Monthly Archives: November 2014

King Kong (2005)

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*. At the time this was the most expensive movie ever made. Less than ten years later it was barely holding a place in the top 20. Inflation.
*. Of course when you spend a lot of money on a movie everyone wants to see it up on the screen. I guess you do here, but this is a CGI spectacle and I have trouble getting too excited about those.
*. Is this what $200 million worth of computer animation looks like? Some scenes really fail to impress. The brontosaurus stampede looks terrible, due mainly to some awful green-screen work (I assumed when I first saw this scene that it had been shot for 3-D, but that was not the case). And the backdrops, even of the cityscapes, look like the generic artwork commonly found in today’s videogames.
*. More than anything else, I felt like I was watching Lord of the Rings Part 4. Peter Jackson has a really limited visual imagination, I’m afraid. The ginormous flaming wall with its drawbridge looked like a model for Mordor, and not something a bunch of stone-age villagers would be able to operate, much less build. Indeed all of Skull Island has the same Tolkien flavour, with its sublime mountains and forests and waterfalls and cloudscapes. It’s painting with computers.
*. Roger Ebert (who gave the movie four stars and named it one of the ten best films of the year): “King Kong is a magnificent entertainment. It is like the flowering of all the possibilities in the original classic film. Computers are used not merely to create special effects, but also to create style and beauty, to find a look for the film that fits its story.”
*. I wonder if audiences still feel the same way only ten years later. Are we as impressed? I don’t think so. This movie is the pure product of technology, and nothing dates as swiftly.

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*. But is there any way you can say that a Kong movie is “too much”? As the Godzilla ad line went, “size matters.” Kong is the eighth wonder of the world and I’m assuming the goal was to go big or go home.
*. Part of that “more is more” philosophy is also felt in the bloated running time. 187 minutes. That’s the version I saw. You can also watch an “extended version” that tacks on another fifteen minutes. I think it could have cut a lot. Characters are needlessly multiplied. Instead of just having Denham and the ship’s first mate now we have Denham, the captain, the first mate, the writer, the leading man, and a really useless new character named Jimmy. The back story of Ann and Carl’s flagging careers in show business goes on too long. Even some of the action sequences could have been cut. The aforementioned brontosaurus stampede was repetitive, as was the fight with the T-Rex creatures. Kong’s initial waving of Ann above the cliff only had to be shown once instead of three or four times.
*. Wow. And I thought the original was a bit racist. Here the natives are doped-up, subhuman savages: refugees from a zombie apocalypse and as evil as the day they were born.
*. Do you think Lumpy and Choy were lovers? They seem very close.
*. Speaking of love, I do like the romantic interludes Ann and Kong share together, in particular her putting on a floor show for him on the cliff top and the two of them sliding on the ice in Central Park. There’s magic, if just for a moment.
*. Wouldn’t Kong have, at the very least, dislocated both of Ann’s arms when he wrenched her off the altar she was bound to? I was expecting him to break the ropes first.
*. Wouldn’t it be so windy at the top of the Empire State building that Ann would be blown off in a second?
*. Wouldn’t Kong be covered in blood after being shot so many times? As it is, all he has are what appear to be some old scars.
*. You could spend all day tearing this film apart, but I really have to mention the laughable scene where Jimmy blasts away with a machine gun at Jack Driscoll to shoot the giant cockroaches off him . . . without hitting Driscoll! That was too much.

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*. It’s hard to think of anything that Jackson really improves on here, but one is Kong’s face. This was the real weak link in the original Kong, and though Rick Baker did better in 1976, the expressiveness given Kong’s features in this film is taken to another level. It’s what makes the ending still moving.
*. I don’t have much more to say. It’s a movie that is representative of everything an early twenty-first century blockbuster is supposed to be, which is to say it cashes in on a brand name with overwhelming special effects. One can appreciate the talent and professionalism involved, but it’s still just another descendant of Jurassic Park, only with a bit more humanity. That Kong always was a comic book character helps a bit, but at the end of the day you’re still left with the feeling that you’ve just consumed a bucket of empty calories. I felt saddened, and stuffed.

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King Kong (1976)

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*. This movie had a very mixed reception when it came out, and it continues to have a very mixed reputation (among those, increasingly few, who have actually seen it). A lot of big name critics quite enjoyed it. Just listen, for example, to Pauline Kael: “I wanted a good time from this movie, and that’s what I got. It’s a romantic adventure fantasy — colossal, silly, touching, a marvellous Classics-comics movie.”
*. I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but if not I’ll say it here: Kael was a great writer and always interesting, but she had no taste.
*. Kael wasn’t the only one who liked this movie though. Richard Schickel gave it an endorsement (“the special effects are marvelous”) and so did Roger Ebert. Critics seemed to enjoy the whole “comic book” sensibility it provided. I wonder if they’d feel the same way today, when this sensibility has become so dominant.

