Angelina Jolie in Changeling (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008).

I usually like Clint Eastwood movies best when he's in them--his own presence serves to distract him from his over-inclination towards redemptive aureate radiances and/or somber grey existentialities. Not completely, but just enough to make those excesses seem like evocative backdrops rather than strained auteurial strivings. In Changeling, it falls upon Angelina Jolie to do the distracting, and she puts in a heroic day's work of it. I think Jolie is one of the small handful of present-day cinematic leads who could have flourished in the old Hollywood star system. Not so much on the basis of her looks, which are solid evidence of whatever evolutionary transitions have occurred in the species over the last three decades or so, but her unabashed self-glorifying gaze, her confident sense of herself as a strange and wonderful idol whose human feet are just for show: she doesn't really need them to glide around as she does.

As Christine Collins, the real-life mother of an abducted child in 1920s Los Angeles, Jolie doesn't so much display authentic human emotions as invent new ones, on the spot, as she faces the camera. It's never as moving or pathetic as a more traditionally mimetic depiction of the event would be; instead, it's fascinating in a mechanical way. The anguish and grief is there, but it's bracketed, subjugated to its function as a narrative torture device. And the torture is very effective. It wrings from the viewer a confession of sorts. That confession is that we enjoy witnessing the progress of others' pain, at least when it is schematized and coordinated into narrative. Confessions like this are invariably followed up with the prospect of absolution, and to the film's credit, it does not try to force this sell. It does, however, try to sneak some pamphlets in your pocket at the last minute.

Besides Jolie, the other visual focal point is the ridiculously beautiful recreation of 20s LA. It's more than we need for this story, but as ostentation, it's admirable as hell. One historical detail, however, has bothered me since seeing the film (about a month ago): at one point, Collins tells her son that there is a "sandwich in the Fridge" for him. This sounded anachronistic to me, so I did some Google-searching. Frigidaire was indeed already a popular brand by this point, but I couldn't find any evidence one way or the other as to whether the casual abbreviation "Fridge" was yet current. Anyone?



Ida Lupino in Moontide (dir. Archie L. Mayo [replacing Fritz Lang], 1942).

Jean Gabin as Bobo.

Alcoholic montage sequence courtesy of Dalí.

The massive publicity campaign undertaken by Twentieth Century-Fox to make French star Jean Gabin into an American heartthrob was largely a failure. It's interesting to think what audiences made of him in Moontide. He's aggressively aloof, ungainly, almost simian. It appears at times as though America is an alien planet for him, with an unbreathable atmosphere. But it's also clear why he was a star in the first place: he seems in control of every interaction between every part of his body and the camera, down to the minute shadows cast by his facial pores and wrinkles.

The same can be said for Ida Lupino, whose ethereality is always compellingly at play with her back-alley sickliness. She glides limpingly, you might say. You might say that's what this entire movie does. The limp can partly be attributed to the replacement of Fritz Lang as director with the terminally prosaic Archie Mayo, but fortunately enough of Lang's touch remains to give Mayo a healthy push start.

The entire movie is shot on sets, creating a dislocated, dreamlike sense (or the sense that you are watching a filmed play, depending on how generous you want to be). A brief, surreal montage sequence by Dalí is barely a departure from the general mood.


Forty Guns

Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1957).

Gene Barry, Robert Dix, and Barry Sullivan.

Sandra Wirth.

Barbara Stanwyck's role in Forty Guns is in some ways similar to the part she played a few years earlier in Anthony Mann's The Furies: a gutsy frontier matriarch who rules her ranch with an iron (albeit nicely manicured) hand. In both films, she's the core of emotional energy--her presence is inimitably, passionately electric. She vies compellingly with Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar for the distinction of ultimate western dragon lady.

The plot here is almost shapeless. It's been about a month now since I watched it, and I couldn't tell you the storyline if my life depended on it. What I remember is Fuller's riveting staging, and the overall mood of psychological wryness translated into kinetic strings of sexually charged code-images. If Hitchcock had ever done a western, it might have resembled this, at least visually. (Wow--don't you wish Hitchcock had done a western?)



Anselme as le chanteur de faïence in Avida (dir. Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine, 2006).

Velvet as Avida.

Claude Chabrol as le zoophile débonnaire.

At eighty-three minutes, Avida still feels long. There are a few inspired moments, notably a brief appearance by Claude Chabrol as an aged connoisseur of roebuck flesh, the performance by one Anselme of a grating yet somehow eerie and compelling synth ballad about faience dinnerware ("nice and stored away"!), and a taxidermy scene that will test the endurance of pet lovers in a manner similar to Gummo. The casting of Velvet (whom I understand to be in her extra-cinematic profession some sort of online BBW courtesan) as the titular Avida is hit or miss depending on your tolerance for extreme amateurism. She can't act even when she's pretending to be unconscious.

The surrealism throughout is strained and mostly tired, flashing only occasionally, as I said, into arresting visual and conceptual vignettes. Totally worth seeing, however, for the elements mentioned. Thanks to Lanny for loaning me the DVD!



Renée Zellweger in Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris, 2008).

When the only two bad things about a movie are the title font and the song that initiates the end credits, it's an occasion for celebration. Ed Harris has annoyed me at times in the past with his sincere, oaken maleness, but he knows how to make a western. He knows, for instance, the effectiveness of good banter, how it can account for up to 73% of the script. A good reference point here is Howard Hawks' triumphant Rio Bravo, which is really just John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, and Dean Martin trading small talk with a little jailhouse siege thrown in towards the end.

It's very satisfying watching Harris, Viggo Mortensen, and Renée Zellweger respond to each other's verbal and nonverbal cues with acute sensitivity and humor early in the film. It makes it even more satisfying when the easy conversation runs up against betrayal and disillusionment, and when those traumas are in turn met with pragmatic, stoic reason rather than stock bursts of violent passion (in the romantic plot, at any rate--there's plenty of frontier vengeance on the shoot-'em-up front).

