral Marcus, who awoke Khan from cryosleep to help Starfleet develop weapons to use against the Klingons, and holds his colleagues hostage to force him to comply.  Kirk and Khan develop an enmity towards one another as the film progresses, but their relationship lacks the depth that "Space Seed" gave to Star Trek II.

Star Trek (the film) pointed towards a future for this franchise that was free from the series' continuity, that could blaze its own path in whatever direction it desired.  I saw a version of Star Trek Into Darkness that honored this idea, very briefly, when Khan and Kirk team up to take down Marcus' enormous prototype ship in the 2nd act.  That was a scene that said, we do not have to be defined by the past.  Perhaps Khan doesn't have to simply be a villain, perhaps he can be something more than that, a character who exists in an all-too-unusual grey area within the Star Trek universe.  Khan had done terrible things, granted, but so had Marcus, and maybe the script could have figured out a way to thread that needle, to at least partially justify Khan's actions and make him into something different, a character who wore neither white hat nor black hat but could be useful in certain circumstances and would be, going forward, a wild card out on the edges of space, always in the back of our heroes' minds.

But then it all fell apart, as Khan returned to the previous status quo, seeking petty revenge against Kirk and being foiled by the crew of the Enterprise.  "Where no one has gone before", it's the last goddamned words of the intro, the ones right before the music kicks in.  Did no one pay attention to this fact?  Did no one think, at any point, that this movie so thoroughly and completely refuses to boldly go anywhere but the same place that previous people had already gone?  We have Khan running through the same character beats, with a brief respite in the middle before the plunge back into outright villainy.  We have Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), inserted into the franchise at the exact same time point that she was in the first film series, here mostly just taking up space aboard the Enterprise but I swear to God I expected her final scene to reveal her to be pregnant (it didn't, which is something I guess).  We have a death in a radiation chamber, and the film practically begs audiences to be impressed by the fact that it inverts the scene from Star Trek II, putting Kirk in the chamber and Spock angrily screaming for vengeance against Khan as Kirk dies.  And the emotional response to this scene is completely muted given the realities of 21st century blockbuster franchise - there is no way that a second film in a series is going to kill off its hero, so the only reason that this scene exists is to remind audiences of the earlier film.  Everything here, ultimately, relies so much on the goodwill of audiences who loved Star Trek II that it forgets to actually create an interesting and believable story for its heroes to play around in.

In the end, this is a movie that posits that we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, that people are incapable of changing in any meaningful way and we are all fated to play the same roles, in the same way, with the same people, again and again and again.  That would be alright if the film cared to explore that idea with any sort of depth, but this is a movie that seemingly couldn't care less about anything but to make cheap references and remind audiences of an old movie that it actually loved on its own terms, rather than just as one enormous exercise in self-referencing.  Star Trek put together a new cast of actors playing a beloved set of characters, and discovered that those characters could still seem fresh in the 21st century.  Star Trek Into Darkness puts them together again, and weighs them down so thoroughly with the stale remnants of the previous century's stories that it suggests the filmmakers have already given up on the idea of boldly taking this franchise anywhere but backwards.  C-

The Bourne Legacy

The first act of The Bourne Legacy, director Tony Gilroy's sideways reboot of the Bourne franchise with Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross as the new lead, revolves very heavily around a drone strike carried out against Cross.  With the Treadstone program from the first three films falling apart around them thanks to Jason Bourne's having gone rogue, the people who run even more top-secret clandestine personnel programs at the CIA, particularly Eric Byer (Edward Norton), have decided that the programs, and everyone involved in them, need to be terminated.  Cross and another agent within his program (Oscar Isaac) are targeted for assassination by Byer and his team, and a drone is used to fire a missile into the cabin in which they are temporarily staying.

The Bourne films are, ultimately, about inwardly-turned post-9/11 paranoia.  Where the era of classic spy films was mostly about the fear of the Other (the Soviet Union or some related stand-in, and then some terrorist group or other after its collapse), this series of films is about the fear of ourselves, of the power we have granted the government in the name of defending America and how little ability we really have to step on the brakes with any of it.  These films are suffused with a dread of government-backed technology, programs that use neuroscience and biotechnology to create assassins and supersoldiers, and the use of a recognizable piece of controversial technology like a drone draws the connection explicitly between the fictional world of the film and the very real world in which we live.

Cross has been physically and mentally enhanced chemically by project Outcome, the sister program to Treadstone, and after he escapes the attack his path intertwines with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a researcher who is involved with the science behind Cross's chemical enhancement, and who has narrowly escaped being eliminated by Byer under the guise of a workplace shooting.  Cross and Shearing travel to Manila, home to project Outcome's chemical manufacturing facility, in search of Cross's medications, as they are slowly but methodically tracked by Byer and his team, including an operative in an even higher security program (Louis Ozawa Changchien), project LARX.

Tony Gilroy wrote or co-wrote the first three Bourne movies and here he adds the title of director as well, taking over from the departed Paul Greengrass.  It's always an open question with action films as to how much the script actually matters - for every Shane Black, who parlayed his distinctive voice as an action movie writer into a genuine name-brand, there are 10 writers like Steven E. de Souza, who co-wrote, among other things, both 48 Hours and Die Hard, not that you'd know that both of those films came from the same writer.  Gilroy isn't a writer who is going to give you a lot of interesting turns of phrase, but he is one of the most gifted writers at crafting the mechanics of a taut thriller, and the way the Bourne Legacy accomplishes the twin goals of tying into the continuity of the earlier series while also striking out in an interesting new direction is remarkable in and of itself, before getting to the nuts and bolts of the film itself.

Because the Bourne Legacy is built much more on those plot mechanics than it is on raw action, and yet it still manages to move along at a brisk pace.  The first act is a bit clunky, with the action ping-ponging between Byer in Washington, dealing with the fallout from Jason Bourne, and Cross in some sort of alpine retreat, not yet aware of the imminent danger he is in.  The two halves of that equation don't fit together terribly well, with Cross' more action-heavy half ironically slowing the film down from Byer's pedal-to-the-metal energy.  Norton is a notoriously difficult actor to work with, which is the only legitimate reason he doesn't work more often, because he has a preternatural ability to breathe life into even an underwritten character like Byer.  Renner's performance is more along the path of mere adequacy - he's good enough at selling 21st century action-hero roles, but he doesn't bring a lot of charm to the proceedings.  Weisz's character is the pivotal one plotwise, which makes it particularly unfortunate that she spends a lot of the film as baggage, following Cross' various enhanced-soldier orders and simply trying to stay alive; she falls very distinctly on the "escort mission" side of the Female Lead In An Action Movie spectrum.  She's a smart and capable actress who is good in the role, but Gilroy could have tried to write his way around this cliche rather than through it.

I have gotten this far without mentioning the action in the film, and that is mostly because I didn't find any of it all that memorable.  It gets the job done of moving the film along between conversations, but I found the conversations, and the plot, to be almost universally more interesting.  Mediocre action in an action movie might sink a lesser film, but Gilroy's ideas here, and his ability to spin off this world in a fascinating new direction, manages to carry the day regardless of the fact that the action disappoints, which can either be taken as a great compliment for a film that resurrects a series that seemed dead while plugging directly into the current zeitgeist, or an indictment of a franchise which has lost its drive.  I know which side I fall on.  B+

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Iron Man 3

We're in uncharted waters now.  Prior to The Avengers, there were five Marvel Universe movies (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: First Avenger) that all served, in some fashion, as leadups to the big, Whedon-directed team-up film.  The burden on each, besides building their own worlds and their own characters, was to build anticipation for The Avengers, and building anticipation is, all things being equal, not really that difficult.  A glimpse here, a glimpse there.  Just enough to whet the appetite.

We're in the next phase of the Marvel film saga now and even though Avengers 2 is already on the horizon, each of the next batch of films has to convince audiences that yes, these characters each bring value to the screen all on their own, and their adventures are worth following even when they are split up.  Of the four major members of the Avengers, director Shane Black should, on paper, have the easiest time reintroducing a solo Tony Stark, since the first Iron Man movie took place more or less in a world in which an Avengers movie was more fantasy than reality, and Robert Downey Jr.'s performance has always been the most solid anchor in this universe, imbuing Stark with his own self-confident-verging-on-cocky charisma.

Black is reunited with his Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang star in Downey, and there is a conscious effort to bring some of that film's light/dark dichotomy into this movie.  The film opens and closes with Downey speaking in voiceover, a direct homage to their earlier collaboration, and Downey gets his own Val Kilmer to bounce off of in this film in the form of, of all things, an adorable moppet.  Stark's second-act sojourn that brings him into the orbit of a child named Harley (Ty Simpkins) seems like the most shamelessly pandering bit of horseshit this side of Clark's irritating "son" in Superman Returns, but Black and Drew Pearce's script somehow makes it work.  In the midst of Stark's very personal and mostly small-stakes battle with the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), his ability to banter never leaves him, even when he only has a young boy to bounce off of.

