Monthly Archives: May 2014

Showgirls (1995)


*. A movie that gets a lot of stick for being one of the worst ever made. This is way off. It’s not good, and it’s sometimes comically bad, but it’s nowhere near the level of “worst ever” awfulness. It has, among other positive attributes, a lot of energy, a decent sense of structure, an entire anthology of deathless lines, and a real innocence.
*. I think this final point is what Anthony Lane had in mind when he says that “there is not a whisper of satire in this picture . . . the dirty little secret of this movie [is that] it’s good clean fun.”
*. I like how Nomi is introduced to us through her luscious mouth: the way she licks her lips when getting picked up, or the way she almost seems ready to fellate her switchblade (just as she will later work her lollipop ring). And those lips! As Lane remarks, it looks like her lipstick is wearing lipstick. There are scenes where she looks like she’s holding on to a candy apple with her mouth. Then, when she gets to Vegas, we see her hungry mouth in action again as she keeps stuffing food in it — fast food, in the form of ginormous burgers, because she needs to cram as much of it in as quickly as possible. None of this is subtle, but it doesn’t require much acting on Elizabeth Berkley’s part. Instead it’s all done through choreography, wardrobe and make-up. Lots and lots of make-up.
*. So it’s not all bad. Rather, what I think makes the badness of Showgirls special is the way it just keeps getting better/worse with every re-viewing. The pleasure grows, and I honestly don’t know if there’s any end to enjoying its signature moments.
*. A ’90s remake of All About Eve? Or a distaff version of Scarface? Both, and then some. The world belongs to Nomi.
*. Does Las Vegas, or did Las Vegas, actually have floor shows like these? Why? Who went to see them? Roger Ebert mentions in his review that the Goddess show “seems inspired by actual Vegas productions,” but that’s an ambiguous comment. In any event, I can’t say because I’ve never been.
*. Henrietta the Queen of Bazooms has an absolutely terrible act. It’s full of awful material and she has no sense of delivery.
*. Kyle MacLachlan. I’ve seen actors embarassed or disinterested before, but I’ve never seen one who appears to be so downright disgusted with his role, or in himself for doing it. Lane again: “I got the feeling that he is trying to hide behind his long, curving forelock in the unactorly hope that he might not be recognized.”
*. The pool scene is famous for Berkley’s frantic orgasms, her wild throes suggesting someone had just thrown a large electric appliance into the water. But I think it has a point. Nomi is still performing, putting on a show. Does she ever enjoy sex in this movie? Can she? I think it was Paris Hilton who once remarked that she was a sexy person, but not sexual. This would seem to apply equally well to Nomi Malone.
*. I find the violent conclusion (that is, of Nomi’s revenge) jarring. One imagines Verhoeven and Eszterhas looking at one another and wondering how on earth to end such a film. Two hours in the can, but where was the climax? What was this movie all about? Just a young dancer making it? They needed an exclamation mark and so gave us a bit of bloody nonsense.
*. I don’t find the rape of Molly jarring. I actually think it belongs in the movie, underlining the seediness, exploitation and violence that the industry is built on. And the intercutting between the beautiful life of the dancers and the horrors going on upstairs is quite effective at making the same point: that the rape is showbiz. A star is a whore.
*. But after that the rest of the ending feels rushed. Quick scenes of vengeance and reconciliation are followed by an improbable highway pick-up and then . . . it’s off to Hollywood! Though the idea that Nomi would be doing anything there after just throwing over her job headlining a big show in Vegas is hard to figure. Or is she confident that everything that happened in Vegas will stay in Vegas?
*. Let’s hand out a bit of praise for Gina Gershon, who really owns her role as Cristal Connors. A medal would be in order. And I’m not going to knock Elizabeth Berkley’s dancing either. I think she does very well . . . when she’s dancing.