It's an old-fashioned movie, but never blandly nostalgic. Zellweger's Allison French might be perceived as gendered in retrograde ways, but this depiction actually serves as an energizing constraint for both actor and script. Early on, Harris' Virgil Cole asks her if she's a whore. She takes it as an amusing affront, laughing in response, "Don't be crude." And it seems obvious to us as well that his question was inappropriate--until later events recolor our judgment. But then all is carried yet further to a delicate balance of grace and realism. Her "weakness" is what makes her interesting, not because she is able to transcend it, but because like most of us, she works around it, and finds others who are willing to do the same. Some viewers have complained that her character is underdeveloped; really, it is developed exactly to the right point. We are kept just far enough outside her interiority for it to take on a conjectural weight no concentrated performance could match.



Josh Brolin in W. (dir. Oliver Stone, 2008).

W. is a movie almost entirely without a point of view. Oh sure, it depicts the Bush presidency and the Iraq invasion as a massive travesty, but that's not a viewpoint; it's just current events. What Oliver Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser fail to include is any rationale for why we ought to be interested in W.'s personal background on any level beyond that which should interest students of politics and history. So he had issues with his father and he really liked baseball. So he was really into jogging. So he was ambitious but kind of dumb. So he was human. So what? If the point is that he was a simple, ordinary man who got thrust into a position far beyond his capabilities, fine, but we should then be given either a valid reason to feel sympathy for him, or a mercilessly satirical caricature of the monster this experience turned him into. As it is, he is presented as too oafish for us to like beyond a mild pity, and too confused for us to hate beyond a weary exasperation. The film reduces both his actual humanity and our legitimate outrage to a series of Lifetime TV moments. Everything is too programmatic and too disorderly at the same time: the plotting is both inert and sporadic, lurching and peakless. Moments of "genuine drama" are interspersed with bits of SNL-style lampooning. Stabs at serious journalistic exposé are squeezed uneasily between episodes of parodic soundbite collage. There are interesting performers, but they aren't allowed to give interesting performances. Josh Brolin is very good, but it doesn't do any good. Although I did laugh in the scene where the bespectacled young waiter comes up behind him in the restaurant to tell him he has a phone call, and he looks at him, jumps a little in his seat, and says "whoa, Buddy Holly!"


The Mack

Max Julien as Goldie in The Mack (dir. Michael Campus, 1973).

Could director Michael Campus possibly be the same Michael Campus responsible for this year's made-for-DVD Thomas Kinkade's Home for Christmas, as IMDb indicates? I guess so. The other two films I recognize from the list there are ZPG (Zero Population Growth), which I never saw but remember from the newspaper ads in the movie section of the Modesto Bee circa 1972, one of those sensationalistic sci-fi current-events-jobs that partly defined the cinematic mood of the era, and Survival (1976), about which there is surprisingly little info, and which I actually did see on its release, a gross-out docudrama about the Rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes and who resorted to cannibalism, based on a book called Alive, which was filmed again in 1993 under that original title, and which I did not see, being suitably scarred by the first version.

As for The Mack, it's a fine, earnest pimp drama, filmed with some real feeling and style, and featuring an agreeable mix of amateurish stiffness and poignant emotiveness on the part of its principal, Max Julien. The real highlight, though, is Richard Pryor's performance in the supporting role of Slim. He's just over the verge into grotesque, moueing and gasping and keening like that stock cartoon figure from earlier in the century, the one who pounds his fists against someone's chest, screaming, ya gotta help me, don't let them take me away, his body twisting into impossible attitudes of desperation and alarm. Disturbingly, Pryor's mannerisms here seem to prefigure his later state of actual physical disintegration.


Hang 'Em High

Bruce Dern and Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High (dir. Ted Post).

If you stare at that title long enough, it stops looking like English.

The biggest surprise for me about Hang 'Em High--a movie that's been on my must-see list for years--is how novelistic it is--and by "novelistic" I mean slow and talky. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but by about thirty minutes in, you get the feeling that the cast and crew lost the script and just had to wing it. Again, that makes it sound interesting, and it sort of is, as long as you don't have your heart set on a raucous, bloodletting revengefest like High Plains Drifter, or even Unforgiven. There's a segment with James MacArthur as a preacher delivering a sermon before a hanging that seems like it goes on for fifteen minutes (the sermon, not the hanging). In its own way it's as mind-altering as a John Cage composition.

I'm intrigued by Ted Post. His other films include Magnum Force, the underrated Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment (god, I'd love to see that: it looks terrible!), and lots and lots of TV stuff from the early fifties through the early nineties. His lack of basic directorial competence sits in an uneasy relationship to his instinct for arresting imaginative scenarios and high moral speculation.

The other noteworthy thing is just how fully developed as an actor Eastwood already is by this point. That could be taken as a backhand compliment, suggesting that his range is extremely limited. Well, that's true, but as narrow ranges go, it's an extremely compelling one. I'd say range-wise he's somewhere between Bela Lugosi and Dick Van Dyke. Like most of us.


Smiley Face

Anna Faris in Smiley Face (dir. Gregg Araki, 2007).

[Thanks to Mike Hauser for recommending this!]

The little I remember of Gregg Araki's doom-and-gloom extrusions of decadent Gen-X trauma from the 90's has long since settled into a puddle of muted indie hysteria, but last year's Smiley Face is a flawed, sweet treasure. It is no more nor less than a vehicle for Anna Faris to push one button over and over and over: the "I am so stoned" button. And she does this with such determination, such high (get it?) seriousness, that if this turns out to be her best performance ever, it will be enough.