But hanging over Iron Man 3, like an unwanted guest, is The Avengers, and the film never finds a satisfying way to grapple with it.  Leave aside the fact that Tony Stark has a bunch of superheroic friends who never bother coming to his aid in his battle here - we'll just assume, like we will probably have to with everyone else's solo picture, that everyone else is busy with their own life-or-death struggle, and don't have the time to answer the call at the moment.  Iron Man 3 tries to find something to say about the way the events of The Avengers, with its cosmic focus, had a profound effect on Tony Stark's distinctively down-to-earth persona, and it almost entirely fails.  To be more explicit, and I don't think this is much of a spoiler, the film give Stark panic attacks that are supposedly related to what happened in that previous film, positing that his battle with the forces of another universe or dimension or whatever it was changed his outlook, and harmed his ability to interact with the world as it normally is.  The problem here is that, for anyone who has seen The Avengers, the threat in that film, other than Loki's scenery-chewing, is almost entirely superfluous, simple plot mechanics that are necessary to accomplish the primary goal, which is to bring our heroes together and allow them to bounce off one another.  So to deal with that film here through his connection to its (pedestrian) plot, rather than through his new friendships, is pretty much a complete misfire (one of the other Avengers shows up in the post-credits sequence, and it's pretty funny, so at least they're still around, somewhere or other).

The action in this film is a mixed bag, although more good than bad.  The best action sequence is a doozy, the Air Force One rescue scene, but the worst action scene is, unfortunately, the final one.  It occurs to me that all three Iron Man films have set their final action scenes at night, and I think it's not a coincidence that the final battles of all three movies have been fairly disappointing.  The final action sequence in The Avengers was filmed in daylight, and it is arguably the best scene in the film.  Iron Man, the character, is alive with primary colors, and why filmmakers insist on muting them with night shoots is a mystery to me.

Aside from that, the villains in this movie are probably the most interesting out of all three films - they're certainly better than Mickey Rourke's sleepy villain in the second film, and are probably better than Jeff Bridges' afterthought of a character in the first.  Besides Kingsley, Guy Pearce gives the film a decent shot of energy as Aldrich Killian, an entrepreneur with the heart of a sociopath, and James Badge Dale is appropriately sinewy and weird as the film's most pro-active henchman.  I'll confess that the 3rd act twist caught me completely off-guard, so much so that it took me a minute or two to even figure out what it meant to say; I'm not sure if that reflects a failure on the filmmakers' part, or a massive success.  It is an exceptionally weird twist, and I won't spoil it.  Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress who I mostly don't like, has acquitted herself well as Pepper Potts throughout this series, and some of the film's uncomfortable sexism (there is a scene that almost perfectly echoes the worst scene in Skyfall, and women are way too often treated as props here) is at least partially mitigated by the role Potts ultimately ends up playing in the final showdown.  I like Black as a writer and filmmaker, but the women of the Marvel Universe still mostly deserve better than they're getting, and that  was unquestionably on display in his script.  Don Cheadle continues to be mostly stranded as Jim Rhodes, and both his and Terrence Howard's inability to find anything terribly interesting in the character speaks to how superfluous he's been over the course of three films.

Robert Downey Jr. has played this character in four films now, with at least one more on the way.  It's been a good fit for him, allowing an actor of his remarkable gifts to inhabit a B-list character like Tony Stark and turn him into a de facto A-lister.  Iron Man 3 feels, at least to some extent, like a capper to this character, even though there is at least one more contractually-obligated Avengers movie, if not more.  But Downey's version of Stark belongs to a bigger universe now, and this film's small-scale threat is too small for Iron Man now, in much the same way that it feels like it's time for Downey to move on to bigger challenges as well.  B

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Color Purple

It is safe to say that The Color Purple does not resemble any other film in Steven Spielberg's filmography up to this point.  His two most "serious" films before this both involved aliens, and their big ideas were much more metaphorical than they were literal.  The Color Purple was a gamble, both for Spielberg and for the studio that put a young white guy in charge of perhaps one of the quintessential stories about African-American women, and while I think that any film has to be judged entirely by what's up on screen, it's hard to forget about this background while you watch it - Spielberg was less than 30 years old when he shot it, and if the source material wasn't so strong, and so beloved, I'm not sure it would have made it out of pre-production.

Let me back up a step and say this - there is still, to this day, a (fairly low-level, but still present) controversy about whether Spielberg should have been picked to make this film at all.  And there are sort of two parts to this.  On the one hand, Spielberg is unquestionably one of the great filmmakers of his time, and specifically one who exhibits copious amounts of empathy for his subjects.  So of course he is (and was) just as capable of making this film as anyone.  But on the other hand, given that Hollywood still has a real dearth of black voices behind the camera, people whose own lived-in experiences are rarely allowed to come through on screen, it is at least somewhat of a missed opportunity that the studio settled on someone who didn't totally feel this material in their bones, at the very core of their being.  Because this is a story about black women, and black women directors of real renown are unicorns in Hollywood.  But we got Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's novel, and that's all I've got to work with, so enough grab-assing around, let's dive in.

14-year-old Celie Harris (played, as an adult, by Whoopi Goldberg) has already been twice impregnated by her lout of a father when she is essentially sold to Mister Johnson (Danny Glover) to be his wife/live-in maid and help take care of his three children by his previous wife.  Her younger sister Nettie comes to live with them for a while after running away from her father, but after Mister tries to rape Nettie too, she is kicked out of the house and Mister cuts off any contact between the two girls.

Everyone grows older and Mister's youngest child, Harpo, knocks up and marries the willful Sofia (Oprah Winfrey).  Sofia's stubbornness, the thing that gives her her unique spark, is also her ultimate downfall when she hits a local white woman and is sent to prison for eight years - she emerges from imprisonment prematurely grey and broken in spirit, employed as a servant to the very same woman who she hit.  In the meantime the mistress that Mister keeps a torch burning for, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), comes to stay with him for a while, and what starts out as a mutually antagonistic relationship between Celie and Shug soon turns to friendship and eventually (mostly by implication) mutual romantic love.  Shug eventually leaves and the next time she returns she has a husband, Grady (Bennet Guillory), disappointing both Mister and Celie.  With Shug's help, Celie discovers that her sister has been sending her letters for years that Mister has been confiscating - Nettie is working as a missionary in Africa, and both of Celie's children are with her.

At dinner with the family after discovering the letters, Celie finally breaks Mister's psychological hold on her, and tells him she is leaving with Shug and Grady.  Free of Mister's hold, Celie opens up a haberdashery in Memphis, although she is unable to solve her sister's problem - Nettie can't return to America since she can't convince US immigration officials that she is a citizen.  Mister, a broken-down drunk after having lost everything in his life (including Harpo, who ran off along with Celie) has one final decent act in him, and takes his entire savings to Washington to convince the government to allow Nettie and Celie's children back into the country.  The film ends as Celie is reunited with her sister and her children for the first time in decades, with Mister looking on from a distance.

The Color Purple is basically the same length as 1941, and while the latter was one of the most painful slogs I have ever had the misfortune of watching, this film absolutely breezed past.  Given a sprawling, decades-long narrative, Spielberg manages to condense it down to its crystalline essence, and he does so without sacrificing the arcs of several characters.  All three of the major female characters (Celie, Sofia and Shug) are given something interesting to do (Shug has a strained relationship with her preacher father because of her sexually adventurous youth, and her redemption in his eyes takes up the back half of her arc), and he even manages to work in Nettie's sojourn in Africa so that it fits seamlessly within the plot of the film.

But....(there's always a but)....the tone of this film, for long stretches, is just really, really off.  Some significant portion of the blame, and it's weird to say this considering what an important creative force he was in getting the film made, has to go to Quincy Jones, whose score is really brutally awful - light when it should be heavy, treacly when it should be subtle, the whole thing should have been scrapped (and maybe would have been, if Jones wasn't an EP on the film).  The one part where his gifts as a musician shine are in the late-film scenes set in Africa, where his approximation of African tribal music give the film a real driving tension that it is almost entirely missing elsewhere (Spielberg intercuts some sort of ritual involving Celie's children with Celie's almost-murder of Mister that is interrupted by Shug, set to Jones' tribal music, and it is easily the most tense moment in the movie.)  Celie spends a decent part of her adolescence being raped, first by her father and later by Mister, and the film only scratches the surface of what this means, cutting in way too many hijinx-y scenes, set to Jones' unsubtle wacky music.  It does a better job in the back half of taking everything a little bit more seriously, but those early comic scenes left a bad taste that lingered.

