Monthly Archives: May 2019

Quiz the seventy-seventh: Hic jacet (Part two)

Time to get on the tour bus and visit some more famous (and not so famous) movie graves. May all those buried here rest in peace!

See also: Quiz the second: Hic jacet (Part one).

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Glass (2019)

*. First off, I’ll give M. Night Shyamalan full credit for marching to the beat of his own drum. Glass is a personal and intelligent reflection on comic book culture that doesn’t go for easy points. It’s knowing, but not arch or ironic. Many people described it as Shyamalan’s love letter to superhero comics and I think that’s fair enough.
*. It’s also timely, being released at the moment of peak Marvel: just after Avengers: Infinity War and just before Avengers: Endgame. Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson, who seems miscast to me) specializes in people who believe they are superheroes, a form of delusion of grandeur that is approaching an epidemic. Instead of the Three Christs of Ypsilanti we have a trio of comic book heroes and villains introduced in the previous two instalments of the trilogy: Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Overseer (Bruce Willis) from Unbreakable and the Beast (James McAvoy) from Split.
*. So as I say, it’s timely. And the story has an interesting hook (insert spoiler alert here), with Dr. Staple being the villainous mastermind trying to demystify our world. Which is, in fact, a comic book world. The three heroes are basically figures from our collective unconscious, archetypes who are made real through our faith or belief in them.
*. Such a plot involves an interesting twist, where the forces of law and order seeking to protect us are the bad guys, while the villains turn out to be representative of a Romantic dark side or unrestrained id. How odd is it that Elijah Price is a mass murderer and Kevin Crumb a serial killer but both are redeemed at the end and presented as heroes? Sure they’re both “broken” characters because of their background, but so are many if not most bad people. Is the point that without their villainy there could be no good guys like David Dunn? Or is it that their crimes aren’t real in some sense? I thought this was rather fuzzy.
*. You could imagine a good movie being made out of such a premise. I’m not sure Glass is that movie though. For starters, and on the most basic level, it’s dull. Aside from the initial battle between the Overseer and the Beast I don’t think anything at all happens in the first hour.
*. I’ve nothing against talky pictures, but the talk here only advances the plot very slowly and the point being made isn’t in need of such development. Nor did I feel that I was getting to know any of the main characters better, or that they were being given any more depth than they had in the previous films. If anything, Mr. Glass and David Dunn seem less interesting than they were in Unbreakable. (I have to enter the caveat here that something like an hour of Glass was cut from the final print. From the deleted scenes included with the DVD, however, I doubt my opinion would change even if I’d seen a three-hour version.)
*. One of the big questions coming into Glass was whether Willis would at least pretend to be awake for his role, and I think the answer is “sort of.” This is an actor who seems to have found his comfort zone. Or else he’s lost interest. Maybe both.
*. If the leads are dealt with in a cursory manner this is even more the case with their attendant supporting figures, who have little function to play aside from doing some basic research into comic books, which allows the finale here to take on a bit of a Scream quality (“This is the part of the story when this happens,” etc.)
*. I’m assuming the organization wanted the trio to escape, because just having a single orderly on duty for such a large facility was kind of hard to figure otherwise.
*. Audiences were said to be confused by the ending. I think it more likely they were disappointed. It’s not complicated, but it is anticlimactic. Hell, the Overseer is drowned in a puddle. It’s hard to beat that for a depressing finale. But I guess that was the point, undercutting the superheroic mythos and making it real at the same time. The story clearly couldn’t end there, however, so there’s an even more disappointing coda suggesting some kind of viral superhero awakening. I couldn’t buy into this at all, and indeed had trouble understanding exactly what Shyamalan was suggesting. That we are all superheroes if we only believe in ourselves enough? A nice thought, but it seems hardly worth taking us a trilogy of films to get to.
*. It’s well made, if by that you mean it’s polished and looks nice. But while Shyamalan conceived of Glass as being at least in part a thriller, suspense seems not to have been the intention. Instead there’s just the feeling of things proceeding slowly toward a downbeat resolution. Yes, it’s a refreshing mix of genre filmmaking with the cinema of personal expression. It’s just that Shyamalan doesn’t have much that’s new to say. His thoughts on genre remain generic. What he was after was a “tonal fresh break” with the comic book genre but what does that end up meaning except that Glass moves slower than a Marvel movie and relies less on special effects?
*. Despite being too long for the modest bit of ground it covers I liked Glass most of the time. It’s just that I didn’t like it as much as Unbreakable and perhaps not even as much as Split. After three of these movies I can’t say I feel like I came out ahead.

