Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: The Indian Runner


Every new child born brings the message that God is not yet discouraged of man. ~Tagore

I'm not sure if I should be more baffled by missing this film from the standpoint of being a Bruce Springsteen fan or a fan of movies in general, but somehow, "The Indian Runner" -- which came out in 1991 -- completely escaped my radar until recently.

For one thing, it marks the directorial debut of Sean Penn, who also wrote the script, but perhaps more glaring, it is inspired by Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman," which is one of those tunes I can never skip in the iPod when it comes on.

One of the primary reasons I like Springsteen's music so much is because of the cinematic qualities that so many of them convey. And every time I listen to "Highway Patrolman," there are scenes so vivid I've actually thought that it would make a great movie someday.

And so it did ... or has! Like the song, "The Indian Runner" involves two brothers: Joe Roberts (David Morse), who is the deputy sheriff of a small town, and his brother Franky (Viggo Mortensen). The two are close, but have completely different personalities. Joe has the ability to enjoy the simple things in life: his wife, his child, his job, his garden. Franky has been a lost cause all his life, consistently in trouble with the law before fighting in Vietnam. Upon returning home he is still unable to shake his perplexing anger at the world that fuels his violent tendencies and troublesome nature.

The movie is identical to the song at the beginning and the end, but takes liberties with what the story may have been in the middle. For me, the plot isn't as important here as the characters, and this is what makes the movie work.

Morse and Mortensen are both excellent, inhabit their characters perfectly, and are -- very satisfyingly, I might add -- the epitome of the characters I picture when I hear the song. Surrounding them is their quietly suffering father, who is played to subtle perfection by Charles Bronson, and Franky's girlfriend Dorothy (Patrica Arquette), who is wide-eyed, innocent and possibly led astray by her own romantic perceptions while seeing something in Franky others do not. Joe's wife Maria (Valeria Golino) and a surprising, yet ultimately critical, cameo of sorts by Dennis Hopper also lend rich support to the story.

The movie bears similarities to two of my favorites. Like "The Deer Hunter," it is set in the gritty, blue collar, small town that only those who call it home can love, and it bears a strong resemblance to "A River Runs Through It," where the older brother, who appears to have his life together, battles his own insecurities while being forced to watch his younger brother destroy his life because he doesn't know how to help.

This is not a perfect movie, and is not quite up to par with these examples, primarily because of its pacing. At a run time of over two hours, it easily could have lost a half hour or so in the middle. It tends to meander a bit and, at points, uses a hammer to deliver its message instead of a nudge. And from a selfish standpoint, there is a line in the chorus of the song where the two brothers are out at a bar "taking turns dancing with Maria" that I really wish would have made it into the film!

But there are few perfect movies out there, and these are but a few minor issues I have with it. It's not an easy movie to watch -- it's bleak, it's sad, it's depressing, it's tragic -- but it perfectly captures the tone of this song that I like so much, sometimes with affecting poignancy, and that in itself makes it a worthy tribute and a commendable filmmaking effort.

Highway Patrolman
By Bruce Springsteen

My name is Joe Roberts I work for the state
I'm a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain't no good

Now ever since we was young kids it's been the same come down
I get a call over the radio Franky's in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I'd put him straight away
But when it's your brother sometimes you look the other way

Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin' nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"

I catch him when he's strayin' like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain't no good

Well Franky went in the army back in 1965 I got a farm deferment, settled down, took Maria for my wife
But them wheat prices kept on droppin' till it was like we were gettin' robbed
Franky came home in '68, and me, I took this job

Yea we're laughin' and drinkin' nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin', teach him how to walk that line
Man turns his back on his family he ain't no friend of mine

Well the night was like any other, I got a call 'bout quarter to nine
There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin' on the floor lookin' bad bleedin' hard from his head there was a girl cryin' at a table and it was Frank, they said
Well I went out and I jumped in my car and I hit the lights
Well I must of done one hundred and ten through Michigan county that night

It was out at the crossroads, down round Willow bank
Seen a Buick with Ohio plates behind the wheel was Frank
Well I chased him through them county roads till a sign said Canadian border five miles from here
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear

Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin'
Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin' like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain't no good

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review: The Woman in the Window


"The Woman in the Window" has been on my list for a while, and I finally got around to watching it after having recorded it on TCM. And it did not disappoint!