The film makes a fairly subtle case for Celie being a lesbian - from the standpoint of 2013, it's clear that that's what Celie is, and if this movie had been made now it would have been played up quite a bit more.  For whatever reason Spielberg gives a light touch to what I imagine is a bigger theme in the book (you can often tell, in a work that is adapted from a novel, when a ghost of a plot thread in a movie has been whittled down from a much bigger thread in its source) and this choice, probably more than anything, reflects some of Spielberg's reticence as a white male filmmaker to really tackle an issue that was outside of his comfort zone.  He certainly never suggests otherwise, but Celie's lesbianism is only really present at the very edges of the story (Shug probably isn't a lesbian, just someone who is sexually adventurous and flexible, but it's pretty clear that Celie is not attracted to men).

The best part of The Color Purple, by a fairly wide margin (and I say this not to damn the movie at all, but because this part was just that great) is Whoopi Goldberg's performance as Celie.  To use a cliched term, I genuinely found it to be a revelation - Goldberg entirely subsumes her boisterous personality within Celie's very small and contained character.  Her own public persona eventually overwhelmed her ability to play a character like Celie again, but if it was literally the only film she had ever acted in, it would still be a towering achievement worth mentioning in the same breath as some of the classic film performances.  I can't say enough about how good she is - the film goes out of its way to talk about how ugly Celie is supposed to be (which I gather is in the novel) but her performance is so charmingly sincere and unguarded that it is never in question why Shug falls for her.  Oprah is also quite good as Sofia, more for the front half of her performance (the "Baddest Bitch" part) than the back half, where she sort of loses the thread when Sofia is supposed to be broken, and no longer really has a good hook in the character.  No one else really stands out - I found Margaret Avery mostly too big, and was somewhat surprised to find she had been nominated for an Oscar.  Glover's role is really thankless, having to pretty much be an awful brute until his last-minute change of heart, and he does the best he can with a somewhat underwritten character, but whatever charm Mister is supposed to possess never really comes through, and it's hard to understand why someone like Shug ever came under his spell (it's kind of weird that Glover kept getting cast as heavies when he was younger, given that he practically invented the phrase, "twinkle in his eye" - he was also the bad guy in Witness.)  Willard Pugh, God bless him, is just awful as Harpo, a nothing of a nothing performance that comes dangerously close to Stepin Fetchit territory on several occasions.

So then there's another major problem in this film, one that has been endlessly dissected, and that is how it portrays black men.  Walker's novel is, I gather, a story about how both racism and patriarchal attitudes within their own community affected black women in early 20th century America (and, by extension, continue to affect them to the present day).  The unfortunate side-effect of this is that the men in this film are, by and large, pretty cartoonishly awful, either irredeemable louts (as Celie and Nettie's father, Mister and Mister's father all are) or hen-pecked losers (as Harpo is).  While that may have come across a little more subtly on the page, onscreen it ends up seeming pretty profoundly, well, racist.  So much of the legacy of post-Civil War era civil rights battles revolves around the fear that white people had that black men were uncouth, savage brutes who were coming for their women and, well....that's sort of what we have here.  Rapists, abusers, and lazy bums.  On some level I could understand if someone considers this a deal-breaker  for this film - from my standpoint, I thought the women were strong and interesting enough characters that I still considered it a worthwhile film to see.

And that's the bottom line, I guess, for anyone who has gotten this far - on balance, I liked the Color Purple. The parts that I liked I really liked, and the parts that I didn't like I was able to look past.  I don't think this is his most accomplished film by a long shot, and it's certainly not his crowning achievement.  But as a young filmmaker's first foray into truly serious subject matter, it's altogether solid, and is probably the film in this marathon so far that I'm most glad I did eventually catch up with.  I've been thinking about it since yesterday, and even though not everything worked, and some things were downright miscalculations, it's a film that I think will stick with me.

A few more loose odds and ends:

Spielberg really has very little interest in exploring gender roles in any sort of complex way.  Mister tries to make breakfast for Shug and he totally botches it, and the whole thing is played for laughs.  Celie then does the job instead and cooks up a gigantic, perfectly-cooked breakfast right afterwards.  There's a pretty obvious implication being made here for the audience, and it is extremely reductive.  Someone who was a bit more sociologically aware might have made something more interesting of this scene.

The old lady makeup/hair on Oprah is awful.  Just as she loses the thread of her character after she gets out of prison, the film drops the ball by putting her in such a stupid, stupid wig.

Spielberg's signifiers of Africa (elephants, zebras, savannah, tribal music) are awfully cliche.  It places the audience in space just fine, but it's also a "Really?" type scene.  Nettie traveled to Africa from America.  The chance that she ended up in the Serengeti, which is all the way on the eastern part of the continent, is somewhere between slim and none.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

There are spoilers for the film here.

Searching for Sugar Man, as its title implies, is structured as a mystery.  Its title figure, Sixto Rodriguez, released two albums on a small record label in the United States in the early-70's.  Neither record sold particularly well, and Rodriguez the musician disappeared into obscurity.  This is a fairly common story in the record industry, where only the barest handful of people manage to sell enough records to make a living at it, but what sets Rodriguez apart is that, for reasons that are not entirely clear (the movie attempts to grapple with this question, but its answers are somewhat cliche), his music hit a chord with white South Africans in the 70's and 80's, people who considered themselves foes of the apartheid regime in that country.  Rodriguez became, without ever knowing it, a superstar in South Africa, a musician whose records occupy the same real estate with, according to one person in the film, the Beatles' Abbey Road and Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The mystery that the first half of Malik Bendjelloul's film is built around is, what happened to Rodriguez?  In the pre-internet era, details of his life were difficult to find, especially for residents of a country as politically isolated as apartheid-era South Africa was, and rumors that he had killed himself in some gruesome way were the most common story passed around among his fans.  A couple of those fans took it upon themselves in the 90's, sparked by the re-release of his albums on CD, to find out the true story, and their search eventually yielded the man himself, alive and well and living a working-class life in Detroit.

The second half of the film fills in the details of Rodriguez' life after his brief shot at being a big-time musician, and spends a good deal of time building up to, and showing the footage from, Rodriguez' triumphant 1998 tour of South Africa, the first time his fans in that country had gotten a chance to see him in person.  It is a show-stopping moment, and it is made possible by Rodriguez himself, a man of copious amounts of humility and grace about the circumstances of his life, the near-miss of stardom and the fact that he makes ends meet by doing manual labor in one of the hardest cities in America.  Rodriguez resists introspection about his place in the world (he is an awkward interview subject, too careful and measured to provide concrete answers), but his humanity shines through the screen anyway.

Rodriguez' music populates the film - it's folky, with just the barest hint of Latin inflection.  He gets compared to Bob Dylan constantly, not without reason, and occasionally he comes up with a turn of phrase that really makes you take notice.  There's a bit of saminess to the music; he likes to come up with a question or phrase and repeat it in different iterations.  But at its best, his music absolutely could have played on AOR stations in the 70's.  It was probably a longshot in any case - the record label he is signed to was too small to provide any real publicity muscle (the biggest artist on the label was Bill Withers, and his albums also somewhat undersold) but the film at least implies that part of the problem was just how conspicuously Hispanic Rodriguez is.  His music is distinctly in the white folk tradition, acoustic guitars and political messages, and it's not far-fetched to imagine the label had trouble figuring out how to sell him to audiences.  The film also strongly implies that the head of his label, a man named Clarence Avant, pocketed the royalties that he should have been receiving from his South African album sales, but it doesn't follow the thread beyond asking Avant about it (who is extremely cagey about the subject, and comes off like the slimy record executive one imagines them to be.)

The second half of the film is dominated, not so much by Rodriguez himself as by his three daughters.  They are the narrators of his story, talking about his blue collar life as a manual laborer, about his quixotic 1989 campaign for Detroit city council (the city couldn't even manage to spell his name right on the ballot) and, above all, about how he worked hard to instill a love of the arts in them.  It's never clear what the family situation between them, their mother and Rodriguez is, but what comes across on the screen is just what a decent father he was to the three of them, and how much they appreciate what he was able to give them - not money, but knowledge, and passion, and the sense that lacking material things didn't mean that the culture in and around the city was closed off to them.

Bendjelloul engages in a bit of fudging to make the narrative work.  In the mid-70's, Rodriguez' records sold well enough in Australia for him to tour the country in 1979, and again in 1981.  Bendjelloul doesn't mention this fact, so that the 1998 concert in South Africa seems like Rodriguez' triumphant return to music after having walked away from the business in the early-70's.  It's one of those omissions that makes sense in terms of the story the filmmaker is trying to tell, but it's at least worth noting that the story told here doesn't quite match the reality of the facts on the ground.  Rodriguez is still a compelling enough figure, and his story so fascinating anyway, that it didn't matter to me.  There are so many stories that intertwine within the life of Rodriguez - the shady details of the music business, apartheid-era South Africa, the collapse of the working class (particularly in Detroit), but most of all the story of Rodriguez is one of a father and his daughters, about  how a man with very little can still give his girls so much.  A-

Friday, March 29, 2013


When does it become clear to the people involved in making a film that the finished product is going to be a turkey?  Well, if it's some direct-to-video detritus, probably "before the script is even written."  But if it's a film with A-list pretenses, your Giglis, your Leonard: Part 6's, it presumably takes a while for everyone to realize what they're doing.  A bad screenplay can be salvaged.  A bad performance can be muted in the editing booth.  An incoherent mess can be streamlined.  But at some point, if things are really dire, it probably becomes obvious to enough people on the production that things are not going to end well, and their job is just to finish the damn thing and move on to the next project.

