Monthly Archives: February 2016

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

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*. Starting with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror the master detective of the nineteenth century, announced as “ageless, invincible and unchanging,” was called into service to fight Nazis (though, even here, I don’t think they’re explicitly identified as Nazis but are left as generic baddies). He’s back again for more in this film, building bridges to American allies, being squired around D.C., taking in all the sites and finding them “magnificent.”
*. Nigel Bruce’s Watson is now firmly established as a one-man Charters and Caldicott, interested mainly in the latest cricket scores. The plot (which is original and not taken from the Holmes canon) is pure C&C, with the villains trying to steal a secret document from an allied agent on a train.
*. On the subject of that train, the one carriage set is a little too luxurious to be believed. It’s as wide as a house! I had the hardest time figuring out where on earth we were until the background noises clued me in.
*. There was another little echo of The Lady Vanishes I noticed. At one point Holmes informs his enemy (not Moriarty this time, but he may as well be) that his hand, which is holding a pistol, has not lost its cunning. This reminded me of the scene in The Lady Vanishes when Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) says that he hopes his marksmanship won’t let him down in the final shootout and that his hand still has its cunning.
*. It seems a very distinct use of the term “cunning” but it isn’t identified as such in the OED, where the more general meaning of “possessing practical knowledge or skill, dexterity” is the only general definition that applies.
*. The one Holmes signature they managed to keep is the emphasis on the close examination of bits and pieces of physical evidence. This is well done, but I would have liked to have seen more of Holmes tearing up the antique shop with his superior knowledge of ancient curios.
*. Studio filmmaking recycled actors. George Zucco plays the villainous agent here after playing Moriarty opposite Rathbone earlier in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I’m not really sure why he isn’t Moriarty again, as he doesn’t die at the end and could have returned. Henry Daniell, who is one of the bad spies, would play Moriarty just a couple of years later in The Woman in Green.
*. The only scene I really enjoyed was the business at the party where the matchbook kept getting passed around. That was clever. Aside from that, this is an unexceptional and formulaic secret-agent movie of the time, with a propaganda message at the end appealing to Anglo-American brotherhood in the common cause.

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

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*. The first Sin City movie was based on three of Frank Miller’s Sin City comic books, and one assumes they took the three they thought were best, or at least best suited for adaptation. So when, nine years later, it came time to do a sequel, they were left with the B-sides: three stories that aren’t as strong, don’t work as well together, and make figuring out a coherent chronology for the series next to impossible.
*. Actually the title story isn’t bad. It’s a standard noir set up with Eva Green playing Ava, the devil-in-a-blue-dress femme fatale (that is, when she first appears; later she’s not so keen on wearing clothes at all). Another story with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a gambler trying to score a moral revenge on his father adds up to nothing, and Jessica Alba and Mickey Rourke just go through the motions in the framing narrative (yet another tale of bloody revenge).
*. Visually it’s more of the same from the first film, and that’s not enough. People are shot, butchered, and bludgeoned. There are some Looney Tunes car chases. All the actors reprising their parts seem uninspired repeating the same old lines and doing the same old moves. Nor do the newbies add much. Ray Liotta is wasted in a brief part and Stacy Keach is unrecognizable as Jabba the Hutt in mirrored glasses. One wonders if they needed to have any actor play that part or if they could have just done it as CGI.
*. It’s not that this is a terrible movie, but one of the worst things you can say about a sequel is that it makes you like the first film even less. That’s the effect this had on me, and I already had problems with Sin City. One hopes they won’t feel the need to visit this town again.

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Parker (2013)