The Dinner (2017)

*. In my notes on the Italian version of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner I mused about how Italian it was in its understanding and presentation of the family dynamics. I wasn’t sure about this, but I thought there was something going on there. In this American Dinner I think national identity is also in play.
*. I say this despite the fact that two of the four leads (Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall) are British, and it was originally supposed to be directed by Cate Blanchett, who hails from Australia. In the event, Blanchett backed out, and screenwriter Oren Moverman took over.
*. What makes it specifically American? Its insistence on dragging in so much American history, for one thing. Paul is a history teacher with a fixation on the battle of Gettsyburg. No, I don’t know what that has to do with anything but the movie spends a lot of time on it.
*. I also think Paul’s mental health issues are characteristic of America’s therapy culture, and help to make this a more American version of Koch’s story. If only all these mixed-up people could get on the right meds and stay on them . . .
*. There was nothing I liked about this movie. It is boring and unfocused. The dinner itself has no significance or role to play. I didn’t buy Richard Gere and Steve Coogan being brothers for a minute. I didn’t understand how such a tight little story got lost in so many flashbacks and digressions. Dramatically there is no sense of rising action or of a tightening noose. I agree with this appraisal by Kristen Yoonsoon Kim in Village Voice: “The dinner itself is constantly disrupted by long-winded flashbacks — often in cheesy soft focus — that seem intended to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Instead, they drift too far from the drama, undercutting it. The beauty of a single-location thriller is how the tension escalates in containment, but Moverman fails to seize that built-in advantage. Instead of dropping hints about what kind of monsters his characters might be, and then working toward a dramatic revelation, he works anticlimactically.”
*. I didn’t like any of the characters, and had to wonder at times who I wanted to see less of. Steve Coogan’s Paul won out, and unfortunately his is the central role. And finally I didn’t like the abrupt ending, aside from the fact that it brought the curtain down on such a dull experience.
*. The point of the novel — which has to do with the limits of parental responsibility — is largely dropped, with the adults more worried about themselves and Moverman more interested in chasing after some other theme. Such as how our most passionately held convictions may be ones we don’t believe in. That may have been an interesting point to make in another movie but as with all the mental health stuff it just leads us astray in this one. In fact, it leads nowhere.

The Dinner (2014)

*. The Dinner is the second of three (so far) film versions of Herman Koch’s 2009 novel of the same name (in Dutch, Het diner). Each has had its own national flavour. There was a Dutch version in 2013, this Italian film, and an American production in 2017.
*. What sets this Dinner (I nostri ragazzi) apart is the greater liberties it takes with its source. The parents, for example, have different professions: a pediatric surgeon and a criminal defence lawyer instead of a teacher and a politician. Also, their kids are now a boy and a girl instead of two boys, which makes a difference. But perhaps most significant for the way the story plays out, there is no dinner. Or at least, we never see anyone eating dinner. The couples go to a restaurant twice but a main course never arrives.
*. I say this is significant because the conceit behind the book (and, mostly, the other film versions) is that the whole story takes place over a single dinner. It has the effect of compressing the drama into real time, and works well on the page. On screen? Well, while “stagey” I think such an approach gives the cast, the director, and the script a chance to shine. The other movies try to at least stick to the spirit of the book, but this Dinner opts to spread things out, to the point where the dinners become irrelevant. Nothing important happens at either, at least until the very end.

