This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.
Thursday, December 31, 2020
Equal parts modern western and prototypical sports picture, Nicholas Ray's 1952 drama The Lusty Men is an interesting sideshow story about a particularly hard-living group of fellows and the consequences their choices have on the women in their lives.
Robert Mitchum stars in The Lusty Men as Jeff, a champion of the rodeo circuit who returns to his Texas hometown after an injury takes him out of competition. Looking to make a little money and maybe even save up to buy the house he grew up in, Jeff signs on at a nearby ranch. There, he befriends Wes (Arthur Kennedy), a newlywed who has designs on the old property himself. Wes and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward) have been content with the slow and steady path to homeownership, but meeting Jeff gives Wes an idea: he can start riding broncos and busting bulls and make the cash he needs quicker. Louise isn't so keen on the idea, she's scared her husband will end up with a debilitating injury the same way his new trainer did. She doesn't get much say in the matter.
The majority of The Lusty Men's running time takes place on the road, as the threesome hooks up with the regular rodeo caravan and go from town to town chasing prize money. Wes takes to it naturally and starts winning; he also takes to the nomadic lifestyle, partying after the big show, attracting the attention of groupies. Meanwhile, Louise attracts the attention of Jeff, who silently pines for the sort of life she's hoping to achieve. She takes comfort in his steady gait, even as she begs him to get her husband out of the game alive. It's an interesting love triangle, lacking in any real infidelity. Jeff only states his true intentions outright when Wes has taken things too far. The resultant showdown takes place in the arena, with each man looking to measure his masculinity by how long he can stay on a bucking horse.
The Lusty Men is refreshingly restrained when it comes to the melodrama, with Ray preferring the rough-and-tumble world of professional cowboys to any bedroom antics. The movie's heroes are adrenaline junkies who view settling down as a kind of selling out. That is, until they don't anymore. Mitchum plays it tough, but the actor also shows great empathy and vulnerability. He doesn't stop Wes because he knows he can't, the rider has to make his own choices; yet, he also recognizes the damage done to the wife. (If he didn't, the script provides the audience with multiple parallels so we can see places Wes might end up.) For her part, Hayward shows a nice balance, allowing the allure of the party life to distract her, but never losing her resolve.
Ray and cinematographer Lee Garmes (Duel in the Sun, Nightmare Alley) capture all the thrills and danger of the rodeo events, working nicely with editor Ralph Dawson (Harvey) to meld the long shots of the actual horseplay with the close-ups of the actors both in and out of the stadium. It works nicely. The Lusty Men is reminiscent of many race-car pictures that would follow, not to mention a little bit like a western version of the traveling circus drama. The even emotional tone might disappoint some, but it fits the idea that these tough customers leave everything out there on the field. My only complaint is a rather abrupt ending that not only sews things up a little too neatly, but also left me confused and reaching for the rewind to try to discern whether what they suggest just happened really did.
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013.
One assumes biopics about noted intellectuals and philosophers aren't exactly the easiest thing to sell to studio execs, much less an audience. Even Albert Einstein tends to only get movies when it's either a romantic comedy or an imagined fantasy pairing him with Marilyn Monroe.
So, hats off to German director Margarethe von Trotta (Rosenstrasse, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [review]) for not only getting folks to back her movie about 20th-Century philosopher Hannah Arendt, but for also making it entertaining and provocative.
Co-written by von Trotta and Pam Katz (Remembrance), Hannah Arendt stars Barbara Sukowa (Europa, Berlin Alexanderplatz [review]) as the central character, a Jewish woman who fled from Germany during World War II. Arendt landed on her feet in America, where she began writing her many books exploring the relationship between individuals and the society in which they live, and how each is defined by the other (to be fairly simplistic about it, as my understanding of Arendt's actual writing is limited). She became a professor at the New School, and eventually became a naturalized citizen.
von Trotta's portrait picks up in the early 1960s, just after the arrest of Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann, who was abducted and taken to Israel by Mossad in order to stand trial. Arendt decided she wanted to see what this notorious individual looked like up close, having herself been separate from much of the atrocities of Hitler's rule by getting away during the war. So, she proposed to The New Yorker that they send her to Jerusalem to cover the proceedings.
Once there, the movie tells us, Arendt was surprised to find that Eichmann was not some larger-than-life personality, but a mere bureaucrat whose very averageness suggested a more insidious cruelty than she even imagined. He embodied what she called the "banality of evil." His terrible activities organizing the transport of Nazi prisoners to their deaths at concentration camps were not undertaken for selfish gain, personal hate, or any other strong conviction. His adopting the standard Nazi defense of "I was just following orders" was indicative of the truth: he had surrendered all personality to "the law." He was all the more disgusting for having just done his job instead of exercising some kind of moral imperative.
This became a central thesis of her articles and her eventual book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, though, as Hannah Arendt points out, the main controversy and criticism of the material was that, in looking at all the evidence presented, Arendt noted what she considered an error in judgment on the part of the Jewish leaders who cooperated with the Nazis. Their hope of lessening the damage by trying to go along, to her mind, only led to more deaths. In much the same way pundits tend to do today (and so it seems history repeats), seizing on and singling out such incendiary elements without acknowledging the totality of the work only proved to cause an uproar and derail any serious engagement with the topic by the populace at large.
