Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010). There are few funnier things a Tony Scott movie can offer than a “Inspired by True Events” credit at the beginning. Scott isn’t a director completely devoid of charm and panache (like his rough American equivalent Michael Bay), but a reasoned approach to preserving the integrity of a story that has its grounding in real life is simply not something that’s going to happen with the director of Top Gun and Days of Thunder at the helm. At least his usual camera jitters are toned down a bit, although he maintains his penchant for the shock zoom as a way to fabricate tension. For the most part, Scott brings a workmanlike thoroughness to the film, hitting all the very familiar notes provided by Mark Bomback’s screenplay. I have a feeling that Denzel Washington has reached the point where he’s making exactly the sorts of movies that he likes to watch, but it’s a little sad to see him coasting through slop like this. When Saturday Night Live, a show hardly at the height of its powers, can expertly demolish a film largely by parroting the well-worn tropes stacked into it like cordwood, that’s a pretty fair sign of the level of true inspiration on display.
The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010). I’ve no doubt that George Clooney adored the nineteen-seventies icy thriller stylings of The American, and Anton Corbijn does direct it with a level of restraint that’s almost anachronistic. Clooney plays a weapons expert who winds up going into hiding when it seems that one of his jobs is leading down a dark alley that he won’t be able to back out of. The film has the requisite tension and a heightened sense of danger, but it’s also so stark and arid that it never transforms into something particularly memorable. It winds up feeling like an exercise, an attempt to freshly conjure a method of cinematic storytelling rather than a properly moving evocation of the sort of films that were so gripping that they helped define a whole era of moviemaking. It’s got the sincerity, but it’s missing some of the character.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962). A couple of years after wrapping her erudite intonations around the words of Tennessee Williams, Katherine Hepburn took a similarly juicy role in this adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s stage play, further proving that, as she aged, ever more florid grand dames was an ideal route for her. As the matriarch of a prominent but grievously wounded New England family, Hepburn is splendid and courageous, especially as she explores the quiet ravages of her character’s recurring morphine addiction. There’s fine work throughout the cast, although there’s a certain lack of tonal consistency. The performances are pitched at markedly different levels as if the actors are feeling things through as they go, still in the process of discovering the roles, although its worth noting that Jason Robards, recreating a role he’d played in the play’s initial Broadway run, hits highs on a par with Hepburn’s finest moments. Lumet, though skills at bringing plays to the screen, sometimes struggles with how to best contain the grand drama of the work. It doesn’t defeat him exactly, but it does leave him reeling at times.
Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970). Three New York guys attend the funeral of a close friend, the experience spinning off into a extended revel of escalating debauchery that can’t even be contained by a single country. They banter and bicker, tearing into wounds, old and new, as they throw existential punches at a world that’s growing well beyond their mutual comprehension. John Cassavetes directs as well as stars in the film and the depth charge exploration of these men is clearly informed by freewheeling improvisational collaborations with his fellow actors, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. It’s stark and powerful, blasting forward with a compelling rhythm roughly akin to that created by a flat tire churning relentlessly against an unforgiving pavement. All three lead main performances are terrific, but Falk is especially strong, generating a pure spirit in a rumpled life.
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960). It’s not hard to see why La Dolce Vita was so controversial upon its release in Italy, even beyond the still provocative sight of Anita Ekberg cavorting enticingly in a foundation, like a lustful dream brought to life. The decadence on display is a shared symptom of a corroding culture, the morality of the post-war Italy flying away as assuredly as the statue of Christ dragged across the sky by a helicopter at the film’s opening. Ekberg’s character is, in fact, the clearest evocation of this, not just because of her integral allure, but because she was brought into the country from Hollywood–Ekberg plays a major movie star in the film–the surest sign that it’s the insidious influence of the outside world that’s shattering the country’s soul. Federico Fellini directs the film with a perfect eye, never letting his inclination towards absurdity and the occasional storytelling non-sequitur become an easy excuse for abdicating the rigors of dedicated visual storytelling. His camera moves with uncommon grace. The same can be said for Marcello Mastroianni in the leading role. His blinding charisma through the first portion of the movie only makes his character’s eventual spiritual descent all the more devastating.