Monday, March 29, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
By the time he made The Getaway (1972), Steven McQueen was in desperate need of a commercially successful film. His last three were box office flops, especially his last one, Junior Bonner (1972). Incidentally, Sam Peckinpah, who directed both films, was also in a need of a hit and saw this project as a way to show Hollywood that he could make a box-office hit. In doing so, the director once again was forced to compromise his vision for someone else’s – in this case, McQueen who did everything in his power to make The Getaway his ticket back into the elite, A-list club of major Hollywood players.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Ryan keeps his life simple – he has no attachments. All he has is his work and that suits him just fine. During his travels he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a beautiful woman and fellow veteran business traveler. They have a fling and schedule another rendezvous as if they were penciling in an upcoming meeting. Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) assigns him a partner, a young woman by the name of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who has found a way to do his job cheaper and more efficiently. This is achieved by firing people remotely via video conferencing on a computer. This approach threatens Ryan’s entire way of life. While Natalie may have confidence and smarts, she lacks experience and so he is instructed to take her on the road and show her the ropes.
Monday, March 15, 2010
During the opening credits we see the rain-slicked streets of New York City through the back seat of a cop car. This sequence sets a nice, gritty tone and takes us on a mini-tour of the city where most of the film’s action takes place. However, Ruben Blades’ jarring song that plays on the soundtrack almost ruins it. I’m not quite sure what Lumet was thinking but it simply does not work here.
Lieutenant Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) is a dirty cop as evident from his introduction where he ambushes an unarmed Latino drug dealer, blows the guy’s brains out and then bullies two nearby witnesses into saying that the man had a gun in his hand. Assistant District Attorney Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is assigned to the case. His boss tells him that the incident is a cut and dry one. He is told that Brennan is a good cop – a little rough in his methods but all of his cases have been tried successfully with no appeals. Reilly is instructed to collect the facts with the help of a stenographer and present them to a grand jury. His boss instructs him that “the Q & A defines what really happened. If it’s not the Q & A, it didn’t happen.”
Reilly is eager to please and is impressed with Brennan’s imposing presence and reputation. The young A.D.A. questions Roberto “Bobby Tex” Texador (Armand Assante), a drug dealer and racketeer, who, along with his wife Nancy (Jenny Lumet), witnessed the aftermath of the murder. He refutes the theory that the gun was found on the murder victim. Reilly begins to suspect that something might not be right with the case. He is also faced with a personal conflict as he used to be involved with Nancy and still has feelings for her. Reilly soon realizes that’s he’s taken on more than he can possibly handle. Sidney Lumet pits Brennan, Bobby Tex and Reilly against one another, each with their own agenda and the film gradually heads towards an inevitable confrontation between the three men.
Nick Nolte is a lot of fun to watch as a larger than life cop. He sports slicked back hair and a thick mustache that threatens to overtake his mouth. There’s a memorable scene early on where his character recounts a story to some other cops about how a mobster gave him a hard time when he tried to fingerprint him that is hilarious and disgusting. The scene has an authenticity of a veteran that delights in telling old war stories to inflate his own ego. Nolte’s Brennan is a chatty guy that loves to tell stories of past glories as he tries to buddy-up with Reilly until the A.D.A. lets him know that he’ll go after the veteran cop if he finds out he’s dirty. Nolte’s whole demeanor changes in a heartbeat and it is quite exciting to see him go from jovial to threatening in the span of a few seconds. Brennan is as corrupt as they get and enjoys the influence he exerts and the power he wields. He uses fear and intimidation to get what he wants. Nolte put on 40 pounds for the role because he felt that the character required it: “just the sheer mass of brutality. I felt that would be the right kind of thing. He had to be on the edge of his own dissipation.”
Armand Assante is a force of nature as Bobby Tex, portraying the crook with an aggressive swagger and an intensity that is impressively conveyed in his eyes. During Reilly’s initial questioning, Bobby oozes casual confidence and Assante does a great job of conveying it. He also imparts a keen intelligence. Bobby isn’t just some two-bit street punk. He doesn’t even blow his cool when Luis Guzman’s cop gets all in his face. Bobby matches his intensity and it is great to see two skilled character actors go at it. Assante ups his intensity when he warns Reilly to stay away from his wife. He gives the A.D.A. a seriously threatening look that would have most people shaking in their shoes. It’s Bobby’s first appearance in the film and Assante makes quite an impression.
