Robert Duvall

Widows (2018, Steve McQueen)

Widows is very real. You know it’s very real and not Hollywood because it takes place in Chicago and it’s real Chicago and not Hollywood Chicago. Though Robert Duvall, who gives a fine performance, does make it feel a little like Hollywood Chicago. But it’s also real because Liam Neeson has nose hairs. And because even as horrific events, plot turns, plot twists, horrific revelations bombard lead (and ostensible protagonist) Viola Davis, she’s able to harness all of them and make it all seem reasonable and not contrived. Because she’s Viola Davis and she’s what makes Widows possible. Without her gravitas, director McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn couldn’t get away with half of it.

McQueen and Flynn are adapting a six hour British series. Might explain the episodic plotting, might not. Widows has an expansive plot. Until it doesn’t. There’s a switch thrown somewhere in the middle when McQueen and Flynn stop with the expanding. Once Cynthia Erivo is on the team, everything changes. Including who gets character development. The film’s well-paced enough you don’t even realize a couple characters go on pause and Davis is in the picture less and less after her inital story arc ends. But it also means when the finale comes up short and awkwardly so… well, all of a sudden it’s time to cash in Widows’s chips and McQueen’s been bluffing.

Not to mix metaphors.

The film is about Widows Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon. Erivo is actually a babysitter; unfortunately the original British series is not called Four Widows and a Babysitter. The film opens with the women and their men. Then their men, career robbers, all die. Horribly. So now the widows have to figure out what to do, because none of their men left them in good shape financially.

Coon, for instance, has a newborn. She was married to Coburn Goss, who has no personality in his few scenes. Unlike some of the other dead husbands. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a deadbeat who steals all wife Rodriguez’s money. She has a thrift store. Debicki’s husband, Jon Bernthal, is mentally and physically abusive. But mostly physically. And then there’s crew leader Liam Neeson. Charming career robber, known and hated by cops, beloved by crooks, on and on. He’s married to Davis. Her scenes imagining Neeson still with her–nose hairs and all–should be some of Widows’s best moments for McQueen. Instead, he just showcases Davis’s acting and doesn’t do anything else with it. Because Widows is too real.

As such, all mastermind thief Neeson leaves beloved widow Davis is his Moleskine. It’s got the plans to his next job. He also leaves her Garret Dillahunt, driver and boy Friday. Dillahunt’s good. In hindsight, his part should’ve forecasted McQueen and Flynn’s later problems.

Well, turns out Neeson stole from crime brothers Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya. They have an ill-defined criminal empire. Henry is trying to take the family straight, Kaluuya isn’t so sure. Henry’s plan is to get elected alderman. He just needs to beat corrupt public official and Chicago political family guy Colin Farrell. Duvall is Farell’s dad, the outgoing alderman. He had a heart attack or something. Doesn’t matter.

Henry then goes to Davis and tells her he wants the money–for his campaign, which he doesn’t mention–and she’s got a month to get it. She recruits the other widows to pull Neeson’s last job.

Through their new, sometimes dangerous experiences, Rodriguez and Debicki get character development. Well, Debicki gets it. Rodriguez gets a hint of it, then gets shut down. She becomes more functional, bringing in Erivo later on. Erivo who’s actually part of a C plot about small businesses too. McQueen and Flynn is overloaded with texture. Widows has enough material to be twice as long, because either its supporting characters need to get developed or they need to go away. The first act has a bunch of throwaway characters around just to play with expectations.

The texture–very realistic and don’t you dare acknowledge the adorable puppy–works. When Widows is expansive, it’s because of all that texture. Well-written, well-acted, well-directed texture. Narratively pointless because not even Davis can bring enough gravitas to fix a somewhat craven epilogue. McQueen–intentionally–eschews so much of the heist genre for Widows. And when he finally does employ genre narrative tropes, they’re all the bad ones. He’s also trying not to direct the thriller sequences–Kaluuya takes it upon himself to stalk and terrorize Davis in another C plot–but McQueen does a bunch of thriller sequences. And rather well. His narrative instincts are strong and he can do a lot with his cast, but the script’s the script. The twists, the turns, the disappearing characters.