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*. But the movie has many detractors as well. The split is pretty even. It won a Golden Turkey Award for “The Biggest Ripoff in Hollywood History,” and was apparently a leading vote-getter for the Medved brothers’ polling for the Worst Film of All Time.
*. Here’s my take: given the poor Kong effects (pace Schickel) I think this movie is about as good as it could have been. The island scenery is very nice. The script isn’t all bad (Charles Grodin doesn’t want to get “eaten alive . . . by mosquitoes” when he arrives on Skull Island), and the three (human) leads are decent. Jeff Bridges looks suitably leonine as the green crusader, but is in danger of being devoured in some scenes by the coltish Jessica Lange (whose career was set back a few years by this debut). Meanwhile, Grodin always does a good job in supporting roles.

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*. It is, however, much too long (with the two-part televised version running 45 minutes longer!), and the special effects are terrible. You can’t make a guy in a gorilla suit look like anything but a guy in a gorilla suit, and Kong is a guy (Rick Baker) in a gorilla suit. The giant mechanical Kong they built is hardly seen and when it is it looks ridiculous. Finally, the blue-screen effects are awful, with really bad burning and scaling problems. Honestly, O’Brien’s effects are better in every regard.

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*. It might have been a very different film. Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, and Roman Polanski (!) were all considered at one time to direct. As for Dwan, she might have been played by Meryl Streep (who De Laurentiis nixed because she was “too ugly”), Barbara Streisand (?), Bo Derek (she’d have her chance to play opposite Tarzan in just a bit), Britt Ekland, or Melanie Griffith.

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*. I do like the way Lange’s Dwan is saved because she didn’t want to watch a movie with her producer/sugar daddy. The movie was Deep Throat. The dirty bastard! Oh well, it was the age of porn chic.
*. Kong’s agony on the World Trade Center is decently rendered (Baker did do a good job with Kong’s face to make it more expressive, the one big improvement over the original), but again the blue-screen work and modeling lets it down. And overall there are just too many big leaps in the plot, especially at the end. How the hell does Kong find Dwan in that bar? Does he smell her out? How does he leap from the top of one World Trade Center building to the top of the other? How does Dwan manage to hold on? How do Bridges and Lange get down from the top of the World Trade Center so fast and then get let through the crowd around the dead Kong so easily?
*. It seems like such an odd film today: an epic that is undone mainly because of how cheap it looks, and effects that are huge but dated. You’ll never see a movie like this again, and that’s probably a good thing.

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King Kong (1933)

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*. There’s more to King Kong than Willis O’Brien’s amazing effects, but what effects they are! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this movie, but every time I do I’m blown away. And it’s not just the monsters. Yes, some of the human models have rubber arms, but overall they’re quite convincing. Look at Fay Wray on the cliff ledge, Bruce Cabot following Kong into his cave, or the people falling out of the wrecked streetcar. They’re just puppets, but unless you’re looking really closely you’ll think they’re real.
*. It’s only the cutaways to Kong’s giant head or hands that disappoint in the effects department.
*. I can’t imagine the effect such a movie would have had on audiences in 1933. They must have been blown right out of their seats. Think of all those warnings about how terribly upsetting Dracula and Frankenstein were, and then compare them to this epic of screen magic whose effects would not be equaled until our own day. If I had been alive back then I would have paid to see this movie again and again and again.
*. On the commentary it’s said that this was the Jurassic Park of the ’30s. I think it was much more than that.
*. It’s one of a handful (well, maybe a double handful) of movies that I’d love to see in an old-time big-screen theatre. The spectacle deserves it. As Ray Harryhausen remarks on the DVD commentary track, it’s just not the same watching it at home. We’ve lost so much.
*. How good is the rest of it, when Kong isn’t on screen? David Thomson thinks it’s very good, whereas Roger Ebert thinks it’s hammy. I think it’s hammy but quick. At least the leads are all likeable.
*. There’s something innocent about its cheerful self-awareness. It’s a trashy spectacle about the making of a trashy spectacle. Denham has the whole thing scripted right down to the “beauty and the beast” ad line that he lets the media think they came up with. You almost expect him to turn to the camera and start addressing the audience directly, letting us in on the joke.

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*. Few films have been so often and so variously interpreted. I suppose this mainly comes down to the “character” of Kong himself. Is he a monster or a hero? The fact that he is so sympathetic encourages us to see something of ourselves in his condition. We project human qualities upon him. Is he an eruption of Denham’s subconscious (as argued by Danny Peary)? Is he a noble savage? Or perhaps . . .
*. . . . a big bad black man? Is the film racist? Unfortunately it’s hard to miss that interpretation. Kong is the primitive, sub-human slave brought in chains to America who can’t control his sexual urges and abducts a white woman. Interracial sex thus becomes not only a criminal act but a form of bestiality. Now I don’t think you have to view the movie this way, but at the same time I think it’s wrong to turn your eyes from it or deny that it’s there.

