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The Parker Films: The Outfit (1973)

September 14th, 2020
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I’m continuing continuing my look at the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker character.  Click here for my review of 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, an adaptation of the Parker novel The Hunted.  Click here for my review of 1968’s The Split, starring Jim Brown.  Now we come to 1973’s The Outfit, starring Robert Duvall!

The Outfit is based on the Westlake novel of the same name.  Robert Duvall plays the Parker role, though once again they don’t call the character Parker — in this film, he’s Earl Macklin.  After getting released from prison, Macklin discovers his brother has been killed, and he only narrowly escapes the hitman hired to kill him.  It seems the bank that the brothers robbed was an operation run by the Outfit, the nickname given to a large criminal organization.  (Back in Point Blank, they called it the Syndicate.)  So Macklin recruits his old comrade in crime Cody (Joe Don Baker) and starts hitting one Outfit operation after another in a quest for retribution, as well as the quarter million he feels he’s owed for his trouble.

I enjoyed The Outfit, mostly for the fun of seeing the young, virile Robert Duvall and Joe Don Baker in their primes!  But the film is a step down in quality, in my opinion, from Point Blank and The Split.  It’s a little shaggier, a little less tense, a little less compelling.

The overwrought soundtrack hurts the film.  It’s too on the nose.  For example: right off the bat, the film opens with super-dramatic music playing over shots of a car driving.  The music makes it seem like a Big Dramatic Moment, but nothing is really happening.   It’s off-putting.  Only a few minutes later, we see Macklin getting out of prison and there’s extremely cliche harmonica music playing on the soundtrack, and I knew we were in trouble.

Robert Duvall is always great, and it’s fun to see him in a man-of-action leading roll.  I wish the script gave him more depth of character to play.  It worked for Lee Marvin (and also Jim Brown) to play mostly silent tough guys, but the Macklin character is less compelling.  Part of this is the fault of the weak script, but also I think Duvall is the wrong actor for this type of role.  I know he’s so good, that watching the film I kept wishing he had more meaty stuff to play.  But that being said, even in a mediocre film, Duvall elevates the material.  He’s magnetic on screen.

Also great: Joe Don Baker!  To be honest, I’ve often found his persona to be something of a joke to me in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jack Reacher

I’ve never read any of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Childs, so I didn’t come into the film Jack Reacher sharing the pre-conceived upset that many Reacher fans had at the casting of the very short Tom Cruise as the 6’5″ tank of a man described in the books.  I did go into the film thinking that the title of Jack Reacher was very stupid and not nearly as cool as that of the book from which the film’s story was adapted: One Shot.  (I guess the filmmakers wanted to emulate the huge success that was the John Carter of Mars adaptation John Carter…)  I was mostly interested in seeing Jack Reacher because it was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the script for The Usual Suspects.

Overall, I felt the film was a decently entertaining crime flick, well-made though not particularly memorable.

At the start of the film, we see a sniper ruthlessly murder five pedestrians on a sunny day in Philadelphia.  The police are easily able to apprehend the shooter, a young man named James Barr, who upon capture insists that he will only speak with Jack Reacher.  Reacher (Tom Cruise), once a military police officer in the army, has left the service and dropped off the grid entirely.  Luckily, for reasons that are made clear as the film progresses, Reacher is aware of what has happened and arrives on the scene, saving anyone the impossible task of locating him.  He doesn’t feel he is needed, but the defense attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike) convinces him to assist her investigation.  The two soon discover that a fierce crime-lord known only as the Zec (Werner Herzog) is involved, as well as possibly someone in the D.A.’s office.

Tom Cruise is solid in the lead role.  He gives Reacher a more dour attitude than many of his previous action-hero roles (like Ethan Hunt), and that feels like the right choice.  Mr. Cruise is pretty convincing kicking ass in the film, and I wasn’t bothered by his height in the role whatsoever.  His handsome face and innate charm help convey Reacher’s power, and why he is so effective at getting people to do what he wants, even though he lacks almost every social grace.

I’ve been a fan of Rosamund Pike ever since her great work in the otherwise-very-mediocre Bond film Die Another Day.  I think she’s a terrific screen presence, and she is perfectly good as the noble defense attorney Helen, though the character is pretty thin.  Reacher does most of the real investigative work, and unfortunately Helen is relegated to being a damsel in distress by the end of the film.

