Nicholson, Dinklage, and Mulligan

Nicholson, Dinklage, and Mulligan. Sounds like a law firm. Actually, it’s the surnames of principals in three older films who render amazing performances. Download (or get DVDs of) the three films below.

Jack Nicholson has been playing the celebrity role for so long that he’s become a parody of himself and triggers gag reflexes. Once upon a time, though, he was a real actor hungering for a breakthrough. He made his first film in 1958, but his career was going nowhere until he was cast as drifter George Hanson in the 1969 film Easy Rider. That one is a time warp picture and should be viewed as such, but it landed Nicholson the first of 12 Oscar nominations. Three more nominations quickly followed–and he probably should have won for Chinatown– but Jack hoisted his first statue for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

If you’ve never seen Cuckoo’s Nest, do so; if you have, see it again as it holds up well. It’s an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s eponymous novel, and one of the rare cases in which both book and film are masterful. Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, a small-time punk with a long rap sheet who manages to stay out of prison by getting sent instead to a mental institution. Jack in a madhouse? They were made for each other. McMurphy isn’t nuts, just out of control, and he quickly surmises this is true for several fellow lunatics. Jack runs amok, but he misjudges Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who keeps the lid on through a combination of cajolery and passive-aggressive blackmail. Cuckoo was nominated for 9 Oscars and won 5, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Fletcher), and Best Director (Milos Forman). Watch it also for wonderful performances from Will Sampson (“Chief”), Christopher Lloyd (Max), Brad Dourif (Billy), and Danny DeVito (Martini). This classic American film raises the question of who rules the asylum.

Hands up if you can’t imagine Game of Thrones without Peter Dinklage in the role of Tyrion Lannister. Dinklage is a Bennington College grad–something not many people know–and made his first film in 1995, but the one to watch is The Station Agent (2003). Not many people have seen it and that’s a crying shame. It’s the quintessential “small” film and that’s not a pun on Dinklage’s 4’5” frame. Some movies are slice-of-life efforts that don’t aspire to be splashy Hollywood productions. Dinklage is Finbar McBride, a quiet man who works in a model train shop owned by his friend Henry (Paul Benjamin). That is, until Henry drops dead at work and Fin is suddenly unemployed. He has no idea what to do next, until he finds that Henry has left him some property in a remote section of New Jersey. Fin arrives there to find that Henry has left him an abandoned railroad station house, his new home sweet home! Fin is a recluse who knows about trains but lacks social skills. He will eventually find himself drawn into the orbits of Joe, a verbose Cuban American food truck operator (Bobby Cannavale); Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a klutzy divorcée artist; Emily (Michelle Williams), the town librarian; and Cleo (Raven Goodwin), an African American school girl who is curious about everything. Director Tom McCarthy, sometimes stumbles over whether the film is a comedy or a drama, but Dinklage alone turns this into a bittersweet offering that leaves us wanting more. Plus, it co-stars the vastly underrated Patricia Clarkson. Call this one small is beautiful and take that any way you wish.  

It’s no secret that Britain’s Carey Mulligan is the real deal, but take a look at An Education, a 2009 film directed by Lone Scherflig with a screenplay from Nick Hornby. You might know Hornby’s name from his coming-of-age novels. Lynn Barber actually wrote the autobiographical essay upon which An Education is based, but Hornby’s fingerprints are all over the film. Mulligan plays 16-year-old Jenny Mellor, a brilliant lass who is the apple of her English teacher Miss Stubbs’ (Olivia William) eye and is driven by her conventional (and clueless) lout of a father, Jack (Alfred Molina). Jenny is pegged by everyone as a golden girl, including awkward young Graham, who would dearly love to be her boyfriend. Then she meets David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), who is considerably older than she. Yes, we’re talking Lolita territory here. David introduces her to his glamorous friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) and takes her inside a world she could only imagine. David even charms Jack and his wife. You can probably surmise that Jack is not all that he appears to be. Mulligan was 24 when she made the film, but is utterly convincing as 16-year-old full of dreams and naiveté. She also radiant, a foreshadowing of the superb career she has subsequently built. Look for Emma Thompson and Sally Hawkins in cameo roles.

