Friday, May 19, 2017
(1930. dir: Robert Z. Leonard)
Robert Montgomery is one of the best actors you'll ever see on film. Why isn't remembered, then, outside the narrow boundaries of TCM? Maybe because he never made a really great movie. Every time I see him he astonishes me with his abilities. His face is so responsive an instrument that he can communicate a thought across the room without moving more than the tiniest muscle. His physical discipline is exact in that effortless manner of Cagney or Kirk Douglas. When he plays a serious role, as he later did in his own directorial projects, he has to make concentrated efforts to make himself stoical, and achieves varying levels of success. In his late noir, Ride the Pink Horse, adapted from a work by the great noir writer Dorothy B. Hughes, his portrayal of a bone-weary gunman with nothing left to guide him but vengeance is the more convincing because the mask of stoicism which comes so naturally to a Bogart or a Mitchum takes a toll on him, working toward the overall effect of an exhaustion so great it leads toward despair, even madness.
The Divorcee is one of several films he made with Norma Shearer. It has the high energy of a Fitzgerald story, a great twenties bash with all the dated rompings and laughable slang terms. Then, when it turns to tragedy, it does so with equally high energy. We begin at a country party, where Shearer agrees to marry her playboy beloved (not Montgomery, who is the groom's best friend, a charming roue). Everyone piles into automobiles and barrels back to town, but a jilted beau of Shearer's gets drunk first and drives into tragedy. This scene is wonderfully photographed, the speed and barely-withheld chaos communicated so that it still feels dangerous, more so than any cut-and-dried blow-out you'll see in a Fast and Furious movie.
Shearer is terrible in the beginning, becoming more convincing as her marriage turns serious and complicated. When her husband turns up unfaithful and claims it means nothing at all, she speeds off with Robert Montgomery to "balance the accounts" in a wonderfully rendered series of silent scenes: the two of them drinking in a club while she ponders darkly, the two of them riding in a cab in sensuous but not yet decisive embrace, then a shot of the curtains of a room being pulled shut. The rest of the movie explores how the same fellow who insists his wife disregard his infidelity as a small mistake ruins both their lives from wounded masculine pride when she retaliates. We follow her through the divorce and her lost times, finding her path again and reconciling. The thing is so well directed that even if the thing had a different title we'd know the marriage was doomed from the sepulchral look of her as she's escorted up the aisle, wrapped in veils that seem like shrouds.
Montgomery worked a ton in the thirties and forties. He was often the co-star of choice preferred by the great leading ladies of the time (Shearer, Garbo, Lombard, Crawford), and yet when he is remembered now, it is as the father of Samantha in Bewitched. The Big House, Forsaking All Others, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Mr. and Mrs. Smith: he shines in all of them, and yet I wouldn't watch any of them a second time. The only time he ever left me completely cold, in fact, was in the just-post-war They Were Expendable, and you can see my rant about that elsewhere. (Spoiler: like so many things, it's all John Ford's fault.)
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Warrior: (2011. dir: Gavin O'Connor) This is a good example of a project doomed from the start. The premise is contrived, hackneyed, gluey with sentiment, --impossible to redeem, even with the combined efforts of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, so much talent in one space it ought to have worked magic. And, indeed, O'Connor does enough right with it that it edges up from the Hackneyed Hogwash into Watchable But Disappointing. Hardy and Edgerton are brothers, long estranged, who both, coincidentally, enter a super-contest for Mixed Martial Arts fighting. There's also a telenovella turn with a drunken father, now sober, but still unforgiven. Knowing just that much, you can guess the script, the plot-turns, you can fill in all the blanks without having seen a frame and hit pretty close to home. One brother has a wife, well-played by Jennifer Morrison, the same thankless wife-role that women have been playing since Calpurnia tried to talk Caesar into staying home on the Ides of March. The age-old Hollywood version goes something like this: "Please, please, DON'T do this very brave thing to save our family. I love you too much to watch... but I WILL watch, because I love you even MORE now!" There's a monstrous Russian fighter, NEVER DEFEATED, a great, hulking primate of a man without a hint of humanity in him, who offers one of the several cliched challenges to the brothers' dream of achieving their five-million-dollar paycheck. (Not from greed! Not from sloth! One brother has been cheated by the bank and his house will be repossessed within three months, despite his hard work as a professor of high school physics; the other brother is an AWOL marine hero-- justifiably so, as his whole platoon was wiped out by friendly fire --who needs to provide for his dead best friend's helpless family. They are both so noble! The heart is torn! For whom to root?) Frank Grillo (Rumlow in the Captain America movies) gives an excellent performance as one brother's trainer. Nick Nolte is creditable as the disgraced paterfamilias, without doing anything unexpected, or being given anything unexpected to work with in the script, outside a Captain Ahab trope (again with the hackneyed).
