Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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*. I can’t imagine a better movie being made out of this material.
*. That’s a backhanded compliment. I’m not a fan of the “material.” The Silence of the Lambs was the best of Thomas Harris’s three Hannibal Lecter books, but that’s not saying much. I think it’s hackwork: well-paced and entertaining, but overdrawn, formulaic, and needlessly gruesome. I wonder if Harris even realizes how big an idiot his Lecter sounds with his cheap and easy displays of vulgar learning. The movie tones this down considerably.
*. There’s nothing new in changing horror lead to gold when moving from print to screen. I guess you just have to trust the wisdom of crowds, in this case the bestseller lists. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a terrible book. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be the most awful classic ever written in English. Robert Bloch’s Psycho isn’t worth reading (trust me). But these clunky and contrived creations were the inspiration for entire film mythologies.
*. The credit sequence introduces the important theme of inversion. It seems as though Starling is being chased through the woods. We’re conditioned by now to see it this way: the creepy music (Howard Shore says he was surprised when people told him they found the opening scary!), the heavy breathing, the shots where the camera chases Starling from behind (a horror film cliché if ever there was one).

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*. This sense of inversion is important in a movie where the bad guy is also a hero. And don’t try to say Hannibal isn’t a hero. Screenwriter Ted Tally claims he was upset that Lecter had turned into a “cuddly camp figure” when he was such an awful person. He should have known better. Hannibal is articulate, charming, and compares more than favourably with the degenerates and grotesques he’s associated with (Buffalo Bill, Miggs, even Dr. Chilton). Plus he’s on the side of the good guys and he’s affectionate toward Clarice. So yes, he’s a hero.
*. Note the scene where Starling interviews Hannibal in his hotel cage. Much of it is shot from inside, making it look as though Starling is pacing behind the bars. Demme didn’t need to shoot from this far back, but I think he liked the effect. Is she the hunter or the hunted? Inside or outside the cage? The roles will indeed be reversed when she visits Jame Gumb, but even here Hannibal is warning her of the eyes moving over her body with a predatory gaze.
*. Throughout, Demme has an almost Leone-ish thing for close-ups, his faces filling or even overfilling the screen. And it works because Hopkins and Foster are so good and have such interesting faces, with so much going on behind their professional or psychopathic masks.
*. Sticking with that same point, can you imagine two faces you want to look at more than Jodie Foster’s and Anthony Hopkins’? I wonder how much Demme built the film around the two of them (neither was first choice for the part). For example, originally the idea was to shoot the whole business of Starling’s running away from the farm as a child and present it as a flashback. But when Demme saw how Foster was playing the scene he realized he couldn’t cut away.

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*. It’s usually categorized as a horror film, and Roger Ebert in his essay on it even breaks down all the terrifying scenes. But I’ve never found it all that scary. When I first saw it I thought the final bit in the basement scary, but that was it. It’s hard to be scared by Hannibal because he’s so charismatic (which is the sort of thing David Thomson really objects to).
*. Hopkins was apparently going for the voice of HAL in 2001, with a bit of Katherine Hepburn mixed in. I’d say he nailed it.
*. Ted Tally’s script does a very effective job streamlining and generally improving on the novel. The dialogue is much better, and in some places the plot is tightened up.
*. On the downside, Starling seems to fall apart too quickly when she’s with Lecter, and it’s not at all clear what Lecter’s relation is to Jame Gumb, which leads to a lot of confusion at the end.
*. Some unnecessary elements are also carried over from the book, and not sufficiently explained. Whose body, for example, is rotting in the tub? (This is a point that’s not clear in the book either, though I think we find out enough to suggest that the common assumption, that it’s Mrs. Lippman, is wrong.) The Benjamin Raspail subplot is left a tangled mess. And it’s an obvious strain to introduce the night-vision goggles in a scene where Gumb clearly doesn’t need them, just to set us up for their use later in the film.
*. Lecter’s hotel cage looks like the crown jewels display in the Tower of London. It doesn’t seem remotely practical, or secure. Demme thought it “ludicrous imagery.” But it’s all part of the movie’s crazy theatricality. I mean, it’s one thing to allow for Lecter’s decoration of the cage after his escape, but look for example at the tableau the police officers form when they come crashing through the door. That’s staging too.
*. Hannibal is a ham. Note how he’s always calling people back to get in a last word. That’s something hams like to do. He likes to put on a show. He’s much different in this regard from Jame Gumb, as I’ll discuss later.
*. Imitation follows success. After this movie the deluge of crime procedurals (especially on television). This has all become quite conventional and mainstream now. As have other things. This may be the first movie to feature a nipple ring.
*. No Hopkins isn’t on camera much (he set a record for the least amount of screen time for a Best Actor Oscar winner). But he makes it count and he doesn’t really have to do anything more. As I’ve said before, a great villain just has to establish a presence.

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*. I love the score by Howard Shore. Is it overused? A lot of contemporary reviewers thought so, but I don’t agree. But then I don’t think Carpenter’s tinkly Halloween score is overused either, and most people do.
*. Everyone hits on Starling. She is surrounded by the male gaze: other police officers, Dr. Chilton, the FBI trainees, possibly her boss Crawford, even the entomologist. And, of course, Hannibal: “I think it would be quite something to know you in private life’, “People will say we’re in love,” and the final stroking finger, like God reaching out to Adam.

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*. But also note how short those shots are of Starling being ogled. A quick look inside the elevator before the doors close, a single pan around the funeral home parlour, the male trainees turning their heads to watch her ass. These are just moments, lasting no more than a second or two. You don’t have to belabour a point when you’re making it this effectively.
*. Perversity can be touching. It’s strange how these odd love affairs are so much more passionate, more convincing, than vanilla romances. Clarice and Hannibal share a relationship built on mutual respect. They make a good couple. We so seldom look on love . . .

