Monthly Archives: February 2019

Suburbicon (2017)

*. This movie has to rate way up there on the “what were they thinking?” index.
*. It has a lot, really almost everything, going for it. The cast is solid, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore backed up by a collection of wonderful character. Noah Jupe turns in a great child performance in a lead part with almost no lines. The production and design are nearly flawless (I’d only mark them down for a really lousy hospital set in the early going). The photography is beautiful. George Clooney does a professional turn directing.
*. But then there’s the script. Or really two scripts. It doesn’t just feel like two stories unhappily stitched together, it is two scripts unhappily stitched together. One was a typical Coen Brothers black-comedy crime thriller which had been sitting around for twenty years, the other a historical drama about a black family that faced racism in the Levittown community they moved into in the 1950s.
*. What do these two stories have to do with each other? Nothing. Even thematically or tonally: nothing. Critics were mystified. Not only were the stories unrelated, they were scarcely connected in terms of the plot. They didn’t even belong in the same movie. So: what were they thinking?
*. I can’t answer that question. But in terms of pacing and structure it throws the entire film out of whack.
*. Sticking with the main (white family) plot, what we get is the usual Coen Brothers tale of mistakes leading to misunderstandings leading to bloody ironies. Matt Damon plays William Macy playing Gardner Lodge, who is involved in a sordid (and wildly improbable) scheme to get rid of his wife and run away with her sister. Of course things go wrong, since the scheme is so complicated it has no chance of success. The usual violent chaos results.
*. Even by itself I can’t say this would have been terribly interesting, especially given the slow first act. Also, the idea that the suburban America of the Leave It to Beaver era was actually a facade (see what horrors lurk in the basement!), with Suburbicon itself being a Potemkin village, is such a cliché that it should have been retired twenty or thirty years ago.
*. No point in saying anything more. I was bored and mystified. Perhaps with so much attention to detail and the actual craft of filmmaking nobody noticed or was able to take a step back and realize that the project as a whole was so incoherent. That’s the best I can do in coming up with an explanation.

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Dick Tracy (1990)

*. Given the current hegemony of superhero movies at the box office it would be easy to see Dick Tracy as a forerunner, a taste of things to come. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was more like the last gasp of the old guard.
*. There had been comic book movies before Dick Tracy. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies, most notably. And Batman (which provided the publicity and merchandising template) had just come out the year before. But there was a big difference between these movies and what we’d get in the twenty-first century, bigger even than the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes. The real gamechanger was CGI.
*. It was CGI that gave filmmakers the ability to create comic book worlds that were real. Before that, blue screen made it hard to believe that someone could fly. With the aid of computer graphics anything was possible.
*. With its studio-bound and consciously artificial look, built out of powerful blocks of primary colours, Dick Tracy is the opposite of a machine-made movie. It’s the product of a style of craftmanship that would soon be obsolete. It still looks beautiful today, but in a way that’s become very much the look of the past. A past, I might add, that we’re unlikely to ever see again.
*. It’s lucky it does look so good, because Dick Tracy‘s appearance is pretty much all it has going for it. There’s an impressive collection of talent both in front of and behind the camera (with a lot of the all-star cast unrecognizable in make-up), but the story is thin and uninvolving. We never really feel as though anything is at stake and the one twist is easily deduced just through a simple process of elimination.
*. But I’m not sure they could have done much more. When you get right down to it, Dick Tracy isn’t that interesting a character is he? How would you give him depth? He’s a square guy and that’s about it. A sequel was originally being considered but there were squabbles over rights and it never got off the ground. This was probably for the best, as I just don’t see where they could have gone with such a franchise. Superman was square too, but at least in his case something could be made out of his not being of this world, a stranger in a strange land. Tracy is a dead end, with no past and no possibility of development.

*. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that rock stars don’t make great actors. Madonna comes off better than most here, perhaps as the role of the night-club vamp was pretty close to her persona at the time anyway. The rest of the cast, including Beatty, seem to be having fun playing caricatures of roles they were familiar with. But I also got the sense that they were having more fun than I was. Pacino in particular doesn’t strike me as all that funny despite going way over the top.
*. Roger Ebert: “The Tracy stories didn’t depend really on plot – they were too spun-out for that — and of course they didn’t depend on suspense — Tracy always won. What they were about was the interaction of these grotesque people, doomed by nature to wear their souls on their faces.” This sounds so good I wish it were true. I don’t think it is. The prosthetic faces just seem like a line-up of grotesques. Few of the baddies have any lines, much less a soul we can peer into.
*. The music. I like Stephen Sondheim’s show tunes. “Sooner or Later” won an Academy Award and has managed to stick in my head just a bit. Danny Elfman’s score, on the other hand, sounds a lot like his Batman score. Maybe that’s what Beatty wanted.
*. In 2010 Keith Phipps wrote a retrospective piece for Slate that asked “”Where did it go? It’s not that the movie has been unavailable; those so inclined can easily pick up the feature-free DVD released without fanfare in 2002. But who thinks about Dick Tracy today?” Five years later, writing in Vanity Fair, Kate Erbland had a piece titled “Dick Tracy Turns 25: Why Has Everyone Forgotten the Original Prestige Comic Book Movie?”
*. So, where did it go? Why has it been forgotten? I think for much the same reason that all the early superhero, comic book movies have been largely forgotten. They were washed away by the Marvel tsunami. Also: they really weren’t that good in the first place. I think those of us who saw them when they first came out will always have some fond memories of them, but they’ve become a bit embarrassing. As far as Dick Tracy goes, I still love the look of it and think it deserves to be seen on a big screen. Aside from the visuals and the one song, however, the rest of it is very forgettable.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

*. This is almost a guilty pleasure. Which means I like it a lot more than I know I should. I can’t say I like it enough to make it a true guilty pleasure though.
*. The story picks up right where Kingsman: The Secret Service left off. And by that I mean that it’s non-stop video game action stuffed into a whacko plot that is vulgar, juvenile, violent, and stupid but also endearingly surreal. Poppy’s ’50s Americana-style jungle hideout is just one of the crazy locations that I really enjoyed. But it’s when we see inside the sports stadium and its giant warehousing of cages that I really started to like the movie. It’s all so wildly over-the-top you have to give in.
*. The cast is filled with surprising supporting characters, and I think most of them work pretty well. Elton John is fine, but I think he was given a bit too much to do seeing as he isn’t an actor. Halle Barry, on the other hand, is underused. Unless they were just saving her for the next film in the series.
*. Julianne Moore’s Poppy seems to have divided people. I thought she was an original creation that fit the psychadelic-psychotic tone of the proceedings well. Director Matthew Vaughn wanted a “Martha Stewart on crack . . . a kooky, sweet, Stepford Wives-style villain,” and he got it.
*. My heart initially sank a little when I saw the running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. And the original cut was apparently an hour and 20 minutes longer!
*. I think they could have cut even more, as there are some bits that don’t work, like the use of the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” song. But this is a movie that’s all about taking everything too far and being too much. Its virtues and its vices are excess. And when it’s over . . . pfft.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

*. It’s a movie full of deathless lines, one of the better known being Kasper (or, in the novel, Casper) Gutman’s “I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”
*. One of the reasons why it has so many great lines is because everyone in it likes to talk. Even Wilmer enjoys a bit of gaudy patter. Roger Ebert thought the whole film “essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes.” When Sam and Brigid arrive at Sam’s apartment at the end they are greeted by Gutman’s invitation to sit down and talk. He’s looking forward to it, and so are we. And in fact this entire final act of the film will take place in the one restricted set, and consist of nothing but the five principals talking. But is this something that anyone complains about?
*. What makes the dialogue so good? Yes, it’s snappy and well delivered, but it also has a dramatic urgency to it. Even on the phone — and there are a lot of phone calls — it feels electric.

*. If it’s a movie full of great talk it’s also one that’s full of great moments. Not big, showy moments, but lots of little things. Here are a few: the way Spade and Archer watch “Ms. Wonderly” root through her purse; the look of horror on Spade’s face as Joel Cairo enters his office; Wilmer with his hat pulled down so low that he keeps bumping into people on the street while tailing Spade; Cairo’s awkward attempt at a smooth exit from Spade’s apartment when the police come calling; the tears running down Wilmer’s face as he confronts Spade at the end, and the tears smearing Brigid O’Shaugnessy’s makeup as she looks at Sam, realizing she’s lost the game.
*. Just sticking with that last for a moment, was there ever a leading lady represented on screen in such a way before this? Not that Brigid doesn’t deserve it. David Thomson: “Huston never quite trusted women as characters.” Was this a way of putting Brigid in her place?

*. She has to be tough though, as she doesn’t really belong in the all-gay gang of bird thieves. Some people think this homosexual angle had to be toned down here (as opposed to the 1931 pre-Code Maltese Falcon), but I can’t see how it could be made more obvious. Brigid and Joel even get in a fight over a boy. I mean, really.

