Sky High (2003, Kitamura Ryuhei)

Sky High has got to be one of the stupider movies I’ve ever seen. There are other factors contributing to it being bad, as stupidity doesn’t necessarily undo a film, but it’s real stupid. Shockingly, the screenwriter worked on Kitamura’s perfectly fine Azumi. Sky High‘s a prequel to a TV series, which is an adaptation of a manga. I imagine the terrible, stupid story starts in the manga, though it’s possible this filmic adaptation is at complete fault. Kitamura, as director, is solely responsible for this garbage… in fact, as I started watching the film and it appeared to be poor (not unspeakably dumb as it turned out), I consoled myself with the knowledge, eventually Kitamura would get around to a really good fight.

Guess what?

There are no really good fight scenes in Sky High. At the end, it seems like there finally might be one, but no… it’s just a mediocre sequence with promise, as opposed to the rest of the film, where mediocre would be a sterling achievement. I suppose Kitamura’s composition is all right throughout, but not really anything special. There are some good muted special effects but they’re overshadowed by the scenes in the afterlife, at the gate to hell, heaven, and Monster Island, where much of the film takes place. This set appears a deserted warehouse and the set decorator only seems to have spent a half hour getting it set up. The big scary door looks like something out of a Roger Corman direct-to-video from the 1990s. It’s embarrassing and painful to watch.

The performances range from mediocre (and borderline acceptable) to terrible. Kikuchi Yumi is terrible. Her performance is the worst thing I can remember seeing. She’s constantly acting poorly, whether through dialogue or expression. Oh, and her sword fight scene (it rips a lot of the choreography from Azumi) is lame. I never thought I’d see a lame Kitamura sword fight. The bad guy is played by Osawa Takao, who’s not a bad actor… except in this film. It’s so stupid I’m sure he had nothing to work with. As the good guys, Shaku Yumiko and Tanihara Shosuke are both fine. They actually have a wonderful scene at the beginning, when I thought this film was going to be an action-packed remake of Seven, not a demonic possession slash big dumb, stupid, bad cop movie, but not really a cop movie. It’s a remake of Ghost. Someone thought taking a bunch of Ghost and putting it in Japan–oh, and when Kitamura tries to reference Versus, it’s desperate and sad–I don’t know who had that terrible idea, but I imagine they also had a hand in writing this terrible film.

I mean, I kept watching it because I figured there had to be a good fight scene….

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kitamura Ryuhei; screenplay by Kiriyama Isao, based on a manga by Takahasi Tsutomo; director of photography, Furuya Takumi; edited by Kakesu Shuichi; music by Morino Nobuhiko and Yano Daisuko; produced by Endo Hitoshi, Deme Hiroshi and Yokochi Ikuei; released by Toei Company.

Starring Shaku Yumiko (Mina), Tanihara Shosuke (Kohei), Osawa Takao (Kudo), Uotani Kanae (Rei), Taguchi Hiromasa (Kishi), Toda Naho (Aoyama), Kikuchi Yumi (Kamiina) and Shiina Eihi (Izuko).


Willie and Phil (1980, Paul Mazursky)

I think I made a mistake before watching Willie and Phil. I went looking for its running time and, in addition to that information, I also found some mention of the film satirizing the 1970s, referencing all sorts of little details in dialogue and such. They were really distracting–not just in dialogue, but also in how Mazursky fits his scenes around the references. They go looking for a car and there’s a whole thing about the Volkswagen bug. It’s annoying and distracting, some fluff to disguise the film’s lack of actual content. There’s some content–of a certain kind–the content of Willie and Phil is Paul Mazursky remaking Jules and Jim, only in New York and having the 1970s as the backdrop. Obviously the stories aren’t the same, but Mazursky’s filling ten years of events into two hours. He’s constantly jumping ahead six months, a year, making it real difficult to connect to the characters.

Well, not quite.