Even with all the crap working against it, Hardy is so great, both in the "cage" and out, that you get sucked in. His brutality while fighting is weirdly exhilarating, and he has two other extraordinary moments: one when he tortures his sober father back into drinking again, the other when he finds him the next morning, drunk and despairing, and puts him to bed, cuddling him in an understated, childlike manner.
The movie's great downfall is that Edgerton, the physics teacher, wins match after match against insurmountable odds, but the fights are not sufficiently well-photographed to convince us that he really does deserve to win. Why does the Russian tap out, since he has NEVER BEFORE BEEN DEFEATED? I can't answer that. I'm not convinced they actually showed us why, or that the character, as presented, would have done so. He does it because the plot demands it. We all know he's going to do it, because the brothers must face off against one another, so the Russian fight is a sham, ergo completely uninteresting. Even the end-fight between the brothers is uninteresting, badly shot and edited, and it, also, feels contrived. What we're waiting for is that sentimental-hogwash embrace after the fight, when they're stumbling down the hallway with their arms around each other. That's the money-shot this movie wants us to cheer, but they cheat too much in the build-up, and so miss the target.
Oliver Twist: (2007. dir: Coky Giedroyc) We all know Oliver Twist, know him from earliest childhood. "Please, sir, I want some more." Even if you don't read the novel, you watch countless film and television versions. It's considered fare for children; they make cartoons out of it. At a young age I knew its message: that if you are good, and polite, and stand by your principles, if you have a good heart, then you will be rescued from the iniquities of life and be rewarded with wealth, comfort, and ease in the bosom of a loving family. I knew this message subconsciously before I could put it into words. How is it, then, that it's taken half a normal lifetime for me to realize that the thing is actually a hideous, classist snob-fest, the REAL message being that if you are born with blue blood in your veins, your true quality will out even if you are surrounded all your life by criminals and yobs. Symmetrically, if you have a good heart and good intentions but the wrong parentage, you are doomed to whore and thieve and betray your friends from a cowardice inherent in your character, eventually dying bloody at the hands of your abusive boyfriend. Dickens, it turns out, was kind of a dick. Do I dare revisit my childhood favorite, A Tale of Two Cities? Was that transmitting some hideous message into my unsuspecting child's brain, as well?
The dickishness of Dickens aside, Tom Hardy is the best Bill Sikes ever, absolutely understanding the cowardice involved in the psychological make-up of the bully, and the rest of the cast (Adam Arnold as the Dodger, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Monks, Sophie Okonedo as Nancy) is well-chosen. The pace is never allowed to slow in the clutches of its authors sidetracks into moral lessons, and, in spite of its political awfulness, there's a reason this story has been retold continually for centuries. You never quite know where it's going next, and the characters still have the power to move one. You even swallow the most ridiculous coincidence: the one guy Oliver gets falsely nabbed for robbing, he turns out to be his long-lost granddad? Seriously? Except that it's NOT a coincidence, because IF you are blessed with the bluish in the veins, then GOD IS ON YOUR SIDE, and no mistake.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
(1976. dir: Larry Peerce) About the time that Star Wars and Jaws were about to change the face of Hollywood, two variant strands of popular cinema were fading away: the blockbuster, cast-of-a-thousand-stars, disaster film (the Towering Inferno, Earthquake, the Poseidon Adventure), and those brilliant, American Paranoia films which began darkening the landscape as the sixties turned into the seventies (the Conversation, the Parallax View, culminating in All the President's Men). Two-Minute Warning, which seems to have taken its inspiration from Peter Bogdanovich's low-budget Target, is a clumsy attempt at the first, but finds its few bleak moments of epiphany when rising into the second.