*. And even though Berkley’s not a talented actor, it’s hard to think what a great actor would do with such a woefully written part. She’s sort of like Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky: you can’t see her being effective in any other role, but as Nomi she’s perfect.
*. How is Nomi to find love when all the men she is surrounded by are heels? James Smith is a hypocrite, a player, and a loser too, Zack is a phoney, Phil Newkirk is a slimey pimp, Al, the manager at Cheetah’s, is a lech, Marty Ross is a self-confessed prick. The guy with the pickup who picks her up is a con, Andrew Carver is a vicious rapist, and creepy Mr. Okida is from Bangkok! Get it?
*. The movie has been knocked for exploiting lesbians, but look at how awful the men are and then look at how the only people Nomi can connect with and love (in a fashion) are Molly and Cristal.
*. If there was monkey shit on the stage, wouldn’t the thing to do be to clean it up before the dancers went out? I think they could have managed at least that much at the Cheetah.
*. I know we can’t expect much in the way of consistency in a film like this, but how on earth does Molly go from breaking up with Nomi in such a dramatic fashion to showing up at the party later, an all-is-forgiven smile on her face, just so she can meet Andrew Carver? This seems an awfully fast turnaround.
*. Thirty years from now, will anyone still watch this movie? Or will it have become this generation’s Valley of the Dolls? I don’t know. But for now, let’s just re-live some of the magic, together.








Act of Violence (1948)


*. There’s a special type of humiliation experienced by film buffs when they fail to recognize a major actor. And it’s a big man who will publicly confess to such a lapse. I was patting myself on the back for spotting Taylor Holmes in Act of Violence, which he came to fresh from playing the same role (a slimy lawyer) in Kiss of Death. Something about that face says you can’t trust it. But then I was mortified as the final credits rolled (there are no opening credits). Edith Enley had been played by Janet Leigh! Admittedly this was one of her first appearances, but how had I not recognized her? Watching it again, I have to say she just doesn’t look very Janet Leigh-like.


*. A remarkably bleak film, tragic and with no real heroes. Everyone, even poor Mary Astor, is damaged goods.
*. Take the first appearance of Robert Ryan’s Joe Parkson, limping down the foggy street. What kind of a hero limps? So is he the hero? Well, there’s the title on the screen and he’s the only guy we’ve seen thus far, so . . .
*. Sticker shock. When Robert Ryan asks about a hotel room and is told it will be “three-fifty” for a single room I was initially a bit surprised. But the clerk must have meant $3.50, not $350 (though the subtitle reads “350”). Now you have to keep that in mind when Van Heflin says he’s willing to pay Ryan off with $20,000, or tells the arranger Gavery that he will pay $10,000 to have Ryan killed. Using the same scale of inflation those numbers would be $2 million and $1 million respectively. Which seems awful steep, at least for the hit.
*. I find it remarkable, or at least worth noting, that Frank and Joe never actually get together or exchange any words. Over the phone Van Heflin uses an intermediary (Mary Astor) and the two don’t directly communicate. When they confront each other at the convention a punch is thrown and that is it. In the final showdown they only walk toward one another before they are interrupted. Frank calls out to Joe but there is no response. And at the very end there are no dying words of confession or final gesture of absolution. Nothing at all passes between the two leads. This had to be a conscious decision.
*. In Drew Casper’s commentary he draws attention to how Zinnemann introduces Frank and Joe so differently, and thus “pits one character against the other before any verbal, before any visual confrontation between the two leads takes place.” But the thing is, no dramatic confrontation ever does take place.
*. How common was it at the time to show a woman in pyjamas instead of a nightdress? Leigh’s jammies struck me as rather modern, at least for Hollywood, but I’m not sure what the conventions were.
*. It’s clichéd to talk of the use of shadow in noir, but just count the number of shots in this film where a character is placed either partially or entirely in shadow or darkness. Even in little ways you might not notice.
*. There’s something archetypal in Frank’s dark night of the soul, as though he’s descending (literally), into progressively seedier and more barren locations, finally arriving at a place that is not just a literal but a mythic underworld. There he meets a whore, the devil (the crooked lawyer Mr. Gavery as tempter), and one of the devil’s henchmen. He is drunk and experiences visions, ultimately escaping by way of his own tunnel to freedom. The morning after we feel that he has perhaps not been purified, but at least made stronger by going through the ordeal.
*. From the trailer: “The manhunt no woman could stop!” Ah, women. Their hearts are in the right place and they show genuine concern, but in the end they are lied to and cut totally out of the loop. Hell, Mary Astor’s Pat doesn’t even get paid! I hope she at least got her “kicks.” Of course women were often portrayed as irrelevant in movies of the time, but their marginalization seems quite stark and deliberate here.