The plot of the film is as elegantly simple as one can imagine: woman ingests way, way too much pot and must subsequently go around trying to do things. There are at least two ways this premise could go wrong: by idealizing her cannabis haze so that what is really just stupor emerges as a privileged mode of insight that yields ultimately happy results, or by squashing its comic aspects under a pessimistic mass of neo-Menckenesque social excoriation. If Araki errs in one of these directions, it is more the latter than the former, but for the most part he doesn't do either in an obvious way, hence the arguments over whether this is a hedonistic stoner comedy or a tendentious anti-drug satire.

Even if he does err, it doesn't really matter. It all comes back to Faris, and her ability to be completely winning and completely pathetic ("pa-thet-tick," roommate Danny Masterson sneers) at the same time. In the throes of her wastedness, she looks up into the sky as a huge golden smiley face forms, gleaming and twinkling. She returns the smile, religious rapture spreading outward like sunshine from her own face. Suddenly the face in the sky morphs into an angry skull that levels a growling damnation at her. She cringes and cries out, in that instant becoming the most vulnerable and wounded of beings. It all passes with the next sensation. Or, catching a ride from a friendly prole (John Cho), she switches abruptly into libidinous abandon, swiveling around in the passenger seat, gaily leering: "Why don't we just fuck?" before it's revealed as only a brief fantasy. She's absolutely irresponsible, and absolutely blameless. This is the naked American fantasy--seductive as a sticky green bowlful, and destructive as an all-consuming cloud of paraquat.


Man of the West

Julie London and Gary Cooper in Man of the West (dir. Anthony Mann, 1958).

This film--its story, presentation of character, plot movement, implied heroic code--is best watched as one would attend to the speech of one's patient (assuming one is a therapist) on the psychiatric couch. The same could be said for the bulk of classic Hollywood narrative cinema, especially in genres like the Western: genres, that is, that require investment in a mythos of lonely dignity and the quiet transcendence of principled individualism over the barbarisms that attend social alliances on the frontier.

In the case of Gary Cooper's Link Jones, this is a transcendence of both the outlaw gang, led by Lee J. Cobb, in which he was conditioned for a life of crime, and the emerging America of technological progress and civilized conformity. A train pulling into the station envelops him in steam, and he cringes in horror: the future has arrived, and it is bigger and rougher than he is. A chatty fellow passenger, played by Arthur O'Connell, nearly suffocates him with his familiarity and urban banality. Only once the train is waylaid by bandits, and he must escort O'Connell and schoolteacher Julie London through the countryside, is he at ease. In the wild, he can be self-possessed. Nevertheless, this trek leads him smack-dab onto the porch of his old hideout from his early days as a badman. His mentor Cobb has become a half-senile monster, an aging king who exerts a fragile control over his followers. For the rest of the film, Cooper has to exploit whatever cred he still has with Cobb to keep him and his charges from being killed. He must re-enter his old life in order to burn it out from within and effect a virtuous rebirth.

It's all much messier than that. It's a messy movie (though not at the level of visual composition). Tangents like Julie London's enforced striptease and Cooper's outrageous fight scene with Jack Lord take center stage. Mann was always a skilled orchestrator of symptoms rather than a director with a consciously critical vision. Man of the West was problematic for its original audience, perhaps because the symptoms in question really do look like symptoms. Cooper's anxiety is the dominant note of the film, and it never dissipates, even after the main plot points are resolved. This is most evident in the erotic tension that permeates his scenes with London. She accentuates by reverse example the safeness and dullness of his reformed life with a wife and family we never see. Just as Cobb and his outlaws represent the past he has tried to leave behind, she represents the sacrifices he must make to preserve his present and future. There's never a moment of climactic acceptance or dramatic breach; everything just simmers continually.

A fascinating, semi-dark movie that coasts along on the most tenuous logic and finally just drifts to a standstill. As in so many other great Westerns, the action scenes, however entertaining, feel like incidental interruptions of a muffled core psychodrama that never quite announces itself as central, but trembles beneath the surface like a rattlesnake in a burlap bag.


The Baron of Arizona

Vincent Price in The Baron of Arizona (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1950).

Loosely fact-based story of James Reavis, the brazen swindler who faked centuries-old Spanish documents bequeathing the entire Arizona territory to a woman he groomed from childhood to this purpose, finally marrying her in order to obtain the title of "Baron of Arizona" for himself. Vincent Price pitches his performance just right: he's shifty, hypocritical, a cad--but eminently smooth in a way that hints at deeper strengths of character.

This is Samuel Fuller at his most cinematically conservative--the camera work and editing are reserved, efficient, and quietly elegant. The most audacious visual is the set for Reavis's office, with its bold, stylized full-wall map of Arizona behind the desk. Reed Hadley makes a good foil for Price as John Griff, the government forgery specialist who smells a rat, and Margia Dean (one of my favorite midcentury bit-players) has a charming moment as a gulled Marquesa.


The Matador

Pierce Brosnan in The Matador (dir. Richard Shepard, 2005).

Neither winning performances by Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear nor some clever plotting can compensate for the lazy, feel-good moral philosophy (or lack thereof) at the heart of this movie. There are two ways a darkish crime comedy of this sort can go: toward unblinking, deterministic irony (the route taken, for example, by the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading), or toward an escapist sentiment of heroic absolution (I don't mean either "escapist" or "sentiment" in a derogatory sense; there are plenty of works that pull this off very well). To try to combine both is to court disaster, and that's where The Matador goes wrong.

