Off-the-clock movies: Fury, The Long Goodbye, The Missouri Breaks and The Godfather

December 31, 2014

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I don’t really make resolutions but I am going to try to use this blog in a different, if perhaps not better, way from now on.

One of the things I mean to do is to keep track of all the movies I watch that don’t make it into the newspaper for one reason or another —off-the-clock films let’s call them. I meant to start doing this about a week ago but I guess I forgot — so I’m going to use this post to play a little catch-up. I’ll run down a few things I’ve recently watched on home video.

Last night we caught up with David Ayer’s Fury, the ensemble war drama that was very well received when it was released earlier this year but hasn’t been getting much Top 10 love. It seemed to me that, at the time, a lot of critics were saying it was the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan so it kind of seems odd that it’s so completely disappeared from the end of the year conversation.

Besides Karen had been intrigued by the trailer. So we gave it a shot.

And it is what they said it was, a well-made, realistic though thoroughly conventional war movie about a U.S. Army tank crew in Germany in the final days of World War II. Brad Pitt is the tank commander, a battle-harded Master Sergeant who goes by “War Daddy” (or more often “Top”) while Logan Lerman is the new kid assigned to replace the team’s freshly killed assistant driver, whose main job is apparently to blow the hell out of any suspicious-looking German who enters his field of vision. The rest of the crew is filled out by Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal, a relatively overqualified bunch given the sort of stock nature of their roles (though say it loud, this is LaBeouf’s best performance ever).

I liked it quite a lot, though it wouldn’t have broken into my Top 10 list (for whatever that’s worth) and even if it had it wouldn’t have mattered in the recent Southeastern Film Critics Association (Fury got mentioned on a few ballots, but not many). The rousing final act that, while over-the-top, reflects the real costs of combat. Ayer’s doesn’t shrink from the idea that soldiers are charged with killing other soldiers, and while the movie doesn’t question the morality of the fight against the Nazis it doesn’t ask us to believe it’s all glorious either.

But what’s best about the film are the incidentals — the details that seem both off-hand and drawn from life. The bride int he wedding dress among the refugees, the flattened bodies the tanks roll mindlessly over. I have no doubt that the depictions of tank battles are pure Hollywood invention; I don’t think a moving tank could shoot as accurately as they sometimes do in Fury or that stationary anti-tank cannons would be so conveniently inaccurate. But hey, it’s just a movie.

And Pitt makes a good brutal/compassionate warrior in the John Wayne mode. It’s not the sort of performance that gets Oscar nominations, but he’s very good. So is Lerman, who — earlier this year — had been mentioned as a potential Best Supporting Actor nominee. He’s really the lead, but to the extent I care about the Oscars (not a lot), I wouldn’t mind seeing him get some love for this role.
In sum, Fury is like a lot of Hollywood movies that came out in 2014 — it’s not transcendent or poetic (except in its casual glimpses of atrocity) but it’s solid and entertaining and I’m happy I saw it. It’s a far far better movie than Unbroken, which feels to me like an extended commerical for some hyper-masculine cologne.

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As you might guess, from mid-November to mid-December (when I typically turn in my end-of-the-year ballot) most of my nights are devoted to watching movies I had missed during the previous year and movies that are destined to open during the holiday season. (Or, here in Arkansas, in the arly part of the next year.)

I don’t mind saying that I really love this part of my job; you can get hooked on the free screener DVDs and the privileged knowledge of movies that won’t be available in theaters for weeks. Watching screeners in not something I complain about. However I’m always glad when the season’s over and I can watch a ball game or a Robert Altman film like The Long Goodbye (1973).

Actually I guess this could be considered work-related viewing since Kino/Lorber has just released the film on Blu-ray and I’m still trying to find a way to sneak more of these classic releases into the newspaper (though come to think of it right here on blood, dirt and angeles would work). A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual to be able to run a column-length piece on an old movie newly released to home video (we even had a rubric for that sort of piece — we called it “Flashback”) but for inside baseball reasons we don’t do that anymore. (OK, basically it’s because we don’t have as much space as we used to — you want the feature to come back, buy a bunch of ads in the MovieStyle section.)

Anyway, I’d been anxious to see The Long Goodbye — which I’d last seen 30 years ago — since seeing the clips from it that were included in Los Angeles Plays Itself and watching and reviewing P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice , which is in some ways a homage to Altman’s movie (and which opens in Arkansas next week).
It’s funny, as well as I thought I remembered the film, I didn’t really remember the plot and I thought I’d had trouble grasping it — it is after all, basically a shaggy dog homage to the noir genre, with Elliot Gould portraying an anachronistic Philip Marlowe who’s completely out of step with the sun-drenched California nuttiness that’s going on around him.

I didn’t even remember that Arnold Swarzenegger was in the film.

Anyway The Long Goodbye is one of those movies that always flits through my mind when someone asks me to name my favorite movies of all time. I usually don’t mention it, but it’s always there, on the periphery. It’s at least one of my two or three favorite Altmans.