*. I began by not liking what was going on. The two brothers’ professional lives intersect with a killing in the opening scene that leaves the killer being defended by Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and one of his victims being treated by Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio). This seemed to me at first to be a distraction, but as things progressed I saw it as relating directly to the way each brother would respond to their own moral dilemma. Paolo will ultimately come down on the side of trying to save his son, while Massimo will want to see justice done.
*. One change I did not agree with was making one of the kids a girl. The relationship between Benedetta and Michele left me baffled. What was a hot chick like her doing hanging around with such a loser cousin anyway? There seemed to be something creepy being hinted at, but I just couldn’t figure it out.
*. I was impressed that they didn’t try to make Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) sympathetic at all. To the point of not even trying to cover up his acne scars. Let’s face it, this is a guy we don’t like at all. And one thing that does work with his pairing with his beautiful cousin is that it underlines how morally ugly they both are.
*. The adult leads all struck me as very good. A special nod goes out to Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who plays Clara, the mother of Michele. The way she falls in the kitchen was a fantastic touch. I don’t think she slips, I think she just can’t stand up after realizing what Michele has done.

*. I wonder if there can be any greater dramatic moment than when a parent realizes that their child is, in fact, a complete piece of shit. That’s something an actor can really sink their teeth into. And I like how we get to see Clara withdrawing from reality to her own bubble as things start to go downhill. This is the best part of the film and I wish there were more of it.
*. The ending is too abrupt, as the ending of the American version would be as well (in a different way). But then this is a difficult piece to end, as there’s no chance for any closure.
*. An alternative title in the U.S. was Our Boys. This brought to mind Bernard Lefkowitz’s Our Guys, the true story of how a town closed ranks around the jocks who raped a handicapped girl in a New Jersey town. So though it’s a Dutch novel I think the story resonates with an American audience. It made me wonder though how much of this version is inflected with an Italian sense of family. And the answer is, I don’t know.
*. As I say, I started off not liking The Dinner but it gradually won me over and by the end I was quite enjoying it. I didn’t like the way it winds up, but until that point there was a lot about it I thought very well done, especially in terms of the acting. And it’s certainly a much better film than the American version that would come out a couple of years later. It does, however, still leave me thinking that something is missing. There’s a reticence about it, a reluctance to put its finger on the scales of moral judgment. Understandable, but I kept looking for something a bit more pink and raw.

Quiz the seventy-sixth: Typecasting (Part one)

Typewriters. Yet another piece of technology that younger generations today know nothing of. I learned to type on an old manual Underwood, with the bell that rang as you approached the end of a line and the long, slender silver arm of a carriage return. I remember the keys jamming together and the ribbon becoming tangled. I remember the novelty of “liquid paper.”

But enough reminiscing. On to this week’s quiz, showing these antiques being employed in some movies I leave it to you with long memories to identify.

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Dolores Claiborne (1995)

*. There’s a word you’ll often hear applied to Dolores Claiborne that I want to start with: melodrama. What this usually refers to is exaggerated or heightened emotionality in a domestic setting, with clear heroes and villains. I think Dolores Claiborne is ripe melodrama, and one of the things that struck me watching it was just how slight a nudge it would take to push it into parody. It’s almost there. But then, that’s the case with most melodrama. It likes to walk the line.
*. For some reviewers it went too far. Owen Gleiberman, for example, writing in Entertainment Weekly: “Based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel, this solemnly ludicrous ‘psychological’ thriller is like one of Hollywood’s old-hag gothics turned into a therapeutic grouse-a-thon — it’s Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte for the Age of Oprah. ”
*. This is harsh, too harsh in my opinion. I don’t see much of the hagsploitation genre in it, aside from incidentals. But the nod to Oprah does seem right. This is the sort of hard-luck story with a triumphal conclusion that we expect from daytime TV. In soaps. In melodrama.
*. The story is based on a Stephen King novel, and it’s true to that story while presenting it in a radically different way, making Selena into a character equal to her mother. This has the sometimes irritating effect of turning the movie into a complicated web of flashbacks but it also gives Kathy Bates someone to play against in Jennifer Jason Leigh.
*. Director Taylor Hackford calls the leads his “two racehorses” on the DVD commentary and they’re usually given a lot of credit. Personally, I find Bates just barely credible. Leigh, however, is an actor I’ve always been fond of and she is terrific, convincingly and sympathetically giving us a woman who is burned out before she’s even turned 30. I think Leigh was one of the great underused talents of her generation. How I wish she had been in some better movies in her career. Still, there’s hope yet.