1941 is a massive turkey.  It is incomprehensible and unfunny, and it is those things for almost two and a half excruciating hours.  It was actually not a box office bomb, making three times as much as it cost at theaters, and I feel sorry for every single person who bought a ticket to the latest blockbuster from the man who made Jaws and Close Encounters, and had to sit through this piece of shit in a dark theater.  At least I got to pause it and take a break.  Watching this from start to finish straight through might have destroyed my mind.

The film is ever-so-loosely based on the bombardment of Ellwood, when a Japanese sub shelled an oil refinery near Los Angeles in early 1942.  After Pearl Harbor there was a lot of paranoia on the American coasts about what the Japanese or Germans might get up to, and the shelling of Ellwood fed into that sense.  We are introduced to a Japanese sub off the California coast at the very beginning, and then at the very end it does some shelling.  In the middle, a whole bunch of mostly-unrelated nonsense happens, and a huge cast of famous and semi-famous people show up for a few minutes here and there as the plot determinedly refuses to actually go anywhere.  A lot of stuff gets destroyed - planes, tanks, a house, a paint factory for some reason.  It's all supposed to be funny and almost none of it is.  I don't know whose decision it was to make this material into a slapstick comedy - Spielberg has a well-known love for Stanley Kubrick, so at some point I'm pretty certain he saw 1941 as his Dr. Strangelove.  But between his ham-handed direction (seriously, everything gets destroyed, it is exhausting) and the joke-free screenplay, the film is neither funny nor poignant.  It's not lifeless, at least, because at any given moment about 5 different things are happening on screen.  But it's all so tiresomely vaudevillian.  One of the characters, I am not making this up, is a ventriloquist dummy, and the film treats it like it's a real person.  That is the type of film this is.

John Milius, who is most famous for tough-guy movies like the Dirty Harry pictures and Conan the Barbarian, has a story-by credit, but I'm going to go ahead and assign most of the script portion of the blame to the writing team behind the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.  It's not clear whether they wrote a semi-serious script and then Spielberg decided to go jokey a la Strangelove, or whether it was jokey to begin with, but most of Zemeckis' early work was pretty doofy, so I'm going to assume it's the latter.  There was one joke in the film that actually made me laugh, for a solid 1 joke/150 minute ratio.  A lot of the humor, to be fair, is visual, which really has to fall more on Spielberg's shoulders than the screenwriters.  If you think the sight of a tank plowing through a warehouse full of paint cans is inherently funny, well, this might be your favorite movie.

The cast is sprawling and almost no one comes out with their dignity intact.  John Belushi's character, if it can be called that, is an overeager spin on Bluto Blutarski.  Dan Aykroyd is a soldier who loves America but also has a thick Canadian accent.  Treat Williams spends most of the film attempting to rape another character - this is, obviously, played for laughs.  Slim Pickens and Warren Oates trade on their names and their well-established personae to join in the "fun"; Pickens, in particular, is on the wrong end of a very long scene that revolves around his character's bowel movements.  Ned Beatty is a clueless oaf who willfully destroys his own home (he does, however, have the film's one funny moment).  Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune(!) play the film's Nazi and Japanese villain, respectively - both of them play their scenes fairly straight, but neither has much to do but yell and argue.  Robert Stack plays the military head honcho, and he is probably the one actor in the film whose character acts in consistently logical ways, and never has to do anything humiliating.

I don't want to waste much more time on this film, because I have wasted too much on it already.  It is awful.  When the James Bond series bottomed out, at least one could still enjoy the various tropes of the series.  Same with the worst Star Trek movies.  There are no redeeming qualities to 1941.  It is stupid, it looks awful, and there are no performances in it that are even worth mentioning again.  Spielberg, at least, must have known he had a bomb on his hands when he watched the dailies, and he has at least had the good sense to stay the hell out of the comedy business since then.  Let us never speak of this movie ever again.

Well, just a little bit more.  Bullet points.

The opening scene is an homage to Jaws.  Instead of a shark, it's a Japanese sub.  That seems like a really presumptuous thing for Spielberg to do, to already be self-referencing this early in his career.

Slim Pickens does a riff on his famous "survival kit" speech from Dr. Strangelove, rattling off all the garbage in his shit-kicker character's pockets for the Japanese sailors that capture him.  It's actually vaguely amusing, but then they flush the character right down the toilet (puns!) by having him swallow a compass that the Japanese need for some reason, and then having them force-feed him prune juice.

The one funny joke - Ned Beatty is having a heart-to-heart with his daughter about the USO dance that she is going to go to that night, and he tells her that it is her duty as an American to sleep with the soldiers.  It came as such a surprise that someone had done something unexpected and funny that I had to rewind and watch it again to make sure I heard what I thought I did.

Robert Stack's character cries at Dumbo, which is actually pretty cute.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


The CIA-led Iranian coup of 1953, which deposed Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of Shah Reza Pahlavi, was something of a Patient Zero in the warped relationship the United States has with the Middle East.  The Shah became one of the world's most despised leaders and the Iranian people, quite rightly it turned out, blamed the United States (and the UK) for meddling in its internal affairs in favor of a man who ran the country as a ruthless autocrat.  The Muslim world in general came to distrust the intentions of the United States, and the end of the Cold War focused that mistrust into a mutually-held fear of the Other.

I don't mean to damn Argo with faint praise when I say that its opening section, when it summarizes this history in the form of a Persepolis-esque series of cartoon images, is perhaps its most impressive.  Director Ben Affleck manages to hit the major points in this history in an interesting visual way, setting the scene for the film's tableau during the 1979 revolution that ended the Shah's reign and put Ayatollah Khomeini in charge of the country.  It is, to be fair, at least a slightly simplified history, mostly leaving out the justified fear that the Western powers had that Mossadegh would draw Iran closer to the Soviet sphere of influence in favor of a purely oil-based justification, but it is still very effective.

As everyone surely knows by know, Argo is the story of six American diplomats who managed to escape the US Embassy in Tehran for the Canadian ambassador's residence just prior to the 1979 hostage crisis, and their extrication from the country before they were discovered by the Ayatollah's agents.  Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration specialist, who concocts a cover story in which the six diplomats pretend to be the Canadian film crew for a Hollywood-produced, low-budget science fiction movie named Argo (in reality, an adaptation of a fairly well known science fiction novel, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light.)  John Goodman and Alan Arkin portray the production team that helped Mendez build the cover story, and Bryan Cranston plays Mendez's boss at the CIA.

Argo neatly cleaves into two stories - there is the plight of the six diplomats, both before Mendez shows up to help them and after, and there is the story of Mendez putting together a fake movie in sun-drenched 70's Hollywood.  The mid-film tonal shift into the Hollywood portion is somewhat jarring, but Affleck has enough confidence as a filmmaker (and as an old Hollywood veteran himself, who certainly knows his subjects as well as anyone) to make it work.  It helps that Goodman and Arkin give the film its two most interesting characters, Hollywood hustlers par excellence who see the Argo plan as their one big shot to do something of true substance.  The six diplomats are much less well-defined - the film only gives them a few scenes to develop as characters, and other than the way they wear their hair (and facial hair) it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart, except for the fact that a few of them are played by semi-recognizable actors (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane are the three whose names I knew).  Mendez is also something of a problem - Affleck gives himself by far the biggest role in the film, and while his performance is perfectly serviceable, it lacks anything remotely resembling a spark.  I tried to think about how I would recast the role, and my initial instinct was Mark Ruffalo, but there are just a lot of working actors who would have brought more to the role than Affleck is capable of.

