Monthly Archives: October 2015

Shallow Grave (1994)

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*. This is a movie that, if you were watching a lot of movies in the ’90s, you probably saw many times. Perhaps not this movie specifically, but one much like it. It was Danny Boyle’s first film and it operated as a bit of a calling card.
*. It was cheap, it was fast, it was violent, it had a lot of cool-looking young people in it, it had smart(ass), funny dialogue, It had a mix soundtrack that made ironic use of vintage pop songs, it had a relatively intricate plot. It was, according to legend that’s since grown up around it, not a “conventional” British film of the time, the convention being that of “drab British realism” (Danny Boyle). But did it avoid this by becoming an even more conventional American neo-noir? Tarantino and the Coen brothers go to Scotland (Boyle cites Blood Simple and Goodfellas as films he “nicked” from)? I think so.
*. Does this matter? Or that the plot is as ancient as the hills: the discovery of a treasure leading to a falling out among friends?

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*. That old war horse of a plot doesn’t even receive a very inspired re-working here. There are few unexpected twists, and much is left unexplained. Who is Hugo? What is his relation to the two gangsters? How did the two gangsters track Hugo to the apartment? What is the nature of Juliet’s relationship to Alex and David? Are they, were they, lovers? All three seem curiously asexual. Sometimes they come across as “young fogies” in Christopher Eccleston’s phrase, prematurely post-sexual. At other times they don’t seem grown-up enough. When Alex gets done up in drag and rolls around on the floor with Juliet there isn’t a hint of anything naughty about it. They’re just a pair of silly kids. And up until the end David might still be a virgin, what with his peeping down on Juliet in bed and writhing in frustration. Juliet herself seems to be the only one with any sexual experience or sex life, and in indirect ways she appears to use this to dominate Alex and Dave, who are really just a pair of twits when it comes to such things.
*. Just sticking with the juvenility of the three for a second, I think this is reinforced by the bright but crude colour scheme in the flat, which makes it look like they’re living in a giant dollhouse.
*. The script also seems inattentive, or unconcerned, with detail. How, for example, does Hugo die? You’ll usually see it described in plot synopses as a drug overdose, but I don’t know on what evidence. Alex finds drug paraphernalia in the room, but it’s tucked away in a drawer (he then throws it on the bed, which is where we later see it). When Alex wonders aloud about cause of death, and asks Juliet what she thinks, she never replies beyond saying “The guy’s dead. What more do you need?”

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*. Finally, there isn’t any resolution. Is Alex going to get away with it? Will the money be found? Will he go to jail? And what’s going to happen to Juliet?
*. I’m not saying all, or any, of this had to be explained. A bit of mystery and ambiguity are fine. But when you leave this much out it gives the impression of a script that just wasn’t thought through very well. I am not at all comfortable with the conclusion of Philip Kemp’s Criterion essay: “The sleek, pared-down narrative dispenses with superfluous exposition. We never learn whether there was a previous fourth resident of the apartment and, if so, what became of him or her. Equally, it’s not explained how the two heavies trace Hugo to the apartment. Such details matter little, if at all.” Maybe they don’t matter to Kemp. And I think it’s fair to say they wouldn’t have mattered to Hitchcock. But they matter to me, for the reason I’ve given: they give the impression that nobody even bothered thinking about them. It’s a lazy, sloppy job of writing. I don’t think any of this can be written off as doing away with “superfluous exposition.” I know this is a bit of a fixation of mine, but it seems to me that if we’re going to praise a well-made plot and a story that comes together perfectly then we should also be prepared to criticize one that doesn’t even try.
*. Shouldn’t an accountant have been able to come up with a better idea for what to do with a suitcase full of money than to hide it in a water tank (an expedient that Boyle laughingly dismisses as “film nonsense”)? And yet not only is the money not divvied up, the friends don’t even have any discussions over what they plan to do with it. Isn’t that strange? Wouldn’t it be their main if not sole topic of conversation?

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*. My first thought on seeing the flat was that it was impossibly large. Apparently my disbelief was registered by others, as both Danny Boyle (on the DVD commentary) and Ewan McGregor (in an interview) took pains to point out that such vast flats are common in Edinburgh. I wouldn’t know, but I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.
*. People who don’t like this movie are unanimous in their dislike of the three main characters. This is an interesting point in general. Must a movie have a hero? Can we only like movies that are about people we like?
*. The answer to both questions is No. But.
*. But we should feel as though there’s a point to spending the entire film in such close proximity to three such characters. Roger Ebert found the leads “Not evil – that would be fine, in material like this – but simply obnoxious in a boring way. To some degree we need to identify with their fear of discovery, and we do not.”
*. Ebert makes a couple of good points. First that the three leads aren’t interesting villains but just dull and annoying. Second that the plot never builds any suspense because we don’t care enough about Alex, David or Juliet to want to see them either get caught or get away with it.
*. Another problem with the characters is that their selfish natures undercuts any point that the movie may be making about friendship generally. I never had the sense that they were actually friends. Indeed it’s hard to figure out why the hell they’re living with each other in the first place, aside from the possibility that nobody else would want to. They have fun insulting people who are interested in renting a room with them, but I’m not sure any of their prospective tenants would actually want to live with them if they knew them any better. One wonders if their selfish arrogance is the reason they have no friends (nobody ever stops by and we never see them going out with anyone else), or a way of trying to cheer themselves up in their lonely misery.
*. Even the political point isn’t worth making. Boyle comments that the three contemptible yuppies are reflective of Major’s Britain, but it’s hardly news that such types are despicable. Yes, we recognize them and hate them, but we don’t care about them.
*. There is one point about the three heels that I found personally interesting. If you look at the three professions — a doctor, an accountant, and a tabloid journalist — which of the three would you assume was the coldest, cruelest, and most cynical? Well, in this case it’s the doctor. I suppose that should have struck me as being in some way ironic, but instead I found myself nodding my head and thinking “Yes, that’s about right.” Which is a bit troubling.

