Friday, June 11, 2010

YELLOW SKY -- William A. Wellman -- 1948

Wellman returns to the western genre with Yellow Sky and works with another of the great Hollywood actors of the time, Gregory Peck. The film very simply follows a group of bandits led by Peck’s ‘Stretch’ Dawson as they stumble across the desert to an abandoned town. They discover two residents, a shrew-like woman and her grandfather, but are to come to realize a secret is inside the surrounding mountains.

Outside of the painful biopic Buffalo Bill, Wellman’s westerns have been much simpler than the standard classical western of the 40s and 50s. We are still a few years from the multi-layered The Searchers (the greatest western of all time…), but Wellman doesn’t seem all that interested with horse chases, native wars and gun fights. Yellow Sky does contain elements of all three, but the film, like The Ox-Bow Incident, is much more focused on character development and psychology. This doesn’t necessarily mean a better or worse western, but it is fairly fresh to go into a film that doesn’t feel like the worn-over fare.

Wellman’s two best westerns also share an element not often (or ever) seen in the classical western: we aren’t exactly following the “good guys.” This is a little more complicated in The Ox-Bow Incident, as we spend the film with a lynch mob, where the burden of “goodness” lies with the viewer. In Yellow Sky, Stretch’s mob are bank robbers by trade and throughout the film, members of the group remind us that their major motivations are money related. Outside of Stretch, who gets a redemption by the end of the film, I wish the other characters weren’t so obviously bad, but as a classical western, this is usually an obvious fact. Especially toward the end of the film, when we are reaching the final conflicts, I couldn’t help but wonder why Stretch so easily decided to become good while his gang turned on him. Could it all be for love? Considering that he was the leader of these bank robbers, it’s not to outside the box to think of him as the baddest baddie, but being such an obvious softie doesn’t help build the tensions the film needs.

Of course every western needs a hero, and here we have Gregory Peck, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a western. Although he doesn’t have the realistic tone or power like fellow stars of the genre Henry Fonda or John Wayne, I was pleasantly surprised by his performance. He wasn’t quite the wooden statue line reader that I’ve come to know him as. His relationship with Anne Baxter’s Mike, although troubling, was mostly believable from both parties, which is a major need for the film to work in any way. He also seemed tough enough, looking the part of the rugged western man, even if the script mostly denies him the realism of being this group’s leader.

The film was a reasonable, harmlessly entertaining film, but doesn’t hold the importance of The Ox-Bow Incident, and for that, feels like a minor film. Yellow Sky certainly doesn’t reach The Treasure of the Sierra Madre levels in any message on what gold can do to a man, which hurts the third act a bit. Although what is on screen is entertaining enough, Wellman doesn’t push the story or his characters to the limits. I don’t know if I can fairly blame a film from 1948 for this, but I was wanting something more. I have to say, though, with fairly solid performances all around and its Hollywood simplicity, Yellow Sky ranks in the top tier of Wellman’s pictures and his best work since Beau Geste and that other western film I keep comparing this one with.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

EDGE OF DARKNESS -- Martin Campbell -- 2010

Mel Gibson returns in front of the camera for the first time since 2002’s Signs in Edge of Darkness, a film that’s synopsis reads very much like a Mel Gibson film. For those of you who don’t know the plot, Gibson plays a Boston detective who is on the warpath to find his daughter’s killer(s). What at first seems like an attempt on Thomas Craven unravels into a complex chain leading to Emma’s work and secret life.

As a film so heavily marketed and talked about through its star, I feel there is no other way to start than to talk about Mel Gibson. Now I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on his acting career — I’ve seen most of his major films, but years ago. Edge of Darkness, though, feels right in his wheelhouse. Obviously it comes curiously close to films like Ransom, Conspiracy Theory and Payback, so Gibson has understood this particular character-type, but I can’t imagine remembering any of his performances in the aforementioned films having nearly the same amount of emotional depth. During many of the quieter moments of the film, Gibson’s performance reaches outright touching moments. For a man who has become incredibly unlikable over the past few years, I feel that Gibson should be under a huge burden to win over his audience and he seems to do it — astonishingly within the first few minutes of the film. He is not just a man on a mission, but a father struggling with the loss of his only child. I find that quite the feat.

