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Can Danny Boyle Revive the James Bond Franchise?

Done right, the new Bond can lead British cinema into the future, and perhaps set the conversation for what we expect of male-led action movies in the years to come.

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James Bond is one of the purest expressions of British identity around. As a result, how he is treated on the big screen remains one of the most important things for the nation to get right. After two efforts by Sam Mendes, the wonderful Skyfall and the disappointing Spectre, directing duties have been finally handed over to Danny Boyle.

On paper this seems like the right decision for a James Bond movie. After all, Boyle directed the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the critically acclaimed Isles of Wonder, and it doesn’t really get more British than that. Many British citizens are already nostalgic for the Olympics, as they represented a truly global Britain at the height of its powers. Everything since then — such as the endless austerity policies, Brexit, and now rising international tensions with Russia — has only served to make the country look smaller and more out of place in the world. Danny Boyle understands what makes Britain great, even when it looks terrible (Trainspotting), and his version of Bond could restore some of that lustre lost by the previous entry in the franchise.

SpectreSpectre was a failure, an attempt to unnecessarily package all of the Daniel Craig Bond movies into one huge meta-narrative. It went against the grain of what a Bond film was meant to be, adding unnecessary Marvel-like continuity into a film series that worked much better when telling standalone stories. While Skyfall — released in the same year as the extremely successful Olympics — managed to say something new about the nature of nostalgia and the changing of the times, Spectre leans too hard on empty pastiche, making it feel more like a comic book movie than a genuine spy thriller. Boyle has to get the new film right by avoiding the bloated mistakes of Spectre and figuring out what made Skyfall so great.

Looking at his complete filmography reveals a complicated story, a director whose dedication to emotional honesty sometimes sees him lapse into sentimentality, creating a body of work that ranges from the truly fantastic (Trainspotting) to the overly saccharine (Millions) — sometimes even within the same movie (Slumdog Millionaire). His maximalist approach to storytelling makes him perfect for events such as Olympic ceremonies, but could serve him poorly when trying to rebuild one of the most prestigious film franchises in the world. This is a director with one of the most diverse filmographies of all, spanning from heroin dramas to zombie thrillers, slow and austere sci-fi to big budget Bollywood. This is someone who doesn’t write his own screenplays, but rather adapts them to his own ends, almost exclusively telling the stories of men overcoming incredible odds. With such a diverse portfolio, a Danny Boyle James Bond really could go either way.

Additionally, 2015 was a long time ago, with two key events developing in the interim that cannot be ignored. The first is Brexit, the so-called democratic process by which 52% of the population decided to leave the European Union. This has divided the nation like nothing else, with some people calling it a disaster and others calling it a great time for British independence. How will a Bond film manage to be proud of British identity without descending into tub-thumping jingoism? With Isles of Wonder, Danny Boyle celebrated Britain’s diversity and strength, but with the very concept of what it means to being British changing, James Bond may now find himself in a state of flux. He will probably end up offending somebody.

Millions is possibly the best example of Boyle taking on the complications of British identity in relation to the rest of the world. Depicting a fictionalised version of the UK that has switched to the Euro, it articulated a lot of anxieties that people had regarding the European Union in the first place. That film was eventually far too sentimental and patronising, but it shows that Boyle was somewhat ahead of the curve when it came to British reactions to European integration. Perhaps Brexit will be used as a plot point in the new movie, with weakened ties between nations posing extra challenges for 007.

In addition to Brexit, James Bond has to adapt to a new sexual landscape that has sprung up in the wake of #metoo. We all know he can change. He hasn’t puffed on a cigarette since 2002, and he no longer makes homophobic or racist jokes. But there’s still the lingering issue of misogyny. This has been going on since the 90s, with M calling Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a “sexist misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the cold war” in 1995’s GoldenEye. While this was only mentioned through words in the 90s and 00s, the late 10s now demands affirmative action from Bond. In the era of #metoo, the old James Bond simply won’t do — meaning no more shower sex with sexual assault survivors, and no more women ending up dead merely to serve as plot points.