*. I really wasn’t expecting it when Johnny threw his drink in Astor’s face. They got me with that one. I wonder if it was improvised. It’s a wonderful moment.
*. You can’t think Zinnemann wasn’t remembering the final showdown of this movie when he came to do High Noon. He even works in a series of clocks counting down to the fatal moment. Casper is right in seeing in it a “dry run,” and I would even argue (contra Casper) that the use of triangulation here is also present in the climax of the later film.


The Italian Job (1969)


*. You know Hal Needham must have been watching, and taking notes. The lesson: whole films can be constructed around a prolonged car chase, and still be entertaining.
*. Of course the chase is the thing, but this movie does have other things going for it. How many actors have there ever been as watchable as Michael Caine? He’s young here, and irresistible, stealing every scene he’s in without even trying.
*. The music is excellent, and essential. The chase wouldn’t work without “Get a Bloomin’ Move On.” They cut a scene that had the Mini Coopers dancing in an ice hall with three police cars to a waltz, and rightly so, but you can still understand the thinking. The chase is a dance, and might have been something animated by Disney.


*. Much of the rest of the movie dances too. The precision driving is one thing, but the movie is filled with little choreographed touches. Note the synchronization as the mafiosi all take their hats off at the same time, or the secretaries all reaching for their glasses in unison.
*. I’m not sure the direction (by Peter Collinson) is anything special, but he was the guy for this kind of job. Peter Yates (coming fresh off of directing Bullitt) was the first choice but I don’t think he would have worked. Bullitt aspired to a certain level of realism. This movie is a comic strip.
*. I guess it’s just one of those films where the stars were in alignment. I mean, take a look at the way the wheel goes spinning off the Lambourghini as it crashes down the cliff. And then how the wreath manages to roll all the way down after it. How many takes did they need to get that right? I don’t know, but you get the feeling it might have happened that perfectly the first time.
*. I’m less impressed by the way the final Mini pushed out of the bus blows up on its way down the mountainside. Why does it do that? Just to put an exclamation point on things, I suppose. And because it looked cool.
*. The odd career of a producer. Michael Deeley had a big hit in the ’60s with this movie, in the ’70s with The Deer Hunter, and in the ’80s with Blade Runner. What do these three films have in common?
*. Noel Coward is only a presence, and in a role I didn’t buy for a moment. At the time he could barely walk and couldn’t remember his lines. Sort of sad, but it made for a nice send off.


*. I wonder how seriously we’re supposed to take the political angle. Mr. Bridger as an old school monarchist seems harmless, and the (too) brief comic cameo by the blustery Fred Emney cuts both ways. Caine’s threat of blowback against the Italian community in England should anything happen to him or his gang is, I think, entirely comic. And yet there’s still a vaguely unsettling, hooliganish nationalism to the proceedings.
*. The American movie poster featured the naked back of a woman with what seems to be a traffic or map-inspired tattoo. It was felt at the time that the misleading poster hurt sales in the U.S. It reappears on the packaging of some DVD versions and I have no idea what it means.
*. In at least one regard it has to be considered a true rarity: a charming cult movie. Most cult movies get that way through being weird or shocking or transgressive in some way. This one is just fun.