*. The gang are, of course, a trio of indelible creations. I’m not sure there’s ever been anything else like them. What I find so endearing about them though is their sheer incompetence. Spade delights in mocking them as “a swell lot of thieves.” Even the way they’re often photographed, from below, is sarcastic, making petty criminals seem like giants. Joel Cairo is just there to be slapped around (and like it!). Wilmer is only a “gunsel” (that is, a kept boy, not a gunman). And Gutman, for all his airs of superiority is just a two-bit grifter, not even above palming bills. Is it any surprise these losers got played by the Russian Kemidov in Constantinople? At least Huston sends them off on their next round of travels lightly. In the book and the 1931 film Wilmer turns on Gutman and kills him.

*. Lorre, Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr. are all terrific, but so are veterans Barton MacLane and Ward Bond as the pair of dour cops who get to show up and look unimpressed with all these shenanigans. The weirdos needed some balance.
*. The movie revolves around Bogart’s Spade however, who is in every scene except the one where Archer gets shot. Bogart was actually the second choice for the part, however. And while I don’t think George Raft would have been nearly as good, I think he might have worked pretty well. I can actually see him in the part.
*. It came out the same year as Citizen Kane, both films being directorial debuts. Obviously neither Welles nor Huston went in to the business as complete neophytes, but the results are still astounding. That something like that could happen is one of those things that would seem to say something about filmmaking. I think there’s a certain level of inspiration and energy you have when you’re just starting out that is something special.
*. I could go on, but I don’t want to because it’s not that much fun talking about a favourite film, and I would probably rank The Maltese Falcon in my top three, most days. It’s smart, quick, and no end of fun. What’s more, it plays as lively today as the first time I saw it. I don’t think I see a lot more in it now then I did then, but I enjoy it just as much.

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

*. Based on “a book” by Dashiell Hammett. That’s cold.
*. It is, of course, based on The Maltese Falcon, though it’s a very free adaptation. I guess Warner Bros. just figured that since they already had the rights to The Maltese Falcon they could film it again under a different title giving the characters different names and nobody would be any the wiser.
*. But why this title? Earlier drafts went with The Man in the Black Hat and Men on Her Mind, neither of which seem to have much relation to what’s going on. But what does Satan Met a Lady refer to? I assume the lady is Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis), but then who is Satan? Detective Ted Shane (Warren William)?
*. Bette Davis thought the film crap (or “junk,” to quote her directly) and wasn’t going to do it, but she needed the money. That’s not really an auspicious way to get started.
*. Again we are forced into making comparisons, though given the changes they made there isn’t the same sense of seeing a diminished thing as when putting the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon alongside John Huston’s 1941 classic. This is a different film.
*. Most of the changes are cosmetic. Instead of a Maltese falcon we’re chasing after the legendary horn of Roland, which is an artefact made of ivory and supposedly filled with precious gems. The Gutman character is now a tough old dame and Wilmer the gunsel is her babyish adult son (who is always just about to tell Shane somethin’). Joel Cairo is a proper English fellow. And the femme fatale is Bette.
*. The biggest shift, however, has to do with tone. This has always been difficult for filmmakers to get right. Only Bogart has managed to project the sense of wry cynicism and physical threat that Sam Spade needs. In the 1931 film Ricard Cortez was a bit too leering, while here Warren William seems to be auditioning for William Powell’s role in The Thin Man (a successful franchise in the mid-’30s).
*. It’s all very lighthearted and farcical, which doesn’t really fit with much of what’s going on. The cuckolding and murder of Shane’s partner, for example, is treated as a laugh. Which, when you think about it, is remarkable.
*. And I don’t mean remarkable in a good way. I mean a misfire, to the point where I’m not even sure what target they were trying to hit. There are a few things to enjoy here, like the big baby Kenny playing at being a gunman, and Bette Davis nearly succeeding in not embarassing herself, but overall this is a mess that doesn’t play well five years after the first Maltese Falcon and seems totally misguided in light of what we’d be getting next.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

*. This is a movie that’s hard to judge on its own merits today. Meaning that if you’ve seen it, you’ve likely only done so after seeing John Huston’s more famous 1941 version of the same story.
*. That’s hard on Roy Del Ruth’s film, because even though I think most people consider it to be a good little movie, with lots of things in it to enjoy, it doesn’t do one thing better than Huston’s.
*. Just look at the cast. The 1941 film had one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled, so it’s no surprise that Otto Matieson, though very good, is no Peter Lorre, that Dudley Digges, though also very good, is no Sydney Greenstreet, or that Dwight Frye, who hardly gets to speak but who certainly looks the part, is no Elisha Cook Jr. In sum, the gang of falcon-hunting weirdos is great, but they fall far short of what we got ten years later. The perfect, as they say, is the enemy of the good.
*. The leads, I’m afraid, are an even bigger step down. Bebe Daniels is game, but no Mary Astor. And Ricardo Cortez . . . can we say he’s no Sam Spade, or should we just say he’s no Humphrey Bogart? Because Sam Spade really became Bogie. There are no alternatives.
*. I feel bad just making all these comparisons, but like I say: there’s no way you can watch this movie without its remake in your mind, and the comparisons are all to its disadvantage.

