Monthly Archives: July 2019

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

*. Author Ira Levin had a macabre sense of humour. His horror fantasies are all a bit ridiculous, balancing on the edge of camp and absurdity. Great adaptations of his work (like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby) find the sweet spot. Bad ones (any of the Stepford Wives movies) flounder trying to find the right tone.
*. And The Boys from Brazil? It may be his wildest premise of all, which is clearing a high bar indeed. The science of cloning I can get on board with — and in the last forty years it’s become even more believable — but why would a cabal of Nazis want to clone Hitler anyway? Sentimental reasons? Even Hitler didn’t see himself as some perfect genetic speciment of the master race.
*. But while the science of cloning may pass muster, the idea that the clones need to be brought up in the same way as young Adolf is a leap too far. A boy growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s will have nothing experientially in common with a boy growing up in Austria in the early 1900s, no matter what age his father dies. Then should they be encouraging young Adolf in any artistic aspirations he might have? Or discouraging him? How about higher education? Nothing post-secondary, surely. You can see how crazy this all is. But Mengele is crazy isn’t he?
*. Then there is the globe-spanning conspiracy of ex- and neo-Nazis who seem to have not only evaded justice but have reconstituted an incredibly powerful alternative state that reaches everywhere while barely trying to conceal its existence. Where did they get all the money to fund this operation? Selling stolen art?
*. I’m not even sure how the logistics of Lieberman tracking down the families of every 65-year-old man in the world who has died recently is supposed to work. But somehow he’s up to the task.

*. So the basic premise is bonkers. And it gets a further nudge from the heavyweight cast, who seem to have gleefully tossed decorum and their own reputations to the wind in hamming things up. Though apparently that’s not what they thought they were doing. In an interview he did when the film came out, James Mason said that, while he had not read Levin’s book, “one could hardly be alive and employed in the acting profession and not know that The Boys from Brazil had two stupendous leading roles in it. Oscar material. And of course, always trying to improve my position, I was hoping one of them would fall in my lap.”
*. Neither of the stupendous leading roles fell into Mason’s lap so he became a largely superfluous Nazi functionary who tries to put the brakes on Mengele’s scheme. He was right, however, in seeing the leads as Oscar bait, as Olivier would go on to get a nomination for Best Actor.
*. Olivier’s performance usually gets a lot of praise (Kael thought him “the only reason to see this movie”), while Gregory Peck is just as often ridiculed for his Mengele. I think they are both ridiculous but captivating caricatures. They go with the whacky plot, which even climaxes with the best geezer fight until Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee went at it in The Fellowship of the Ring.

*. Peck’s Mengele in particular just misses out on being one of the great screen villains of all time. With his thin eyebrows and equally silly moustache, blackened hair and whitened face, his mask-like appearance reminds me of nothing so much as Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Throw in a brilliant white suit, preposterous accent, over-the-top emoting, a few classic lines (“I am a doctor, idiot!”), and you have one of the most unforgettable camp grotesques ever.
*. Like a lot of great bad movies everything is dialed up to 11. Jerry Goldsmith’s waltzy score blares out even when nothing is happening. When the Nazis discover that their meeting is being bugged they trash the entire place looking for it, even smashing the dishes! Why? And when you want to kill someone, you could just garrotte them in their home (does Michael Gough even have any lines?) or you can throw them from the top of the brand-new Kölnbrein Dam in Austria (standing in for Sweden). Absolutely ridiculous, but who’ll deny that’s one of the most spectacular movie kills you’ve ever witnessed? I feel like I’ve missed something never seeing it on a big screen.

*. So it’s a great bad movie. Is Jeremy Black terrible? Hell, yes. And yet I find I can’t help but be fascinated by him. Only Franklin Schaffner’s direction, which is without any sense of style or imagination, holds The Boys from Brazil back from being a true cult/camp/trash classic. As it is, however, it’s still something special.

