Archive for dailies

Cat Ballou (1965)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 17, 2010 by leclisse

In a performance that nails down her reputation as a girl worth singing about, actress Fonda does every preposterous thing demanded of her with a giddy sincerity that is at once beguiling, poignant and hilarious.  Wearing widow’s weeds over her six-guns, she romps through one of the zaniest train robberies ever filmed, a throwback to Pearl White’s perilous heyday.  Putting the final touches on a virginal white frock to wear at her own hanging, she somehow suggests that Alice in Wonderland has fallen among blackguards and rather enjoys it.  Happily, Cat Ballou makes the enjoyment epidemic. (Review from Time magazine.)

I’m not by any means a fan of Westerns.  I can appreciate a good one just as I can appreciate a film from any genre that is well-done or remarkable in any number of ways.  My neutrality as far as Westerns are concerned is probably due to the fact that they often lack any real female character development, more often than not strictly studies in masculinity.  Once Jane Fonda is thrown into the mix, however, it is almost impossible to come away without some substantial feminine influence.  My respect for Jane’s skills as an actress is irrevocably grounded in her performances in Klute (1971) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), but is still manages to grow with each film of hers that I see (yes, even after the spectacle of 1968’s Barbarella).

In Cat Ballou, Jane plays Catherine Ballou, a newly minted school teacher who is on her way back home to her father, a significant landowner who has run afoul of some encroaching business interests.  The film actually opens with Catherine in jail, fidgeting with a virginal white dress as she awaits her sentence of hanging for murder.  Nat ‘King’ Cole and Stubby Kaye provide a musical narration, meant to be reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy, and bring the audience back several months from this scene in the jail to explain just how fair Catherine has found herself to be in such a mess.  Homeward bound, Catherine is deposited into the care of a masquerading priest, who also happens to be on board in order to spring an outlaw passenger in police custody.  Catherine is something of a victim of circumstances, but reluctantly assists in the getaway of the two.  Up to this point, Fonda’s Catherine is a skillful embodiment of old-fashioned femininity and virginal naivety, but all the while managing to convey the inner steel that will sustain her after the murder of her father.

Catherine is not home long before her father dies at the hands (or gun, rather) of Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin, who also plays Kid Shelleen), a terrifying steel-nosed gunslinger hired by the businessmen who have now stopped at nothing to wrestle away her father’s water rights.  This, despite her having hired gunmen (Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen, and the escaped outlaws from the train, Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) to protect her father from these same businessmen.  Devastated and heartbroken, Catherine vows revenge for here father’s death, seeking refuge with Kid Shelleen, Sioux farmhand Jackson Two-Bears, and Callan and Hickman.  They flee to a protected community of outlaws, immediately setting to work at Catherine’s insistence in plotting a train robbery.  Unfortunately, the payroll they heist from the train is actually meant to provide much-needed jobs to the townspeople as well as pay for the protection of the outlaw community in which they’re currently seeking refuge.  After this, they haven’t a friend in the world.

Cat Ballou was a major financial success at the time of its release, and significantly elevated Jane’s star power.  Personally, she was engaged to be married to director Roger Vadim (who would go on to direct her in Barbarella) and the overflow of this joy can clearly be seen in the vivacity and fire of her performance.  The film’s satirical treatment of the Western genre makes use of a variety of common cliches, yet is able to turn these elements on their heads in order to move the film beyond a simple self-conscious look at the Old West.  Jane’s Catherine is the vulnerable schoolteacher, yet uses this position as a springboard to secure the help of the men around her who also want to protect her.  Ever practical, she wears slacks for much of her screen time but never falls from this initial virginal femininity.  Catherine is self-assured and self-reliant, open to the charms of lovemaking yet is able to unalterably remain unobsessed with love and courtship.  It’s a pleasant and exciting release, but she knows she need not depend on it in order to secure her well-being.  Even up to the very end, Catherine’s rescue from the noose is a team effort, not merely another instance of a man having to intervene to save a helpless female.  Fonda’s Catherine has already proven that she can take care of herself, but is not averse to the idea of a gallant rescue at the capable hands of Callan, Hickman, and Marvin.