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*. Is Kong then a very American monster? I think so, not just for representing or mythologizing an oversize fear of miscegenation, but for embodying the spirit of “more is more.” As William Troy observed right away, “What is to be seen at work in King Kong is the American imagination faithfully adhering to its characteristic process of multiplication. We have had plays and pictures about monsters before, but never one in which the desired effect depended so completely on the increased dimensions of the monster.”
*. An Old Arabian proverb. Really? No. The epigraph was written by Merrian C. Cooper. Or maybe Carl Denham. If there’s a difference.
*. The native stuff looks great, especially when you compare it to a contemporary film like Tarzan. I don’t think they worked very hard on choreographing the dance work though. A lot of the dancers just seem to be throwing their arms in the air like they don’t care, and some of the extras clearly don’t know where they’re supposed to be or what they’re supposed to be doing.

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*. Ray Harryhausen on the effects: “If you make it too realistic it becomes mundane.” Roger Ebert: “in the very artificiality of some of the special effects, there is a creepiness that isn’t there in today’s slick, flawless, computer-aided images.”
*. Why is this? Perhaps just because in-camera effects are tactile, they feel more real. There actually was a Kong model, with real hair (it was covered in rabbit fur). CGI is animation, and the more “realistic” it gets the more its artificiality is brought out. It works well for comic book movies, but you never believe in it.
*. For example, I love how Kong’s hair always seems to be in motion, as though from the wind or the muscles working beneath his skin. But this effect was not intended. In fact, it was something the animators tried to limit as much as possible, but they couldn’t avoid moving the hair on the model between shots. It’s a realistic effect that couldn’t be suppressed because they were using a real model.
*. I wonder if audiences at the time found the killing of the stegosaurus (or, as Denham helpfully describes it, “something from the dinosaur family”) as distasteful as I think most us today do. After all, it’s just minding its own business in the jungle until this gang of yahoos start blasting away at it. A foreshadowing of Kong’s fate? Its death throes do seem meant to elicit some sympathy.

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*. Fay Wray. Whatever happened to her? She worked a lot, mostly in television in her later years. Yet this was the high point of her career.
*. Yes, she screams. But she’s also quite good in the early parts. Her looks are just odd enough for us to buy her as an amateur plucked off the street.
*. Max Steiner’s score is widely praised. Of course it has epic strains, but I like the quiet stuff as the crew are getting ready to go the island. It’s so rich with foreboding.
*. It’s amazing that they even thought they could get away with the scene where Kong takes off Ann’s clothes and smells his fingers. It was cut from early versions and we’re lucky it could be restored. I’m less impressed by Kong’s mouthing some of his victims. I guess it was sensational, but it doesn’t make sense as Kong isn’t actually eating anyone.

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*. I love Kong’s reaction to Denham’s announcement that Ann and Driscoll are getting married. You can just hear him saying: “What? You left me for him?!”
*. Kong’s shackles are made of “chrome steel”? That doesn’t mean anything. Chrome steel isn’t any stronger than other types of steel, it just resists corrosion better.
*. Kong’s agony on the Empire State Building is tragic in every sense of the word. It’s incredible how much feeling O’Brien gives to a model, with its oversize, silent-film gestures composing a sort of ballet of death, all set to Steiner’s wonderful score. It moves me nearly to tears.

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Hostel: Part III (2011)

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*. This is a movie that was pretty roundly dissed on its (direct-to-DVD) release, but I think it’s underrated. Yes, it’s a big step down in terms of talent and budget from the previous Hostel films (and they were not expensive productions in the first place). But it does what it can, and there are some things it does quite well.
*. They had to mix things up a bit. Hostel: Part II was essentially a remake of Hostel, just substituting girls for boys. They couldn’t go back to the factory in the Czech Republic a third time, so instead they get away from “head office” by taking a road trip to Vegas. Not a bad idea.
*. I didn’t think they needed to put the Elite Hunting sanctuary in that giant James Bond-villain complex (it’s Detroit’s Masonic Temple), standing all alone out in the desert. That’s not exactly the best way to avoid attention, is it? Given how well they introduced the idea of a tawdry and run-down barbarity just behind the neon of the Vegas strip (the movie was actually shot in Detroit, which helped in this regard), I think the hunting society could have easily located their torture palace just off the main drag somewhere without anyone being the wiser.

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*. I wonder what this franchise did for the sale of ball gags.
*. The story is good. The dialogue and characters are terrible. It’s tragic some of the lines the cast are saddled with (“When it comes to pussy, I have no friends” is clearly an exception). Making matters worse is the that the players seem too much like the generic cast from a dead teenager flick.
*. A lot is squeezed out of the tight budget. Most of the gore, for example, is finessed. Showing arrows or an axe sticking out of someone after the fact is relatively easy to do. The face flaying is very effectively shown from the victim’s point of view, with the results only seen from a distance. Flemming is stabbed through an airbag. Carter’s demise takes place off screen.