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*. When I first heard about this film I naturally assumed it was going to be another version of the Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) novel, The Hunter. This was the first of the Parker novels, and had already been filmed as Point Blank and Payback.
*. But no! It’s actually based on a much later Parker novel, the nineteenth (of 24), titled Flashfire. Not that this makes a lick of difference. The basic plot is the same, with Parker being involved in a heist, then double-crossed by his fellow gang members and left for dead, to later revive and exact a bloody vengeance. Yes, that’s The Hunter. I haven’t read them all so I can’t say for sure, but I strongly suspect that if you’ve read one of the Parker novels you’ve probably read most of them.
*. Then again, if you’ve seen one Jason Statham movie you’ve probably seen most of them. Put Parker and Statham together and you have a movie that will not be full of surprises. And Parker isn’t.
*. Statham really became a generic action star in this period, specializing in fast-cut hand-to-hand combat sequences. And he’s good at it, as far as it goes. But that’s as far as it goes.
*. In the earlier movies I mentioned, Point Blank and Payback, Parker is both a bad ass and a bad guy. Not as bad as the other gangsters he takes out, but still not nice. He’s a man with a code and a set of principles (“civilized people have to follow rules” or else there is chaos), but here he wears a white hat. Literally. He’s Robin Hood, not stealing from anyone who can’t afford it and willing to do anything to avoid the spilling of innocent blood.
*. In the DVD commentary director Taylor Hackford insists that Parker “is not Robin Hood at all.” But he is. You can tell by how much he wants to help Leslie out.
*. This makes Parker easier to root for, but it’s less easy to understand why his ex-gang are so frightened of him. He’s capable of violence to be sure, but seems such a decent fellow. He has an English accent, and even angry little dogs just naturally like him.
*. Does that matter? Hackford asks “Who cares about an accent?” Well, I would say it depends. We wouldn’t expect, or want, James Bond to speak with an American accent would we? Parker was conceived of as an American character, and in some ways the embodiment of certain American characteristics. It definitely seems weird to me to have him being played by a Brit.
*. If you knew you spoke with an English accent, and that you were pretending to be someone born in Equador, why would you affect the character of a Texan for a disguise?
*. Why do they make such a big deal of Parker’s watch (with two full-screen close-ups)? Because it’s a Richard Mille. They are a luxury Swiss brand and very expensive. Leslie probably picks up on that. Meanwhile the product placmenet, Hackford says, paid for the film’s special effects.
*. An interesting move to start off with a heist of . . . the Ohio State Fair. Sure it’s the biggest state fair in the U.S., but that’s not where we expect a big or mid-budget action film to take us. Which says something, I guess, about how we’ve all been Hollywoodized to believe in the majority of America as “flyover country.” (For what it’s worth, the novel’s heist takes place at the Missouri State Fair.)
*. But then there’s an aerial shot of Palm Beach and we know we’re back where we belong. Money.
*. Gosh Nick Nolte looks in really bad shape here. I think he was just over 70 when they filmed it but he looks much older. And much much too old to be playing Emma Booth’s dad.
*. Jennifer Lopez is a good actress, but this is not a great part. It has such potential, as she is playing a sympathetic figure: vulnerable yet bold, and with brains. But then she does a lot of stupid things, capped by her going to the gang’s house at the end. What was she thinking? She was worried Parker was going to “fuck things up”? Huh?
*. Then there is the obligatory disrobing. I really didn’t like this. Basically she has to perform a striptease (Hackford’s own word, glossed as “it is what it is”), for the seated Statham, who is a proxy for the audience. She drops her dress and lo! The famous J-Lo booty is revealed.
*. I mean, I’m not a prude about such things, and apparently the scene is in the book, but there is something demeaning in putting an actress through this isn’t there? And it’s so unnecessary (the practical explanation is that Parker wants to make sure she isn’t wearing a wire, but who cares?). I think the worst example of this kind of thing came in True Lies with Jamie Lee Curtis’s floor show, but all such scenes just make me cringe.
*. I’m a bit troubled by all the improbabilities. You can suspend your disbelief and accept a few of these in any movie, but here there are a few too many big stretches. Chief among these is the way everyone on the deck just ignores the three men in wetsuits and scuba gear leaving the mansion. Parker’s robbery of the cheque cashing store in broad daylight is another.
*. Aside from this, it’s hard to point to anything in particular that’s wrong with this movie aside from the fact that there’s just not enough right with it. Everything is done well enough, but nothing really stands out. And Point Blank now seems so long ago.

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Savages (2012)

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*. Terrible. Just terrible. I had a very hard time finishing this one, and not just because it was so long. I actually felt some sympathy for Ophelia trying to look away from the torture being shown on video while Elena commands her flunky to “make her watch.” I mean, I could relate.
*. Terrible right from the opening shot, which is supposed to be rough, handheld footage of a cartel execution but which looks very professional and staged. Note how we begin with the cowboy boots walking into the frame, for example.
*. And then . . . the voice. The voice of Ophelia (Blake Lively). Letting us know, rather awkwardly, that just because she’s the narrator doesn’t mean she’s survived to tell the tale. Thanks for the heads-up.
*. I could go on about how terrible Lively is, but the role of O (is that Pauline Réage’s initial orifice?) is so poorly conceived and written I don’t have the heart. Who could deliver lines like this description of her two lovers: “for me, together they are one complete man. Chon is cold metal. Ben is warm wood. Chon fucks and Ben makes love. Chon is earth and Ben, spirit. And the one thing they have in common is me. I’m the home that neither of them ever had.” We are also told that Ben has orgasms while Chon has “wargasms.” That’s just so . . . sweet.
*. Oliver Stone: “I cannot emphasize enough how much rewriting went on.” Dear lord. What did it look like before the rewrites?
*. Do we have to like, or even care about the protagonists in a film? Of course not. In a dead-teenager movie it’s even kind of nice not liking the raw meat being fed into the blender. Where a movie runs into trouble is when the movie wants us to like, or at least sympathize, with its characters and we can’t. And what’s even worse is when we find them repelling.
*. So here’s O. She’s a very rich kid who just wants to fuck, shop, and get high in paradise. She’s the kind of person who, while sitting on a spectacular cliffside patio looking out over the Pacific with her buddies, drinking beer, suggests that they all go out to a bar together so they can just “relax.” She’s also the kind of girl who can complain about not getting any salad with her pizza after she’s been kidnapped.
*. And here’s Chon. He doesn’t like to wear a shirt, so that we can see his cool tats and washboard abs better. He’s a vet and therefore damaged in some dark mysterious way. He’s the kind of person who decides that he’ll have to blow a cop away with a shotgun if he gets pulled over while speeding because nothing’s going to stop him from getting O back. And a dude has to have priorities.
*. And finally here’s Ben. Looks like Jesus but he’s inspired by the Buddha. He’s the kind of guy who walks abound the house at night with the hood on his hoodie pulled up. He believe in doing good in the Third World, and isn’t all about the money, man.