*. Take another point that’s often raised: that this movie was made pre-Code and so could take more risks in its adaptation of a gritty novel. Yes, in theory. But in practice? There’s Sam’s strip search of Ms. Wonderly, which I’ll admit is kind of fun. But the franker depiction of his adultery with his partner’s wife just makes him seem more of a leering creep (and one who even files his nails at one point!). Also, while I’ve heard it said that they could be franker about the homosexual subtext, I don’t think this is played up any more than in the later version, where Lorre’s Joel Cairo is about as swishy as you can get and Wilmer is even more the kept boy.
*. Huston’s Maltese Falcon is sometimes considered the first film noir, though you’ll find lots of people to argue about that. Some people credit Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and others will push things even further back, into the 1920s. But it made me wonder: if the ’41 Maltese Falcon is the first noir, or even among the first, then what is this movie? What generic distinction would you make between the two to classify the one as noir and the other not? The lighting?
*. I don’t care for the ending, with Spade visiting Ms. Wonderly in a women’s prison. Gone is his big speech about standing up for something, which would only fly past her anyway since she doesn’t recognize any code. And the fact that he is now working for the District Attorney just tastes bad. Sure, Sam may have his principles, but I can’t see him working for the Man after all he’s been through.
*. So it’s a decent movie, and to say it falls short of Huston’s film is hard to hold against it. But even if it had never been remade I doubt this version would be very well known today. The leads just aren’t strong enough, the action not tough enough, the cracking wise not snappy and smart enough. It was, however, a step in the right direction. And that’s more than can be said for Hollywood’s next attempt at the same material five years later: Satan Met a Lady.

Quiz the sixty-first: Drive tapes (Part one)

There have been some pretty easy quizzes around here recently, so let’s mix things up with a quiz that separates the casual cinephile from the true auteur of film trivia. In other words, one that is downright impossible. Yes, it’s a gallery of that most useless cutaway in film: a shot of the car radio! I doubt the people who made some of these movies could identify them, though I think there are a couple that are manageable. In other words: Good luck!

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The Monster (2016)

*. We begin with an epigraph taken from some generic fairy tale. This suits, since as far as stories go it doesn’t get much simpler than this. I mean, even the title is generic.
*. So, mother and daughter are driving through the forest in a rainstorm when they’re in an accident. A monster proceeds to stalk them. Add in a couple of other elements that hardly count as twists: conflict between the two leads (mom is an alcoholic) and a pair of rescue fails (tow truck and ambulance drivers). Mother makes grand self-sacrificing gesture. Little girl shows pluck and resiliency in destroying the monster.
*. You’ll notice I didn’t bother with the spoiler alert. Because really, there’s nothing to this story to spoil. You should be able to tell where all this is going after the first few minutes. There are no surprises.
*. Nor is there anything very scary going on. Writer-director Bryan Bertino also wrote and directed The Strangers, another conventional horror flick that didn’t have any scares in it. I’m not sure what attracts him to the genre. He sets himself a difficult challenge here — making a movie largely bound to a single restricted set — but does nothing to exploit it for suspense or the usual claustrophobic thrills.
*. “No one very much takes this road anymore.” You don’t say. Tow truck companies and ambulance dispatchers also do a shit job of checking in with their employees. This road seems to be a black hole for people and for information.
*. Points for not having a CGI creature. Yes, he looks like a guy in a rubber monster suit, topped off with an immobile head (does his mouth even open?), but at least he isn’t another cartoon.
*. Seeing as the girl’s name is Lizzy, I wonder why her mom has a “Martina” tattoo. Or maybe Zoe Kazan has a Martina tatoo and they just didn’t bother covering it up.
*. Such a simple fairy tale invites being interpreted as a metaphor. This is another movie where the real monster is in fact a bad mother. Think The Babadook. The threatened family has long been a horror staple, but now it is threatened from within, representing a generation’s anxiety over its childraising competence. So Lizzy is the adult in the family, and really the best/only thing her mother can do for her is to just get out of the way.
*. This would all be well enough, and The Monster a decent B-picture, but for the ending. Not only is Kathy a bad mother, she is a total idiot. Her “plan” for escaping the monster is jaw-droppingly stupid. Even as the expression of a death wish it doesn’t hold much water, since it would have doomed Lizzy as well. Then Lizzy’s own plan has no business working but for the strange passivity the monster has toward her, and its even stranger flammability. I mean, it’s slimy, and wet, but is it also covered in oil? That’s the only way I can see it turning into a fireball like that.
*. It’s still not a bad movie. Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine are both pretty good, though their interactions become repetitive because the script doesn’t really know what to do with them once their basic dynamic has been introduced. On their way to a better movie, however, their car broke down.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