The film opens rather quietly, allowing us to get to know Craven and the relationship with his daughter. Expertly, just as the audience begins to get lulled into sleep, questions begin to rise just before we see the graphic murder that propels the rest of the film. Even after Emma’s death, the film takes its time to build Craven’s character, perhaps to the point where many would start itching for action or questioning whether they are watching the correct film. To me, though, it is when Craven begins his investigation when the film starts to falter.

This is partly due to the fact that as the pieces begin to come together, the puzzle is a bit more complicated than I expected or cared to handle. Part of it comes from so much information coming within so little time. The film is two hours long, but with the amount of investigation that Craven is forced to do, there is so much exposition, almost completely putting any action on the back-burner for most of the film. I understand that the story was first directed by Martin Campbell as a mini-series, with six episodes instead of a two hour film. There was probably enough time here to let the emotional aspects breathe while being able to introduce information at a pace that doesn’t flood the audience or impede on the mood of the film. The other problem is the actual ability for a detective to begin to uncover so much of the mystery. Because most of the circumstances surrounding the murder involve highly secretive government secrets, the film has to rely on too many baddies to lurk around being dark, feeding Craven and us information and making mistakes.

In terms of the action, there was certainly less than I expected, although the ending of the film fulfills the chaos and redemption that you would expect from a Mel Gibson revenge film. I have to take issue, however, with the first action scene, which is a hand-to-hand fight between Craven and a mysterious young man. The problem is that the quickness of the fight and the editing feels completely out-of-place for the brooding film that precedes it and completely unlikely for the parties involved. The fight feels like something that would make sense out of Martin Campbell’s previous film Casino Royale, but I can’t buy a near-50 year old Boston detective whirling around, kicking chairs into doors to impede retreat.

On the whole, I think Edge of Darkness is a decent film that could easily be very good. With any film, different people are looking for different things and I imagine most are looking for a lot of good action, and these people will probably be a bit disappointed. As the film developed I really enjoyed the mood it was going for, but if you were looking for this, you would also be disappointed when the emotional mood changes once the investigation begins. I think that Campbell made a valiant effort to make a throw-back to the 40s and 50s hard-boiled detective stories, and Mel Gibson does a great job at paying homage to the likes of Bogart and Sterling Hayden. But with the sloppiness and modernity of the mystery, this mood falls apart along with the rest of the film.


My double-feature concludes with another William Wellman-John Wayne pilot film, The High and the Mighty. During a cross-Pacific flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, a commercial airliner piloted by John Sullivan (Robert Stack) and Dan Roman (John Wayne) begins to experience technical troubles and the crew begins to fear the plane may not make its destination.

In some ways, the film started the disaster movie track that would become hugely popular in the 60s and 70s, with films like the Airport series, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. Even though it is considered these films predecessor, it is really hard to look at the film as a disaster movie, as it is much more focused on the plane’s inhabitants than it is the oncoming disaster. Just due to the fact that the plane doesn’t have any difficulties until over an hour into the film makes it a hard classification. Instead of thrilling the audience, the film takes its time to let us get to know the passengers and crew, which gives us even more of a stake when the plane starts to go down. In the DVD introduction, the great Leonard Maltin somewhat warns the viewer not to expect a balls-to-the-wall disaster flick when he says the film is a product of the 1950s, when films were much more interested in story than special effects. This certainly comes across in the film, but doesn’t make it any more interesting.

Speaking of the 1950s, boy, those were different times in airplane travel! No security, people taking them time, stress-free at the airport, men giving the stewardess randy compliments and people actually talking to each other on the plane. Can you believe it? Some of this is probably just movie-airplane stuff in order to drive plot points forward, but I would consider myself well versed in airplane travel, and it certainly has changed on many fronts.

Back to the film. Also being a product of the 50s, the film was one of the first films to use CinemaScope, an early form of wide screen projection. With the amazing aspect ratio of 2.55:1, the film only covers a sliver over the center of my wide-screen television. Honestly, the technology is mishandled for this film. As I mentioned before, most of the film’s focus is on the relationships of the passengers, documenting normal on-screen conversations in the small environment inside of an airplane. Typically, an ultra wide projection wouldn’t be totally necessary for this type of picture. Although Wellman frames the screen well enough, being a competent filmmaker he uses the technology fine, but without much big action that would normally be associated with a disaster film, its full capabilities are squandered.

