Time to make things a little more difficult this week. Difficult but not impossible. I mean, some of these timepieces are iconic. Good luck with the bling and not-so-bling on display!
*. Fans of gialli, and I certainly count myself among them, should admit to their being spoiled. With lots of intelligent if bizarre scripts, flourishes of stylistic gore, and talents like Bava and Argento directing you can’t go wrong. Even a mediocre giallo is usually a good time.
*. Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is a mediocre giallo. The story here comes from the pen of the insanely prolific Edgar Wallace. In fact this was the last of a series of Wallace adaptations by Rialto, and, a German-Italian co-production, is considered by some to mark the transition from the German krimi to the Italian giallo. I can’t say much about this because I don’t know the krimi genre very well, but this is about as yellow as it gets.
*. What does that mean? Well, there’s a serial killer, dubbed by the media the Half-Moon Maniac, stalking beautiful young women. We see a lot of shots from the killer’s point of view, revealing only his black gloves. There are red herrings galore, and a convoluted back story explaining the killer’s motivations. I’ve actually read commentary on this movie where the killer’s identity is said to be obvious but I certainly didn’t find it so. Even at the end I wasn’t entirely sure what had been going on.
*. Umberto Lenzi borrows all the motifs but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. There are enough pointless zooms to make your head swim and some odd angles that only rarely serve any purpose or score any style points (the overhead shot of the dead cats being one of the few exceptions). There are no good kills, even with the employment of a power drill. One naked corpse has paint dripped over it, turning her into a Pollock. That’s very giallo too.
*. But as I said, even a mediocre giallo is still pretty good. They’re basically slasher films made with a flash of art and intelligence. Or, put another way, slasher films made before art and intelligence went completely out of style.
*. Mystery movies, like mystery novels, operate in a weird sort of way. They are essentially just puzzles whose sole purpose is to take you on a journey to their solution. So you wouldn’t expect them to be enjoyable on repeated readings or viewings.
*. They are, however, because so many of them are so very formulaic that they’re almost instantly forgettable. Yes, it’s likely you remember the solution to such clever Agatha Christie classics as Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But aside from those? I can re-read a Christie novel every couple of years (I don’t, but I could) and still have forgotten it so completely that I could enjoy it just as much as I did the first time.
*. I was thinking of this quality mysteries have while re-viewing the Charlie Chan film canon. I’d seen all these movies five or six years previously but coming back to them now I could barely remember anything about them. I might as well have been seeing them for the first time. There is the formula I mentioned — with elements like someone trying to drop a giant stone on Charlie, a gloved hand appearing out of a doorway to fire a shot, and the young couple being united at the end after the villain is taken away by the authorities — but as for whodunit or what he did I had no recollection at all.
*. I’d also forgotten the appearance of Stepin Fetchit, who plays the idle assistant “Snowshoes” in this movie. The distance of nearly a hundred years makes the phenomenon of Fetchit all the more difficult to understand. And he was a phenomenon, reportedly the first black actor to become a millionaire. But what was so funny or appealing about him? Was it just playing to a stereotype of Blacks as lazy and scared of ghosts?
*. What I did remember from Charlie Chan in Egypt was the secret chamber that could only be accessed by a quick underwater swim. This was neat. And of course the presence of Rita Hayworth, from back before she was Rita Hayworth (indeed, she’s here credited as Rita Cansino).
*. Was there anything in Hayworth’s performance here, as the sexy servant girl Nayda, that would make you think she was going to be a star? If there was it would be in her eyes. They glow even brighter than those of jeweled Sekhmet.
*. The actual murders here are so involved and confusing as to aid in their forgetting. The business with the violin was “ingenious” indeed, though I might have called it ridiculous. Hats off though to making the native Egyptians, despite their suspicious behaviour, into people just wanting to hold on to their cultural patrimony from looting European museums. That doesn’t quite make up for Stepin Fetchit, but it was progressive for the time.
*. There’s no Number One Son, which is a shame. I mentioned in my notes on Charlie Chan in Paris how he made such a nice foil. Great detectives tend to be arrogant and larger than life. Then there are some, like Charlie, who can be annoyingly humble (they even make a running gag here out of his bowing to the Egyptian official). The only other famous fictional detective I can think of with the same degree of humility is Chesterton’s Father Brown, and I can’t stand Father Brown (mainly because I find his humility fake). What this means is that the characters and story surrounding Charlie have to be more exotic to compensate. I think they are here, and while this is an almost totally forgettable entry in a B franchise, it’s still a pleasant enough time waster.
*. It seems almost anachronistic. It was 1961, and the glory days of the American musical were, if not over, surely on the wane. For whatever reason, audiences just couldn’t buy characters breaking into song-and-dance at the drop of a hat any more.
*. And it was flagrantly anachronistic. In 1961 urban America clearly had big problems, problems that this movie almost seemed to mock. Surely the producers couldn’t be serious? Racism, violence, inner city crime . . . as ballet?
