9.30.2007

The Brave One




Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard in The Brave One (dir. Neil Jordan, 2007).

This old-school revenge flick contains considerable stretches of gratifying sensationalism, but Neil Jordan always has to stink it up with bits of lazy impressionism that don't tell you anything you couldn't figure out for yourself about the inner lives of the characters. Particularly appalling is the sequence in which footage of the paramedics cutting clothes from the bodies of the badly injured hero and her murdered fiancee is intercut with soft-focus scenes of past lovemaking. Another unforgiveable vice: using Enya on the soundtrack. Actually, it's probably not Enya. It's probably one of those five thousand singers you hear only on film soundtracks that sound just like Enya. So it might as well be Enya, and I'll save myself the trouble of looking it up and just say it's Enya.

Foster is convincing, and Mary Steenburgen would be entertaining if she were just leaning against a wall and mumbling. Come to think of it, that's essentially what she does in this movie, and in most of the movies I can remember seeing her in for the past twenty years. The best moments are the scenes of smartass graveyard talk between Detectives Mercer and Vitale (Terrence Howard and Nicky Katt) at crime scenes.

9.29.2007

Brute Force




Jack Overman, John Hoyt, Whit Bissell, Jeff Corey, and Burt Lancaster in Brute Force (dir. Jules Dassin, 1947).



Hume Cronyn wields his ... authority.



Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!

As shot by cinematographer William Daniels (Queen Christina, The Shop Around the Corner, Winchester 73), the prison settings in Brute Force are some of the most oppressively gritty-looking surfaces ever committed to film. Even in Captain Munsey's office, with its arrogantly fascistic display of "high culture," you can almost smell stale sweat. Hume Cronyn's Munsey embodies a macho aesthetic that stands both in contrast and in parallel to Burt Lancaster's Joe Collins: both are figured by their muscles, Collins metaphorically and synecdochically (he's all muscle) and Munsey ironically and metonymically (his muscles are invisible when he's in uniform, but when revealed they are an index of his totalitarian abuse of power).

Dassin never judges his inmates for the crimes they have committed, even the ones they commit against other inmates. The fierce system of justice they apply is neither better nor worse than the one that put them behind bars: it is simply one more register of the film's noir determinism. The violence throughout is horrifying, especially when convicts use blowtorches to back a rat (the human kind) into a huge letterpress, and when another rat is strapped to a moving switching car and shot point blank.

John Hoyt's Spencer has my favorite line: "I wonder who Flossie is fleecing now."

9.28.2007

The Ice Harvest




John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton in The Ice Harvest (dir. Harold Ramis, 2005).

It might be a stretch to call this underrated, but it is at least a mildly entertaining black comedy, marred mainly by its somewhat prosaic visual style and an over-reliance on HBO-style sleaze. I liked that it was a noir set in Wichita, but was disappointed to learn that it was actually shot in the suburbs of Chicago. If you watch it, I recommend that you stop the movie immediately at the point where Charlie sees that Sidney's mobile home has run out of gas and go straight to Alternate Ending 1 on the DVD extras. Plus the Billy Bob Thornton outtake is pretty funny.

9.26.2007

3:10 to Yuma (2 Versions)




Felicia Farr and Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma (dir. Delmer Daves, 1957).



Glenn Ford.



Leora Dana.



Peter Fonda in 3:10 to Yuma (dir. James Mangold, 2007).

Like Robert Siodmak's and Don Siegel's treatments of The Killers, the film versions of 3:10 to Yuma are based on a short story--in this case, a 1953 story by Elmore Leonard. And also like the Hemingway-inspired films, the new version of Yuma is based more on the first film than on the original story. Thus, for example, the outlaw's name in Mangold's film is Ben Wade, just as it is in Daves' film, rather than Jim Kidd as it is in Leonard's story. The new material in Mangold's version (e.g., the addition of characters like the Pinkerton agent Byron McElroy) is entirely the invention of the new screenwriters. Though Leonard has been (mildly) critical of both versions for adding unnecessary baggage to his lean, taut narrative, the fact is that both movies are terrific, and although I wouldn't say the 2007 film is better than the 1957 one, the innovations in the new film are for the most part highly effective plot expansions. I would also go so far as to say that Mangold's version is the best Hollywood western since at least Unforgiven, though it hasn't had an awful lot of competition.

