Monday, October 15, 2018

My Six Convicts (1952)

Directed by Hugo Fregonese; produced by Stanley Kramer

A psychology professor (John Beal) decides to implement some of the theories of prison reform that he has been teaching. To do so, he takes up the appointment of psychologist at a penitentiary; faced with an utter lack of personnel, he learns he must recruit several of the inmates as his staff. These six are the first prisoners he studies, and those whom he grows to know the best. Each is different, each is dangerous, in his own way.

This prison drama - which has a fair share of levity to it - is almost gentle, compared with the hard-hitting prison movies that were popular at the time. There are no George Raft or James Cagney types. Instead, we see Millard Mitchell as a safe-cracker, and Gilbert Roland as a gangster. There is little violence, despite an escape attempt in the last reel.

Yet this, I found, worked in the film’s favour. I have never been in prison, or even jail, but, like war (another situation in which I have never participated), I imagine that, for those who have experienced it for a while, it is largely boredom and routine, punctuated by moments of terror. There is tension in My Six Convicts: a vicious brawl near the beginning comes out of nowhere, and the advent of a prisoner labelled a psychopath (Harry Morgan) beings an unease that is very well conveyed by the other convicts. It underscores something Beal learns early on, and that is that one can never be completely unguarded in such a setting.

Despite the humour in many scenes, the sentimentality of the friendship the convicts come to feel for their ‘bug doctor’ (from the old term for crazy: bugs, bug-house, bugsy) is offset by actions that prove the criminals have their own sense of morality. Their solution to a hostage-taking is not one any police negotiator would sanction.

My Six Convicts has its flaws. There is no sense of uncovering any prisoner’s origins. Roland’s sudden violence is explained to an extent, but why he became a criminal - why most of the inmates did - is not explored. This creates a sense that these men were always the way they are, which flies in the face of what the story is trying to imply. The film, I believe, hopes suggest that crime can be reduced by reducing the misunderstanding behind the criminals. Certainly, it doesn’t let the felons off the hook, but Beal’s character clearly wants to humanise those who have been de-humanised. (In this, the warden (Fay Roope) concurs, though he has seen so many ‘reformers’ come and go that his reaction to this latest is very jaded.)

In the end, though, My Six Convicts makes an argument for trusting everyone - but trusting that they will act true to their personalities. Even Mitchell, the most likeable of the prisoners, is continually lying, seemingly for its own sake; yet it does not, in the end, make him a bad person.

Whatever lesson, if any, the viewer draws from this film, it will be learned in an entertaining and easy-going manner, thanks to My Six Convicts.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Directed and produced by Robert Wise.

A disgraced former police officer (Ed Begley) sees a way out of the dead end he finds himself in: an easy heist from a small-town bank that could net $200,000. For the job, he requires only two other men. He hires a black man (Harry Belafonte) and a white man (Robert Ryan), but the former resents whites and the latter hates blacks. The trio may walk away rich, if they can keep from killing each other.

This is one of those films in which you know things aren’t going to go even close to the plan, though there is no clue as to how it will really turn out. The set-up is good; there is suspense as the three arrange the robbery. A number of incidents occur that could disrupt the scheme. Of course, the biggest potential disaster is the dislike Ryan and Belafonte feel for each other. That is the basis of the plot, and the problem.

Begley’s character spent thirty years on the police force; surely he could have found a less explosive pair to work with than these two. True, he chooses them for their needs: Ryan is going nowhere fast, a former convict with no prospects. Belafonte is a gambler who is deep in debt. But out of all the criminals Begley met in his career, there must have been two who could have worked well together, been reliable, brought much less drama to the heist. Such a team would have deprived the story of its point, but would have seemed less contrived.

Race relations, and the consequences of not co-operating, drives the plot, but in fact nothing really develops between Belafonte and Ryan. The characters don’t learn anything or grow. I am not one who demands such progress in movie characters, but since so much of the film deals with their problems and backgrounds – that these are three dimensional men is to the writing’s credit – I expected more of a pay-out at the end. The climax is suspenseful; the conclusion is disappointing.