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*. Roger Corman got pretty high billing in the opening credits for having one line, didn’t he?
*. Oh the horrors of filming in the dark. The irresolvable paradoxes. There’s a famous goof that Jodie Foster points out on the commentary where Gumb’s gun is seen casting a shadow, but I don’t think many people (or any people, for that matter) notice this on a first viewing. What bothered me a bit was that I don’t think the goggles he’s wearing would work in a basement without windows and with the lights turned out. There needs to be some light.
*. Is it possible to (deliberately, consciously) kill yourself by swallowing your tongue? I don’t think so.
*. This is a B-movie at heart, but one made with incredible professionalism and skill and feel for the material. In the words of Vincent Canby, it’s “pop filmmaking of a high order.”
*. Of course the acting and direction and scoring are top notch. But there are so many of what are usually considered to be “little” things that are done well.
*. For example, you want location and set design? I’m not talking about the aforementioned theatrical way Hannibal festoons his cage with the body of the disembowelled policeman (how did he manage to do that anyway?), or the Victorian dungeon/asylum. Instead, look at that street in Belvedere, Ohio. The lawns with their wooden ducks and firewood and birdhouses and broken basketball hoop. Then the homes themselves and their interiors. God, it doesn’t get better than that. I’m transported by the eldritch wallpaper and the wearing of the hardwood floors.
*. Or take the sound. Note how that overemphasized whining noise of the night-vision goggles powering up echoes the same whine made by the polaroid taking pictures of the girl’s dead body in the morgue. It’s both annoying and creepy.
*. It’s a movie full of moments, many of them now famous. I think my favourite though is the reaction shot of Starling’s face when she sees the moth in Gumb’s house. She does it all with her eyes, and Demme gives her the whole frame to work with. David Thomson (from his book The Whole Equation): “But no matter the modern stress on special effects, there isn’t a sight in movies as momentous as shots of a face as its mind is being changed.” What we’re doing with this scene is watching someone not just reacting but thinking. And Starling has to immediately change her face again when Gumb looks at her. This leads to a wonderful stand-off where the two are both reading each other. Until, as the novel puts it: “Their eyes met and they knew each other.” Another change of face for Starling, signaling another change of role. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone back to watch just this one scene, and I never get tired of it.
*. Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb responds in an almost equally amazing fashion. When he starts laughing at Starling’s request to use his phone, does he know that he’s been found out? Then he has to make that hasty, almost comic, swerving exit. He’s a theatre person too, but more like one of the crew, someone who works backstage in the prop department (which is exactly what his basement tailor shop looks like). He’s the kind of guy who likes to perform alone in front of a mirror, not a real leading man like Hannibal. Gumb avoids the spotlight, where Hannibal relishes it. When he runs away I get the sense of an embarrassed amateur not ready for his close-up, a pretender running from the stage.

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Manhunter (1986)

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*. Michael Mann. Now here’s a filmmaker I really don’t get. Or rather, I’m just not sure why so many people take him seriously. He’s made some good movies, but to rank him up with the best filmmakers of his generation is ridiculous.
*. He came to fame as the creative force behind Miami Voice, a television cop show that was kind of big in the day, but which nobody watches or even references any more. After that he went on to do a bunch of what I think are overrated movies, including Thief (a slightly above average heist film) and Heat (a slightly above average cops-and-robbers movie). Colour me unimpressed.
*. It’s not that Mann doesn’t have a sense of style, it’s that his sense of style is so limited, and so unsuited to this material. Really, if he wanted to change the story and characters as much as he does here, why did he even bother with Thomas Harris’s book?
*. What is Mann’s style? In a nutshell: ’80s MTV. It’s the Miami Vice house style. Contemporary music (read: synth pop), all of which has dated badly, will play throughout entire sequences, turning them into music videos. Colour schemes will be overstated and improbable. Characters will look good and act cool. And the homes! The homes will be art deco palaces, temples of neo-modernism.

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*. I mean, get a load of that suburban bedroom that’s turned into a blood bath. Have you ever been in a real bedroom that white? Or what about a psychiatric prison that’s really an art museum (the High Museum, in Atlanta), where even the bars in the cells — nay, even the staplers on the director’s desk! — are white.
*. The all-white prison isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s interesting how both this film and The Silence of the Lambs opt for entirely unrealistic prison settings to keep Lecter/Lecktor in: this one all gleaming antiseptic white, in Silence of the Lambs a dripping Victorian dungeon.
*. What is a problem are the other sets, like the aforementioned bedroom. Or Francis Dollarhyde’s house. In the novel his house is an old heap that used to be owned by his grandmother (which, given that he’s a Norman Bates type, means something). Here it’s like something out of Architectural Digest. And it just doesn’t suit his introverted character. Would a serial killer who likes getting off to home movies want to live in a glass house?
*. I’m not a fan of Harris’s novel, but it did try and make some sense out of Dollarhyde. Mann doesn’t even try.