It's Superbowl Sunday. We meet various folks, many of whom will be dead before the movie ends, follow their various paths to the Coliseum: a pair of pickpockets, a middle-class family whose paterfamilias has just lost his job, a pair of lovers, a schlub whose life depends on L.A. winning the game, a priest. We also watch, from the killer's point of view so we never see who he is, a random bicycle-rider shot dead from distance, through a hotel room window, using a sniper's rifle. We watch him, as well, pack his weaponry into a coat and smuggle it into the stadium.
As he stations himself above the crowd and the cops become of aware of him, we find ourselves trying to guess at his motives and his targets. It's all standard fare until the head cop (Charlton Heston, naturally) tells the the SWAT team honcho (John Cassavetes) that he's ordered all the politicos (mayor, governor, president) smuggled quietly out of the crowd. Cassavetes asks why, to which the stolid Heston responds, "To get rid of potential targets," and Cassavetes, in his best, flat-practical, cynical voice, says, "Everyone's a target."
It's interesting. It marks the dawn of a new era. Heston never gives up trying to make sense of the slaughter, finally shaking the dying shooter, demanding reasons, but all he gets is, "Don't hurt me. Don't hurt me." Cassavetes is right. In the end, we don't get our answers. Was he there to shoot the President, or the first black quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl, or someone against whom he had a grudge we don't know about, opening fire on the crowd when his plans were stymied? We never know. Cassavetes' nihilistic end-speech, which I wish to God I'd written down, is a baleful portent of our ongoing state of emergency today: there is no reason, there is no logic, and, by extension, no real hope.
Friday, December 30, 2016
(2016. dir: Ti West) If the directors from the Nouvelle Vague were the first generation of self-reflexive filmmakers, that is, to make films inspired by a lifetime of cinephilia, at least they used their own lives and experiences as grist for their mills. The American generation who are the grand old men now, --Spielberg, Lucas, --were the first to make movies entirely based on other movies, as if they grew up imprisoned within the confines of movie-houses and it is here, in this generation, in which life and movies become blurred. As years pass, the two become the same thing. The most obvious example today is Tarantino, who gives the sense that his personal memories are all earmarked by films: he'll remember being seven years old not because of where he sat in grade school or the pinata at his birthday party, but because that was the year he stayed up late and snuck into the living room to watch "Naked and the Dead" on his parents' black and white TV set. (I made that up, but it might as well be true, right?)
My point is this: I try to like Ti West. I do. I've given him every opportunity to win me. House of the Devil was cute, OK, it was zingy, but it was a nostalgia trip, with ultimately very little life of its own. Although I liked the Innkeepers and didn't dislike the Sacrament, I don't recall much about them, either. I think "very little life of its own" might so far be a key phrase in summing up West's work to date. And, like House of the Devil, West is back to movie tributes: this time, to the Spaghetti Western. I am not at all opposed to those: Sam Raimi's the Quick and the Dead sits on my shelf as a wonderfully flawed, recurring pleasure. West's Valley, on the other hand, has some inspired moments, but they are connected by long passages of filler, some of it so damn cute you want to puke, much of it anachronistically modern, most of it very badly written indeed.
Ethan Hawke (who is absolutely the best of the two or three things that were good about the Magnificent Seven remake) is the cheroot-smoking, stoical Man With No Name, although, disappointingly, his name this time is Paul. He travels with two girl-companions: his horse, Lady, and his dog, Abby, with whom he carries on an endless, one-sided conversation, only becoming stoical in the presence of humans. See what I mean? It's a cute idea, but it doesn't carry well. When we first meet them, they are, by Paul's description, starving and water-deprived and dirty, although he looks suspiciously healthy and clean, always the first warning sign that you're watching a faux-Spaghetti instead of the real McCoy. He is hailed by a man in trouble, a drunken criminal of a preacher, horribly written but gamely played by Burn Gorman. This is the Eli Wallach character. There's your second warning sign.
