Red Riding
(Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker, 2009)

A three-part miniseries that was later released theatrically, Red Riding is the story of a series of horrific murders in west Yorkshire, and the deep-rooted corruption in the police department that these killings expose. It’s based on novels by David Peace, inspired in turn by a few notorious real life cases, including that of the “Yorkshire Ripper” in the 1970s.

Expertly adapted by Tony Grisoni, each part was fashioned by a different director. The focus is on the moral depravity of the police, and the depressed, traumatized experience of the people in Leeds and surrounding country. It is as if the entire area has been infected by a contagion of lies, and anyone who seeks the truth is looking for serious trouble. In the first part, taking place in 1974, that truth-seeker is a reporter played by Andrew Garfield, whose investigation leads to a wealthy, corrupt businessman (Sean Bean) and into the arms of a woman (Rebecca Hall), whose daughter was one of the serial killer’s victims. In part 2 (1980), an honest cop (Paddy Considine) is brought in from Manchester to investigate, but must contend with some very dangerous opposition from within the force. In the final part (1983), one of the top crooked cops (David Morrissey) begins to suffer pangs of conscience, and is aided by a lawyer (Mark Addy) who takes an interest in the case.

The story is so complex that it took some careful attention on my part to be clear about who did what, when, and why. The picture creates an atmosphere of dread and paranoia that is very spooky. There are subtle differences in style between each part, of course, since they have different directors. I have to say I preferred Julian Jarrold’s contribution in part 1, with its shadowy, sometimes hallucinatory visuals. It’s interesting how much older Garfield and Hall appear than in their later American work—I could barely recognize Hall, looking wearily middle-aged in a blonde wig. The picture as a whole is an impressive example of gritty, downbeat social drama. Peace’s pessimistic, anti-authoritarian vision is presented raw, and what redemption there is does not come cheaply.

Remember the Night
(Mitchell Leisen, 1940).

A chronic shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) faces jail time for her third offense. When the trial in New York is postponed because it’s Christmas Eve, the prosecutor (Fred MacMurray) takes pity on her for having to spend the holiday behind bars. Learning that she’s also from Indiana, he gives her a ride there, and she ends up spending Christmas with his family.

The script is by Preston Sturges, and so of course there is some very funny dialogue. The repartee between Stanwyck’s feisty character and the solid, respectable prosecutor MacMurray (who also demonstrates a quick wit when needed) is pure pleasure. This is the first of their four pictures together, and it’s fun to contrast this with Double Indemnity, made a few years later. The funniest sequence is when they unwittingly trespass on a dairy farm, ending up before a small town judge trying to argue their way out of getting charged.

The film’s middle section is taken up with the Christmas celebration at the prosecutor’s home, and here the image of the decent, heartwarming togetherness of the family is laid on a little thick, especially with the entrance of the goofy hired boy played by Sterling Holloway. The mom, Beulah Bondi, has some heartfelt talks with the woman she thinks is her son’s girlfriend, and we are meant to see Stanwyck’s character awaken to a new sense of possibility because of it. This is mythic Americana through the lens of Hollywood, but the style, and Leisen’s way with the actors make it go down fairly well. In addition, a previous scene where Stanwyck meets up with her horrible, neglectful mother provides insight into the origins of her character, and some justification for the story arc. A loving family raises a better child.

After the action returns to New York, the story takes a touching and (at least for me) a completely unexpected turn. Remember the Night is considered a Christmas movie, but I appreciate it for Stanwyck’s luminous performance, and its thought-provoking and wholly satisfying conclusion

(Aleksandr Askoldov, 1967).

During the Russian Civil War, Klavdia (Nonna Mordyukova), a female officer in the Red Army, whom we first see sentencing a deserter to death, is herself disgraced when it’s discovered that she’s pregnant. Kicked out of her regiment, she stays with a Jewish family in the Ukraine. From her vantage point, as she tries to learn how to be a mother, we witness the plight of Jews in Soviet Russia, still treated as outsiders in their own country.

