Monthly Archives: May 2019

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.

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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.

Death Wish 3 (1985)

*. It took them three movies, but in this instalment of the franchise they hit terminal velocity. And I don’t mean that in any kind of kick-ass way. I mean the series flatlined on its way downhill into irrelevance.
*. No more debating the pros and cons of vigilante justice, or agonizing over taking another life. No, this time Paul Kersey is out for blood from the moment he steps off a bus in Brooklyn (the film was actually shot in London, but if you’ve seen one ghetto I guess you’ve seen them all). With every “creep” he blows away with his Wildey .475 Magnum hand cannon crowds cheer from the windows. Right on, man! One scene even has children running into the street to dance over the corpses of slain bad guys.
*. In case you might not get the point, we also have a couple of scenes where the chief of police (Ed Lauter) crushes cockroaches. Kersey will later make the analogy to exterminating creeps direct: “It’s like killing roaches. If you don’t kill them all then what’s the point?” This is a point of view that the police chief, who makes it clear he has no time for the rule of law, can sympathize with.
*. In his defence, Bronson himself seems to have been disappointed at what his character had become, and was only playing the role for a boatload of money.
*. The plan here was to just cut out anything that looked like it might turn into a story, keep the basic franchise formula intact, and have more things blowing up at the end, comic-book style. This results in some surreal effects. The opening scenes play out so abruptly it almost seems like we’re watching a trailer. Then, because Kersey has to have a love interest who is killed, a sexy young public defender falls for him after seeing him once in a hallway at the police station, driving into the ghetto so she can ask him out to dinner and jump into bed with him. Talk about love at first sight. And Bronson, by the way, was 32 years older than Deborah Raffin. So . . . yeah, weird.
*. Another formula element is rape, and for no reason whatsoever director Michael Winner (who had directed both Death Wish and Death Wish II, and who was described by actor Alex Winter as “a pathologically brutal, strange, sadistic, insecure, egotistical character”) includes two rape scenes in this film. I say “for no reason whatsoever” but I’m inclined to think Winter just liked shooting them. They serve no purpose in the film.
*. Just how stupid is this movie? Well, apparently they stopped using Roman numerals because they did a survey and found out that over half of Americans couldn’t understand them. The next movie would be numbered Death Wish 4 but then they’d revert to Roman numerals for Death Wish V. Go figure.

*. Some people enjoy the battle at the end. I found it repetitive and ridiculous (for example, Bronson holding the .30 cal machine gun while firing it). It’s basically all cars exploding into fireballs and people crashing through windows and falling off roofs and fire escapes. After you see this happening four or five times you don’t care any more.
*. The gang of creeps is unintentionally (I’m sure) comic, sporting silly face paint instead of tattoos. This is one of those elements that lead to people liking Death Wish 3 for being “so bad it’s good.” Maybe.
*. The Taken movies were roundly mocked for following the same script so many times, but they really had nothing on these Death Wish films. Because Raffin is killed off so abruptly (would she not agree to being raped?) they have to introduce a Hispanic man whose wife is raped and later dies in hospital so that the formula from the first two films can be replayed again.
*. I think if you’re interested in what sort of crap Cannon was putting out in the mid-80s this is as good a film to watch as any. And perhaps a little less painful than a Chuck Norris title. But aside from its historical value I don’t think there’s much to see here. Despite being even more cartoonish it still manages to be a nastier piece of work, with fewer redeeming features. Or really any redeeming features, come to think of it. OK, maybe the bad guy getting blown through a wall with a rocket launcher. But aside from that this is just a piece of crap whose only real virtue is its hurry to end.