Notice how I really haven’t mentioned John Wayne? His role in the film doesn’t quite match up to the star’s normal screen persona. He is also mostly over-shadowed by his co-pilot, Robert Stack, who I am realizing was a much better actor than I could imagine as the host of Unsolved Mysteries. His role is much more meatier, as an experienced pilot who totally suffers a psychological breakdown as the plane begins to do likewise. The film captures his psychosis well, making him much more than just an unlikable coward. And that voice! Unfortunately, with so many characters to keep track of, the film forgets about Stack’s John Sullivan for long stretches. Similar to my problem with Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty spreads across too many characters who are much less interesting than others who could clearly be expanded.

The High and the Mighty is a solidly made, but mostly forgettable film. It suffers from a lack of action while introducing too many characters of subplots. It’s never hard to follow, but there is so much, most of it isn’t interesting enough to contain itself. Still, the film is important in cinema history as an early user of CinemaScope and for all of the films it potentially encouraged.

ISLAND IN THE SKY -- William A. Wellman -- 1953

I haven’t always been a John Wayne fan. Before becoming truly acquainted with his work, all I knew were the caricatures and jokes about the man. Since I’ve seen films like The Searchers, Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I have come to fully appreciate his screen persona. I’ve also come to find out that the caricatures aren’t totally off, but his strong-will and complete drive on screen is something we haven’t seen since and certainly don’t have today.

Island in the Sky comes toward the end of Wayne’s career, a year after The Quiet Man, but with some of his legendary performances still to come — including The Searchers, Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo and his only Oscar winning turn, True Grit. Basically, though, by this time, audiences already understood and loved the actor. Island in the Sky, unfortunately, doesn’t hold the weight as a film or as a performance of some of the previous films I have mentioned.

In the film, Wayne plays Capt. Dooley, a former WWII pilot who becomes stranded in desolate, uncharted territory where he and his crew and forced to brave the elements while a search party is slowly struggling to find them. Both Wayne and Wellman aren’t new to pictures focused on pilots and flying — Wayne played a pilot at least five times in his career (probably more) and Wellman hit the scene with Wings, the Oscar-winning film focused on pilots in WWI. The experience on both sides leads to a lot of care in the film, and the actors and direction feel very comfortable with the terminology and flight sequences. This is particularly shown in the very first shot of the film, where a camera swoops closely to another airplane in flight, what must be an incredibly difficult shot to pull off is done expertly.

When Dooley isn’t flying, he is battling the elements, the emotional heart of the film. Man vs. nature films are usually intriguing, and the conflict has spread into what seems like dozens of television shows. Island in the Sky successfully finds the tension within these sequences, and although Wayne is always better in action, he pulls a moderately good performance in the quiet emotional scenes herein. The film doesn’t have enough for the crew to do in this environment, though, so much of the film has to follow the search parties who weep over their friends too much and often don’t seem to be doing much else. Although I understand the search to be an important part of the equation, it is far less interesting than spending time with Wayne in the elements. I hate to feel that Wellman and the screenwriter (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) could have given them more to do than sit around as they slowly freeze.

Moreover, the film tries to interject a love-plot between Dooley and his worrying wife, as if he doesn’t have enough reason to escape a freezing environment without any food, water and little shelter. Whenever the film tried to unfairly crank up the emotion during any of these scenes (which I’ll admit aren’t many, but too many), I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. If you look at the official poster of the film, the biggest visible words are “He fought every fury of man and mountain to get to where his woman was!” and then shows a picture of the actress playing “his woman” who is technically in the film for about 2 minutes. This irritates me in two ways: first it is fairly misleading to the actual film, as this isn’t a major plot development; also, it is so manipulative Hollywood that it grosses me out. I would rather these insignificant (in terms of real plot) were cut and I feel the film would be all the better for it. We don’t need any more reason for Dooley and his crew to be saved and they shouldn’t need much more reason to get out alive. I really hate to spend so much time on such a small part of the film, but I don’t think I’m nit-picking since the studio obviously wanted you to feel like this was a driving force of character motivation. The film even ends with a young crew member telling Dooley “I didn’t know you had a wife and kids” to which Dooley replies “Yeah, six of ‘em!” Sadly, I didn’t realize this either, and didn’t even really care.

Overall, Island in the Sky is a film that I wish expanded and gave us more of everything that I liked: airplane footage and Dooley’s struggle with the elements. Instead, the film tries to over-emphasize the emotional aspects of the film through other characters moping around. Simply put, I want my man vs. nature films to fully showcase the struggles, spending time with these characters and giving them interesting, frightening situations to handle. And although we are happy when the crew is saved in the end (SHOCKING SPOILERS!), the journey of the search party is far far less exciting than the journey of those physically affected by the elements.