The subject of the treatment of Jews prior to World War II had never been broached in a Russian film before. Based on a story by Vasiliy Grossman, Commissar employs dream symbolism and gallows humor to show how oppression becomes internalized in its victims. The wry Jewish father Yefim (Rolan Bykov) keeps his family together with a kind of playful dignity. His children, however, act out the suffering around them, victimizing the shy older sister in a pretend pogrom that is one of the film’s best sequences.

Askoldov excels both in the realistic depiction of village life, and in the visionary realm of Klavdia’s tortured imagination, where she dreams of riderless horses and (prophetically) of Jewish families walking away into darkness wearing yellow stars. The film’s one shortcoming is that the commissar, Klavdia, is not developed enough as a character, but the director’s focus was on a tragic message: the failure of the revolution to honor people’s humanity. This was all too much for the government. Commissar was banned, and its first-time director expelled from the party, exiled from Moscow, and told he could never direct again. Finally in 1988, at the end of the Gorbachev era, the movie was reconstructed from surviving prints (the Soviets had destroyed the negative) and shown in theaters for the first time.

El Norte
(Gregory Nava, 1983).

Two teenage Guatemalan peasants, brother and sister, flee government persecution and head north, hoping to find a new life in the United States. El Norte was one of the first, and certainly the first widely seen film to treat the subject of illegal immigration from the point of view of the immigrants themselves. Nava purposely avoided trying to get studio funding for the film, because he thought (correctly I think) that commercial considerations would compromise the work. The picture was financed partly by PBS, and through pre-sales, and it became one of those rare examples of a completely independent film gaining wide distribution through word of mouth.

Being a ground-breaker involved a little bit of naivete in terms of style. This is largely intentional—the raw emotion displayed by the two nonprofessional leads (David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, who both went on to make other films) is probably more effective than work from more polished actors would have been. There are three phases to the story: the beginning in Guatemala, travel to Mexico and the search for a way to get across the border, and what they find in Los Angeles. It’s all as heartbreaking as you might expect, and at the same time Nava avoided being didactic—whatever conclusions you may draw arise naturally from the struggles of the characters.

The production was beset by difficulties. At one point, the corrupt Mexican government threatened to lock everyone up, and the crew had to hightail it back to L.A. and film the rest of the story there. The picture gets a big boost from the marvelous cinematography by James Glennon. There’s nothing cheap about the look of this film. Subtler movies have been made on this topic since, but none more effective. By humanizing people that are demonized for political purposes, it opened a lot of eyes, and hearts. And of course, the problem is still very much with us.

Me and Orson Welles
(Richard Linklater, 2008).

Linklater seems to move comfortably between his independent roots and the commercial mainstream, which makes him something of an anomaly in American film. Holly & Vincent Palmo adapted a Robert Kaplow novel about Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Thus far, we are in the indy realm, yet the story concerns an aspiring teenage actor (Zac Efron) who manages to get a bit part in the play, and falls hard for Welles’ sexy assistant, played by Clare Danes—and in this respect it resembles a Hollywood coming-of-age “romcom.”

Efron and Danes do well enough, but the film’s focus is, naturally, on the role of Orson Welles. Happily, Christian McKay fits the part like a glove. He looks and sounds astonishingly like the young Welles, and more importantly, he conveys the great man’s energy, appetites, and outrageous egotism in entertaining fashion

Linklater delights in showing the backstage politics, the complicated maneuvers, unforeseen disasters, camaraderie, rivalry, and outright chicanery that are part of putting on a live show. The movie is fun to watch. But I think having a callow point-of-view character (I’m not really blaming Efron here, but the screenplay) limits one’s involvement. Whatever self-knowledge is gained by the bright-eyed young protagonist is not interesting enough when considered in the light of a character as fascinating as Orson Welles. Still, this is a fairly solid piece of work.

2014 Chris Dashiell