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*. I really like the sets. The cages the victims are kept in are great, and I was impressed by the viewing room and the way the kills are now presented as a kind of performance art. Even the seating arrangements make it look like an upscale little theatre of cruelty.
*. On the commentary track Kip Pardue makes the point that the audience for the various murders is like the audience watching the movie. That’s something you didn’t get in the first two films at all, where the killing was a very personal, private affair.

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*. The kills themselves are cinematic productions: The face cutting scene is, I take it, a nod to Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. The death-by-cockroach routine recalls Dr. Phibes Rises Again and Creepshow. The St. Sebastian martyrdom of Justin is made weird by the cheesy smoke effects and Predator make-up of the dominatrix killer (she is described as “cyberpunk” on the commentary, but I’m not hip enough to know what this means).
*. God knows Eli Roth likes to mix in some sexy stuff with the sadism, but I think director Scott Spiegel is a bit too fixated on the booty here. There are at least four Buttman-style ass-watcher shots where he drops the camera just so he can have it follow a girl’s bottom as she waves it in our face. In a movie like this you can usually get away with a couple of leering shots like that. Any more and it starts to seem a bit too sleazy.

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Hostel: Part II (2007)

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*. The benefit of low expectations. I’d heard some bad word of mouth on this one, and it was a box office bomb (Roth claimed piracy had an effect on the bottom line). Not expecting much, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s nothing special, but it’s nowhere near the dog I’d been anticipating.
*. Another three commentaries on the DVD, all featuring director Eli Roth. He begins his solo commentary with this: “A lot of people ask me why I have so many commentaries on my DVDs,” but “the point is . . . there’s a lot to say when you make a film.” He also says that only film critics would listen to all of the commentaries.
*. Relieved that I’m not a professional film critic, I didn’t listen to all of them. I can say that Roth’s is pretty good and worth a listen.

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*. Among the interesting points Roth makes is that what drives “Hostel II really is my disgust with the Bush administration and with the fact that these oil guys were getting so rich off the death of Americans” in Iraq. I’ll admit, that’s not the first thing that came to my mind. He also ties in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Hostel II is thus “a very politically charged film.”
*. Also important, and part of the same political angle, is the idea that whoever has the most money gets to decide who lives and who dies. The film is, in short, a class critique as well as a criticism of capitalism and the “corporate-killer mentality.” The elite hunters are a homicidal 1%.
*. It’s interesting that according to Roth this is how the movie was immediately understood in Europe, whereas in America critics were more hung up on the violence. Class in America has always been a taboo subject.

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*. Note, however, that the political message isn’t a simple one. At one point in the commentary Roth also speaks of how he wanted to describe a descent to a “primal place” of rape and murder: “it’s terrifying to think that every single human is capable, that all of us are capable, of killing another person under the right circumstances.” By the”right circumstances” what he means is if they have enough money. It’s really turning Wes Craven’s point in The Last House on the Left (about which Craven said the exact same thing) on its head. Homicidal instincts aren’t activated by threats to one’s own (or one’s family’s) existence, but rather arise from the removal of all restraint. It’s like Roth is re-making Caligula, or some tale from the later Roman Empire, where the id has been set free to prey on the innocent.
*. On the other hand, the official report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib arrived at the banal conclusion that the torturers had behaved the way they had “simply because they could.” So perhaps the hunters really are the normal ones.
*. Another thing complicating the political message is the fact that Beth is ultimately saved by her vast wealth, which in turn allows her to join the international predator class. And she is the hero. The point of getting rich then is not that you can beat the corporate killers but that you can join their party.

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*. The opening struck me as pretty standard for a horror-film sequel, killing off the survivor of the original a la Friday the Thirteenth Part 2. But it’s not a suspenseful sequence, which in turn foreshadows how much of the movie will play out. Roth is more into shocks this time than building a sense of growing dread. Part of this, I think, was unavoidable given that the plot just repeats the original Hostel verbatim.
*. Repetition with a single difference. The boys are now girls. Is this “empowering”? Maybe. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling that they played it safe.
*. In some ways it is quite transgressive. The shooting of the bubblegum kid, the castration sequence, and the scene where they play soccer with the decapitated head are pretty shocking. But the girls don’t get abused much. Poor Lorna has the worst time, but she meets her end Elizabeth Bathory-style at the hands of another woman. Whitney receives her one major trauma by accident and is then dispatched off camera. (I’ll confess I honestly had no idea what happened to her the first time I saw the movie.) And finally Beth isn’t tortured at all.