Escape Room (2019)

*. Escape Room takes it premise, and its title, from a type of video game that has since morphed into real-life versions, forcing contestants to find ways out of various puzzling traps. Danny, one of the players in Escape Room, is apparently familiar with this form of entertainment, though it was new to me.
*. My own identification of the premise is that of a film genre I’ve referred to before as the Game of Death. Think Cube and Saw (the great progenitors), and such other low-budget iterations as House of 9, Breathing Room, Kill Theory, Nine Dead, Would You Rather, and Circle. That there have been so many films like this is the reason a lot of reviewers found Escape Room to be formulaic and clichéd.
*. What is the formula? I think we can identify a number of common elements. A small group of people, strangers to each other, have been brought together. They are being watched by a God-like observer, usually through security cameras. Also like God, the person running the show knows their darkest secrets and personal demons, and has seemingly infinite resources to test them. The trapped individuals then have to complete some task and find a way out of the trap they’re in. It’s a game, often played for mortal stakes.
*. All of this is part of Escape Room, to the extent that I don’t have to explain anything more about the plot. Basically a group of people volunteer to take part in an escape room game for a cash prize, only to find out that the winner will only be the last man (or woman) standing. Even the God-like forces running the show remain, as usual, mysterious. The Minos Corporation is rich, all-powerful, and omniscient but unknowable.
*. A more pressing question: Why is it that this particular formula became so popular at this time? Are we just bored by our staid, comfortable, even affluent, lives? Jay Ellis’s Jason does resemble Michael Douglas in The Game a bit. Or has modern life brought us to see ourselves as being lab rats in some kind of sinister experiment? It’s not too fanciful a thought, given the behaviour of certain social media networks. So score another one for the paranoid among us.
*. Here is the explanation offered by the Game Master (as distinguished from the Puzzle Maker) in Escape Room: “From the beginning of civilization we’ve known there was something captivating about watching human beings fight for their lives. That’s why we watch gladiator games, public executions, rubber-necking on the freeway. But now the world’s gone soft. Everything is safe. Everything is careful. So, we created a sport for people who still have a thirst for savagery, and we provided them with a box seat for life’s ultimate drama.” That’s “we” as in you in the audience watching Escape Room. “We” don’t play the game but get our kicks vicariously.
*. The formula lends itself to entertainment then, being the representation of a kind of game show. Escape Room, however, does little to advance the genre despite its bigger budget (I mean that relatively; most of these movies are excruciatingly cheap).
*. It’s hard to see where there’s much original here, right down to the invitations coming in Hellraiser boxes. The different trap rooms are nothing special, and the way the puzzles are solved struck me as highly implausible. The obligatory falling out and mutual suspicion within the group felt forced and contrived. And since when did Petula Clark’s “Downtown” become muzak or “shitty music” to be treated in such a demeaning way? That’s a great song.
*. Included with the DVD is the always-to-be-dreaded alternate ending. The reason these make me cringe is because they signal up front that the writer/director/producers didn’t know how to finish the movie. And that’s about as bad as it gets. I watched both endings and — surprise! — they’re both terrible. Unfortunately they wanted a sequel so they had to leave things open-ended. Nothing resolved. Nothing explained. Just more rooms to explore and another game to play.

The Funhouse (1981)

