For Your Consideration: June 27, 2014

On Tuesday, the film world lost one of its oldest and brightest stars: Eli Wallach, a prolific, self-styled journeyman of an actor who graced the stage and screen for more than six decades, passed away in his Manhattan home at the age of 98. From Clark Gable’s sidekick in “The Misfits” to a leering Mexican bandit in “The Magnificent Seven,” Wallach was never the star, but hovered at the edge of stardom, melting into his role and putting his stamp on every character he played. He was never nominated for an Oscar for his work, but received an honorary one in 2010, when the Academy saluted him as “the quintessential chameleon.” Whether you want to meet Wallach for the first time or mourn his passing, here are three of his most classic films. So long, Eli. We’ll miss you.

– Elaine

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach

Available streaming on Netflix, for rent on Amazon Instant or iTunes

In his prime, much of Wallach’s film work came in the Western genre, where his “ugly” mug and ambiguous (well, by Hollywood standards anyway) ethnicity allowed him to stand in for a number of by-the-numbers Mexican outlaws, bandits and sidekicks. Wallach’s biggest moment in the public eye probably came from his prominent role as the antagonist of “The Magnificent Seven,” John Sturges’ star-studded remake of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai;” but his greater performance is undoubtedly in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti masterpiece, where, third-billed and tacked on to the already-proven successful combo of Eastwood and Van Cleef (see: “For a Few Dollars More”), Wallach’s Tuco becomes the linchpin for a frontier tale of operatic scale. Representing the conniving, weaselly middle ground in Leone’s triumvirate of models of masculinity, Tuco is far more intriguing and empathetic than reticent, principled Blondie or brutal, cold-hearted Angel Eyes; he’s shifty, unpredictable, and hilarious, sometimes intentionally. Wallach’s performance in the extended cemetery climax is indelible, from his desperate attempts to read Eastwood’s intentions in the unbearable Mexican standoff, to the mixture of joy and trepidation of discovering a treasure trove of loot at gunpoint, to his final, primal cry of primal anger. Everyone in this film, Tuco included, is a real sonofabitch indeed.

– Ethan

“New York, I Love You” (2008)

Cast: Hayden Christensen, Andy Garcia, Rachel Bilson, Natalie Portman, Irrfan Khan, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright, Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively, Bradley Cooper, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, Eli Wallach, Cloris Leachman

Streaming on Netflix, available to purchase or rent from Amazon Instant and iTunes

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that this Americanized portmanteau follow-up to “Paris, Je T’aime” even exists – the cast may be just as starry as the original, but when the behind-the-screen talent dips from the likes of Olivier Assayas, Alfonso Cuarón and the Coen Brothers to Brett Ratner, there’s going to be a noticeable difference. But, the segmented nature of the film still allows for some wonderful shorts to poke through, notably a Natalie Portman-directed ode to Central Park and the pitch-perfect closer by Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) that features Wallach and Cloris Leachman, as that lovingly bickering old couple that every New Yorker will recognize. If there’s any segment that would fit in perfectly to “Paris, Je T’aime,” it would’ve been this hilarious, tender, reflective little piece featuring two old pros showing how it’s done.

– Ethan

“The Ghost Writer” (2010)

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Wallach’s role in Roman Polanski’s latter-day thriller is small, but pivotal, as a mysterious old man inhabiting the island where an in-over-his-head author (McGregor) has found himself trapped working on the memoirs of a slick, menacing retired politician (Brosnan). The film itself is mostly pulp, an attempt to cash in on modern fears of Big Brother government with a ludicrously tangled narrative of conspiracy, but it’s sold by the glum, oppressive setting. The paranoia of surveillance always was one of Polanski’s specialities, and by turning Martha’s Vineyard into a site of gloomy isolation, you can almost tangibly feel, as McGregor’s character does, the unseen eyes trained on him – paradoxical, considering, as audience members, we’re the ones doing the watching. In any case, Wallach, for his part, does what he did so often and so well: appear, make an impression with limited material, and fade off back into the mist.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: June 20, 2014

Clint Eastwood is taking audiences on another trip down desaturated-color lane this weekend, with his adaptation of the smash Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” Jukebox musicals are theoretically a sure bet – they come with a nostalgia factor that ensures the built-in fan base of whatever band or musical genre you’re appropriating will be interested. On the other hand, that same quality can be alienating: what if Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons just aren’t your cup of tea? What if you yearn for the vocal stylings and fab hairdos of a different era? Sigh no more, we’ve got you covered with three more jukebox flicks.

– Ethan

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)

Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Famously referred to in the Village Voice as the “Citizen Kane” of jukebox musicals, Richard Lester’s Beatles vehicle is rather astonishing for the way it still feels fresh even after fifty (fifty!) years of the freewheeling, irreverent music videos it inspired. The movie’s flimsy excuse for a plot – mostly composed of the four members of the band running from their hysterical fans, while Paul’s “grandfather” (Brambell) occasionally stirs up trouble – relieves the songs from any kind of narrative duty, allowing us to appreciate the unflappable energy and sincerity of Lennon and McCarthy’s early songwriting: from the jangling title track to the tender “If I Fell” and riotous curtain-closer “She Loves You.” And somehow, amid the rollicking music sequences and cracking dialogue far more witty than it has any business being (the screenplay, let’s not forget, was nominated for an Oscar), Lester has some genuine satire on his mind. The straight-faced bafflement with which the Fab Four handle the ever-growing absurdity of their own fame would make Buñuel’s bourgeoisie proud.

Criterion recently released a gorgeous new digital transfer of “A Hard Day’s Night” with special features, including invaluable interviews and commentary tracks, that are definitely worth seeking out; Janus Films will also be releasing it into select theaters in the U.S. starting July 4.

– Ethan

“Pennies From Heaven” (1981)

Cast: Steven Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“Pennies From Heaven” was a box-office bomb at its debut, almost certainly because audiences expected Martin, in only his second starring film role, to follow the success of “The Jerk” (1979) with another comedic vehicle. Instead, he and director Herbert Ross gave them this supremely sad, if undeniably gorgeous, Depression musical, which repurposes pop hits of the Astaire-Rogers era to reveal the existential ache and sexual longing of a battered and disillusioned generation of Americans. The choice to go with lip-synching over original recordings rather then creating new cover versions adds an extra layer of fantasy and detachment to the tale, drawing a stark line between the harsh reality of the characters’ predicaments and their idealized, unattainable hopes for what life could be. The original BBC mini-series, starring Cheryl Campbell and the late, great Bob Hoskins, is also well worth a watch.

– Ethan

“Moulin Rouge!” (2001)

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

No, you haven’t been drinking absinthe, but Baz Luhrmann’s chaotic, erratic, synthetic pop mash-up spectacular spectacular might make you doubt your own sobriety. Drawing from random 20th-century musical sources seemingly out of a hat, the Baz fleshed out an archetypical romance with atypical style, and it remains the flawed masterpiece of the Aussie’s particular brand of emotional, sensual (who-cares-about) storytelling. The first twenty minutes or so of “Moulin Rouge!” are a whirlwind of bright lights, over-saturated color (this is really the anti-Eastwood pick) and nonsensical madness – a fabulous rush of pure cinematic adrenaline. Then Baz tries to actually tell a story. But despite the treacly and unremarkable script, glimpses of that opening sequence’s brilliance continue to flash through, in scenes like the “Roxanne” tango and Richard Roxburgh’s insane cover of “Like A Virgin,” when logic gives way to a wall of sound and sensation.

– Ethan