Rob Weir


The Good Liar Works Because of McKellen and Mirren

The Good Liar (2019)
Directed by Bill Condon
Warner Brothers, 109 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity)

One of the small pleasures of movie-watching is coming across a film that only works because of its principals. The Good Liar is an acidic double-cross duet in the very best British style. It is made so by great actors who can cover holes in the plot, and it scarcely gets much better than Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. 

We know from the outset that Roy Courtnay (McKellen) is a con man. He and his partner Vincent (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) run scams that separate fools from their money through elaborate fake identity and money-transfer scenarios. In fact, we first meet them as they are about to fleece Bryn (Mark Lewis Jones), a toffee-nosed high-flyer with more dosh than common sense. But Roy’s favorite swindle is draining accounts of rich widows. He even trawls dating Websites in search of prey. That’s how he meets Betty McLeish, a retired Oxford history professor. The first thing they learn about each other is that they both used fake names on the site.

Roy will draw from his usual bag of tricks to ingratiate his way in Betty’s home and life, but it seems as if old Roy might actually be falling for Betty–and vice versa. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) tries to warn her that he not only smells a rat but has some evidence he dug up–he’s a Ph.D. student in history–but Betty tells him it’s none of his business. Roy is certainly spending Betty’s money, but he’s so charming that she hardly cares. What’s the use of money if you can’t blow it? Does Roy finally know a good thing when he sees it, or is he setting her up for an even bigger score?

The Good Liar is a who-do-you-believe film. It’s adapted from a Nicholas Searle novel, so there are only a couple of ways all of this can play out. Give director Bill Condon for knowing what he had and letting McKellen and Mirren make us believe in it. Would that he had been slightly more demanding of Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, which is over stuffed and rockets us from place to place and jumps time periods. I haven’t read Searle, but I assume all of the film’s detail is in the book. The film, though, is decidedly a situation in which less would be more. There are times in which The Good Lair feels like a feast in which the food keeps coming even though we are stuffed. In this case, all we want the main course: McKellen and Mirren.

Luckily Condon pulls back at the right moment and lets them go at it. McKellen and Mirren are so skilled that they make us stop thinking about the implausibility of some of the background detail. In essence, they force us to suspend disbelief. Each plays a graying elder who lives each day as if each knows their current fling might be their last. They keep us off balance because they are old, but also because they are old pros. It’s eyes to the front when they are on screen at the same time. What details? We just want to know what will happen next.

It’s quite possible that The Good Liar really isn’t that good of a movie and that the ongoing pas de deux makes it better than it has any right being. My advice is to allow yourself to drown in this tart battle of the sexes. It could have easily been a stage show rather than a film, but does anything top the irony that we the audience are double-crossed in a film about double-crossing?

Rob Weir


They Shall Not Grow Old a Marvel on Many Levels

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Warner Brothers, 99 minutes, R (war violence)

We’re going to be quarantined for a while folks, no matter what the Orange Fraud in the White House thinks. I will be featuring films that are marked by greatness of some sort that make them must-see experiences. Not all are masterpieces, but each is remarkable in some way.

But let’s start with one that is a masterpiece: the technically brilliant and deeply moving They Shall Not Grow Old. You know the director: Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame. They Shall Not Grow Old (TSNGO) is a genre-breaking non-fiction film that’s non-linear and loosely structured. Jackson and his crew salvaged World War I footage, meticulously restored it, and overlaid it with moldering archival audio interviews.

Consider a famous song, and I don’t mean “Mademoiselle from Armentières.”  Pete Seeger first penned “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in 1956; his friend Joe Hickerson added several verses in 1960. It may well be the most famous antiwar song in Western history. Here’s a link if you need to refresh your memory re: the lyrics. Note how the song moves from innocence to tragedy. Peter Jackson does the same thing in TSNGO without interjecting a single word of commentary. He also does a great service to history in honoring the men who went to war but, like Seeger’s song, Jackson doesn’t allow us to ignore the accompanying horrors.