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*. The backstory of Dollarhyde’s upbringing (his name is spelled with one “l” in the novel; Kim Newman thinks the switch was a nod to the money-mad spirit of the ’80s) is taken out in the film, and that’s fair enough. But for some reason he’s also prettied up. His facial disfigurement is reduced to a repaired hair lip and there is no explanation of his use of the exaggerated false teeth. His huge dragon tattoo was apparently included in some scenes but then Mann took that out as well because it seemed out of place and over-the-top. So there’s really no explanation of what the Red Dragon moniker means to him, or what he feels he is on the way to “becoming.”
*. It’s interesting that Mann tries to give us a sympathetic serial killer, but there’s just not enough here for us to get a feel for who Dollarhyde is or what’s driving him.
*. That said, Tom Noonan is excellent. He’s a dangerous misfit, but not a grotesque caricature.
*. Mann wanted to call the movie Red Dragon, after the novel, but De Laurentiis overruled him, thinking that title might confuse audiences into thinking it was a kung-fu movie (or in some way connected to his previous year’s bomb, The Last Dragon). I’m not sure that thinking was wrong. Brian Cox, nevertheless, thought the title Manhunter “cheesy.” I wonder if Cox saw the way it’s splashed on the screen in a neon green glow like they’re announcing the Bride of Re-Animator. Now that’s cheesy.
*. A low budget film, but that’s no excuse. It had a budget of $15 million and only did box office of $8 million. Five years later, Silence of the Lambs had a comparable budget of $19 million and did $272 million box office.

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*. I mentioned the “cool” acting already. William Petersen is hamstrung by this. I think he’s too busy trying to look cool to do much in the way of acting. In the event, he would go on to do more work in this vein on TV.
*. I also mentioned the dated soundtrack. But it’s not just that the ’80s sound is no longer popular. The music here was criticized by many contemporary reviewers. I find it wretched, distracting, and inappropriate. And how does the music reflect any of the action, or the characters? We know Dollarhyde doesn’t listend to such shit. He’s into Iron Butterfly.
*. The conclusion is very different from the book, and is even more stupid. Instead of simply shooting Dollarhyde through the window, Graham crashes through it. In real life he would have bounced off the glass and hurt himself.
*. Closing on a freeze frame of man, woman and child on the beach, looking out to sea? Really? How uninspired.
*. They probably should have left Joan Allen’s blind Reba out of the film. They didn’t have enough time to develop her relationship with Dollarhyde. Here everything seems rushed (she’s a blind woman who accepts a ride home from a man she’s never met, who says only that he wants to take her someplace special?).
*. Hannibal Lecktor (as he is here known). In jail for killing . . . college girls? How disappointing.
*. Brian Cox is actually very good (the accent works almost as nicely as Hopkins’s Katharine Hepburn imitation), but there’s a massive problem with the part. It’s completely unnecessary.
*. In the book there’s something made of the fact that Lecter gets Graham’s home address to Francis. Here that information is pointless. And aside from that there’s no reason for Graham to visit him at all. In Silence of the Lambs he helps Starling (albeit sometimes indirectly), providing her with insights she can use. Cox has nothing at all to do. He’s irrelevant. You just can’t leave an actor all alone like that.
*. I don’t think Lecktor has much that’s interesting to say either. He’s not operating on another intellectual plane. He’s just a brainy psycho who likes needling the good guys. His remarks on God as enjoying his destructive work seem banal to me.
*. It’s more a police procedural than a thriller, and I don’t find any of it scary or thrilling. In fact, there’s very little real violence. We see the aftermath of Dollarhyde’s work, but we never see him in action (aside from that marvellously effective pre-credit sequence). Instead the focus is on the crime solving. Dollarhyde isn’t even introduced until halfway through the picture and Lecktor only has three scenes in total.
*. This is a decent flick, and it it’s one of those movies that probably deserved more attention and respect than it got when it was released. However, it has since benefited from a spring of critical overcompensation, with many commentators making it out to be much better than it is. One mainly sees in it today cues for what came after: the rise of CSI-style crimefighting and, of course, the franchising of Hannibal Lecter.

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J. Edgar (2011)

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*. As the subject of a biopic, J. Edgar Hoover isn’t bad. He had a long life and was closely involved in major historical events, with connections to many key power players. He was also someone who knew a lot of secrets, and kept a lot of secrets about himself. This is fruitful ground for a filmmaker.
*. On the other hand, he was a secretive, uncharismatic, and indeed slightly repellent figure. Like many such people when they become famous, he blamed the media for the fact that the public didn’t love him. It’s hard for a big Hollywood production to find that a sympathetic point of view.
*. Sometimes the greatest, most intense drama can be found in stories of silence and repression. That said, I think Roger Ebert was right in saying that with Hoover the chilling possibility is that what you saw was what you got. Was there anything in him to be repressed, or was he just a corporate suit?
*. For me, the moments that hint at Hoover’s repressed feelings (his calling out to Colson after their fight, putting on his mother’s dress after her death, and seeking absolution from Helen Gandy) never quite ring true, as expressions of genuine feeling, calls for help, or self-dramatization.

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*. Is it just that Hoover (and Tolson, and Gandy) were drawn to power, and were willing to sacrifice deeper human connections in order to experience and exercise it?
*. I don’t blame Leonardo DiCaprio for any of the film’s failings. He’s very good here, even when totally unrecognizable under layers of make-up as an old man. I get the sense that Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black just couldn’t decide on who their Hoover was going to be (or didn’t want to decide), and so left a lot of things ambiguous.
*. What’s with the lighting? So many scenes seem to be taking place in the dark, with characters mostly in shadow. I suppose it may be meant to have some thematic significance – there are scenes when Hoover is intent on drawing the curtains, or is disturbed by sunlight – but after a while I kept hoping someone would get up and turn the lights on.
*. Complementing the lighting goes the washed-out colour scheme, a pallette full of greys and browns and blacks. I guess before colour the world was a colourless place, or at best sepia-toned.
*. The uniformity of the colour scheme highlights a problem I had with the movie’s feel for history. Hoover’s FBI career spanned nearly fifty years, but it all looks and feels the same here. That is, it looks like the 1920s and ’30s. Hoover and Tolson get older, but their world doesn’t. Yes, the movie is full of a lot of interiors, many of them institutional, but even in the late ’60s I was still feeling like we were back in the Prohibition era.
*. Perhaps part of the problem is the chronlogical montage. Time doesn’t pass in a linear fashion but rather swirls around some indeterminate sense of the past. There’s nothing wrong with this approach (though framing it through the device of having Hoover dictating his memoirs is a bit creaky), but it perhaps made Eastwood reluctant to clearly distinguish all of the different periods he was covering.
*. I can’t help feeling a great opportunity (and a great performance by DiCaprio) were wasted here, that an opportunity was missed. Hoover led a life that was profoundly relevant to our own: someone who foreshadowed the whole NSA, “information is power,” and end-of-privacy era.
*. This material really belongs to Oliver Stone, who would have taken the themes of paranoia and abuse of power and run with them (as he did in JFK and Nixon). Eastwood doesn’t appear to be that interested in this angle, or to know what to make of it.
*. It looks great, and is clearly the work of talented professionals. But it never manages to engage with its subject, or kick into another gear, either in its few action scenes or any of the dramatic climaxes and revelations. Perhaps Hoover didn’t lead a passionate life, but I think a project like this needs a more passionate vision to inform it.