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*. I do like the police investigators with their air of weary, even dreamy professionalism, but they’re a familiar comic element and at the end of the day there’s really not very much of them. That I wanted to spend more time with them and less with the flatmates is another knock against the film.

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*. Was this how people dressed in Scotland in the ’90s? David’s adoption of David Cronenberg glasses seems a decade behind the times. And I really can’t figure out Alex’s sweatpants-tucked-into-gym socks look. For a second I thought he was wearing leg warmers.
*. Overrated. It’s probably best known now for being Danny Boyle’s debut, but Boyle hasn’t, as of this writing, gone on to make a great movie but only two or three decent ones. In most respects I find it unoriginal, uninteresting, and hard to like.

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Blood Simple (1984)

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*. Fargo, Texas. Getting down with the rubes and criminal low-lifes. How the Coens must despise these people, to have obsessed over them for so long.
*. It seems to me that pretty much everything good about the Coen brothers’ work is prefigured here, from the film’s complicated pulp storyline to its neo-noir look. Later movies, particularly Fargo, would repeat individual scenes and shots almost verbatim.
*. I had reservations about Fargo, and they relate to something Pauline Kael flagged about this movie: “The one real novelty in the conception is that the audience has a God’s-eye view of who is doing what to whom, while the characters have a blinkered view and, misinterpreting what they see, sometimes take totally inexpedient action. Blood Simple gets almost all its limited charge from sticking to this device, which gives the movie the pattern of farce — it works best when someone misinterprets who the enemy is but has the right response anyway.”
*. It’s with that reference to the God’s-eye view that we again have the sense of the Coens looking down on these people, the same thing that got my back up about Fargo. Like it or not, this is very much part of their world view.

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*. I think this is what’s really going on with regard to the reaction critics like Kael and David Kehr had to the characters: that is, that the film isn’t interested in them. Ray and Abby have zero chemistry and aren’t very interesting roles for John Getz and a woefully underutilized Frances McDormand to play, but more than that you get feeling that the Coens just couldn’t imagine anything interesting about them. Freaks like Marty and Visser are at least fun to watch, and the lesson learned for Fargo was to make even the good or “normal” characters into the same kind of rustic grotesques.
*. Here’s another point I’ll flag from Kael’s harsh review: “I don’t quite understand the press’s enthusiasm for these two young, well-educated Americans, the sons of college-professor parents, who want to make the most commercial kind of Hollywood movies but to do it more economically and with more freedom outside the industry. What’s the glory of making films outside the industry if they’re Hollywood films at heart, or, worse than that — Hollywood by-product? Joel and Ethan Coen may be entrepreneurial heroes, but they’re not moviemaker heroes.”
*. Expressing the same point a little differently, here’s Kehr: “the movie remains mired in a smart-alecky film-school sensibility. Showing no detectable investment in the characters, the Coens seem to signal to their hip urban audience that they share their giggling contempt for the pulpy conceits on display.”
*. One can feel the critical exasperation, but in 1984 they didn’t have a word yet for what the Coens were doing, because it was still kind of new. It would take a while before we became acquainted with the “hip urban” or hipster aesthetic: educated, ironic, superior, and derivative. I sound condemning (and to some extent I am), but I’m not saying that there can’t be important or valuable hipster art. I just think it’s a label that helps to place and identify the Coens properly.

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*. Sure I was impressed at the time, and still am. For a first (commercial) film it’s remarkably polished in all departments. No, the plot (in true noir fashion) doesn’t add up perfectly. I’m still unsure of what Visser was up to at the end. The pacing is poor. And some of it is too clever for its own good (it makes no sense at all that the blanket Ray tosses on the back seat would soak through so completely, bleeding up, with blood that must have dried hours earlier). But for a low-budget genre flick from the mid-80s (not a golden age for film), it holds up well.
*. As for the Coens . . . they’ve made better movies than this, but only a couple, and even they weren’t a lot better despite having far greater resources behind them. This is worrying, as Blood Simple is now over thirty years old. It feels like we’ve been waiting a long time for something more from the Coens, but time and again their movies seem to bump against a hard ceiling, the outlines of which were already apparent here.