World War I is as hard to justify as World War II is to disclaim. Perhaps you remember from an old history class the causes cited for World War I: militarism, imperialism, unstable alliances, wars in the Balkans, sclerotic leadership…. It is a litany of folly, not nobility. From it came 20 million deaths from the conflict and another 50 million from the Spanish flu pandemic unleashed upon compromised immune systems–not to mention the Bolshevik Revolution, millions of displaced persons, the collapses of aristocracy, and global assaults on civil liberties that planted the seeds for the rise of fascism. Seeger asked, when will we ever learn? Alas, it’s usually in retrospect (if at all).

Jackson performed a herculean task. He found more than 600 hours of audio interviews from more than 200 vets and another 100 hours of war footage. Try whittling that down to 99 minutes! The first 20 minutes of the film unspools as audiences might have seen it in a silent movie theater: in black and white and in a smaller format. Jackson’s only nods to modernity were repairing the footage and adding voice-overs. (Movies didn’t ‘talk’ until 1927.)

At first it seems that Jackson is valorizing the war. The voices tell of rushing to enlist and the images are of smiling young men at recruiting offices, crisp drilling, and cheering spectators as boats are loaded for France. Only when they arrive does the footage go to full screen and color. There was no color film at the time, but this isn’t a Turner Films colorization hack job; Jackson’s team carefully researched the era to show it as soldiers themselves would have experienced it.

Color has a dramatic effect. Grainy grey photos become lurid nightmares of blood and mud. Gung-ho attitudes also give way to deadly guns and runs–diarrhea and disease killed just as surely as bullets and bayonets. The filth of the trenches beggars the imagination. Consider a single uniform for the duration, muck-covered puttees, rotting horse flesh, strewn human corpses, clouds of flies, legions of lice, and the smell of open latrines. (Witness a row of naked backsides defecating over a single board suspended across a makeshift trench.)

Jackson occasionally stitched and timed photos to give brief bursts of motion to otherwise static images–basically a more sophisticated version of what your phone can do. As we move to battlefields, the narration is weightier. Contrary to histrionic movies, most soldiers didn’t rush pell-mell into no man’s land; they had to pick their way carefully through barbed wire, bomb craters, quicksand, minefields, and the dead. Jackson leavens the horror with humor. The British love of tea is self-lampooning when one witnesses it being drunk for jerry cans still reeking of petrol. More poignantly, class distinctions are on display the moment soldiers smile and we see the appalling dental hygiene of the poor.

One is left with the question of what good came of this. There was little jubilation when the guns went silent on November 11, 1918. For survivors, theirs was the reaction of the emotionally, physically, and psychologically wrung-out. Jackson pulls another sleight of hand by returning to small-frame black and white when troops return to a public that neither understood what they experienced, nor cared to hear about it. The “boys” were now “men,” and their habits, language, and grotesque wounds embarrassed much of the populace. “Tommy” did his duty, but then it was back to the bottom of the social heap.

There are no names attached to the voices we hear, nor are locations or dates given. This was partly done for continuity’s sake, but also because Jackson wanted to keep the focus on ordinary individuals. Each tale is simultaneously unique, but cut from similar cloth. Jackson further showed his sympathies for the average Tommy by restoring all of the footage and giving it to the Imperial War Museum. He took no fee for his own labors.

TSNGO is a double entendre. Millions never got a chance to grow old; those who made it home have both the bloom of their youth and the wilted flowers of their early manhood preserved for posterity. Thanks to Jackson and his amazing film editor Jabez Olssen, fading back and white photos from a now-forgotten war is there in color to remind you that you can look away, but the truth is still there. These are the faces and voices of war. If they make you uncomfortable, watch how you vote!

Rob Weir