She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949). The film is the second of Ford’s loose “Cavalry Trilogy.” It’s well-regarded, as are most of Ford’s collaborations with John Wayne, but, while it may be a sort of cinematic sacrilege to say so, the film is little more than a plain-footed entertainment. That assessment seems more damning than it is. The film is expert and buoyant and infused with a nice mix of wit and charm, all qualities that seemingly came naturally to John Ford when he was more concerned with making something simply satisfying than a work of grave importance. Wayne is quite good as a Cavalry Captain who gets drawn into one more patrol before retirement. He hits nice subtle notes as a man trying to maintain his dignity as he lets go of the lifelong duty that’s defined him. The subplots that drift along with him are comparatively wan, serviceable but forgettable.
A Perfect Getaway (David Twohy, 2009). As a writer and director, David Twohy has been responsible for some improbably effective features, mostly because he knows his way around the mechanics of Hollywood storytelling, and he’s not afraid to dent and bend it to suit his most devilish whims. That’s the clearest it’s ever been in this twisty thriller that spins its finger seductively in a meta-fictional approach to its tale of a pair of couples, essentially strangers to one another, who travel together through a remote area of Hawaii while reports of a murderous pair stalking young lovers are echoing in their ears and psyches. Twohy plays with expectations, including his casting choices as both Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant bring with them established personae that automatically pull suspicions in certain directions. Ultimately, it’s probably too willfully lurid to be much more than a grim guilty pleasure, but there’s definitely more pleasure than guilt.
Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983). Duvall won his Oscar for his performance as a washed-up country music singer songwriter, and the most distinctive aspect of it is the way that Duvall, an actor capable of big booms, underplays just about every moment. He plays world weariness without needy self-pity, concentrating on the hesitancy and ache of it instead. It’s not a performance that takes command of the screen. It is about the fragility of the character, and is all the more compelling because of it. Writer Horton Foote got an Oscar, too. The film has a quiet, literary quality that Beresford realizes it with delicate care. Pushing the film’s emotion would make it crumble under the high drama of it all. Letting it play out with a restrained realism gives it a much greater impact.
Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941). Barbara Stanwyck plays a brassy dame who needs a place to hide out when her mobster boyfriend gets in trouble with the law. Luckily, this sudden need nicely coincides with a stuffy, handsome professor seeking out her forthright assistance in helping him collect information for the slang portion of a massive, all-inclusive encyclopedia he’s working on with a whole band of socially awkward colleagues. Hawks, working from a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, makes a film that is brisk and funny. It looks effortless. It’s one of those films that makes it seem like minor classics could be dashed off old studio soundstages between shots of bourbon. As the professor whose tie gets loosened by this strange, forthright woman, Gary Cooper balances his stalwart masculinity with an endearing stumbling charm. Stanwyck, meanwhile, simply does what she did in seemingly every one of her many, many films: she strode through the proceedings with the purposefulness of actor that could do seemingly anything, maybe the first performer who inspired that happy suspicion.
The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009). I’ll say this much for Sandra Bullock: she’s clearly game for anything. By the time she’s bouncing around in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, creating an uptight career woman’s version of a native ritualistic dance, or banging around a bedroom with some slapstick peekaboo nudity, it’s hard to fathom what sort of indignities she might balk at. That’s admirable and all (and probably a big part of the widespread industry appreciation that helped her win an Oscar for a film and performance that weren’t especially well-liked), but it would be nice if she were putting that lack of vanity towards better material. The Proposal is blandly by-the-numbers, bringing together a mismatched couple so their mutual resentments can melt away and they can realize their right for each other. There’s also a certain Taming of the Shrew edge to it as Bullock plays a hated corporate boss-from-hell who forces her subordinate into a sham marriage in order to fix an immigration issue, and the tinges of genuine misogyny in the work are hard to stomach. Fletcher’s direction is utterly pedestrian, lacking any drive or visual inventiveness.