BATTLEGROUND -- William A. Wellman -- 1949

Whoa, yeah, I’m writing again. As some of you know, I’ve written blogs for film reviews in the past, but when I started a film podcast a few months ago (a lot of work), my urges to write were initially squelched. I have to come to find out, however, that no matter how much I talk about films, that doesn’t totally replace writing about films, especially with as many as I see, and especially especially based on personal projects.

For those of you who have read any of my reviews previously, you may know that I am a believer in auteur theory and I enjoy watching a filmmaker’s entire (or near-entire) canon. Currently, I have been watching the films of William A. Wellman, a filmmaker I was familiar with previously, but who I had a lot of holes with. For the most part, Wellman was best known for working in as many genres as he possibly could — making an auteur argument more difficult, but watching his films has certainly been worthwhile. At this point, I’ve actually covered most of his career, from his starts with James Cagney to his raunchy pre-code films to potentially his best film, The Ox-Bow Incident.

His 1949 war film Battleground follows the true-ish story of the 101st airborne division corps as they embark on a secret mission in a small town in France and are surrounded by German soldiers.

I wouldn’t call the film great in any way, but a solid war film, and a particularly interesting one in one specific respect. Near the end of the film, a character literally asks “Should we be here?” and gives his best answer to that question. There are many (great) films that are able to answer this question without literally addressing the question, so this tactic seems like something that could/would be eye-roll-inducingly cheesy, but it holds up as a touching and powerful moment. Here is the actual speech from the film:

Now it’s nearly Christmas… and here we are in beautiful Bastogne enjoying the winter sports. And the $64 question is: “Was this trip necessary?” I’ll try to answer that. But my sermons, like everything else in the army… depend on the situation and the terrain. So I assure you this is going to be a quickie. Was this trip necessary? Let’s look at the facts. Nobody wanted this war but the Nazis. A great many people tried to deal with them, and a lot of them are dead. Millions have died… for no other reason except that the Nazis wanted them dead. So, in the final showdown, there was nothing left to do except fight. There’s a great lesson in this. Those of us who’ve learned it the hard way aren’t going to forget it. We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race… or a super-idea, or super-anything… become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world. We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning… to put out the fire before it starts spreading. My answer to the sixty-four dollar question is yes, this trip was necessary. As the years go by, a lot of people are going to forget. But you won’t. And don’t ever let anybody tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism. And now, Jerry permitting, let us pray. Almighty God…

I find this an interesting moment because although I would consider myself aggressively anti-war, I feel like it’s a hard stance to argue against. The speech works because it feels heart-felt, not just for the character but for all those involved. Ever since WWII, we have been mired in so many wars that have been so split, so it is difficult to remember that the European WWII was a war fought for maybe honorable reasons. WWII in Japan, probably a different story.

Moreover, even though this film would be considered on the “pro-war” side of the argument, it is much more of a pro-WWII sentiment than an overall pro-war one — an idea that I feel in so many John Wayne war films.

Outside of this, the film is a fairly stock entry into the war genre. We have a training scene; we see our men in times of monotonous peace before battle; we then see these men in battle, dealing with issues of families at home and their own mortality. Because of this, for the most part, the film doesn’t feel incredibly important or memorable. There aren’t any particularly stand-out performances, even with a stable of respected actors. And although the film is able to stray away from the general problem of the war collective (blending the characters and actors together, making them nearly unidentifiable) I never found any of the characters particularly interesting.

Another big problem I had with the film is that I never felt the soldiers were in any real danger. Especially coming from a seemingly gripping true story, I feel is something that should be important to capture. In fact, I totally forgot the Germans as Nazis (and by that, mythical monsters) until the speech from the Chaplin calling them so. None of the battle scenes had much tension and the American soldiers seemed to be in complete control of their situations. They seemed to be much more bothered by the fact that it was snowing and cold than the soldiers they were encountering.

My overall sense of Battleground is that it raises one interesting question, but outside of that, fails to live up to other great war films — even Wellman’s overly melodramatic Wings (yes, the one that won the first Oscar) had more to offer in terms of battle scenes and tension. For a director who strove to master ever film genre, I feel Wellman hasn’t quite succeeded with war films, even if he has made great stabs with gangster and western pictures.