There's nothing unusual about likeable characters who do irredeemably bad things, such as killing people for money, which is what Pierce Brosnan does. His dissolute hit man Julian Noble is a real kick--probably the best performance I've ever seen from him. Noble is funny and charismatic, if a little too kinkily seedy to be considered exactly "charming." Nor is there anything unusual about the usually decent character whose decency gives way to opportunity in a time of crisis. At a crucial moment, however, the film pulls its punches and lets its characters off the ethical hook, in one case by working a change on what we think we know, and in the other by simply sweeping stuff under the rug. Sloppy on both counts.


Hell Is a City

Stanley Baker and John Crawford in Hell Is a City (dir. Val Guest, 1960).

Billie Whitelaw.

The coin game on the moors.

Well-shot Manchester noir from Hammer Films that struggles not to be stodgy and sometimes succeeds. Val Guest was the director of the Quatermass films, which I've always found impenetrable. Here he tries hard for an American-style hard-boiled flavor: jazz soundtrack, jaded dames, urban shadowscapes, a cop protagonist who must battle both bad guys and his own demons. The problem, dramatically speaking, is that Stanley Baker's demons mainly consist of his not getting along all that well with his wife.

American John Crawford is good as the main heavy, and Billie Whitelaw as a jeweler's wife getting some action on the side, and Donald Pleasance chewing up the scenery as the jeweler. Has anyone ever suggested that Donald Pleasance might be a stylistic role model for Elvis Costello?


Burn After Reading

Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 2008).

When the Coen Brothers are in top form, as they are in their new CIA comedy Burn After Reading and last year's No Country for Old Men, it makes you wonder how they can ever do wrong. And in fact, even their relative misfires--dizzy pastiche like The Hudsucker Proxy, brittle noir like The Man Who Wasn't There, throwaway fluff like The Ladykillers--offer the viewer more intelligent visual and verbal stimulation than most other mainstream films. One of their most impressive achievements is not repeating themselves morally. More precisely, no two Coen Brothers films have the exact same moral weight, though each one has a measure that seems careful and exact.

By "moral" and "moral weight," I don't mean anything as crude as a "message." I'm thinking of more of a quantifiable ratio: a ratio of moral actions foregrounded or downplayed, emotions evoked or withheld, attitudes implied or occluded. The formula for this ratio is usually complex rather than simple, and when it is simpler, the movie is generally pitched as whimsical fantasy (Raising Arizona, Hudsucker, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). One constant or near-constant in the formula concerns the fates of the innocent, and the amount of investment in those fates the directors permit us. Depending on how it is handled, the deployment of this theme can make for tragic seriousness or comic sadism, or--most interestingly and most often--some degree of both. Even in No Country, which must be the brothers' most straight-faced dramatic production to date, the wiping of blood off a shoe confuses our trained responses, making us process horrified sadness and wry wit in the same instance.

Burn After Reading is never anything but farce, in the sense that its characters are satirical puppets. This is as true of the "sympathetic" ones as the ogres and buffoons. Or, the point is, everyone is an ogre and/or a buffoon, even the most blameless ones (including Claire Danes and Dermot Mulroney, if you can call them characters). How on earth can you care about these people? That's part of the Coens' genius in this film: you don't, but it all still works. You may find yourself hoping that certain characters fare better than others, but usually only provisionally, within the confined logic of a single scene or sequence. In No Country, the mortal consequences are felt deeply, though even there they are felt through a certain filter, an ironizing layer of textuality. In Reading, these consequences are occasion for sport, for loud belly laughter, even if it comes with a guilty hesitation. It's as funny as anything the Coens have ever done, but it's probably their most agressively nihilistic film. I'm sure many other viewers will make this same observation, but the reference point I kept returning to was Dr. Strangelove. This is most obvious in the parts that take place behind closed doors at Langley (especially the two brilliant short scenes with J.K. Simmons as a cynical superior officer), but the tone of schadenfreude throughout is of the same nervous timbre, down to the shaky sixties lettering and graphics on the movie poster. Accordingly, the global zoom-in/zoom-out visuals that frame the film seem like more than just a convenient cinematic cliche: with the accompaniment of Carter Burwell's urgent, drum-driven score, they extend the joke to something sublimely large and cruel.


Dangerous Crossing

Jeanne Crain in Dangerous Crossing (dir. Joseph M. Newman, 1953).

Halloween aboard the ocean liner.

Karl Ludwig Lindt.

Jeanne Crain boards a luxury liner with her new husband (Carl Betz), and within minutes can't find him anywhere. Everyone else on board thinks she's crazy ... and maybe she is. Based on a radio play by John Dickson Carr, who co-wrote the screenplay, this tidy thriller piggybacked on the sets and props of two other Twentieth Century-Fox productions from 1953, Titanic and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This allowed it to be made on a very low budget and still look like an A film. Crain carries it nearly by herself (she's in practically every scene). Michael Rennie, as the concerned but skeptical ship's doctor, is considerately dull in a way that makes Crain's performance shine even brighter. Anna Quinn makes the most of a mousy stewardess role, and the uncredited Karl Ludwig Lindt is fun as a creepy foreigner. Fine cinematography by Joseph LaShelle.


The House Bunny

Anna Faris in The House Bunny (dir. Fred Wolf, 2008).

The logical inconsistencies are as entertaining as the intentional comedy--maybe more. Our picaresque Bunny, Shelley Darlingson (a name worthy of the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel), is an evident half-wit who takes weeks to learn how to pronounce "philanthropy" and use it correctly in a sentence, but she achieves a solid grasp on current world events and assorted academic topics in a few montage-seconds. She doesn't know that steam is hot, but she can offer an insightful impromptu apologia for a mixed metaphor involving her heart falling out of her head. She knows what a blow job is, but not a breathalyzer test.