Davis is great, Debicki is great. Rodriguez is good. She doesn’t get enough to do. She doesn’t even get C plots, she just gets to bring in Erivo, who does get a C plot. But Rodriguez is probably in the movie more than Erivo. She’s at least more active in the first act.

Erivo’s good. Again, thin part. Erivo acts the hell out of it.

Farrell ought to be great but his election subplot gets more time in the middle than Davis and crew planning. The whole Farrell thing–which also gets into the Chicago corruption and related institutionalized racism–takes up too much time in the film, which loses track of Davis and skips over Rodriguez. Great acting, great direction of that acting, good part, not great part.

Duvall’s a cameo pretending to be bigger. Henry’s fine. Kaluuya’s good, but the part’s too functional. And has no character development. None of the men get character development. At best they get some revelations. And it’s fine. But it’s thin.

Technically, the film’s perfect. McQueen’s composition, Sean Bobbitt’s photography, Joe Walker’s editing, Adam Stockhausen’s production design. It’s all great. The Hans Zimmer score is good but very functional.

Widows is fine work, with some near exceptional elements. And some particular problems.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve McQueen; screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, based on the television series written by Lynda La Plante; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Joe Walker; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Iain Canning, McQueen, Arnon Milchan, and Emile Sherman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Viola Davis (Veronica), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Lukas Haas (David), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Carlos), Coburn Goss (Jimmy Nunn), Molly Kunz (Siobhan), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Kevin J. O’Connor (Bobby Welsh), Jon Michael Hill (Reverend Wheeler), and Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan).


THX 1138 (1971, George Lucas)

Director Lucas makes one attempt at audience accessibility in THX 1138. It’s actually the first thing he does–he shows a clip from an old Flash Gordon serial to let the audience know the story is about the future. The clip also lets the audience know the future isn’t going to be happy.

And once he’s made that concession, he stops being accessible at all. There are no explanations in the film, no foreshadowing, no acknowledgement of the characters’ realizations, Lucas doesn’t even introduce his leads in an easy fashion. Lucas instead just quickly visually familiarizes the audience with the leads–Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, Donald Pleasence–before focusing in on Duvall amid the first action confusion.

Lucas’s secret weapon in THX 1138 is co-writer and sound designer Walter Murch. While the film definitely has distinctive visuals right off, the sound is even more important to setting the film’s tone. Lucas and Murch confuse the viewer at the same time they confuse Duvall–it’s the only way to put the viewer on anything near a similar level. Later on, when Pleasence is exploring his future world for the first time (and the viewer’s), he stops and gives up, not wanting to know. Only then does his introspection reveal anything to the viewer about the future world.

Except there’s no explanation of the terminology, which leaves the viewer again removed.

The film’s biggest problem is its length–it’s just too short to submerge the viewer–but it’s still a masterfully produced film. Great photography and editing too.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Edited and directed by George Lucas; screenplay by Lucas and Walter Murch, based on a story by Lucas; directors of photography, Albert Kihn and David Myers; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Larry Sturhahn; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Robert Duvall (THX), Donald Pleasence (SEN), Don Pedro Colley (SRT), Maggie McOmie (LUH), Ian Wolfe (PTO), Marshall Efron (TWA), Sid Haig (NCH), John Pearce (DWY) and James Wheaton (OMM).


Jack Reacher (2012, Christopher McQuarrie)

The first third of Jack Reacher is an elegantly told procedural, with director McQuarrie emulating a seventies cop movie. Of course, there are some garnishing, but nothing monumental. Tom Cruise’s cop is actually an ex-Army cop, it takes place in the twenty-first century (but I don’t think there’s a single computer turned on in the entire picture) and it’s a got an action movie finish. The finish is great–McQuarrie doesn’t give the violence flare, it’s all matter of fact. It knocks the movie’s quality down a little, but only because McQuarrie has to stop making a cop movie.

Technical standouts are Caleb Deschanel’s photography and Joe Kraemer’s music. Kraemer (until the last bit, when he’s just scoring action) does an amazing job. The music gives Reacher a lot of its personality, especially since the film often leaves Cruise in the first half to do other things.

