Monday, February 21, 2011

Paths of Glory (1957) ****

Kirk Douglas has played some amazing roles. It seems to me that more than most actors, he has taken on roles of men who fought heroically against tyranny and lost. My favorite of these is the character Jack Burns, in “Lonely are the Brave,” based on Edward Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. Burns is the classic, American, rugged individualist. He is pitted against the faceless machine of progress and industrialization. Inevitably, he is beaten, but he never surrenders. In “Man Without a Star,” Douglas plays a cowboy fighting a losing fight against the fencing off of the American West. Then, of course, there is Spartacus, who attempts to lead a slave revolt against the Romans.

To this list of dissidents portrayed by Kirk Douglas can be added Colonel Dax. In Stanley Kubrick‘s “Paths of Glory,” Dax is a commander in the French army. An ambitious general orders him and his men on a hopeless attack on the Germans. When the assault inevitably fails, the embarrassed general puts some of the soldiers on trial for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Colonel Dax steps up to defend them and finds himself opposing an uncaring military machine that considers the lives of good men to be worth less than the pride of an incompetent general.

Kirk Douglas plays Dax with brilliant outrage, and the rest of the cast is excellent. I can find nothing, really, to criticize in this film. It’s a little hard, watching Douglas and several British actors speaking English, to remember that all the characters are supposed to be French, but in the end it really doesn’t matter what the nationality is. I suspect all armies are similar in how they deal with these situations.

War movies tend to be either gung-ho, like the movie “Gung-Ho,” or anti-war, like “Apocalypse Now.” As good as it is, “Paths of Glory” suffered at the box office, probably because it doesn’t have a definite place in the war-movie framework. The film doesn’t make any statements about war itself, rather it is a tale about the evil workings of large, machine-like organizations, an evil which can outstrip that of any individual person within the machine. Colonel Dax, like so many of Kirk Douglas’s other characters, represents the moral superiority of the individual over the machine. This is an excellent movie, with superior performances on all fronts. It does not really have any iconic scenes or stunning cinematography, and I cannot say that it belongs in the ranks of truly classic movies, but it is well worth watching.

4 stars

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) ***½

Some books and movies gain immortality by morphing into a cultural concept that eclipses the original work. “Catch-22” is way better known as a figure of speech than as a book or movie. “Deliverance” is a terrific film, but all most people know about it is dueling banjos and “squeal like a pig.” It’s the same way with “The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit.” The book and movie have been superseded by this cultural concept of a 1950’s company man in a non-descript suit, desperately trying to climb the corporate ladder. It’s a shame that what has been lost is actually a fairly riveting story of a man finding himself and figuring out what is important in life.

Gregory Peck stars as Tom Rath, a WWII vet with a small house in Connecticut, a desk job in Manhattan, and a lot to think about. As he rides the train to work each day in his titular, gray suit, he has plenty of time to ruminate on the war, and all he did and saw there. We gradually come to realize that Tom’s life since the war has been something of a shadow life, always under the specter of the amoral, life-and-death reality he knew in Europe and the Pacific. His wife, Betsy, regrets the change in him, and she transfers her dissatisfaction to their house. She says the place is depressing and represents giving up, but of course she is really talking about Tom. He finally takes a higher-paying job at a large, media company in an effort to appease her. There, he meets Ralph Hopkins, the president of the company, and he sees that Hopkins’s success has come at the price of a loveless marriage and a spoiled, ungrateful child. Meanwhile, Tom becomes involved in a legal dispute over his grandmother’s estate, and a ghost from the war comes back to haunt him. His and Betsy’s quiet, little life becomes anything but boring.

This sounds like it could be some claustrophobic melodrama along the lines of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe,” but it isn’t like that at all. Tom and Betsy are so decent that it is easy to root for them, and while the plot makes you worry, it never gets too dark. The film is long for its era, 2 ½ hours, but this gives us time to really think about these characters and what they are struggling with, which is the existential question of what kind of person to be, what kind of life to live. Gregory Peck is not the most expressive actor, but in a movie this long there is time for him to develop his character slowly, and the performance actually ends up being quite satisfying. The film is helped along by some other intriguing characters, including Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March) and Judge Bernstein (Lee J. Cobb).

For me, the point of the movie is not that all those men in gray suits are mindless drones. It is that while they may look alike, they are all human beings, with stories of their own, and their own struggles over what is important in life. Tom ultimately decides that being with his family is more important than advancing his corporate career. He decides to be a “9 to 5 man,” partly because he sees how Mr. Hopkins’s devotion to his work ruined his family life. Hopkins expresses admiration for Tom’s choice, but he also makes a valid argument that without men like himself, who are driven to build great enterprises, there would be nowhere for the “9 to 5 men” to work. It is this kind of embrace of complexity that saves “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” from being a melodramatic morality play. It’s a shame that this complexity has been lost in the popular memory of the movie.

“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” is not quite a must-see classic. The film can be melodramatic at times, and Gregory Peck’s stoic acting takes a while to get used to. The movie’s slow pace and 2.5 hour length mean that it isn’t a movie to see when you are distracted. It does have moments of brilliance, however, and it’s well worth checking out. It's also worth noting, for fans of the show "Mad Men," that stoic, complicated Tom Rath is the prototype for the Don Draper character.

3.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Crazy Heart (2009) ***½

Even though Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar for “Crazy Heart” last year, it took me until just recently to see the movie. Even after the Netflix disc arrived, it sat for a while. It’s a testament to how a raunchy comedy or a big-budget action movie is easy to throw in the DVD player, but a serious drama is too easy to keep putting off. These critically acclaimed dramas just always seem like they might be a real downer, and ruin an otherwise fine evening. Of course, once we finally settled in to watch it, “Crazy Heart” was completely engrossing and not a downer at all.

The only bad thing about the film is the name of the main character, Bad Blake. It says a lot for how convincingly Jeff Bridges inhabits the role that I was able to get past what a dumb-ass name his character had chosen. Blake is a fading country music legend who is desperate to rekindle his career, or at least make enough money to keep himself in decent whiskey. What is cool about Blake is that despite how his alcoholism is ravaging his body, he never misses a show. He may show up drunk, but even when he is playing in a small-town bowling alley, he manages to give something to the fifty to a hundred people who show up to see him play. When he meets and falls for a reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), however, Blake has to face up to how pathetic he and his life have become. It takes a little while, but he is finally inspired to clean up his act and start writing songs and caring about life again.

Maggie Gyllenhaal really redeemed herself for me in this movie. I had most recently seen her in “The Dark Knight,” which is an excellent movie, but Gyllenhaal has a real do-nothing, damsel-in-distress role that left me feeling very unimpressed with her. In “Crazy Heart” she is considerably better as a single mom trying to figure out whether to take a chance on a bad bet like Bad Blake.

No film is so good that it doesn’t get a little better when Robert Duvall pops in. Duvall adds some class to the role of Blake’s bartender, recovering-alcoholic, best friend. His presence in this movie is especially cool for those who recall Duvall’s 1983 movie “Tender Mercies,” in which HE plays a down-and-out country singer trying to put his life together.

Another supporting character that deserves mention is the music. In addition to a background of classic country by the likes of Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and Townes Van Zandt, the film features Jeff Bridges singing some beautiful original songs by Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett. The creative duo deservedly brought home the Best Song Oscar for this film.

At the end of the day, though, “Crazy Heart” belongs to Jeff Bridges, and he knocks it out of the park. I’ve worked with a lot of alcoholics, and he really gets that part of the performance right. Bridges doesn’t just play Blake as a drunk, though. He plays him as a poet with a big heart and the soul of a true entertainer.

3.5 stars