Death Wish II (1982)

*. The word that came to mind as I was watching Death Wish II was tired. This is a tired movie. Of course it’s formulaic, but it’s worse than that. It’s a movie that’s just going through the motions without energy, originality, or even a sense of conviction in its message, which had grown stale since the release of the original Death Wish eight years earlier.
*. Roger Ebert gave it no stars, and mentioned in his review how the two returning cast members (Charles Bronson and Vincent Gardenia) “seem shell-shocked by weariness in this film.” In his defence, Bronson was 59, which was elderly in 1982. Ebert concludes: “The movie doesn’t contain an ounce of life. It slinks onto the screen and squirms for a while, and is over.”
*. The next step down from Dino De Laurentiis was the Cannon Group (a production company run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus). I’ve seen this referred to as Cannon’s first Hollywood film. They would go on to put out a ton of similar crap throughout the ’80s, including a lot of Chuck Norris flicks and more Death Wish sequels. I guess they had a good run, but they’re no longer in business.
*. Michael Winner returned because he had nothing better to do. What he brought to the project can be judged by his statement that it was “the same, but different” from the original: “That’s what sequels are — Rocky II, Rocky III — you don’t see Sylvester Stallone move to the Congo and become a nurse. Here the look of LA is what’s different. Besides — rape doesn’t date!”
*. Rape doesn’t date. Ugh. The original screenwriter didn’t like the rape scene and thought Winner had just wanted to put it in out of personal prurience. Ugh.
*. What’s to like? Laurence Fishburne III as a hood, in a role I’m sure he’d like to forget. The sleazy flophouse that Paul Kersey stays in when he goes out on his hunting expeditions. And the groaning guitar work by rocker Jimmy Page (the only part of the score I liked).
*. Aside from that it’s just Bronson hunting down the hoods that killed his daughter. There are a couple of decent kills, set up in the most improbable ways imaginable. Jill Ireland is allowed a classy exit from the series and a sequel is all but announced as we hear gunshots echoing through the streets of L.A.

Election (1999)

*. Election is based on a short novel by Tom Perrotta, who also wrote the novel Little Children. It’s interesting that both film adaptations, while very good, change their sources in similar ways. What I mean is that they keep most of the story elements but reimagine the theme and change the endings. Put another way, they have the same words but different music.
*. Perrotta’s theme in Election is that of people looking for a new start or second chance. Not just the male teachers who want to dump their wives for someone new but Tammy Warren getting to start over at a Catholic school and Tracy Flick escaping the New Jersey ‘burbs (the movie whisks the school off to Omaha, Nebraska). But in the book these are exposed as pipe dreams. Just because we’re in a new relationship, or have a new job, or go to a new school, doesn’t mean that we have changed. Which means that nothing changes. In Perrotta’s novel, for example, Tammy is just as unhappy at her new school, while Mr. M. gets back together with his wife and goes to work at a local car dealership. Even Tracy is left just running in place. It’s this same realization of their being stuck in their lives that all of the characters carry with them.

*. That’s not the message in Alexander Payne’s movie, though Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor seem to have thought otherwise. They thought the message that nothing changes was maintained but I’m not so sure. Tammy is lovin’ it at Immaculate Heart, Mr. M. is divorced but starting a new life in New York City, and Tracy’s next stop is the White House. The movie’s point seems to have more to do with the dangerousness of people like Tracy who see themselves as driven by destiny and whose lives are meant to follow straight paths to whatever they envision success to be. That Tracy’s ambition is directed toward politics is obviously a mark against her, but I think it’s her sense of mission that really makes us distrust her. After all, Mr. M. always wanted to be a teacher. But what kind of a person wants to be a politician?
*. I should note that Payne did originally end the movie with a coda that more closely followed Perrotta’s book, but he scrapped it when test audiences disapproved. All for nought at the box office, as audiences still stayed away. But it’s significant that they had to change the ending because it was seen as being “tonally out-of-synch with the rest of the movie.” Indeed it was, because the tone of the rest of the movie had changed from the book.

*. I like Election. It’s a very carefully made movie with good performances by all the players. But Perrotta’s book has a few moments of real insight and indirect profundity and I don’t think Payne captures any of them, going instead for something lighter and more broadly satirical.
*. What we get here is very close to cartoonish caricature. Paul is the dumb jock and Tracy is Katy Keen, her flagpole of an arm indicating her career trajectory. Her begging to be allowed to answer the teacher’s questions reminded me of Lisa Simpson’s classroom behaviour, which made me reflect on whether, at the end of the day, the satire here was that far advanced from an episode of The Simpsons.
*. That may seem a bit strong, but I like The Simpsons, and do we ever get much of a sense of what’s driving Tracy? Does her character have any depth? She is a power player and, like most politicians I suspect, a natural performer. Perhaps there is nothing behind her phony smile, and there are no real political goals she wants to achieve beyond acquiring power. In fact, I think we can probably take that much for granted. Is she then a pure politician?