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Crook’s Tour (1941)

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*. Sequels are nothing new. Shakespeare had such a hit with the First Part of Henry IV that a Second Part was soon in the works. And being the theatre man he was, he knew what it was the audience wanted. They wanted more Falstaff, a comic supporting character who has dominated performances of the play ever since. Indeed, Falstaff was so popular he even went on to get his own starring vehicle with The Merry Wives of Windsor.
*. You know where I’m going with this. Crook’s Tour is the third movie featuring the British comic duo of Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), following up The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. In both those earlier films, however, they played supporting roles. Here they’re the stars.
*. Otherwise, the story is much the same, being another wartime tale of European espionage. This time out there’s a comedy of errors invoving C&C getting their hands on a phonograph recording with information relating to an act of German espionage. This seems like a very difficult way to send a message, but it allows for the introduction of a night-club singer into the plot.
*. If Crook’s Tour doesn’t have the weight of the earlier films it does at least have lots of charm and funny lines. What makes it less memorable isn’t the lack of conventional romantic leads but the absence of any particularly interesting set-piece scenes. The bathroom that leads directly to the Bosphorus is a decent (if highly improbable) gag, but aside from that it’s just not a very inventive movie. Our two heroes are sent on the road to exotic locations, but they’re only sets and they aren’t put to any good use. It would take a later British spy and a colder war to perfect the formula of the travelogue thriller that is foreshadowed here: with death waiting behind every curtain and pillar, the urbane and voluble villain in a spectacular hideout, the escape from certain death, the feisty Bond girl . . .

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Night Train to Munich (1940)

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*. It’s 1940 and we’ve crossed a line. We’re not in Bandrika any more. The mask had slipped from Hitler’s Germany and the enemy could be named. Though the proper tone hasn’t been arrived at yet. Are the Germans evil or just bumbling fools? Might a German agent still be a gentleman? The answer to that last question will depend on how you read our final glimpse of Paul Henreid.
*. That crossing of a line suggests something of the odd position this film has in relation to The Lady Vanishes. Both films were written by the team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Both starred Margaret Lockwood, with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne returning as Charters and Caldicott (their real names would have been even better for the parts). Both would have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but Hitch had left for America. Both are set on trains. Both are romantic-comedy-thrillers. But Night Train to Munich isn’t a sequel or a remake. It’s a movie from the other side of that line.
*. The belief in a secret weapon is more than just a useful plot device, especially in films of this time (it’s a bombsight in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and a kind of armour plating here). Germans were fed the line of there being a secret weapon that would save the war form them at the end of World War 2. It’s only human to look for an easy way out of a death mill, some way to tip the scales decisively in your favour.
*. But note how nobody at the British foreign office seems all that concerned about Bomasch’s secret. It’s dismissed as not such a big deal, but something they should probably try and get back (“well, there you are”). Remembering to bring a recipe to dinner the next night is more important.
*. That whole scene in the foreign office is wonderful, particularly for the performance of Wyndham Goldie as “Charlie” Dryton. He is nearly recumbent in his office chair and only mumbles responses until Harrison pricks up his ears with his suggestion of stealing Bomasch back. That calm self-assurance was just the image of authority the British wanted to convey in 1940, before things got really desperate.

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*. It’s often remarked that Lockwood and Harrison don’t share a lot of chemistry, which makes the triangle with Henreid all the more interesting. She does fall for Henreid before he betrays her, and later it seems as though he still has a thing for her. Does he fear losing her more than her father? He’s certainly more than a little jealous, if not disbelieving, that a fop like Harrison could have got lucky ahead of him.
*. Placing Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind between copies of Mein Kampf in the book display is a nice nudge. One of many.
*. Philip Kemp: “Night Train to Munich‘s chief weakness is the blatantly bargain-basement model work.” Apparently even Carol Reed hated the cable-car finale thinking the mountains looked like ice cream and that “it was a very bad model.”
*. I was surprised by this. Overall, I was quite impressed by the model shots. I thought the opening zoom in through the window of the Berghof decently handled, and the concentration camp looked good as the searchlight crosses it, searching out the hole in the fence. Even the cable cars looked fine to me. Yes, these are all obviously models but I think they work well enough.
*. I mean, we have only to think of the model shot that opens The Lady Vanishes to see something that looks downright laughable in comparison. So I will have to disagree with the critics on this one, even if they include the director among their number.
*. Is it strange that this movie isn’t better known? I’m reminded of something Johnson said to Boswell about how just being a good writer wasn’t enough to ensure lasting fame. There are always plenty of good books out there, and If you want to stand out you have to be great. Night Train to Munich is slyly written and very well made, but it never quite achieves the elevation of a classic.

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The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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*. I like how Geoffrey O’Brien begins his Criterion essay on this film by making reference to Hitchcock’s desire to present the audience with a piece of cake. This movie is a confection; not a pure confection, but a treat.
*. The thing is, there’s something for everyone here. It’s a rom-com. It’s a political thriller. There’s action. There’s sex.
*. Or at least as much sex as you could get away with. Which may have been more in England than in the U.S. at the time. The business with Anna the maid undressing for Charters and Caldicott is pure fantasy, as are the three young women we see hanging about their hotel room in their underwear while the poor fellow delivering room service tries to observe the proprieties.
*. It’s that tension between the flagrantly sexual and moral rectitude that provides not only the charm, but an extra bit of thrill. In his commentary Brude Eder refers to such sequences (and others, like the scene where Redgrave crawls over top of Lockwood in bed) as “erotic and chaste,” “very sexual and non-threatening,” but I wonder. They really aren’t very chaste, are they? And aren’t they just a little threatening? It all seems very flirty to me, and flirtation is always a dance on a volcano (an image I’ll come back to).