It’s not hard to connect to Ray Sharkey’s Phil. It’s not hard to connect with Margot Kidder’s woman who gets between the two friends–though the Kentucky accent, the whole idea of Kidder’s character being from Kentucky, is a mistake. It’s also difficult to understand her after her first scene, because the character makes a drastic change to fit the story requirements. Anyway, the problem with connecting to the characters is Michael Ontkean. He’s terrible. The character’s poorly written too, but Ontkean can’t handle any of the scenes. There’s this scene with him and Larry Fishburne–three minute scene–and Fishburne doesn’t just run circles around him… I felt embarrassed for Ontkean in the scene. One was acting in millimeters, one was acting in decameters.

Then there’s Mazursky’s narration. He’s very satisfied with his narration. Thinks it’s witty to have the narration say lines of dialogue, then have the characters say them too. The narration is essential, however, because it not only charts the passage of time, it explains to the viewer what characters are feeling. Big, life changing issues are resolved in the narration as opposed to in action. The description of emotions, I’m actually not sure where I am on that usage. Ontkean couldn’t get anything reasonable across, so maybe it is necessary to make the film intelligible.

I wish I could better remember Jules and Jim so I have a nice closing comparison, but instead, I’m going to steal from a friend… oh… the years are wrong. Maybe Billy Joel did steal the idea of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from Willie and Phil, as opposed to vice versa….

The “We Didn’t Start the Fire” music video, of course, does have a better narrative.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Mazursky; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Donn Cambern; music by Claude Bolling; produced by Mazursky and Tony Ray; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Ontkean (Willie), Margot Kidder (Jeannette), Ray Sharkey (Phil), Jan Miner (Mrs. Kaufman), Tom Brennan (Mr. Kaufman), Julie Bovasso (Mrs. D’Amico), Louis Guss (Mr. D’Amico), Kathleen Maguire (Mrs. Sutherland), Kaki Hunter (Patti), Kristine DeBell (Rena), Alison Cass Shurpin (Zelda No. 4) and Christine Varnai (Zelda No. 3).


Badge of the Assassin (1985, Mel Damski)

Mel Damski, if Badge of the Assassin is any indication, might be the finest TV movie director ever (who never went on to good theatrical films anyway). He understands composition, camera movement, editing–how to let actors do what actors do–beautifully. Badge of the Assassin looks like a TV movie and that description is, thanks in large part to Damski, not at all a pejorative. Admittedly, he has a lot of help. The film’s perfectly as cast, top to bottom. Alex Rocco, Larry Riley, Richard Bradford, all three are particularly good, but there are no bad performances. David Harris is real good too.

But the film really belongs to Yaphet Kotto. Even though James Woods gets a lot to do, he never gets as much to do as Kotto… and he doesn’t get to do it as long. It’s sort of cheap, since the film’s about black militants killing cops and Kotto’s a black cop struggling to understand. Woods’s basically just the driven district attorney, not wanting to disappoint the grieving widow (and the film’s source book is from the real district attorney, so it’d be interesting if the Kotto emphasis was in there too). However, regardless of what a terrible film McQ is… screenwriter Lawrence Roman is of a definite pedigree and his influence is probably significant.

The script is another area Badge really makes a model TV movie. The character content, which is considerable–scenes with Rocco, Woods and Kotto all have a lot of weight–occurs over a really long time. The film’s present action is something like four years. Besides the first act establishing of the characters, nothing is known about what happens in their lives other than in relation to the case at hand. It’s precise, not sweeping. Damski’s a master at knowing how best tell that precise account… and Roman’s script really focuses on the best possible way to get the lengthy period into ninety-four minutes.

Adding to the film–and I’m not not mentioning Woods because he isn’t great, but because it’s depressing how good he used to be (before he came a personality with Casino)–is the location shooting. It helps immensely, forcing the viewer to engage with the reality of what’s on the screen in front of him or her.