*. The opening is both familiar and weird. The killer’s POV, the black gloves, the girl stepping into the shower . . . check. And we know this is a set-up so it’s no surprise that it all turns out to be a joke being played on her. But . . . by her brother? Who is maybe 8 years old? How creepy is that?
*. As an aside, that’s child actor Shawn Carson playing Joey, and he would return to the fairgrounds just a couple of years later in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange how these things work out.
*. The combination of familiarity and weirdness continues throughout The Funhouse. Most of the time it’s a not-very-interesting dead-teenager movie, of the kind that were coming out in a rush at this time in an attempt to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th. It has all the elements you’d expect. Just look at the four leads: the jock (tight t-shirt), the slut (tight red pants), the nerd (big glasses), and the virginal last girl (but not so virginal she isn’t ready to go all the way with a dude named Buzz at a sleazy fair). You can even tell in advance what order they’re going to be dispatched in.
*. But there are surprising elements as well. The killer may be less a psycho than a freak. Like Frankenstein’s monster, whose mask he wears, he is an object of pity. Despite his father’s suggestion of his having cannibalistic tendencies, he seems a sympathetic figure. And even his father, who is a bad man (Kevin Conway, playing all three carnival barkers), is practical in his approach to murder. He just wants to get rid of these pesky kids and move on to the next town.
*. How scared of the killer can we be when he appears in such a silly looking mask and, instead of being beaten by his father, is ordered to beat himself up? How can you not laugh at that scene?
*. Maybe the funhouse is just a strange place where strange things happen. I mean, just look at how much bigger it is on the inside than the outside. How does it have so damn many levels to it? It’s not like it can have a basement.
*. It’s not even a gory or particularly violent movie. There are really only a couple of deaths that are shown on screen, and the others are often hidden in the dark or are mostly kept out of frame. In all of this there seems a real confusion as to what kind of a movie was being made.
*. I’d like to think someone thought of The Funhouse as a horror-comedy, but I suspect there was little intentional about the humour. The movie seems like too much of a grab-bag of ill-assorted odds-and-ends. The plot, for example, is full of extraneous material. Why introduce Joey as such a major, even creepy character when nothing is done with him later? He can’t be a red herring, and at the same time there’s not enough to his role to allow us to identify with him. What is the significance of his sister’s earlier line to him about getting even with him later? I can’t figure this out. Nor is it clear why so much time is wasted introducing all the different carnies.
*. Perhaps they just didn’t have enough material. That’s the sense I had: of a fair-ground ride that had to be somehow stretched out to 90 minutes. Some of what they threw into the mix is, as I’ve said, weird. Most of it, however, is just pointless.
*. Tobe Hooper. I guess enough has been said already about the disappointment of his career after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Maybe he was just an odd fit for big studio productions. Even here there was apparently a lot of interference. Meanwhile, I’ve heard he turned down directing E.T. in order to do this film. He might have already suspected that it was going to be Spielberg’s movie anyway. If not, that’s a lesson he’d learn making Poltergeist.

Cold Pursuit (2019)

*. Cold Pursuit is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. It’s a very close remake, with the differences being mainly cosmetic. The Serbian gang are now Native Americans, for example. About the only substantive difference I noticed was that the gangster’s estranged wife doesn’t get beat up this time around. Instead she grabs him by the balls. I guess the message is that American women are tougher than their Norwegian counterparts, but I doubt that’s actually true.
*. I liked In Order of Disappearance, but didn’t think of it as a movie crying out for a remake. That it was given an English-language makeover so quickly says something about how hard up Hollywood is for such properties. This is surprising, given how generic a plot it is.
*. Luckily, it’s a good remake. One thing that I think helped is that the original wasn’t a specifically Norwegian or European gangster film. It’s not like some J-horror movies that just don’t translate when you move them to the U.S. In fact, the first time around writer-director Hans Petter Moland was consciously aiming to make a Tarantino-style movie, so moving things to Colorado (or British Columbia and Alberta, where most of it was shot) wasn’t transplanting the original story so much as bringing it back home.
*. Leaving Moland at the helm was also a good idea, as he had a clearer idea of the sort of tone he was trying to set. Aside from that, however, I wonder how interesting a director finds such an exercise. I mean, basically he was turning around and making the exact same movie just a couple of years later. Shouldn’t it be better the second time? You’d think he would have a pretty good idea of what had worked before and what hadn’t.
*. Unfortunately the film was snakebit coming out of the starting gate because Liam Neeson gave a disastrous press interview while promoting it. This killed it at the box office. I think it might have gone on to find an audience, as it’s better than most if not all of Neeson’s previous action work (can you separate any of the Taken movies in your head? distinguish between Non-Stop and The Commuter?). I don’t think the public had grown tired of him playing such roles yet, and it’s a bit sad to see him go out on such a relatively high note because of a publicity faux pas.
*. Comparisons are not to Cold Pursuit‘s favour. Neeson is good, but I didn’t think he was an improvement on Stellan Skarsgård. Tom Bateman’s gang boss is fine, but Pål Sverre Hagen was better as the nasty dandy. Tom Jackson doesn’t project any of the slightly deranged menace of Bruno Ganz. Laura Dern has all of about three lines before disappearing.
*. Aside from the cast there’s not much new to say here as not much new is attempted. I was hoping they’d do something more with the snow plow, but there wasn’t room for that much variation. The only chance for showing some creativity comes in the way the various kills are artistically arranged. A man’s bloody corpse falls into a rack of white wedding gowns. Another is shot through a twenty-dollar bill. Another collapses into a deflating sofa. These are all meant to get a smile, and they do. Also smile-worthy are some of the musical cues.
*. It’s a decent little movie that has some fun with various conventions. I guess the story was good enough to be worth retelling, as I found it more than watchable enough even knowing in advance how it all was going to play out. It’s no better than it was the first time around, but I wouldn’t say it’s any worse either. It’s pretty much the same movie with a different cast and in English. Sure I would have liked something more, but I wasn’t expecting to get it and was happy enough with this.