Up against two lead actors playing colorful characters, Timothy Hutton wisely underplays Al Reilly. His character may be young and new to the job but he knows the law as demonstrated when questioning a mobster by the name of Pesch (Dominic Chianese) and his lawyer (Fyvush Finkel) in rather confident fashion. At first, it appears that the slick mob lawyer is going intimidate Reilly but the young man expertly turns the tables with his intelligence. Hutton is good as the straight arrow A.D.A. that decides to take on a highly respected cop and in the process uncovers an intricate web of corruption. The actor avoids stereotyping by showing layers to his character through the revelation of his feelings for Nancy which affects his approach to the case. Reilly starts off as an idealistic person but over the course of the film, as he’s exposed to corruption, he gains experience and becomes savvier when it comes to how things work. Early on in Q & A, there is a revealing conversation he has with Leo Bloomenfeld (Lee Richardson), a veteran attorney that has clearly been working in the system for far too many years. He’s jaded and tells the eager Reilly how things really are, giving him a taste of the corruption he will witness first hand later on. To prepare for the role, Hutton went on squad-car runs with police officers in Manhattan in order to get an idea of the challenges they face on the streets. He said of the experience, “in many cases the hands of the officer on the street are tied.”
Lumet shows how close these cops are by the short-hand between them and the familiarity they have with each other. In the scene where Reilly questions Brennan about the homicide in a room full of cops, the director really captures the camaraderie among these men. The dialogue sounds authentic and is delivered by the actors in a way that is so natural you believe that they are these characters. Consummate character actor Luis Guzman has a memorable role as a homicide detective that first suspects the Brennan case is rotten. He has a memorable moment where he jokingly defends Brennan’s casual racism: “He ain’t no racist. He hates everybody. He’s an equal opportunity hater.” Even though this is said in jest, in actuality it’s not far off the mark.
Q & A received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "It is fascinating the way this movie works so well as a police thriller on one level, while on other levels it probes feelings we may keep secret even from ourselves." Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, "Lumet tries to cram too much in ... But he's onto something, and you can sense his excitement. This is Lumet's boldest film in years – a combustible drama with a vivid, shocking immediacy. The director is back at the top of his game.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Nick Nolte's performance: "This actor doesn't flinch in the least from his character's unsavoriness; instead he seems to glory in his crumpled suits and unwashed hair, as if they were a kind of spiritual corollary. Nolte gives Brennan a kind of monumental brutishness – he makes him seem utterly indomitable.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen praised Armand Assante's performance: "in a role that could easily descend into cliche – the crook with a moral code – Assante does his best work to date, always keeping on the safe side of the stereotype.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "Nolte, with a big paunch and a walrus mustache, is a truly dangerous presence here; he uses his threatening body and a high, strained voice to stunning, scary effect. Like the movie, Nolte really gets in your face and, for a long time afterwards, sticks in you craw.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Q&A is a major film by one of our finest mainstream directors. As both a portrait of modern-day corruption and an act of sheer storytelling bravura, it is not to be missed."
However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "great little scenes overshadow bigger, more important ones. Characters come and go at speed. Watching the movie is an entertaining ride, but when it's over it's difficult to remember where, exactly, one has been." USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Overkill ultimately wears Q & A down, despite two bravura performances and some Hutton understatement that's adequate to the task. So, too, does unrelenting sordidness, a deadly love angle and a score (Ruben Blades) almost as awful as Cy Coleman’s sabotage of Lumet’s Family Business.”