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*. I think they wanted to avoid being too porn-y. Shocking violence is one thing, but male violence against women is a political taboo, which is something else. They didn’t want to go there.
*. I couldn’t get over how skinny Lauren German looks. I mean, she is really, really thin.
*. I guess Lorna couldn’t swim. Or use her hands to take that bag off her head.
*. I loved the bidding sequence, but overall I’m not sure spending so much time on the two American hunters was a good idea.
*. Roth wanted to get into the psychology of the clients, and they’re somewhat interesting in this regard. It’s a nice twist Roth plays with them changing polarities. But ultimately they distract our attention from the three girls, to the point where the victims almost seem secondary. And the more we see the hunters interact the more comic they seem. Both appear to be way out of their depth in the factory.

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*. Whoever came up with the idea for the black bathing caps as part of the torture uniform deserves a pay bump. They look great, just sinister enough not to be silly.
*. It’s not as good a movie as the original, but judged on its own it’s better than average for the genre. It was obvious, however, that to keep the franchise going they were going to have to try something a little different.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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*. This is one of those films I keep coming back to. It always seems so fresh. Why? Two obvious reasons stand out.
*. First the look, which has never been duplicated. Influence, yes; but in movies like Frankenstein and Night of the Hunter the gothic expressionism is dialed down. Because they were less daring? Perhaps. And perhaps because those later films had more money. Caligari is so striking in part because it was so cheap.
*. Second reason: How open it remains to interpretation. Most of this has to do with the ending. Critics don’t like the pasted-on narrative frame in large part, I think, because they want the character of Caligari to retain some ambiguity. Just because he went out and got a shave doesn’t make him the heroic good doctor now. Some residue of evil remains.

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*. Another reason critics don’t like the frame is because it defeats the purpose of the expressionist sets. If we’re outside of Franzis’s tortured mind, why does it still look like we’re trapped in a mad madhouse?
*. It’s arguably one of the most influential movies ever made. It’s not the first “horror” film, but it did a lot to build up the basic grammar of the genre. There’s the mad (pseudo)scientist, the threatening shadow, the damsel in distress being kidnapped from her boudoir, and of course the general uselessness of the police.

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*. In his commentary on Battleship Potemkin David Thomson describes how that film’s attitude toward editing turned out to be a dead end. In my own notes on Potemkin I wondered if maybe something of what Eisenstein did was on its way back. Similarly, Thomson sees in this film a theatrical visual sense that quickly lost out to naturalism (though studio shooting and elaborate design remained big in Germany for a time). True again, but might things come round? With CGI and the heavy use of chroma key compositing hasn’t film moved back indoors, or inside a computer? Many of the forests and mountain ranges you watch in big budget films today seem less “natural” than Murnau’s or Lang’s.
*. Of course the off-kilter set designs are what get the most attention, and deservedly so. They were extreme even at the time, and film would rarely (if ever) go so far down this road again. Which is a shame. I like movies with a strong sense of their own artifice, as long as they have the artistic chops to pull it off.

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*. The look did have its early detractors. Jacob Epstein, for one, was disgusted: “If you have to say that a film has fine décors, I think it is better not to think of it at all: the film is bad. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the prime example of the abuse of décor in the cinema. . . . the film is nothing but a still life, all the living elements killed by a brush.” Pauline Kael also complained of the “monotonous zigzag” of the design, calling it “too many hooks and no fish.”
*. Fair enough. But I like it.
*. A movie with a very tangled mythology and backstory, which critics have worked very hard to sort out. I found David Robinson’s book on the film in the BFI Film Classics series to be very helpful.

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*. Since the publication in 1947 of a book by Siegfried Kracauer called From Caligari to Hitler it’s been conventional to draw parallels between German expressionism and Nazism, and between Caligari and Hitler. For the life of me I can’t see it, and it certainly would have made the screenwriters Mayer and Janowitz prescient in the extreme since Hitler was a nobody in 1919 (when they wrote the script and the film was made). It’s also worth noting that before Kracauer’s book the movie doesn’t seem to have been viewed in this way.
*. I love the fairground Caligari’s grubbiness. This is a real down-and-out-in-Weimar guy. His writhing humiliation at the clerk’s office is great in this respect too.

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*. That clerk’s office scene also recalls Kafka (not to mention Dr. Seuss). Kafka is no stretch considering the fact that co-writer Janowitz was a rough contemporary of Kafka’s and also born in Prague (which he claimed was an influence on the script).
*. A movie about incarceration: the cell, the straightjackets, the mental hospital, the cabinet Cesare lives in. It fits with all of those studio-bound interiors as well, with the walls leaning in so much we feel claustrophobic.
*. Even the superimposed lettering, which I usually hate in old movies, is something I kind of like here. It goes with the graffiti doodles on the walls.
*. “You must become Caligari!” was apparently the tag line used to advertise the film, which is odd. What did audiences take this as meaning?
*. I like that look the carny Caligari gives the dancing monkey. He knows he’s got a better attraction.
*. Art and commerce. Producer Erich Pommer remarked how the screenwriters “saw in their script an ‘Experiment’ — I saw a comparatively inexpensive production with commercial appeal due to its sensational subject matter.” Even the wild design had commercial considerations. Designer Hermann Warm remembers: “He [Robert Weine] wanted the style and production to appear crazy . . . as crazy as could be. The film would then be a success as a sensation, regardless of whether the press turned out negative or positive, whether the critics killed it or praised it as art — either way the experiment would be in profit.”
*. As David Robinson concludes, “to see Caligari in proper historical perspective we have to recognize that it was made, knowingly and strategically, in the main line of the commercial production of its day, with the ‘art’ element calculated as an extra and positive, if speculative box-office attraction.” We see it today as very much an art house production, but that’s a historical misreading.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