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*. Put these three together and you’ve got . . . a mess. A ménage à trois à la Jules et Jim or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which is actually referenced), though the question of Ben and Chon’s relationship is left ambiguous. Ben does declare his love for Chon at the end, but this may only be bromance. In any event, the three-way should be a lot more interesting than it is. Instead it’s merely creepy. Was Stone trying to suggest a kind of decadence, or just a return to the good old days of hippie free love?
*. The leads were almost universally despised by reviewers, but the supporting cast received praise. Unearned, in my opinion. Benicio Del Toro looks absurd with his bad monster wig, and the business of always stroking his moustache is comic villainy. Salma Hayek is cruelly embarassed while John Travolta just does his usual shtick.
*. Traditional bullet-proof glass won’t stop rounds fired into it point blank from high-powered rifles. It’s not like the gangsters could just sit in there and give Ben and Chon the finger.
*. Racist? I think so. If our heroes are the beautiful savages we all know who the ugly ones are. Those Mexicans. Especially that one with the bad hair who rapes and beats his women.
*. As with the best funny-bad movies it takes itself very seriously and makes no sense at all. I particularly liked all the gangsters walking around in broad daylight with assault rifles and killing people in their cars right in the street (this happens twice). More puzzling was why O’s bodyguard follows her vehicle instead of driving with her. How effective a bodyguard can he be as her tail?
*. Most insane of all, however, is the way Chon is happy to involve Ben in all of the paramilitary exercises and rough stuff despite the fact that Ben has absolutely no experience or idea what he’s doing. What can he contribute to the team’s efforts during the heist aside from nearly fucking everything up?
*. Up until the end I was thinking this was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen. And then it derails completely. First we get one ending — a shoot ’em up where everyone gets killed — and then we rewind the video and play an alternate ending wherein everyone lives.
*. As hammy as the first ending is, I much prefer it to the second, happier conclusion. In the second ending we are returned to the self-dramatizing, self-important Ophelia going on about how the three amigos have suffered but now live a life of privilege and ease in a tropical paradise, a trio of white gods nursing their hurt while being worshipped by the natives. They live the life of savages, but beautiful savages. Beautiful and damned. It seems so unfair. I want to cry.

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Public Enemies (2009)

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*. The title, and most of the historical background, come from a non-fiction book by Bryan Burrough. It’s a great read and I really recommend it. The story was changed quite a bit for the screen though.
*. Most of the changes were made to build up the central adversarial relationship between John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), which helps give the movie a character-driven spine that Burrough’s book certainly lacked. The liberties taken are, however, enormous. The scene where Purvis meets Dillinger and speaks to him in jail is wholly invented, and the Little Bohemia clusterfuck is made into a partial success as we see Purvis heroically avenging the death of Carter by gunning down Baby Face Nelson (in fact Nelson escaped). We are also introduced to Purvis in a scene that has him killing Pretty Boy Floyd, which he did not. But since he is the heroic G-man everything has to be done to build him up and focus on his efforts to bring Dillinger to justice.
*. In fact, Purvis seems to have been borderline incompetent, something Hoover soon became aware of, leading him to make Cowley the agent in charge of the Dillinger file. You wouldn’t guess any of that from this movie.
*. Does this matter? Burrough didn’t think so, saying that “if it [the film] was 100% accurate, you would call it a documentary.” This isn’t true, but I don’t particularly mind. Unfortunately, the main reason I don’t mind is because I was so bored that matters of historical accuracy never had a chance to get under my skin.
*. What a dull movie. The first time through I actually stopped watching it and only went back to see the rest of it a week later. Yes, I was that bored. I really didn’t care how it ended. I mean, I knew how it ended — at the Biograph Theater — but I didn’t care.
*. It’s dull because it’s uninteresting and dull because of how it’s paced. I winced when I saw the running time of 140 minutes.
*. How is it possible for a gangster film based on the life of John Dillinger to be this boring? Such a result seems to fly in the face of a fundamental law of entertainment. I mean, we have lots of gunfights and prison breaks and other exciting stuff going on here. Why does this movie feel as though it’s stuck in mud?