One of the major themes Q & A wrestles with is racism. There is the casual kind between black, white and Latino cops and there’s the more damaging kind that resulted in the end of Reilly and Nancy’s relationship years ago. Racism informs a lot of the characters’ decisions and often motivates their actions. The film addresses racism in an honest way that you rarely see outside of a Spike Lee film. As he did with Prince of the City and later with Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), Lumet sheds light on how cops and crooks can be intricately linked and just how deep corruption runs in a sprawling metropolis like New York City. These films show how law and order works in fascinating detail and that feels authentic, much like the television show Law & Order does year in and year out.
Monday, March 8, 2010
In the 1980s, I was obsessed with the Vietnam War. My gateway drug, as it was for a lot of people I suspect, was Platoon (1986). After seeing Oliver Stone’s film, I wanted more information. I read all sorts of books about the subject, from fiction like Going After Cacciato, about a soldier who goes AWOL, to memoirs like Chickenhawk, about a helicopter pilot’s experiences during the war. Hell, I even read the TimeLife books, collected Marvel Comics’ groundbreaking series The ‘Nam and watched television shows like Tour of Duty and China Beach. This fascination extended to depictions of the fallout of the war – how it changed the people that came back, men that suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or from the effects of being subjected to Agent Orange while over there.
In the ‘80s, there were two excellent films that examined the lives of veterans after they returned home: the criminally underrated Robert De Niro/Ed Harris drama Jacknife (1989) and Norman Jewison’s In Country (1989). Jewison never wanted to make a film about the Vietnam War as it was a subject that he felt too strongly about – so much so that he left the United States in the 1970s because of it. However, he was drawn to Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel of the same name which had been published in 1985 and went on to become a best-seller. It told the story about a teenage girl named Samantha Hughes (Emily Lloyd) and her quest to learn more about her father who died in the Vietnam War through her uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis), an emotionally scarred veteran. The film was hyped as Bruce Willis’ first serious role where he finally dropped his wisecracking persona and really disappeared into a character. In Country received mixed reviews and was generally ignored by a moviegoing public that was still not ready to deal with the deep-rooted effects of the war. They chose to ignore it rather than deal with it as the characters in this film do.
Jewison does a good job creating a sense of place, like in the brief scenes where we see Sam jogging to “I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen as she runs through her hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky. One gets the feeling that it’s the kind of small-town where not much happens and not much has changed over the years. We meet Sam as she graduates from high school. Her daily routine consists of jogging in the morning and then hanging out briefly with Emmett and his fellow vets at a local diner. Talking to them piques her curiosity about the Vietnam War. She wants to learn more but Emmett isn’t too forthcoming with details and neither are his friends. There is this unspoken bond between them about not to bring it up.
One day, while going through her mother’s (Joan Allen) closet of old clothes from the 1960s, Sam discovers a box of letters her father wrote to her mother while he was in Vietnam. Reading them gives Sam some insight into a man she never knew. In her quest to understand what her father, Emmett and the others went through over there, she has a one-night stand with Tom (John Terry), one of her uncle’s war buddies. From this, she gets intimate insight into how emotionally damaged these guys are.
The veterans dance that Sam and Emmett attend illustrates not just the tension that exists between the veterans and the town but between the vets themselves. For example, Emmett and two other vets get into an argument about whether the war was winnable or not. It eventually boils over into a brief fist fight and Emmett is forced to act as peacemaker. We see the intense bond that exists between these men, a shared painful experience that no one who wasn’t there would understand.
With his handlebar mustache and disheveled thinning hair, Bruce Willis looks nothing like what he usually does in films like Die Hard (1986) or T.V. shows like Moonlighting. He does a fantastic job showing Emmett’s deep-rooted problems, from little things like wearing a skirt around the house, to big things like the traumatizing effect a particularly violent thunderstorm has, causing him to experience terrible flashbacks of a firefight he survived in Vietnam. Willis delivers a powerful monologue about what it was like for him in Vietnam and how he survived over there, as well as how he still lives with the painful memories. In this scene, he conveys an astonishing vulnerability and does some of the best acting of his career. His excellent performance hinted at future dramatic roles and showed that he had range as an actor. For perhaps the first time, Willis wasn’t afraid to mess with his good looks in order to become a flawed character, warts and all.