*. I’ve said it’s carefully made, but there are a few missteps. I didn’t like including Mr. M.’s epiphany while watching the porn movie. That was unnecessary (it’s not in the book) and the film doesn’t look remotely like any porn flick from the era. There’s a class angle that doesn’t go anywhere, in large part because the privileged Paul turns out to be such a decent guy. I also thought the three student prayers were overdone. I wish Payne had had the confidence to stay subtle. I guess the movie gains something for being so cartoonish — Tracy Flick has gone on to become an iconic figure, a new type we would come to know well that David Thomson christened the “toxic nerd” — but I think a lot is lost as well.
*. Critics have been quick to read later events into it. In her Criterion essay Dana Stevens mentions the ballot recount of Bush v. Gore and Tracy Flick as Hillary Clinton. I don’t see where such comparisons take us, in part because I’m not sure where Payne wants to go with the satire. Having lost Perrotta’s theme of second chances, what does Mr. M.’s story have to do with politics? Or really with anything? It’s not like he was an innocent destroyed by Tracy’s Machiavellian machinations. Instead he was crushed by her manifest destiny. But if destiny really is the operative force here, then there’s not much anyone can do but get out of the way.

*. The upshot of all this, at least for me, is that while I enjoyed Election I liked the book better and came away from the movie thinking that there was less going on than there seems. I appreciate its craftsmanship and the effective use of leitmotifs (like garbage bags and apples), but as Tammy points out, none of the political stuff matters anyway. Certainly not in high school, and perhaps nowhere else.
*. That would be a cynical note to end on though, and I don’t think Election is a cynical movie. Maybe it’s just the presence of Matthew Broderick. We can’t believe he’s a bad man, can we? Just temporarily blinded by love, and a bee sting. Alas, while not a bad man, he is a loser. Which is, as a future president would assert, the very worst thing to be in America.

The Darkness (2014)