But we're not here to discuss Affleck the actor, who is what he is, we're here to talk about Affleck the filmmaker.  And while I thought the storytelling was solidly delivered in Argo (despite the relative flatness of the characters) my biggest complaint of the film was just how flop-sweaty some of the thriller elements were. There are just too many scenes where everything is on the knife's edge of completely falling apart, and while I am willing to allow some dramatic license to enhance the story, at some point I just stopped believing what was happening on screen in any meaningful way.  The story that Argo is based on is a fascinating one, and I wish Affleck had trusted in its details more, and embellished them less (some of this also has to rest on the shoulders of screenwriter Chris Terrio).  It is still a good film, and the storytelling is extremely efficient.  I have yet to see The Town, but between this film and Gone Baby Gone, Affleck certainly has an eye for the lived-in details of the worlds he is creating (the Argo table read in the Hollywood section is worth the price of admission all by itself, like Ed Wood's version of the Star Wars cantina).  I wish this film had more trust that the audience would follow the real details of the story, as opposed to the Hollywood-ized version, but I suppose that's what happens when you make a fake film within a real film about real events.  On some level, everything that comes out of Hollywood is bullshit, and eventually it all comes down to arguing about degrees.  B

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How to Survive a Plague

There are three groups of players that orbit around one another in David France's documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, How to Survive a Plague (the film mostly takes place between about 1987 and 1996).  There are the politicians, responsible for setting the policy for how the government is going to respond to the crisis.  There are the scientists, men and women both in the private sector, as well as at NIH and the FDA, doing the work to identify and bring to market some sort of cure.  And there are the activists of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), some of whom are HIV-positive (many, or even most, of the people France focuses on within ACT UP seem to be positive, although not all), agitators for changes both in policy and in how the scientists do their business.

The memorable characters in the film are, with one exception, entirely from the ACT UP side of the proceedings.  There is playwright Larry Kramer, who gives the film its title with an impassioned plea for unity from his fellow activists when everything seems to be spinning out of control within ACT UP.  There is Mark Harrington, the brains of the treatment activist group, who teaches himself (and his fellow activists) to speak to the scientists with an astonishing level of sophistication.  There is Garance Franke-Ruta, the young true believer with the dodgy taste in hats.  There is Peter Staley, the natural spokesperson, who faces down Pat Buchanan on Crossfire and gives a rousing speech to a packed house at the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco.  And there is Bob Rafsky, author of this famous campaign moment, whose fatalism about the short time he assumes he has left on Earth is matched in intensity by his drive to find a cure one way or another.

The one character who cuts a memorable figure within the film and is not a part of ACT UP is Senator Jesse Helms, shown in file footage, representing the fear and the bigotry of an entire group of Americans who had no interest in pushing for a cure to a disease that disproportionately affects gay men.  Most of the drama in How to Survive a Plague happens in scientific conferences and board meetings, as scientists and activists work, sometimes in tandem, sometimes at odds over logistics, but always towards a common goal.  But the specter of Helms always lingers over the film, the foot-dragging that he represents linked, explicitly and implicitly, to a body count that could have been lower but for people like him in positions of power (including the Archbishop of New York, John O'Connor, responsible for some truly backwards writing on contraception and AIDS prevention) having no real interest in AIDS prevention.

The problem here is that Helms himself is a minor figure in the broader AIDS drama.  His inflammatory speeches from the floor of the Senate provide good sound bites, but there is a pretty clear implication from the film that there was an institutional rot within both the American government and the scientific community when it came to confronting the AIDS epidemic (which is, presumably, why ACT UP came into existence in the first place), and it is never made terribly clear who the players really were, and how anti-gay bigotry helped foster an apathy towards finding a cure.  Ronald Reagan's name is invoked a couple of times, and George H.W. Bush is on the business end of at least one (quite unfair) potshot about him playing golf while people die, but the dots are just never connected between federal foot-dragging on the "gay plague" and what is going on at the FDA or the NIH, where treatments are either being tested too slowly, or else being neglected entirely.  When the scientists finally settle on the combination therapy (including the breakthrough of finding protease inhibitors that specifically inhibit HIV replication) that works to truly extend the lives of those who are HIV-positive in 1996, it is clearly a triumph for everyone involved, but because of the lack of clear dot-connecting between the work of the ACT UP activists and improvements in how the treatment and approval processes were carried out, it never coalesces on screen just what, exactly, ACT UP was responsible for, and what was just normal scientific progress.  France also makes the choice to hold the revelation of which of the film's characters have survived to the present day thanks to combination therapy, and which ones succumbed to the infection, until the end of the film.  It's a bittersweet moment to see the faces of the people from the archival footage, 20 years older, knowing that so many of the people in the film didn't survive to see their work come to fruition.  They are emotional revelations, no doubt, seeing people who were already HIV-positive in the late-80's still alive and in good health in 2013, but it has the unfortunate effect of robbing the film of the contemporary perspective of so many of the players in the drama.

There is an important and powerful story within the raw material from which How to Survive a Plague is constructed.  Oftentimes it comes through, and the collective force of the personalities involved forces you to take notice one way or another throughout much of the film.  But the narrative is too often muddled and unclear, and the story suffers for it.  B-

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


It's widely-accepted conventional wisdom that Jaws was the first modern summer blockbuster.  Coming out right smack dab in the middle of the auteur-driven 70's, June of 1975, Jaws was an enormous, inescapable hit, and is effectively the foundation upon which Steven Spielberg's career was built.  It would be two more years before George Lucas created the still-followed template for the special effects-driven franchise film, and three more years after that before Michael Cimino put the final nail in the coffin of the auteur 70's with the disaster that was Heaven's Gate.  But Jaws was a harbinger of a film, for good and for ill, a movie that delighted audiences and critics and also paved the way for the destruction of the weird, personal, studio-backed movies that those New Hollywood directors like Scorsese and De Palma and Hal Ashby were making during this period (filmmakers that Spielberg has never hidden his admiration for).

Given that context, what maybe stands out at first blush to me about Jaws is how unassuming it is.  It has the one special effect, so it is technically a "special effects-driven blockbuster", but that effect sucks, and is in the film for a total of no more than about 10 minutes.  Mostly what people do in Jaws is they talk about just what exactly they are going to do about this enormous shark that has taken over their beach, and then when they finally formulate a plan, those people talk about what they are doing, and why they're doing it.  And then eventually the shark shows up, and they make their stand, and it's over.

Here is the briefest of plot summaries, because most people have seen this film, and I don't feel that I need to go blow by blow.  A shark kills a girl on Amity Island, a summer destination off the New England coast.  The new police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) suggests closing the beach until the shark is dealt with, but the politicians talk him out of it because they need summer dollars, and are afraid that once the tourists are scared away, they won't come back.  So the beach stays open, and the shark kills a little boy.  Brody (temporarily) manages to close the beach, and calls in, among others, a shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss).  Some local yahoos claim to have killed the shark but Hooper convinces Brody that the shark they found isn't the same one that has killed two people already, and after one more person is killed by the shark, Brody hires a salty local shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) to take him and Hooper out on his boat, the Orca, where the three of them will take down the shark.  It proves a significantly more difficult task than they anticipate, and the shark manages to eat Quint before Brody finally kills it.

There's a bit of nuance that I've left out but honestly the story is fairly streamlined (with one exception, which I'll get to) and that plot summary pretty accurately sums up what happens.  The stakes are set up efficiently (Brody's concern for public safety is overridden by the short-sighted avarice of the town mucky-mucks, until they have no choice but to listen to him), and the story really hinges on, at most, five characters (Brody, Hooper and Quint, plus Brody's wife and the town mayor).  Six if you count the shark.  The danger that the shark poses to the community, both in terms of safety and in terms of the economic impact, is easily understood.

Where the exception to the streamlined nature of the story lies is in the back part of the second act, when the film goes a little flabby.  In Duel, most of the film's surprises had been deployed by the end of the first act, so there wasn't much left for Spielberg to do but repeat himself, in slightly different ways, as the film chugged along towards its climax.  Jaws is significantly better paced, and it opens up and reveals itself to the audience in bits and pieces all throughout.  But what that means is that, given how slight the bare bones of the story actually are (shark menaces population, shark is dealt with), the stall before the third-act shark hunt goes on just slightly too long - specifically, it goes on exactly one kill too long.  The girl who is killed at the beginning, that sets up the entire plot of the film.  The little boy who is killed after the town higher-ups refuse to close the beach, that sets up the central conflict of the film, and what the stakes for everyone are.  The third kill, the man who is eaten by the shark (in lieu of Brody's own son, who was also in its vicinity at the time)?  Well, it gives Brody a direct connection to the danger that the shark possesses, I guess.  But Brody was already on board with that danger.  And more importantly, we were already on board with that danger.  The little boy's death proved how short-sighted the mayor and his cronies were acting.  The third death feels like an unnecessary button, an answer to a question that no one was asking any more.