 

The Commuter (2018)

*. A mysterious woman introduces herself to you on a commuter train. She gives you a task to perform. Do it and you get $100,000. Fail and your family dies. You’ll probably die too. Hell, everyone on the train will likely die.
*. That sounds a lot like the previous collaboration of director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson, Non-Stop, where the action took place on a plane, with Neeson playing another ex-cop trying to identify the bad guy before a bomb goes off. What it also sounds like, in broader outline, is a Game of Death film, where an innocent is plucked out of his or her everyday life and made to play a game for mortal stakes.
*. It’s unclear, however, exactly who or what is behind the game. The various conspirators we meet all seem to be mere flunkies, or in some cases perhaps conscripts to the cause who are as compromised or unwilling as Michael MacCauley (Neeson). This is something else The Commuter has in common with Game of Death movies (think of the end of Saw). Even Joanna may be little more than a contractor, and thus expendable.
*. As to what the precious evidence that must be destroyed consists of, I don’t think we’re ever told. Surely, however, for an organization as powerful as this retrieving it needn’t have been quite so complicated a matter. Did no one tell them that the more parts there are to a conspiracy the more likely it is to go awry? Economize, economize.
*. Is the fact that such background is missing a drawback? Not really, though it is uncommonly lazy. What I found significant, however, is that I didn’t care. The whole premise seemed so stupid it made no difference to me what was really going on. When Michael is told that he doesn’t know the power of the forces he’s up against I just shrugged. As a plot device this was all a wave of the hand anyway.
*. I also didn’t understand the behaviour of the FBI agent or what he was supposed to be doing. In this respect he is the exact counterpart of the second air marshal in Non-Stop, who I couldn’t figure out either. Ryan Engle is credited as screenwriter for both films and I have to wonder if he was just recycling characters as well as plots.
*. The thing about movies of this kind is that they are all about being clever. The hero is cast in the role of detective or puzzle-solver, and the game is filled with devious twists. If you’re not tricky enough you’re going to disappoint the audience.
*. Prepare to be disappointed here. There’s nothing tricky about The Commuter at all. It’s final act even turns into the old runaway-train gag, topped off with one of those “oh my god, the friend of the hero is actually the villain!” moments. There is no suspense. There is little imagination. In one of the fight scenes Neeson has to beat on someone with an electric guitar. That, I’m afraid, is as good as it gets.
*. There’s not much to add. The only thing to like here is Neeson, and even he’s starting to seem tired as an action hero. The best I can find myself saying is that he’s putting a little more effort into these roles than Bruce Willis is these days. Faint praise indeed, but the rest of the film is just a bore.

