Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Old Dark House (1932)

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*. Faces. James Whale loved faces. He even liked to fill the screen with them in close-ups, which wasn’t typical at the time.
*. And he liked odd, eccentric faces. Boris Karloff in crazy make-up. Ernest Thesinger’s nose, so capable of throwing dramatic shadows all on its own. Charles Laughton’s fleshy masterpiece. Eva Moore distorted in a warped mirror. “John” Dudgeon in whiskery drag. Brember Wills’s face transforming itself before our eyes (and behind Melvyn Douglas’s back). What a gallery!

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*. But mostly, in this movie, he loved Gloria Stuart’s face. What a remarkable, intelligent, watchable face. There always seems to be something knowing going on behind it, which is a rare quality even for a twenty-two year old. Or perhaps she shared with, or caught from Whale some of his sense that the whole business was a bit of a joke.

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 *. This was an American production, Universal of course, but British to the core. Which may explain why the film did very well in England and not at all well in the U.S. The time had not come for wit and eccentricity in American film.
*. An odd, loveable movie that many people count among their favourites, but one that still doesn’t receive a great deal of recognition. I wonder how much of that is due to there not being a very good print available. Though we should count ourselves lucky that we’ve got what we have. This could easily have been a lost film from the period.

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The Fog (1980)

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*. It’s not that John Carpenter doesn’t take pride in his films. At the end of the commentary for this one he even says he’s “extremely proud” of it. But what sort of pride is it? “We did good. It was a million dollar movie.” That kind of pride.
*. Carpenter is an unabashed hack, who I think gets more credit for being an accomplished director of thrillers than he deserves. He seems to me to be an idea guy. A lot of his movies have very good (read: original and highly commercial) concepts that are produced in a mostly perfunctory and ineffective way.
*. This was a big let down after Halloween (and I didn’t much care for that movie either). Carpenter wanted to make something more like “an old-fashioned ghost story.” Apparently the first cut was a disaster (Carpenter: “it sucked”) and new material had to be added in post-production to liven it up a bit and pad it out to ninety minutes. That rarely works, and it doesn’t here.
*. Some of the additions, like the close-up to the Fulci-esque worm-faced zombie, seem particularly out of place to me. But the desperate salvage operation does make you wonder how anyone looking at the shooting script (assuming they had a shooting script) thought there was a movie here. Then again, if anyone had looked at the shooting script for Halloween . . .
*. As usual, the whole thing is stuffed with in jokes. I didn’t find these interesting.

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*. Scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t considered a big draw at the time and wasn’t billed as a star. It was only after the success of Halloween that she got the upgrade, and this despite the fact that she has little to do here. Janet Leigh is also wasted, and John Houseman must have thought this a very easy way to pick up a paycheque.
*. I like how Barbeau’s character apologizes to her son for the fact that she didn’t bother going to save him but instead made an address over the radio for help. Why? Because she was needed on air to deliver public service announcements, like the one sending the heroes to the old church, which turns out to be in fact the one place they will not be safe.
*. The script is full of moments like this that don’t make a lot of sense but just have to play out the way they do to keep the movie going. Like Holbrook deciding to stop reading the book when he does, so that the mystery of the gold can wait to be revealed at the end.
*. As another example, it’s hard to understand why Carpenter would saddle the script with an insistence on six victims. Will the zombies kill any six townspeople? Would they have quit if they’d managed to kill Andy?
*. I know Carpenter idolizes Howard Hawks, but making Barbeau a smoker just because Hawks’s women smoked? That’s taking homage too strictly.
*. I do give Carpenter credit for making good use of the anamorphic widescreen here. He was aware of its ability to conceal a cheap budget by making everything look a little grander. “More bang for the buck,” in Carpenter’s words (producer Hill mentions “a bigger reality to the whole thing”). And this is a terribly cheap movie (budget of $1.1M). Plus widescreen works well when shooting locations like beaches with long shorelines.

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*. Barbeau twigs remarkably quickly to how the fog is somehow behind all of the strange events going on. Why she would come to that conclusion is less clear.
*. The vapid epigraph from Poe is never explained. I suspect E. A. P. was just a name to conjure with.
*. The monitory “Keep watching the skies” l’envoi is absurd. Another stretch to rope in an homage to Hawks.
*. The fog looks good, but it doesn’t look like fog. It looks like dry ice.
*. It’s funny to listen to Carpenter, producer Debra Hill, and Janet Leigh talking about what a “classic” this movie has become. I don’t think it has. Unlike a classic, it disappoints with every re-viewing.