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*. There’s lots of blame to go around. I’ll start with the source. Burrough’s book, while well researched and providing a thorough and remarkably detailed accounting of “America’s first crime wave,” takes almost no interest in the personalities of the various actors involved. It’s just not that kind of book, and, to be honest, people like Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Melvin Purvis might not have been that interesting, psychologically, to begin with. So it’s no big surprise that they have no depth here. When Dillinger, for example, sees Clark Gable walking to the electric chair and offering up the advice to “die the way you live” he recognizes something of his own credo, but it’s not much of a philosophy.
*. Unfortunately, despite all of the pruning done, Mann’s film doesn’t take us any further than this. Compare what was done with Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s telling of that story. Did Penn take liberties? Certainly. But so does Mann. Only Mann still doesn’t come up with any interesting characters.
*. Roger Ebert really liked the movie, and this is what he has to say about the way Dillinger’s character is presented: “Here is a film that shrugs off the way we depend on myth to sentimentalize our outlaws. There is no interest here about John Dillinger’s childhood, his psychology, his sexuality, his famous charm, his Robin Hood legend. . . .  Here is an efficient, disciplined, bold, violent man, driven by compulsions the film wisely declines to explain.” Why “wisely”? Why is it a good thing that the movie has “no interest” in anything relating to Dillinger’s psychology or sexuality? Shouldn’t we get something along these lines? After all, it’s a romance.
*. I think this lack of interest in psychology helps explain why it’s so hard to tell who’s who, even on repeated viewings. Part of this confusion is probably also attributable to how dark everything is, and the drab colour scheme, but I think it’s mainly due to the fact that there are no real personalities being developed.
*. Then there are the lead performances. Christian Bale is a post. It seems every role he’s in he’s trying to appear more repressed. I think everyone knows that, and I assume that’s why he was cast as the uptight Purvis, who seems even stiffer than Kevin Costner’s humourless Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. But why did Depp want to challenge him in this regard? Dillinger was by most accounts a charismatic joker but none of that comes through here. Depp shows even less expression than Lawrence Tierney displayed in the same part (in Dillinger), which is incredible. Maybe it would have worked better if he’d tried to play Heath Ledger’s Joker to Bale’s Batman. That might have been interesting. But we’ll never know.
*. Johnny Depp is a good-looking guy but he seems to be trying too hard to look good here. Indeed, the whole movie seems to be trying too hard to look good. It all looks very stylish, again in a way reminiscent of The Untouchables. The period details are great (they even shot in actual locations like the Little Bohemia Lodge and the Crown Point jail) but I don’t think Depression-era Chicago ever looked this nice. But they had a big budget ($100 million) and when you spend that kind of money you expect to see it all on screen.
*. To take a perhaps not-so-obvious example of the pretty visuals being in the driver’s seat: why doesn’t Pretty Boy Floyd duck behind one of those apple trees instead of running right down the middle between two rows of them so that he’s totally exposed out in the open? Come on. The short answer is because it makes for a prettier shot (I mean camera shot; it was an easier shot for Purvis).
*. In reality, Floyd wasn’t killed in an orchard but in an open field, and after Dillinger.
*. The final drag on the film is Mann’s ponderous handling of the narrative. Many shots are held far too long, especially of faces in close-up that communicate nothing. There were also a number of scenes that I thought could have been cut in their entirety without losing anything. This movie could and should have been at least 30 minutes shorter.
*. The relationship between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is sappy and cloying. They spend a lot of time looking all dreamy into each other’s eyes, perhaps because they have nothing much to say to each other. Their romance, much like the Dillinger-Purvis conflict, is built up so that it’s more significant than it actually was. By the time he was killed Dillinger had moved on from Billie and was dating one of Anna Sage’s girls. You can see again how history gets streamlined for dramatic purposes.
*. From the entertaining, pared-down gangster films that Warners put out on the cheap in the 1930s to this. I don’t call that progress. Public Enemies drags. The running time was completely unnecessary given there are no character arcs but just the usual clichéd figures (the romantic outlaw, the upright lawman, the understanding moll). I came away from this movie not having learned a thing about Dillinger, either concerning the facts of his life or by way of an interpretation of his character. The actors are just modeling lots of nice clothes.

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In Bruges (2008)

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*. In 2011 BFI published a book of 100 Cult Films, compiled by Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik. In the process of making their selections (many of which I strongly disagreed with) the authors ran an online poll allowing people to vote for their own choice as “the film most likely to become the newest, latest cult film.” There weren’t many votes, but the winner was In Bruges, leading the authors to conclude that “like it or not, the film has earned its place among canonical cults.”
*. Only five years later I wonder if anyone would select this film as potential cult material. Of course the whole question of the status of cult films today is a tricky one, and I’m inclined to think we don’t have cult movies any more, but even leaving that small matter aside I think fitting this one into the canon is a stretch.
*. Sure, it’s OK. But what makes it different other than its conspicuous desire to be different? Which isn’t really all that different, when you think about it.
*. What we have is a decent cast in a European neo-noir, this time with some especially pretty scenery. The leads are hip, likeable “bad guys,” there are some funny lines (but fewer than I expected), and a surprisingly simple and straightforward plot that is worked out slowly and deliberately. The action scenes are suitably ironic (“This is the shootout”), but unrealistic and carefully staged.

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*. It does have an interesting ancestry. Writer-director Martin McDonagh came to film from a theatrical background and if you think Ken and Ray are holed up in Bruges anticipating the arrival of Godot, as filtered through Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter with its two hit men waiting to receive their next assignment (“We’ve got to stay here until he rings”), then you’re not far off the mark. Such an informing spirit also explains the absurdist, argumentative dialogue, as we get in the bantering over Bruges’ status as a “fairytale” place, or Yuri’s quibbling over the word “alcove.” This is something markedly different than Tarantino’s droll and obscene back-and-forth.
*. McDonagh’s first film, a short titled The Shooter (also starring Brendon Gleeson), won an Academy Award. The only other movie I’ve seen by him is Seven Psychopaths, which I thought was trash. I think he may be overrated.
*. Apparently some of the best lines from the film are now graffitied near the bell tower in Bruges. The most common is this brilliant one: “Bruges is a shithole.” Hey, that’s worth writing down! I wonder if they wanted to do “It’s an inanimate object!” “You’re an inanimate object!” That was clever too. (I’m being sarcastic.)

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*. I’m honestly a little slack-jawed at the critical response to the script. Roger Ebert: “a plot that cannot be foreseen but only relished.” John Anderson in the Washington Post: “a hit-man movie in which you don’t know what will happen and can’t wait to find out.” Actually, I was pretty darn sure I knew what was going to happen all throughout the film, and since there was little suspense I didn’t feel an urgent need to find out.
*. I mean, you knew the only point of introducing the character of Eirik was to bring him back later, right? (Though Mcdonagh seems not to have found much of a role for him to play, leaving him almost entirely extraneous to the plot.) You knew Ray was coming back to Bruges after Ken put him on the train, right? You knew he was going to find the gun in the drawer as soon as you saw Ken put it in there, right?
*. While on the subject of being obvious, did they really need to introduce the long take of Ken on the phone to Harry with a clip from Touch of Evil playing on TV? It’s not like the telephone conversation was that complicated a shot.
*. The whole final act is terrible. Ken and Ray take forever to die. At least I’m assuming Ray dies, after being shot four or five times. And Ken even survives a fall from the bell tower!
*. I know Bruges is a pretty European town, but can you really run around all night brandishing a pistol and shooting at people and not even see a cop? And how likely is it that a top gangster like Harry would do that? Even if he hadn’t killed himself at the end, how could he have gotten away?
*. The killing of the dwarf Jimmy is far too pat, not to mention improbable. I also missed how he got his head blown off. Did Harry actually miss Ray with one of his shots, or did a bullet go through him?
*. Though perhaps the ending is all meant to be a cocaine-fueled dream or trip to hell, with the actors on the film set dressed up to look like Bosch’s devils. That Ray is imagining things would also help explain why he sees all the characters from the rest of the movie re-appearing as he’s taken to the ambulance. Why else would Eirik be there? And Marie the hotel owner?