The acting is fine. Belafonte is very good as a man who pins all his hopes (which aren’t much) on this one adventure. He orbits his ex-wife and their child, hoping to land in their lives once more. Ryan is a violent, angry man, though we’ve seen him play that sort before (eg. On Dangerous Ground, in which Begley was his co-star), and he’s portrayed a bigot previously, too (eg. Crossfire, in which he acted with Gloria Grahame, also in Odds Against Tomorrow). Ryan is fully convincing in everything he does. Begley is probably the most sympathetic character, embittered by his past; his crime was ‘not talking’, probably referring to refusing to give up corrupt colleagues in the police, and so has a kind of honour. The supporting cast (including an uncredited Wayne Rogers in a small part) are all good.

The bleakness of the race issue as shown in Odds Against Tomorrow is certainly valid. But as drama, it leaves something, literally, to be desired. Compare it to, for instance, The Defiant Ones, from the year previous, or In the Heat of the Night, and it comes across as unfinished, or perhaps unrefined. Maybe it was meant to be as rough as its characters; that should apply to the story, though, and not the movie.

While there is much to recommend it, Odds Against Tomorrow seems to be missing something, and it is that which leaves the viewer unsatisfied at its end.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

Directed By Christopher McQuarrie; produced by J. J. Abrams, Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie and Jake Myers

Secret operator Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is ordered by his superiors to track down missing nuclear weapons cores that are being purchased by the followers of his old enemy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). This time, Hunt is saddled with a rival operator (Henry Cavill) from the CIA, and confused by his former ally and love interest, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Naturally, he must solve his problems at high speeds and great heights.

This sixth instalment in the movie series is rather leaner on plot than earlier entries. The villains, an anarchist group dedicated to destroying ‘the old world order’ feels its aims can best be accomplished by killing and destroying as much as possible. Their motives are, in fact, one step removed from ‘just because’. What plot twists exist are contrived. Do you recall the Death Star in Star Wars? How it was impregnable - except against a torpedo fired down the conveniently unguarded vent that led directly to its engines? There is a bomb in Mission: Impossible - Fallout with similarly unnecessary - but more complicated - features.

As well, the plans laid by Hunt work out rather too well when they need to: when being chased on a motorcycle, he finds himself cut off by pursuers from several directions and flees down the only available route. This leads straight to his cohorts who are waiting for him, as arranged. That those chasing him were deliberately funnelled down several streets simultaneously - except the one required to be left open - is indeed a mission impossible.

But anyone going into this film expecting a plot as coherent and clever as an Agatha Christie novel is probably fooling himself in more important matters than an evening at the cinema. On the other hand, there is action a-plenty. Some of it is undoubtedly aided by computer-graphics. There is an extended car / motorcycle chase through the narrow streets and broad boulevards of Paris which I suspect was electronically enhanced. It is not as exhilarating as the foot race across London later on, or the climax.

The cast is aging. There is no doubt that this influences the film. It is now twenty-two years since the first Mission: Impossible movie, and Cruise is fifty-six. Still, his fitness and obvious enthusiasm for the role make his performance believable. His Ethan Hunt comes across as rather a super-man sometimes, able to do almost everything, but in some instances he invests the character with enough apprehension and concern, even fear, to alleviate the impression. There is one fight-scene in which, even with assistance, Hunt comes off second-best.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout’s editing could have been tighter, as the film runs 147 minutes, not all of that time necessary. And while the movie is not as good as the two preceding chapters in the series, it is exciting entertainment nonetheless. You may just have to push back your bed-time to see all of it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

99 River Street (1953)

Directed by Phil Carlson; produced by Edward Small

A former boxer (John Payne), still brooding over the bout that cost him his championship, now drives a taxi, and has modest dreams of owning his own gasoline station. His wife (Peggie Castle) is, to say the least, unsupportive, and belittles both his current status and future hopes. She is also having an affair with a criminal (Brad Dexter). When she is found murdered, the erstwhile pugilist’s explosive temper and new motive put him in a tight corner.

99 River Street is a fairly standard, low-budget film noir, but not a bad example for that. The script is good, while not very good, though it has a few decent lines in it. Mostly, it’s just straightforward. The story is simple, and the plot’s resolution is even simpler. As with many films noir, the reliance is on direction, setting and acting.