What does the original film have that the new one doesn't? Chiefly, Glenn Ford as Ben Wade. Russell Crowe is pretty good, but ... Glenn Ford, yo. (Van Heflin vs. Christian Bale: eh, it's a tie.)

9.25.2007

The Host




Kang-ho Song in The Host (dir. Joon-ho Bong, 2006).

Giant mutant tadpole terrorizes Seoul, family pulls together to attempt to rescue young girl from its clutches. Korean government screws up quarantine efforts, American government stomps in and makes everything worse. I think the combination of humor and horror--or more specifically, of wacky upbeatness and sobering downbeatness--that many viewers find hard to process must have to do with a particular filmic grammar (Korean, possibly Japanese as well?) that is sufficiently like Western grammar (since it borrows extensively from it) to seem familiar, but deviates from it just enough to be disorienting. Anyway, it's sort of hard for me to say whether I "liked" it or not. It made me realize that past a certain point, I'm still a conventional enough viewer to depend on the discreteness of different genres.

9.24.2007

Superbad




Bill Hader and Seth Rogen in Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola, 2007).

Whereas the American Pie films are gleefully cynical about the condition of contemporary oversexualization they both satirize and promote, Apatow-based productions like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad offer as their signature a trademark "sweetness": a sweetness that is constantly poised against an unremitting raunchiness in relation to which it serves as both antidote and justification. This sweetness was the most attractive feature of Apatow's celebrated Freaks and Geeks TV series, and it maintained its charm in Virgin. By Knocked Up, it was beginning to wear thin, partly because it had reached the full realization of its own formula: one part sentimentality to one part prurience. The same formulaic trap threatens Greg Mottola's Superbad, though there is enough collective wit to ameliorate the problem most of the time. The basis of most of the film's humor is the implied thesis that genital sexuality has achieved such a point of cultural saturation, through internet pornography and other media, that it effectively becomes its own deconstructive counterforce, rendering itself absurd, and as such its corrosive aspects can be easily dispatched with a little old-fashioned ethical autonomy. When it is not approached as reductively as I've just framed it, this thesis results in some inspired bits of lunacy, like the Seth (Jonah Hill) character's childhood obsession with drawing anthropomorphic dicks (is there any other kind?). At other times, however, we're left with the trite triumphalism of exemplary male chivalry.

The other troublesome theme in the movie is the role of a corrupt establishment (in the form of the burn-out police officers played by Bill Hader and screenwriter Seth Rogen) as permission-giving granter of mature (again, masculine) potency. As much as their phallocentric excess is signaled parodically ("the long dick of the law," etc.), it ultimately legitimizes itself as a benevolently paternal organ (so to speak) of social initiation for young "McLovin" (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose arrival at manhood does not coincide with the loss of his virginity, which comes as an anticlimax (forgive me, I can't stop myself), but with the firing of a police revolver at the moment of authority's apotheotic self-immolation. The messages this sends out are densely interwoven, but are nevertheless, I suspect, quite uncomplicatedly self-contradictory at base.

9.23.2007

The Pawnbroker




Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1965).



Charles Dierkop playing harmonica and pointing his gun at musclemen.

Some of the acting has that overdone 1960s playhousey vibe that is meant constantly to remind you that you're watching a film with a serious social message, but Rod Steiger succumbs to it himself only twice or thrice--for the most part, he seethes with a restrained anguish that is as real as any performance in the movies. Quincy Jones' score is a bit loud and frenetic at times (it's the source of the Austin Powers theme music!), but it goes nicely with Boris Kaufman's jittery urban camerawork. Kaufman's feel for architectural framing is superb. I have to say that the bleakness of the film left me irritated--not because it was bleak per se, but because I generally prefer my bleakness either unredemptive or pious, not both.

9.22.2007

The Diabolical Doctor Z




The dance of "Miss Death": Estella Blain seduces a mannequin in The Diabolical Doctor Z [Miss Muerte] (dir Jess Franco, 1965).



Guy Mairesse and Ana Castor.



Mabel Karr.