Some of these other things involve Rosamund Pike, who I’ve never liked before but here is phenomenal, and Jai Courtney as a bad guy. Courtney’s good too. He doesn’t have a lot to do, but McQuarrie makes sure it’s all important. Same goes for Richard Jenkins and David Oyelowo. They’re both great. And Alexia Fast is good too.

As for Cruise?

At the end of the big action finale, Cruise tells a bad guy about how he’s a badass. Maybe McQuarrie waited with the line because he had to know Cruise had earned it.

And Cruise (and Reacher) definitely earn it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; screenplay by McQuarrie, based on a novel by Lee Child; director of photography, Caleb Deschanel; edited by Kevin Stitt; music by Joe Kraemer; produced by Tom Cruise, Don Granger, Paula Wagner and Gary Levinsohn; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Reacher), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Richard Jenkins (Rodin), David Oyelowo (Emerson), Werner Herzog (The Zec), Jai Courtney (Charlie), Vladimir Sizov (Vlad), Joseph Sikora (Barr), Michael Raymond-James (Linsky), Alexia Fast (Sandy), Josh Helman (Jeb), James Martin Kelly (Rob Farrior), Dylan Kussman (Gary) and Robert Duvall (Cash).


Open Range (2003, Kevin Costner)

Because I’m a cynic, I have to point out the following–in order to revive the Western, that most American of genres (sort of), Costner had to film Open Range in Canada.

It’s hard to think of a more traditional Western than Open Range. But the way Costner films it, it’s nouveau-Technicolor–the sky impossibly blue, the prairie impossibly green. There’s a subtle thread running through Range about progress and participating in it and not participating in it… but the film’s not about that collision.

Instead, it’s a straightforward Western–some drama, some action, some comedy. There’s even Costner putting in an unexpected Waterworld reference, as Michael Jeter swings around.

Most of the film takes place over a day and a half. It’s not real time, but there’s a deliberate pace and Costner’s able to keep every plot development significant. It makes the film speed through its two hours and twenty minutes. The first act, with this delicate introduction to Costner, Robert Duvall, Diego Luna and Abraham Benrubi, is exceptional filmic storytelling.

The acting’s all great. Costner and Annette Bening have their gentle romance–the most un-Western thing about the film is Costner casting someone his age as his love interest. Then there’s Costner and Duvall’s friendship–these two awkward, asocial men bonding–it’s all very thoughtful and very special. Luna’s good as their sidekick.

Plus, James Russo is fantastic as the corrupt marshal.

Open Range is a quietly spectacular film; it’s tragic Costner’s not recognized for it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Craig Storper, based on a novel by Lauran Paine; director of photography, J. Michael Muro; edited by Michael J. Duthie and Miklos Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by David Valdes, Costner and Jake Eberts; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Robert Duvall (Boss Spearman), Kevin Costner (Charley Waite), Annette Bening (Sue Barlow), Michael Gambon (Denton Baxter), Michael Jeter (Percy), Diego Luna (Button), James Russo (Sheriff Poole), Abraham Benrubi (Mose), Dean McDermott (Doc Barlow) and Kim Coates (Butler).


Badge 373 (1973, Howard W. Koch)

Badge 373 sounded good because it’s seventies Robert Duvall (before he was eighties and nineties Robert Duvall). My high hopes were quickly dashed. It’s poorly written, with lousy direction.

It’s amateurish, far beneath Duvall’s abilities.

I thought Howard W. Koch was somebody–I thought it was because of the New York mayor (Ed Koch), but it’s really Howard non-W. Koch (co-screenwriter of Casablanca). It’s rather confused why I thought he was a good director. He’s not.

It doesn’t feel much like a post-Dirty Harry cop film. It’s just another one of those seventies, bigot cop movies. There’s only so much time one has for that genre.

It’s certainly the worst performance I’ve seen from Duvall in the 1970s. Though not as ludicrous as some of his nineties work.

Trying to come up with anything else to say about the film is difficult, but it’s boring and long with unlikable characters. It’s based on the life of a real cop, who achieved some notoriety as the inspiration for The French Connection. He appears in the film and is a terrible actor.

