By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: Nebraska; Foreign Correspondent; 2 Guns
NEBRASKA (DVD) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Alexander Payne, 2013 (Paramount)
Nebraska is a great funny-sad road movie full of all-American offbeat lives, oddball comedy and bleak black-and-white landscape beauty. In Alexander Payne’s new show, Dave Grant, a hip, dutiful son (Will Forte) and Woody, a father who’s slipping away from reality (Bruce Dern, off-type but fantastic) drive from Lincoln, Nebraska to Billings, Montana to pick up the fortune that Woody believes he‘s won in a Publisher’s Clearing House-style sweepstakes give-away, and, on the way, take a side trip to their old home town and Woody’s gullible ex-neighbors and checkered past.
Payne is usually great with actors, and he gets wonderful performances from everyone here, especially Bruce Dern. No surprise. We’ve known Dern, or “Dernsie” (or some of us have), ever since he showed up in a Deep South gas station in Elia Kazan‘s neglected 1960 classic Wild River, or got his in Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie and Corman’s 1966 The Wild Angels — and his many wild-eyed American eccentrics or bullies or villainous oddballs have long since earned him a place in the pantheon of American movie character actors. He was Tom Buchanan in the 1974 Clayton-Coppola-Redford-Farrow Great Gatsby and Jack Nicholson‘s blow-hard come-on-strong big-deal brother in The King of Marvin Gardens, and he killed the Duke (shot him in the back, in fact) in The Cowboys and he was a tragic Vietnam vet in Hal Ashby‘s Coming Home — all performances that might have plausibly earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Instead, he won the 2013 Cannes Film Festival acting prize and also had his best run ever at a Best Actor Academy Award for this movie — in which he plays the exact opposite of all those flamboyant misfit roles that made him a ’60s-’70s movie buff legend.
His Woody Grant in Nebraska is the kind of melancholy small town back row guy who maybe used to be as dynamic and outgoing and full of juice as one of the old Dernsies, but now is just a sad, quiet old dreamy remnant of what he used to be: someone who, as age crept on and plunked down into the driver’s seat, has given up on sensible dreams and plans and on life as it really is for the greater comfort of life as it can’t possibly be, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were: a sweepstakes entry number that will supposedly net him an uncool million.
In his youthful prime, Dern tended to dominate any scene he was in, just by staring and gabbing and brazening it out with anyone in his way, including John Wayne. Here he plays someone so recessive, so swallowed back into the less visible parts of himself, that Woody sometimes seems to be not there at all. That doesn’t mean he’s vanished from the screen; he’s till there, but gently, more passively — or more seemingly passively. He once was one of the grand upstagers. (Dern’s old buddy and frequent co-player Nicholson called those sneaky actor’s tricks “Dernsies.”) Now he seems to let everyone upstage him, most frequently June Squibb as his uninhibited longtime wife.
Dern didn’t get the Oscar last March 2; Matthew McConaughey took it for one of those sure thing Oscar parts — a self-obsessed outlaw rodeo hedonist who contacts HIV, and becomes a smuggler of anti-Aids medicines to circumvent the law and save lives (the kind of role with which the young Dern might have done something memorable). But by playing Woody so selflessly, giving the kind of performance that Richard Farnsworth or the older Melvyn Douglas used to give, he proved that he can take the stage with understatement as well as he used to seize it with inspired over-playing. And he helps Payne and the others create a world, a road, a family, and a sad quiet old man to whose woes and daydreams we can all connect.
Like the dark flipside of Payne’s wonderful California winery buddy-buddy road movie, the side-splitting Sideways, Nebraska pulls us into an American landscape that’s both recognizable and likably absurd — and funny and sad and real. Nebraska-born Payne understands and conveys the feel, culture and quirks of small and middle town heartland America like few other filmmakers of his generation. And this affectionate (but sometimes acid) comic odyssey has another grand ensemble — including Stacy Keach as Woody’s smilingly rotten bully of an old business partner and June Squibb stealing scene after scene as Woody’s matronly but venom-tongued wife, a gal with a past and a delightfully bad mouth. This is a terrific movie: A salty look at good, salt-of-the earth (and some not so good) American characters pursuing American dreams through an American landscape and finding…themselves.