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“G” Men (1935)

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*. The “G” is placed in quotation marks in the title. It stands for “Government Men” (they weren’t the FBI yet but only the Bureau of Investigation). Its first use is usually attributed to Machine Gun Kelly, who, when he was captured, is said to have cried out “Don’t shoot, G-Men!” For the record, the origin of the “G” in G-string is still obscure, with no universally agreed upon etymology. The G-spot is named after the German gynecologist Ernst Gräfenberg.
*. The movie-within-a-movie intro that was added for a 1949 re-release is distracting, and makes it seem like we’re watching a recruitment film for the FBI. Which isn’t far off the mark.

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*. I don’t much care for this film. I find it’s more of a historical artefact today than a movie I enjoy. Most of all I find it formulaic and dull. That said, contemporary audiences were thrilled and it did huge box office, becoming one of the most profitable films of its time as well as being (in Richard Jewell’s phrase) “rapturously received” by critics.
*. Cagney is the spark plug, of course, but he doesn’t seem fully engaged. The plot is cartoonish and predictable. You know right away that Davis won’t cut it as a defence lawyer. Look how he tosses that “greaseball” out of his office! Then you know his buddy is going to get killed, which means he’ll have to join the Feds to avenge him. Then we have the problem of the two women who both want Cagney. One of them will have to die. Which one: the dancer/gangster’s moll (Ann Dvorak), or the nurse (Margaret Lindsay)? Take your time to think about it. You’ve got till the end of the movie.

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*. Ann Dvorak just looks odd, doesn’t she? Not a conventional leading lady, though talented enough to get a lot of work.
*. The backstory: Warners had been cashing in on crime films that seemed to glamorize the gangster lifestyle. Censors were getting upset. Audiences were getting bored. And so the genre reversed polarity, championing crimefighters. Presto! Instead of being in trouble with the authorities you now had J. Edgar Hoover’s favourite movie (albeit after some initial misgivings). In Bullets or Ballots Edgar G. Robinson basically did the same switcheroo, changing sides just as Cagney does here. A new genre was born.

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*. The fight scenes and shootouts are hit and miss. No one looks like they’re really taking a punch, though Cagney does a good judo flip. The gun fights are noisy and thrilling but don’t make a lot of sense. You can see the bad guys blazing away at the cops at point blank range, but never see a cop being killed because it was against the Production Code. This is also why the murder of Davis’s buddy Buchanon is only shown indirectly, in shadow play, at the beginning.
*. Then again, how many times have we seen good guys stand tall against an army of villains as bullets explode harmlessly all around them? That’s a cliché that’s nearly as old as film.
*. Speaking of clichés, what was the first movie to have a burning car falling off a cliff or rolling down a hill? This must have been one of the first.
*. When Cagney does take a couple of bullets I like how his injuries are dismissed as only a shot to the chest and one that has “creased his skull.” Those sound pretty serious to me! But they won’t keep “Brick” Davis in bed for long! Not when his girl is in trouble!

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Passenger 57 (1992)

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*. No, it’s not a very good movie. But it does deserve some credit for launching Wesley Snipes as a solo action star. Outside of the marginal blackspoitation genre, how many other black heroes had there been before Snipes?
*. This could easily have been a part played by a white guy, and indeed it was originally a project pitched to Stallone. This is the way a lot of breakthrough casting works. The lead in Night of the Living Dead wasn’t written as a black part, but Duane Jones was available and so that’s who they used. Ripley in Alien wasn’t a part written for a female lead, but that was how it was cast. The same thing seems to have happened here, though they did add some colour to the script (e.g., “Always bet on black”).
*. It was 1992, and tough guys wore earrings. In their left ear. I think that was supposed to mean something.
*. What a huge, and very awkward, leap in the plot that takes us from the airfield to the fair and then back again. It’s almost like they looked at the script and couldn’t come up with enough things to do on the plane and so they had to land it and pad out the story a bit with some total nonsense. I like how the bad guys simply climb out of the plane and walk away across the airfield without being noticed, then magically appear at the fairgrounds, which they foolishly decide to shoot up and where they are easily caught.
*. Despite this farcical plot padding, the running time still comes in at only 84 minutes.
*. The old lady on the plane mistakes Snipes for Arsenio Hall. Does anyone remember who Arsenio Hall was today? Or what the “whoo! whoo! whoo!” business was all about? I suspect few people who weren’t around at the time.
*. Bruce Payne got a lot of love from critics for his terrorist psycho (“Charles Rane is not insane!”). I don’t think his performance is very special or memorable. He just has long hair and a British accent. But I guess that was creepy enough.

