Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Little Big Man: Netflix Rental Pick of the Week!

Released in 1970, the film Little Big Man is, in my mind, truly a story of the “Old West”. However, it is not a “Western” in the traditional sense, like those starring John Wayne and the like. Instead, it is a film that centers around one man’s life and the many twists and turns it takes as he tries to find his place in “The West” (perhaps laying the groundwork for such films as Dances with Wolves), if not society as a whole. The basis for the story is that he (Jack Crabb) is the last surviving participant of “Custer’s Last Stand” or, the “Battle of Little Big Horn”—having essentially fought on both sides of the battle. And while the film has many comedic moments, it is a drama at heart—revealing the best in human nature, as well as the worst.

Directed by Arthur Penn (who is also famously known for Bonnie and Clyde and The Miracle Worker) and based on the novel by Thomas Berger, with the screenplay by Calder Willingham (also known for The Graduate), the actors certainly had all the support they needed to give great performances. Starring Dustin Hoffman as the title character (also known as “Jack Crabb”), Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Pendrake, and Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, the film is well-cast, and the actors bring much to the screen. The story is told via voice-over, by the now 121 year old “Jack Crabb”, to a historian who wants to know more about the Indian way of life, and is also under the impression that Crabb spent his early life basically killing off Indians, which couldn’t be more different from the truth, as the historian learns by the end of Crabb’s tale.

The story Crabb tells begins when he is a young boy, who is soon taken in by the Cheyenne, who call themselves the “human-beings” after all of his family, except himself and his sister, are killed by Pawnee when crossing the vast plains of the western United States. His sister soon runs off, and Crabb essentially grows up as one of the “human-beings”, guided by the chief, Old Lodge Skins, who becomes Crabb’s adopted Grandfather. Old Lodge Skins offers much insight into how the Cheyenne view the world, and the “white man” in perhaps one of the more famous bits of dialogue in the film. “Little Big Man”, as Jack Crabb is now known amongst the Cheyenne, asks if his grandfather now hates the white man after many of his family has been killed, and he answers (after pulling out a scalp of red hair):

the human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone. And also the things from them... like that hair. The man from whom this hair came, he's bald on the other side, because I now own his scalp! That is the way things are. But the white man, they believe EVERYTHING is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.

To see this scene and hear this line by actor Chief Dan George, perhaps makes the entire film worth watching, because it seemingly defines the attitude of the U.S. Calvary in the film, as they brutally attack Little Big Man/Jack Crabb’s adopted Cheyenne family. One attack on the Cheyenne camp is committed to the sound of a cheery Calvary tune played by flutes in the background, which further defines the U.S. Calvary as somehow unaware of their own brutality, which is further reflected in General Custer’s blind arrogance that he is ultimately correct…about everything. Custer is an interesting character in the film, with the historical figure portrayed as both someone who is to be laughed at (playing an almost comical figure), and also feared because of his ignorance. The combination of ignorance and power is always a dangerous thing…

Crabb’s experience with both the Cheyenne and “white society” gives him a unique perspective of each view-points, and way of life. He rejoins “white society” at certain points in the film, first being taken in as a ward of minister and his wife, Mrs. Pendrake, and then moves on to play such roles in the Old West as a gunslinger, a drunk, and a charlatan. However, he seems most at home with his adopted Cheyenne family, in his grandfather’s presence. As always, I do not want to give too much away on the plot for those of you who have not had the chance to watch the film, as it takes many twists and turns as Crabb attempts to find not only and understanding of the things that have happened in his life, and why, but his place IN the different worlds he knows.

In this way, the film truly does examine the nature of humanity, as Jack Crabb/Little Big Man experiences both the best and worst of man first-hand. His journey is not soon forgotten, by both him, and the audience. 

Complete Cast and Crew on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065988/

Friday, January 27, 2012

Drive: One of the best films of 2011

Trailer on youtube for Drivewww.youtube.com/watch?v=KBiOF3y1W0Y&feature=related

A film perfectly cast, and wonderfully directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive is one of the best films of 2011 (don't let the lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture fool you...though it was nominated for best sound editing).

Here's why:

Ryan Gosling plays a character with no-name, he is only known as "Driver", but delivers an intense and sensitive performance that drives the film (no pun intended). At the start of the story we know little about him, other than that he is a getaway driver for criminals (masterfully shown in a few short scenes, the true talent of Gosling's character as a getaway driver), and that he does stunt driving work for films. His motivation for being a getaway driver is unknown, perhaps it is just the money, perhaps it is something more, but that's not really the point. The point is that we, the audience, don't know. Like his true name, his motivations are hidden from us.