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

*. Here we go again with high production values, slick effects, and empty spectacle. Budget: $150 million! All for wonderful photography, great locations, top-of-the-line effects, and a script that is a shambles.
*. Even the title is a shambles. Who allowed that bifurcated monstrosity?
*. You might have thought the script would be better. It’s based not just on a popular novel, but a whole series of popular novels: the Patrick O’Brien books featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. But that’s also the problem. Instead of just filming one of the books the movie has put together a highlight reel of the best parts from several. The result is a mess.
*. It’s often referred to as a failed franchise, but given the expense of its production it would have had to have done astronomical box office to have made a sequel likely. And what would a sequel have given us that we don’t already have here? We’ve already seen the men rounding the Cape, the crew nearly in mutiny, a visit to an exotic location, a flogging, a chase, a surgery, a couple of battles . . . that pretty much covers the entire age-of-sail repertoire.
*. I wonder if it was anticipation of a sequel that led to the bizarre, confusing, and anticlimactic ending. What difference does it make that the French captain wasn’t dead? Was he going to re-take the Acheron? How?
*. Yes, it looks wonderful. Technically, it’s top-of-the-line. Oscar noms for art direction, costume design, sound mixing, visual effects, and statues for sound editing and cinematography. But I’m tired of movies that just look good. I’ve seen this movie a couple of times and I think I can say with confidence that I’ll never watch it again.
*. Of course, if you’re an eight-year-old boy then this is the movie for you. I like how the only women we (briefly) see are the ones who get a longing, lingering look from Captain Jack as they pass by on a small boat. It’s only a shot, but you know why it’s in there, don’t you? It’s there to let you know that Captain Jack isn’t gay! He may be at sea for years on end commanding a ship full of men (and cute boys), but he is not tempted. He yearns for female companionship.
*. Somewhere along the line Russell Crowe turned into an actor I just have trouble watching. When? Robin Hood? He’s competent as Ahab here, but it’s not a role that asks him to do much.
*. Peter Weir. What an odd career. Who would have thought he would have ended up here? From The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock to this. I wonder where his heart is. It’s often said of the film biz that first you make your money, then you make your art. Perhaps Weir was never all that interested in art. Honestly, seeing this, a film that took him years to bring to screen, makes me look back at his early films in a different light.
*. That lockerroom pep talk Captain Jack gives the troops is awful! This is a movie without any sense of irony. But I guess that’s what people are looking for in these troubled times.
*. It’s hard to get into the conflict between Aubrey and the Acheron because the French ship might as well be the Flying Dutchman, or a white whale. There’s no real villain to the piece.
*. I feel so old and out of touch with the cultural zeitgeist. Roger Ebert gave this movie four out of four stars. A. O. Scott named it the best movie of 2003. The Ebert hurts; Scott is someone I’m just never on the same page as. But really.
*. I guess I’d settle for calling this movie a professional, and very expensive, piece of entertainment and leave it at that.

The White Ribbon (2009)


*. Shot in colour and then altered to black and white. Why? I wonder what was gained by doing this. Was it cheaper? Roger Ebert suggests that perhaps black-and-white film stock was hard to find. Hm.
*. I don’t know if the de-colourization process has this particular effect, but the whites in particular are incredibly stark. The snow really is dazzling (as the narrator remarks). Women’s faces look like ghostly pale blotches above their dark dresses.
*. Like a lot of Haneke’s work, this seems a film meant to be analyzed and discussed more than enjoyed. There are a lot of windows and doorways: symbols of witness? Transition?
*. Cruelty (again, like a lot of Haneke’s work) is the essential element, with hypocrisy a close second. I mean, does the Doctor have to screw his sister-in-law right on top of what seems to be a shrine to his dead wife?
*. A return to the Village of the Damned? Of course Haneke isn’t saying, at least any more than he would say at the end of Cache. But when it comes to the origins of evil both movies put the blame on the parents. Here the chief villain is repression rather than intolerance, but both are means of defending false bourgeois values, which I take it are what Haneke sees as the real problem.


*. What are we to make of the “dawn of the First World War” angle? That the seeds of that conflict were sown in communities such as Eichwald? That the younger generation and their latent violence were about to be sacrifices made to the hypocrisy of their parents? That this wretched society is about to get what it deserves?
*. Roger Ebert: “It’s too simple to say the film is about the origins of Nazism. If that were so, we would all be Nazis.” Wait. Who said anything about Nazis? Oh yeah, this is a movie about Germans behaving badly. So it’s not the First World War we’re talking about after all.