*. I’d like to say that the melodramatic (artificial, exaggerated) parts are where the film falls down, but that would be both too easy and wrong. No, I don’t buy the repressed memory business (though the presentation of Selena as a victim of incest is psychologically astute otherwise). I also don’t buy the funny accents, which may be realistic but sound put on. And the inquest finale, with Selena defending her mom as though in court (she’s covered enough trials, apparently, to know how they work) strikes me as ridiculous.

*. But in other places it’s the heightening of the drama in strange ways that leads to the most effective moments.
*. Chief among these is the long eclipse scene. Throughout the movie different film stocks are used to present past and present. The present scenes were shot on Kodak, which has a reputation for looking cool. This was helped along by saturating the colour scheme with blues. The past was shot with Fuji film for more of a warm look. The eclipse/murder scene is in the past, but it has an added, surreal quality to it for being shot on what was then the largest blue screen stage in the world. The harbour in the background looks like some kind of diorama borrowed from Gone with the Wind. It doesn’t look at all realistic, and yet we’ve been so grounded in the reality of this location that it seems like reality has been magically transformed, or is being redrawn before our eyes.
*. Well, we might say, it is an eclipse, which is a magical sort of event where the light does take on a special quality. And it is the climax of the film, where the big secret of what happened to the no-good husband is revealed. It’s a testament to how great I think this scene is that it stands out for me as a favourite movie moment despite the fact that I don’t really love Dolores Claiborne as a whole.

*. The other stand-out moment of surreality is Selena seeing the back of her own head in the mirror on the ferry, an homage to a painting by Magritte (“La reproduction interdite”). Dolores Claiborne is not a tale of supernatural horror, but it does a great job building up to and fashioning a moment of psychological terror and alienation like this.
*. The movie is uneven. It’s too long. There are big chunks of it that I didn’t think worked well at all (Christopher Plummer’s role as the local Javert is awful, and frankly Judy Parfitt’s turn as the lady of the big house isn’t much better). The build up to a pair of secrets I was never that interested in, mainly through the overuse of flashbacks, was obvious and tired. And yet, as so often with King, something in the basic idea, and its rendering here, has a strength and staying power that’s hard to deny. King has been such a representative popular artist for so long I have to wonder if he’ll endure or if stories like these will come to seem to be only of their time. Which is my time too, so I can feel it passing.

Baby Driver (2017)

*. This is thin. Very thin. Think your basic heist movie and all of its usual elements: the gang, the caper, the hero who just needs to pull off one last score before he’s out of the game and can retire to a quiet life with his woman . . . and then the way things fall apart in a bloody round of violence demonstrating there is little, if any, honour among thieves. Indeed, the fairy tale ending may be the most “original” thing about Baby Driver.
*. Let’s face it, we’ve been here many times before, even with drivers. As with The Driver. Or Drive. Those movies were thin too. Baby Driver may be even thinner.
*. The reason it’s so thin is because writer-director Edgar Wright wanted to do as much of the film as possible to music, which means giving the story all the depth of a pop song about bank robbers. Maybe “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band, with Baby and Deborah as Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue.
*. I was quite surprised by the reviews of Baby Driver when it came out. They were very good, but as I read what they had to say about the film I found myself puzzled by what it was people were so impressed by. After seeing the movie for myself my confusion grew. Baby Driver is not a bad movie, but I don’t see any way in which it’s more than a brainless bit of summer fluff.
*. Two things in particular seem to have really impressed critics.
*. First there were all the car chases and stunts. As you would hope in a movie about a getaway driver, featuring several extended car chases, these are good. But they are not great. Only one stunt in particular caught my eye. The clouds of burning rubber were the only signature element. There was nothing in the way the rest of this material was filmed that struck me as being a gamechanger or setting a new standard for such things (think The French Connection or what George Miller did with the Mad Max movies). Put another way, around the same time as I saw Baby Driver I saw The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which also had some good chase scenes that were done just as well.
*. The second thing that got a lot of praise was the music. Again, for a movie built around its soundtrack you’d hope the music would be good, and it is. But, also again, there was nothing in the music itself or the way it was used that blew me away or struck me as particularly original. It’s the usual eclectic retro-mix we’ve been listening to for thirty years now in films like this.
*. On the commentary track Wright talks about how his idea for the movie was to use all the music diegetically. This is a technical term meaning that the music you hear is “in” the movie itself: people in the movie are listening to it or dancing to it or playing it or whatever. There are two things to say about this.
*. (1) it’s nothing new, as there have been plenty of movies that haven’t had scores but only used music as it comes up in the movie. Admittedly, Baby Driver does this more than most, but even here the film doesn’t solely use music diegetically. There is a score (by Steven Price).
*. (2) Is it really a diegetic use of music? I mean, sure the music is part of the film but only in the sense that we’re put in the somewhat non-diegetic position of wearing Baby’s earbuds and hearing what he’s hearing. That just strikes me as a way of shoehorning in some cool tunes that could just have easily played as part of a soundtrack. Meanwhile, I get that Baby performs better to music, lots of people do. Even surgeons operate to a playlist. But the music here still feels more like the director’s playlist than an integral part of this world.