Spectre tried to do more with the introduction of Monica Bellucci, the oldest ever Bond girl, but even there her character is only used for sex before being unceremoniously dumped. Danny Boyle has been known for depicting men at their worst, making him well disposed to critique Bond’s worst tendencies. He will probably still show Bond as a chauvinist pig, but find a way to criticise him in the process. This all depends on how far he is willing to go in order to truly reinvent the wheel.

T2 Trainspotting

Danny Boyle has only been tasked with one sequel so far in his career: the disappointing T2 Trainspotting, which was a relatively lazy revisiting of his original classic that felt more like a reunion tour than a great work in its own right. There’s a temptation with the Bond films to lean too hard on empty signifiers without trying to understand what they really mean; if the new one follows T2’s approach, it could be even more exhausting than Spectre. Bond #25 needs to be a satisfying story that stands on its own narrative legs, without losing sight of what makes the superspy a great British icon in the first place. It’s a delicate balancing act that only a great director can pull off.

We all know that he has it in him. Having given British cinema a necessary needle in the arm with Shallow Grave and the original Trainspotting, Boyle has the capability to revive this flagging franchise and adapt it to a brave new world. In terms of directing ability, there is no doubt he has the filmmaking chops —  it all depends on whether or not he will let his sentimental side get the better of him. Bond has constantly been adapting. Whether its reacting to 9/11 or the Jason Bourne movies, or even more recently the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bond movies have always been trying to keep up with the times. With Boyle in charge, there’s a sense that done right, the new Bond can lead British cinema into the future, and perhaps set the conversation for what we expect of male-led action movies in the years to come.

As far back as he can remember, Redmond Bacon always wanted to be a film critic. To him, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States

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The Career of Roger Ebert

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Career of Roger Ebert

Every Film Critic Owes A Bit to Roger Ebert

I recently wrote a profile on the late, great Robert Mitchum.  In the course of researching the piece, I came across the fun tidbit that Mitchum had been a favorite of film critic Roger Ebert.

The mind rarely works in a linear fashion, and I suspect mine may even be more chaotic than most.  That item pinballed around the ol’ noggin, and, somewhere in all that bouncing here and there, triggered a bit of nostalgia.  Probably because I was working on the piece during Oscar season, the mention of Ebert reminded me that there had been a time when this would’ve been the point in the year I’d be looking forward to the annual “If We Gave Out the Oscars” (or something like that) show done by Ebert along with his on-screen partner of nearly two dozen years, fellow film critic Gene Siskel.

That first Ebert/Siskel memory triggered others, and as they bubbled up and percolated a bit, they started to gel together and bing: Gestalt light bulb.

Roger Ebert, and the long-lasting TV presence he’s had, particularly in association with Siskel, has been such a visible part of the media landscape for so long that he’s taken for granted; viewed as an institution with a sense of was-is-and-always-will-be.

Which, as is the case with any institution, is hardly true.  There was a time before, and the difference between then and what came after is so stark as… Well, you wouldn’t think it, but when Ebert and Siskel hit the air, the changes they wrought on the public face of film criticism, were – dare I say it?  Yes, I dare! – nothing less than revolutionary.  And if it doesn’t seem so today, that only testifies as to how some revolutions, in time, become the new long-standing status quo.

Siskel and Ebert At the Movies

As late as the 1970s, and, arguably, even into the 1980s, the public face of movie criticism — …  Well, it didn’t have a public face.  Not much of one, anyway.

According to Gerald Peary’s 2009 documentary, For the Love of Movies:  The Story of American Film Criticism, in which Ebert is a prominent talking head, up to that period most people didn’t know reviewers, not by name, anyway, nor did they much care what they had to say.

Not that there weren’t a number of critics out there flexing considerable intellectual muscle.  Several were, in fact, among the all-time heavyweight champs of American film criticism, like Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, and her rival Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, or Bosley Crowther over at The New York Times, to name just a few.