*SPOILER ALERT:* Once Paul's showed us his alpha-male cred by effortlessly stripping the treacherous preacher of his bullets and his water, he leads his girls into a town built on malevolence and cowardice. A recalcitrant hero, he's the fellow to set it straight on its true path. Call him John Wick of the West: today's movie-men are less likely to be motivated by love of humans than by vengeance for their pets. In fact, Abby the Dog is well established many times over as the love of Paul's life. The bad guy calls her his "wife", and the girl who will be his love-interest, when she first meets Abby, says, "We look exactly alike!" (The love interest is, by the way, sixteen years old, to Hawkes', what, fifty? The logic seems to be that since she's not a virgin, since she's already been debauched as a child, it's OK to "Woody Allen" her. Join me, please, in puking.) From them on, you know Abby is a goner; she has to die so Paul can move on to a human relationship (with a sixteen-year-old girl! Ewwwwwwww).
The other thing about Abby is that she's the dog from the Artist. Not literally, I mean; that dog was French, but she may as well be. She performs all manner of stupid dog-tricks, from rolling herself up in a blanket on command to covering her eyes with her paw to indicate a hackneyed emotional response to Paul's words. The only decent joke in the movie is that every time someone asks if Abby does tricks, Paul intones deadpan, "She bites." And she does, she's a killer guard dog (except, naturally, when it really matters), but she saves her adorableness solely for the eyes of her true mate.
The obligatory scenes are here, but often elided. In a true Spaghetti Western, the hero always gets the crap beaten out of him by the villains; it's from his pain and humiliation that he rouses up his own internal "murdering ministers", the dark rage which fuels the second half of the picture, the vengeance part. In this (*SPOILER ALERT AGAIN*), they take him by surprise (he's taken with ridiculous ease; if he was watching, Clint Eastwood would flip the TV off in that moment) and throw him off a rocky ledge, never checking that he's dead. I want you to read that again. They don't put a bullet in him, or a knife's blade, both of which are close to hand. They don't hang him from a tree, or even beat him up much. They just push him over a rock at night then head home for a pint. If he hadn't turned off the TV before, Clint Eastwood is definitely flipped over to the Weather Channel at this point, because when Paul rises in the morning from his rocky, rattlesnakey bed, he's FINE. Barely a scrape on him, but mad as hell.
I have to take my hat off to West's obligatory flashback scene, achieved with the greatest economy using a couple of flashlights to illuminate glimpses of a night-time Indian massacre. West went out of his way to avoid wasting our time with inessentials here, then threw us to the dogs in that respect for most of the rest of the movie. There's a bright spot, sure, in Toby Huss as one of the townsmen; that actor continues to be a downright inspiring presence even in the smallest roles (watch the Invitation. For God's sake, man, watch it!). John Travolta has the Kurt Russell/Sam Shepard role here, the one-legged town marshal, one of the few characters that is written in shades of grey. He does well initially, then stumbles as the plot grows shriller and the script drowns in sad little puddles of its own mediocrity. And the guy who plays the town bully, --I'm not even going to dignify him by looking up his name,-- he takes a scriptful of badly-written lines and masticates then over-masticates until you're done with him, absolutely done, by the end of his first damn scene. When will they learn that even in a Western, every villain should have one good, redemptive quality, as every hero should have a convincing darkness?