Actually, that last one is not an inconsistency at all, I suppose, but evidence that the film depends at its base on the rudimentary mechanics of the dumb blonde joke. That is, even more than it depends on the rudimentary mechanics of the dumb blonde joke's supposed antidote, the turnabout fantasy where the dumb blonde shows her smarts in the world, proving everyone wrong. Here, as in Legally Blonde, the protagonist does exactly this, but to an even greater extent than in that film, this triumph seems beside the point. Shelley is most interesting when she is dumb, when she is safely ensconced at narrative's beginning in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, frolicking at poolside or shopping on Rodeo Drive. What's riveting is her happiness: her absolute, rapturous sense of fulfillment at being a kept rabbit. "We're the luckiest girls in the world," she gushes to a quietly envious shopkeeper, who responds with patient cordiality, "Yes, you are." The initial temptation is to read an allegorical subtext of class tension into this encounter, but which privileged slave's ideological blindness is oppressing the other's here?

Naturally Shelley's complacency must be shattered in order for the story to advance, but there's an unexamined bathos (there might be other kinds) in the shift from luxury concubinage to sorority culture. A lot could have been done with this, if anyone had thought to get really ferocious about how the Greek system functions as a training ground for the sickest ground-level domestic and cultural maneuvers of the power elite. Instead, we get the tired old distinction between the mean pretty girls and the nice nerdy girls, and the equally tired formula for how once the nerdy girls can achieve prettiness minus meanness, everything is solved.

Anna Faris almost saves the show anyway. Part of her perfectness for the role is how imperfect she is by Playboy standards: she has the stilted grace of an ostrich, and her face contorts unpredictably into various complex cheek-puffings and eye-squintings. In real life, she could never be Miss November, and when her big break finally comes in the film, we are supposed to believe that Hef has temporarily suspended his business sense, and, guided by the piercing wisdom of his benevolent sentimentality, offers her the pin-up slot out of sheer endearment. It's totally unbelievable, of course. And the movie is drivel. But bookmark Faris's expert goofiness as a small core of self-justifying value.


Touchez pas au grisbi

Jeanne Moreau, Jean Gabin, Dora Doll, René Dary, and Vittorio Sanipoli (barely visible at right) in Touchez pas au grisbi (dir. Jacques Becker, 1954).

Marilyn Buferd.

René Dary.

The title means "hands off the loot," and that's a pretty accurate summary of the story: two aging gangsters attempt to protect the "grisbi" they've recently acquired in the climactic heist of their career from a rival criminal who kidnaps one of the pair of old friends. Like Dassin's Rififi or Melville's Bob le flambeur, it transfers the look of the American crime film (albeit with generally lower contrast and more gentle haloes everywhere) onto a narrative structure built more around character than action, though there are moments of violence and tension. These films are as fatalistic as Hollywood noir--maybe even more so--but they're more soft-boiled than hard-boiled.

There are guns and dames and tough talk in Touchez pas au grisbi, yes, but the prevailing mood is one of lilting reverie. The world of seedy thieves and swindlers it depicts verges on urban pastoral, with its heightening of mundane environments--cafes, laundromats, motor scooters, stylish but decadent domestic interiors--into a minor modern Olympus of trivial demigods.

Jean Gabin as Max, the aging kingpin, combines quiet dignity and amoral ennui so subtly you can't tell which is which, or if there's a difference (again, this is a quality he shares with Roger Duchesne's Bob in Bob le flambeur and Jean Servais's Tony le Stephanois in Rififi). His scenes with Marilyn Buferd (who was Miss America in 1946) as his girlfriend Betty are particularly evocative. There is something about their relationship that seems to get at the core conflicts of Max's persona, and his vexed position in the fragile kingdom he has constructed for himself, but nothing is spelled out. She doesn't even really do anything. Her presence simply peels away thin layers of his exterior, like the hot glow of a radium lamp.


Cloak and Dagger

Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer in Cloak and Dagger (dir. Fritz Lang, 1946).

Lang at his most conventional, but nevertheless a moving story. His signature preoccupation with urban paranoia is evident throughout, and the scenes of active suspense are well handled, if few and far between. Gary Cooper, pardon me, is rather boring as a civilian academic drafted into espionage against Nazis pursuing nuclear research. The fault is not entirely his: the script calls for him to be a babe in the woods who gradually learns tough lessons about stealth and sentiment during wartime. A dispiriting, thankless routine. Lilli Palmer carries the burden of his upstanding innocence admirably with her portrayal of a seasoned but vulnerable resistance agent.


Strange Impersonation

Brenda Marshall (seemingly observing her own facial reconstruction operation) in Strange Impersonation (dir. Anthony Mann, 1946).

Hillary Brooke lets in the noir.

A spirited early Mann thriller, and it would be truly noteworthy if--consider yourself warned--someone hadn't decided at some point not to bother writing a real ending. It's low-budget, but does a good job of straining past its limitations with fluid camerawork and inventive staging. The leading man, played by William Gargan, is uninspiring, and Brenda Marshall as the main character is mostly effective on an ironic level as a caricature of the independent woman researcher ("Stephen!" she exclaims, as her amorous employer/fiance attempts a passionate embrace: "Remember science!"). But Hillary Brooke is a fine femme fatale, and there are good supporting performances, notably from George Chandler as an ambulance-chasing lawyer, and Mary Treen as (in the apt words of the IMDb cast listing) "talkative nurse."


Woman on the Run

Dennis O'Keefe and Ann Sheridan in Woman on the Run (dir. Norman Foster, 1950).

I hope somewhere, someday, there's a better transfer of Woman on the Run than the gritty, blurry one on the DVD I watched, because this is one of the premier gems of noir lite. It's a Hitchcockian thriller-adventure with Ann Sheridan as a woman who's fallen out of love with her artist husband--until he goes missing after witnessing a murder. An intrepid reporter, played by Dennis O'Keefe, steps in to help her track him down. The gender ideology is 50/50: on the one hand, it's the old familiar moral about standing by your man and supporting the postwar economy by performing the duties of the subservient domestic wife, but on the other, Sheridan plays this character with depth and guts. There are also some supporting Chinese characters who are refreshingly scripted as hip, creative, and non-stereotypical (even though one of them gets offed).

