Howard and Williams, Kazan, Mamet, Penn, Weber

The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976). The film has Marlon Brando at the very beginning of his anything goes, deliberate insanity phase, and Jack Nicholson still wrapped in the energy of his wild genius phase (this film arrived in theaters almost exactly six months after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and just a couple months after he won his first Oscar). It’s a revisionist western, a style and genre that Arthur Penn had done quite well with a few years earlier. All this makes it equal parts surprising and sad to report that the resulting film is drab. The plot about Brando’s hired lawman bringing a gang of rustlers to justice is so familiar that all the offbeat details thrown in can’t enliven it. Even when the two masterful actors face off, it often and quickly degenerates into a dull trudge.

Let’s Get Lost (Bruce Weber, 1988). Weber was already a photographer of great note when he made this documentary about jazz trumpter Chet Baker, and the moody black-and-white imagery that made his reputation is fully in effect here, at least giving the film a striking visual palette even if Weber struggles to find a compelling way to tell his story. Baker was a gorgeous Adonis jazzman in the 1950s, giving seductive looks from beneath a thick black pompadour that might have inspired envy in Elvis Presley. By the time Weber turns his cameras on his in the mid-1980s, Baker is largely eroded from a decades of hard living. He’s as beaten as ancient barn sitting unprotected in a storm alley. Weber’s film is evocative in capturing Baker’s heyday, but his descent, which should be more compelling dramatically, isn’t vividly drawn. It makes the whole find feel like a notion that no one too the time to properly develop.

Bolt (Byron Howard and Chris Williams, 2008). Notable as the first feature released by Disney animation that benefited from the oversight of Pixar’s John Lasseter in the chief creative officer role created for him when the computer animation powerhouse was officially bought by the mouse house. Working with a couple of Disney animators making their directorial debut, Lasseter helps shake off some of the stodginess that’s moved the former undisputed champion studio of such fare to the status of sad also-rans, and there’s a clean sheen to the computer animation that holds up fairly well to a Pixar comparison. There’s also a wilting blandness to the storytelling, a by-the-numbers quality that makes the finished product fitfully entertaining at best. John Travolta delivers nice enough voicework as the lost Hollywood dog who’s convinced he’s actually the super-powered pet he plays on a hit TV show, but the premise itself is strained. That would be easy enough to gloss over if the other elements were engaging, but the film lurches when it should zip.

House of Games (David Mamet, 1987). Mamet’s debut as a film director, and arguably still his best effort in that capacity. The film is lean and smart and slyly ferocious, following a psychiatrist who becomes involved with a group of confidence men. Mamet builds plenty of twists and turns into his script, though it’s worth noting that they undoubtedly worked better twenty years ago when movies weren’t so commonly concerned with “gotcha” endings. Mamet’s reputation is a factor in that, too. Like a guy who’s already bested you once or twice, you watch a little closer, convinced that there’s another trick up one of those sleeves of his. It’s still terrifically satisfying, especially when Joe Mantegna’s cool-as-can-be grifter casually explains and demonstrates some of his best cons.

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). It’s just the film that changed the very nature of acting in that medium, that’s all. The Academy Award nomination that Marlon Brando got for this film (in advance of actually winning for this performance) was already the fourth of his young career, and any question about whether or not he was a star was settled the year before with The Wild One, but this film cemented his legend. His work is indeed something to marvel at: grounded, earthy, genuine and also boldly alive, suggesting complicated inner working with every step he takes, every sideways glance. His inventiveness wears off as the whole cast is in line with his excellence, especially fellow Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint as the innocent young woman he’s drawn to, and Karl Malden as the noble priest fighting to being justice and equity to the corrupt waterfront. It’s impossible (and arguably foolhardy) to consider this film separate from Kazan’s controversial testimony before the House Un-American Activites Committee. Sometimes this lead to a certain defensiveness coming through, even some bumps in the narrative as Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg build in some reactions to Malloy’s raised voice against corruption that don’t completely ring true. It’s still gripping throughout, proving that a movie’s value can remain high even if some of it’s motivations are suspect.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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