Believe it or not, it's possible that this movie passes the Bechdel test. It's got two women in it, young sisters running an inn. They're both named and they speak to one another; I'd have to watch it a second time to make sure they speak of something besides men. Still, even if they do, the way they interrelate is cartoonish, slapsticky, kind of awful. These days in Westerns, women are often given a "you go, sister" nod in what you might call the Grace Kelly Moment, when the noblest of the downtrodden females gets to step up with an uncharacteristic shotgun and deliver the coup de grace when it looks like The Chief Scurvy Varmint might have our hero on the ropes. (He doesn't, really, ever. There's always kind of a winking assurance that the filmmaker is just letting the ladies have some fun here, letting them feel important, when really Ethan or Denzel or whomever would play through his bloody wounds and kill the fellow just fine on his own, thank you.) This has one of those. It's not satisfying. And when the 16-year-old girl embraces the older man (who has abandoned a beloved wife and daughter of the girl's same age), although it never becomes overtly sexual, West is still winking at us, letting us walk out of the cinema with no doubt that Paul will come to his senses, overcome his nagging scruples, and bed the girl. Because he is the red-blooded alpha-male, and, apparently, that gives him the right to Woody-Allen to his heart's content without our negative judgment.
ADDENDUM ON ANTOINE FUQUA'S THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN REMAKE: It's not interesting enough to warrant its own review. It feels like it was assembled by committee: the whole is not good, and most of the parts are just serviceable. Granted, it was a tough assignment, since it was already done, not just right, but just about perfectly, TWICE, once in America, before that in Japan. So these guys did the right thing in making changes, but, alas, the wrong ones. In the Sturges film, each of the Magnificents has a definite character, you can describe each one not just by the actor who played him, but the vanities, fears, and aspirations which drive them. In this one, you've got the Comanche, the Mexican Bandido, the Mountain Man, the Asian. They're types or ethnic symbols, and nobody bothers to write them actual characters. Even Denzel-As-Yul-Brynner and Chris-Pratt-As-Steve-McQueen are not written well enough to register.
Only one character, Ethan Hawkes', inspired somebody to write well. He's the Cajun called Goodnight Robicheaux, an amalgam of Lee (Robert Vaughn) and Harry (Brad Dexter) from the earlier film, and he not only has been given some wonderful lines (when his cowardice kicks in, he tells his friend that he dreamt the owl called his name), but Hawke communicates his conflict beautifully and often wordlessly.
The other good part is Vincent D'Onofrio as the mountain man: his voice squeaks and his gestures are twitchy and awkward, a thoroughly convincing portrayal of someone who's spent very little of life in human company. Again, nobody bothered to write a decent role for him, so he has nothing of interest to do with his hard work, but you've got to give him credit for holding up his end.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
(1971. dir: John D. Hancock) The turning of the sixties into the seventies gave us a fascinating moment in horror cinema: Woman v. The World. Highlighted by Rosemary's Baby and the Stepford Wives, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is another in a series in which an ordinary woman finds her everyday world transformed in eerie, almost imperceptible increments, until it seems like a malevolent conspiracy and she cannot tell whom she can trust. In fact, in these films, she can trust no one. Even those who sincerely want to help her are powerless to do it, and the husband who seems at first benign and well-meaning always fails her colossally before the end. The question at the heart of the mounting tension is always this: am I crazy, or is the world conspiring against me?
Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a significant entry in the category for a few reasons. First, maternity is never mentioned. Even in the Stepford Wives, mostly concerned with connubial matters, there is a sense that our heroine might escape but is held back by thought of her children. A movie like this one about a couple trying to piece their marriage back together after a crisis in which children or the prospect of parenthood never comes up is a treasurable oddity. The other lovely factor is Zohra Lampert in the lead. Her performance, which we view largely in close-up, is mesmerizing. The director wants us inside her head, keeps us there throughout, where we hear audible voices, voices which only she and we hear, and which may or may not be her hallucinations.
And,in fact, we are left in the end with an uncertainty. Those other two classic movies leave us in no doubt as to the breadth of the evil mesh closing around our heroine, but this one is different. From the title, we go in with the assumption that we know something: someone is trying to drive the woman back into the madhouse. By the closing credits, we're not so sure. Which things we've seen are real, and which are hallucinations? Is there a conspiracy? The scars on all the locals are an eerie touch. Why are they all bandaged and wounded? ARE there vampires?