I haven't seen Franco's later, more narratologically deconstructed work yet, but this tight little Eurotrash homage to classic Universal horror as filtered through the French New Wave certainly piques my interest. Estella Blain's "Miss Death," with her curare-dipped nails, is a gorgeous unwilling executioner--a sort of precursor to the lurid La Femme Nikita conceit of the sex-object-drafted-as-assassin. Witty historical cinematic allusions abound, from Feuillade and Whale to Bresson and Franju. The shrill jazz score by Daniel White (who also plays a police inspector) is perfectly matched to the film's shuddering expressionist visuals.

9.20.2007

Angel Face




Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum in Angel Face (dir. Otto Preminger, 1952).



"You can be so nice sometimes": Jean Simmons and Barbara O'Neil.



But not this time: Jean Simmons.

Otto Preminger shot Angel Face in eighteen days on a shoestring budget at Howard Hughes' behest, aided by cameraman Harry Stradling, writer Frank Nugent (best known for scripting John Ford westerns like Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers), and composer Dmitri Tiomkin. Typically for Hughes' productions, it was fraught with tensions and antipathies. Star Jean Simmons (Ophelia in Olivier's Hamlet) did the film to satisfy a long, bitter contract entanglement with Hughes, and found herself terrorized for whatever reason by Preminger. Mitchum gallantly smacked Preminger in the face, Preminger tried to have him fired to no avail, Simmons cut her hair off and had to do the whole film in a wig, etc. etc. Preminger enlisted several writers in the task of salvaging the lame story supplied by Chester Erskine before entrusting the final repair work to Nugent (Ben Hecht was involved somewhere along the line). Out of all this comes a not-so-minor noir triumph. On the surface, it's a tired retread of a James Cain type of story about lovers enmeshed in murder, but several elements combine to lend it special distinction. Tiompkin's moody piano score is one. Preminger's and Stradling's achievement of visual sweep and scale by economical means is another. Mitchum's bored stare, par for the course in his Hughes pictures, here works nicely to play up the way in which he is defenselessly caught up in Simmons' psychosis, most of the time thinking he is in complete control. Most of all, however, Simmons radiates an intense, fatalistic gloominess, and invests her femme fatale character with an oversized sense of morality that is all the more poignant for being an inadequate and temporary development.

See also Paul M.'s post at Noir of the Week.

9.19.2007

Hangmen Also Die




Hangmen Also Die (dir. Fritz Lang, 1943).



Alexander Granach and Anna Lee.



Nana Bryant and Alexander Granach's shadow.

Although screenwriting credit went to translator and script-tweaker John Wexley, who insisted on it, Fritz Lang and Bertholt Brecht (credited as "Bert Brecht") co-wrote the story, and that alone should send you scrambling frantically to watch this heavily dramatized account of the "Czech Bloodbath" that ensued after the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich--the "Hangman" of the title. For wartime propaganda, it's remarkably nuanced in its treatment of sacrifice: not merely the potential sacrifice of one's own life in the service of the anti-fascist cause, but of the lives of citizens taken hostage and methodically executed in the wake of underground operations. Lang and Brecht are undoubtedly both responsible for this nuancing in different ways, and to different effect, but the combination of their labors here feels unified. The Nazi characters are of course cartoonish grotesques: Heydrich, in his brief appearance, is portrayed as a foppish, enervated twit. But they're imagined with a great deal of wit, and Alexander Granach in particular, as Gestapo Inspector Alois Gruber, is both terrifying and clever. He cavorts in his role with a loathsome charisma, and it's nerve-wracking watching him figure things out: one can almost imagine him as a popular detective of Third Reich serials.

9.18.2007

Good Night, and Good Luck.




Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson in Good Night, and Good Luck. (dir. George Clooney, 2005).

Apparently Edward R. Murrow and the CBS news team were constantly attended by Dianne Reeves and a tight little jazz combo, both in the studio and at the bar where they went for cocktails after work. I did not know that. It makes atmospheric sense, though, and Clooney's directorial touch is pleasantly light, like the tinkling of piano keys in an NPR musical segue. In other words, a little too pleasant and a little too light, but there's no denying the chemistry of the dramatic ensemble: David Strathairn as Murrow, Clooney himself as Fred Friendly, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, and the quietly expressive Ray Wise (star of 2003's creepy Twilight-Zone-ish thriller Dead End) as Don Hollenbeck.