When In Country was being cast, Willis was looking for a role that would challenge him. He had just done four-and-a-half years of playing the same character on Moonlighting and wanted to do something different. When Willis first agreed to do the role he was concerned about it because he didn’t know right away how he was going to play it. However, the subject matter struck a person chord with him because, as he said in an interview, “had things been a little different, or had I been a little older, this could have been my path.” During the war, Willis was actually drafted when he turned 18 but never saw action. Later on in the 1970s, he tended bar in New York City and would talk to veterans about their experiences in Vietnam. To help get into character and to prepare for the role, he gained 30 pounds. Willis spent four months making the film in Kentucky and said that it was the “kind of movie you travel along with and it leaves you wrenched out.”
It’s hard to believe that Emily Lloyd is British by birth judging from the authentic southern accent she sports throughout In Country. To prepare for the role, she stayed with a lawyer and his family in Paducah, Kentucky. Sam’s inquisitive nature and unflappable optimism comes in sharp contrast to Emmett’s jaded cynicism. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Sam and Emmett. Lloyd and Willis play well off each other and excellently portray two people who’ve known each other for a long time as evident in the verbal short hand between them and how they relate to one another. For the role of Sam, Jewison saw many American actresses between 16 and 22 but he kept coming back to Lloyd because, like her character, he found the actress, “bursting with life, almost manic in her energy.”
In Country was generally well-received by critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is like a time bomb. You sit there, interested, absorbed, sometimes amused, sometimes moved, but wondering in the back of your mind what all of this is going to add up to. Then you find out.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen praised Emily Lloyd’s performance for being “letter perfect – her accent impeccable and her energy immense.” Like Ebert, USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and praised Willis’ "subsidiary performance as Lloyd's reclusive guardian-uncle is admirably short on showboating.” In his review for The Guardian, Derek Malcolm praised Lloyd for her "portrait is of a lively waif who does not intend to be easily defeated by the comedy of life without adding a few jokes of her own, and it is the most complete thing she has so far done on the screen, good as she was in Wish You Were Here.” Time magazine was more mixed in its reaction as it felt that the script "perhaps pursues too many banal and inconsequential matters as it portrays teen life in a small town," but that "the film starts to gather force and direction when a dance, organized to honor the local Viet vets, works out awkwardly." Furthermore, its critic felt that the film was "a lovely, necessary little stitch in our torn time.”
However, The New York Times’ Caryn James criticized the "cheap and easy touches ... that reduce it to the shallowness of a television movie," and found James Horner’s score, "offensive and distracting.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "While one can respect its lofty intentions, the movie doesn't seem to have any better sense than its high-school heroine of just what it's looking for. At once underdramatized and faintly stagy, it keeps promising revelations that never quite materialize.” Finally, her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, "What's meant to be a cohesive family portrait, a suffering American microcosm, is a shambles of threads dangling and characters adrift. Jewison leaves it to stymied viewers to figure out the gist of it.”
Not much happens plot-wise but that’s okay because In Country’s narrative is driven by its characters. It is one of those slice-of-life films about a girl trying to figure out who her father was and understand what her uncle went through. The film is leisurely paced as it allows us to get to know these interesting characters and the world they inhabit. The dialogue is well-written and really sounds like the way people talk. It’s not showy but honest and heartfelt.
In Country helped satiate my obsession with the Vietnam War and helped bring me some closure as I related to Sam’s own interest in the subject and quest to understand it. By the film’s end, I felt like I understood it a bit more, much like Sam. The film’s emotional payoff comes at its conclusion when Sam and Emmett go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. As they walk past all the names engraved on this impressive monument, it’s hard not to be affected by it and I can only imagine what it must be like in person. Jewison described the place as “the most sacred shrine in America” and called it, “the Wailing Wall of America.” It’s a moving scene done with very little dialogue, just simple gestures that convey more than any fancy speech could, and this is as good a way as ever to end the film on a poignant note. Ultimately, In Country points out that the healing process is long overdue and as a country the United States needs to come to terms with the Vietnam War and finally embrace the people who fought in it, not just those that died over there but the ones that made it back and are still living with it every day of their lives.