You could call it a lost classic, rounding out a trilogy with those other, unforgettable two. It was a movement rising directly up out of the feminist uprising, giving expression to the new uncertainty and angst in the feminine subconscious as we relinquished our "safer" roles and moved out into the places of greater potential power in the world. It may, in fact, be time for a new wave of such films, as American women woke on November 9th to find our country had banded together overnight to declare us second-class citizens, not only unworthy to make our own reproductive decisions, but unworthy even of basic human respect, as amply demonstrated by our sociopath-elect and his contempt for our gender. Our government, for the next four years, will be defining "human" as white, heterosexual males with, preferably, at least one million dollars in the bank and a cupboard full of guns. Because horror is always the bellwether, the genre in which the black bile and dread spew first from the collective underconscious, this might be a useful path. Although we often see women as the brutalized protagonists in modern horror, we tend today towards the physically tough, ridiculously resilient and resourceful grlz, leaving those of us who are normal women, with no super-strengths and no instinct for fighting or gun-play, without proper mirrors.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
A Christmas Horror Story: (2015. dir: Steve Hoban, Grant Harvey, Brett Sullivan) Revisiting the classic "anthology" format, here's a foursome of holiday chillers bound together by a shared locale and a drunken DJ playing a Christmas music marathon as all hell breaks loose outside. William Shatner is wonderfully droll as the the DJ, and the performance values are high all around. There's a troll changeling, wickedly funny zombie-elves, the ghost of a mistreated convent girl, and it all culminates in a showdown between Santa Claus and Krampus. Or does it?
Krampus: (2015. dir: Michael Dougherty) Viewing this before and after the election are two very different experiences. When it came out, Krampus was a well-executed, twisted moral-fable fashioned from the darkest humor and exaggerated versions of every American's modern experience of the holiday. Mobs draw blood and show no mercy for the privilege of paying too much for products which will be stuffed into a closet and forgotten the day after Christmas. People you dislike crowd into your home and criticize your way of living, and you let them do it, because they're "family". The cynical and ruthless bully those dreamers who have not given up hope, and once the bullies have won, once we have all given into ennui and despair, that's the invitation to Krampus, and Santa Claus stays home that year. Toys turn into monsters: teddy bears grow jagged teeth, tree-top angels morph into translucent harpies, gingerbread men lure children onto hooks and into chains, and you don't even want to know about the jack-in-the-box.
Now, post-election, this movie leaves a newfound chill, a hideous reminder of how hellishly low we have sunk. It is, believe me, exactly the Christmas movie deserved by a people so fucked up and cynical they'll elect the embodiment of self-serving, capitalist pig-dog evil into the highest seat of power.
Keep the fire burning hot in the hearth, kids. Krampus is coming.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
(2013. dir: Renny Harlin) Sucker that I am for horror films inspired by True Fortean Incidents, the most interesting aspect of a Fortean Incident is its inexplicable nature, and movies, perhaps necessarily, strip away that layer, rarely providing anything more interesting in its place.
This one rises from the mass death in the Dyatlov Pass in 1959. It starts out as the Blair Witch Project, almost weirdly so, becomes a video game later on when the characters are exploring the underground bunker, and ends with a cheap trick. Along the way, it references the Philadelphia Experiment and the Mothman Prophecies, but doesn't shed any particular new light on the mysterious story of the dead hikers (except for one moment when they realize the "strange orange lights" that were reported in the sky the night of the calamity may have been flares sent up in desperation).
This is a "found footage" movie which cheats, just a little, just at the end. A group of American hipsters are retracing the dead Soviets' steps (although when the main girl claims to be a student at U of O but says it's in YOO-jeen AW-rygun, you know for a fact she's never been anywhere near the place), and the acting is, at any rate, better than the script. I tend to enjoy some things about Harlin's work. The best thing about this one is the easy rapport amongst the hipsters before the hellishness breaks loose, but that's a mighty weak peg to hang a thumbs-up on.