They were more than just reviewers.  Their passion went far beyond recommending a good watch for the weekend.  They appreciated film in-depth, in a way extending past what was at the movies that week.  They wrote articles and essays and books which seriously contemplated the larger issues – corporate and aesthetic, and that area where they overlapped or bumped into each other – in cinema.  When I took my first film study class in high school, Kael’s novella-length essay “Raising Kane” – the story behind the making and an appreciation of Citizen Kane – was our text.  Later, as a film student in college, Sarris’ The American Cinema was a much-dog-eared reference work, a landmark as the first aesthetic overview of the body of all significant American directors up to that time compiled outside of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd.

They had their notable triumphs, too.  Kael’s support for Bonnie & Clyde is – at least by some — considered the beginning of the commercial turn-around for that ground-breaking piece of 1960s moviemaking.  She fired the first volley in a critical cannonade which turned what had been a sputtering, often panned release into one of the major commercial hits and artistic highpoints of the decade.

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael

These were serious appreciators as well as serious students of film, writing seriously about – as often as they could – serious films and serious filmmaking.  But as such – and Bonnie & Clyde notwithstanding — they had little to say to less serious Joe and Joan Average, or at least little Joe and Joan were interested in hearing…or could possibly want to make an effort to understand.  Kael, for instance, managed to get herself fired from an early gig at McCall’s by – according to her editor Robert Stein – “…panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day’s Night.”

We film students – a rather serious lot, too, or so we considered ourselves — knew who many of these critical leading lights were, read their work, argued about what they had to say, but beyond that… Not a lot of echo out there with all those Joes and Joans who were only looking for a fun movie for date night.  Kael and Sarris and that crowd wrote and mused in something of an intellectual bubble, and it was easy to imagine they were really only talking to each other; their true – and possibly only – peers.

There were a few reviewers who did manage to connect with the general public, and I suspect that some in the critical community at that time wished they hadn’t.

Like Rex Reed.  Reed, who still writes for The New York Observer, was a semi-regular guest on the talk show circuit back in those days.  Draped lazily in a chair opposite Johnny or Merv, wallowing in an air of boredom and bare tolerance, he was colorful as hell, a real-life Waldo Lydecker – a professional snob.  He vindicated every suspicion the general public had of film critics as something vastly removed from themselves, coming off, as he did, as effete, arrogant, condescending, and skewering most movies and the general public who enjoyed them with volleys of acid-tipped bon mots.

Still more public and recognized was NBC’s resident film reviewer, Gene Shallit, who presented as something of a cross between a kiddy party clown and a bad Borscht Belt comic.  He wore goggle-sized eyeglasses and garish bowties, had an electro-shocked head of hair with a face-bisecting mustache to match.  His one-two minute reviews, delivered with a frozen grin and a tone of malicious delight, were line after line of groan-inducing puns and corny one-liners.  I recall times when it seemed Shallit had been so committed to being funny, in his groan-inducing corny way, that I hadn’t been able to tell if he’d ever actually gotten around to saying if the movie he’d been reviewing had been any good or not.

But that was the thing with Reed and Shallit and others like them.  They weren’t there to inform or edify as much as entertain.  I’ve always fancied people were more interested in watching them “perform” than in hearing if they had anything of value to say.  And the way they entertained was with a flair for a well-honed but gratuitous bitchiness in their reviews, an edge sometimes bordering on a nastiness and cruelty simply for the fun of being nasty and cruel.

Gene Shallit
Gene Shallit

The Artful Roger Ebert

And this was, more or less, the lay of the land – at least as I remember it — when, in 1975, a Chicago PBS affiliate teamed up the film critics from the city’s two leading newspapers on a movie review show:  Roger Ebert – the first, and I believe, only film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize — from The Chicago Sun-Times, and, from the competing The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel.