However, once he meets his new neighbor Irene (Carrie Mulligan) and her young son, more of "Driver" is revealed to the audience. He befriends Irene and her son, and through short, direct conversations with his neighbor (like any good film, no words are wasted--behind every word, sentence and exchange, there is a reason), the audience learns that there is more to "Driver" than meets the eye. We get the sense that perhaps he has longed for the kind of connection he finds with Irene. Complications arise when Irene's husband returns from prison, though this movie is not about a love-triangle, it becomes about Gosling's character's need to protect Irene and her son.

I will not say too much about the plot, only to say that "Driver" does everything he can to protect Irene and her son from the problems that her husband's return causes, and from the criminals that seek to cause them. It is violent at times, but the violence is not excessive, and seems to have a place in the film. A purpose. Which is a theme throughout the film, there is nothing in the film that doesn't need to be there. There are no random, or what I would call "lazy" shots, but each scene is full of purposeful camera movements, and each scene is essential to the film. This causes the story to propels itself at a perfect speed towards the ending, like a beautiful piece of classical music with beats in exactly the right places that move the composition forward, and which ends precisely when it needs to, Drive does just that.

Drive is available to rent on 1/31/2012.

Full cast and crew:


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Everything Must Go: Rental Pick of the Week

Everything Must Go: Trailer on IMDB
So perhaps you've already seen Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go, but based on the film's limited release and  low box office revenue, I'm guessing there's good chance you haven't. Which is a shame, and that's why it's my Netflix On-Demand "Pick of the Week".

In the film Will Ferrell takes a departure from his usual over the top comedy style, to give a more muted performance of a man who is on his way down and once he hits bottom, he has no where to go but up, as they say--and he does go "up". However, this is not one of those sweeping, inspirational dramas that leaves you full of hope for humankind and makes you believe in the ultimate decency of our society. Instead, it is a more realistic view of how people cope with their mistakes and try to make things right with the people around them, even if their methods are flawed.

In a single day, Nick Hasley (Will Ferrell) loses his job (for reasons revealed in detail later in the film) and his wife not only leaves and locks him out of their house, she puts all of his belongings on their front lawn. This presents a bit of a problem, especially when he is unable to reach her. Nick, a lapsed alcoholic, eventually sets up camp on the lawn and devises a plan: he'll have a yard sale. He befriends a boy in his neighborhood (as well as a new neighbor-Samantha- who becomes a sounding board for Nick), and together they go about selling Nick's belongings.

Ultimately, Nick's yard sale and ridding himself of material things he never even needed in the first place, isn't ultimately about getting rid of "stuff", but about ridding himself of his past life, coming to realize his mistakes, and his desire to start fresh. This is a great premise, as I imagine this is a desire for many Americans, as we all seem to have too many "things" weighing us down...whether it's that pair of ice skates you never use, or the reason behind why you hold onto them, and so many other things. In this way, the audience can relate to Nick and his personal struggles, if not inner-demons. First time director/screenwriter Dan Rush uses Will Ferrell's ability to say lines with sardonic wit to create a character that is both incredibly flawed, and likable because of his ultimate vulnerability.

The story and characters are well developed, and multi-layered, and excellently acted. The film may not be for everyone, certainly, but it is a great story about someone doing the best they can with what they have, despite their shortcomings.

And isn't that what life is really all about?

So check out Everything Must Go--you might just be inspired to let some things go, as well.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: An elegant spy thriller

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Trailer on YouTube

Based on the novel by John le Carre (which, admittedly, I have not read), the newly released film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, in a word, "elegant". Which may seem like an odd description of a spy-thriller set during the Cold War in the 1970's, but that is exactly what the film is. Director Tomas Alfredson takes full advantage of all the tools available to him as a director to create a somehow perfect combination of a quiet, thoughtful film full of character studies and lingering camera shots, and a tense spy thriller that keeps your interest right to the end.

Actor Mark Strong's performance as Jim Prideaux is of particular depth and interest, along with Gary Oldman's turn as George Smiley (the main character of the film). All parts it seems, are perfectly cast, with each actor bringing something valuable to the film, whether it's that of a young spy gone rogue, or someone in the "upper management" of British intelligence, there are certainly no excess in characters.

I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that the story itself bounces back and forth from the past to the present, but it is not jarring to the audience. The story is simply well-told, and the film is very well-done. If you are looking for thrilling car chases, and spies that are really action heroes, then this is not the film for you. This is the kind of film that engages the audience on an intellectual level. The actors are well-cast, and the characters are multi-layered, mysteries themselves, leaving you wanting to know more about them as the film closes.

But perhaps that's the point of a well done spy-thriller, to make you guess and not know right to the end, and to leave you wanting more of this muted and very proper world of British Intelligence and secret documents, double agents and double crosses.

Full Cast & Credits at IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1340800/