In the end, Badge of the Assassin sort of runs out of time. It doesn’t run out of story so much as it runs out of scenes it can enact well. It’s a good looking film, though, with some great acting.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Damski; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tannenbaum and Philip Rosenberg; director of photography, John Lindsay; edited by Andrew Cohen; music by Tom Scott; produced by Daniel H. Blatt and Robert Singer; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring James Woods (Bob Tannenbaum), Yaphet Kotto (Cliff Fenton), Alex Rocco (Bill Butler), David Harris (Lester Bertram Day), Steven Keats (Harold Skelton), Larry Riley (Herman Bell), Pam Grier (Alie Horn), Rae Dawn Chong (Christine Horn), Richard Bradford (L.J. Delsa), Kene Holliday (Washington), Toni Kalem (Diana Piagentini), Tamu Blackwell (Gloria Lapp), Richard Brooks (Tony Bottom), Akosua Busia (Ruth) and Alan Blumenfeld (Charlie).


Crazy Moon (1987, Allan Eastman)

Crazy Moon appears to be a Canadian attempt at a John Hughes movie. In order to differentiate, they make the female lead deaf, which then makes Crazy Moon no longer in the Hughes vein–Kiefer Sutherland’s lead is also weird in a very non-Hughes way–and for much of the film then, they’re failing to meet that bad standard. Instead, Crazy Moon is charming. It’s too likable characters spending time together, with old standards playing a little too loud in the background. After the movie goes through its hurried plot-points–the third act takes up maybe six minutes–it all of a sudden becomes that terrible Canadian imitation of John Hughes it seemed ravenous to become. Sutherland’s character changes in a split second, but it turns out the big change wasn’t necessary because everything gets resolved real neat within a minute. Maybe two minutes, but short enough the song for the showdown with his brother is also the song for the end credits.

In terms of acting, Sutherland does a real good job throughout Crazy Moon. His essaying of the character does work the script should have done (like establishing off-screen emotional trauma). Peter Spence, who plays his brother, is rather bland, but his scenes with Sutherland do get a lot of work done. If the film had actual layers, instead of the illusion of layers, Spence’s performance would be more important, but as it stands, it’s fine. As the love interest, Vanessa Vaughan is good. At times though, she’s visibly bored. Maybe it’s just been a while since I’ve seen an eighties movie–with the stalking lead–but a lot of Crazy Moon works only because she’s hung up (something never really addressed) about being deaf.

Still, it’s just as pleasant of a viewing experience as it always was… though I can’t believe I never noticed the omnipresent boom mikes. The direction’s unremarkable throughout, never dipping up or down; the camera sits there and lets the action play out. Given Crazy Moon‘s finest assets are Sutherland and Vaughan’s appealing performances (not the choppy script), it’s a fine approach.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Allan Eastman; written and produced by Tom Berry and Stefan Wodoslawsky; director of photography, Savas Kalogeras; edited by Franco Battista; music by Lou Forestieri; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Kiefer Sutherland (Brooks), Vanessa Vaughan (Anne), Peter Spence (Cleveland), Ken Pogue (Alec), Eve Napier (Mimi), Sean McCann (Anne’s father) and Bronwen Mantel (Anne’s mother).


Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle)

Sunshine appears to be an amalgam of Alien, 2001 and Event Horizon (at least, if Event Horizon‘s previews adequately communicate the film’s content, not having seen it). There are Alien references abound, a handful of 2001 ones, and no Event Horizon ones I’m aware of… I imagine they’d try to hide those as well as possible. It also owes more than a little to Solaris–both versions. And for the majority of Sunshine, it’s a frequent disappointment. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland–after 28 Days Later–doing sci-fi doesn’t make much sense, especially since the resulting Sunshine is a standard science fiction movie, as opposed to Days doing something different, both in terms of story and technology.

So, during that first forty-five minutes when bad things happen and characters develop and the story moves along towards the inevitable final question… I got a little bored. Boyle’s finest contribution to the film, I thought during those minutes, was his ability to cast, direct and shoot actors. Cillian Murphy and Rose Byrne are, obviously, excellent and there was never any question as to whether or not they would be excellent. But Chris Evans also turns in a really great performance, as does Cliff Curtis. It’s the best Cliff Curtis in eight years or so. So Boyle casts well, big deal. No, it’s what a good performance he gets out of Michelle Yeoh and even Troy Garity. Yeoh’s got a couple really good scenes and Garity’s sturdy throughout.