The direction, like the writing, is uncomplicated. For the best, most intense moments, it lets the faces of the actors get the point across. It does provide a few good fight scenes, especially when a thug (Jack Lambert, whose visage was made for movie villainy) takes a beating; one shouldn’t try to slap around a boxing champion, even a former champion.

But the acting clinches the movie. There are no Oscars to be distributed here, just good, work-a-day performances that are credible, and drive the characters. Payne convincingly portrays an angry, emotional man; his great regret over a lost fight does not give the impression of self-pity, but of a man who knows he was one punch away from greatness, a few seconds from everything he wanted. But he also creates a character who has, in a way, come to terms with the missed opportunity and is ready to move on. This dichotomy is not an easy impression to give the viewer.

Jay Adler has a good part as a deceptively slow, quiet purchaser of stolen goods, someone who becomes more dangerous the less menacing he seems, and Dexter, as the pale-eyed villain, would become a stapel of television, and one of The Magnificent Seven.

99 River Street may not remain long in the memory, but it is entertaining and involving while it lasts; another good night at the movies.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Dave (1993)

Directed by Ivan Reitman; produced by Ivan Reitman and Lauren Shuler-Donner

Temporary-employment agency owner Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) has a part-time gig as an impersonator of the U.S. president (Kevin Kline). He is hired by the Secret Service to fill in for the American leader at the end of a fund-raising dinner; the president has more exciting plans. When the president has a stroke, the impersonator finds himself at the centre of a scheme by the White House chief of staff (Frank Langella) to use him for nefarious purposes. Dave is caught up in villainy, heroism - and a growing attraction to the the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver).

Clearly inspired by the Prisoner of Zenda, Dave is what would come from Anthony Hope meeting Frank Capra. Like the latter’s films, this one features a likeable fellow, not exactly naive, but definitely trusting, being thrust into a world he’s not prepared for, and, like Capra’s heroes, he finds his own ways of dealing with it. As he does, the viewer has a very good time.

Fun and funny, Dave profits immensely from the lead actor, Kevin Kline, who can handle comedy and drama equally well. His optimistic character is a decent, honest man but not incredibly so - witness his decision to take a few ‘souvenirs’ from the White House (e.g. towels, and such) - caring and happy-go-lucky. His determination to do some good in his new situation is balanced by his desire to enjoy himself, as well.

Langella, as the presidential chief of staff, has little stated motivation behind his action except a craving for wealth and power; his ally, the White House communications director (Kevin Dunn), is more reluctant in his criminality, and, fittingly, his motivation is even less defined. But we accept that they have been involved in wrong-doing for some time, so when we find, like the protagonist, that evil forces are at work, we accept them as such, without worrying too much about their origins. This is, after all, a light-hearted comedy, not a psychological study.

The script is good, clever at times, though not hilarious. There are some good lines that can be both entertaining and revealing (such as when the patently vain president regards his double and states, “You’re a very handsome man”) but, for the most part, it’s their delivery that provides the humour. Even Langella, better known for the intensity of his dramatic performances, proves himself quietly effective at comedy.

What will be lost on a generation watching Dave a quarter-century after its production are the effect of the many cameos by news media personalities (eg. Sander Vanocur, John McLaughlin), entertainers (eg. Larry King) and politicians (e.g. Alan Simpson, ‘Tip’ O’Neill) of the time, appearing as themselves. This elements does not, however, detract from the film’s present enjoyment, as they may simply be taken as what they are portraying, without their identities being known.

Dave is undemanding, almost gentle; it’s not a political thriller, though it does have a clever ending. It’s a light, enjoyable time at the movies - something one doesn’t find too often these days.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Downsizing (2017)

Directed by Alexander Payne; produced by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Mark Johnson

A middle-class couple (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig), at a financial dead-end, hear of a new process by which people can be shrunk to a height of five inches, making the cost of living tremendously cheap; for instance, a house that is the equivalent of 12,000 square feet is no bigger than a doll’s house. They decide to undergo the process, called ‘downsizing’, which takes them on a new and unexpected path in life.

Downsizing started out with a great deal of promise. The potential for such an imaginative premise is almost limitless. After the first fifteen minutes, I was expecting a social satire: it could explore the rights of the ‘small’ community, the problems with every-day living, their relations with normal-sized people. Instead, it goes nowhere. The original premise of the movie is abandoned and barely referred to again, after the first quarter of the film.