It doesn’t compare to that film in the filmmaking or the script.

Verna Bloom is in it, who I like from–not High Plains DrifterAfter Hours. It’s After Hours I’m thinking of, the film where I really like Verna Bloom.

If you were full of crap and promoting the film, you could say it was 1970s American cinéma vérité.

It’s not; it’s just really poorly made.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Howard W. Koch; screenplay by Pete Hamill, inspired by Eddie Egan; director of photography, Arthur J. Ornitz; edited by John Woodcock; music by J.J. Jackson; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Koch and Jim Di Gangi; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Robert Duvall (Eddie Ryan), Verna Bloom (Maureen), Henry Darrow (Sweet William), Eddie Egan (Lt. Scanlon), Felipe Luciano (Ruben Garcia), Tina Cristiani (Mrs. Caputo), Marina Durell (Rita Garcia), Chico Martínez (Frankie Diaz), Jose Duvall (Ferrer), Louis Cosentino (Gigi Caputo) and Luis Avalos (Chico).


The Paper (1994, Ron Howard)

For a painfully brief period in the 1990s, Ron Howard was one of the best filmmakers working. It didn’t last. The Paper kicked off his run. Howard and the Koepp brothers (I can’t remember for sure, but I think Stephen worked at a newspaper) imbue the film with the traditional Hollywood newspaper movie idealism, but also enough modern cynicism to make the film fit for human consumption. Actually, the traditional Hollywood newspaper has always had the commercialism conflict, in The Paper personified by Michael Keaton and Glenn Close’s printing press fistfight, but along with the rest, it all somehow seems fresh. The rest is Robert Duvall’s aged newspaperman paying the various prices for his life, Marisa Tomei worrying about having her imminent baby with workaholic Keaton, Randy Quaid as a griping, indifferent columnist, and, of course, Jack Kehoe’s search for a comfortable chair. Howard’s special touch was bringing a heartening sense to his films without ever pandering. He could make a movie where a doorman could worry about a tenant in a medical crisis without it coming across as mawkish.

But there’s the technical aspect one shouldn’t ignore. The Paper takes place over a day, twenty-four hours, and while there are occasional visual errors, Howard and cinematographer John Seale do a beautiful job creating that day with wonderful skies. When Tomei is on the street, talking to Keaton on her cellphone, you can feel the warm New York evening. The editing is also very nice–and the Randy Newman score (there is, of course, a Randy Newman song over the end credits too), but the score sets the perfect tone for the film. It’s that extinct drama… the adult comedy.

All of the Koepp brothers’ dialogue is great, so much so, it’s strange David never came back to dialogue-heavy movies. Their characters–and here’s an odd compliment–are just sparse enough the actors can bring defining features to them, since the story doesn’t have any room for them (as written) except as figures moving throughout the story. The newspaper story, the one Keaton can’t get wrong, unfolds wonderfully. The plotting being good, I can figure that one from Koepp, but the dialogue just seems odd coming from him.

The acting is all fantastic. It’s one of Keaton’s best performances, it’s probably Tomei’s best. Randy Quaid’s good in the smallest of the principal roles, but he does get a great payoff at the end. Duvall’s great. Glenn Close probably has the most complicated role and she’s the only one with a eureka moment and she pulls it off. The supporting cast, with Kehoe maybe being the most memorable, is also fantastic. Roma Maffia and Lynne Thigpen being the other two standouts, but they’re all great.

The Paper is largely, I’m guessing because of the cast, forgotten. There’s a lousy pan and scan DVD in the United States and Howard’s shown no interest in the last ten years in forcing an acceptable release. It’s got a place in film history–one of the forgotten films of the 1990s (it won no major Oscars and did not make over a $150 million), an ever growing category and maybe the most depressing–but it really ought to be known for its excellence, not as an entry on a list or as a footnote. It’s a wonderful film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; written by David Koepp and Stephen Koepp; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Daniel Hanley and Michael Hill; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer and Frederick Zollo; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Keaton (Henry Hackett), Robert Duvall (Bernie White), Glenn Close (Alicia Clark), Marisa Tomei (Martha Hackett), Randy Quaid (Michael McDougal), Jason Robards (Graham Keighley), Jason Alexander (Marion Sandusky), Spalding Gray (Paul Bladden), Catherine O’Hara (Susan), Lynne Thigpen (Janet), Jack Kehoe (Phil), Roma Maffia (Carmen), Clint Howard (Ray Blaisch), Geoffrey Owens (Lou) and Amelia Campbell (Robin).