The crux of the movie rests in that third act trip that Brody, Hooper and Quint take in pursuit of the fish.  First, I should remind anyone who was half (or less) paying attention that the last time I saw Robert Shaw was way, way back here, where he played the brooding Soviet menace.  It's not a particularly memorable villain turn, and most people probably don't even remember that he played a Bond villain.  Shaw has two moments in Jaws that are iconic, which is two more than most film characters get - his introduction, where he interrupts a meeting by scraping his fingernails across a chalkboard and proceeds to tell the townspeople that he'll catch the shark if they pay him his fee, and the story that he tells about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis:

It occurs to me that the boat trip represents three distinct styles of acting (and if it doesn't, just go with me for a minute).  You have Richard Dreyfuss' twitchy Method weirdness.  You've got Shaw's old Hollywood scenery chewing.  And then you have Roy Scheider's lived-in naturalism.  Perhaps the adjectives I've used give some indication of where I'm going with this - more than anything else, Jaws really made me appreciate just how good and interesting (and probably underappreciated) of an actor Scheider is.  He carries the movie from beginning to end, and even when a couple of hams like Dreyfuss and Shaw show up to steal it away from him, he is always there, the solid anchor embedded in the sea floor, keeping the whole thing from spinning out of control.  There's a scene after Hooper has come to the island, when he comes over to have dinner with the Brody's.  Dreyfuss is talking to Lorraine Gary (who plays Mrs. Brody) and Scheider, telling them some story while they look on in quiet attention, and the entire time he was talking my eye was drawn inexorably to Scheider, casually opening and pouring a bottle of wine as Dreyfuss speaks.  That's a movie star.  Given no lines, he was still doing more interesting things than his costar.

So eventually the shark shows up, and....it looks like shit.  There's no other way around that fact.  I actually wrote, "the shark really looks real enough" at one point, before it had appeared above the water in any capacity.  When it's still underwater, attached to whatever rig it's attached to in order to get it to move, it looks real, and scary.  Brody has that famous moment when he's chumming the water and the shark just appears out of nowhere, all gaping maw and black eyes, scaring the shit out of him.  There, it looks great.  By the end, when it's sweeping its head back and forth across the deck of the broken ship, trying to eat Quint and Brody, it's an ugly grey puppet.  That has the unfortunate effect of sucking some of the terror out of the film's climax, and is at least a counter-argument to the idea that practical effects are always preferable to CGI (a counter-argument to that is that if it was a CGI shark, it might look even worse.)  Despite this, I think the ending is well set up, with Quint sliding into the monster's jaws, screaming the whole way down, and Brody, alone (because Hooper has been forced to hide under the water after the world's most ill-advised plan involving a shark cage), improvising, and successfully carrying out, a plan to destroy it.  And when the monster is killed, it's a triumphant moment, much more so than the fizzle at the end of Duel, with the shark going up in an explosion of fishy viscera.

All of the good parts of Duel are also good here, and the pacing of this film is significantly better than that earlier one.  Spielberg takes his foot off the gas a little too much - there is an even tighter (and scarier) thriller to be made of this material, but he's a sentimental type, and he gives the film over just a little too much to Brody's wet noodle of a family.  I land on this being a very good film rather than a great one, but someone could convince me that I'm being too harsh towards it.  It's really good, and Spielberg crafts a real story out of a fairly thin premise (which, granted, was also a bestselling book, but it's still a slight premise for a big-budget feature film.)

A few bullet points:

Amity Island follows in the long tradition of Spielbergian Anytowns - there's a bare hint of local color, but mostly it's just a generic Seaside Resort, the kind that families the world over go on vacation.  For all of his talents as a filmmaker, Spielberg is simply not that good at creating the sense of a real, lived-in space.  He traffics in emotional warmth (to a fault sometimes), and yet his films can still feel a little cold because his settings so often feel like less than real places.

Dreyfuss goes way, way bigger than necessary in his second scene, when he views and comments on the remains of the first victim.  I kind of just don't like Richard Dreyfuss very much, I have to admit.

When Dreyfuss and Scheider encounter the chewed-up fishing boat in the middle of the night, John Williams' music is really nicely subtle and creepy.  Reminds me of Howard Shore's score for The Silence of the Lambs, which I guess would be more accurately phrased as, Shore's Silence of the Lambs score reminds me of Williams' Jaws score.

I knew the severed head was coming and it still gave me a jolt.  That's a quality scare.

When we get back to Quint at the beginning of the second half, he is a lot less taciturn than he originally appeared to be, when we met him at the meeting in the first act.  His constant stream of chatter starts to get a little irritating.

This one is for a very, very select audience, but Quint sounds a bit like Rob Mariano, the way he talks with his teeth.  If you don't know who Rob Mariano is, you have made wise life choices thus far.

The "put Hooper in a shark cage" plan may have been the most ill-advised thing any film characters have ever done.  It goes bad immediately.  There is, from its inception, a zero percent chance for it to succeed in any way.

Brody pretty much kills the shark entirely by himself.  Granted that by the end of the film he's the only one left in the boat, but most of the things that Quint and Hooper do on the way there adds up to jack shit when push comes to shove and the shark has to be killed.  Hooper is hiding underwater, Quint is dead, and Brody formulates and executes a plan that has nothing to do with either of the other two or their planning.

The film sort of just...ends.  Brody and Hooper swim back to the island, they banter for a little bit, and then Spielberg cuts to a shot of the island as the credits come up, no music, nothing.  Duel ended in a similar way.  I don't know if that's a particularly Spielbergian way to end a movie, but it's kind of jarring.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

There is a scene midway through Silver Linings Playbook where Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has been invited to the house of married couple Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles, at least providing somewhat of an answer to the question, "I wonder where Julia Stiles has been, I used to like her a lot?"), ostensibly for a dinner party, but mostly so they can see for themselves what Solitano's mental state is, having recently been released from a mental health facility for beating his wife's lover half to death.  Veronica's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who suffers from mental illness herself, is also invited to the dinner party (for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to me) and Pat and Tiffany have a long conversation about the various medications they have been prescribed, and the side effects of those medications.

That conversation is a window into a broad class of disorders that can seem mysterious to those who aren't affected by them.  The medications that Pat and Tiffany have been prescribed presumably help with their mental health, but leave them in various states of dysfunctionality otherwise, whether it's jittery or zombified or anything in between.  Pat is engaged in a quixotic effort to woo his wife back, despite being on the business end of a restraining order, and Tiffany, who fell into sex addiction after losing her policeman husband, uses Pat's overwhelming desire to get his wife back to convince him to become her partner in a major local dance competition.  Tiffany uses the dance lessons as a device to focus her attention, and attempt to break her bad habits; she sees in Pat a fellow soul, and can see how destructive his fixation on his wife actually is, despite dangling the fact that she sometimes sees his ex-wife (through Veronica) and can get a letter from Pat to her in exchange for his agreeing to the dance lessons.

Pat's father, Patrizio (Robert DeNiro) has what is clearly a case of undiagnosed OCD; his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) appears to have adapted to Patrizio's own mental illness without ever asking him to get it treated.  Patrizio and Dolores are of a generation where such things weren't discussed, and it never occurs to them that their relationship with Pat, loving though it is, is also toxic to his well-being.  It is implied that Dolores worked legal back-channels in order to get Pat released from the institution at the beginning, and neither parent considers the possibility that perhaps Pat's best bet to get healthy isn't in their house.  But he moves in, and he eventually goes back on his medications (after a very ugly incident when Pat accidentally strikes his mother), and begins to put the pieces of his life back together, with a whole lot of Tiffany's encouragement.

The acting in Silver Linings Playbook is as good as advertised - Jennifer Lawrence's prickly energy fits the character of Tiffany perfectly, and it's hard to imagine any other actress playing the role.  It's always nice to see Robert DeNiro fully engaged in a performance, which kind of feels like it hasn't happened since the first Meet The Parents movie, way back in 2000.  Bradley Cooper has to essentially carry the movie, and he does a nice job of subsuming his usual smirky persona for Pat's damaged, difficult existence.  I can't really call Chris Tucker's very minor role as Pat's friend Danny from the institution a "revelation", because it's such a slight part, but boy Tucker is funny and charming in the film.

It's hard for me to really judge how well this film portrays mental illness.  It falls into one of the classic cinematic traps of showing us a character's warped mental state by having them yell a lot, which starts to feel a little cheap after a while.  On the other hand, it does a good job of avoiding knee-jerk judgments about the mistakes that both Pat and Tiffany have made along the way, and tries hard to portray them as two people whose actions are part and parcel with real, honest-to-God disorders.  Ultimately, I think the film's balance is off just slightly, in that it spends too much time with Patrizio's obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles (which is how his mental illness is filtered to the audience, but straddles too close to the line of normal sports fan weirdness) and not enough time, quite frankly, on the dancing.  The scenes when Cooper and Lawrence dance are delightful, particularly during the training sequences (who doesn't love a good training scene?) and even during the competition, when director David O. Russell chooses to film in somewhat off-putting close-ups (either as a stylistic choice, or because Cooper and Lawrence couldn't quite credibly pull the dancing off), the two stars give off a palpable chemistry that gives life to the film.  Silver Linings Playbook is a good movie about mental illness that also involves some dancing; I think it could have been a great movie about dancing that was about people with mental illness.  B+

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Iron Giant

It's sort of appropriate that I watched The Iron Giant in the middle of my Spielberg marathon, because the E.T. parallels are almost impossible to miss.  A visitor from space.  A young, lonely, impressionable boy.  A single mother.  A bunch of government types who are tracking the creature.  The Iron Giant, Brad Bird's directorial debut, owes a significant debt to Spielberg's (in my opinion) magnum opus about loneliness, and friendship in unexpected places.