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Crime Wave (1954)

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*. Richard Schickel leads off his essay on this movie by wondering if the title was meant ironically, as there isn’t much of a “crime wave” sweeping L.A. On the DVD commentary, Eddie Muller and James Ellroy also share a laugh at the title, noting the incongruity between a crime wave and knocking over a gas station.
*. I don’t think the title was intended to be ironic, or is particularly out of place. The studios were knocking out a lot of these pictures, which were all pretty formulaic. The titles they slapped on them were just supposed to sound catchy. A lot of them had little or no direct connection to the movies they were slapped on. I’ve noted how Mystery Street is one such throwaway title. Crime Wave is another. They were generic labels.
*. Eddie Muller also dismisses the claim that this film is a “minor noir” just because it’s such “a routine crime story.” I don’t know. Muller and Ellroy compare it favorably to The Killing, but that’s a better picture.

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*. Along with the rehabilitation of this film has come the rediscovery of Andre de Toth (or De Toth, or DeToth, or however you want to spell it). I’m not that impressed. De Toth had a long and productive career working with poor material on low budgets and tight schedules (sometimes, as in the case of Crime Wave, by choice), but when the debate over your greatest achievement is between Crime Wave and House of Wax, with no other films in the running, you were not a major director.
*. Ted De Corsia and Charles Buchinsky (later Bronson) are both solid, if a bit of an odd couple sartorially. Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk strike me as being just functional, though some people see a line of grit in Kirk. The two of them don’t seem quite grown up here. Lacey’s jeans make him look like a juvenile and at the end of the movie they’re both dismissed like a pair of truant schoolkids.
*. The vet, Dr. Hessler, delivers a speech that, I think, is supposed to be about hypocrisy: “People. They accept the love of a dog, and when it gets old and sick they say put it to sleep. And you know what they call it? Mercy. That’s what they call it.” Granted, the particular dog he’s holding on his lap has apparently been dumped off before its time, but the lines don’t stand as any kind of general indictment, and it seems as though they’re meant to. We do call it a mercy to take care of the passing of pets that are old and sick. Is there something wrong with that?
*. The quality that is usually cited as making this movie stand out is the location filming. But a lot of noir did this, and the L.A. locations here are nothing special. They’re interesting, but they don’t add anything essential to the movie.

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*. I would say the only real reason to catch this one is to see Sterling Hayden.
*. I can understand Hayden’s tie getting flipped around at some point, but in the scene where he visits the vet it seems to have actually been tied on backward. Deliberately? Then later, as Muller points out in the commentary, it’s tied properly but looks clownishly short.
*. The tie that doesn’t fit is part of Hayden’s screen persona. He seems too tall for the picture frame and his head is sometimes cut off or he has to stoop. Muller also makes a good point about how you expect him to speak slowly but instead he delivers his lines incredibly fast.
*. I love how the camera swoops in on the bad guys’ hideout when Steve pulls up to it at the end. It’s one of the few real flourishes de Toth allows himself. Most of the time this looks like a standard docu-noir.
*. It was shot in a couple of weeks, and you can tell. The goofs begin right from the start, with some footage from the end of the credits reappearing immediately at the beginning of the film proper. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Then notice how in the bedroom scene Steve Lacey picks up the phone so awkwardly, and then Ellen bangs her head into the headboard as she leans back down in bed. I guess there were no second takes. De Toth’s motto, according to Eddie Muller, was “Don’t be careful, have fun.”
*. I think de Toth did a good job under the circumstances. And there’s no denying this is a film with historical interest. But at the end of the day it hasn’t much in the way of a story and the lead (the familiar noir hero trapped by his past mistakes) is weak, especially when contrasted with the oversized lawman hunting him. It’s minor noir, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Let Me In (2010)

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*. In his review of Let the Right One In Peter (“Can I have a pull quote?”) Travers urged audiences to see it before Hollywood came out with a remake. I think that’s almost always good advice, even after the fact. And when I heard that Matt Reeves was helming the remake I wasn’t thrilled (in fairness, Reeves says that he initially didn’t think Alfredson’s movie should have been re-made either). I did not think much of Cloverfield, particularly in its handling of the relationships between the characters. Full of such misgivings, I was pleasantly surprised by this film (as was Travers, by the way). I still wouldn’t rate it as highly as the original, but it’s very good.
*. It’s a very rare remake that will be as good as the original, in my opinion.
*. Critics of this film complained of it being too slavish a recapitulation of Alfredson’s (Mark Kermode called it “the most utterly redundant remake of the year”). I’m not sure this is fair, as it’s a special type of remake. I think of it more as a cover version, or translation.

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*. There’s snow in Los Alamos? They have winter? I’m amazed at my provincial ignorance. I thought New Mexico was all a baked Southwestern desert.
*. I believe most of it was shot in Albuquerque, and in fact there wasn’t a lot of snow. They had to make snow, and it looks fake (it’s too light and powdery, and isn’t packed down or dirty on the walkways). Why they didn’t just set the damn movie in Michigan is beyond me.
*. It’s the 1980s. You can tell because Ronald Reagan is talking on TV. Reagan = ’80s. They even call them the “Reagan ’80s.” For good or ill, he defined the decade.
*. The Father’s method of hiding behind a car’s front seat is slightly more credible than you may think given how big the cars were back then. But it’s still silly. I find it telling that Reeves got the idea from a story he read about how a serial killer was caught doing this. When you get in your car it’s pretty easy to see if someone’s lying down back there. And what would he do if someone did see him? He’d be screwed right away. It’s not a good plan.
*. Note also that the first time we see him do it he sits up in the back seat long before he attacks the driver, which again means he would be noticed right away. Even if the driver weren’t looking into his rearview mirror the movement would alert him.