But, one must remember, all Alien did was tell a science fiction in “scary movie” language and Sunshine‘s no different. The moment my fiancée jumped space ship was when “Freddy Kruger” showed up. The monster, the bad guy, the whatever–Sunshine needed to have one because, besides some really good acting moments and a couple really nice dilemma in space scenes, the film was nothing new. Until the hero moments, which, of course, signal the beginning of the third act, I kept wishing Murphy, Bryne and Evans would reunite for some other movie. I always forget–even when I’m comparing Boyle’s success at directing actors in this film to Trainspotting–I always forget Boyle’s visual ability, through shot, sound and editing. Trainspotting‘s full of it, but didn’t think those abilities would translate. And I was wrong.

I have never seen a movie–with so many mediocre plot points and set-pieces–ascend as quickly as Sunshine. One moment it’s a disappointment, the next it’s middling, then it’s getting up there, and, finally, it’s pure wonderment at the possibilities of the film medium. It’s not a long period of sustained enchantment, but it’s a really good three or five minutes. Boyle does things in those last minutes nearer the level of 2001 than most of his fellows. Of course, they didn’t have Cillian Murphy, so it’s probably not a far comparison, which is why I didn’t name them.

I don’t know if I was expecting–from the plot description–the Apollo 13 of fictionalized space adventure (after the trailer, I knew I was getting something more comparable to Days). But it wouldn’t work as anything but Danny Boyle and Alex Garland remaking Event Horizon, because otherwise… it would have probably been The Core in space.

Looking at the response, I realize, even thought Murphy suffers a lot of complements, I did not emphasize enough how good Byrne and Evans are in this film. It’s not even Byrne’s best performance of the year, which is unfortunate since that performance is in 28 Weeks Later (just because the character has more to do). But Evans is an unexpected talent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; written by Alex Garland; director of photography, Alwin Küchler; edited by Chris Gill; music by John Murphy and Underworld; production designer, Mark Tildesley; produced by Andrew Macdonald; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Rose Byrne (Cassie), Cliff Curtis (Searle), Chris Evans (Mace), Troy Garity (Harvey), Cillian Murphy (Capa), Sanada Hiroyuki (Kaneda), Mark Strong (Pinbacker), Benedict Wong (Trey) and Michelle Yeoh (Corazon).


Rainbow Drive (1990, Bobby Roth)

Peter Weller’s an L.A. cop with an in-ground swimming pool and a case his bosses don’t want him to solve. So what’s he going to do? He’s going to solve it, boring the viewer to sleep while he does too. It’s not Weller’s fault. It’s the script. And the direction, but I’ll get to it in a minute. The script has this wonderful, unspeakably awful way of every time a character talks to another character, they refer to that other character by name. It’s like the screenwriters went to a seminar and heard the use of names is good for emphasis. Revealing emphasis or some such nonsense.

I had intended starting this post with a comparison between made-for-cable cop mysteries with b-movies from the 1950s, but Rainbow Drive is so bad–well, I guess, it’s bad like most of those 1950s b-movies. Besides the terrible script, and the inability to make a case of Chinatown-level confusion worth unraveling, it’s director obviously thinks in terms of television sets. Bobby Roth directed one episode of “Miami Vice” and, with his Tangerine Dream score going in Drive, thinks he’s Michael Mann. To say he’s not is such an understatement, it’s not worth exploring. TV movies do not have to look like TV shows. Orson Welles composed quite a bit in 4:3 and it doesn’t look like a TV show. Roth’s also a terrible director of actors. Rainbow Drive has familiar faces saying bad lines and generally embarrassing themselves, particularly Bruce Weitz.

I could try to defend Weller’s performance in this one, but it’s pretty damn bad. David Caruso’s real good though, back when he acted. He takes a noteless role and makes it interesting to watch.