The amusement park climax, which features a nailbiting roller coaster sequence, and which very well could have inspired relevant parts of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, is fantastically great, and is one of the points where I was practically in tears over the poor quality of the print. The San Francisco location shooting overall would be magnificent if the movie were properly restored.

The script is first-rate, full of startling plot developments and "snappy," smart dialogue.

Drunk woman at Sullivan's Grotto: "Say, why don't you wear a hat?"
Ann Sheridan: "I look funny in hats."
Drunk woman: "You know, you're right?"


The Candy Snatchers

Vince Martorano, Brad David, and Tiffany Bolling as the Candy snatchers in The Candy Snatchers (dir. Guerdon Trueblood, 1973).

Ben Piazza.

Susan Sennett.

Over thirty years after The Candy Snatchers came out, star Susan Sennett, in the DVD extras interview, is still visibly traumatized by the experience of playing a Catholic schoolgirl who is abducted, buried alive, threatened with mutilation, raped, and otherwise terrorized by three kidnappers seeking a ransom in precious stones from her jeweler father. She spent much of the movie bound and gagged, and the burial scenes were particularly harrowing, as she actually had to be placed in a hole that was covered over with wooden slats and dirt as the camera rolled. Understandably, she has little love for the film.

The violence in the film is in fact less extreme and lurid than in many of its contemporary shock horror films, like Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Cop Killers, or at least the constant undertone of dark humor makes it seem so. For a low low budget movie, it looks really good: the colors are as vivid as a spring garden, and cinematographer Robert Maxwell, who appears to have worked on nothing but exploitation films for the duration of his career from the early sixties till his death in 1978 (he shot such classics as The Astro-Zombies, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and The Centerfold Girls), is better at stylishly shaping a scene than many a mainstream pro.

The over-the-top highlight has to be the little autistic kid (played by director Trueblood's own son) with the gun.


The Hitcher

Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher (dir. Robert Harmon, 1986).

Do. Not. Pick. Up. Hitch. Hikers. Ever. What part of that is so hard to understand? Is it "hikers"?

Rutger Hauer is scarier than a plateful of wiggling teeth, and it's because you know that as evil and horrible as the stuff he does to people in this movie is, whatever hopeless crucible of self-loathing and universal disgust is going on behind those cyborgy blue eyes of his is far worse.

The movie was, screenwriter Eric Red has acknowledged, inspired by the Doors song "Riders on the Storm" (which is not on the soundtrack, however). Grim, nasty, unsettling--but ultimately very much in the classical narrative tradition of cinematic horror. The major gore is implied rather than shown, other than the occasional severed finger in a plate of french fries, and the moments when the camera turns away or goes dark are the ones that fill up with more nihilistic dread than you would think could be contained by a formulaic made-for-HBO thriller from the eighties.


Pineapple Express

James Franco and Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express (dir. David Gordon Green, 2008).

Whoa, would that really work? A crossjoint?

See, that's the kind of movie I appreciate: one that presents intellectually challenging, potentially practicable, real-world concepts.

Too bad I had to give up pot years ago because it made me see the universe as a dark mathematical equation that solves repeatedly as a vast serpent-headed, mandala-like vortex of bloody automobile accidents and ICBMs. Yeah, no fun.

The movie's great fun, though. I can't decide yet whether the graphic violence is anything more than hyperbolic adolescent mannerism, but it at least jumps the Apatow product line a few feet out of its familiar parameters.


That Obscure Object of Desire

Carole Bouquet and Fernando Rey in That Obscure Object of Desire [Cet obscur objet du désir] (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1976).

Fernando Rey and Ángela Molina.

Buñuel's final film, and a rich one. It departs from the anti-narrative track he was following in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, offering a largely faithful modernization of Pierre Louÿs' novel La femme et le pantin. The two most conspicuous innovations he and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere make are the insertion of a terrorism theme (a theme initiated in the two previous films just mentioned) and, most audaciously, the device of having two different women (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina) play Conchita, the lead female character. This counter-realist gesture is especially striking in that there is no pattern whatsoever as to when one actor plays Conchita rather than the other, beyond Buñuel's conscious decision to give each one roughly equal screen time, and to confine individual scenes for the most part to one actor (though this latter "rule" is broken subtly once or twice).

The accounts of how this dual casting came about are a little confusing and inconsistent, but the best I can make it out is that, after already losing Maria Schneider, who was originally slated to play Conchita but objected to all the nude scenes (despite having been naked for most of Last Tango in Paris), Buñuel grew dissatisfied with Bouquet's performance and replaced her with Molina--but then realized that, rather than having to film certain scenes all over again, he could keep the footage he had already shot and just integrate it with the new. (I have to say, as an exception to my general belief that Buñuel could do no wrong, I can't get my mind around the idea of objecting to anything whatsoever about Bouquet.)

As Buñuel has commented in interviews, his intention was emphatically not to have the two actors represent different "sides" of Conchita's personality, or anything like that. And as he has also remarked, this is a good thing, as that would have been an egregiously facile gimmick. The double casting cannot ultimately be rationalized into any psychological or symbolic system of order: it's pure anarchy, a boldly random anamorphic streak across the otherwise (mostly) conventionally representational canvas of the film.



Barcode virgin: Amy Adams in Enchanted (dir. Kevin Lima, 2007).

A beautiful, animated maiden from a land where true love is forever, virtue always triumphs over evil, and small animals with the gift of human communication offer themselves up for free as domestic labor, pops through a dimensional portal to a modern-day New York City where ... well, where basically all those same things prove to be the case. The animals just aren't quite as cute.