The Gingerbread Man (1998, Robert Altman)

Somehow Altman lets The Gingerbread Man get away from him. Never the direction, which holds up until the end–and seeing Robert Altman direct a fight scene is something to behold–but the plotting. The film starts high, thanks to the compelling plot and the performances, but then the plot gets more and more… not convoluted, but desensitizing. Once Kenneth Branagh’s kids are in danger, it’s clear there’s nothing special about the plot, since it’s such a genre standard. The film also loses, around that section, as the storytelling becomes more set piece oriented, the strange texture Gingerbread Man had before. It was clearly, both through style and script, a Robert Altman movie. Branagh, always the protagonist, was not the whole show. Then he becomes the whole show and the movie loses something.

It never regains it either. Even with one nice moment or two, there’s the epical storytelling key turn and then it’s liftoff and it’s Branagh racing to discover the truth, just like every other thriller involving a lawyer who gets involved with a client. At that point, it’s sort of clear the story came from John Grisham. Or maybe I’d just like to think Altman wouldn’t have made a pedestrian conclusion. It’s possible, since it is Altman, he was pandering to see what it was like to pander (Altman’s disinterest in his finished product, good or bad, is always a little stunning).

The acting is, with one and a half exceptions, fantastic. Branagh’s performance (as a Southerner) is excellent. Embeth Davidtz makes a great white trash femme fatale, Daryl Hannah is good as Branagh’s (long suffering) associate. Robert Downey Jr. has a great time in a flashy private investigator role–not spinning Downey off into his own movie is probably Gingerbread‘s greatest tragedy (as is not sticking with him as much as possible). Even Tom Berenger is good in a small part. The two exceptions? Well, the half is Robert Duvall, who does his crazy thing again here. Duvall looks the part and I suppose he’s fine, but it’s a lame casting choice and a poorly written character. Then there’s Famke Janssen, who’s less convincing as a parent than as a Southern belle (her accent is less convincing than Marge Simpson as Blanche). Luckily, Branagh is frequently around to save Janssen’s scenes.

The Gingerbread Man is a fine filmmaking exercise from Altman, has some great acting, and has some great cinematography. But its production quality is not matched by the rote plot. Altman, had he taken the film at all seriously, could have done a lot more with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; written by Clyde Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham; director of photography, Gu Changwei; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Jeremy Tannenbaum; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Rick Magruder), Embeth Davidtz (Mallory Doss), Robert Downey Jr. (Clyde Pell), Daryl Hannah (Lois Harlan), Tom Berenger (Pete Randle), Famke Janssen (Leeanne Magruder), Mae Whitman (Libby Magruder), Jesse James (Jeff Magruder) and Robert Duvall (Dixon Doss).


Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)

Network lost Oscars. It doesn’t really matter what it lost them to, because the absurdity of the Academy Awards is summed up in that one statement. Network lost Oscars.

I’m not sure what shot is Sidney Lumet’s best in the film, because I’m remembering two of them from the last half. These aren’t necessarily the best shots in the film, but they’re memorable because I can’t quite remember ever seeing anything like them before. The first is for Ned Beatty’s big scene. It’s an amazing scene from Beatty, but Lumet’s composition, the lighting scheme, the cuts to Peter Finch, it’s a singular filmic moment. The second, unfortunately in some ways, summarizes the popular half of Network. It’s the network executives sitting around Robert Duvall’s office, deciding what must be done. It’s been about ten years since I’ve seen Network and I don’t know if I passively remembered the resolution or if, in those ten years, I’ve consumed enough media the resolution just became the most logical thing in the world. Lumet makes enough room for six people in his shot and lets the camera sit. Duvall might even walk into the shot. There’s only one close-up I can remember, otherwise Lumet just lets it sit.