On the plus side, however, some of the second unit shots on L.A. are cool looking.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bobby Roth; screenplay by Bill Phillips and Bennett Cohen, from a novel by Roderick Thorp; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Henk Van Eeghen; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, Claudio Guzman; produced by John Veitch; aired by Showtime.

Starring Peter Weller (Mike Gallagher), Sela Ward (Laura Demming), David Caruso (Larry Hammond), Tony Jay (Max Hollister), James Laurenson (Hans Roehrig), Jon Gries (Azzolini), Henry G. Sanders (Marvin Burgess), Chris Mulkey (Ira Rosenberg), David Neidorf (Bernie Maxwell), Bruce Weitz (Dan Crawford), Chelcie Ross (Tom Cutler), Rutanya Alda (Marge Crawford), Megan Mullally (Ava Zieff) and Kathryn Harrold (Christine).


Piccadilly Jim (2004, John McCay)

Not too long ago, I used to get excited when good actors would make movies together. They didn’t have to be great movies, Barbet Schroeder could have directed them or Sandra Bullock could have starred in them–I’m fairly certain this period was known as the 1990s. It’s taken me three years to see Piccadilly Jim, which never got a domestic release, so it’s not as far out of the 1990s as it could be. It’s an absurd comedy, using an overblown emphasis on the popular conceptions of the 1930s to attempt to endear itself on the audience. Essentially, it’s the same concept as Radioland Murders, only successful. It’s successful for a few reasons. I’ll get the least exciting ones out of the way. First, the scope. Whether it’s London or New York of the 1930s, the scope is wonderful. There’s some extra-glossy, CG-enhanced scenery, but mostly it’s interiors. McKay does it beautifully. It’s exploitative, how interesting he makes the film look. It’s probably to distract from how confusing it is to understand and how unbelievable it is. Second, the script. Julian Fellowes essentially takes a Marx Brothers movie, removes the Marx Brothers, removes the songs, changes the focus to the young couple in trouble and runs with it. He assigns the Marx Brothers’s tasks to the young couple, it’s an interesting way of doing it and it works. Of course, it might have worked that way in the source material. I don’t know.

Now, the gushy part. While Piccadilly Jim is not the finest exhibit of Sam Rockwell’s acting abilities, it’s fun. He’s funny, he immediately engages the viewer. It probably was not a hard role, but he does it perfectly. Frances O’Connor, who’s constantly appearing and disappearing from cinema–rather frustratingly–is fantastic. Watching her and Rockwell together, the verbal sparing, the rapid-fire back and forths, it’s wonderful. Her role ought to be impossible, because it’s so absurd, but she really makes it work. The other great performance is Tom Wilkinson. He and Rockwell as father and son is great to watch, because it’s probably Rockwell’s talent at something besides being charming in an odd way comes through. The only disappointing performance–Allison Janney is fine but nothing spectacular–is Brenda Blethyn. O’Connor plays an American and she’s great, but Blethyn seems like she’s uncomfortable doing it (odd, Piccadilly Jim‘s a British with Americans playing Americans and British playing Americans and whatever, never mind). She’s not having any fun. It might be the constraints of the character, but it’s Brenda Blethyn. She’s usually outstanding.

I wasn’t expecting much from Piccadilly Jim because it never got the U.S. release and, in an interview at the time, Rockwell didn’t seem very excited about it. But it really reminded me, movies can be fun and intelligent and good without necessarily being great. The sad thing, of course, is in the 1990s, Piccadilly Jim was closer to the norm than not.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McCay; screenplay by Julian Fellowes, from the novel by P.G. Wodehouse; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by David Freeman; music by Adrian Johnston; production designer, Amanda McArthur; produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Andrew Hauptman; released by United International Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Jim Crocker), Frances O’Connor (Ann Chester), Tom Wilkinson (Bingley Crocker), Brenda Blethyn (Nesta Pett), Allison Janney (Eugenia Crocker), Austin Pendleton (Peter Pett), Hugh Bonneville (Lord Wisbeach), Tom Hollander (Willie Partridge), Geoffrey Palmer (Bayliss), Rupert Simonian (Ogden Ford) and Kevin Eldon (Wizzy).