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*. Let’s go through and note a few improvements, as well as changes that were not improvements on the original.
*. Improvement: Not showing the baffling cutaway to Abby’s pubic area. I think there’s no reason for audiences to think she isn’t anything other than a supernaturally long-lived little girl. I was stunned to learn that in fact Reeves had wanted to keep the backstory of Abby’s castration (and a scene suggesting this was actually shot and later cut). Look, you’re either going to explain this part of the story or not, but it makes no sense to put in confusing teasers that can’t be understood based on the information we’re given in the film itself. As it stands, I think the film is better without this. Anyone can see that Abby/Chloë Grace Moretz is a girl.
*. Not an improvement: The burning woman in the hospital room. I know they wanted to do something different than the iconic looking scene in the original, but the flames, most of which were real, for some reason look incredibly fake. And there’s no logic or necessity at all for the nurse to be engulfed in flames as well.
*. Improvement: We see Owen get out of the pool at the end and make a break for it. This makes a bit more sense than the original, where it’s never clear why Oskar doesn’t just swim away from his tormentors into the middle of the pool. Of course, once Owen is thrown into the pool here the same question has to be asked.
*. Improvement: The boys’ bodies all fall into the pool where they should, which is basically on top of Owen. As I said in my commentary on Let the Right One In, the arrangment of bodies at the end of that film doesn’t make sense.
*. Not an improvement: Transforming Abby’s voice and face when she turns into a vampire. She shouldn’t be a monster. I think she should look the same because it’s actually scarier in a way, and doesn’t suggest that she’s turning into a different sort of creature entirely.

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*. The detective (Elias Koteas) seems like a decent guy, but . . . he’s bald, wears glasses, and has a moustache. Fuck it. Kill him.
*. Stephen King called this “the best American horror film of the last 20 years.” He would. This is his territory: the horror is a supernatural threat that parallels the more domestic threat facing the children of disintegrating families.
*. Owen shutting the door on the cop is a lovely touch. You can sense a real shift in the relationship between the Oskar/Eli and Owen/Abby. In Let the Right One In Oskar is more of an equal partner with Eli, and even shows signs of budding psychopathy. In this movie Owen is very much the submissive. I wonder if that was a conscious decision, supported by the change from Oskar being mocked as a “piggy” to Owen being called a “little girl.”
*. Owen is also quite the little spy, isn’t he? He’s always looking through doorways, or windows, or around walls at people. I’m not sure what thematic purpose this serves. Reeves could have built up a Rear Window-type atmosphere around the apartment blocks but he doesn’t.

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*. I like Jenkins’s garbage-bag mask. It’s chilling in a low-budget sort of way. But if he has to take his glasses off to put it on, then how does he see? Maybe his eyesight isn’t that bad, but if I was trying to kill someone I’d want my glasses on.
*. Then again, the cop’s glasses appear and disappear in the story (the result of not having the right pair for Koteas when they started filming).
*. Jenkins is great, but he takes the sad sack role too far, I think. You have to wonder why Abby is making him do so much work, incompetently, when she is far more effective hunting on her own. That’s not a question I found myself asking in the original.
*. As with the original there is no real attempt to explain who the “Father” character is. I think this is a part of the story that really needed a substantial re-think when making the switch from page to screen. Ambiguity is one thing, but not enough information for the plot to make sense is another.
*. I think Chloë Grace Moretz is too damn cute. A real Owen wouldn’t be able to believe his luck in scoring with such a little princess. And hoodies weren’t so big in the early ’80s. Abby’s a contemporarly cool kid.
*. Oh. Owen’s mother is played by Cara Buono. What did she even look like? She’s downplayed in the original, but here her face is artfully concealed throughout. I think you only glimpse it clearly once, at a distance. And Owen’s father is written out almost entirely, just a voice on the other end of the phone.
*. In my notes on the original I remarked how religion played no role in the story at all. Religion is introduced here through Owen’s mom, but nothing is made of it, aside from highlighting how useless it is. I wonder if they originally thought they might do something more along these lines but then changed their minds.
*. Boy did they nail the bully right. From the narrowed eyes to the haircut that looks like a low-browed Norman helmet, Dylan Minnette really is the part. I remembered the type instantly. I wanted to beat the shit out of him.
*. Not sure why neither movie (this one or the original) tried to do a shock effect of discovering the body locked in ice. That would have been easy, but in both movies our the attention is elsewhere and we only see the body being chainsawed out later.
*. Photographed with some interesting colour coding. The sodium lights in the apartment blocks tinge the night exteriors in orange. Abby’s apartment is like an aquarium (or the swimming pool): all blues and greens. It’s a strong scheme, and gives the proceedings a painterly feel.
*. I got tired of the number of over-the-shoulder shots. I know it’s an obvious shot to go to with for this kind of material, but I didn’t think I should have been noticing it as much as I was.
*. Is it too long? Maybe a bit. It does have a pretty slack sense of narrative and I don’t think it builds suspense well. It’s a very safe remake. But all the main performances are really good and it does look nice.