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*. The plot had been used before in a French novel, and would be used again (most notably in Bunny Lake Is Missing). But the business of writing the name on the window is a brilliant touch. My only problem with it is figuring out why it disappears when they enter the tunnel. I understand the lack of light means they wouldn’t be able to see it any more, but wouldn’t it still be there, and visible when they left the tunnel?
*. This is often cited as the last of Hitchcock’s British films (because no one wants to remember Jamaica Inn), and it may be the most British of them all. But again there’s a tension. The Brits we meet are eccentric types, but also snobs and, in the case of Mr. Todhunter, not very likeable. They believe a little too much in keeping up appearances and getting along.

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*. Another thing that makes it so successful is that it’s one of Hitch’s most fluid films. As he went on he tended to jerk from set-piece scene to set-piece scene, with very little of interest in-between. Here we’re swept along smoothly, even before we get on board the train.
*. It helps that the cast are so likeable. Apparently Hitch didn’t much care for Michael Redgrave, but he’s the equal of Margaret Lockwood in the charm department. Dame May Whitty manages to stay just this side of being irritating as Mrs. Froy. And then there’s Charters and Caldicott, a perfect two-shot every time who manage to steal the show with nothing more than inane badinage. A total invention (they aren’t in the novel), they’re a couple made for the movies, and would go on to appear in several more. Next up would be Night Train to Munich.

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*. When I watch Charters and Caldicott I can’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s Falstaff: another comic character, not in the original source material, who went on to take over the first play he appeared in and so went on to be featured in a couple of sequels due to audience demand. Figures like this just seem to be happy accidents.
*. There are things I don’t like, though they tend to be the kinds of things Hithcock didn’t care about. Why, for example, does Dr. Harz keep his gun in his pocket when he’s alone in the compartment with Redgrave and Lockwood? Does he even have a gun in his pocket? How do they get Mrs. Froy’s double into the exact same outfit, when Mrs. Froy is still wearing hers? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have just taken Froy’s clothes? How does Signor Doppo get out of the carriage after escaping from the trunk with the false bottom? These are all the sorts of objections that Hitchcock derided as “the plausibles.”
*. Personally, I don’t much care for Hitch’s derision. I don’t see why any script should be filled with implausibilities. It’s not enough to say “nobody cares” about these matters. I care. I think a good movie should have at least a surface plausibility. This one is cheesecloth.
*. There are other issues. I find the character of the British “nun” to be entirely unconvincing and unnecessary, and I wish they’d left her out. Why does the fact that Mrs. Froy is English mean so much to her? She’s willing to go along with a scam involving the disappearance of Eastern Europeans then? And couldn’t Dr. Harz have found more reliable help? I mean, she’s only stage dressing as it is.

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*. Hitchcock didn’t like how the fight scene played, but when you think about it, fights weren’t his thing. Did he have any great ones? They all seem a bit stiff and staged.
*. I’m not very musical, so is it just me or is that musical cue not very clear? The first time I saw the movie I didn’t understand why the singer beneath Mrs. Froy’s window was being strangled, or that he was passing information. I then didn’t recognize the tune when she later hummed it to Redgrave, or when she was playing it on the piano at the end.
*. I initially thought Paul Lukas was deliberately trying to sound like Bela Lugosi as Dr. Hartz. But they were both from Hungary (or what was then Hungary) so it was probably just a coincidence.
*. I mentioned the effect of feeling like we’re dancing on a volcano here. This is how Jean Renoir described Rules of the Game, but it seems more directly applicable to a film like this. I say this not because of the obvious political message: that conflict is coming and England can’t afford to hide its head in the sand. It’s more like the troubling sense that John Buchan spoke of, that civilization is “a very thin crust.”
*. The people we meet are well off, educated, and refined, but also secretive and repressed. Even Redgrave and Lockwood have to keep their feelings on a tight leash. And let’s face it, anytime you’re spending much time on a train in a movie you’re waiting for it to crash. That’s how train movies are supposed to end.
*. But not here. Instead we are saved by the train going into reverse. Dr. Hartz is even resigned and upbeat, wishing “jolly good luck” to the plucky English. But isn’t that a bit disconcerting? He’s not too worried about losing this battle. He knows there’s going to be a re-match.

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Run Lola Run (1998)

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*. We start off with a bunch of blather. There’s a quote from T. S. Eliot and then another from a German football (soccer) coach. I think Tom Tykwer meant this as a joke. Then we transition into a long, meandering voiceover: “Man . . . probably the most mysterious species on our planet. A mystery of unanswered questions. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? How do we know what we think we know? Why do we believe anything at all? Countless questions in search of an answer . . . an answer that will give rise to a new question . . . and the next answer will give rise to the next question and so on. But, in the end, isn’t it always the same question? And always the same answer?” I don’t think means anything at all, and it’s followed by another bit of wisdom from the soccer coach.
*. After that we’re off and running, but there’s something about these epigraphs that wrong-foots the movie for me. It’s all just blowing smoke. Nothing in the movie can bear the weight of so much philosophizing.
*. Here’s the problem: Yes, this is a clever, fast-paced movie. The concept isn’t entirely original or unique (Blind Chance seems to have been the model, and Sliding Doors came out the same year), and the flashy presentation isn’t groundbreaking (Danny Boyle had already done Shallow Grave and Trainspotting before this), but it still seemed pretty fresh at the time. The filmmakers of the MTV generation had come of age by the late ’90s and we were conceiving of movies from beginning to end as ninety-minute music videos: frantic cutting, jumpy camerawork, odd angles, skipping between film and video, colour and black-and-white . . . everything was getting thrown on the screen without giving the audience any time to think.