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*. The characters don’t have the weight that I think McDonagh wants them to have. Ray is tortured, but remains a kid, oddly oblivious to the consequences of everything he says or does. I also got tired of Farrell working his puppy-dog eyes so much. Harry Waters is a cipher. Is Ken gay? Ray calls him gay (he orders “a gay beer for his gay friend”) and this was the impression I had. I thought his mentioning a wife was just bullshit to throw smoke at Jimmy, rhyming with Chloe’s attempt to make Ray feel bad by saying her friend was the victim of a serial killer.
*. So what’s it all about? Redemption through sticking to one’s principles? Well, that gangster code doesn’t work out in the end, leading not just to the death of all the gangsters but Jimmy too. I don’t see anything very philosophical or spiritual about that.
*. More to the point, do we buy that such people would stick to their code in these circumstances? Harry tells Ken that everyone is suicidal, which I guess they are, though if you take a step back from it that seems a silly premise.
*. In short, it strikes me as an overwritten and awkward film: a thinking (or cultured) man’s take on Tarantino. I find it interesting, but without anything about it that I really love or find special. Bruges is very pretty.

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American Gangster (2007)

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*. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, television, in the words of Chuck Klosterman, “actually became good”: “In one ten-year span, high-end television usurped the cultural positions of film, rock, and literary fiction. The way people talked about TV radically changed, and so did the way we judged its quality.”
*. By “high-end television” Klosterman is referring to a spate of cable dramas that resurrected the dead art of long-form storytelling: shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.
*. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that American Gangster (which runs 157 minutes in the theatrical release, 176 minutes in the unrated director’s cut; or, in Ridley Scott’s phrase, is “slightly epic, biggish”) shares in this same sensibility. We are on what has become familiar ground here. There’s the focus on organized crime, the police surveillance detail (the war room headed by a pin board crammed with photos of the targets of the investigation has become a very familiar set), the Blue Magic that would be reborn as Walter White’s purer-than-pure blue meth, and even Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) being shot dead in the street after challenging his rival to lay down.

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*. Television has a natural affinity for these stories. But this is a movie, and more than that a prestige picture. And we may reflect on that: how the gangster film became a prestige genre, going from its decidedly humble beginnings to big-budget, A-list, Oscar bait. The watershed was probably The Godfather, but surely such a reversal of fortune wasn’t entirely the result of that film’s success.
*. I said Oscar bait. The promotional materials for this one were dripping over the “Academy Award winners” lined up (not just Washington and Crowe, but Cuba Gooding, Jr., producer Brian Grazer and screenwriter Steven Zaillian as well). The special 3-disc “collector’s edition” on DVD gives the same impression of a work of great importance: packaged in a cardboard box with a booklet included and a red ribbon as part of the binding. I got it on sale. I don’t recommend it, by the way, as the extra two discs provide nothing of any interest.
*. Fashion. The glamour of the gangster lifestyle. It’s unavoidable. Remember those scenes in the tailor shop in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy? Remember how Theadora Van Runkle’s costumes for Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde became a fashion sensation? Later films would make the nice clothes into a fetish of the genre (think The Untouchables and Public Enemies), but the connection has always been there. Perhaps it all comes from Al Capone being a snappy dresser. Here, at least, it fits with the storyline. Lucas’s downfall is that chinchilla coat and hat.
*. Speaking of that magnificent coat . . . would it have really burned in a fireplace? I have my doubts.
*. Didn’t they have drug-sniffing dogs in the 1970s? They would have made everybody’s life easier.

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*. The real Richie Roberts was reported to be upset that he was shown in a custody battle when in fact he never had a child. If that was the worst he could come up with he still should have been sending the producers a fruit basket for casting Russell Crowe in his part and being portrayed as such a hero. Everyone he meets, from his fellow cops to his ex-wife, are in slack-jawed amazement at just how great a guy he is.
*. There’s always a danger attaching to historical dramas dealing with the stories of people who are not only still alive but who are consulted in the production. To put it mildly, they’re going to be airbrushed. Roberts also objected to the presentation of Lucas, saying he was made to appear too noble. I imagine he didn’t like the competition.
*. But I don’t know if there’s any way around this. Can you make a gangster movie where the gangsters aren’t charismatic? Where their lifestyle doesn’t seem attractive? The money, the women, the clothes, the big houses and nice cars.
*. That said, Lucas is a little much. He’s obviously a handsome man. He’s good to his woman. He supports his family. He believes in loyalty and has a code that extends to putting coasters under drinks when they’re set on a table. He’s strong and brave. He goes to church with his mother every Sunday. He comes from a rough background but has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He is a successful businessman, and his ingredients for success — “the most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where we came from” — echo traditional values.
*. The epilogue in the unrated vesion, which I didn’t like, adds to this because it shows Lucas redeemed and now buddies with Roberts.