After the titular Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel, of all people, who proves to be the stand-out member of the cast) crash-lands in rural Maine in 1957, young, curious Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal, who played the younger Stifler brother in the first two American Pie movies) befriends the alien visitor.  In order to hide the Giant first from his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) and later from a humorless G-Man named Kent Mansley who is consumed by Cold War-era paranoia about the Giant's provenance (Christopher McDonald), he enlists the help of a local beatnik, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) who owns a metal junkyard which provides the Giant with the sustenance he needs to stay alive.  But Mansley relentlessly stays on the trail of the Giant, and after discovering incontrovertible proof of his existence, calls in the army led by General Rogard (John Mahoney) to destroy the visitor.  Mansley is just as desperate to convince everyone of the Giant's malign intentions as Hogarth is to convince them that the Giant poses no danger, and Hogarth's attempts to save the Giant from the army are complicated by the fact that the Giant is more than he seems at first blush.

The thing, in my mind, that sets the two films apart is the cultural milieu in which they are set.  Spielberg set his alien visitor/coming-of-age story in a place that isn't really a place, but an Anytown-type simulacrum of his own suburban childhood that can (and was designed to) stand in for any time, and any suburban place, in post-WWII America.  The culture that Elliot and his siblings (and friends) consume is a mish-mash of signifiers - an old rock song here, a game of Dungeons and Dragons there.  The Iron Giant, in comparison, is very clear about the time frame in which it is set, 1957 (right after the launch of Sputnik), and this period infuses the film all the way through.  Mansley is literally terrified of the Giant as a Communist plot to bring about nuclear annihilation; on a smaller scale, Hogarth's class watches a version of one of those "Duck and Cover!" videos from the 50's, and Hogarth's taste in comics runs towards the cosmic, the sort of half-optimistic/half-pessimistic sci-fi fantasias that were born out of the clash of the dawn of the Space Age with the knowledge that humanity was constantly near the brink of wiping itself out.  Hogarth reads a comic called Atomo, whose titular villain bears a striking resemblance to the Giant - when Hogarth points this out, the Giant balks at the comparison, and says he prefers to be Superman instead.  Bird's fondness for the sci-fi culture of the 50's comes across throughout, and the decision to make the film a period piece ironically serves to augment the film's timeless quality.

The Iron Giant owes a debt to E.T., but it's also in the same class as E.T. in the amount of genuine emotion it wrings out of its story, and that is the highest praise I can give the film.  It goes without saying that the film never talks down to its intended audience - this movie was made before the increasingly execrable Shrek franchise turned the art of filmmaking for children into a game of reference one-upsmanship designed to appeal exclusively to the parents forced to take their children to see the film, leaving the actual audience of children nothing but to wallow in the shallowest smorgasbord of scatalogical jokes that the filmmakers seemingly threw in as an afterthought.  Of course, it's worth noting that the American public roundly rejected the Iron Giant when it came out in theaters, so the suggestion that Hollywood is simply giving people what they want is probably accurate.  But when a smart, sweet, heartbreaking movie like this comes along, it's worth celebrating its simple existence.  A

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Sugarland Express

Somebody can check my math if they want, but by my count Steven Spielberg has directed 28 films in his 40-year career (if you count Duel and toss out his segment of the ill-fated Twilight Zone movie, and also the did-he-or-didn't-he Poltergeist), and while I started this marathon with Duel, his feature film debut proper is The Sugarland Express, released in 1974.  Terence Malick has been working for almost the exact same amount of time as a feature film director, and in his entire career he has directed a total of six films (if you spot him To The Wonder, his latest film that premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and has seemingly disappeared since.)  Malick's debut, Badlands, premiered in theaters in October of 1973, beating Spielberg's debut by almost exactly six months.

It's hard not to think of Badlands while you watch The Sugarland Express - it is something of a weird coincidence that two of Hollywood's most revered filmmakers debuted within months of each other with films that bear a striking superficial resemblance to one another.  Both are based-on-true-story pictures about a rural couple evading the law and getting themselves in deeper and deeper with each subsequent action.  In each movie, one half of the couple is largely responsible for the action, while the other passively tags along (in Badlands, Martin Sheen's character is the take-charge half of the couple; in Sugarland Express, it is Goldie Hawn's character who is ultimately responsible for what happens.)  The comparison pretty much falls apart at any deeper level though, which is why Badlands is a bonafide classic, a major new voice planting his flag in the soil, while The Sugarland Express is an answer to a trivia question.  Malick and Spielberg occupy opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of sheer bulk of output, and how a person feels about those two modes of artistic creation is something of a litmus test.  Spielberg's highs are probably not as high as Malick's, while his lows are much lower, but Spielberg has a body of work that, taken as a whole, is almost unmatched in cinema history, and Malick's is just too slight, for my taste, to be held up against masters like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Sugarland Express begins as Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton, probably best known as the "this man has no dick" guy from Ghostbusters) out of a fairly low-security prison in rural Texas.  Lou Jean had also recently done time for a variety of fairly minor crimes, and she is concerned that the 2 year old son that they have together will be permanently taken from them and placed in the foster system, as he is currently in the custody of a foster family.  On the way out of the prison, the Poplins' car is stopped by Officer Slide (Michael Sacks) and after a brief chase, the couple takes the officer hostage and orders him to drive them to their son's current foster home.  The trail of their commandeered police vehicle is quickly picked up by Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) and as they drive across the state of Texas, they are followed by a caravan of police vehicles led by Tanner, as he tries to end the standoff peacefully and save Officer Slide's life.

It's unfair to continue comparing this minor film to one, in Badlands, that is studied in film schools, so I'll only say one more thing along those lines, and that is that Malick immediately has an idea for exactly what sort of tone he's looking to strike in his film (contrasting Sissy Spacek's character Holly and her childlike naivete with the sociopathy of Sheen's Kit Carruthers), whereas Spielberg never figures out the tone he wants to set for the story of the Poplins.  There is a distinct tenor of "the wacky shenanigans of rural folk" that permeates the film, especially in the first half, so that when Spielberg asks us to care about the fate of the people involved, it's a lot harder than it should be.  When the Poplins first break out of prison, they hitch a ride with an older couple who had come to visit their son, and when the car is pulled over by Officer Slide, Lou Jean hijacks it while the couple is out on the road talking to the policeman.  Slide tells the older couple to stay there by the side of the road as he takes chase, and they are revisited a couple of times, still standing at the side of the road and gently bickering with one another, for a bit of very low-level comic relief (their fate is ultimately left entirely unresolved by Spielberg, who eventually, for good reasons but still jarringly, abandons the subplot completely.)  Later in the film, there is a big pileup crash involving the police convoy which has a very, very distinct Blues Brothers vibe to the way it's shot and edited.  And towards the end, as the Poplins and Officer Slide approach their destination, they are greeted by crowds of well-wishers who have staged a makeshift (though surprisingly thorough) carnival at the center of town; less than about 5 minutes later, the violent climax of the Poplins' journey takes place.  It's like one of those sitcoms where the couple spends 21 minutes insulting each other, and then in the last minute tack on an unearned bit of sweetness.  Spielberg aims towards a sort of heartbreaking poignancy, but the bulk of the film is simply too wacky for it to take hold.

I've never really known Goldie Hawn in anything but late-period self-parody mode; she has a certain relaxed charm here as the fairly dim Lou Jean, although she's in over her head when the script asks her to emote, and while I won't call it a surprise that she presented a confident lead performance here (I knew she'd won an Academy Award early in her career, and that there must be some reason she became a star) it was still nice to be reminded of her effortless ability to be cute and engaging.  Atherton and Sacks are fine as her co-stars, neither makes a major impression but Atherton has some nice moments with Hawn, and Sacks has a good scene with the two of them where he attempts to help them work through an argument (he identifies himself as a marriage counseling pro, which is probably true for a lot of real-life lawmen, especially in small towns).  The real star of the film is Ben Johnson, who infuses what could be the cliched role of the stern Texas policeman with a real degree of humanity - I would almost recommend the film simply for his performance, which is one in his very long career that I think has been somewhat forgotten.  He'd won the Oscar a couple of years prior for playing another, fairly similar Texan in The Last Picture Show, and he had carved out a long career before that playing variations on that character, because he was really, really good at it.

I don't mean to be quite so hard on this film - it is reasonably, though very slightly, successful, and it is narratively coherent even if its tone is all over the place.  It doesn't aim that high, and if it is ultimately less interesting than Duel, it is probably because it feels like a film that was supervised much more closely by the people who actually paid for it.  What I suspect, just from my own intuition, is that they wanted a light touch which Spielberg ultimately balked out, which is why the film is so internally inconsistent from moment to moment.  The graft doesn't completely work, but there are enough small pleasures here to make it a worthy part of Spielberg's canon.