*. Wright says he’d had the idea for the movie for 20 years, and took 10 years to write it. How is this possible? I can imagine this would be a difficult movie to make in the sense of the nuts and bolts of its choreography and construction, but it isn’t a complicated film at all, and certainly doesn’t seem to have required much writing.
*. I must be missing something here too. Apparently Wright actually did research, interviewing half a dozen ex-cons and getaway drivers to make the film more realistic. But why? There’s nothing at all here he couldn’t have just taken from other gangster films and the overall tone of the movie seems to be not only un- but anti-realistic. This is a day-glo fantasy of the criminal life and I didn’t believe in a bit of it. That’s not a knock against Baby Driver but just a comment on the kind of movie it is.
*. Why does Baby have to leave a tape recording with Joe at the retirement home he leaves him at? Joe can’t write?
*. What the hell is the relation between Joe and Baby anyway? Did I miss something? Is Joe his foster father? A single, disabled, deaf man? How did that work?
*. These may seem like niggling questions, but given how little script there is to this movie (in terms of both plot and dialogue) it’s surprising how little of it holds up. Characters just climb out of the grave to take us through to the next scene, for example. Or, to stick with the script, notice how awkwardly the gang’s trip to the diner is introduced. Obviously they had to have a scene like this to set up what happens later and so it gets jammed in.
*. When Buddy is hunting for Baby in the parking garage and he calls out “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Do you think Wright’s assumption was that this means “Where are you, Romeo?” Or that this is what Buddy thinks the line means? Juliet is not asking where Romeo is, but why (wherefore) he has to be named Romeo (that is, a Montague).

*. Ansel Elgort and Lily James are both very pretty and (I guess) likeable, but it’s hard to imagine two duller protagonists than Baby and Debora. They’re young and they just want to get in a car and drive with no particular place to go, listening to the radio. How am I supposed to relate to, or even care, about people like this? Sure, I’m a lot older than they are, but I don’t think I would have identified with them any more if I were 18.
*. So long, Kevin Spacey. He’s disappeared pretty completely as of the time of my writing these notes, with Baby Driver being one of his last roles (his erasure from All the Money in the World being Hollywood’s version of the damnatio memoriae). I guess he really was a jerk, or even something worse, but I did enjoy him as an actor. Doc is a pointless part though.
*. Jamie Foxx basically seemed to be reprising his role as “Motherfuckah” Jones in Horrible Bosses, except (sort of) playing it straight. I hope that isn’t misreading things, but I had trouble taking Bats seriously. Isn’t Baby Driver supposed to be a comedy? That’s the kind of movie Wright does, and as I’ve said, I don’t think we’re meant to take this one as being realistic, however much time Wright spent doing research. I mean, we’re not meant to take it seriously. At the same time, it’s not terribly funny either. Apparently, the scene I thought was the funniest, involving the mix-up with the Michael Myers masks, was a jerry-rigged solution to not being able to use the killer’s mask from Halloween.
*. Is Baby another example of the autistic-spectrum superhero so popular at this time? That was my initial impression, but I don’t think he’s mean to be viewed this way. Then when Doc’s nephew showed up, plugged in to his tablet and cheefully amoral about the business, I realized that the point is that we’re all autistic now anyway, living online, tuned in to our iPods and hiding behind our shades.
*. Whatever else you want to say about the filmmakers of this generation, they sure know their movie history. I’m always impressed when I hear how much of their own fandom works its way into their films. On his solo DVD commentary Wright mentions how Baby’s prison number was actually the release date of The Driver, and how he took the jumpsuits from The Getaway. He also says that he considers Baby Driver to be a “spiritual sequel” to both films. So it’s not like he thought he was doing something totally new here. Instead this is mainly an update and homage.
*. I feel as though I’ve written way too much now on a movie I didn’t care much about in the first place. I guess I’ve been trying to explain my confusion at its critical reception. This seemed to me to be way over the top. It’s a fun little movie, but incredibly light and clichéd, without a hint of transgressiveness, irony, or even individual style. I kept looking for some explanation of what made people think there was anything special to it and all I came up with was car chases and music.
*. Richard Brody’s New Yorker review was one of the few that I thought was on target. He called it “an imitation of generation’s worth of imitations (most conspicuously, those of Quentin Tarantino’s neo-heist-ism), each of which exists solely as a vehicle for the personal obsessions and originality of style with which a director infuses it.” Unfortunately, he didn’t think Wright had much of an artistic vision to express, and so came up with “a Disneyfied version of an action film.”
*. Where I would disagree with Brody is in his conclusion that Baby Driver “has still satisfied critics who are in love with the idea of Hollywood providing something that’s not based on a superhero franchise, providing something that, with its retro soundtrack and retro cleanness, reminds them of a Hollywood that no longer exists.” Actually, I think Baby Driver is a sort of superhero movie and is less a throwback to some vanished Hollywood than a film representative of where we are now. Reviewers weren’t trying to register some symbolic resistance to any of this. They were just showing how much they’ve given up.