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*. Lucas’s nobility is further enhanced by how sleazy the special investigations officers, led by Josh Brolin, are. They have “no code of ethics.” They are corrupt. They steal. They slap women around, threaten old ladies, and shoot dogs. So who is worse? Whose side are we on?
*. This is a point worth raising here because I think it bears on why this movie fails to be great.
*. It could have been great. The talent was there. The cast is good and the screenplay well written, maintaining interest throughout the long running time. The overall look of the film is very professional without being annoyingly slick. As Steven Zaillian notes on the DVD commentary, Scott had a “resistance to being precious, or everything being perfect” visually. What there is is an incredible attention to detail, great locations, and some lovely photography. I particularly like all the scenes that are filled with drifting snowflakes, seeming to not even fall but dance in Brownian motion. The thing is, I’m pretty sure they were digitally added or being blown by machines, since I believe the film was shot in the summer and fall and according to Scott it was actually very hot and humid despite the fact that it always appears to be Christmas.

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*. And yet . . . for all of its distinguished qualities, it’s an unexceptional film. Ian Freer: “very little in the movie feels fresh, re-treading scenes, riffs and imagery from the whole history of crime flicks.” I think this is the problem. It’s simply too conventional a gangster film. Where is the originality? Instead of breaking new ground we get what Freer identifies, correctly, as re-treads: like the stripping of the cargo plane, which echoes the stripping of the Cadillac in The French Connection, or the montage of the round-up of the gang at the end which is taken from The Godfather.
*. Most damaging of all, however, is how conventional it is in the presentation of the two leads, who are both clichés: the last honest cop and the gangster who has struggled up from the gutter in the usual rags-to-riches gangster fashion. These aren’t so much characters as they are starring roles. As such they scarcely require anything from Washington or Crowe at all. As I said earlier, this may be because they were playing real people who were still alive. In the end, however, it was also a creative decision, and one that played it safe. The result is a movie where everything is done well but nothing is new.

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Payback: Straight Up (2006)

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*. The movie I’ll be talking about here is a re-cut version of the 1999 film Payback. It’s also called a “director’s cut” but it’s such an extensive re-working, including an entirely different ending, that it’s considered a different movie. Not entirely different, obviously, but different.
*. The most interesting thing about there being two versions, or cuts, of the same film is how innocuous this version, the one rejected by the studio, is. There’s nothing controversial about it, and ratings were never an issue. And yet in 1999 it had to be done over in order to make it more commercial. That tells you a lot about the conservatism of Hollywood. This is not an industry that takes chances.
*. I don’t know if we can call it a remake of Point Blank or if it’s more a return to that film’s source, the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). That’s an argument that’s been made more realistically before (for example, in the case of Carpenter’s The Thing being a closer adaptation of the source story than Hawks’s 1951 version). But it seems to me that The Hunter is such a generic piece of crime fiction the question is moot. It’s a simple, archetypal plot that could be filmed a million different ways.

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*. Writer-director Brian Helgeland was aiming for a movie not set in any specific time or place, “neither here nor there.” What he got was Gotham, literally the same iconic (Chicago) streets of The Dark Knight. Does that mean we’re in comic book land? Well, we’re definitely in that neighbourhood.
*. I’m not sure that even the director’s cut is the movie Helgeland wanted to make. In the commentary he says that in his mind the ending has Porter dying in the car with Rosie. But to my eye this isn’t even suggested. Obviously Porter is hurt, but we’ve seen him banged up before (several times), and he’s pulled through. He’s tough. Plus Rosie is there to take care of him and they have that big bag of money. He rejects going to a hospital but I don’t see his smile as in any way enigmatic. I just thought he seemed relieved/happy.
*. Does Mel Gibson have a martyr complex? Does he! Getting tortured and having the shit beaten out of him is his stock in trade. This is a guy with a profound belief in the redemptive power of physical suffering. Of course The Passion of the Christ was a movie he had to make, but he’d been down that road before in Braveheart, Lethal Weapon, and even Mad Max. After being shot at the beginning, Walker goes through the rest of Point Blank only dealing out the violence. Here Porter is beaten and shot up, badly, twice (not including the initial betrayal).

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*. What’s with Lucy Liu’s character Pearl? Is she a bad-ass triad head or just a dominatrix prostitute that even the lowly Val slaps around when she isn’t being paid to beat on him?
*. It’s a curious coincidence that this movie was (in its original version) released the same year as Soderbergh’s The Limey, another version of The Hunter story that also starred Bill Duke as a cop. I’d have traded both the corrupt cops here, however, for more of James Coburn.
*. This isn’t a bad little movie. The problem is that for a little movie it comes with a lot of baggage. It’s a Mel Gibson movie, for one thing, and he’s not an easy fit in the role of Porter/Parker. It’s also a movie with a long pedigree that can’t really be ignored. It’s more comic book than pulp, and nowhere near as stylish or ambiguous as Point Blank. I think it does want to get back to something, but whatever that something was, it was gone.

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The Departed (2006)

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*. It may seem odd that I preferred the original version of this story, Infernal Affairs. So let me try to explain.
*. There’s a general sense that Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for this movie as a sort of lifetime achievement award, since up until then he’d never won despite a very distinguished body of work. I think it’s a long way from his best, and I think that’s due in large part to it not being material that’s particularly well suited to his talents.
*. What I mainly mean by that is that Scorsese is not a master of suspense, and Infernal Affairs was a machine made to showcase a number of great suspense sequences. Those sequences are mostly still here, but they don’t have any of the same charge. Scorsese just isn’t interested in tightening the screws on us, and never makes us feel as though DiCaprio’s Billy is in any danger of being caught.
*. Take the scene where his cast comes off. In Infernal Affairs we’re led to believe that the police mole does have a recording device under the cast, and that he’s in real danger. Here the cast is taken off first and then Frank (Jack Nicholson) just proceeds to smash Billy’s already broken arm in a brutal scene that serves no purpose.