Monday, February 25, 2013


(There are at least two different versions of Duel, due to its origin as a TV movie-of-the-week, a 74 minute television cut that ran on ABC in 1971 and a 90 minute theatrical cut that played overseas in 1972.  I'm not entirely sure if the 74 minute cut is available so obviously the version I am working from is the 90 minute theatrical one.)

It's not news that the made-for-TV movie has mostly disappeared from the television landscape.  Broadcast networks have almost entirely given up on them, and the cable channels that still make them are bifurcated into two camps - the big prestige pictures from the art-house networks, like last year's HBO-produced Game Change, an Emmy-baity bit of insta-politics starring bonafide movie stars, and bottom-of-the-barrel shlock like Sharktopus, produced by Roger Corman and starring the remains of Eric Roberts' career.  There is effectively no ground for a lark like Duel, a low-stakes but well-produced thriller starring a B-list actor that desires nothing more than to come into America's living rooms and entertain for 90 minutes.  I don't necessarily lament that fact (bad TV movies significantly outnumbered good or even average ones, and young directors like the 24 year old Steven Spielberg are probably better off honing their craft in the DIY, indie film style than in the employ of a corporate-owned network) but it's a salient fact when watching Duel to recognize its time capsule quality.

Duel began life as a Richard Matheson short story which was published in Playboy, and which he eventually expanded into a TV movie length film.  Matheson is probably most famous either for writing I Am Legend, which has been filmed several times, or for his handful of Twilight Zone episodes, including the classic Shatner-starring "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (the gremlin-on-a-plane episode); I feel very confident in saying that he was the much bigger name on the film when it was produced.  It unquestionably reflects Matheson's paranoid horror sensibility; Spielberg has been forced to bend his style into the shape of Matheson's script, rather than the other way around.

The film divides very neatly into thirds.  The first act begins with our hero, David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver, who I gather was something of a That Guy for 60's and 70's era television) traveling into the boonies outside of LA in his sad, red/orange Plymouth Valiant on some sort of business-related trip.  Along the way he passes (as in, goes around on a two-lane road) the ugliest, grimiest oil tanker imaginable, and is slowly but inexorably drawn into a game of cat-and-mouse with the sociopathic, unseen driver of the truck, who the film suggests was just looking for an excuse to make sushi out of a hapless driver.  Mann manages to escape the chase when he crashes into a white picket fence outside of a rural diner, and the second third of the movie has Mann discover that the tanker, which he thought he had lost, is parked outside the diner, and then indulge his own paranoia about which of the customers at the restaurant is the driver of the truck.  The final third picks up the chase on the road once again, with the driver of the tanker escalating the conflict to its breaking point, and Mann desperately searching for a way to end it.

It's something of an understood phenomenon that Spielberg is a much better beginner than he is a finisher.  Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with a bravura action setpiece involving a man being chased by a gigantic rolling ball of death, and ends with people closing their eyes.  Jurassic Park's most famous moments mostly involve the pre-sabotage "Holy shit, dinosaurs!" scenes, and it goes without saying that Saving Private Ryan is quite possibly the film with the most precipitous dropoff in the history of film from the stage-setting opening sequence to the long, intermittently interesting slog that follows.  Duel falls right into this same category - the first act plays like the tautest, most viscerally exciting thriller you'll ever see, and then eventually things go flabby.  A long opening scene tracks the passage of Mann's car from city to country, while the soundtrack is made up of nothing but diegetic sounds, the radio, the car, the sounds of nature.  Spielberg takes the time to build the tension from the moment Mann first encounters the truck to the point at which he's barreling down the highway at 90 miles an hour, in serious danger of his life, and the entire sequence pre-diner takes less than half an hour.  Cut it by about 5 minutes and it's a memorable episode of the Twilight Zone; add another 15 minutes and it's your grandfather's favorite Mannix, the one where Mannix is chased by the psycho truck driver for the whole episode and eventually outwits him.

But this is a movie, and there is still an hour's worth of material to pad out before we get to our conclusion.  There are a handful of secondary characters in Duel, but none of them (with the possible exception of Mann's wife, who he has a phone conversation with midway through the first act) makes much of an impression.  Mann is the only character of note in the film, and the script has to figure out a way to filter his perception of what's happening to the audience.  The script makes an unfortunate, though probably not surprising, choice in the second act by including a narrative voiceover from Mann's perspective.  I honestly wasn't sure that that's what it was doing at first - when it first happens, with Mann standing in front of a mirror at the diner, I assumed (given how I'm attuned as a 21st century film watcher) that it was simply a bit of soundtrack overlap, and the scene of Mann looking in the mirror would soon cut to a scene of him talking to someone at the diner, out loud, about what was happening.  But no, this is spoken internal monologue, and it is really jarring.  Mann is confronted by a diner full of taciturn, shit-kicking good old boys who all wear similar boots to the ones the driver of the truck wears (the only positive identification he has of the person who is menacing him, and I'm not sure if one would genuinely expect to find modern-day cowboys in the wilds of Southern California, but it's a nice nod to the film's Western roots, so I can go with it), and Mann slowly loses his mind, first in his interior narrative and eventually outwardly, as he tries to figure out how to deal with the fact that his tormentor is apparently sharing space with him.  The film picks back up once we get back to spoken dialogue between Mann and the person who he identifies as the driver - the voiceover is not a fatal problem for the film, but boy is it a wretched choice.

So Mann eventually gets back on the road for the third act finish, and although it's a significant improvement from the static second act, the fact that we basically know all there is that the film wants us to know about the driver of the truck at this point robs the film of some of its suspense.  The slow rollout of the truck driver's malevolent intent in the first act ratches up the tension in stages; the danger represented by the truck in the third act starts at 10, so there's nowhere for the tension to really go but down.  The film futzes around with a strange interlude with the driver of a school bus, filled with supremely obnoxious children, asking Mann to help him give the bus a moving start - Mann insists his car is too small to do it, the bus driver insists he's wrong, eventually Mann is proven right, and then the truck shows up to menace Mann again.  This scene in particular really belies Duel's TV movie roots, and wikipedia tells me that it was indeed added to the theatrical release to pad out the running time; it goes from nowhere to nowhere, but allows Weaver to yell at a bunch of children for immediately climbing all over his car the moment he stops to help out, which is extremely weird but kind of funny.

Ultimately, the biggest sin of the third act is the anti-climax that ends it.  I won't give it away for anyone who hasn't seen this and wants to, but the movie really comes to an abrupt and deeply unsatisfying end.  The choice is made very early on to make the truck itself the villain of the piece, and while I appreciate the sort of mysterious terror that this gives to the film, it means that, in the end, Mann's quest doesn't end with a satisfying payoff against a real-live person, but an (unsatisfying, in my mind) payoff against an object.

Weaver's performance is workmanlike, and I don't necessarily mean that negatively.  He has a TV actor's weakness of not really being willing (or able) to alter the performance as he goes along, which is the sort of thing you rarely need to do when you're playing a guest character on a 48 minute episode of a television show that will only ever revert to the status quo ante once the episode is over.  Mann's journey here is supposed to take him from a sad, shlubby loser who can't even fathom what is happening to him to a determined, somewhat courageous man who recognizes that his only way out is to fight back, and while he's good at the shlubby part of that the sense of steely determination never really comes across at the end.  He does have a nice, expressive face, and he wears an ugly pair of early-70's sunglasses like no one's business.  The film pushes very hard and unsubtly on the theme of male anxiety in the first act (there are two parallel conversations, one of which is between a radio caller and a talk show host that Mann listens to, and one of which Mann has with his wife, that both hit hard on the idea that the men of the early-70's are having a tough time figuring out their place in a world in which they are no longer the sole or even main breadwinners of their households, and the idea of the traditional male role is in rapid flux.)  But it mostly drops that theme after that, which is maybe reflective of the film having trust in the audience to remember and reflect on it as the plot of the film progresses, but is also probably reflective of the fact that the script couldn't figure out a good way to work the theme back in organically.  Spielberg also, after a nice, understated touch with the soundtrack in the 1st act (the sound design is really good, with the differential sound of the two vehicles' respective engines providing an underscore to the menace that the tanker poses to Mann's sad little Valiant) eventually goes heavy-handed with the music, especially near the climax.  This is another problem he has evinced throughout his career, and it's one that can already be detected here.

Matheson's script never quite figures out how to efficiently tell the story it intends to tell without someone for Weaver to play off of, and Spielberg's direction spends too much time exploring dead-ends.  But the suspense that they build together is undeniable, and if you can get past the fact that they come to an unsatisfactory conclusion, it's a pretty good B-movie for a lazy Saturday afternoon.  Spielberg the visual craftsman is in here, no question about it, but he hasn't quite emerged yet.