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (DVD/Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U. S.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1940 (Criterion Collection)
Alfred Hitchcock started his American filmmaking career with a bang, by directing a Best Picture Oscar winner and an inarguable classic: his 1940 David Selznick-produced film of Daphne du Maurier’s immensely popular Gothic romantic novel Rebecca. Though it was his first Hollywood film, and though he was under the sometimes intrusive control of Selznick at his zenith (a year after Gone With the Wind), Hitch executed the assignment with near flawless professional skill and panache — beautifully visualizing and dramatizing Du Maurier‘s tense tale of a nameless, frightened naïve young wife (Joan Fontaine) taken to an eerily perfect mansion by her wealthy new husband (Laurence Olivier) who may have murdered his haunting first wife, Rebecca.
But Rebecca wasn’t Hitch’s only 1940 film. Nor is it the one that many Hitchcock critics and scholars (and maybe Hitchcock himself) consider the inarguable classic. Shortly after completing Rebecca, and freeing himself from the fealty Selznick felt was due du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock made an American movie that was basically a continuation of the style and technique of the internationally renowned and delightfully frightening suspense thrillers he‘d made in England in the ‘30s: notably The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes — a transplantation of what had become the “typical Hitchcock thriller,“ this time with an American hero.
The movie was Foreign Correspondent, produced by Walter Wanger: a classic spy melodrama of international intrigue and typically nail-biting Hitchcock suspense set in the early days of World War II, starring that sturdily all-American guy Joel McCrea (Hitch had wanted Gary Cooper) and love interest Laraine Day (Hitch had wanted Fontaine), in a movie that unabashedly called for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany, on the side of Hitchcock’s beleaguered homeland Great Britain.
That’s the conclusion McCrea’s pugnacious but immensely likable Johnny Jones (pen name Huntley Haverstock), foreign correspondent of The New York Globe, reaches after witnessing Germany’s murderous espionage and sabotage first hand, as he chases down a Nazi spy ring in England and Holland — in company with the head of an ambiguous peace organization (Herbert Marshall), his beauteous daughter (Day), a suave and plucky British fellow reporter (George Sanders), a kidnapped Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann), and assorted spies, journalists, officials, killers and bystanders (Edmund Gwenn, Robert Benchley, Eduardo Ciannelli and others) — racing from one hair-raising Hitchcockian set-piece to the next , and finally culminating in a scarily convincing plane crash in the ocean, with McCrea and others in the cockpit.
It’s the sort of convulsively paced, purely entertaining and thoroughly engrossing tale Hitchcock loved to make , done with a logic-to-the-winds flair and an audience pleasing imagination that would have been entirely out of place in a faithfully-rendered classic adaptation like Rebecca — but that was a clear precursor of Hitchcock’s and later career and also of the James Bond spy thrillers of the ‘60s and beyond, which were partly inspired by his work. (One of the uncredited writers on Foreign Correspondent was Richard Maibaum, who was later the main Bond series screenwriter for decades.)
Hitchcock was not allowed by Selznick to change any of Rebecca — except for his habitual joke cameo appearance –and while Selznick has been proven right in some ways by his film’s Oscars and continued classic status, Foreign Correspondent (which was nominated for six Oscars itself), has also been validated as the more truly Hitchcockian movie — full of typical Hitchcock bits and ideas and virtuoso set-pieces, like the windmills that are turning against the wind, the climactic plane crash and the famed umbrella-knocking assassination scene. These and other logic-defying but highly enjoyable moments were inserted in defiance of the critics and carpers of his films – all those fault-finders whom The Master of Suspense dismissively called “The Plausibles.”
Foreign Correspondent was scripted by Hitchcock’s regular collaborators Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with dialogue by James Hilton (the novelist who wrote Goodbye Mr. Chips) and the Algonquin Round Table’s resident wit Benchley (who also appears in the cast as a fellow reporter). The source was an actual foreign correspondent’s memoir, “Personal History” by Vincent Sheean, and besides Maibaum, the remarkable gallery of uncredited writers on the project included Ben Hecht, Harold Clurman, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin and Budd Schulberg, or almost everyone in Hollywood, it seems, but William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And, of course, in both cases, there was also the script-shaping genius of Hitchcock himself (and of his wife Alma) — Hitchcock, who of all non-actor movie directors, is perhaps the most visibly present in his films. Here and elsewhere, we sense him in and behind nearly every shot.