Let me set the stage here.

Gotham College professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) just kissed the wifey and kiddos goodbye as they left for a lengthy summer vacation, and he meets up with his buddies to kick off his freedom with dinner at the men's club.

Let me just stop right here and say these 1940's men's clubs are outstanding, and you can bet heavily that I'd be a regular. It's all so classy: Eating dinner and then adjourning to the lounge area for cigars, coffee and brandy in tall overstuffed chairs, surrounded by a library of books and hearths with roaring fires. I need to find these places.

But I digress ...

As Richard approaches the club, he notices an exquisitely painted portrait of a beautiful woman ... yes ... in a window, and is transfixed by it. His friends -- district attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon) -- watch and chuckle as he stares at the portrait, and then give him some good-natured ribbing.

Later, after his friends have gone, Richard is awakened in one of those overstuffed chairs, as he was reading a book, with a glass of brandy (yes!) and makes his way out of the club. However, he's drawn to the painting once more, and as he's gazing at it, he sees the reflection of the very same woman in the glass. She is Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), and she's standing beside him on the sidewalk.

Having had a bit too much to drink, and fueled by conversations of being middle-aged and no longer being able to find the fun in adventure, Richard seizes the moment during the quite suggestive convo and agrees to accompany this captivating woman for more cocktails in the city and then a rendezvous at her apartment, where they are certainly enjoying themselves -- even though Richard knows better.

Alice:(Offering him a drink) Let's have another.
Richard: I should say no, I know, but I haven't the slightest intention of saying it.

Inevitably, things go horribly awry. Alice's apparent boyfriend comes storming in, fights with Richard and, well, ends up dead. The two cook up a plan to cover it up, and it's here this thing shifts into another gear and becomes unrelenting suspense.

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson
There are parts where it feels very Hitchcockian -- like a great scene in which Richard is driving and nearly runs an old-fashioned red light, and he looks out the window to see a cop smiling at his close call ... only Richard knows how close a call it was. There are lines spoken here or pieces of information dropped there that, when they occur, you know they will come into play again later. The whole movie and its complexities are structured so well, it's just a prime example of flawless storytelling.

The film is a perfect companion piece to "Double Indemnity," which Robinson is also in but has the pleasure of playing a character with considerably less stress and anxiety -- the friend who unsuspectingly closes in on his buddy who is trying to get away with murder.

Here, that part is played by Massey's agonizingly analytical district attorney, who expertly begins to put his theories and the case together right in front of his squirming friend.

Massey: Now these two people, this man and this woman, sit ... hating and fearing each other. Each wondering how long it'll be before the other is caught and blabs out the whole story.

It's fascinating to watch this old-school deductive reasoning and logic at play here, without the CSI-style, DNA-gathering techniques we're used to seeing today. And it's equally fascinating to watch Richard -- who, I have to say, for a college professor makes some colossal blunders -- marvel at the police's expertise, get stuck in these hilariously distressing situations, screw up, try to cover up again and continue to plot and scheme his way out of this mess.

And just when you think things can't get worse for Richard and Alice, a blackmailer is introduced in the sleazy form of Heidt (Dan Duryea), who makes things even more miserable -- in some intense scenes with Alice -- but he also thrusts this story into overdrive toward the riveting conclusion.

Now, the ending ... I'm sure for its time it was quite a riot, and yes I got a kick out of it. But watching it today, I would have gone another way with it -- bending toward the tragically ironic and more befitting of the elegant Hitchcockian track it was on.

But overall, this is an absolutely entertaining film, and if you sit back -- maybe with some frosty Guinnesses as I did -- and let it all play out, you'll enjoy this movie immensely whilst leaning forward on the edge of your seat throughout ... guaranteed.