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The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

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*. This was one of my father’s favourite movies. I think he might have had a secret crush on Joanne Woodward. Anyway, I feel like I grew up watching it every time it came on TV.
*. It’s often mentioned as trivia that this was the first film to win the Best Actress Academy Award without being nominated in any other category until Jodie Foster won for The Accused (1988). Which isn’t surprising, because aside from Woodward’s performance this movie has nothing much going for it. I mean, Cortez was a great cinematographer, but he hasn’t much to do here and working in CinemaScope doesn’t suit the material very well. And aside from that . . .
*. Interesting that so many big names turned the part of Eve down, as you would have thought this was a prime star vehicle. Orson Welles, who was approached to play Dr. Luther, said that whoever played Eve would surely win an Oscar.
*. Some of the candidates might have produced bizarre results, however. Marilyn Monroe? Judy Garland (who thought from the script that the film was a domestic comedy)? The mind boggles.
*. Garland’s response strikes me as odd, but even contemporary reviewers were upset at the comic elements. Personally, I have a hard time seeing anything particularly funny aside from the odd scene with Eve’s dopey husband.

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*. Watching it, it’s hard not to get the feeling that it must be based on a play. But apparently not. The book was optioned and turned into a screenplay even before publication, and directed by the screenwriter (Nunnally Johnson, a self-confessed “run-of-the-mill director”).
*. What a horrendous intro and narration from Alistair Cooke, heralded in the credits as a “distinguished journalist and commentator” (I wonder if he wrote that himself?). And it’s totally unnecessary. Even at the time they had to protest a little too much the truthfulness of the story.
*. I’m not a big believer in multiple personalities (or DID, as they’re now known). I doubt very much that they play out the way Eve’s did. But apparently the personality changes were just as fast in real life as they are depicted in the movie.
*. It was the ’50s. So was good ol’ Ralph’s first response to slap his woman around seen as an overreaction? Wrong?

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*. David Wayne’s Ralph is actually a very poorly realized, mysterious character. At times he is threatening, at others a comic figure (the cuckold and rube), and at others sympathetic. Finally he just disappears entirely, to be replaced by the total cipher “Earl” (and how the psycho case Eve got custody of Bonnie is anyone’s guess). It’s like the movie doesn’t have room for anyone else but Eve.
*. Total recall. I can’t remember the name of a single one of my grade school, or for that matter high school, teachers. How does “Jane” remember all of hers?

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Smokin’ Aces (2006)

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*. The idea was solid, if familiar in a comic-book sort of way. It should have made for a better movie. What went wrong?
*. A lot of things, but mostly the script. Nothing interesting comes out of any of the characters’ mouths. Nothing.
*. I was looking forward to a bundling up of all the loose threads as the various storylines came together and resolved. That didn’t happen.
*. I mean . . . wow. They really had no idea how to end this movie, did they? And the alternate ending is even worse, which shouldn’t have been possible. As for letting most of the characters just drift offscreen . . . I guess it would have been too hard to sort everything out.
*. Buddy Israel is a thoroughly dislikeable figure, and given what the hero does to him at the end I couldn’t understand the flailing attempts at making us feel sympathy for him.
*. It just seems to me that the tone of this movie is all wrong. Or, to be more precise, that it could never settle on a single tone. Scenes that should be funny, like Buddy finding Hugo’s cum stains on his jacket, aren’t. They just make Buddy out to be an angry, spoiled jerk. Or what about Acosta’s dreamy dispacth of Bill, the hotel’s security chief? This from a sadistic mercenary? It makes no sense.
*. The explanation of what was really going on was absurd, bordering on offensive. The FBI was planning to kidnap and kill Israel so that they could steal his heart and transplant it into this 90- or even 100-year-old father (good luck with that!) so that the father could then tell them all sorts of war stories about the mob’s golden age and maybe spill the beans on where Jimmy Hoffa was buried? And then the good FBI agent just sits down and kills them both! For the hell of it? I mean, that’s not even trying.
*. The odd characters should have been more interesting. Instead, they seem like the teens in a slasher film: just meat to be disposed of in different ways. And not even very interesting ways at that.
*. I don’t see how shooting that massive .50 cal rifle while it’s propped up on a bed would work. That’s not a firm base for such a heavy weapon.
*. I did enjoy all the stuff with Warren and his mom. That was pretty funny. Though, along with the Jason Bateman part, it was completely extraenous to the rest of the movie. And the Bateman bits, like so much else in the movie, weren’t funny or weird. They just felt uncomfortable.