The popular half of Network is the one where people remember the lines, the one acclaimed in modernity as a classic of 1970s cinema. Network is–and I’m only going to talk about this aspect for a second–more obviously true today than it was in 1976. The Saudis buying up America, for example, much more pertinent these days than then. The dehumanizing effects of television, much worse today than then… at least then, television wasn’t apathetic to suffering. It had yet to become the idiot box. It’s funny in that sad, tragic way how much acclaim the sound bits from Network get–the lip service. Makes one wonder if those giving the awards (the American Film Institute) watches the film.

The other half of Network is, much like the non-pioneering half of Citizen Kane, forgotten. And it’s, like Kane, the more important one. In Network, it’s the William Holden side. Holden’s performance–which, incredulously, he reportedly got due to The Towering Inferno–is astounding. Network wouldn’t work if any of the cast couldn’t hold with Holden or Finch or Faye Dunaway. Duvall’s part, in the first half, is the sketchiest, just because of the plot, but Duvall holds it and makes it work and it pays off big in the end. Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting for less than six minutes. Easily deserved it. The combination of Lumet’s direction and Chayefsky’s script for scenes like Straight’s… it’s truly special filmmaking. Everything else aside, all of Finch’s hysterics aside (as well as the wonderfully absurd scenes, like the terrorists worrying about syndication rights), Network is a quiet film.

I could go on ad nauseam–I have not, for instance, discussed Dunaway’s performance or Chayefsky’ script the editing or the sound design–but it’ll turn into a list. Overanalyzing Network isn’t useful, it’s far too consequential.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Paddy Chayefsky; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Alan Heim; music by Elliott Lawrence; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Howard Gottfried; released by United Artists.

Starring Faye Dunaway (Diane Christenson), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beals), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jenson), Darryl Hickman (Bill Herron), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher) and Marlene Warfield (Laureen Hobbs).


The Natural (1984, Barry Levinson), the director’s cut

The Natural is a strange one. It’s a cheap success. The story is incredibly simple–you have the golden-haired hero and the evil monster who lives in the dark–and looking for anything more will leave one wanting. Even though the film taps into the baseball mythos, it’s superficial. The Natural is the superhero movie Robert Redford never made… there’s no question of his morality, his loyalty, his ability. Watching the movie is about enjoying what the movie does. The scenes of Redford knocking the ball out of the park aren’t supposed to come as surprises, they’re supposed to be Hollywood magic. And for the most part, they are.

For his second feature, Barry Levinson is perfect–just like his first–capturing the film’s era. He’s not so perfect at capturing or creating the wonderment. There are some problems. The biggest is the opening, with Redford playing twenty at fifty (or forty-nine)–only two years younger than co-star Wilford Brimley–while Redford playing thirty-six is digestible (he has had a bullet in his stomach for sixteen years), the opening flashbacks are distracting and might have done better just as voiceovers. But Levinson also isn’t able to direct those scenes, the mythic scenes. He lacks the visual imagination for it. Levinson is, always–no matter how much gloss he puts on it–a realistic director and mythic scenes are beyond him here. Randy Newman’s score doesn’t help in these scenes either and really should. Newman’s score is half perfect and half off. It’s good throughout, but he’s supposed to be whacking the viewer in the ears, filling he or she with a double serving of wonderment, richer than any cheesecake. And he comes close enough to show he could have, but doesn’t.

Some of those problems–the Newman score–suggest the filmmakers were going for something a little deeper. There are certainly suggestions of it. The scene where, when talking about his father, all Redford can say is, “I love baseball,” or the scenes with Glenn Close. In some ways, the most ambitious–as a real film–The Natural gets is when it’s deliberating on these two people picking up with each other after so long. It’s great stuff, it just doesn’t pay off in the end. What pays off in the end is sparkling rain and the hero victorious.