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*. I like the way the main titles are chalked on the sidewalk, but you have to be alert to get what it is the title is referring to. When they first confront each other, Scalise complains to Dixon: “What are you always tryin’ to push me in the gutter for? I got as much right on the sidewalk as you.”
*. What this means, I think, is that Max is a guy with a foot in both worlds, “half cop and half killer.” That you can take the man out of the gutter but can’t take the gutter out of the man. But really, it’s a pretty allusive title.
*. By the way, this movie came out the same year as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, so I’m not sure who first came up with the idea of having the title placed there. Perhaps an earlier film did it.
*. I really like the noir genre, but let’s face it, they can’t all be gems. This isn’t one of the standouts.
*. It gets decent review, but I think that’s mainly in deference to the talent, with basically the same team from Laura re-enlisting (Andrews and Tierney as the leads, Preminger directing. Ben Hecht doing the screenplay). Lightning didn’t strike twice. Hecht’s script strikes me as particularly weak, full of implausible stretches and holes. The dialogue has no great lines, and there are big chunks of plot (like the attempt to hire a high-priced lawyer) that serve no purpose.
*. Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney look a bit alike, don’t they?
*. This is what Dirty Harry was like before Dirty Harry. Dixon’s not just a bad cop, corrupt and compromised, but a brute.

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*. Dana Andrews is good, and it’s a real actor’s part. His face is constantly having to show a man operating on two mental tracks.
*. Gene Tierney’s character, on the other hand, is one-dimensional and expendable. She’s a good girl, not a femme fatale, and has no real function in the plot aside to provide the stitching that threads together the different characters.
*. In fact, Tierney’s part makes no sense at all. As Eddie Muller exclaims at one point during his commentary: “This girl is either secretly sneaking the pipe or she’s as thick as a brick. But more to the point, Gene Tierney, unlike her co-star here, can really only convey one emotion at a time.”
*. Karl Malden’s Lieutenant Thomas seems almost as ridiculous to me. His solution of the crime is convoluted to say the least, and has almost no evidence to support it. Everything he says is just a hypothesis. Apparently the final piece of the puzzle is that old Mrs. Tribaum doesn’t remember the man she saw leaving the apartment waving to her, and Mr. Paine always waved! Case closed! Please. And yet Malden blithely orders his men to take Jiggs Taylor away on the strength of this identification. Then at the end Jiggs gets released despite the fact that nothing has been said about any new information regarding Morrison’s murder.
*. Note how, when they’re at the floating crap game, none of the hoods even bats an eye when Tierney gets double-slapped, or when fisticuffs break out between Paine and Morrison. They all just stand around with their hands in their pockets watching.
*. Is it likely that when Jiggs puts his citation back on the wall he would hang it askew?
*. Why would Paine’s body have left a blood stain on the wall? Was he bleeding when he fell and hit his head? Were there bloodstains on the carpet in his apartment? It just seems like a ridiculous clue that’s forced into the screenplay so that Malden can jump to his imaginative conclusion of how it all went down.
*. I wonder if there’s any significance to the various bandages we see Dixon (and Paine) wearing.

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*. Gary Merrill’s Scalise never holds head his head up straight. It’s always drooping over one way, or lolling from side to side. He’s also introduced lying down, as though standing up is too much effort. In all three of the scenes where Dixon confronts him he is first seen stretched out recumbent (lying on top of a bed, on a massage table, and finally on what appears to be a reclining chair or couch). It must be something in that shit he’s always sniffing. What is it? Nasal decongestant? He has three tube of it on the go in the final scene.
*. Watching this movie for the first time, I thought the only interesting thing about it was whether they were going to let Dixon get away with his crime. This makes it interesting to read Bosley Crowther’s contemporary review in the New York Times, where he gives away the entire plot, ending and all. Those were the days before spoiler alerts.
*. I don’t like the ending at all. I think it’s a dramatic mistake to just show a couple of people reading a letter instead of talking to each other. At least Dixon should have told Morgan himself what was going on instead of “letting her read the letter.” Watching people read something silently on screen is even worse than having to listen to them read out loud.
*. Even a sub-par noir will have something to recommend it, and this has several highlights (like Andrews’s fine performance, that wonderful ride in the car elevator, and Preminger’s understated camera movement). But there are a lot of misses here as well, and overall it’s not a film I return to very often.