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

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*. “What men call gallantry, and gods adultery, is much more common where the climate’s sultry.” It’s hard to imagine how such a sly and knowing movie as this got made in 1940. Adultery is frankly discussed and winkingly acknowledged throughout, with Quintero playing the part of the happy if not downright obliging cuckold.
*. Throw in the delightful scene in the church between Power and Darnell, and his later visit to her bedroom where he is discovered and identified by her uncle as a randy suitor, and the  whole thing starts to take on the air of Restoration comedy. Just look at Power in the dinner scene digging at Rathbone for his liking to “poke” things. And then his sly glance at Dona Inez after Quintero tells him that “Esteban is forever thrusting at this and that.”
*. Richard Schickel in his commentary is right to be impressed at how this slipped by the censors, but I don’t see how he takes it as a jab at Don Diego’s presumed homosexuality. How so?
*. Certainly there is a lot of “gay blade” stuff as Power queens it up as the California cockerel, or fey and foppish popinjay. And Power is perfect in the part, his good looks made to seem slightly off-center by a ball-point nose and a moustache that looks like penciled-on eyebrows.
*. But was Power, as Schickel casually asserts, bisexual in real life? I’ve read some rumours, but I’m not aware of any direct evidence. What evidence we do have of his love life seems to paint him as a raving heterosexual. It also seems unlikely (to me) that a closeted gay man (as gay men pretty much all were in Hollywood at the time) would want to play a role like this. Hell, Schickel even gives us this at another point: “I wonder if today you could adopt that disguise [that is, of a homosexual] in a popular movie, I have a feeling it would be objectionable to a certain percentage of the audience.”

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*. I couldn’t find any explanation of the horse stunt. Old Hollywood is full of stories, and you would think someone would have a good one about that. But fairs did have shows featuring horses jumping from heights, and perhaps the leap from the bridge wasn’t as difficult as it looks.
*. A movie that does a bunch of different things lightly and well: romance, comedy, and action. Everything works: the score is lively, the screenplay smart, the direction creative and quick, the actors perfect in their parts. It’s one of the great entertainments of this period, and barely shows its age.

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Straw Dogs (1971)

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*. There’s something terribly limited about the world view of Sam Peckinpah.  Straw Dogs was inspired by anthropological studies of human territoriality. I’d like to think life is more complex than this, but that sort of analysis seems to be more in fashion than ever now.
*. The particular situation here is even more contemporary: the bourgeois nightmare of being “at the mercy of the contractors.” And we’re also more familiar with the terrible revenge of the nerds than we were in the early ’70s.
*. Despite the obvious limitations, however, I think the movie works, and it remains one of my favourites from this director. Though, as already noted, I’m not a big fan.
*. You know the rule: If you introduce a man trap into the first act of a drama, then . . .

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*. Susan George is actually very good here, and it’s not an easy role. She has to change quite a bit over the course of the movie.
*. I think she looks much sexier with her glasses on, and can’t imagine why Charlie takes them off to kiss her.
*. There was, and continues to be, a fair bit of controversy over whether Amy “likes” being raped. I think it’s clear that she’s OK with the first one, and while that’s not a politically correct message to send, it does fit perfectly with the evolutionary framework of the film’s morality. She’s already decided her husband is a wimp and she doesn’t mind being bred by an alpha male who has signaled his virility with his demonstration that he can get into the couple’s bedroom anytime he wants (a signal Amy recognizes at once). The second rape, however, isn’t as good for what’s known in the profession as RS (reproductive success) because it’s redundant (and may not even be useful for the end of reproduction anyway, as it’s ambiguous if it’s anal rape). Then going back to her husband once he’s proven himself the strongest potential mate by killing all of her other suitors only makes sense. What else is she to do?
*. David Thomson: “Then there is the matter of women. Peckinpah on screen was a merciless misogynist. . . . Only one [woman] is central — in Straw Dogs — a revolting film of grinding menace, stilted, and very uneasy in England.”
*. So, does Peckinpah hate Amy? I don’t think so. You could argue David gets the worst of it for most of the film, and while he is redeemed by his code — the one that won’t let him give Niles up — she has her code as well, which (as discussed above) is to be successfully bred. Saving Niles, of course, is of no benefit to her at all in that regard. Parading naked by the window, or poking her way down the street without a bra, is.
*. Apparently Peckinpah did want us to think that Amy was buggered in the second rape. Of course, since nothing of such a nature can be shown outside of a porn movie, there has to be some kind of generally accepted shorthand for the act. And so the film euphemism for anal sex is any sex where the man takes the woman from behind. You’ll find that critics often speak confidently of scenes of anal rape when it isn’t at all clear that this is what is happening.
*. It’s interesting, I think, that David never finds out about the rape, though there is one point during the final assault where he suspects something is going on between Amy and Charlie. The reason I find this interesting, or at least one of the reasons I find this interesting, is that no one ever knows that Henry Niles has strangled Janice Venner either. You’d expect a movie this violent to play out like a standard revenge tragedy. But in fact the gang of thugs aren’t getting revenge for Janice’s murder, and David isn’t getting revenge for Amy’s rape. The violence has no real cause aside from the simple willingness to do violence, and (to bring in the evolutionary argument again) to protect the family breeding stock (both Amy and Janice).
*. The title has an obscure Chinese origin, which even when explained doesn’t explain anything. Leslie Halliwell thought this a big “fuck you” to audiences.
*. The symbolism is obvious — well, let’s face it, pretty much everything about this film is obvious — but it works. I like the intercutting of the bird hunt with the rape, the bedroom chess game, and even the torn newspaper trick (the question of how Amy can be made whole again would have been one for a medieval theologian).
*. But though obvious, the film isn’t without complexity. It is Charlie Venner who basically saves David and Amy by shooting his mate, and Henry Niles, however Lennie-like, has killed Janice.
*. Also nice is the contrast between the beautiful countryside and the ugly locals, who even have ugly names like Venner, Scutt, and Cawsey. This is just an unpleasant movie from start to finish.