Another recent Kino/Lorber release, The Missouri Breaks from 1976, is widely thought of as a disaster, but it’s worth seeing if only for the madness of Marlon Brando, who was coming off the triumphs of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (both movies that reside in my personal Top 20, though I’m not sure I need to watch LTIP ever again). Here he’s a deranged “regulator” (bounty hunter) with an Irish lilt, and it’s not hard to see why some charge him with sabotaging the film with a genuinely bizarre performance.

But The Missouri Breaks is a more interesting movie now than it was released, largely because we know that trajectories of the actors that crossed paths here — Jack Nicholson and Brando are arguably the two greatest American movie stars ever (speaking of madness, look there’s Randy Quaid!). And while contemporary audiences simply rejected it as ridiculous, Brando’s performance wears better these days, he comes across as a quirky sociopath.

And I have a query. Does anybody know if Nicholson’s line “Too bad about Sandy” (uttered in lament for a young cattle rustler who’s hanged int he film’s opening moments) had anything to do with the Carlene Carter song which came out a few years later?

Just wondering.

Seeing Brando in The Missouri Breaks led me back to The Godfather, which these days I tend to think of as a single entity rather than two separate films. (I don’t entirely discount the much maligned Part Three, which didn’t come out until 1990, but I do divorce it from the first two. It was a different Francis Ford Coppola who made that movie.)

“You and I are part of the same hypocrisy,” Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone tells G.D. Spradlin’s corrupt Sen. Pat Geary early on in Part II , a few minutes before his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) reminds him that seven years before he’d promised the family would be completely legitimate in five.

Coppola’s executive mobsters —the Corleones, Lee Strasberg’s Hyman Roth — are businessmen first, and like the heads of corporations that make money from the misery of the poor and powerless, they can love their children and be inveigled by guilt. Michael, the family’s Hamlet, goes from Yale law school into the family business out of a sense of duty and responsibility, not because he sees himself as a kind of romantic outlaw. Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone — the Vito Corleone played as a young man by Robert De Niro has a slightly different flavor — is nothing less than a gangster saint who eschews drug dealing and sees his role as a peace broker with obligations who only did what he had to do to escape the Mott Street mob.
It has little to do with reality, for it’s specious to think that criminals ever followed a code, but The Godfather is an American masterpiece, a fluky blend of myth and propaganda that just happens to combine great acting, memorable dialogue, showy cinematography and one of those cheesy, slouching-toward-highbrow scores that movie audiences so adore.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie — and shame on you if you haven’t seen the movie — you’ve seen the movie. You’ve seen The Godfather parodied and kowtowed to in hundreds of movies and television shows, from Goodfellas and The Sopranos to Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons to the sad spectacle of Brando doing a parody of himself in the 1990 Matthew Broderick comedy The Freshman .
The movies’ images are as inescapable as its aphoristic dialogue:

“This is the business we have chosen.”

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

“This is business. Not personal.”

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

“Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in.”

“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

“It’s dangerous to be an honest man.”

“The richest man is the one with the most powerful friends.”

“Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.”

“If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

“I believe in America.”

Legend holds that Paramount Pictures was expecting nothing more or less than a genre mob movie when they commissioned 33-year-old wunderkind Coppola to direct a film version of Mario Puzo’s best-selling page turner. Coppola, however, had other ideas.
Paramount wanted Laurence Olivier to play Don Corleone, but Coppola wanted Brando, who was by then considered washed up. Paramount required he at least screen-test Brando before casting him, but Coppola, sensitive to Brando’s ego — one simply didn’t ask Brando to read for a part — instead showed the star’s own makeup tests to the studio.
As Brando later related:

“I went home and did some rehearsing to satisfy my curiosity about whether I could play an Italian. I put on some makeup, stuffed Kleenex in my cheeks, and worked out the characterization first in front of a mirror, then on a television monitor. After working on it, I decided I could create a characterization that would support the story. The people at Paramount saw the footage and liked it, and that’s how I became the Godfather.”

Coppola also insisted on casting the unknown Al Pacino as his son Michael, and he threatened to quit if he didn’t get his way. He also cast several members of his own family, including his sister Talia Shire, in the film. The novelist Puzo wrote a script that closely tracked the book — leaving out the chapters about various characters’ anatomies — and cinematographer Gordon Willis soaked it all in deliberately dark honey light.

It wasn’t what Paramount wanted or expected but it did win critical raves, including three Academy Awards. And it was the first movie to break the $100 million mark at the box office (in today’s dollars, The Godfather grossed more than $500 million).

The Godfather is as American as a laundered dollar or a soap opera, its amber antique look, its misty-eyed, soft-hearted vision of honorable men battling for their shot at the American main chance as much a part of our collective iconography as the vivid neo-expressionist black and white of Citizen Kane or the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby.


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