2005 Movie Capsule Reviews

Brick ****

Brilliant. The idea of a classic film noir set in a San Clemente high school is both interesting and dangerous. First-time writer/director Rian Johnson masterfully manoeuvres around the landmines, or at least trips over them so lightly that they don’t blow up. Yes, we have the Vice Principal as D.A., yes we have the mom serving corn flakes and OJ after the rec-room shake down. But these don’t derail the story and they aren’t over-played. This is no cutesy Bugsy Mallone. Neither does Johnson clobber us with Noir cliches. Instead, he serves up a complex story with as many twists and turns as The Big Sleep. The kids all know how to underplay their roles. No stars here at all, unless you count the long-haired guy from “Third Rock from the Sun”, or the all-growed-up little boy from Witness. The best movie I’ve seen from 2005.

Match Point **

I was happy to hear that Woody’s back on his game, but maybe not. Certainly it’s better than anything he’s done in years, but in the end, disappointing when compared to his prime work. The basic premise here is to explore the role blind luck plays in shaping our destinies. Which is, what, the single oldest theme in literature? So any interest would be in the execution and the execution here is weak. Wafer-thin characters, no shock, no horror, and not a speck of humor. Has Woody really become so disengaged? Contrast with The Player, which deals with similar themes but has some meat on its bones.

Munich **

Spielberg is courageous for daring to suggest that politically-motivated retribution killings are morally suspect even when it’s the good guys doing the killing. Is that about it? I really shouldn’t say more, because I’m not in the dream worker’s target demography–dumb. My head hurt from all the clobbering Steve gave me. But I will say that this movie has one of the most disgusting sex scenes ever filmed.

V for Vendetta **

One could argue instead that the Wachowskis are courageous for making a pro-terrorism movie in 2005. What drives this picture isn’t so much the ideology as the acting, specifically, Hugo Weaving wearing a mask the whole time. He gets a 10 for difficulty and a 9 for execution.

Mallecontent

And here you have post 100:

Back in the late 1980s, Louis Malle was the first French film director I got to know over a span of films and a span of time. He inspired me to get into French film generally, and a few of his pics hold special places in my heart. Now for some mysterious reason, his films had not been available over here on DVD. Who knows why, but the situation has finally been fixed. The
Criterion Collection has just come out with two DVDs: 3 Films by Louis Malle and Elevator to the Gallows.

Watching the films again through older, wiser eyes, and with a fuller context of French film, and film generally was surprising. It’s hard not to see Le Souffle au coeur as a rich kid’s version of Les Quatre cents coups. And as much as Truffaut’s films were revolutionary, there’s a reactionary thread running through these Malle films, as though Louis feels the need to defend his class. In both Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir, les enfants, Malle paints ugly, stupid underclass characters that take the blame for the worst sins of the Vichy era, while the smartly-dressed upper class look on and shrug. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is worth watching for the score alone, which Miles Davis improvised. But compare this film to À bout de souffle. Where Godard achieves randomness and spontaneity, the Malle film seems contrived. And Jeanne Moreau seems to overact her underacting.

I’m not saying this is bad wine, just a little thinner and more tannic than I remember. And so as not to end on a bitter note, here’s a perfect French film that you probably don’t know: Bob le Flambeur.

Two neo-noirs from unlikely sources

When you think of directors Harold Ramis and David Cronenberg, film noir is not the first genre that pops into your head. Cronenberg likes to blow things up good, real good. And come to think of it, so does Ramis. Well, at least that would apply to the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. But both directors turned out nice little neo-noirs last year.

Cronenberg’s History takes up one of noir’s primary themes: our inability to escape from our past. For most of this translates into a desire to embellish, to create interest where none really exists, to move ourselves out of mundane trajectories. But for, say, an ex-mob-hit-man, this can mean the very opposite. When they have had enough of the crime and killing, they try to escape into dull normality, to conceal themselves in the persona of a small-town schmo. In classic noir at least, this gambit never works. The past always finds you, claims you and sucks you back in. It happens in The Killers, it happens in Out of the Past, and it happens here. Throughout the film, Cronenberg has us pondering some interesting moral aspects of identity. For example, if a small-town everyman acts out of character and bravely takes on and defeats two random thugs, he is seen by the townfolk as a hero. But what if the same acts are performed by a trained killer, a virtuoso of violence? With exactly the same intent, our perception of his actions are utterly changed. It’s a quiet movie, dismally scored, punctuated by brutal violence, and it’s in those moments that we remember, “ah yes, Cronenberg.”

Ramis’ Ice Harvest on the other hand, is simply a straight-up neo-noir. With a femme fatale, a double-crossing partner, a sack of money, and corrupt-but-likeable protagonist, all the classical elements are present. The movie was marketed as a dark comedy, which may have left much of its audience unsatisfied. And indeed, there are a few Fargo moments here, but you can see why some movie-goers would have felt a little misled. No greatness here, but certainly enough for fans of the genre, or John Cusack, to latch on to. With its anti-Christmas themes, would pair nicely with Bad Santa.