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The Undying Monster (1942)

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*. I would say that director John Brahm is “best known” for a series of atmospheric horror films he made in the 1940s, but I think it’s perhaps more accurate to say that these are the only movies he is known for today. The Undying Monster was the first, and it was very much a “show me” project, given a worthless script and no budget. Despite the material, he did make something decent out of it, which led in turn to The Lodger.
*. There’s actually a lot to like about the direction. Brahm was inventive and creative with the camera, and not afraid to take risks. Shooting through the fireplace wasn’t a great idea, but look at how the camera moves when Helga rushes out of the house in the opening scene. That’s the sort of thing you don’t expect to see in a production like this.
*. As in his other horror films there is a good use of extreme camera angles and lighting. And especially noteworthy here is his arrangement of two or more faces in a frame. He really has a knack for this manner of composition, and goes back to it again and again without it ever becoming annoying.

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*.Of course the plot is total Scooby-Doo (complete with an absolutely magnificent Great Dane). But the scientist-sleuth Curtis is the embodiment of genial competence, his partnering with the more supernaturally-attuned Christy works nicely, and the moment in the lab where the werewolf hairs disappear is surprisingly effective.
*. No, I don’t think the explanation at the end makes a lot of sense. They seem to have been in an awful rush to wrap things up.

Django Unchained (2012)

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*. I hated this movie. But hate takes many different forms. So here are two of the forms it takes.
*. In the first place, it was a waste. A waste of talent, a big budget, and high production value.
*. Did it take Quentin Tarantino to make this movie? But then, how good a movie is Tarantino even capable of making now? How did he turn into one of Hollywood’s least interesting directors?
*. In the second place, it was overhyped. Box office is one thing, but why did so many critics roll over for this movie? I didn’t find it entertaining, original, or funny at all. And yet a lot of mainstream reviewers gave it perfect scores and put it on their “best of the year” lists.
*. Those are the reasons I hated it. But they are ultimately based on my feeling that it just isn’t any good.
*. You know you’re in trouble when what you liked most about a re-make was a theme song lifted from the original. The rest of the movie’s music (some of it contemporary) seemed artificial to me, and there were too many scenes where the action stops and we go into music video mode.
*. Was the Klan (or “Regulator”) stuff supposed to be funny? I thought Mel Brooks did this material better. I was wincing throughout this part.
*. The whole thing is so conventional it aches. So many predictable sequences, stuck into a set formula. The standard action-film story of bloody vengeance. You knew Django was going to get caught and tied up and beaten and then escape and come back and kill everyone, right? No need for a spoiler alert there. Then he blows up the house and rides off with his woman. Right.
*. Making the conventionality of it worse is the running time. 165 minutes. Fuck. For a movie that doesn’t surprise you once? Or that even tries to surprise you? DiCaprio and Waltz both make their exits with half an hour to go!
*. I suppose the argument could be made that, as an homage to a series of films that were, aside from the first one, complete jokes, criticism has its limits. But this movie isn’t even campy, or self-consciously bad.
*. DiCaprio is fine, but again: did the movie need an actor like him to play such a villain? The bar is set so low with type characters.
*. Samuel L. Jackson as Uncle Tom is a nice touch (one of the few). Otherwise, I get tired of exercises in pop morality that take on Nazis (Inglourious Bastards) or racists in the antebellum South. This isn’t taking risks, and the movie gets no extra points from me for being “about” slavery. Aside from the numerous period details that are wrong, how is Tarantino “revisioning” history in these movies?
*. I like Jamie Foxx, but there’s no chemistry at all between him and Kerry Washington.
*. Wow, is that Siegfried/Brunhilde (or, as she’s rendered here, “Broomhilda”) analogy ever laboured. And drawn in so wearily (Jamie Foxx asking to be told the story by campfire). And in the end it isn’t even relevant.
*. I know we’re supposed to like Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz, but I found him insufferably smug and self-righteous. Which in turn gave rise to some awkward feelings.
*. Roxane Gay: “What struck me most, sitting there in that theatre, was how Django Unchained was a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, and one in which white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental. Django is allowed to regain his dignity because he is freed by a white man. He reunites with his wife, again, with the help of a white man. Django Unchained isn’t about a black man reclaiming his freedom. It’s about a white man working through his own racial demons and white guilt.” I think this is fair.
*. Hitch’s cameos weren’t as intrusive as Tarantino’s. And he may have been a better actor. The business of Django’s escape from the Dickey Mining Company is ridiculous and just something the plot makes us sit through until the hero can go get his revenge.
*. I was so unimpressed I missed the post-credit sequence. I’m not a big fan of these. I don’t usually sit through a full credit roll and I don’t like feeling like I’m being tricked into doing so.