Hannah Arendt deals with the full story, from the visit to Israel through to the criticism and defense of the articles. It features lots of heated debate, flashbacks to Arendt's college affair with Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), a little bit of political intrigue, and lots of wrestling with notions of what's noble and correct--or as Arendt puts it, "right and wrong, beautiful and ugly." The film engages with the ideas in a meaningful way, avoiding creating any "Ah-ha!" moments like we tend to see in biography movies about singers or artists, while also remembering to treat Arendt as a human being. Essential to her intellectual pursuits is her stable home life. Arendt had a very loving marriage with her husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), the man she fled Germany with and her most ardent supporter. The turmoil over her choices cost Arendt many friends, but Blücher held strong.
von Trotta presents the material clearly and directly. Outside of the flashbacks, she doesn't get fancy with structure or try to liven things up by making the movie slick or flashy. Rather, she lets her steadfast actress carry the narrative. Sukowa is phenomenal in the role, embodying Arendt's courage and conviction, but also understanding that such a stance comes with nuance. A true thinker allows for doubt and anxiety, and despite the many accusations to the contrary by others in the film, Sukowa shows Arendt to also be a woman who genuinely felt things. It's this compassion that maybe allowed her to strive for a greater understanding, divorced from her own feelings. (Despite thinking Eichmann was an unremarkable individual, she felt his crimes deserved the punishment of death.)
This mixture makes for an engaging example of how good biopics can be with a smart guiding force and a focused narrative. Hannah Arendt bites off exactly what its writer/director can chew, digesting the material in a way that is both illuminating and a pleasure to watch.
Saturday, December 19, 2020
This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.
Marc Singer's documentary about homeless people living in the subway tunnels under New York City, Dark Days, was released at the turn of the new century. There is no hard sell or high-concept pitch for this one. Singer opens the lid on an entire community living below the streets of the Big Apple. Some of the folks went underground in the 1970s and had yet to move their lives back up top when the film crew went down into the blackness. Living in a state of perpetual night, these tunnel dwellers learn to cope with their surroundings, building homes out of scrap and finding ways to get along. Some of them are on drugs, some are clean, and none of them could have predicted they would end up here. Dark Days follows a select handful, getting a sense of their day-to-day, digging a little into their past, and in general acting as a passive observer, giving the participants a clean platform to express themselves.
We see a variety of activity. One of the subjects takes care of several dogs, another hustles on the streets to find trash he can sell. Another man talks about how he eventually conquered his crack addiction, while Singer shows us another lighting up. There is also Dee, the only woman the film follows for any length of time. Her shack gets burned down due to some disagreement with another addict. We never really learn why, and Singer never asks. There seems to be no whys or wherefores in Dark Days, just as after a while there is really no above or below. There are only the tunnels and the pervasive darkness. Forget ceilings or sky or even time. Living in the subway is an all-encompassing isolation. As one of the men explains it, he thought his life down there would be temporary...and that was five years ago. Basic human concerns keep them going: feed yourself, clean yourself, keep warm. And though most claim to be on their own, they all end up finding some companionship. This is a neighborhood like any other, no matter how unconventional.
Singer's choice to shoot in black-and-white only emphasizes this otherness. The world contained in the frame is contained even further by the limited light that Singer brings into the picture. Color would only remind us that this is an incomplete existence, which would fail to effectively communicate the exile. Color would point toward a ceiling, whereas black-and-white ensures that the "regular" world is forgotten. There is only the drudgery of this purgatory. One day looks like any other.
Change comes unexpectedly, giving Dark Days a third act where prior there might have been none. Amtrak succumbs to pressure to clean up the tunnels, and this opens the way for advocacy groups to negotiate a safe return to regular life for the homeless being displaced. Hope emerges in the darkness thanks to a government voucher program that sets up the subway's inhabitants in new apartments. The anger at this forced eviction quickly turns to elation, and Singer captures the cathartic demolition of the underground shantytown. For some of these folks, wielding the sledgehammer to knock down their make-shift walls is the first time we see them fully happy. The prisoners are destroying their own prison.
Even so, I can't tell if the coda of Dark Days is intentionally precarious or if it's my own cynicism coming to bear. It's hard not to wonder how well any of the individuals we've met will function in their new lives. Singer shows them in their assigned apartments--cooking, decorating, dreaming of decorating more in the future--and it struck me that in some weird way, they have only traded one enclosed space for another. It's like how addicts pick up other addictions to replace the ones they are getting over--alcoholics turning to coffee, or smokers turning to junk food. Have they emerged into the sunlight only to close themselves off? Ironically, the community has disappeared, now they are even more on their own than they were prior.
Luckily these concerns are answered by some of the bonus features presented on video editions of Dark Days over the years. Bac at the 10th anniversary [when this review was first written], Mark Singer went back to visit the tunnels for a new twenty-minute documentary featurette called "The Tunnel Today." It's amazing how different it all looks years later. For one, we are seeing many of the locations in color; for two, the tunnels are now open and the sun can come in. Singer finds strange remnants of the lives that were once here: fading graffiti, indications of now missing huts and train tracks, spliced wires, scorch marks from when Dee's shack burned down.
Singer clearly has a melancholic nostalgia for his time spent in the tunnels, living with his subjects, immersed in their experience. This is more evident in the "Life After the Tunnel" featurette, a collection of stills from the movie with Singer narrating. The documentarian has kept in touch with most of the people in the movie and tracked their journeys. For the most part, the main people featured in Dark Days have gotten on well with their lives above ground. They got clean, got jobs, and rebuilt their existences, flying in the face of conventional cynicism and the misconception that people living on the streets don't want change or help. Granted, the move wasn't 100% successful, but nothing ever is. Even so, humanity is perhaps the most resilient natural resource we have.