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*. Because if they did have time to think — for example, about those philosophical epigraphs — what sort of conclusions would they draw? If they recognized the nod to Vertigo in the painting in the casino, what would it signify to them? Anything?
*. It’s the sort of movie that requires you to watch it again to discover everything you missed the first time through, but what do you really find out? What is this movie about?
*. As an example, take the image of the spiral. It shows up as a motif several times in the film and is even evoked in the way the camera is always circling the characters. But the action in no way imitates a spiral. The multiverse is not circular, but rather consists of an infinite number of diverging threads. So a spiral shape or movement has no thematic significance.
*. But then the movie isn’t even clear on whether we are being presented with totally distinct timelines (the multiverse) or a Groundhog Day-like situation where Lola is reliving the same events over and over. In so far as there is any critical consensus it’s that the different sections of the story represent totally separate threads that begin to diverge on the staircase. But there are also hints at some connection between the different threads, most notably in Lola’s release of the safety on the pistol in the second section after Manni has told her how to in the first, and her jumping over the dog and man in the stairwell in the final section. For what it may be worth, on his DVD commentary Tykwer says that he wanted the film to “feel” like it was one story with the character of Lola being constant. Whatever that means. I think it’s simply left up in the air as to what is going on.
*. Using either way of looking at things, how does Lola know to go into the casino and bet everything on 20 twice? Or is she just playing a hunch?
*. My own feeling is that the idea is more of a stunt like the end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (the novel, that is), where the author/director just turns time back and runs through events again starting from a certain point.
*. People who can run forever in movies without getting tired are a pet peeve of mine. It’s a cliché, as well as unrealistic. I remember one movie a while back where a cop chased after a guy for a relatively short distance and after catching him and taking him down promptly vomited over his back. Now that was realistic. How the hell Lola (who we know is a smoker too) runs flat out for so long without getting sweaty or even short of breath is ridiculous.

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*. I also don’t see how the time scheme makes sense. Apparently there’s no way Lola could have run through all the actual Berlin locations we see in the time allotted, but I’m fine with that since I’ve never visited Berlin and I wouldn’t know. But I don’t see how she could come even remotely close to doing all the things she does in twenty minutes even if she had a teleporter and didn’t have to run all over the place. It seems to me as though she’s doing around an hour’s worth of stuff, especially in the second section. Surely she’s in the bank for more than twenty minutes.
*. Why is the green garbage bag full of money flying through the air at the end of the second section?
*. Even on repeated viewings it’s easy to miss a lot of stuff. I think it’s just because they didn’t do a good enough job setting things up. The most significant example is the security guard who has a heart attack. I didn’t recognize the security guard as the man in the ambulance at the end (and according to Tykwer many people don’t). Nor is this very clear on repeated viewings. Really, unless you’re listening to the commentary it’s almost impossible to pick up on it. The only cues are very subtle: he raises his hands to his chest when Lola points a gun at him and you hear his (or someone’s) heart beating in a scene where he’s talking to her. We’re supposed to tell from this that he’s about to have a heart attack?
*. Another example is the way the guy who steals Lola’s bike at the beginning is involved in the crash at the end of the final story. Again, unless someone points this out to you I don’t think there’s any way you’d notice it on a first or even a second or third viewing.

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*. Why does Manni give the derelict his gun? And what was he going to do with it? Apparently Tykwer had something in mind because he thought he’d like to explore this further in a sequel, but whatever the point was has now been lost.
*. It’s a decent flick, though it (deliberately?) drags a bit at the end. A lot hinges on us buying the intimate connection between the hopeless putz Manni and the now iconic Lola, and they do play very well together. They’re really one of the most charming movie couples I can think of from this period. Aside from that though, this is a puzzle film without a solution and a thought experiment you don’t want to spend much time thinking about. It’s a fun run, but clearly not going anywhere.

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The Leopard Man (1943)

*. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur are names to conjure with, but their quality output was actually pretty meager. I don’t give either a free pass for substandard work, and despite its odd moments (a Val Lewton movie always has odd moments) The Leopard Man is a bad movie.
*. As I see it, there are three items worth talking about: the structure, the first killing, and the killer.
*. The structure is very odd, and often remarked upon, quite usually critically. For such a short movie (only just over an hour) it spends an inordinate amount of time introducing characters who are only going to be victims. The different threads are smoothly, even elegantly, woven together on the street. For example, when Clo-Clo tries to steal a flower she ends up being given one by Consuelo’s maid, which effects a narrative hand-off that takes us into the birthday girl’s mansion. The camera also picks up Teresa in a similar way.
*. But do we really want to know so much about Consuela? I guess the argument could be made that her story introduces Raoul, who will have a role to play at the end, but there seems to be too much of her. And why do we go on for so long with Clo-Clo’s seduction of a sugar daddy at the club? Is all of that supposed to make us identify with her more? We’re to understand she’s OK because even though she’s a gold-digger she loves her little sister and wants to get married to her real sweetheart some day?
*. On the DVD commentary William Friedkin does his best to defend this patchwork presentation, finding the movie’s construction “postmodern” (specifically prefiguring Pulp Fiction). In theory, he may have a point. Unfortunately, none of these digressions are particularly interesting and we aren’t introduced to any characters worth knowing more about.
*. The other defence Friedkin gives of the film’s structure is that “the enemy of the horror film is coherence.” In his view, things shouldn’t be explained: they should be left mysterious, possessing the illogic of a nightmare. Again, an interesting point that may be true in theory but that doesn’t work here because incoherence isn’t pursued as an aesthetic end but only seems to be the product of a rushed job.