The House by the Cemetery (1981)


*. If there are a Big Three of Italian art-house directors (Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti) is there also a demonic trilogy of Italian horror masters consisting of Bava, Argento, and Fulci?
*. If so, my own ranking of Fulci would place him well below his peers. The most memorable moments in any Fulci movie are usually those those created by his special effects wizards, the kind of thing often referred to as “good kills.” The House by the Cemetery begins with one such demise as a nameless girl gets a pair of scissors through the back of her head. Good kill. Stupid, and utterly gratutitous, but then what did you expect?


*. These badly-dubbed Eurotrash films have an odd effect, as though we’ve travelled to a place where language has somehow become alienated and arbitrary. Are the often-cited holes in the plot here really holes, or just the result of material being lost in translation? And this movie was apparently even shot in English!
*. You get the feeling you could substitute the soundtrack of a Bergman film and it wouldn’t make any difference to your understanding of what is going on. At times the exchanges are downright surreal. My favourite is when Lucy comes in to the kitchen where Ann is toweling up a massive bloodstain smeared right across the floor. Lucy asks “What are you doing?” Ann replies, “I made some coffee.” What planet are we on?
*. Another surreal soundtrack offering is the repetition of unaccountable whimpering/crying noises. Where are these coming from? Clearly not from Bobby. I’ve heard it suggested that this is a noise Dr. Freudstein makes, perhaps as a way of luring victims. But . . . no. Think about it.
*. Making things even worse is the awful voice used to dub Bobby. It’s painful every time he opens his mouth. It sounds like they got an adult actor to do his lines in an a little boy voice, and it doesn’t work at all.
*. Now this movie does actually have a script with some potential, prefiguring The Shining in some interesting ways, but it’s totally let down by the execution. In this it is like a lot of Fulci’s work: you can see a really good, possibly great horror movie hiding just beneath the surface. It’s the sort of thing that leaves you pining for a re-make, at least of certain scenes. The promise is there, if only they’d got it right!
*. Examples abound, most of them relating to the appearance of the little girl, Mae. The business of Bobby seeing her in the photo of the house, her vision of the decapitated mannequins, and the way Bobby sees Mae across the street, are all moments that just miss working. And they are the best parts of the movie.
*. The mad doctor’s name really is “Freudstein”? Wow.
*. This is usually considered part of Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” or “Gates of Death” trilogy, but I think this is one of those after-the-fact, manufactured constructions. The three movies don’t have much in common aside from the usual genre bits.
*. OK, the bat scene is hilarious. I was laughing out loud. Talk about one determined bat! It wasn’t letting go for anything!
*. Does Lucy get dragged down three sets of basement steps? Because that’s what it looks like. It’s moments like this (and Fulci has a lot of them) where one has to question his basic competence. And yet they also contribute to the surreal charm I mentioned earlier. It’s like we’ve entered a new dimension of time and space.
*. How far out of town is the house? It seems kind of harsh to make Lucy carry her groceries the whole way.
*. Just how relevant is it that “the house” is “by the cemetery”? It’s where Mrs. Freudstein is buried, but I’m not sure why since her husband is supposed to be buried in town. And what’s with the burial slab on the floor of the front parlour? The basement isn’t a tomb, it’s just a normal basement. So many questions, so few answers.
*. “He needs human victims, to renew his cells. That’s how he stays alive.” Do tell. And no doubt stuffing his body full of maggots helps as well.
*. What is it with Fulci and worms/maggots? They are definitely a signature ingredient, but I wonder if they had any personal significance or if he just thinks they look gross.
*. Another signature Fulci move is the insane ending. Is Bobby dead? What is that epigraph supposed to mean? That somehow this was all Bobby’s or Mae’s fault?
*. I also liked how the epigraph is attributed to Henry James (Fulci actually made it up). In one early printing of James’s The Ambassadors the chapters were published out of order, and nobody caught on to the mistake because the story was so hard to follow anyway. Trivia: In a VHS video release of this movie several reels were put out of order. I wonder if anyone noticed.