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Let the Right One In (2008)

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*. Movies based on novels almost always have to condense the story quite a bit, and there’s an art to doing this. In brief: you can’t cut anything out that leaves the rest of the story incoherent or unintelligible. I haven’t read the 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist that this movie is based on, and likely never will, but it seems to me that his screenplay (which he insisted on writing himself) falls down quite a bit in this regard.
*. Two items in particular bothered me a lot the first time I saw this movie. In the first place, I had no idea who Hakan was or what his relationship was with Eli. In the novel he’s a paedophile, but this is barely suggested here. I thought he might be Eli’s father. Not knowing this left a major hole in the film for me.
*. The second thing I found baffling was the cutaway shot to Eli’s pubic scar. Again, in the novel it’s explained that “she” is actually a castrated boy. This isn’t mentioned in the movie, where the character is played by a female and the glimpse of the scar is ambiguous. I thought I was looking at female genitalia (I might add here that I have never gone back and freeze-framed the DVD for a better look at the effect). It certainly wasn’t a Crying Game-style reveal. Even Eli’s earlier objection that she’s “not a girl” could be taken different ways. I assumed she meant that she wasn’t young.
*. A minor point: does it matter that we don’t know what message Oskar is tapping out to Eli at the end? Apparetly it’s p-u-s-s which is Swedish for a small kiss.
*. Another minor point I was surprised by was that the movie is set in 1982. I guess the Rubik’s cube was a hint, and the director Tomas Alfredson felt that there was a real difference between the urban landscape then and now, but I couldn’t tell the difference. The news reports didn’t register with me as anything more than background noise. Sure the clothes all look terrible, but I thought everyone in Sweden dressed like that.

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*. Is any of this a big deal? Isn’t ambiguity a good thing? I really like the movie, but I do find it frustrating that significant plot points were not explained. They affect how you view the film.
*. Take the romance angle. It’s a depressing reflection that one of the sweetest, most original, and (most perverse of all) most believable movie love stories in recent years involves a couple of pre-teens, one of whom is a vampire, but there you have it. But what do you have? Does Oskar know at the end that Eli is a boy? Does he understand what the scar means? Or does he not care? Will he be content to cuddle with his exotic “girlfriend”?
*. Is it then a movie with a homosexual subtext? The relationship between Oskar’s father and his drinking buddy seems odd. Many viewers see them as a gay couple, which apparently surprised director Alfredson, who has declared that they are not (for what that’s worth). And then there’s the whole gang of single, middle-aged men who hang out together, with Virginia weirdly floating among them.

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*. A similar film to Nosferatu, at least in one particular and peculiar way. There’s no breath of any religious dimension to the proceedings.  Would Eli be afraid of a cross? Holy water?
*. It’s not shocking or gory even when it could be. Instead it has a quiet creepiness. Even the sound seems muffled most of the time. Think of the number of scenes where you hear voices or noises coming through walls, on the other side of doors, from inside trunks, underwater, etc.
*. That sense of barriers to understanding and communication is complemented by the number of shots where characters are seen as separated from each other, typically by glass. I like how Oskar is introduced to us as a pale wraith, distorted in reflection against the night sky. This is an effect that is repeated later with Hakan in the window of his hospital room. Is that a foreshadowing of Oskar’s eventual fate?

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*. The visuals are stark as well (except for those damn CGI cats). The urban landscape is weirdly vacant even during the day, and that classroom set has to be one of the most brutally institutional I’ve ever seen. But there’s a nice rhythm maintained between shots emphasizing strong tableau-like horizontals, and screen-stuffing close-ups.
*. A pair of wonderful performances from the two leads. Either that or Alfredson is just a genius at directing young people. All those close-ups are a real testing ground. And yet he’s so sure of their performances that for Eli’s smile at the end he can fill the screen only with the top of her face. She does all of the work with her eyes.
*. I originally thought Oskar a bit too restrained and dreamy, but on re-viewings I like what Kåre Hedebrant is doing. This is an original and authentic portrayal of a troubled kid, the sort of kid I would feel very suspicious of. I wonder if he’ll be joining Eli on the dark side, and I like being left to wonder.
*. Does the arrangement of the bodies around the pool at the end make sense? I do love the ending, but in practical terms I don’t see how it could have played out the way it apparently did, even assuming (what I think is ridiculous) that the head was thrown across the pool away from the decapitated body and the severed arm took a long, long time to fall into the water.
*. A great movie does the little things well. There’s a scene near the beginning here where Oskar’s mom asks if he doesn’t want to watch the rest of a television program with her. He says he doesn’t and leaves, and she is left alone saying (to herself) that she is going to watch it anyway. It’s a perfectly captured moment, of the kind that is often cut because it doesn’t contain any “necessary information,” but which adds so much to the film’s emotional texture.

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John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

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*. John Carpenter is a director who’s always had a genially cynical attitude toward the movie business. He’d given up on moviemaking (saying it was no longer any fun) but took on this project because it made him think of Red River. A chance to re-visit Howard Hawks was not going to be let pass.
*. James Woods is an actor who’s always had a genially cynical attitude toward the movie business. He’s also notoriously hard to work with. But he got along with Carpenter, who may have recognized a kindred spirit and who wisely allowed him lots of room to improvise.
*. Bullets don’t work and yet the slayers all use guns against the vampires. I’m not sure that makes sense. Or why arrows seem to bother the vampires so much more than bullets.
*. As noted, Carpenter was attracted to the project because he saw it as a western that reminded him of Hawks. In his commentary he also references Peckinpah (calling this movie “The Wild Bunch meets Vlad the Impaler”) and Sergio Leone. I see Leone as the main influence. This is a spaghetti-and-tomato sauce Western, with Woods as the gunslinging anti-hero with a cigar and the only women with lines being whores.

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*. The business of dragging the vampires outside so they can explode into flame seems like overkill. Why not just stake them through the heart when they’re inside? And wouldn’t the bolt likely get pulled loose at some point?
*. I didn’t think the death of Valek derived from anything in particular so I was a little surprised to hear Carpenter say it was inspired by Horror of Dracula. I guess the vampires both die by sunlight at the end. But you’d think those loose boards on the roof of the building would let enough sunlight through to damage Valek anyway. Just how much sunlight does it take to kill a vampire?
*. Carpenter seems to know his Hammer horror well. I’m not sure, but wasn’t the idea of a vampire bite being disinfected through cauterization first presented in The Brides of Dracula? And that is not a particularly well known film.
*. I can’t believe for a moment that Montoya would have grabbed hold of the winch cable with his bare hand when it stuck. I wouldn’t do something that stupid even if I was wearing heavy leather gloves.
*. Yes, Gene Siskel really, seriously, thought James Woods deserved an Oscar nomination for his role here, citing his “motormouth artistry and energy.” Roger Ebert, who didn’t like the movie, was unpersuaded.