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*. Despite being a much longer film, some great stuff was lost. Where is the key scene, wonderfully arranged in the original, where the gang boss has a sit-down with the police chief, with their men arranged behind them, and where they both acknowledge they have their own moles? Why drop such a terrific moment? So much could have been done with it.
*. William Monahan also won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Why? What is good about this screenplay that wasn’t borrowed from the original? Meanwhile, nearly every bit of “adaptation” made it worse. It’s fuller, but makes less sense. The bit about Frank being an FBI informer seems to have only been added as a nod to the Whitey Bulger case, and is otherwise a distraction. The relationship between Colin and the psychiatrist is invented and turned into a three-way with Billy, which is only confusing and muddies things further with an odd subtext to the film about Colin perhaps being homosexual. Then there’s the whole business of what the hell Dignam was doing at the end, which is something the screenplay never bothers to explain.
*. Meanwhile, none of the improbabilities from the original are fixed. Does it make sense that Colin would leave that incriminating envelope lying on top of his desk like that? Wouldn’t anyone wonder how he got it? Does it make sense that he would be able to keep calling Frank right from police headquarters, pretending to be talking to his dad?
*. I don’t even like the title. I assume it refers to Billy (though some lines in Delahunt’s death scene that were deleted have him referring to himself in this way), but it doesn’t strike me as very meaningful, as Billy isn’t departed (deceased) until the very end.
*. Another Academy Award went to Thelma Schoonmaker for Best Editing. Again, I had my problems. If editing is the invisible art, the art here was all too visible. And not in that jarring way that Scorsese and other directors of the New Hollywood borrowed from the French, but in ways that suggest a kind of laziness.
*. This mostly expresses itself in little ways, minor continuity errors. But even on a first viewing I flagged a lot of these. If you look around on the Internet you can find long, and I mean very long lists of shots that don’t match up, but here are just a couple I haven’t see mentioned.
*. When Billy goes to visit Madelyn she is seen with her arm up on the doorframe when the camera is facing her. In the next shot, taken over her shoulder, her arm is lowered. Yet no time has elapsed.

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*. Just a few minutes later, when Damon is talking to Alec Baldwin on the driving range we see Baldwin with a beer can in his hand. After a very brief cutaway to Damon we cut back to Baldwin, who now has both hands on his driver and the beer can has disappeared.
*. Yes, Scorsese like a lot of edits, and the pace of the edits here is fine and works dramatically. But for there to be so many jarring hiccups is surprising.
*. It’s not an editing error, but how could they have shown Nicholson spitting out a mouthful of red wine and then cut to a shot that shows a pool of clear fluid lying on the tabletop?
*. How on earth do Colin and Frank get left alone for so long in the warehouse, even after their noisy gunfight? Just long enough to play the scene, I guess.
*. Scorsese isn’t sure of female characters, perhaps because he can’t cast them as embodying the masculine codes he’s so interested in (his strong female roles are all solos, there is no female bonding). I couldn’t figure Madelyn out here, she seems to have no chemistry with Damon’s Colin and we’re clearly meant to understand that he’s the wrong guy for her. Yet she is unaware of this despite carrying on an affair with Billy.
*. Jack Nicholson. I just don’t know. I don’t buy him in this part. He’s watchable, but hammy. By now that comes with the package though.
*. I did like Mark Wahlberg’s Dignam, though he also struck me as a finally incomprehensible character. Being a loose cannon is one thing, but this guy doesn’t belong in any kind of organization. Also worth singling out is Ray (Sexy Beast) Winstone as Frenchie. He nicely represents that sense of weariness with the life of violence that I think is one of the best things about this picture. Think of Frank’s admission that he doesn’t really have any purpose behind what he’s doing, or Delahunt’s not giving Billy up, or Colin’s resigned call for Dignam to get it over with at the end.
*. Things get more than a little over-the-top at the end, starting with the pile-up of bodies around the elevator. Again one has the sense of a movie that is trying to just add stuff on, in a way that is ultimately self-defeating. David Denby: “there’s hardly an actor who retains the back of his head, and shock gives way to disbelief and even laughter.” It’s like the end of Hamlet out there.

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*. It seems a stretch to me that Colin’s upscale apartment would have a rat crawling around its balcony in broad daylight. I know it’s meant to be symbolic (you’d have to be dead to miss that), but it’s hard to credit.

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*. For what it may be worth, here’s Scorsese on that final shot: “it took me a while, we took a while on that shot, ultimately it’s the nature of, well, without giving out the story, it’s what’s in the beginning of the frame and then as the rat is revealed, it’s the image of the statehouse itself, the gold dome, the sense of, for me, a throwback of the old gangster genre films at the end of Scarface, the world is yours. Tony Montana is shot in the street, there’s a shot, a shot of a sign in the movie that says ‘The world is yours,’ I think the end of Little Caesar is the same way, so for me, or the end of White Heat. ‘Mom, on the top of the world,’ well the top of the world to him was that Beacon Hill and in a sense the gold dome of the statehouse was near it, represents that.”
*. Note that Tony Montana is the name of the character in De Palma’s Scarface, not the character from Hawks’s movie that Scorsese is referencing (that is, the one who gets “shot in the street”). In the Hawks version the gangster’s name is Tony Camonte.
*. This is a good movie, but it is too long, with too much extra stuff added to the mix that doesn’t work. The qualities that made Infernal Affairs work are not ones that Scorsese seems particularly interested in, and the whole Boston Irish angle is something he appears uncomfortable with. There are interesting themes being developed — in particular relationships between surrogate fathers and sons, and the operation of an economy of trust — but I can’t help feeling the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Those parts remain pieces that don’t connect.