The format of what was then called Sneak Previews was staggeringly simple.  The two men, seated in a mock cinema balcony (remember movie house balconies anyone?), would screen clips of the week’s releases, opinionate on each movie and conclude with a recommended/not recommended vote of thumbs-up/down.

It was also staggeringly effective.  In 1978, PBS picked the show up for national telecast.  Come 1982, the duo would leave PBS for the still-larger audience – and more lucrative paychecks – of syndication with At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and then later, in 1986, come out with yet another incarnation in Siskel and Ebert and the Movies. The show would be nominated seven times for prime time Emmys, and the two critics would become so recognizable they graduated to the tier of talk show-worthy guests.  In 2005, Ebert received what must be considered the ultimate recognition of his prominent standing in the movie universe: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Try to find another film critic there.

Roger Ebert Walk of Fame

Pairing up the critics did something for the public that stand-alone reviews by stand-alone reviewers didn’t do: it gave viewers the ability to compare and contrast two sensibilities as the reviewers argued the merits – or lack thereof – of recent releases.  It seems simple enough now, but that kind of back-and-forth was unique at the time.

It helped that they were accessible.  Ebert and Siskel didn’t talk over viewers’ heads, but didn’t talk down to them either.  Their passion for movies was obvious, especially when they found one they liked, and, more particularly one they both liked.

Conversely, as much as they might hate a particular title to the point of denouncing it with scalpel-sharp sarcasm, they still lacked the bitchy cruel-for-cruelty’s sake of a Reed or Shallit.  For Ebert and Siskel, it wasn’t about showcasing their wit as much as it was about making a point.

Whether they were arguing or in rare communion, in the back-and-forthing the show also displayed what any successful TV show has:  that ephemeral, unpredictable, often accidental, yet essential quality called chemistry.

Ebert and Siskel were perfect for each other.  They were intellectual peers, so it was always a fair fight and, frankly, when the sparks flew was when the show was at its best…well, at least at its most fun.  I know some people watched the show waiting for a spat the way some NASCAR freaks watch races hoping for the excitement of a crash.  There were times the dueling duo were so impassioned in their clash of opinions it seemed they were just a hair’s breadth from “Jackass!” “Pinhead!” and throwing Milk Duds at each other.

At the Movies

They even looked great together.  People who couldn’t remember their names still remembered them, even if it was by the rather politically incorrect labels of The Skinny One and The Fat One.  They were the Stan & Ollie of film criticism; iconic.

Stephen Whitty, film critic for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, understands the nature of the lightning in a bottle Roger and Gene caught.  Asked about it, he says they “…did more than anyone to popularize (film) criticism, and show people just what fun arguing about movies could be…”

And, I suppose, that was the thing.  They were fun to watch, but they weren’t entertainers.  They sometimes stumbled when they talked, they weren’t always particularly glib; it wasn’t about them. It was about movies. The fun in watching them sometimes go at each other was knowing it came from the absolute cocksure commitment on each of their parts that they thought the other one – on this one, particular occasion – had his head up his ass.  I think that honesty was what people connected with, and what they responded to, and why the show – combined with their unique chemistry – was such a success.

I suspect Ebert – and I’m only guessing here – probably had more mainstream fans than Siskel because he approached movie reviewing from a different perspective.  Siskel more or less judged movies against an absolute, whereas Ebert understood some movies were, well, they were what they were…and that was ok.  It wasn’t about an absolute good or absolute bad, but whether or not a movie did what it set out to do.  He explained his philosophy in a 2004 review of Shaolin Soccer:

“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two.  In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.”

Roger Ebert

As the show grew in popularity and became more entrenched in the media landscape, the two critics used it as a bully pulpit to regularly bring attention to the small, low-profile art house flicks most average moviegoers didn’t even know were out there.  Better, they tried to make the case for those movies expressly to that average moviegoer; to demystify for Joe and Joan out-of-the-mainstream flicks, and show they could be just as entertaining, if not more so, than the star-filled big releases taking up three and four screens at the multiplex.