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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

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*. The inevitable sequel. Inevitable because of the surprising success of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes. These are the worst kind of sequels, always made with the intention of turning the product into a commercial franchise.
*. I’m no fool for closure, but the ending here leaves us with more than a few dangling threads. Does Remi live or die? What happened to Moriarty and his henchman Colonel Moran? For that matter, what happened to Rachel McAdams? We only have Moriarty’s word for it that she’s dead. You can’t help but feel that the producers were keeping all their cards in play in hope of the franchise being extended.
*. It’s pretty much everything from the first film but more so. I don’t know how historically accurate any of it is (did they have contact lenses in the 1890s?), but it looks great. Meanwhile, Holmes has become not just a superhero but a Matrix-style ninja. The villains are, once again, proto-Nazis (Moriarty is an international merchant of death, but he’s based in Germany and tortures Holmes while listening to Schubert). Again there is a climactic fight at a high elevation.
*. Is Downey’s smeared make-up after the train battle deliberately meant to recall Heath Ledger’s Joker? It certainly looks like it.
*. Downey seems a bit scruffy to be Holmes. Admittedly, he goes through a lot, but even at the best of times he’s not bothering to shave. That’s very un-Holmesian, in my book. He does seem to have kicked his drug habit though. I wonder if that was responding to complaints about the first film.
*. Give that knife-wielding cossack lots of style points. There’s no need for him to be doing flips and running up walls as he chases after Holmes, but he puts on a full gymnastics routine anyway.
*. It’s typical of the bloat in these films that they have to keep upping the ante. The entire fate of Western civilization is at stake here. But as Moriarty points out, it’s all going to smash anyway and he’s just trying to make a buck off it. It’s remarkable that Holmes doesn’t really have a response to that.
*. Twenty-first century filmmaking. Which is to say, a comic book adventure. Downey and Law make for a handsome couple, and seem comfortable together. Overall, however, I found the film entirely predictable, ponderous and uninteresting.

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Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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*. Another big-budget blockbuster that’s diverting enough while it’s playing, but that you can scarcely remember any of after it’s over.
*. It’s really just another instalment of MarvelCrap. There’s lots of great looking CGI and effects (especially the epic cityscapes), some A-list leads who play off well against each other, and in the starring role a caped superhero. Sherlock’s braininess, it seems, is just another form of Marvel mutant power, as is his “Holmesavision” technique of choreographing a fight before it occurs.
*. In an attempt to keep things really simple, Holmes’s nemesis, Lord Blackwood, is a Nazi dressed in an anachronistic-looking black leather trench coat and dreaming of a thousand year Reich. He’s another pure comic book creation, and even comes complete with a plot for world domination and a fantastic Rube Goldberg terrorist device.
*. In fairness, Holmes had fought Nazis before (starting with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror). That didn’t make historical sense either, but it was wartime.

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*. Am I just being grumpy wanting a movie like this to be a bit more . . . intellectual? My only problem with presenting Holmes this way isn’t that it misrepresents Holmes but that it makes him just like every other action hero. Stripped to the waist at the local London fight club even! Why Guy Ritchie and the producers thought this was taking Holmes back to the original (as they claim on the Sherlock Holmes: Reinvented featurette) is anybody’s guess. Methinks they were playing defense on a touchy point.
*. Meanwhile the basic plot here twitches along without a breath of originality or twist in sight. It’s all formula right up to the big fight at the end on the top of London Bridge, complete with a damsel in distress and the bad guy plummeting to this death.

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*. It seems to me to be a movie too interested in mechanical details. The steps in the different chemical reactions that much of the villainy depends on, the different martial arts moves that are broken down in slow motion, the complex device concealed in the basement of parliament, and even all the pulleys and cranes on Tower Bridge. This is the kind of movie an engineer makes, or a software developer designs. It’s meticulous and unreal.
*. I could go on about how this is our dominant contemporary film aesthetic — product of the imaginations of a generation of computer engineers — but perhaps I’ll leave that discussion for another day, and another film. In any event, you know what I mean.

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*. The music by Hans Zimmer fits the mood perfectly: thrilling but not quite serious.
*. Downey and Law are a good combination, but homoerotic? Oh, I grow weary of such charges. Watson is getting married and Holmes has an eye for Rachel McAdams. They’re a pair of young bachelors. I don’t see why A. O. Scott has to refer to Irene Adler as Holmes’s “beard,” as he does in his New York Times review. When did the presentation of two male buddies necessarily become a gay thing? With the dawn of the bromance? There were plenty of buddy action pictures in the 1980s and ’90s and I don’t remember a gay subtext being read into all of them.
*. In short, it’s a movie that refuses to take chances, instead appealing to the widest base audience. It made a lot of money by giving people what they had come to expect from such an enterprise. That’s entertainment.

