The Servant -1963-

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Directed by Joseph Losey. 116 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Laemmle’s Royal Theater, West LA)

Holy smokes, was this movie all sorts of tense, tingly fun. The Servant is the first Losey film I’ve seen – I was vaguely aware of the guy, but he’s been under a lot of peoples’ radars since he was blacklisted some fifty-odd years ago. Now I gotta make up for lost time and gobble up the rest of his filmography.

The Servant is hearty stew of genres – it’s written like a melodrama (Harold Pinter is responsible for the wonderfully misanthropic screenplay), paced like a thriller, and shot like a noir (Losey did lots of noirs during the American part of his career, including an English-language re-make of Fritz Lang’s M). The entire cast has an amazing chemistry between them – maybe the purest concoction of sex and passive aggression I’ve ever seen. The titular Servant (Dirk Bogarde) is a world-class schemer, and I couldn’t look away as he played the other characters (Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, James Fox) like old accordions.

Well, I probably looked away once or twice. The film could stand to be fifteen minutes shorter, but it didn’t damper the viewing experience much.

Aside: In the best possible way, this is the gayest film I’ve seen all year.

(Seen on 2013-09-01, written on 2013-09-04)

Mud -2013-

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Directed by Jeff Nichols. 130 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Sherman Oaks)

 JOE. DON. BAKER. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 I bet you a Coca-Cola that Jeff Nichols wins at least one well-deserved Oscar for Best Director within the next 15 years. I’m ashamed to say I have yet to see Shotgun Stories, his directorial debut, but I loved Take Shelter, one of the best American horror movies of the last quarter century. If you don’t agree with me, I suspect neither you nor a close loved one has ever suffered severe mental illness.

I walked into the theater expecting Mud to be a Southern neo-noir in the same vein as Blood Simple, One False Move or Red Rock West. I would have been satisfied by that alone, but Nichols’ third film has a far more substantial center than your average thriller. I shouldn’t even call the film a thriller – the Southern Gothic setting is a backdrop for a great coming-of-age story, and an examination of how we idealize love and the crushing heartbreak that results. I once read that Nichols cites Mark Twain as an influence. If Twain had lived in the age of film, I can easily imagine him penning such a story.

The film may feature the best ensemble cast I’ve yet seen this year. Tye Sheridan is just about perfect as Ellis, the 14 year-old protagonist who’s trying to preserve his belief in the fundamental good of people while his world is shaken by a variety of causes. Matthew McConaughey is surprisingly impressive in the titular role. Filmmakers, please continue to cast McConaughey in smaller roles (preferably in the South, á la Killer Joe) and keep him far away from romantic comedies.

Sam Shepard is tough-as-nails as the creepy-yet-helpful old neighbor (he’s like Old Man Marley from Home Alone, except with a sniper rifle). And I almost dropped my popcorn when I saw Joe Don Baker show up as one of the villains.

I’m just kidding – I didn’t buy popcorn. But I lost my shit, all the same. The dude rocks.

Jeff Nichols is making consistently intimate, beautiful films in locales ignored by mainstream Hollywood. As long as he stays away from stoner comedies, he could be the director that David Gordon Green could have been.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-04-26)

Last Man Standing -1996-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 101 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 Aside from committing the sin of literally spoiling the ending in the title, Last Man Standing was pretty damn fun. While I have yet to see Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (the film of which LMS is credited as a remake), this stands as a solid portion of the Hillmography.

 Many critics panned Last Man Standing at the time of its release, dismissing it as depressing and joyless. Granted, it ain’t exactly Miracle in Milan, but I’m not sure what the critics are whining about. The humor is black, but it’s certainly there. Think Miller’s Crossing if it were directed by Robert Rodriguez, and you’ll have a general idea of the film’s tone. The action is Peckinpah-level brutal, and the locales are bone dry, just the way I like ‘em.

 Willis is passable as the film’s mysterious antihero, but the main attraction are the supporting players. Bruce Dern is haggard per usual as the town sheriff, and David Patrick Kelly is great as the short-fused Irish kingpin with a temper right up there with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. As another surprising bonus, a super-young Leslie Mann appears as a “woman of ill repute.” And just like in her Apatow films, she never shuts up!

 The star of the show may very well be Christopher Walken as Hickey, the borderline-psychotic mob enforcer. Hill is smart and treats Walken like thespian wasabi, making sure not to overuse him. His character doesn’t even show up until the film’s second half, and he’s a man of few words whenever he’s onscreen. I love it when reeling in screen-hogging actors pays off (kinda like De Niro in Jackie Brown).

 – More Ry Cooder, yay!

Next up in the Hillmography: Supernova.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-18)