They expanded the format of the show to include occasional one-offs, like their annual Oscar show, or focusing on films of a particular actor, genre, etc.  A personal favorite I’ve always remembered was a compare-and-contrast show they did between the films of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, then the two kings of the movie comedy heap.  It was a great layman’s lesson in the evolution of two ultimately opposite comedic sensibilities; the kind of opportunity to broaden mass audience sensibilities TV and TV pundits rarely take.

Gene Siskel died in 1999 of complications from surgery for a cancerous brain tumor.  Ebert continued on, first with a rotating series of co-hosts before settling on his Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper.  Roeper was – and is – a capable enough critic, but Siskel’s absence showed just how much of the show’s charm had been about the spark between he and Ebert.  One only had to look at their PBS replacements – Neal Gabler and Jeffrey Lyons (Gabler would leave in 1985 and be replaced by Michael Medved) – to see that as easily as the Ebert/Siskel format was to reproduce, the Ebert/Siskel dynamic was one of a kind.  The PBS show was finally cancelled in 1996 while Roger and Gene were still a syndication staple.

Ebert and Roeper

And if it proved impossible to follow their act, they still opened a door, making talking about movies something of popular interest.  As it happens, while working on this piece, I heard an interview with actor Topher Grace on a New York radio station.  Grace knew Bosley Crowther; the critic had introduced Grace’s parents.  Grace unknowingly told me the difference between pre-E&S and today: “There were, like, a billion less critics in those days.”

Everything from Robert Osborne’s one-on-one chats on TMC to Rotten Tomatoes, Peter Bart and Peter Guber dissecting the current state of Hollywood on AMC to the bazillion websites devoted to movies (including this one) are all branches of the family tree first planted by Roger and Gene on Sneak Previews.

Between 2002 and 2006, Roger Ebert underwent several surgeries for cancer in his thyroid, salivary glands, and jaw.  Complications from the surgeries robbed him of his voice, his ability to eat and drink forcing him to be nourished through a feeding tube, and left him seriously scarred.  He no longer regularly appeared on TV.  But, as he once said, though he may not be able to speak, he can still write.

It is the paradox of our visually-driven age, Roger Ebert will probably always be known – most for his TV presence.  But before then and during the remainder of his career, he was first and foremost a journalist, a chronicler of movies and the business of movies. He may be famous for being on TV, but his reviews, essays, and many books are probably his more substantive contribution, and one he amazingly continued despite his travails.  He’s put out at least a half-dozen books over the years.  It’s impossible – even for those who question his taste – not to be impressed by Ebert’s choice to follow the passion that so obviously drove him. “I’m still in awe of his work ethic even into his last days,” says Steven Whitty. “The only thing more remarkable than Roger Ebert’s influence…was his indomitability. It’s not just that he kept at it, after more than forty years and a host of ailments worthy of Job – it’s that he worked harder and with more enthusiasm than writers half his age. He was an inspiration to everyone.”

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Bad Boy Robert Mitchum and the Soul of a Poet

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Career of Robert Mitchum

A Look Back at the Career of Robert Mitchum

The title of Lee Server’s acclaimed 2002 biography, Robert Mitchum:  Baby I Don’t Care (MacMillan), offers a perfect encapsulation of the eponymous actor:  a hard-partying Hollywood Bad Boy who didn’t give a damn what moralizing finger-waggers thought of him, or what his peers in the movie business thought, or the press, or even the public.  He was going to go his own way and to hell with you, and anyone positioning themselves to make strong objection was just as likely to get a punch in the nose as shown the actor’s broad back.  He worked hardest at conveying the idea that the thing he did for a living – acting – was also the thing he cared least about; an impression that may have been his most convincing performance.