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*. The death of the girl Teresa who is locked out of her house is artfully done, but I’m not sure it’s that great a scene and it’s undercut by the profound silliness of her mamacita and little brother being unable to unlock their door from the inside. I guess the latch is broken, but it’s a ridiculous excuse used to make the scene work and reminded me of the way poor Jamie Lee Curtis finds herself locked inside the house in Halloween. I’m still not sure how on earth that happened, as no explanation is given. I think Carpenter just wanted Laurie to be trapped, much as Lewton here didn’t want Teresa’s mamacita to be able to open the damn door because then he wouldn’t have had that nice shot of the blood flowing under it.
*. The Lewton “bus” of the train going over Teresa’s head when she’s walking through the arroyo is effective though, and provides the film with its one jump.
*. The final point worth addressing is the serial killer. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with such creatures yet. Galbraith is, in theory (I say that again!), an interesting example of the type: a refined, pipe-smoking intellectual who is somehow triggered by the panther’s killing of Teresa into becoming a bloodthirsty maniac. It’s also very clever that he’s the one cast in the role of explaining the psychology of the serial killer to the hero.

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*. I wish Raoul had given him more time to explain himself, but the censors probably wouldn’t have stood for any more given the sexual direction his mea culpa was heading in. It was 1943 and movies, at least Hollywood movies, weren’t quite ready to go there yet. Instead he is just another ball being juggled by the fountain, unable to understand the demonic forces surging and bubbling beneath him.
*. Yes, that’s the same black panther as in Cat People. Lewton was going to get value out of “Dynamite.” I don’t know if it’s really a leopard though. Wouldn’t it more likely be a black jaguar? They’re the American version.
*. I wonder what Lewton’s fascination with statues was. They figure in almost all of his movies. There’s another prominent one here in the cemetery. Is it just that he thought they made good thematic props?
*. Yes, this was a very cheap film, made very quickly. But unlike Lewton’s and Tourneur’s previous RKO thriller collaborations (Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie) this one really gives the feeling of being an industrial product turned out without a lot of care or thought. Indeed, the street and sidewalk, the dominant image throughout, seemed to take on the look of an assembly line, moving the characters along their various stations of the cross, culminating in the funereal procession at the end.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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*. This was a pleasant surprise, seeing as I’ve been no fan of Jake Gyllenhaal thus far in his career. He’s excellent here, however, as the glib, shallow, hungry go-getter, someone who has been rasied online and consequently has no meaningful connections to anyone (alas, so much for “social” media!). The unblinking eyes that seem wired open with drugs reveal a total lack of affect. There’s an absolute emptiness about him, not just of feeling but of intellectual development. Indeed he doesn’t really want to grow or develop as a person, preferring to brand himself as a corporate entity, the corporation being the perfect psychopath.
*. Who does he remind me of? As an actor, Christopher Walken’s creepy menace comes to mind. As a character there’s some of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford, and No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh. In the latter case I’m thinking more of McCarthy’s novel than the movie. In the book, Chigurh is just another soulless freelancer doing whatever it takes to do a thorough job and impress the Man. But the resemblance between Bardem in that movie and Gyllenhaal here is uncanny, with the same blank expression and similarly dated haircut.
*. A second pleasant surprise: this is not just another satire on the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture of tabloid news. That’s a place we’ve been many times before, with first-rate movies like Ace in the Hole, and Network. Rene Russo, for example, is suitably scary and worn here as the production manager working the vampire shift on the lowest rated television news program in the city, but she’s a familiar type. Louis Bloom, however, is someone relatively new, and I don’t just mean the Internet-enabled citizen journalist.