*. The Darkness is yet another microbudget Blumhouse ghost story. (Technically it was put out by Blumhouse Tilt, which is their “multiplatform arm,” meaning they use different distribution strategies for these pictuers than a wide theatrical release.) It’s total garbage, and was panned by critics and audiences alike, but still made money. That’s the Blumhouse business model. They can’t really lose. If they get a hit they run off a bunch of sequels. If they strike out, so what?
*. The good thing about such a production is that it lets filmmakers, at least in theory, do their own thing and take chances. In practice, however, it has led to some incredibly formulaic and derivative fare. The Darkness is a movie we’ve seen many times before. Only this time it’s worse.
*. So the Taylors are this upper-middle-class family. Dad Kevin Bacon is an architect, mom Radha Mitchell stays at home. They take a camping trip to the Grand Canyon where their somewhat autistic son picks up a bunch of native ritual stones that contain ancient demons. He brings them home and soon there are strange noises being heard in the attic (the movie never explains why) and other things going bump in the night. Meanwhile, the family is falling apart in other ways because dad is fooling around at work and the daughter is bulimic. Could all this ghosty stuff be karma? Is it somehow their fault?
*. What do the demons want? A YouTube video (really!) tries to explain. Apparently these ancient demons like to steal kids. They are also said to take on the form of a raven, a coyote, a wolf, a snake, and a buffalo. I really, really wanted to see that buffalo. At the end there’s a loud pounding on the front door and I was thinking “Finally! Here’s the big fellow!” But the door was never opened and the buffalo (or bison, to give it the correct name) is never seen.
*. This supernatural intrusion into their beautiful home (the demons first announce themselves as a foul smell, and then leave inky handprints on the walls and sheets) has the effect of bringing the family together, and love conquers all. As the YouTube video tells us: “Ancient writings reveal that this curse can only be lifted by returning the stones to their original resting place, and only by one among them who had no fear.” When I heard that I said “Hm. I don’t have to actually watch the rest of the movie now, do I?” But I did. And that’s how it works out. Unless you go with the “shocking alternate ending” included with the DVD, which is somewhat less inspiring. And I do recommend the alternate ending. It’s hilarious.
*. Well, as I’ve said, it’s total garbage. Basically a rehash of Poltergeist, with no scares, no suspense, and no one to root for. But I’ll flag two things in particular that stuck out for me as particularly stupid.
*. First, there is the autistic son. At least I think he’s supposed to be autistic. Or somewhere on the spectrum. In fact, he doesn’t act like any autistic person I’ve ever seen. Plus, he apparently has this sixth sense that allows him to see what isn’t there, and he doesn’t feel fear. Which is where that YouTube tutorial comes in handy. Because, you know, only someone who doesn’t feel fear can send the demons back. Remember?
*. I’ve written before about how recent movies have gone overboard in presenting autistic people as having super powers. See, for example, my notes on The Accountant. That’s bad enough. But The Darkness goes further in endorsing the quack notion that people with autism can become sensitive conduits for the spirit realm. This is not just stupid but dangerous. Hollywood needs to let autism go. It also doesn’t help that only a couple of minutes after being introduced to Mikey you’re going to be praying for the demons to kill him or just drag him to hell. He’s that annoying.
*. The second point I want to flag is the pair of women that the family bring in to exorcise their house. Since the demons have some connection to the Anasazi people we would expect them to be Native women, but instead they seem to be Hispanic. They don’t speak any Native language, like Navajo, but Spanish. Why would the demons know Spanish? The cliff-dwelling Anasazi were gone centuries before the Spanish arrived. They might as well be chanting their curses in Armenian.
*. In part what’s going on here is just the insistence that these antique spirits are part of a far earlier dispensation than any European God. God, as is usually the case in such movies, is missing. That point is made when the Taylors check into a hotel and can’t find a Bible. Or, as the younger exorcism specialist puts it when dad asks her if her mother will be needing her fancy cross: “She’s sensing older things at work here. And the God you might be familiar with cannot help you now.” Bummer. First the Gideons get taken away and now this shit.
*. More than that, however, this ancient-spirit business is just another example of the tired idea that ethnic people have some primitive link to supernatural forces that white-bread Americans don’t understand. Which is another idea Hollywood should retire.
*. I feel bad enough that I wasted my time watching The Darkness, I’m not going to waste any more time writing about it. Movie, be gone!

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

*. If you’ve heard of this movie at all it’s likely because it’s usually held to be the first appearance on film of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.
*. Historians can argue over that one. What I find interesting is the way Chaplin looks like the Tramp, but he’s not the Tramp character yet. The Tramp as we came to know him was a subversive, anti-authoritarian figure, but here he’s more brazen, surly even. He doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to take over. And while we like the Tramp, can we say we like this guy?
*. Peter Ackroyd: “He [the Tramp] sets up a direct relationship with those who are watching him, both mocking and conspiratorial. He does not care that the auto-races are a public and communal occasion; he is absurdly solipsistic, as if to say that only he matters. Only he is worth watching. Chaplin would maintain these sentiments for the rest of his film career.”
*. It’s a curious dynamic. Why does the Tramp here want to be filmed? He’s not really performing, though he does do some comic bits like lighting a match off his shoe. He doesn’t have to perform. Instead, he precociously understands that the audience or crowd at the race isn’t what’s important. The only thing that matters is the camera. What’s important is what the camera sees and records. What’s important is the camera’s ability to transform you from a shabby-genteel comic figure into a king, or The Most Famous Man in the World (which is what Chaplin would become in under a year).
*. And so this is a short film about filmmaking. Not the technical aspects of filmmaking, but what it does to people, how it makes them behave. Because what would you do to be a star? Would you shove children out of the way? Would you take a beating and keep coming back for more? And most of all, how would you feel toward this new medium? Would you court it? Of course. But you’d hate it too. You’d hate it for the power it has. For what it could turn you into.