The Bad Boy part of Mitchum’s reputation was honestly come by.  As a youth, he’d been booted from more than one school, hoboed around the country, boxed (thus his distinctive battered pug’s profile), and even done time on a southern chain gang.  It was a background which left him with a rebellious, take-no-guff streak he never lost, even as a movie star.  Two years after his star-making turn in Out of the Past (1947), he was famously busted for marijuana possession and even did a few months at a California prison farm (the conviction was eventually overturned although this wasn’t the same thing as Mitchum being innocent; he did smoke grass and continued to do so well into his AARP years).  On 1955’s Blood Alley, he threw a crew member into San Francisco Bay.  In 1968, as public opinion swung against the Vietnam War, Mitchum was advocating a policy of, “Nuke ‘em all.” In 1983, promoting the miniseries The Winds of War, Mitchum got into hot water for making anti-Semitic remarks, then refused to apologize even though they were made in jest and the actor had a number of close Jewish friends.  According to Server’s book, the actor smoked to his dying day—literally — although he was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.

Out of the Past Robert Mitchum

Sometimes his rebelliousness could take on a noble hue according to Jean Simmons, his co-star on 1952’s Angel Face, and her then-husband, Stewart Granger, both of whom told the tale in the 1987 documentary series, Hollywood, the Golden Years:  The RKO Story.

Mitchum had a scene calling for him to slap Simmons across the face.  The actor — who was often quite courtly around his female co-stars — tried to fake the slap.  Autocratic director Otto Preminger demanded Mitchum slap Simmons for real, then called for take after take.  As Simmons’ face began to swell from the repeated blows, Mitchum decided enough was enough, turned and gave Preminger a how-does-it-feel slap across his face.  The infuriated director stormed up to RKO’s executive offices and demanded Mitchum be fired from the picture.  At the time, Mitchum was the closest thing the floundering RKO had to an honest-to-God marquee-value star and it was explained to the director that if anybody was going to leave the picture, it was going to be Preminger.

But the actor had a softer side as well, one few saw.  He wrote – and recorded — a variety of music including an oratorio produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl.  He collected quarter horses.  His four-time leading lady Deborah Kerr told of Mitchum reciting self-penned poetry to her during the shooting of The Sundowners (1960).  Dwight Whitney, in a 1969 TV Guide piece, sensed this something else buried behind the actor’s defiantly disinterested front, writing that somewhere inside Mitchum “…lies imprisoned the soul of a poet.”

Angel Face - Robert Mitchum

As for the indolence Mitchum affected and often bragged about, and his feigned indifference to his profession (“Movies bore me, especially my own”), this, too, was true – Sidney Pollock, his director on The Yakuza (1974) compared him to “an extremely powerful but lazy workhorse” — but only to a point.  In his tenure at RKO from the mid-1940s well into the 1950s, this “lazy” actor was a studio reliable, often pumping out several films each year, once even working on three films simultaneously.  Despite making noises several times in his later years about retiring, he kept appearing on either the big or little screen nearly every year of his life.

He would say he only made movies for the money, or to meet sexy women, or to score pot, and certainly bland time-killers like Young Billy Young (1969), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), The Wrath of God (1972), The Amsterdam Kill (1977), and Breakthrough (1979) – to name just a very few – seemed to substantiate his point.  But despite claiming he just “took what came and made the best of it,” he also regularly gravitated to artistically ambitious projects and their demanding directors i.e. The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Charles Laughton; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and John Huston; The Sundowners and Fred Zinneman; Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and David Lean. The Blood Alley incident notwithstanding, more typically he was a no-fuss-no-muss performer, on time, not only knowing all his lines but usually the lines of everyone else.  “I’ve survived,” he once said, “because I work cheap and don’t take up too much time.”

robert mitchum night of the hunter

Stylistically, he was, in many ways, the first “modern” movie actor which is why his performances still hold up decades later.  He didn’t look like other actors of his time and certainly not like those of the generation before, didn’t sound like them, didn’t move like them.  What one actor did with a sob, he did with a small sigh; where another actor needed a few lines, Mitchum could give the same sense with a slight shrug. Look at his breakthrough performance in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) as a WW II infantry officer during the meat grinder Italian campaign.  Sitting over the letters he’s writing to families on behalf of the dead, his broad shoulders sag just a little, his deep, slow voice gets a fraction deeper and slower — “I know it ain’t my fault that they get killed,” he tells war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), “but it makes me feel like a murderer” — and that’s all it takes to convey a man both bone-weary and heartsick over the letters he’s written today, and the letters he knows he’ll be writing tomorrow, and the day after that and on and on.