Lars von Trier

Dogville is the kind of film which leaves you completely bowled over, in that “wow…” state. Especially the “…” part. When Lars von Trier engages you, you feel it, viscerally, of course, but you are also left with many things to ponder. A heated coffee-shop philosophy chat that ends with chairs being smashed over heads. Or a few kidney punches. Some bruises at the very least. And as much as I would love to get into the ideas of this picture, I wouldn’t dare to give away a word of it. So please, everyone, once you’ve seen it, let’s talk. We’ll try to keep the violence level down, I promise. In the meantime, I’m going to see more of LVT’s flics.

Two movie picks: guard your wallet!

If you wanted to give the Martian cultural ambassador a quick view of the differences between American and French cinema, you might start by showing a double feature of Rebert Bresson’s 1959 Pickpocket and Sam Fuller’s 1953 Pickup on South Street. Two films on the same subject–the travails of a pickpocket. One highly influenced by the other–can you guess which? And, wow, two completely different takes on the subject, two completely different approaches to casting and film-making.

Both movies share some common elements:
1. A guy, a girl, a cop
2. Nicely shot pickpocket scenes (including some ideas that Bresson lifted from Fuller)

But see if you can guess which movie is which. (Ambassador Kraglach didn’t do very well when we gave him the quiz before the screening.):
1. The pickpocket works alone.
2. The pickpocket works with a team.
3. The pickpocket rarely gets caught.
4. The pickpocket often gets caught.
5. Guns, guns, guns!
6. No gunplay.
7. The pickpocket lives in an improbable shack on the waterfront.
8. Dude lives in a garret.
9. Big name actors give broad performances.
10. Unknown actors give restrained, mannequin-like performances.
11. Action, action, action!
12. The most dramtic moments–the first arrest, the death of the mother, are completely elided. We go straight from the setup to the aftermath.
13. A commie plot!
14. No commies.
15. Microfilm.
16. Watches.
17. The girl gets shot by commies.
18. The girl has a baby.
19. The pickpocket has a moral transformation–he is not all bad since he refuses to be a commie.
20. The pickpocket has a moral transformation–the girl comes back to him and he realizes that he loves her.

How did you do? Both are great movies, obviously for very different reasons. But pairing films like this ultimately makes me yearn for the Americans to stray from the formulas a bit. For example, I wish a few American directors would realize the value of working with unknowns. In the Fuller pic, when Thelma Ritter gets shot, we are watching Thelma Ritter get shot, not Mo the Stoolie. Thinking about the new trend for Americans to shoot the exact same cast over and over again, I realize that this is in part driven by a desire for the directors to put a recognizable signature on their films–“Oh, there’s that guy and that guy. This must be a PTA flic.” Yuck.

The Pickpocket came out recently in a Criterion edition with an excellent introduction by Paul Schrader. Schrader tipped me off to the relationship between the two films, and also about Pickpocket’s influence on his masterpiece, Taxi Driver.

The return of the thin white duke

The entire Thin Man series is now out in a 7-DVD box set. This is cause for great celebration, or at least several rounds of martinis. But what makes the original movie pop so, where the follow-ups threaten to fizzle? First of all, W.S. Van Dyke shot the entire thing in twelve days. Yes, one of the best movies ever made was shot in twelve days. Not for nothing was he called “one-take Woody”. You can feel the result of that briskness in the movie, there isn’t a single frame of film that doesn’t just simply advance the story. The film “watches” the way Dashiel Hammet “reads”. The last time I read one of his novels, I was struck by how bare it was, almost like reading a screenplay. Well, the movie is almost like watching a screenplay.

But wait, there’s more! And better yet, it contradicts what I seem to be saying two sentences ago. The acting is great, and perfectly suited to the unrealness of the characters. So now I’m getting into territory familiar to anyone who has ever talked about film with me. This film is all about artifice and staging. As are, I believe, all films—the good ones celebrate this fact and the bad ones fight it. All of the corny 1930s devices utilized, and there are quite a few, are there unapologetically and the actors pull them off. (Rather than smash you on the noggin with them the way Oliver Stone would. Or just exaggerate them beyond all recognition the way the Coen brothers do in Hudsucker Proxy.)

Moreover, the characters themselves are attractive in a cartoonish way. Nick Charles is an alcoholic Bugs Bunny, and Nora is a feminist Betty Boop. You can see the appeal of Nick to a 1930s audience, he’s a man of modest upbringing who has hit the big time. He’s witty, charming and sophisticated, but also down to earth and friendly with all manner of hoods he has sent up the river. And Nora is smart, independent, funny and of course beautiful and rich. As a couple, they are equals, partners and this even extends to their comedic roles—neither is the straight man. Role models of modern marriage, and what’s more, they really know how to throw a party!

A quick note to Nora Ephron, Johnny Depp, et al. The day you re-make this movie is the day I pack my bags for Mars.

They’re Back?

Crossing Delancy is the perfect example of a great not-so-great movie. I think I owe FB for that one, but it’s an important and indispensable category. And CD hails from 1988, no less, so there I go being kind to an 80s film. But, does that mean we want to dress that way again? You would think so if you paid any attention to the DKNY window at 60th & Mad lately. It’s the 80s again. Let’s hope they’re wrong!