The Snowman (2017)

*. Yes, it’s a very bad movie, But director Tomas Alfredson, who has done good work in a similar vein, had some excuses.
*. Take the patchwork plot, which doesn’t have holes so much as giant gaps and lots of dots left unconnected. I’m not sure what the point was of the subplot involving the businessman Arve Støp (J. K. Simmons doing a pretty good Max von Sydow). And what was with all the stuff set in Bergen nine years earlier?
*. Well, here’s the excuse for that: because of the shooting schedule big chunks of the original story couldn’t be filmed. Yes, this is something that somebody should have thought of or taken into consideration when the film was in production, but . . . there you have it. Meanwhile, the film is a full two hours long, so how much more time did they think they needed to have it all make sense? I don’t think an extra fifteen minutes would have been enough. Maybe they should have done it as a cable series.
*. The second item that needs some explanation is the terrible way Val Kilmer’s lines are dubbed. Why? Well, apparently Kilmer was recovering from cancer and he couldn’t deliver the lines properly. So there you have another excusing factor. But again, this is something they might have found a work-around for when they were going into production.
*. Once you take away the excuses though, this is still a bad movie.
*. In the first place, it’s just the same Stieg Larsson stuff we all know by heart. I’m not saying Jo Nesbø (the author of the Harry Hole novels) was ripping Larsson off, because I think both writers were working independently in the same direction, but in 2017 the story here feels really formulaic. And it doesn’t help that it ends on such a ridiculous and predictable note.
*. The killer actually has a decent back story and motivation, though there’s no explanation of his weapon of choice, a handheld wire cutter that he uses to sever various body parts. This stuck out for me because I’d seen the same device used by a black-gloved killer in Dario Argento’s underrated thriller Trauma (1995), where its use did have a point, and the killer had an even more interesting back story.
*. That same sense I had of missing the point came up with regard to other things in the movie as well. Alfredson likes to shoot characters through windows, but I couldn’t see where this served a thematic or indeed any other purpose. And while Norway has some beautiful scenery, allowing a number of scenes here to be shot in dramatic locations, the effect is to make the movie look like a commercial for snow tires. The environment has none of the overbearing natural presence as in Insomnia, for example.
*. I have no idea what Michael Fassbender was going for in his performance. Brooding intensity? Why the raspy voice? I get it, he’s a tortured soul. But lighten up, man. It’s like he’s channeling Christian Bale.
*. Yes, his name is Harry Hole. Was that meant as a joke? Perhaps not. Apparently “Hole” is a place name in Norway. It means a round and isolated hill and is pronounced as two syllables.
*. At least Fassbender looks great, considering all Harry does is drink and smoke. And I mean he smokes a lot. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new movie with a character lighting up this much. I thought studios were getting out of that.
*. It just won’t do. There’s too much talent here for this to have been such a complete misfire. Even the identity of the killer is easy to guess long before the end, which comes via some hokey staging of potted psychology and a way-too-tidy disposal of the killer that you can (literally, in a long shot) see coming a mile away.
*. Still, despite being such a lousy film, both messy and formulaic at the same time (which is no mean feat), it does manage to exert a basic level of fascination. Maybe I’m just especially fond of the genre, but these types of movies do keep me watching even when they’re not very well done. I can’t help being a fan, even when I’m being let down.