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Murder by Decree (1979)

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*. I’m guessing Bob Clark may be best known today for the early slasher film Black Christmas (a movie that came out just before John Carpenter’s Halloween). So why not take a turn at the most famous slasher in history?
*. Clark also directed A Christmas Story and Porky’s. I think everyone has forgotten about Porky’s now, right? It’s interesting, though, to note his remark on the DVD commentary where he says that re-creating Florida in the ’50s for Porky’s was more difficult than re-creating London in the nineteenth century for this film.
*. By the way, I don’t think I’ll ever mention Porky’s again on this blog, so I hope you got your fill.
*. So who was Jack the Ripper anyway? According to this movie he was actually a couple of guys, Spivey and Slade. But it’s not like you really care. Neither role has any lines and the actor who played Spivey was just an extra Clark picked out of a line-up for his odd face (and I’m guessing his sharky eyes). It’s not even clear what happens to Spivey at the end. Gielgud tells us he’s gone mad. In any event, it’s only important how the crimes link up to the royal family. They’ve been decreed. But again, by whom? Just concerned and misguided Masons in general? The plot is a bit fuzzy.
*. I love how fast the camera moves in to attack the first victim, Liz Stride. That’s a very creepy effect when done as a POV shot and I’m surprised more filmmakers don’t make use of it. Also note the scoring. Is that the theme from Jaws? Inspired by it, surely.

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*. Yes, the pea-squashing scene was Mason’s own bit of work. It’s interesting how often that happens, that the most memorable or best “written” scene in a movie will be the result of improvisation or changes made on set. It tells you something about just how fluid the filmmaking process always is.
*. I think the criticism of Watson turning away from the mutilated body is fair. He is a doctor. On the other hand, his speciality is not forensics and he is a moral and decent man so this particular corpse might be more than he can stand.
*. How pointless, and stupid, is it of Holmes to smash a perfectly good beaker with his thugee scarf just to make a point? I guess it wakes the audience up, but my immediate response was to wonder why he did it.
*. The same source material was recycled in the Johnny Depp vehicle From Hell. Compare and contrast the street scenes in the two movies. Compare and contrast the appearance of the prostitutes. From the 1970s to the 2000s was a big leap.
*. I think you have to see this as a film of the ’70s in other ways as well. It is clearly part of the 1970s cinema of paranoia, with powerful people in government responsible for a high-level cover-up, complete with sinister assassins looking to derail any investigation by either framing the investigator or killing him.

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*. People like to ask who the best screen Holmes ever was, in part because there have been so many good ones. At the top of the list one usually finds Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (star of the long-running BBC series). They were certainly among the most prolific. Christopher Plummer isn’t bad here, but I don’t care much for the way the role is imagined. He seems pretty bland most of the time, and then oddly possessed by humanistic passion.
*. I do think James Mason ranks among my favourite Watsons though.
*. Why is Foxborough presented as such a bad guy? Holmes finds him contemptible, and he is later killed off, presumably meeting a semi-justifiable end at the hands of Slade. But isn’t he basically on Holmes’s side? He helps him in his investigation, and his enemies are the very people Holmes is trying to get. Like Holmes he wants to “expose their lies, reveal their abuse of power.” I suppose Holmes is against his “ends justify the means” attitude, but why call him “a man devoid of conscience, as guilty as the murderer himself.” This isn’t true or fair at all. Watson is terrified at the thought of a radical in Scotland Yard, but we’ve been prepared for his knee-jerk defense of the establishment.

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*. Kudos to Genevieve Bujold for playing her scene in the asylum with almost no make-up. She’s not afraid to not look glamorous. But again, it was the ’70s.
*. Does Holmes pick up any information that is of any real use from the extravagantly bewhiskered Lees? (That’s Donald Sutherland, looking like he’s been smoking a bit of the pipe himself.) The more I think about it, the more I agree with Pauline Kael’s description of the plot as “impenetrable.” Even by a psychic.

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*. London is beautifully reconstructed, especially with the crowds of people in period costume. It’s amazing this movie didn’t cost more. On the other hand, the criticism that a lot of it seems shot on the same couple of street sets is also fair. They obviously just changed the signs on the buildings. On the commentary track Bob Clark objects that there were seventeen full sets built for the film. That may be true, but all of the East End seems to be just one of them.
*. Originally cast with Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier but they couldn’t work together. Shame. O’Toole in particular might have given the movie more of a spark. Holmes was more of an eccentric than the character Plummer gives us.
*. Alien was shooting at the same studio at the same time. I don’t know why I find that interesting, but I do.
*. A very talky film, never more so than in the conclusion, which plays like it was written for the stage. That quality is extended to the closing credits, which Clark confesses as being stagey, a way of allowing the cast to come out and take their bows.
*. There’s a lot to like here, but at the end of the day the hopelessly muddled plot frustrates any attempt at building suspense. It’s mostly well cast, but that may have worked against it as well. Everyone seems just a little too comfortable.

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