Non-Stop (2014)

*. The opening shot reveals the morose face of Bill the U.S. Air Marshal (Liam Neeson) through the windshield of his car. This is the contemporary (as of 2014) action hero as grey veteran. Wounded. Vulnerable. But only on the inside. He’s still tough as nails and pretty much a superman.
*. Bill is a burned-out case and has taken to drink. On his flight from New York to London he will be tested by a terrorist who has, for some obscure reason, developed an enormously complicated plan involving killing passengers one-by-one before threatening to blow the whole plane out of the sky.
*. I won’t tell you what the plot involves. Not because I don’t want to spoil it (it does that well enough on its own, and anyway I don’t care about spoilers), but because it would take too long to explain and even then I’m not sure it would make any sense. I mean, I’m still not sure what role the other air marshal on the plane had to play. What was going on there? In any event, I like how the news reporter at the end calls it “an unbelievable twist.” At least they gave us a wink.
*. As I was watching I was intrigued by the possibility that Bill might really be a terrorist, suffering the law enforcement version of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. That would have been interesting. And been more believable than what we find out is really going on. I mean, using a blowpipe to fire poison darts at people? That’s from Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (U.S. title Death in the Air). And it was less ridiculous in Christie’s story!
*. If you’re not into reading Agatha Christie novels — and, if you’re watching Non-Stop, you probably aren’t — then you can see this as just a remake of Passenger 57, or any other classic Hollywood action movie from that era. Producer Joel Silver is best known for having done the Lethal Weapon series and the first two Die Hard films, and basically Non-Stop is more of the same with CGI.
*. Silver figured there would have to be a sequel, but he didn’t want it to be set on a plane. You do have to mix these things up a bit. As it happened, Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra would soon reunite for The Commuter, which is almost this same exact movie, right down to the laughable plot, set on a train.
*. So it’s all very silly, but in a familiar way. I was expecting the ending to be a rabbit pulled out of a hat and it sure was. But getting to the end was, if not a lot of fun, at least entertaining enough. The hero is no longer a figure interested in self-sacrifice but is rather someone seeking his own redemption, which is effected in a clumsy way at the end as he gets to save a surrogate daughter. This is meant to make us feel good. At least good enough to want to see it all over again a few years later.

In Order of Disapperance (2014)

*. Cold, slow, and dry. None of which are bad attributes in themselves, but put them all together and you’ve got a strange kind of action movie. There are lots of people being killed — the title announces the coming body count — but not in a noisy way. Everything seems quiet and low key. Then again, maybe Scandinavian people are like this. They don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.
*. The plot is familiar even if the setting is a little off the beaten track. Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) is a dour fellow who drives a massive snow plow. His son is unknowingly sucked into some shady drug dealings and ends up being killed by gangsters. Nils seeks revenge, and the cycle of violence expands when the local gang gets into a turf war with the Serbian mob.
*. Scandinavian noir? Well, there is a lot of snow and it’s definitely noir. And it has that sense of quiet about it that may be characteristic of the genre. But I’d call it more a modern Brit crime film crossed with Fargo. Director Hans Petter Moland also acknowledges he’s a big fan of the Coen brothers and Tarantino and it’s hard to miss that debt too.
*. It’s very well done, and the brightness of all that snow is an interesting visual element, but at the end of the day I just didn’t feel there was enough that was new here. Even the black comedy of the gangsters is formulaic. The leader is a vegan with a ponytail or man-bun. A couple of his underlings are gay. There is the usual juxtaposition of the crime business with odd domestic details.
*. Still, there’s much to enjoy. The sound of boots squeaking on packed snow. The plow as juggernaut of fate. The sense we have of Skarsgård’s weight as he sits on top of the guy he’s beating to a pulp. Bruno Ganz (the head of the Serbian mob) as Nils’s soulmate. Moments to enjoy, but nothing to get excited about. Enough, however, to ensure an English-language remake as Cold Pursuit.