*. Almost a really good remake.
*. As with any remake coming this long after the original (thirty years) I find the most interesting part is noticing how the times have changed. Thomas Crown is still involved in some kind of possibly shady financial dealings (director John McTiernan likened him to Donald Trump, then not a candidate for higher office), but he’s moved from Boston to New York City and races catamarans instead of playing polo.
*. This Thomas Crown is also not going to be satisfied with an erotic game of chess. No, he’s going to get naked and dirty with his conquests. On the stairway even, which I would have thought one of the very worst places in the world to go at it. One suspects that he and his lover aren’t that into board games.
*. At the time, McTiernan was best known as an action director thanks to a pair of now iconic films he’d made a decade previously: Predator and Die Hard. So, while in the first film the heist itself was presented in the briefest way imaginable (you could tell Norman Jewison wasn’t interested in it at all), here it turns into a pair of lengthy set-pieces that allow McTiernan to stay in his comfort zone.
*. I wouldn’t want to go so far though as to say that McTiernan flubs on the romance. I think he does what he can. Where I think this part of the film flags is in how totally Rene Russo overwhelms Pierce Brosnan, despite his mastering her in the end. I don’t dislike Brosnan, but I don’t think he was right as James Bond and I don’t think he’s right here either. Steve McQueen was more believable as the tycoon bored with his riches and three-piece suits. He was also more interesting, because Thomas Crown’s money is the least interesting thing about him. Or at least it was.
*. Jewison’s Thomas Crown Affair was notoriously a case of style over substance. The plot itself was a fantasy. The plot is still a fantasy here (would the proctor really let Thomas sit in the Impressionists room and eat a croissant? would none of the proctors on staff not realize three impostors showing up? would painting over the Monet and then washing the paint off with a sprinkler not damage the original just a bit?) but style has been replaced not with the merely stylish but with money.
*. The ’90s version of Thomas Crown is obviously a man of taste, hence his stealing paintings instead of money, but he seems more like the subject of an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or some very upscale fashion magazine. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making Russo’s character appear even more shallow and mercenary in being seduced by him. Because what does she really see in him other than his wonderful homes, and dining every night at the best restaurants?
*. A lot of people didn’t like Faye Dunaway’s apperance here as Thomas’s therapist. Had she become his mother? According to McTiernan some saw it as a betrayal. Others saw the part as unnecessary, and with this I concur. Remarkably, McTiernan says during the DVD commentary that she serves “the same dramatic function” as the dune buggy in the first film. What?
*. I agree with the general point made by Paul Tatara in his review, which begins by saying that this version is more (or really less) than a piece of fluff, instead calling it “a veritable motherload of Twinkie filling with no actual Twinkie surrounding it.” This didn’t bother him though, since “for once, our fond memories of a classic movie aren’t being trampled by the re-make. The original film was just as empty as this one is.”
*. But while the first time around it was a fantasy, something about it worked. It had an otherworldly dream quality. The feel of this movie is very much a this-world fantasy. There is no sense of seduction to its images beyond the crassness of its desires. We had the feeling that McQueen really did think all of this was a joke. Brosnan’s Crown is much more a part and product of his environment. We couldn’t really imagine him out of it.
*. Still, I found it quite enjoyable. Russo is a force that, at least for the first couple of acts, dominates the screen (and Brosnan), clothes on or off. But then there’s the ending. Whereas Faye Dunaway lost her playboy, Russo gets hers in a totally silly coda. I hated it. In fact, hate isn’t strong enough.
*. I suppose it’s defensible on some level. Jewison thought McQueen and Dunaway were a pair of shits who deserved each other but couldn’t consummate their narcissistic fascination. Here they’re a pair of ultimately vacuous social climbers (though still, in McTiernan’s own judgment, a pair of narcissists, even if Dunaway’s shrink won’t use the n-word). Remarkably, they get exactly what they want. For them, money really can, and does, buy happiness, which is a complete rejection of everything the first film stood for.
*. But then, by 1999 hadn’t we all sold out? Hadn’t we learned to stop worrying and enjoy the simple pleasures of loving ourselves? For wealthy boomers like Thomas and Catherine jetting off to exclusive parts unknown this was the final piece of the puzzle after brief careers of luxury and self-indulgence: a happy ending.