Devil’s Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950). This nail-tough western from the heart of Anthony Mann’s career (released the same year as Winchester ’73) boldly examines vicious bigotry against Native Americans at a time when most Hollywood Westerns still cheerily trafficked in cowboys-vs.-Indians simplicity. Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) is a Shoshone who returns to his Wyoming home after serving honorably in the U.S. Civil War. The sense of respect and equality he experienced while fighting for the North isn’t mirrored by much of the population of Medicine Bow, led by villainous lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who rouses the aggrieved populace to lay claim to ranch land that is rightfully Lance’s. Guy Trosper’s screenplay is uncompromising in depicting the obstinate outlooks developed on the punishing edge of the nation’s frontier, and Mann films the material with his trademark bruising elegance. Taylor is awkward in the leading role, not only because of the unfortunate — and, worth noting, very much of the era — cross-cultural casting. He plays the harshly treated character like any other Western hero, missing the opportunity to explore the nuance of a humble, dignified individual treated unfairly by society because of sad prejudice. The film is admirable, but a more insightful performance could have made it resonant.
Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2017). The latest exercise in gimcrack narrative sleight of hand from M. Night Shyamalan is his best in ages, which is admittedly praise so faint as to be translucent. It’s loopy nonsense, but also highly watchable, which is a significant step up for the filmmaker once prematurely hailed as “The Next Spielberg.” James McAvoy plays a young man struggling with an overabundance of distinct personalities jostling for control in his head, a dilemma exacerbated by the inconvenient detail that those more prone to ill deeds are beginning to win the battle. The role calls for an abandonment of delicacy and restraint, and McAvoy obliges. He gives it his all, and if it’s not necessarily a great performance, it’s certainly admirably, unashamedly committed. To his credit, Shyamalan is, too, and the resulting movie is a eagerly playful potboiler. Anya Taylor-Joy merits special praise for her serious, probing performance as a teenager abducted by McAvoy’s troubled soul.
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018). Returning to the stop-motion animation he first employed in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson crafts a sweet, melancholy fable set in a quasi-futuristic Japanese dystopia where canines have been exiled, purportedly on the basis on a mysterious ailment, but really because of an ancient grudge. I’ll leave assessments of the cultural appropriation elements of the film to more qualified analysts and note that, strictly as a piece of storytelling, Isle of Dogs is genial, amusing, and of such mild consequence that it starts receding from memory before the closing credits are over. The precision of Anderson’s images is well-suited to the animation form and he and his collaborating screenwriters develop strong humor out of the normal behavior of dogs without ever belaboring a joke. In a stellar voice cast, Bryan Cranston and Edward Norton are the standouts.