His battered boxer’s looks, a voice that could seductively purr or fall into a thick, liquory rasp, his hooded eyes looking down from atop a massive chest combined to give him an intimidating physical presence more lithely athletic actors – Fairbanks, Gable, Flynn, Lancaster – didn’t have.  He was threatening in a way they weren’t, and, more than that, there was something unmistakably carnal about him.  The sight of Mitchum, his bare skin gleaming with swamp water, shot in a severe up-angle by director J. Lee Thompson in Cape Fear (1962), his lazy eyes gleaming as he stalks Gregory Peck’s daughter in the Georgia backwoods is a portrait of something primordial, of a walking, lusting, unrestrained id.

“Up there on the screen,” he once said, “you’re thirty feet wide, your eyeball is six feet high…”  That in mind, few actors of his time understood, as he did, the value of stillness on the screen.  He seemed fully aware of how much presence he radiated, how little he had to do to pull focus:  a nod of the head, a raised eyebrow accompanied by the slightest dip in his voice.  He walked off with Cape Fear, taking it away from star (and producer) Gregory Peck; not an inconsiderable feat considering Peck would win the Best Actor Oscar the next year for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  Mitchum has a scene in a bar sitting across from Peck as he explains the why and how behind his vindictive campaign to destroy Peck and his family.  The heart of the scene is two long, almost uninterrupted takes – a near-monologue done in close-ups.  Watch his puffy eyes switch from sadistic glee to ice-cold hate, the lazy drawl of his voice slide from malicious amusement to blatant threat.  The adjustments are incredibly small, yet laser-focused enough to burn a hole through the screen.  In the light-hearted Western El Dorado (1966), using the same economical style, he was one of the few actors who could hold the screen against the iconic John Wayne.  He found the humor in Leigh Brackett’s spry script without ever overtly playing to the joke.  In a scene largely crafted by himself, he plays against his own he-man lady killer image as he sits in a bath embarrassed by the woman friend who must pass through the room, pulling a hat down low over his head, covering his face with his hands and muttering, “I’ll close my eyes.”

Cape Fear - Robert Mitchum

Throughout his career, he worked across the spectrum of genres, although never as prolifically as he did during his years at RKO:  Westerns both period (Blood on the Moon, 1948) and contemporary (The Lusty Men, 1952), war movies (One Minute to Zero, 1952), dramas (Till the End of Time, 1946), romantic comedies (A Holiday Affair, 1949), but making his biggest impression in a series of film noirs which, in the late 1940s/early 1950s, had become the troubled studio’s mainstay.

Characteristically, Mitchum talked them down, saying, “RKO made the same film with me for ten years.  They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat.” Nevertheless, he was anointed a leading man – and created a never-forgotten noir icon – in Out of the Past (1947). That would be how the young Mitchum would be remembered, in his fedora and trench coat, a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips.  There had been noirs before Mitchum, and there’d be a long parade of noirs with and without Mitchum after Out of the Past, but the movie and Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey became the genre’s gold standard.  Addicted to one of noir’s most toxic femme fatales (Jane Greer), Bailey is doomed and knows it, is resigned to it, scratches around for whatever little triumph he can find amidst his ruination.  When Greer frets, “I don’t want to die!” Mitchum’s Bailey replies in that resigned, prosaic way only Mitchum could, “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”

Because he made so many indifferent movies, and his style was so minimalist, the precision of his work was often missed; Mitchum bios often use the words “underrated” and “underappreciated.” But he never walked through a film (though he would often say otherwise), and in even some of his weaker movies he showed a depth he was rarely given credit for.  Not as a Stranger (1955) was a forgettable Noble Young Doctor sudser, but Mitchum still has his moments.  In his best one, he stands over an operating table, having failed to save the life of the older doctor (Charles Bickford) who has been his doting father-like mentor.  Cloaked in a surgeon’s cap and mask, Mitchum has nothing to work with but his eyes, but he offers up two, bottomless abyssals of heartbreak.