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*. I said earlier that he’s an empty vessel, and that what he’s been poured full of is pop-capitalist ideology and motivational catchphrases. In previous eras we were always a little suspicious of young men on the make, but as the going has gotten tougher it’s clear that the worst are rising to the top (or racing to the bottom, which comes to the same thing). The embrace of a social Darwinist perspective means that the city is a jungle and only the most savage or opportunistic will survive. Bloom was visualized by Gyllenhaal as a coyote, and this was apparently thought of as an alternative title for the movie. Instead they went with the name of a kind of worm. But scavengers and parasites are predators too.
*. Sadly, the economy is in such a funk that even crime doesn’t pay. Bloom can’t make a living off of selling stolen goods, despite the huge risks he takes. And let’s face it, despite what seem to be outrageous violations of the law, and some outright corporate sabotage, he only finally “makes it” due to a spectacularly lucky break.
*. I like the script, but it’s really a two-hour monologue. There isn’t much of a story. The whole movie is Bloom’s presentation of self.
*. As such, it’s very important that it begins the way it does. Bloom isn’t just a hustler on the make. Along with all of the fencing he can fit in his car, he steals the security guard’s watch. That single act undercuts all of his clichéd blather about struggling upward.
*. I take it the billboard with the staring eyes is a nod to Gatsby‘s eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, but in Fitzgerald’s novel, however ironic their appearance, those are the eyes of God not missing the fall of a sparrow and finally calling down divine retribution. Here they are the camera eye (“focus”), and the camera always lies. As for justice, of the divine, poetic, or legal kind, you can forget it.
*. Gyllenhaal apparently injured his hand in the mirror-smashing scene. Two questions: (1) Shouldn’t they have set that up so that it was safer? Lead actors aren’t supposed to get hurt performing such simple stunts; (2) Should they have shown Bloom snapping like that — his gaunt, smiling mask slipping to reveal the maniac beneath? I don’t think they had to, and I would have left it out. Gyllenhaal had already sold us on the character and I didn’t buy that someone so self-controlled would have a meltdown like that. But there’s a real pressure on filmmakers to avoid subtlety and leave nothing to chance or open to ambiguity.

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*. As an example of leaving things open to interpretation, what are we to think of Bloom’s treatment of Rick? Does he have a genuine interest in seeing him grow, in being a mentor to him? Or does he enjoy humiliating him, in finally turning the tables and getting him to parrot all the ass-kissing lines he’d had to memorize and recite to prospective employers while negotiating from a position of emasculating weakness? It may depend on how you read the way they play with their names, whether they are Louis or Lou, Richard or Rick.
*. Then there is his troubling sexuality. Does he really like older women? Is he acting out some sense of childhood insecurity, or indulging another revenge fantasy? Is he even interested in Nina (I take it for granted that he doesn’t care about her), or is he a pure narcissist? I take the darker point of view, but if you want to see him as having some humanity then you might find something else there. Or perhaps humanity isn’t the word I’m looking for. Man is a wolf to man.

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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

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*. Nothing dates like comedy. I guess this movie was kind of funny in 2004. It did nearly $100 million box office on a $26 million budget. Ten years later I can find scarcely anything funny in it at all. Maybe Paul Rudd showing off his cologne collection and Ferrell spraying his own face with mace. Aside from that, I can see places where it’s trying. Sometimes trying very hard. But it’s not funny.
*. This isn’t hating on Will Ferrell or any of the rest of the cast. Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Christina Applegate, David Koechner, Fred Willard . . . they’re all talented comic players who are given nothing to work with. Jack Black is a funny guy, and even looks funny as a biker in a WW2 helmet, but does he say or do anything funny in his one scene? There are twice as many laughs in any half-hour episode of The Office as there are In this movie. Come to think of it, there are more laughs in an average episode of Mad Men then there are here.
*. Everything just seems to get dragged on far too long — and there was a sequel! We get the jokes quickly and then they keep banging away on them, upping the ante in an attempt to make us like them more. It’s a bit funny that Burgundy is a jazz flute player, but his big number goes on forever. Ron talking to Baxter isn’t funny but they keep at it. Ron’s anguish over losing Baxter isn’t funny, and his howls in the phone booth continue well past the point where they become annoying. The “eating cat shit” skit wasn’t remotely funny in the first place and it goes on and on and on.
*. Now dragging something out can make something that’s not funny in itself into something funny. But I don’t see that happening anywhere here. Ron talking to Baxter isn’t funny at first and after a few minutes of it, it still isn’t. And so it goes.
*. This may be why the trailer is so much funnier than the movie itself. And that may not be unintentional. Given how necessary it is for movies to hit the ground running, with huge drop-offs in box office after just the opening weekend, the art of the trailer has become all important. But here, cutting the jokes down to the bone really helps. They work better than they do in the movie.
*. It’s a process of abbreviation. When did having a lot of “quotable lines” become the chief criteria for judging a comedy? And yet that seems to be the standard today. Indeed, it may have shrunk even further. Those quotable lines have become Internet memes, sketches have been downgraded to gifs. How many times have you seen the clip of Ron saying “Boy, that escalated quickly!” brought up on message boards and in comment threads? And in that context it’s often much funnier than it is in the movie, where it’s almost unnoticeable.

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*. It may also be that the characters are bigger than the movie they’re in. Ron Burgundy went on to become an icon: a throwback to the ’70s, he nevertheless fit in well with the twenty-first century “bro” culture of useless and clueless males. In some of the extras on the DVD we see him walking into present-day situations without missing a beat. “He” also went on to write a book (Let Me Off at the Top: My Classy Life and Other Musings). And again much of this is just as funny if not funnier than anything we see here.
*. This contributes to the sense of a movie that is spilling over the edges. The trailer I mentioned earlier contains a lot of gags not in the film, and they even run a blooper reel with the closing credits. They just had all this stuff they had to do something with.
*. The blooper-reel credits is something that seems to have caught on (they do the same thing at the end of Horrible Bosses), and I can see the point: leaving the audience with a smile and chuckle while reminding them of some of the best parts of the movie they just watched. But it seems like a trick to me.
*. What I mean is that I just can’t help thinking that the cast and creators are having a lot more fun with this than I am, and probably know it. This is a feeling reinforced by the unbearable DVD commentary, that begins with Adam McKay and Will Ferrell trading dull obscenities for nearly twenty minutes. They admit it’s pathetic, but then laugh over how they’re cracking each other up. They’re funny guys, so you should laugh when they do. But how can we when they’re laughing at us?