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*. The action sequences are formulaic and prolonged. I also prefer exploding squibs of blood to CGI. CGI in a western seems out of place. But then even the dynamite here is anachronistic.
*. Did you see how Django shoots the guy who threatened to cut off his balls, in the balls! Bet you didn’t see that coming! Talk about poetic justice! You can cheer and laugh at the same time!
*. So typical of Hollywood in this era. Beautiful art direction and production design, but completely empty, derivative, and conventional.

Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

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*. After the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? why not re-make it? Keep Bette, get some more waxworks out of their mothballs, have a nearly identical script (at least structurally, with common elements including the long historical intro, Bette as the character who suffers all her life for a crime she didn’t commit, a failed rescue attempt where the rescuer — Velma here, the maid in Baby Jane — is murdered, and a scene highlighting the difficulties encountered in disposing of a corpse) drawn from a story by the same author, all done up by the same producer/director. It’s like a re-set.
*. Given the number of similarities, and the very fast turnaround, it’s hard to see this movie as anything more than a money grab. But then that’s what a lot of movies are, including some very good ones.
*. Grande Dame Guignol was launched for economic reasons. Old Hollywood actresses were dirt cheap but brought name recognition to a project. Sadly, the message is an unhappy one: old age itself is something horrifying and to be dreaded, and dementia doesn’t arouse sympathy so much as terror. Isn’t there something cruel and mocking in this? I mean, in a way beyond the usual horror-film conventions of cruelty.
*. God this is a bizarre plot. I have trouble keeping straight what is going on. And there’s just too much of it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it leads to two long scenes at the end where everything has to be explained for us. This is a drag, especially, for a movie that is already overweight at 133 minutes (Aldrich had control of the final cut, and that isn’t always a good thing).
*. Another problem with the plot is that it is too complex to be realistic, and is unnecessary for the villainous plotters to realize their ends. The plot is thus an end in itself: justified (or not) by the movie. This isn’t quite the same thing as an idiot plot, but I think it is an ancestor.
*. The ending seems an obvious nod to Les Diaboliques, and as with Baby Jane there are also unmistakeable echoes of Sunset Blvd. at the end. Aldrich wasn’t interested in being original.
*. An example of the sort of overwritten psychological thriller we don’t see as much of today because (a) we don’t believe as much in screenwriting; and (b) we don’t believe in complex — particularly theatrically and dramatically complex — psychology. Unless it’s in something written by Dennis Lehane. And in the case of Shutter Island what we have is a deliberately retro effect being aimed for.
*. Aldrich loves shadows, almost as much as he loves staircases (and he even likes to combine the two, as in Bette’s final tumble after seeing Cotten’s resurrected corpse). Still, he paints in shadow very well. You couldn’t get these effects in colour.
*. But he also overdoes it. Often over half the screen is taken up in shadow, for no good reason.
*. Olivia de Havilland as the scheming villain is great casting against type. And yet whenever I see her, she seems to be holding something powerful back. She’s certainly not into hamming her role up as much as Davis and Moorehead are here.
*. Davis, in my opinion, was never a screen beauty and perhaps that helped her in her later career with roles like Eve and her string of “hagsploitation” titles. It was certainly an odd note for her to go out on.