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Sin City (2005)

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*. I guess if you’re a fan of the graphic novels by Frank Miller, you’ll like this adaptation. It’s pretty faithful, both to the stories (three of them are selected here, more were to come) and the look.
*. Personally, I find Miller hard to take straight, which is how he insists that you take him. Stuck with a fistful of noir clichés, the only thing he can do is push them to their extreme, upping the ante into caricature: bigger and tougher tough guys, more extreme violence (the movie is especially keen on cutting people apart), more outrageously sexy girls (pretty much the only thing they wear is thongs), and ridiculous dialogue that works well enough in bold caps but which sounds weird and forced coming out of actor’s mouths. I might also add that there’s no wit or cleverness to the dialogue at all. The language is very tired.
*. Is this a movie, a comic book, or a videogame? Around this time the boundaries were blurring. There was a complicated argument over who would get a director’s credit so it was “shot and cut” by Robert Rodriguez. No screenwriter is credited because apparently it was lifted almost entirely from the source, which was also used as a storyboard (Rodriguez even called the film “a panel-by-panel translation”).  It was shot entirely by digital cameras with actors in front of a green screen (there were only a few limited sets). So yes, we’re in a different world here.

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*. As with so many of the films in this period, the look is everything. And it does look impressive: striking and beautiful in an engraved sort of way. But I found a little of it went a long way. After about half an hour all the visual effects started to wear on me, and I settled into the numb feeling of watching a computer screen. This was very unfortunate, as it let me pay more attention to matters other than how it looked.
*. Is it fair to critique this movie with the proviso “Leaving aside how good it looks . . . “? After all, as I just said, the look is everything. Take away that blocky, glowing black-and-white and the stories are stupid and the characters just cut outs. Unless they’re fighting or making out, these people have no way of relating to one another. The actors seem like sports cars with governors installed, crippled from doing anything more than a two-dimensional minimum. Most of them handle it well enough, but Clive Owen hands in an almost grotesque performance, appearing unsure of how to deliver his lines as straight as the directors were presumably instructing him to.
*. As in Proyas’s Dark City, there is no daylight. Of course here it’s hard to figure how they would represent daylight given the technology they were using.
*. The repeated motifs (the male avenger, the sexy women warriors in mannequin poses, decapitation/limbs being lopped off, death by hanging) only seem to highlight the poverty of Miller’s imagination. Noir is famous for its complex plots but here, aside from the mixing up of the different plot lines (a structural matter), there’s nothing at all complicated going on. Which doesn’t mean everything is perfectly clear. The mob that gets mentioned, for example, wouldn’t be given a face until the next movie.

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*. We also have to take the hypermasculinity straight as well. Sex and violence are joined at the hip. The girls of Old Town all look like S&M dominatrixes. Men either beat/kill women or defend women from being beaten/killed. Castration is another recurring motif, whether just threatened or executed. A man’s a man, until you cut his balls off.
*. Really, it’s hard to overstate just how crude all of this is. It is extremely violent, but in a comic book way that means nothing. People are beaten into puddles and torn to pieces, but so what? Then it might have been funny, but it doesn’t want anything to do with humour or (heaven forbid) satire.
*. In short, shorn of its impressive visuals it’s a dull and conventional paean to male aggression and female whorishness. Men are scarred and craggy, women are young and full of curves. Though often labeled a neo-noir there’s little beside the way it is made to distinguish it as in any way “new.” Instead, it’s a conscious throwback. Marv is described as a prehistoric figure, and the model dinosaurs at the tar pits are introduced in such a way as to make them seem still with us.

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*. I think I should add something about the collaboration between Quentin Tarantino (credited as a “special guest director” for filming one scene) and Robert Rodriguez. They’re good friends and have often worked together, but I don’t think they’ve helped each other’s careers. Rodriguez, it seems to me, has done nothing as good as El Mariachi, with the other two instalments of his Mexico Trilogy (including the one with a cameo by Tarantino) being absolutely dreadful. From Dust till Dawn, another collaboration, was terrible. Meanwhile, Tarantino hasn’t done anything I’ve really liked since Jackie Brown.
*. This movie shows no sign of progress for either director. It can be excused as an excercise in fandom because it is a very literal adaptation of Miller’s books, and is excellent in this regard, but I can’t help thinking that Tarantino in particular should be doing something more than this now. I know this isn’t his movie, but I’m reminded of David Thomson’s verdict that his later career shows a “huge loss of ambition.”
*. Perhaps I’m being too hard on this one, but I feel I must. I don’t like the way movies in the twenty-first century were taken over by comic books, and brilliant as it is Sin City broke new ground in this regard. But to what end? The only thing making these comics, or graphic novels, “adult” was their levels of sex and violence. Sin City is still a juvenile fantasy. There are no real people living there but only sexual caricatures. The plot is just a series of standard situations, the dialogue not worth listening to (would it have worked better as a silent with comic-style title cards?).
*. And yet it was wildly praised by critics precisely for its comic-book qualities: bold visuals and crazy, over-the-top action. I appreciate the look, but can’t give it a pass on that alone.

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