Instead, the story switches from a nascent social satire to social commentary. We see that the ‘small’ community of Leisureland has a slum, and we see the poor people living there. Why is there a slum? We learned earlier that it costs perhaps a hundred thousand dollars to be shrunk, yet there are thousands of poor people who have undergone the process. Some, it is true, were shrunk by dictatorial governments as punishment, but this is not indicated as the case with all the individuals we see. And if an effect of ‘downsizing’ is to reduce hunger - after all, a crumb of bread is the equivalent of a loaf - why do these poor need hand-outs? Perhaps the writers wished to show that even Utopia has its disadvantaged, but this is hardly an original argument; half the episodes of Star Trek or Doctor Who make such references.

At this point, we are introduced to a Vietnamese immigrant (Ngoc Lan Tran), a shrill and strident character who becomes Damon’s love interest, Wiig having been jettisoned abruptly by the movie much earlier. While the performance is excellent, the character is annoying and, much of the time, unintelligible. There is no chemistry between Damon and Tran, and no reason for the two characters to develop feelings for each other.

Not to worry, because the social commentary portion of the film is discarded in its turn. A sudden trip to Norway brings in the third plot-line, a doomsday scenario which is distantly related to ‘downsizing’, but doesn’t need it. This final part of the movie brings a revelation to Damon that the viewer didn’t know he either required or was considering. It certainly has nothing to do with anything that came before.

Downsizing seems to have been made by people who had several story ideas but thought they’d get the chance for only one movie, so they put everything into it. The process of ‘downsizing’ was such fertile ground for a film that it required people of extremely limited imagination not to make something of it. How would our bodies react to food? Would alcohol and drugs have the same effect on the ‘small’ as the normal-sized? A reference early on to side-effects only in some species of fish could have been exploited. As it turns out, being ‘small’ is exactly like being normal-sized, except that one is small. It’s like a science fiction series that depicts the distant future as pretty much like now, but with ray-guns.

Though the writers may have believed that the disparate parts of their movie were seamlessly woven together, they are in fact disjointed stories, connected only by the same characters. Wasted opportunities (not just in not exploring the ‘small’ world, but in putting time, effort and talent into the unoriginal and unimaginative majority of the film) make Downsizing disappointing and discouraging.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Tall Man Riding (1955)

Directed by Lesley Selander; produced by David Weisbart

After five years away, a cowboy (Randolph Scott) returns to the town from which he was driven by the rancher father of the woman (Dorothy Malone) he loved. He has vowed to destroy the cattle baron (Robert Barrat), and has found a particularly galling way to do it. But his basic decency and circumstances that he couldn’t have foreseen have the cowboy wondering if revenge is worth it.

The first half of Tall Man Riding is rather more complex than the story-lines of most westerns. There is a rivalry between cattle-men and settlers that is often seen in the genre, but in this case, the latter seem to be as murderous as the former. But the settlers are taking their lead from a ruthless saloon-owner (John Baragrey), with an agenda of his own, while the rancher is allied with people who are honourable. The plot simplifies itself in the second half, but that is the nature of complicated stories, as they explain themselves. I found the double-dealing and shifting alliances abnormal in a western.

Scott plays the stalwart character he often plays, but with a bitterness and angry violence that isn’t usual in his movies. With him, the viewer always knows what he is getting, but there is always a sympathy that he builds with his audience. He is more likeable than John Wayne in westerns, I think, but that may have to do with the unpleasantness in some of the latter's characters, such as in Red River and The Searchers. Scott offers few surprises, but pretty steady entertainment.

It’s interesting that westerns frequently offer strong female characters who, despite being socially subservient to the men in their worlds, are quick-minded and strong-willed. While Malone shows some of that in her character, the more watchable is Peggie Castle (whom Scarlett Johansson rather resembles) as the saloon-owner’s girl. She is playing a double game in more ways than one.

While the action is pretty routine, despite a good fistfight scene, the movie benefits from the story and from the performances. If you don’t like westerns, Tall Man Riding won’t convert you; if you do, you’ll like it more than many.