So would the story of the star-crossed pickle salesman and Annie Hall throwback be as sentimentally effective if it were set in, say, anywhere else? No. But as I munch on a slice from my Patsy’s pie (well-deserved after a 12-hour Friday), you’ll forgive my shameless Nyphilia. I think next I’ll pop in some Woody. From the 70s.

From Cinemarred to Keano Kino

Cinemarred:

Paul Newman is a great actor–or perhaps it’s just enough to say that he is an actor. He’s got range, and it covers roles from the despicably compelling Hud to the sharply comedic like, ok, I’ll say it, Reggie Dunlap in Slap Shot. Beyond that, he’s just likable. He doesn’t have any “Bosom Buddies” skeletons in his closets. He races cars! (Whom among us does not enjoy Nascar?) So I would have been surprised to say that he had any real stinker roles. But, oh boy!

Everyone knows that I’m a great apologist for the 70s. Especially in music and film (with quick caveats, of course, for Spielberg and Lucas), if not so much in tweed jackets and platform shoes. But even in the glory days of 70s cinema***, for every Alice doesn’t live here anymore, there were ten Xanadus. (Just kidding, that was 1980.)

OK, you don’t see where I’m going, so I will spill the beans. It’s disaster movies, folks. And we’ve been doing a mini festival here at the 59th St Cinema. It started with the giant all-star cast in Airport. The unintentionally funny scenes are all the more hilarious when you realize how many of them were lifted verbatim in Airport! Just think, Dean Martin as a jumbo jet pilot! That’s funny enough in itself to carry a movie. This opening salvo in the airplane disaster onslaught is quite entertaining. By Airport ’75 (released in ’74), the humorous impact has been “somewhat dissipated.” So, we took a break and turned to the not-unintentionally not-hilarious …TOWERING INFERNO…. Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner, the Juice. What’s not to like? Well, not only is the movie beyond stupid (again, in a very not-funny way), Newman actually stinks! It’s shocking to watch, and maybe throwing the performance was his form of protest. But, wow!

Keano Kino:

1947’s Crossfire surprised me for its subject matter, anti-Semitism. The movie seemed ahead of its time; although to be honest anti-Semitism is used more as a plot device than explored in its own right. A recently discharged soldier murders a man simply because he is a Jew. A manhunt ensues. Another soldier, Robert Mitchum, and detective “Father Knows Best” Robert Young unwrap the details of the ugly hate crime. It’s an interesting treatment. The McCarthy hearings were still a few years away, but the movie seems brave. That is, until you find out that Richard Brooks’ novel, “The Brick Foxhole” was about homophobia instead.

***Here’s the 1974 Oscar list for best director:


Ingmar Bergman, Cries and Whispers
Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Tango in Paris
William Friedkin, The Exorcist
George Roy Hill, The Sting
George Lucas, American Graffiti

Maybe I was on to something.

Lawrence Tierney: old school tough guy

The second volume of the “Film Noir Classic Collection” came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s a five-DVD set featuring, one has to say, some second-tier pics, some of which are closer to crime thrillers than true noirs. For example, Lawrence Tierney’s breakout role as the lead in 1945’s Dillinger. This pic undoubtedly closer to crime drama than noir. What’s missing? Well, for me, it’s not a noir without a femme fatale.

In 1947’s “Born to Kill”, Tierney plays a psychopathic killer cast in the “hood wants to make good” tradition. Again, this pic flits between crime drama and noir, although a noirish camera style does appear from time to time. It’s really not until near the end that you realize the extent to which the Claire Trevor character is indeed a femme fatale, in her own way just as dangerous as Tierney. (The movie is based on a book titled “Deadlier than the Male.”)

It’s not a great picture. None of the characters has any real substance, but worse than that, none of them has any style either. We need someone to pop in this movie and it just doesn’t happen. Sensing this, director Robert Wise injects some comic relief in the form of deceptively bumbling detective Arnett, played nicely by Walter Slezak (Lifeboat, Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion). Slezak (himself a bit of a sleaze) delivers the straight line to the picture’s one good laugh:

Arnett at diner counter: “Et tu Brutus?”
Dame behind counter: “I ain’t talkin’ ’bout what you et–that’s on the house.” (“et” as in past participle of to eat)

By the time of Tierney’s great role of Joe Cabot in “Reservoir Dogs”, his tough-guy scowl had aged into a fine risus mortis. His voice had deepened into the velvety gravel of a classic tube amp just being pushed into power tube distortion. It’s hard to say that Cabot stood out in that film, surrounded as he was by so many other fantastic character performances. But can you imagine anyone else uttering classic lines like:

Joe: “You’re not Mr. Purple. Some guy on some other job is Mr. Purple. You’re Mr. Pink!”

It wasn’t until watching Seinfeld on DVD that I realized another of Tierney’s claims to immortality: he played Elaine’s father, Alton Bennes in one episode from season two. It’s a shame that this character made only a single appearance in the series. Fans of Hill St. Blues will also remember his final line, which closed out that series. But I prefer to remember him driving off at the end of the Seinfeld episode, singing to himself the Les Mis. tune, “Master of the house…”