A Fistful of Fingers (1994, Edgar Wright)

As low-budget, semi-amateur films go… A Fistful of Fingers is on the low-end. It’s certainly not as accomplished as Desperado in terms of visual storytelling, it doesn’t have enough narrative content to fill its eighty minutes (like Clerks) and it appears just a little bit cheaper than The Evil Dead. Edgar Wright apparently spent most of his budget in the first twenty or so minutes, when his Man With No Name rip-off goes through a small English town. The film’s best when it’s playing with traditional genre conventions and that entrance and few moments in town are the film’s best, not just in terms of humor, but also in Wright’s direction. He does far better in an enclosed outdoor space then when he’s in the English wilds.

The other major problem with the rest of the film is “leading man” Graham Low. Low’s not just too amateurish to be convincing or too young, it’s his Clint Eastwood impression. It’s terrible. The second half of the film is filled with easy gags, countless references (from Lethal Weapon to Glengarry Glen Ross) and an incredibly lame story about Low and his new Indian friend, poorly played by Martin Curtis.

The beginning of the film, from the cutout animated opening credits, to the various Leone references, is genuinely witty. The second half, with Curtis and then another useless second sidekick coming in right before the end, is a bore. The only funny part in the second half is the homage to the camp in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Unfortunately, any points Wright earns with it are spent making up for the Three Stooges references.

From the beginning, I expected Fingers to be better than it was–but at least the English countryside films well.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edgar Wright; director of photography, Alvin Leong; edited by Giles Harding; music by François Evans; production designer, Simon Bowles; produced by Daniel Figuero; released by Wrightstuff Pictures.

Starring Graham Low (Walter Marshall), Martin Curtis (Running Sore), Oli van der Vijver (The Squint), Quentin Green (Jimmy James), Amy Bowles (Yanks with a Fist) and Nicola Stapleton (The Pint-Sized Hussy).


Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969, Abraham Polonsky)

Is that the one where Katharine Ross plays an Indian?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here starts incredibly strong. It gives a real sense of building towards something, but when that something arrives–Robert Blake and Katharine Ross on the run from a posse–it’s handled so poorly, the film falls apart. Maybe it doesn’t fall apart, maybe it just ceases to be good and interesting. The relationship between Blake and Ross, which started as interesting, turns into propaganda. It’s fine, it’s for a good cause, but their scenes lose all sense of importance in terms of character development, motivation… any attempt at honesty. Actually, Willie Boy starts to fall apart earlier. Polonsky cannot handle, as a director, a lot of shots. The essential scene, the crime Blake commits to have to go on the run, is incompetently shot. It’s not until later, with the Dave Grusin score going non-stop, it becomes clear Polonsky had seen The Shooting and was aping its style. It’s not even a bad job of aping, it’s just Polonsky also seemed to think he needed to ape The Shooting‘s copout, indie-friendly ending.

For the first twenty or so, everything’s good in Willie Boy, then the Blake and Ross stuff falls apart, but there’s the excellent, complicated Robert Redford and Susan Clark story going to maintain interest and actually make important observations on the human condition. Except, it’s not propaganda, so Polonsky drops it and that story is the most important–most unique–part of Willie Boy. At the end, when he has a chance to reclaim it, he instead conjures some malarky about Redford the sheriff surrounded by people who think it’s still the old days being the alter ego of Blake, the Indian wrongfully on the run. It’s a bunch of crap and it’s really unfortunate, considering Redford’s excellent work in the film. Blake is okay, but his performance is identical to Charles Bronson’s performances in the early 1960s. Almost no different really.

As a conflicted Native American schoolteacher, Ross is silly sometimes and okay sometimes. When she’s quiet–actually, besides the scenes with Clark and Redford, everything is better when it’s quiet in Willie Boy. Clark’s fantastic and she and Redford deserved a lot of better of a project to work on together.