You see the problem. We know pretty much in advance that perky young Giselle's can-do, dreams-do-too-come-true point of view will infect all the real people she comes into contact with, thus taking all the tension generated by the central premise and simply negating it instead of showing what might happen when two fundamentally incompatible worlds impose themselves on one another. What if Giselle's innocence were subjected to a real crisis of confidence? What if she faced at least the threat of actual corruption? What if she grew a brain? What if she cut her expensive shopping spree short and issued a twenty-minute Marxist-feminist critique of consumerism?

It's too bad that there's really no way the film this should have been could ever have been made--not by Disney, anyway. It's not that the filmmakers don't have the imagination or intelligence; it's a matter of market demand. You can't argue with seven-year-olds and the parents who are at the whim of their tastes. What would have happened if this movie had come out and folks had to tell their kids, "You probably wouldn't like this, dear: I know it's got a pretty cartoon princess and all, but it's really more of an existential postmodern parable for grown-ups." Nothing but tears.

So, considering, it's some consolation that Enchanted is as pleasing and colorful a wad of sticky candy as it is. Patrick Dempsey's a stick, but Amy Adams has a move or two (I'd really like to see her deliver that materialist critique). And it's funny when the chipmunk shits himself.


Be Kind Rewind

Jack Black and Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2008).

I was one of those who were underwhelmed by Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Be Kind Rewind has elements that make it function as a corrective to that film for me (I haven't seen The Science of Sleep), but the same elements also finally confine it to throwaway status. And you know, that's OK, throwaway is OK. One might even say that the movie is a "sweded" version of itself. "Sweding" is what video store worker Mos Def and his unstable pal Jack Black do when Jack Black has his brain magnetized as the result of trying to sabotage a power station and then accidentally erases all the tapes in the store just by being near them. They film their own replacement versions of the movies, acting out the parts themselves and enlisting the help of people in the neighborhood (Passaic, New Jersey, lovingly filmed). It becomes a sensation when their customers, who are also often the stars, decide they like the sweded versions better than the Hollywood originals, and the two overnight auteurs have to work steadily to keep up with the demand. Eventually, the corporate movie people descend on them and they have to figure out a way to keep the spirit of cooperative creativity going and try to save the building the store is in from being demolished by the city.

From that synopsis alone, you get some sense of the film's weird split between outlandish slapstick and community-coming-together social-statement dramedy. For the first twenty minutes or so, it's like the most inept attempt at a wacky gagfest ever, and then it levels out into a congenial, lo-fi corner shop tale. The Passaic setting is impossible to resist: everything looks very real--simultaneously quaint and depressing. The scenes have an improvised, one-take feel, especially the ones with Mia Farrow and the locals who were recruited as actors. The conceit the story is hung from is that the building in which the video store is housed was once lived in by Fats Waller, and this gradually becomes the central focus as Black and Def shift their efforts to an original bio-pic of the musician's life.

It's a funky little picture. Describing it now, a week or two after watching it, makes me realize how endearing I found it after all.


Plunder of the Sun

Glenn Ford and Sean McClory in Plunder of the Sun (dir. John Farrow, 1953).

I rented this after reading the novel by David Dodge, which was re-released recently as one of the monthly editions in the Hard Case Crime paperback series. It's pretty faithful, and captures Dodge's breathless travel-adventure flavor, even if the budget apparently limited the beautiful location shooting to Havana and Oaxaca, and not the book's third major locale of Peru and Lake Titicaca.

All the elements of a classic are here: Ford is great, Sean McClory makes a villain worthy of Orson Welles, and the camera work, as I said, is often breathtaking. What's missing? I don't know, gravitas or something. Not that the novel has any, either. Good fun, in any case.


The Drowning Pool

Paul Newman and Gail Strickland in The Drowning Pool (dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1975).

The second of the two "Harper" movies with Newman, and the better. Newman has toned down his brattiness a bit, and the New Orleans location work is nice, if a little superfluous. Some of Ross Macdonald's distinctive moodiness is allowed in. Overall, however, it shares a flaw with Harper: a large cast of women characters (in this case, played by Joanne Woodward, Gail Strickland, Melanie Griffith, and Linda Haynes) whose lack of self-knowledge compels them to be victimized, and to victimize others. Yes, this comes in part from the structure of Macdonald's novel (all his novels, really), but Macdonald always built in elaborate patterns of psychological background and introspection that made the gender dynamic more complex, if not entirely unproblematic.



Valerie Tian and Ellen Page in Juno (dir. Jason Reitman, 2007).

All together now: aaaaawwwwwwwwwwwww.

But I don't care, I loved it. Ellen Page's wise waif Juno is not just perky/poignant/preggo, she's a necessary hero for the denizens of the disputed settlement between irony and whatever the fuck its opposite is purported to be.

I'm trying to remember if there's any other point in the movie, besides the part where she's sitting in the front yard in the guerilla-delivered living room set with her boyfriend and all the young guy athletes run by and she talks about "pork swords," where diegetic speech bleeds sneakily into voiceover: a neat trick, and a useful antidote to the problem thereof as it too often asserts itself in cinema.

The deleted-scenes feature on the DVD is of the rarer sort that is worth viewing. I understand why it was cut, on a couple of levels, but I must acknowledge the segment with the batty neighbor who responds to Juno's comment about a beautifully-colored sunset by saying that God loves all the colors--except Mexican. The laugh arrives with a smitten wince, and vice versa.



Paul Newman in Harper (dir. Jack Smight, 1966).