But he’s more present in Foreign Correspondent than in Rebecca. Freed for the moment from Selznick and his memoirs (they would make two more pictures together), Hitch charts the major direction he would follow right up to the end of his career: the ingenious set-pieces, the games with the audience, the personal touches and brilliant identification devices. He also produced a piece of film proselytizing for America’s entrance into the war with the Allies and against the Nazi juggernaut that was admired by no less a propaganda expert than Joseph Goebbels himself. Incidentally, I love both films, but I prefer Rebecca.
Extras: Interviews with Alfred Hitchcock (from the Dick Cavett Show), Special Effects expert Craig Barron, and Mark Harris; “Have You Heard?” a 1942 Life Magazine photodrama by Hitchcock; 1946 radio adaptation with Joseph Cotten.
2 GUNS (Two and a Half) U.S.: Baltasar Kormákur, 2013 (Universal)
Fast and slick, violent and sarcastic, predictable but entertaining, 2 Guns is a smarter-than-usual big-budget crime thriller. But it melted away fairly soon after I saw it —more a problem with the writing than with the direction or acting. The source is a graphic novel by Steven Grant, adapted with some verve by TV writer Blake Masters (Law and Order L.A.), and the show has two of the best smart-ass leading men around, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg—bouncing zingers off each other as undercover agents pretending to be crooks (Washington is seasoned and sardonic D.E.A. guy Bobby Trench and Wahlberg is his junior partner, wisenheimer Stig Stigman of U.S. Naval Intelligence), and then bouncing more zingers off a supporting gallery that includes the perversely vicious drug czar Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos, looking like death warmed over), Bobbi’s stunner D. E. A. ex-girlfriend Deb (Paula Patton) and a tangy array of crooks, lawmen and not-so innocent bystanders (James Marsden, Fred Ward, Patrick Fischler, Azure Parsons, Robert John Burke and the incredible Bill Paxton) all under the snappy direction of Baltasar Kormákur whom I would call the Icelandic Don Siegel, except it doesn’t do him justice. (Or Siegel either.)
Northern whiz Kormákur has been prolific throughout the 2000s, splitting his time between theater and movies (that would make him the Icelandic Ingmar Bergman) and also hopping between Icelandic art films (101 Reykjavik and The Deep) and Hollywood popular genre thrillers (Contraband, also with Wahlberg). He does a creditable job — and 2 Guns is also well shot (by Oliver Wood), well scored (by Clinton Shorter), well edited (by Michael Tronick), and never boring (though occasionally annoying). The script is better than average — though unfortunately, most of the big action movie screenplays these days are so lousy, calling them “better than average” is faint, damned praise. The dialogue is glib and cheerfully dirty—especially when the two stars are delivering it — but it’s also at the service of one of those stories that begins to crumble when you start thinking about it.
Washington and Wahlberg start off like a typical rag-each-other bromance cop couple. The glib Bobby exudes quiet exasperation and the cheerfully annoying Stig is given to flirting with waitresses, winking lasciviously and flipping lit matches. And pretty soon they have both sides of the law chasing them: two undercover agents, unaware of each other’s true identities and jobs (though they’ve been working together for a year or so), who‘ve been assigned to rob a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico—a bank that has a lot more money in its vault (a cool 40 million) than either of them imagines.
SPOILER ALERT, SORT OF (roll over)
Actually, they’re being set up by somebody —a fate that seems more perilous when we learn that the stolen dough is partly the property of the C. I. A., which represented here by the extremely malign but affable agent Earl (played by Paxton—usually typed as a nice guy, but here sensational as a bad one)—who shows up to track down the loot.
END OF ALERT
If this all seems highly unlikely and complex and a little batty, that’s the way it plays. The fact that Washington and Wahlberg and Paxton and the others, keep it entertaining and somewhat plausible in a movie-movie kind of way is a tribute to the movie actor’s art, or maybe to the power of movie stardom.
Really hip movie people will recognize the bank-with-too-much-money plot twist, as well as the fictional city of Tres Cruces, New Mexico, as both grabs from (or homages to) one of the great, but lesser-known movie crime thrillers of the 1970s: Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau as a free-lance bank robber and “last of the independents“ Varrick and Joe Don Baker as the businesslike hit man chasing him: a movie directed by our man Don Siegel—and a show I like much more than this movie‘s other oft-cited influence, Lethal Weapon. In any case, 2 Guns tends to be at its best when it’s at its most unoriginal.
Extras: Commentary with Kormakur; Featurettes; Deleted and extended scenes.