O happy column: three very good movies and two close enough.
A real Western is riding our way from (surprise) South America. Up in the high Andes, Blackthorn is much more than an exotic footnote to 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
That commercial classic starred Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and the hit tune “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” I felt those drops were falling inside my head, turning a larky Western into a slush of instantly dated ’60s attitude. Bob & Paul were charming, but director George Roy Hill flogged the winking material.
In this better sequel, Sam Shepard never strives for charm as the aging Cassidy (born Robert LeRoy Parker). Known as James Blackthorn in Bolivia, and thought to have died there with his pal in 1908, Butch lives on in a deep backland. He is in 1927 a rugged old bone, raked by memories, raising horses, comforted by a native woman, and imagining a son he has never seen.
And he is Shepard, crowning his acting career. At a certain slant the gray, bearded actor looks so much like Walter Huston’s prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that I almost gasped a welcoming laugh. To the film’s great advantage, director Mateo Gil and writer Miguel Barros are Spanish. They stake their claim away from the Bob & Paul myth.
Their Bolivia is shot with powerful sensuality by the great Spanish cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía and rooted in Shepard’s hardbitten, scraped-down magnetism. Along with some sketchy plot involving an alcoholic consul (Stephen Rea), we have fabulous mountains, a desert that is death made visible, and Blackthorn igniting his true Cassidy whenever he rides a fast horse or fires a rifle. He also sings a bit, like a mule with a muse.
Most central is friendship. Loyalty haunts Blackthorn, making him stay true to the woman, his horse, the unseen son, the memory of Sundance. And, perhaps, the Spanish mining engineer (Eduardo Noriega) who hauls the old fugitive back into danger. Their alliance is the spring of tension in a terrific, full-hearted Western. Opens October 14.
The Ides of March
When Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers his ego-snuffing speech about loyalty in The Ides of March, he seizes the movie much like old pro Lee Tracy did The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s 1964 political film. Hoffman plays Paul, campaign manager for governor Mike Morris’s presidential run. With a touch of regret and a tang of delight, he is quite willing to jettison the young media-wizard Steve (Ryan Gosling).
The poster for Mike (George Clooney) poses him like a Wheaties hero for a liberal Atlas Shrugged (one clever shot even changes Mike to Ike, as in Eisenhower). Mike pushes every progressive button, but under his wry elegance and impeccable sound bites is a primeval instinct for survival. He also has a male instinct for interns such as Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), so fetchingly available. This leads to twisted entrails of drama for Mike, Steve, and Tom (Paul Giamatti), fierce manager of Mike’s homely opponent. Everyone courts corruption.
Held back by director Clooney until the Obama bloom had faded somewhat, the movie is in the ripe tradition of American political cynicism. The golden hall of power must again be reached through a back alley, now illuminated by cell phones. Suspense crackles as Clooney capably steers the talking heads, but the only testing issue here is abortion, handled with tongs.
The Ides of March is simple stuff with very good casting. Gosling uses some of the razored ambiguity that works well in Drive. Wood is touchingly vulnerable. The crafty veterans (Hoffman, Giamatti, Clooney, Jeffrey Wright as a conniving governor) zip along entertainingly. As bonus, Marisa Tomei is a smiling barracuda from The New York Times.
The Mill and the Cross
The Chaucer of painters, Pieter Bruegel offers an entire world. In a 1925 essay, Aldous Huxley observed that the 16th-century master was undervalued. But his stock has risen, and the new gold on his palette is The Mill and the Cross, an extraordinary, beautiful film from Poland’s Lech Majewski, who also made a movie from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
In 1564, Bruegel, well past his early Bosch phase of grisly devils reveling in sadism, painted one of the most unusual of major religious pictures, The Procession to Calvary. Over 200 figures stream across a wide landscape in a Holy Land very medieval and Flemish. Most of the people pay little attention to Christ carrying his cross. His terrible death will top their holiday. Majewski shows restraint at Golgotha, yet Bosched-up one detail: on a high torture wheel he places a tormented victim, a “heretic” pecked by ravens.
People are pulled from the canvas as vignettes: cooking, childcare, soldiers riding, boys pissing, a weeping wife, windmill machinery that prefigures the coming modern world. Talking (but not much), they are folded back into the art with a suppleness equal to the elegant 18th-century set pieces of Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke. A few name actors (Michael York, Charlotte Rampling, Rutger Hauer) are inconspicuously used for the Bruegel-Majewski vision, exquisitely photographed by Majewski and Adam Sikora.
This Ken Cinema treasure is a design triumph, art meditation, and history lesson (the Spanish Inquisition sets off current echoes). It affirms that life must live and that art lives for it. It tops with a whirling peasant dance.
At age ten, Anna Paquin did great acting in 1993’s The Piano. Now 29, she sustains a great adolescent performance in Margaret. She is Lisa Cohen, a smart, insecure student in New York. She lives fractiously with her mother, who stars in an acclaimed new play (stage-pro J. Smith-Cameron is the wife of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan). Emotionally adrift, Lisa is forced into queasy adulthood when she accidentally helps cause the death of a woman (Allison Janney) by a city bus.
At first she clams up, to the relief of the driver (Mark Ruffalo). But the truth gnaws her. Soon Lisa confronts him, bewilders her mother, and shakes every hornet’s nest she can. Among those stung are a shy geometry teacher (Matt Damon) and the victim’s vengeful friend (Jeannie Berlin, so New York she’s scary). Without her mother’s control skills Lisa becomes the new drama diva, a star at last.
Lonergan, directing his first film since 2000’s You Can Count on Me, can be faulted for cramming in a lot of themes. He indulges in high school debates (teacher Matt Broderick is blasted by one) and claims Woody Allen’s trademark turf, using obvious derivations. The film is, like Lisa, a loose cannon (Lisa would have been a better title than Margaret, a small conceit using a poem that is quoted).
Lonergan pulls off the tragic bus shocker and a remarkable sex scene (as the blithe stud, Kieran Culkin’s sporty idea of foreplay is to recommend William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich). His rich ensemble includes Jean Reno as a foreigner whose suavity squishes in one loaded word. He got a major performance from Paquin, and his Offenbach opera closure is almost as moving as the Verdi one in Bertolucci’s Luna.
Inspiration floods Thunder Soul. Back in the ’70s of Afros and bell-bottoms, there arose a mighty sound in Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward. The Kashmere Stage Band was a funky-brass group of high schoolers. Shaped and led by a little wizard of jazzed soul, Conrad “Prof” Johnson, they won contests, wowed festivals, cut albums, traveled to Europe.
Johnson retired, but in the nick of mortal time a group of middle-aged grads reunited to stage a show for their frail master. Mark Landsman’s documentary, which newly defines “labor of love,” has rousing sounds, vintage footage, narration by Jamie Foxx, and joy for us all. Go, and groove.
Reviewed in the capsules: Courageous, Dream House, Gun Hill Road, Of Love and Other Demons, Real Steel, and What's Your Number?