All the performances are good (except, obviously, Michael Madsen). Redford in particular, though Brimley and Richard Farnsworth are both excellent as well. As the nefarious villains, Robert Prosky, Darren McGavin and Kim Basinger show why being campy isn’t always a bad thing. Robert Duvall is a little disappointing too, I guess, playing a far too two-dimensional character. Close manages to play a grown-up dream girl, which was probably either a lot easier or a lot harder than it looks.

The film’s a little too clean, a little too long in places and a little too short in others, but when it works it works beautifully.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based on the novel by Bernard Malamud; director of photography, Caleb Deschanel; edited by Stu Linder and Christopher Holmes; music by Randy Newman; production designers, Mel Bourne and Angelo P. Graham; produced by Mark Johnson; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Robert Redford (Roy Hobbs), Robert Duvall (Max Mercy), Glenn Close (Iris Gaines), Kim Basinger (Memo Paris), Wilford Brimley (Pop Fisher), Barbara Hershey (Harriet Bird), Robert Prosky (The Judge), Darren McGavin (Gus Sands), Richard Farnsworth (Red Blow), Joe Don Baker (The Whammer), John Finnegan (Sam Simpson), Alan Fudge (Ed Hobbs), Paul Sullivan Jr. (Young Roy), Rachel Hall (Young Iris), Robert Rich III (Ted Hobbs), Michael Madsen (Bartholomew ‘Bump’ Bailey), Jon Van Ness (John Olsen), Mickey Treanor (Doc Dizzy) and George Wilkosz (Bobby Savoy).


The Godfather: Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

Francis Ford Coppola created the modern film sequel with The Godfather: Part II. I wonder how people who’ve never seen the first one understand the second one. I was talking to a friend about it and he described it as the best filmic account of “the darkening of a man’s heart.” I hadn’t seen it in ten years and while that description is perfect, I found it interesting without knowledge of the original, it’d wouldn’t really work. One might figure out something was a little off, since Michael’s not exactly a person to spend 140 minutes with. Even the last scene moves away from giving any context to the character’s tragedy, instead going further–adding an unexpected layer to the character, reversing some of the viewer’s assumptions (ones the same scene had initially–and this scene is at most four minutes–reestablished).

In many ways, it’s a more depressing version of Citizen Kane, one where it never occurs to Kane to keep the snow globe (which is a good reason there’s no possible sequel, not one with Michael anyway). The juxtaposing of the two stories, father and son… I’m sure there’s been a lot said about how they work but I’m going for a more cynical approach. Robert De Niro’s story is in there as a reward for the viewer. The first film is not a tragedy, tragedy being a soft word for what goes on in this film, and it provides a release valve. Characters with known futures appear and there’s no need for actual concern for the characters. The scenes do offer a singular look at the Don’s marriage, giving Francesca De Sapio more to do as young Mama Corleone than Morgana King ever has.

The scenes also have action, something the Pacino parts of the film lack after the first half. While the opening Michael scenes resemble the first film–both in style and content–it quickly becomes about his relationships with his family. The first half of the last scene speaks directly to that focus, while the second half suggests something different, something more tragic, something about the relationship with Kay. That suggestion requires having seen the first film and it’s an example of this thing Coppola does in Part II. He gently forces the viewer into situations the viewer may not be looking for, but Coppola is interesting in exploring. When the film started, in Sicily, with the exposition text onscreen, I thought Coppola had some incredible affection for his characters, then quickly realized he didn’t… he was utilizing the viewer’s affection for the characters to create an atmosphere in which he could tell the story.

It’s a great film. It also has that moment Gene Siskel once wrote about, discussing The Bridges of Madison County, when the viewer knows something is going to happen, but believes his or her hope might change the characters’ minds. I’m paraphrasing. I’d never seen it in anything other than Madison County and thought about it, but watching Part II, I didn’t remember until halfway through the scene Michael closes the door and, for that second half, I kept hoping I was wrong.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Coppola, based on the novel by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Barry Malkin, Richard Marks and Peter Zinner; music by Nino Rota; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Michael), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay), Robert De Niro (Vito Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), Michael V. Gazzo (Frankie Pentangeli), G.D. Spradlin (Senator Geary) and Richard Bright (Al Neri).


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