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

*. A woman walks through an empty parking garage and is attacked by a gang of masked hoods. She is thrown to the ground and raped. Then, in silhouette, a hero appears who pulls a gun and blows the punks away. Or were they creeps? I’m not sure what the correct word was at the time.
*. And yet, before you can say “Oh shit, here we go again,” Paul Kersey awakes from this (bad?) dream. Has this cliché ever been more welcome?
*. I hadn’t seen Death Wish 4: The Crackdown before now. I’d seen Death Wish 3 around the time it came out and gave up on the series then. Too bad, as this is the best of the movies since the original Death Wish, and in fact is in most ways a far more enjoyable experience than that film. Which just goes to show there’s hope even for the most dismal of franchises.
*. Not that Death Wish 4 is a great movie. It isn’t. But it is a lot better than the dead-cat bounce I was expecting after Death Wish 3.
*. There are several reasons why it’s better. The biggest, however, is that it has an actual story to tell and not just a formula to follow. To be sure, once again Paul Kersey has hooked up with a new woman, who has a daughter, and both will die. There is even the obligatory hospital scene where the doctor comes out to tell him the bad news. I had thought, for just a moment, that the love interest was going to be rescued at the end but . . . no such luck. That much is formula.
*. Also formula, I might add, is the fact that there is the same age gap between Bronson and the actress playing his love interest as there was in the previous movie, a whopping 32 years. What’s even more surprising is that in Deatwh Wish V his new paramour, Lesley-Anne Down, would be a year younger!
*. I can understand the women falling for Kersey’s quiet machismo and professional success, but shouldn’t Kersey know by now that in getting involved with these ladies he’s effectively handing them a death sentence? When do you realize that you’re just never going to be lucky in love, and you owe it to these women to stay single?
*. The story here is not the usual vigilante hunt through the streets of New York or L.A. Instead, Kersey is drawn into a turf war between two rival drug gangs, orchestrated by a third party with his own agenda. They actually had Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars in mind as a model. In other words, this is a movie with a real honest-to-goodness plot.

*. Also interesting is the use of new locations. We aren’t in the street any more but visiting a drug lab fronting as a fish processing factory, an oil field overlooking L.A., and finally a disco roller-derby rink. What’s even better is that the gunfights and kills have some imagination too. They actually use squibs, for one thing, instead of just having the bad guys jump in the air when they’re supposedly shot. We also see a bad guy electrocuted on the power grid for a bumper car ride, and another one getting his head shoved into a television. A whole trio of hit men are blown up by an exploding wine bottle in a restaurant. This is almost fun.
*. I wouldn’t say J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, and, oddly enough, Happy Birthday to Me) does a great job directing, but he’s miles ahead of Michael Winner, who did the first three films. Just the fact that Thompson uses a zoom to some effect on a few occasions is a welcome sign that he at least knows what he’s doing.
*. Great moments in subtitling: When Nathan White asks one of his flunkies where the girl is he’s told that she’s “in the powder room.” At least that’s what the subtitles say. What is actually said, clearly, is that she’s in the power room. That’s sexist subtitling! Or something.
*. Sadly, despite marking a significant improvement on earlier episodes, Death Wish 4 lost money, effectively shutting the franchise down until the belated bomb Death Wish V in 1994, when they were back to using Roman numerals in the title and Bronson was 71. Then, nearly twenty-five years later, it would be Bruce Willis’s turn. At almost the same age Bronson was in this film. The difference? Willis would be only eight years older than Elisabeth Shue, the actress playing his wife.