The Innocents (1961)


*. Martin Scorsese included this title among his “eleven scariest horror movies of all time.” That’s a judgement I agree with, and, if informal discussions among fellow film fans are any indication, it’s one a lot of other people would agree with too. This movie is frightening. The shot of Miss Jessel across the lake is one of the two or three scariest moments I’ve ever experienced in a film.


*. Freddie Francis gets a lot of credit for his direction, but it seems to me that he’s hamstrung by having to shoot in CinemaScope. He was keen on doing a lot of deep focus shots and CinemaScope isn’t kind to deep focus. The movie often feels like it’s going after depth of field but is being flattened and stretched in other directions. The results are not always optimal, akin to watching the film getting tugged like a piece of toffee. If you do watch it, make sure you do so in widescreen, as the reformatted version is awful.
*. It’s based on The Turn of the Screw, or, more exactly, on a play that was based on The Turn of the Screw, and I find it pretty faithful to James. The sexual innuendo was there in the original, and I think the script keeps more than enough ambiguity. Even the risky kisses on the mouth (two of them between the Governess and Miles) only suggest sexuality.
*. Deborah Kerr, I think, overplays the neurotic governess. She’s clearly dotty right from the first scene. But, in a way that is oddly effective, she seems to get saner as time goes by.
*. I wonder what year it’s supposed to be. Probably the same as James’s story, but something about Miles’s overachieving coiffure seems decadent in a swinging ’60s sort of way.


High Plains Drifter (1973)


*. Some critics actually thought this film (Eastwood’s second at the helm) derivative of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Really? Well, who else would it derive from? And it’s not as though the Western doesn’t come with a ton of genre baggage. You could call it equally derivative of High Noon.
*. I wonder if Eastwood collected laconicisms the way some writers scribble down epiphanies. How many dry one-liners does he snap off in this movie? A lot. Whether they came courtesy of Eastwood, screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, or Dean Riesner I don’t know, but I would guess they were mostly Eastwood’s own contribution.
*. I find the climax to be rather abrupt and perfunctory, but I don’t know how much of this is due to creeping desensitization. The revenge genre is so overdone now that we expect a spectacular, prolonged, and very bloody reel of retribution. Here the main bad guy gets shot and that’s it.
*. Speaking of the finale, why the hell do the two bad guys stay in the saloon while they listen to their buddy getting whipped to death just outside the door? This makes no sense at all to me.
*. A movie made just a couple of years after Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which may explain the really crude evolutionary misogyny. It was definitely something that was in the air at the time. Callie is the “blonde bitch in heat” in need of “one honest-to-God man with a full set of balls.” Luckily Eastwood’s Stranger is “the dog that runs the pack” and so Callie can lustily embrace being raped, as Sarah will as well. A good breeding woman just needs to be forced in order to be satisfied.
*. Certainly the local townsmen don’t seem to be doing much breeding. Where are the children? The only kids we see are the natives the Stranger gives candy to.
*. Also part of the reductionist evolutionary perspective is the fact that everyone in the movie is despicable. This is the same sort of ugliness we get in Peckinpah’s parable.
*. After Clint re-branded as an icon of conservatism it became easier to read his work as being right-wing (if not fascistic, in Kael’s formulation). But what is the political message of this film? John Wayne despised it as un-American, but then he despised High Noon as well (and was that movie really as “liberal” as its pedigree and reception would assume?). High Plains Drifter isn’t a movie celebrating the little guy or small-town values, what with its revelation of the good, god-fearing citizens of Lago as hypocritical, money-grubbing, cowardly, and weak. I suppose the “man on horseback” can be seen as reactionary in some way, embodying a purer form of justice than the merely human, but how does that translate to American politics?
*. Lago is a mining town? Where is the mine? Where are the miners?
*. I wouldn’t want to be the one driving that carriage with the dummies on it that is  being used for target practice. Dangerous job, seeing as all the townsfolk are just firing wildly.