The film’s piece of genius … [continued]

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From The DVD Shelf: The Natural (1984)

I have fond memories of watching The Natural with my father as a kid, but it’s been quite a number of years since I’d seen it last.  When I saw a blu-ray of the film on-sale at Amazon for just a few bucks, I snatched it up.  What fun it was to revisit this fine film!

In Barry Levinson’s 1984 ode to baseball and Americana, Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs.  As a young man he is clearly gifted with amazing skills at the game of baseball, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stand in his way to become the best ball-player to ever play the game.  But one moral mis-step cuts his dreams short.  Roy gets a second chance sixteen years later, when as a middle-aged rookie he comes back to the majors to help a losing ball-club on it’s quest for the pennant.

There’s a dramatic through-line to the film, of course, but The Natural really is a fairy-tale.  That had always been by recollection of the film, but I was still surprised, re-watching it now, just how prominent those fairy-tale aspects of the film are.  Watching the film, you might notice that the dangerous females all wear black, while the honest, noble heroine wears white.  But it cuts deeper than that.  The film is, at essence, a morality play.  It’s clear that we’re meant to understand that young Roy Hobbs is struck down by the woman in black not out of some random chance, but because he chose to break faith with his girlfriend back home (Glenn Close).  Then, later in the film, during his come-back season, when he takes up with the duplicitous Memo (Kim Basinger), his seeming invincibility at the plate suddenly ends.  In the world of The Natural, only the morally true can succeed.

I found this puzzling as a kid (I didn’t really understand why one moment Roy Hobbs could hit nothing but home runs, while the next he was striking out, and I was totally befuddled by the motivations of the woman in black), while now as an adult I find it to be endearingly sweet.  Such a simplistic, moral story could collapse into silliness, but the film is carried along by strong direction by Barry Levinson and some great performances by a high-wattage cast.

At the top, of course, is Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs.  Other than Christopher Reeves’ performance as Superman in the late seventies and early eighties, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with such a striking representation of truth, justice, and the American way.  The performance works because Mr. Redford — as did Mr. Reeves — plays the role with such straight-faced honesty and enthusiasm, with … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

It’s very possible that John Cazale has the greatest batting average of any actor in history.  He only appeared in five films, but they were, in order: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. It’s an amazing streak of five phenomenal performances in five phenomenal films, although that only emphasizes the tragedy of Mr. Cazale’s death at the incredibly young age of 42.

Anyone in the cult of The Godfather, like me, already knows the name John Cazale.  He, of course, plays the sweet but hapless Fredo, brother of Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan).  Although not one of the big-star names in the film (like the afore-mentioned Mr. Pacino and Mr. Caan, along, of course, with Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall), Mr. Cazale’s work as Fredo is absolutely amazing.  He creates, in Fredo, a role of enormous depth and sophistication.  Fredo is a character who is, on the one hand, all surface — he’s unable to hide his thoughts and feelings the way his brother Michael can — though Mr. Cazale brings enormous soul to the character and shows us deep layers of emotion and feelings behind his amazingly expressive eyes.

Those eyes are often commented upon by those who loved and admired Mr. Cazale in the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, directed by Richard Shephard.  The film is aimed at introducing movie fans to this incredibly talented, yet sadly somewhat forgotten, actor.

Even at the time, Mr. Cazale’s talents were often overlooked.  The film points out that, while the five films he starred in were nominated for a total of 44 Academy Awards (quite a haul!), Mr. Cazale himself was never nominated.  And in a sad scene early in the documentary, we see pedestrians in New York City asked to identify Mr. Cazale from a picture of him as Fredo from The Godfather. While many are able to recall the name of his character, not one knew Mr. Cazale’s name.  (I always wonder if scenes like these in films aren’t the result of judicious editing to make the point that the filmmakers want, but in this case I have no doubt that most people have never heard John Cazale’s name.)