I've heard two different reasons cited as to why the title of this movie is Harper rather than Archer (or The Moving Target, the name of the Lew Archer mystery by Ross Macdonald on which it's based). One is that Macdonald himself requested it because he didn't want there to be an entire series based on his books, just the one--an explanation that I don't quite get, especially as there was one more adaptation a few years later, The Drowning Pool. The other is that Paul Newman insisted on the name change, because he'd had great success with films that he'd starred in beginning with "H." I prefer to believe the second, because it helps me resent Newman for getting the character all wrong. What makes Lew Archer such an appealing modification of the hard-boiled private eye character as developed by Hammett and Chandler is that he's so wearily blank and sensible. When confronted by difficult antagonists on either side of the law, his usual response is to make himself small like a hedgehog, or to trot out reasonable arguments dutifully in the face of their obvious ineffectiveness. Newman's Harper, on the other hand, is a cocky loudmouth, festering with "boyish charm." When Archer gets clubbed over the head in the novels (it seems to happen once or twice in every one), it always makes me cringe in sympathy; when it happens to Harper, I feel gratified.

The film has a good look and a good cast, so it's a shame that it misses the boat so completely when it comes to tone. It also amplifies the misogyny that Macdonald managed by and large to muffle, especially with Shelly Winters' character. There are about twenty female roles, it seems like, and none of them manage to escape caricature. For some reason, William Goldman decides to insert a plot element about Archer's estranged wife (a theme that was only ever alluded to in the books). All it does is force poor Janet Leigh to play the long-suffering repressed shrew. Other than that, the script adheres pretty faithfully to the novel--until the unforgivably flippant and un-Archer-like ending, in which ethics and emotional gravity go out the window with a smirk.


Step Brothers

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers (dir. Adam McKay, 2008).

The greatest American film of the twenty-first century so far? No. Or is it? No, that would be Anchorman, or maybe Talladega Nights.

Scoff if you want, but how many directors have three first films (or any films in a row) as intensely, fully realized as Adam McKay's trilogy of the "stuplime," to borrow a term from Sianne Ngai? (Will Ferrell must receive a lot of the credit, of course, as his ad-libbing is so pervasively constitutive of the flavor of these movies.)

There's only one moment in Step Brothers that feels like a misstep (pun noticed at the moment of commission). That's when the writers inexplicably feel it necessary to have Richard Jenkins spell out to us that the two nitwits played by Ferrell and O'Reilly are more interesting and endearing in their state of stunted maturity than when they get their socialized act together and learn how to fill out tax forms. It's not just that it's obvious; it's that it attempts somehow to justify what is appealing precisely because it resists assimilation into justificatory structures. Brennan and Dale are unacceptable. They're complete idiots, noxious to others and hazards to their own well-being. When they manage to pull off "normal" long enough to point the movie towards its inevitable resolution, it's funny because their version of normal is just as stupid as their version of stupid. To have them realize that the squares they become are boring squares is too easy, and reflective, cathartic acceptance on the part of those around them muddies the humor.

But this is one imperfection in the midst of a veritable grand ballet of unapologetically farcical comic debasement. Some of the funniest moments belong to Kathryn Hahn, as the frustrated wife of Will Ferrell's brother Derek. Some viewers might object to the way in which her desire is presented a manifestation of the feminine grotesque, but within the overall anthropological erotics of the film's universe, she's just another brave pioneer at the outer boundaries of self-respect and imaginable subjecthood. When she takes charge of a urinal in a restaurant men's room, it's a bracing moment of political idiosyncrasy. Her confidence exceeds practicality, but as we cut to the next scene, we're spared the complications; we're left with merely the optimism of her bravado.


The Phantom of Liberty

Valerie Blanco as Aliette, the missing girl in plain sight in The Phantom of Liberty [Le fantôme de la liberté] (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1974).

"I'm sick of symmetry": Jean-Claude Brialy.

Doesn't everyone hang out with their sister while she plays piano naked? Adriana Asti and Julien Bertheau.

Buñuel takes the discontinuities and absurdities of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie further still. Is there any other director whose approach, after decades, veers so resolutely towards comedy? (Usually it's the other way around.) And not just comedy, but very silly comedy.

Silly probably isn't the right word, as it denotes a lack of sense, and Phantom is far from senseless. What I mean to convey is the air of almost light-hearted farce that drifts through even the most violent or melancholy moments of the film. Prisoners are lined up against a wall and shot during the French Revolution. A man is diagnosed with an incurable disease, then goes home to find out that his daughter has been reported missing. A sniper picks off pedestrians from a room in a tall building. A police prefect is arrested for disinterring his dead sister. The stuff of surrealism, to be sure. But it is interspersed with material that would be in place in one of the British Carry On films of roughly the same period (actually, I've never seen any of those, but suddenly I want to): some swingers in a hotel try to get a bawdy party going with the other guests, including a group of monks; an ineffectual police academy instructor is mocked by his students; a polite party is held in which the guests gather around a table seated on toilets.

What gives it its weight, its significance, its unmistakable potency as art? Is it simply the expectations that accompany our awareness of the director's reputation? Well, probably in part. But even that speaks for the film's audacity. As I was saying, here's a veteran filmmaker who suddenly makes forays into whimsical parlor humor. Imagine if David Lynch's next movie were a college drinking farce a la Porky's.

More than that, however, Phantom is always resistant to classification, even in its most outwardly frivolous--or somber--moments. A great deal of it has to do with the pacing: the patient, unpredictable motion from one episode to the next, and the meandering stillnesses within each one, stillnesses that neither corrode into inertia nor harden into tension. A good deal of the time there is no good explanation for why we're watching what we're watching. It seems as though the camera had been set up just in case something important were to happen, and after the shooting had ended, the importance turned out to be as much in the waiting as in the payoffs. And yet there's no hint of improvisation, not at the level of plotting and transition. Everything is stamped with the confident anticipation of coherence.