9.17.2007

T-Men




Dennis O'Keefe in T-Men (dir. Anthony Mann, 1947).



Steaming the Schemer: Wallace Ford and Charles McGraw.



William Malten (an uncredited bit player in his only screen role) fills in the space between dissolves.

Persistent newsreel-like voiceover makes this grimy procedural somehow even more affecting for me, though many viewers might wish it would go away. There's a poignancy to its crackly authoritarian earnestness, as though at any moment the narrator will realize what a tool he is, and that everyone else already knows. I wish there were still movies that used this device. Can you imagine a film about Homeland Security, for example, in which a benevolent invisible spokesman constantly interrupts to tell us how heroic our government's efforts to protect us are? Can you imagine the filmmaking chops it would take to work around this constraint without recourse to overt irony? It would take, for one thing, a cinematographer as bold and sensitive as John Alton. The play of light across Dennis O'Keefe's face when he watches his partner get shot is an entire set piece in itself, and then there are the steam room scenes, in which Alton's camera becomes creepily intimate with the sweating, half-naked lowlifes therein. Charles McGraw's smoothly chiseled physique crowding in on Wallace Ford's flabby middle-aged flesh before he does him horribly in is an expression of something both conscious and unconscious: a statement about animal power in the absence of moral law, and a nervous disclosure of the homoerotic anxieties running through Mann's cinema and the he-man action genre generally.

Dennis O'Keefe: "Did you ever spend ten nights in a Turkish bath looking for a man? Don't."

9.16.2007

Inland Empire




Grace Zabriskie in Inland Empire (dir. David Lynch, 2006).

Inland Empire is as much an installation piece as a narrative film--a sense heightened by Lynch's (allegedly permanent) switch from celluloid to digital video. Think a murky marriage of a subdued Cindy Sherman and a more expressive Bill Viola. It is still a narrative film as well, however, however blanched-out and discandied that narrative may be. To be precise, it's both a narrative film in the usual sense and in the sense that it's "concerned with," if not obsessively "about," narrative and its discontents. A hyper-naturalistic monologue by Laura Dern could be seen as the closest thing the film has to a center, though Dern plays more than one self, and the self that performs the monologue is not the first one we meet. Also, more than one actor seems to occupy the same structural position inhabited by Dern's personae (a trick Lynch fans should be fairly used to by now). It's presented as a mystery, but it's a mystery that the viewer can only "solve" through recourse to absurd supernatural anti-logics. It's never reducible to "whodunnit," or even "what happened." Events must be treated as coded symbols, persons must be read as interchangeable signs--and about halfway through the film, the story as such dwindles to a vanishing, played-out speck under the mass of this cryptographic disemplotment. The story is essentially supplied in its entirety after about an hour and a half, and what emerges in its place is crushing barrage of sound and color--or the absence of color and light altogether, save for dim flares and sudden flashes. At the outer limits of whatever investment in representational continuity and coherence Lynch maintains, through the dark hole of a television tube, a family of stylized rabbit-people assume near-static posts in a square proscenium, their minimalist dialogue occasionally punctuated by incongruous bursts of canned laughter emanating from the occluded space of ... where we ourselves sit. Of all the uncanny suggestions in the film--and there are many--this may be the most unsettling: that the purest source of the terror that fuels Lynch's imagination is the inaccessibility to us (the deictic us defined by the configuration of the screen/viewer relationship) of our own responsive motivations and sympathies.

9.15.2007

The Killers (3 Versions)




Charles McGraw and William Conrad in The Killers (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1946).



Virginia Christine, Burt Lancaster, and Ava Gardner.



Burt Lancaster and Vince Barnett.

Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story "The Killers" is structured around three intrusions upon the young Nick Adams' moral innocence. Each intrusion comes in the form of a display by others of emotional detachment from matters of life and death. First there are the two killers, who saunter casually into a lunch room and announce their intentions of killing a "Swede" as nonchalantly as though they were planning a fishing trip. They take cold pleasure in bullying and berating Nick, George the counterman, and Sam the "nigger cook," tying Nick and Sam up and stashing them in the kitchen. When they decide the Swede isn't showing up, they leave without further incident. Next there is Ole Anderson, the Swede himself. When Nick shows up at his hotel room to warn him, Ole declines all offers of help and shows little inclination to protect himself. He appears to have determined that his fate is sealed and there is nothing to be done about it. Finally, when Nick tells George about Ole's response and says that he "can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it," George delivers the last line of the story: "You better not think about it." The killers have no compunctions about taking a life, Ole is seemingly apathetic about his own impending death, and George not only manages not to think about it when others kill and are killed but consciously articulates and recommends such a stance. The story's force lies in the brutal terseness, with which it presents these positions to Nick, offering neither commentary nor resolution, making him (and not so much the Swede) the protagonist.

How does this provide the basis for a full-length feature film? Robert Siodmak's 1946 version starts with a faithful adaptation of Hemingway's text, leaving out only the final scene between Nick and George. From there on, an entirely new story is appended, a series of flashbacks that gradually disclose the details of Anderson (Burt Lancaster)'s past: an ill-conceived romance, a payroll heist, and an elaborate triple-cross. (The plot is very much like the plot of Criss Cross, which Siodmak would direct three years later, again with Lancaster in the lead role.) Nick drops out of the film after the opening sequence, and as secondary protagonist--after the Swede--we get an insurance investigator played by Edmund O'Brien, who is just not quite great enough to make his part interesting, though he gives it a heroic try. Still, thanks to Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Albert Dekker, and character actors like Vince Barnett, Jack Lambert, and Jeff Corey, it's a very entertaining production. The only problem, as has been observed probably thousands of times, is that the first ten minutes are so incredibly good that anything afterwards has to be a little bit of a letdown. If Charles McGraw and William Conrad had never done anything in the movies besides their portrayals of the killers, well ... we'd be missing an awful lot of fantastic performances from a lot of classic films. But you know what I'm saying.



Ubiytsy [The Killers] (dir. Marika Beiku, Aleksandr Gordon, and Andrei Tarkovsky, 1958).

Tarkovsky's 19-minute 1958 student film adaptation (actually, he collaborated on it with two other students, but all of it except the scene where Nick warns Anderson about the killers is chiefly under his direction) is entirely faithful to Hemingway, but it also shows the influence of Siodmak's version and of American noir generally. It's fun to think that one can see intimations of Tarkovsky's mature style in the protracted pauses and oblique angles that show up here and there, as when a knife falls to the floor in the kitchen about a foot from Nick's face, or when the camera foregrounds a fallen can as George's feet walk away through the door, trailing exaggerated shadows. Tarkovsky plays a patron who orders a liver sandwich and whistles "Lullabye of Broadway" while he waits.



Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes in The Killers (dir. Don Siegel, 1964).



Norman Fell and Ronald Reagan.



Lee Marvin (sweating straight vodka).

And then there's Don Siegel's 1964 interpretation, which was meant to be the first full-length made-for-TV movie, but was finally deemed too violent and released theatrically, with great financial success. I must have said "wow" to myself aloud about twelve times while watching this--not because it's all great (though a lot of it is), but often just because I couldn't believe what I was looking at. For example, Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes racing go-carts against rear-projection. Or Ronald Reagan in the bleachers at a drag race, looking through binoculars, sitting next to Norman Fell. Or just Lee Marvin's crazy-ass face. Clu Gulagher is pretty damn good as the other killer, too, but Marvin is some kind of two-legged king cobra. (He showed up for his final, climactic scene several hours late, guzzling straight vodka out of a 7-Up bottle. And they shot it anyway! And it is so, so great.) Siegel's big innovations are 1) to pare away all the Hemingway material leaving only the raw story idea, 2) to adopt plot elements from Siodmak's version, but changing everybody's names and making the Swede character not a Swede and not a boxer but a racecar driver, and 3) to make the killers into the "investigating" parties who unravel their mark's past. This stroke of genius, whereby Marvin's character assumes the position of protagonist for one of the film's two time-frames, transforms the somewhat weak device of O'Brien's insurance investigator into a startling narrative element that extends the unsettling moral effect visited upon Nick (and the reader) in Hemingway's story into the added material from Siodmak's film. Siodmak's is still probably the more fully realized piece of cinema, but Siegel's provocatively expands upon its vision, even if some of what it abandons of Hemingway's vision is ultimately felt as a loss.