Crazy Heart (2009)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on May 23, 2010 by leclisse

I rarely make it to the theaters for first-run movies.  This is usually due in large part to the fact that I need to be convinced to spend almost $10 to see a film that I know I can probably get much cheaper on DVD through Netflix or my local library.  I don’t usually regret this decision, but that may be the case after settling down to watch Crazy Heart last night.

The first chords of world-weary Bad Blake’s (Jeff Bridges) whiskey-inspired songbook provide the soundtrack to the striking New Mexico landscape.  The expansive sky reveals an incomparably rich blue, studded with the whispy illusions of clouds.  The endless roads wind their way through this rocky country, leading Bad toward his next gig, hundreds of miles away from his last.  Bridges’ portrayal of Blake reveals an unapologetic drunk who still manages to make an appearance at his concerts, even if he has to run out midway to vomit the toxins that have been coursing through his bloodstream day after day.  He has obviously seen better days but somehow manages to not convey the bitterness that so often befalls entertainers in the last throes of their careers.  As long as Blake can get drunk and laid once in awhile, he seems content to let life continue as it has been for these last few years.

Not too long after this introduction, Blake meets an accompanying piano player in Santa Fe and agrees to an interview with the man’s niece (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a local newspaper.  Jane Craddock (Gyllenhaal), recently divorced with a young son, presents herself as someone who knows a bit of Blake’s world-weariness.  Her bad luck with men has not hardened her attitude toward them, but rather seems to have made her all the more vulnerable.  She and Blake obviously like each other, although Blake’s initial flirtation appears to be born more out of animal instinct than any developing emotional entanglement.  They both seem to recognize the emptiness in each other’s lives and are drawn to that — if not to fill it, then at least to ease some of that loneliness for a little while.  The performances of Bridges and Gyllenhaal succeed in making this love story so much more tangible than a mere plotline.  It is obvious that both characters approach the situation tentatively, first as almost something of a one-night stand, and gradually building into a friendship more than anything else.  Sex is not some perfunctory benefit of their time together, but rather an outlet for both of them to find some kind of comfort without the judgments of family.  While their sexual relationship is obviously not going to last the length of the film, it is clear that they do love one another and probably will always have that lifelong regard.

As I mentioned above, the soundtrack to this film is truly phenomenal.  Jeff Bridges has done some previous musical work and  provides his own vocals.  His voice perfectly marries the raw talent of early country music with the indescribable beauty of the film’s locations in the Southwest.  His music carries the purity and genuine simplicity that is mirrored by and also contrasted with Blake’s approach to life.  He is a broken-down drunk, yes, but he never denies this fact.  And with this same honesty and conviction, he turns his life around by getting sober and penning the film’s title song for Jane.  Colin Farrell plays a supporting role as Tommy Sweet, who represents young country music and has eclipsed Blake’s celebrity, even though he readily admits his debt to Blake’s musical teaching and guidance.  Sweet’s character is without a doubt something of an essential addition to the plot of this film, if only to show how far Blake’s star has fallen and the very real trends in country music today.  Honestly, Sweet could have been played by almost any other actor and have been as effective as Farrell’s portrayal.  I guess I haven’t seen Farrell in very much so I am unable to compare his performance here with an array of other films, but I suspect that my conclusions would doubtlessly be the same.  He does provide his own vocals for the film, just as Bridges does, but they are at best average.  Mediocre is probably a better assessment.

It’s refreshing to witness a doomed love story that doesn’t fall into the trite traps of tragedy and self-consumption that make for good box office rather than substantial storyline.  More often than not, chance encounters do not necessarily work out for the long run, but almost always have the potential to provide some meaning for those involved beyond the physical relationship itself.  In the case of Crazy Heart, they can be a literally sobering experience and a foundation from which to reach for better things.