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.