I don’t think there’s much else to say about the film, other than it being less an incredible disappointment than an unfortunate failure. Polonsky was screenwriter and a more understanding, more capable director would have turned out a far better, far less pretentious product… almost any director, really. Redford would have done wonders.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Abraham Polonsky; screenplay by Polonsky, based on the book by Harry Lawton; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Dave Grusin; produced by Philip A. Waxman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert Redford (Coop), Katharine Ross (Lola), Robert Blake (Willie Boy), Susan Clark (Dr. Elizabeth Arnold), Barry Sullivan (Ray), John Vernon (George Hacker), Charles Aidman (Benby), Charles McGaw (Sheriff Wilson), Shelly Novack (Johnny Finney) and Robert Lipton (Charlie Newcombe).


The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford)

While the title refers to politics, The Last Hurrah also, unfortunately in some cases, provided to be the last hurrah of a number of fine actors as well. It’s a fitting–I can’t remember the word. It isn’t eulogy and tribute seems intentional. I don’t know if Ford knew he was making the last film like The Last Hurrah, and there are a number of films like it. Watching it, the mood, the politics, and James Gleason reminded a lot of Meet John Doe. Jane Darwell, for some odd reason since she wasn’t in it, reminded me of The Informer. The Last Hurrah is very much the last film in style–and not the exact style, Ford was a fluid filmmaker–Ford pioneered in the 1930s. While Touch of Evil is, I suppose, a later stylistic descendent, The Last Hurrah‘s the last in the storytelling vein.

Ford’s direction here, his composition, his camera movements, are all very assured, very confident, but also very sentimental. He ties the composition to the story content, letting the frame express what sometimes Spencer Tracy cannot verbalize. I meant to start with Tracy, then I thought I’d save him, but now’s as good of time as any. Tracy’s performance, down the way his nose moves when he breathes, is perfect, so perfect it’s hard to remember he’s Spencer Tracy and was probably in a hundred movies. He’s nothing like any of them. He and Ford, whether by design or accident, create something amazing–Ford for constructing the framed arena capable of supporting Tracy’s performance–but also needing nothing less–and Tracy for filling this field.

The other performances, starting with Jeffrey Hunter, are excellent. Hunter’s great as the film’s emotional reference. He’s new to it, so is the viewer. The rest of the characters have all been around a while; Hunter doesn’t lead the story or even provide an access point, he just shows on screen what the viewer is experiencing. Frank S. Nugent’s script’s something fantastic, but in the story it tells, and the way it tells it. Everyone’s good so it doesn’t make sense just to list them all, but Basil Rathbone’s great as a villain, Carleton Young as Tracy’s assistant, Dianne Foster as Hunter’s wife and Edward Brophy. Brophy’s role’s hard to describe and what he does for the film. Pat O’Brien too, in maybe the least flashy of the film’s roles for good actors.

The way Ford finishes it. Coda. Is coda the word I’m looking for? Maybe The Last Hurrah is coda for certain kind of film, the adult drama of the 1930s and 1940s. Anyway, Ford’s last shot in the film. The pace, the sound, the shadows. It gets blood from a stone. It reveals a deeper capacity for feeling. It’s his best close.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Ford; written by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by Jack Murray; production designer, Robert Peterson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Mayor Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Mave Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass Sr.), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (‘Cuke’ Gillen), Edward Brophy (‘Ditto’ Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J. Hennessey), Frank McHugh (Festus Garvey), Carleton Young (Winslow), Frank Albertson (Jack Mangan), Bob Sweeney (Johnny Degnan), Edmund Lowe (Johnny Byrne), William Leslie (Dan Herlihy), Anna Lee (Gert Minihan), Ken Curtis (Monsignor Killian), Jane Darwell (Delia Boylan), O.Z. Whitehead (Norman Cass Jr.) and Arthur Walsh (Frank Skeffington Jr.).


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