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*. Siskel had a point, however, in saying that Woods drives the whole movie. His improvised dialogue provides all the best lines (“After six hundred years, how’s that dick working? Pretty good?”). Sheryl Lee does a surprisingly good job in a hopeless role not too far removed from Laura Palmer. Daniel Baldwin is barely passable as a sidekick. Tim Guinee just gets slapped around.
*. Speaking of Roger Ebert, here he is on the character of Katrina: “She has wonderful qualities, including the ability to wear the same costume throughout the movie, survive a vampire massacre and a pickup truck crash, and still have the outfit look perky the next day with a neckline that displays the precise 2.2 inches of cleavage that Carpenter’s heroines always display, as if just that much and no more or less comforts his libido.”
*. I’ve said it before, but for such a celebrated director of thrillers, Carpenter has a very poor sense of pacing and suspense. I think only two of his movies (Halloween and The Thing) are really well directed. His other films tend to get by on the strength of their concepts. In this movie there’s way too much time spent in the hotel room explaining things we’ve already figured out. On his commentary, Carpenter even apologizes at one point that “that’s the third time we’ve heard this information [about the psychic link between Katrina and Valek], but the rule is the third time the audience gets it.” I hope that’s not a real rule. The whole middle part of this movie drags.

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*. A movie with a $20 million budget, and Carpenter used a handheld camera in some of the later scenes “to save time.” That’s staggering honesty.
*. Isn’t it kind of weird that nobody notices how the priest runs away and hides at the end, only to reappear later to save the day? Wouldn’t Valek have followed up on that?
*. Why does Crow let Montoya go? Carpenter says he was “trying to indicate something about loyalty and love.” But wouldn’t the loving/caring thing to do be to kill him? That’s what you do to infected zombies, who typically want someone to kill them before they turn into the undead. And as Crow says, he’s just going to come after him and kill him anyway. It’s almost like he’s trying to be sporting about it. But in doing so he’s also jeopardizing the safety of innocents.
*. Which is a long way of saying that I don’t think they had a good way to end the movie so they just wrapped things up quickly with a hug and a vaya con Dios. They may not have been planning a sequel, but it did good box office and so they got a couple anyway.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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*. Where did this movie go wrong? It did so much right.
*. I mean, it’s gorgeous to look at. Coppola looks like he had a lot of fun designing these operatic visuals. They’re so lush, and have nothing realistic about them. The film was shot entirely on sound stages, without the use of any digital or optical effects, giving everything a decadent retro feel. The nod to Cocteau’s Orphée as Harker slides down the wall of the castle had me grinning ear to ear. Sadie Frost as a pre-Raphaelite icon was the icing on the cake.

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*. The costumes are just as fantastic and otherworldly. They out-Hammer Hammer. This is a movie set (quite explicitly) in cinematic history, not any nineteenth century that ever was.
*. The score by Wojciech Kilar has a powerful ratcheting effect, and I almost wish there was more of it. If you’ve got a movie that’s blasting your eyeballs as much as this one, why not assault the eardrums as well?

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*. Winona Ryder has far more sex appeal than I think she’s ever been given credit for. She’s perfect as the good girl who wants it so bad. She even gives the ear of Dracula’s wolf a hand-job, and poor Gary Oldman is practically unmanned when she goes down on him.
*. Sex and vampires have always been a natural fit, and I think the decision to go full erotic mode here is justified and effectively done. Which brings me back to my initial question: Where did this movie go wrong?

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*. I think the main clue is in the title. This is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As I’ve had occasion to remark before, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a terrible novel. Now this is not a literal adaptation (though David Skal goes overboard in calling it the “most aggressively eccentric dramatization of the book imaginable”), but far too much of Stoker’s unwieldy plot and baroque blather finds its way into the screenplay. Stuff like Dracula calling his wife “the most radiant woman in all the empires of the world.” Ugh!
*. (As a quick aside, I’m aware of the fact that they called it Bram Stoker’s Dracula because another studio had the rights to the title Dracula. But this screenplay is closer to Stoker than most other turns taken at the novel so I’m using the title to make another point.)
*. Compounding this problem with the script is the way the lines are delivered. It’s a talented cast, but they’re way out of their element. Few of the English characters sound English. Hopkins doesn’t sound German. Oldman just sounds awful. Is that supposed to be a Romanian accent he’s speaking in? At least Cary Elwes is there holding up the side. I was reminded of his line in Robin Hood: Men in Tights where he says he’s the best Robin Hood because he’s the only one with a genuine English accent.
*. While I’m being so hard on the cast, kudos for casting Tom Waits as Renfield. That was inspired.
*. The less said about Keanu Reeves the better. I’m not going to go there. Even his prematurely grey hair looks ridiculous.
*. When did Dracula start suffering from depression? Murnau’s Orlok isn’t depressed, or even particularly sympathetic. Nor is Lugosi, or Lee. Herzog’s Nosferatu is probably the most pronounced example of the type, but Oldman is part of the same (post)modern tradition. He’s more in need of Prozac than blood. The centuries seem to have been a drag for him.
*. I don’t hate this movie. I’ve seen it a few times and parts of it are very good. But the good parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole, and when it’s bad, it’s horrid.

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