Border Incident (1949)

*. Dana Polan begins his DVD commentary on Border Incident by mentioning how it’s less a film noir (as it’s usually packaged) than it is a police procedural or what he calls a “government agency film.” I think he’s right, and I’d also call it an issue movie, one that addresses a timely political matter.
*. Here the issue being dealt with is illegal immigration, a subject introduced by opening voiceover (typical, Polan tells us, of the government agency film). It’s certainly a timely enough political issue today, and Border Incident could probably be compared in interesting ways to Sicario. Even more timely, however, are the pictures of the All-American canal, the largest irrigation canal in the world, diverting water from the Colorado River to California’s Imperial Valley, turning the desert into a paradise. It’s not a point the film raises, but today I think we see all this and wonder how sustainable it is. As big an issue as illegal immigration continues to be, California running out of water may be bigger.
*. Whatever the issue being explored, Border Incident feels very contemporary. The reason, I’m almost sad to say, is its abrupt and brutal violence. Polan remarks on how life is cheap in many of director Anthony Mann’s movies, but it seems especially so here. People are just commodities, not so different from cabbages. Actually killing people isn’t as hard a job as disposing of the bodies after. Having a farm or a handy pit of quicksand is helpful.
*. Speaking of which: quicksand in a desert canyon? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Also, according to experts, drowning in quicksand is very unlikely anyway. In a movie that otherwise scores a lot of points for its brutal realism the quicksand pit is a false note.
*. On the subject of brutality, how is George Murphy being tortured in the truck scene? It seems to be pulling on him in some way but it’s not clear to me what is being done. Looks painful though, and the image of him being caught in the headlights nicely foreshadows his final moments.

*. It’s beautifully photographed, as usual, by frequent Mann collaborator John Alton, but there’s more to it visually than just the painting in light. The scene where Ricardo Montalban visits Murphy, who is imprisoned in a tower, is perfectly handled in terms of making use of that space in a way that allows us to understand what is going on and thus experience Montalban’s predicament and how athletically he gets out of it. That’s not at all as easy a thing as it seems. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker we wouldn’t have as clear a sense of what is going on and where the characters are in relation to one another.

*. Remarkably, it’s a movie where the violence still has the power to shock. This is felt in various places throughout the film, but most powerfully at the end with the murder of Murphy’s character. Yes, the all-American boy becomes mulch under the blades of the disc while his Mexican counterpart is the hero. What makes this even more surprising is the way they play with the idea that Montalban is going to be able to rescue him at the last minute. I think this is what everyone in the audience would have been expecting (it’s what I was expecting!) and to have that hope snuffed out in such a horrific way is very contemporary. There are few scenes I can think of so bleak in other movies of the time.
*. Polan praises the sound design in the water tower sequence where there’s no music but only the soft sound of the pump in the background. I think we could say the same about Murphy’s death, where again there is no music and all we hear is the clanking noise of the tractor’s caterpillar treads (like those of a tank). Added to this is the fact that Murphy makes no sound, no call for help, no scream, no muttering to himself. He is without speech in extremis.
*. For all its violence, the political issue of the braceros is actually kind of quaint. No one is smuggling drugs, and the braceros aren’t gangsters themselves or women being forced into prostitution. They’re just farm labour. The only real problem here is that they’re being murdered by the smugglers after they get paid.
*. Another surprising element is that, for a police procedural, the police really aren’t that effective. The bad guys are ahead of them every step of the way, and are ultimately only foiled because they fall out among themselves (for reasons I wasn’t clear on). On the plus side, at least our boys aren’t undone by a femme fatale. They aren’t falling for any floozies. But even here, among the few female characters we do see the gang seem to be miles ahead of the cops. The woman at the staging place for the braceros identifies Montalban immediately by his soft hands, while Amboy’s wife easily gets the drop on him while he’s on the phone. So despite not being sexual snares the ladies are still playing a game that’s more advanced than the men.
*. This is a good little movie, suspenseful and very professionally turned out. It’s bleakness and “uncompromisingly violent” (Leonard Maltin) story help it stand out from other titles of the time that were almost as dark. Just ignore the closing narration and its invocation of the happy valley and “the bounty of God Almighty.” This is a movie about the valley of the shadow of death.