The film spends a few minutes giving us some insight into Mr. Cazale’s background and childhood, but for the most part it focuses on his work in his five films.  A plethora of actors and directors — including Francis Ford Coppola (who directed Mr. Cazale in the first three films in which he appeared), Sidney Lumet (who directed him in his fourth film, Dog Day Afternoon), Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

After re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird last month, I couldn’t resist re-watching the famous film adaptation from 1962 starring Gregory Peck.  I’d seen the film before, many years ago, but I hardly remembered it.  After having devoured Harper Lee’s magnificent novel, reminding myself in the process of what an amazing achievement in literature it is, I was eager to take another look at the film.

Sadly, whereas re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird only elevated it further in my mind, I found myself fairly disappointed by the film version.

It’s a fairly faithful adaptation.  Almost all of the key characters and scenes from the novel are present in the film.  Events are slightly re-organized, and the time-frame is condensed (the film takes place over a single year, from one summer to the next, while the novel is spread out over two years and three summers), but nothing major is left out.  Yet the whole thing seems sort of flat and lifeless.  The familiar scenes are all there, but they’re drained of much of the emotional context that I felt in the book.

Where the film really fell down, for me, was in the performances of the kids.  Frankly, I just didn’t care for any of the three child actors chosen to play Scout, Jem, and Dill.  I have written often on this blog that I think the failure or success of child actors rests on how they are handled by the director, so I don’t just fault the kids.  I also acknowledge that standards and styles of performance were quite different in the 1960’s than they are today.  One can’t expect to see the type of viscerally honest performance by a child actor such as Max Records as Max in Spike Jonze’s recent adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (click here for my review of that amazing film) in a movie from that era.  But whatever the reason, I just didn’t feel the performances of the three kids.  It felt like three kids acting out scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird, rather than my believing that I’m watching three real characters interact.

Where the film didn’t disappoint me, though, was in Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch.  Although he’s been in a number of other famous, well-made films, Mr. Peck has become indelibly linked with Atticus, and after thirty seconds on screen one can see why.  Mr. Peck is perfectly cast.  With his deep voice and large frame, Mr. Peck is powerfully believable both as an erudite lawyer as well as the town’s best sharp-shooter, and he embodies all the wiseness and kindness of an ideal father figure.  While I felt that the kids (and several other … [continued]

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2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Crazy Heart

Last week I wrote about Moon, one of the 2009 films that I hasn’t succeeded in catching before the switch-over to the Year We Make Contact.  Today I’m here to write about another 2009 film that I’m glad I found a chance to see before getting too far into 2010: Crazy Heart.

Jeff Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a once-great country singer who, through a combination of bad luck and his own hard-living, has been reduced to singing in bowling alleys.  Bad is a pretty pathetic figure when we first encounter him in the film, pulling up to his latest small-town gig in his battered old pick-up truck and dumping out a jug full of his urine.  But drunk and washed-up though he may be, when he starts to perform we can see the embers of his greatness.  Until he has to run outside to puke, that is.

It’s not too hard to guess that, over the course of the film, Bad will be able to claw his way up to some small form of redemption.  But the pleasures of Crazy Heart aren’t in any big dramatic plot twists or emotional epiphanies.  They’re in the way that, through a million small choices, Jeff Bridges brings this broken-down man to fully-realized life.  Bad isn’t really a cliched scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold.  He makes a lot of poor choices, and we see him fully live up to the name he has taken for himself.  But Mr. Bridges brings such humanity to the performance that one somehow can’t help rooting for Bad nonetheless.  Can anyone deny that Jeff Bridges is one of our finest actors working today?

Maggie Gyllenhaal is solid, as she always is.  But I was really pleasantly surprised by Colin Farrell’s excellent work as Bad’s former protege Tommy Sweet.  It’s a very well-written part.  Tommy is talked about a lot in the film before we ever see him on-screen.  While Bad has hit hard times, Tommy has become a country music super-star.  I was expecting fireworks when these two finally met up in the film, but I was really pleased that the film went in another direction.  There’s friction between the two, but also reservoirs of affection.  I was quite taken with Mr. Farrell’s work, giving Tommy the arrogance one might expect of an on-the-rise mega-talent, but also a deep core of loyalty to his former mentor.  I’ve always been a big fan of Colin Farrell (I even love him in Daredevil!), and between this and his role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (read my review here), it’s nice to see him getting some decent roles these days.

Crazy Heart has a heck of a soundtrack, featuring an array … [continued]