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To Die For (1995)

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*. Yes, Nicole Kidman is great in a plum role. It’s hard to believe Meg Ryan, or any actress, would have turned it down. But I want to focus on the script.
*. It’s not very original. It’s based on Joyce Maynard’s novel, which was in turn based on the Pamela Smart story. But even if you didn’t know these sources you likely wouldn’t find it very suspenseful. Suzanne is a pretty conventional femme fatale, and despite the swift glibness of the mock-documentary presentation it’s clear we’re dealing with a very conventional noir plot. Femme fatales had been seducing boyfriends into helping them get rid of unsuitable husbands since the 1940s. Nothing new there. And hell, we already know Jimmy’s in prison and we’ve seen poor dumb Larry lying dead on the floor.
*. This wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Suzanne as a contemporary type of the narcissistic, media-manipulative femme fatale either. Wouldn’t we meet her again in Gone Girl?
*. Still, I really like the writing, though I’m not sure if the parts I like the most come from screenwriter Buck Henry (that’s him playing Mr. Finlaysson) or Maynard’s novel (which I haven’t read).
*. In the first place, Suzanne Stone is a finely drawn character. I say that because she’s not a genius, but not a total moron either, which is a hard spot to hit. It’s easy to write either someone very smart or very stupid; it’s harder to write someone with some intelligence who gives herself away in small things. Suzanne speaks in a mix-tape of pop culture clichés, very much the same vapid, borrowed language we’ll hear Louis Bloom using in Nightcrawler. But unlike Bloom, she tends to get them wrong in all sorts of minor ways. Yes there are a couple of howlers (” It’s nice to live in a country where life, liberty… and all the rest of it still stand for something.”), but overall you have to be paying pretty close attention to hear where she malaprops the lines. Give her a teleprompter to read from, however, and she’d probably do just fine (in his review, Roger Ebert says that “Suzanne is played by Kidman as a woman who is always onstage, and seems to be reading her dialogue from a TelePrompTer that scrolls up the insides of her eyeballs”).

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*. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Lydia and Russel are white trash, one step up the ladder from the trailer park, but Suzanne, despite her college education, isn’t many rungs above. Her dreams of going to NYC or L.A. and hitting the big time are just that. She’s done very well for herself landing the son of a local restaurateur with mob connections. And how we know this is from the words that come out of her mouth.
*. The other reason I really like the script is one particular scene that I have to introduce. Years ago I was watching an interview with Robert Towne where he was asked about the quality a great screenwriter had to have. He said (and I can’t quote him directly) that it involved a way of imagining the visual context for the lines on the page. He gave as his example the scene from Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence is asked what it is about the desert that attracts him. Having been exposed to the sunlight and wide open spaces of Arabia, which the film makes a fetish of, he replies simply that “It’s clean.”
*. Fast forward to a junkyard in Little Hope, New Hampshire, where the three metalheads are discussing Suzanne. Just what does Jimmy see in her, Russel asks, aside from the fact that she has money and glossy nails? Jimmy says she’s “clean.”
*. Clean. Not rich or smart or pretty, but clean. Because in Jimmy’s life clean means something. And it’s a word that means more when you’re sitting in a junkyard, just like it did for Lawrence out in the middle of the desert.
*. I don’t know if Gus Van Sant, or Henry or Maynard, was thinking of that at the time. As allusions go it’s pretty subtle. Rather like Suzanne leaving her house to be met by the crowd of paparazzi. Does she need to say “I’m ready for my close-up”? No, but we can be pretty sure that’s the right line.
*. Hollywood has always hated TV, and I guess it’s had some reason, but it’s always hated rubes more. This is the side of the film that gets my back up a bit. Suzanne’s dreams are good — they are one version of the generic American dream — but she’s just a hick girl from Nowheresville, which means she doesn’t even measure up to the low-life execs she meets in Florida. Aspiring to rise above her (local cable) station is only going to lead to disaster. She needs to stick to that horrible townhouse with the vile wallpaper and thick carpets, and the husband waiting at home in his socks and wifebeater and pyjamas. Can the house be that cold? Whatever they’ve got the thermostat set at, that’s the real America for you! Love it, leave it, or die trying.

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*. And so this isn’t really a satire of television or the news industry, because Suzanne never makes it to the Promised Land. As vile as that place must be, Little Hope is worse.
*. Of all the people not to leave your car and wander off through the snowy woods with, you’d think David Cronenberg might be near the top of the list. Another example of how naive Suzanne is?
*. David Thomson has never made any secret of his crush on Nicole Kidman, but he has a point when he says this movie (or Van Sant) is too interested in the supporting cast. Matt Dillon adequately portrays one of the small town’s living dead, and while Joaquin Phoenix is convincing enough as Jimmy, there’s little for him to do but lie back and stroke (or be stroked). He also has most of the really bad lines in the script.
*. In other words, it’s a well-made, but pretty simple little movie, with nothing much to say that we didn’t already know. The presentation is very slick and interesting, but I wonder if it might have been even better in black-and-white. Suzanne seems diminished all done up as pretty poison. She might have made it with a more classic look.

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