Monday, February 27, 2012

Rio Bravo

Fred Zinneman’s High Noon is considered one of the great Westerns, but fellow director Howard Hawks was no fan. As he later remarked, “I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help.” So Hawks teamed up with John Wayne (who disliked High Noon even more) and set about making the exact opposite of that film. The result was Rio Bravo, a movie about a sheriff who does ask for help – though unlike the Gary Cooper character in High Noon, only from those who are likely to be of use.

Despite its indignant origins, Rio Bravo is one of the most blissfully entertaining Westerns ever. Sheriff John T Chance (Wayne) is in a tight spot. He’s just arrested Joe Burdette for shooting a man at point-blank range, and knows that Nathan Burdette, Joe’s brother and a powerful rancher, will be looking to bust him out. He also knows the townspeople are either too afraid to help, or too inept to fight. So he assembles a strange posse – his former deputy Dude (Dean Martin), now a recovering alcoholic, an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and the youngest draw on the block, the Colorado Kid (Ricky Nelson). There’s also a seductive cardsharp called Feathers (Angie Dickenson), who Chance can’t intimidate or seem to shake.

Howard Hawks was lionised by the auteurists because his films – no matter what genre – always looked like they’d been made by the same man. Rio Bravo certainly does have that patent Hawks mixture of screwball comedy, sexual tension (male-female and male-male) and economically choreographed action. Yet this film, rated by many as the director’s best, also deviates from the Hawks canon in certain ways. The relaxed fatalism that hangs over the film is miles away from the frantic rhythms of His Girl Friday or Scarface. There’s also a melancholy – especially when Dean Martin is onscreen – that one doesn’t see too often in the director’s films.

The script was by Hawks regulars Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, and the broad-ranging score by Dimitri Tiomkin (to hear “El Degüello” once is to have it haunt your dreams). Dean Martin showed why he was the best actor in the Rat Pack. Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez is a caricature of an excitable Mexican, but funny nevertheless, and Angie Dickenson’s voice is so laden with mischief one gets the feeling she scares John Wayne more than the killers. Wayne was already an icon by then; he exudes the confidence of one who’s realised the audience doesn’t expect him to act, but just be himself. A couple of years later, Sergio Leone ushered in the age of the revisionist Western. Rio Bravo thus stands not only as Howard Hawks’ last great film, but also the first “last great Western”.

A shorter version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Super 8: DVD Review

In the months leading up the release of Super 8, there were rumours about how the movie was JJ Abrams’ tribute to the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg. This seemed unfair, especially since Spielberg’s produced several films that bear no resemblance to his oeuvre (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, for one), and JJ Abrams is a serious talent in his own right (he created Lost and directed the sleek 2009 reboot of Star Trek). Yet, once the film released, it turned out the rumours were accurate. Super 8 is strongly reminiscent of early Spielberg, especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Kids on bicycles in tense situations. Check. Townsfolk looking up in wonder at bright lights in the sky. Check. Henry Thomas in the lead. Check. (Okay, it’s Joel Courtney, but they’re dead ringers for each other).

So Super 8 is definitely Spielbergian. Sadly, it isn’t quite Spielberg. Six kids working on a Super 8 zombie movie witness a strange train crash. After they pick themselves up, they hear a loud banging from inside one of the derailed bogies. As they watch from a distance, something indistinct and animal-like breaks out and disappears into the night. Almost immediately, sinister military men arrive and refuse to say anything useful. It transpires that the escaped creature is an alien, and this time it isn’t phoning home, but roaring, mauling and slaughtering its way back. What starts out as a fluent piece of ’70s nostalgia turns into a monster movie that’s high on spectacle and low on logic.

In its stronger first half, before we actually see the creature, Super 8 conveys a real sense of what it must have been like to be young and film-crazy in small-town USA in the ’70s. Abrams, his friend and cinematographer Larry Fong and the film’s producer Bryan Burk all started out this way, making genre film rip-offs in their backyards (in a neat bit of back story, Abrams was given the chance to restore Spielberg’s own 8mm films as a teenager). The affection the director has for these kids and their cheesy horror flick is palpable. The younger actors respond beautifully, especially the self-possessed Elle Fanning and Riley Griffiths as the young director.

There’s plenty of trivia on the audio commentary, as well as in the two mini-features “The Dream behind Super 8” and “The Visitor Lives”. None of these is successful in explaining why the town suddenly becomes a war zone, or why exactly all the dogs disappear. What they do make clear is the extent to which everyone on the project was in awe of the Spielberg. Abrams, Fong and Burk spend half the audio commentary’s running time trying to come up with a suitable question to message the man; the next half is spent anxiously waiting for his reply. As always, you can rely on Spielberg to transport grownups back to childhood.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Closing night

Ben Gazzara, best known for his films with John Cassevettes, died today at the age of 81.