In the first years after he left the RKO stable, he produced a gallery of solid work ranging from “merely” entertaining (The Enemy Below, 1957) to notable (The Sundowners; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; Home from the Hill, 1960), but chief among them were two Villain-Hall-of-Fame-caliber performances in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear.

Mitchum would often say his Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter was his favorite role, and understandably so.  To truly understand his performance is to be impressed with its deftness for Charles Laughton, in his only directorial effort, is not rendering reality, but a child’s fairy tale complete with guardian angel (Lillian Gish) and boogie man.  Mitchum smoothly morphs from fire-and-brimstone preacher showing the battle between Good and Evil with locked fingers tattooed “Love” and “Hate,” to something less than human skulking in the shadows of Gish’s yard as he stalks two children in her charge, howling like a wounded animal when he’s sent running by a blast from feisty Gish’s shotgun.

robert mitchum night of the hunter

The Night of the Hunter has always had more artistic stature than Cape Fear, but the latter is surely the more viscerally delicious watch.  The best way to measure Mitchum’s portrayal of total depravity as vengeful convicted rapist Max Cady is to run it up against Robert De Niro’s take on the same character in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.  Brilliant though De Niro can be, his busy performance, his spindly form, his cartoonish southern accent are outgunned by Mitchum’s stillness, his Tiger tank massiveness, his lazy, raspy drawl:  “I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t nevah gonna forget.  They ain’t nevah gonna forget it…and neither will you, Counseluh!  Nevah!” One IMDB poster commenting on both performances put it best:  “Robert De Niro acted scary, Robert Mitchum was scary.  Makes all the difference in the world.”

By the 1960s, a middle-aged Mitchum was getting saggier in the jaw line and thick in the middle, and the memorable roles now came few and far between.  Though he’d continue to appear in film and TV shows into the year of his death, his best late-career performances came in the 1970s with three aces in a row:  The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza, and Farewell, My Lovely (1975).  The paunchy Mitchum was perfect for the rumpled Philip Marlowe in Farewell; he could’ve been playing a worn-out, older version of one of his 1950s noir characters.  And director Sidney Pollock managed to get the best out of his lazy workhorse in the Japan-set Yakuza, with Mitchum as a man caught between conflicting loyalties and cultures, his still broad shoulders sagging under the weight of the unintended damage he inflicted on a Japanese family during the post-WW II occupation.  Mitchum’s Harry Kilmer is nearly broken by the wrongs he cannot right, and the despair of trying to find an honorable end to a tragedy which seems only to compound with each attempt to do so.

Mitchum

But the best of the lot – and one of his all-time great performances – was as Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a bottom-tier Boston hood who has spent most of his life “…watchin’ other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber.”  There may be no better portrait of life at the lowest levels of organized crime, and his Eddie Coyle is at once reprehensible yet pitiable, a small-timer victimized by big-timers, double-dealing Feds, and his own bad luck.

Mitchum worked so long – over a half-century – and made so many movies that even after stripping out the misfires and the duds, one is still left with a sizable body of impressive work representing every stage of his career, and a gallery of some of the most memorable characters in the American film canon.  Not bad for an actor who never claimed more than minimal talent or interest in his profession, pretending he’d more-or-less walked through his career, a 50-odd year journey of which he said, “I never changed anything, except my socks and my underwear.”

  • Bill Mesce
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Anime

‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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