*. Hence the objection that a lot of people have to it, especially today. It’s unrealistic. And not just unrealistic — since all musicals are unrealistic almost by definition — but a deliberate slap at realism through its packaging of a gritty social “message.” Dancing gangs? Wasn’t this the stuff of camp?
*. And yet, in 1976 an essay by Nik Cohn appeared in New York Magazine, “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night,” reporting on New York’s disco-era gang scene. What did these young ethnic gang-bangers do on Saturday night? They danced.
*. The story was pure fiction, but fooled some people. It shouldn’t have. What was the story Cohn told, after all, but a re-warmed version of West Side Story? The hero Vincent meets a girl at a dance, gets involved with guns and violence, etc. “It was just like a movie,” Cohn tells us. Well, obviously. And we’d all seen it. And we’d all watch it again in 1977 when it was made into Saturday Night Fever. And we’d watch it again in 1996 in Romeo + Juliet.
*. So how silly is West Side Story? It seems to me to be pretty silly, mainly because I just can’t see how anyone involved in it could have taken it seriously. In 1961 some people did, though Pauline Kael called it out as “hokum.” But even if you can’t take it seriously, I’m not sure if that’s a problem, either with the film or with me.
*. It’s almost universally agreed that it works much better on stage. In part this may be due to the fact that Sondheim had to pasteurize some of his lyrics, but I think it’s mainly due to the fact that the best parts are so physical. How can you not start snapping your fingers or tapping your feet to numbers like the “Jet Song” and “America.”
*. But those are both in the early going. This is a very long movie. I think it’s much too long (152 minutes) and the final forty minutes drag. There are no good songs after the intermission. I find most musicals are front loaded in this way, and I’m not sure why. Apparently in this particular case producer-director Robert Wise reordered some of the songs, advancing some of the more upbeat numbers so the movie would get progressively darker. Progressively duller too.
*. The big deal about this film at the time is that some of it was filmed on location. But I emphasize some of it. I don’t think all that much was, relative to the total length. Most of it looks very stagey and artificial to me.
*. That anti-realistic air makes the threatened rape of Anita all the more disturbing. Like the actual locations, it seems jarring. Reality in such a movie appears out of place.
*. I don’t know if Richard Beymer is “a lump” (David Thomson). He wanted to play the role rougher but was overruled by Wise. He’s even prettier than Natalie Wood, and his teeth bother me more than any actor before Tom Cruise. But it’s a horrible part. He’s just such a drip.
*. A story of racial strife. But are there any Black guys in the neighbourhood? Yes, one. He’s at the dance, doing his own thing standing by the entrance. He seems out of place too.
*. It was the first film to win a Best Director Oscar for two directors (Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins). This would not happen again until 46 years later, when Joel Coen and Ethan Coen shared the award for No Country for Old Men (2007). Neither Wise nor Robbins deserved it. By this point in his career Wise was only picking up a paycheque, and he seemed to have no feeling for the material. Meanwhile, the dance numbers were notoriously grueling, and they are quite well done, but they don’t stand out as great filmmaking.
*. I like the closing titles (by Saul Bass, naturally), but (like everything else in the movie) they roll for too long. Also: why are Bernstein and Sondheim credited twice for music and lyrics? I guess once for the film and then again for the musical, but that seems redundant.
*. I remember we had the LP of the musical in our house when I was growing up. The songs were a part of American culture at the time, and perhaps they still are, but far less so. You have to wonder what the fate of a film like this will be. A historical artefact, or a colourful fantasy like The Wizard of Oz? And what effect will Stephen Spielberg’s 2021 production have on that legacy? One prophecy: the dancing Jets and Sharks will always be with us, or at least remain long after Tony and Maria are forgotten.
*. While not the worst movie I’ve ever seen — not by a long shot! — this is nevertheless a total dog that was no fun at all. While I was watching it I kept thinking that it couldn’t end soon enough. So I don’t want to spend much time on it here.
*. When your biggest calling card is having Johnny Knoxville as a co-star I think you’re letting the audience know that the bar isn’t being set very high. You also know that when he does appear, as a televangelist preaching against the horrors of heavy metal music, something’s not right. No spoiler alerts for seeing through that false shepherd’s disguise! Or for guessing that the bad girls are really bad girls. If you were expecting twists, lose those expectations now.
*. The religious angle is heavy-handed and unoriginal. Christians are the real bad guys (“Beg for Christ’s forgiveness before I kill you!”). Knoxville’s Praise the Lord is really Pass the Loot. How exactly the Satanic killings played into all of this wasn’t totally clear to me, or remotely credible. But . . . that’s it for plot.
*. We’ve been here before. Just the year before there’d been the ironic invocation of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in The Strangers: Prey at Night and here it’s Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” Because . . . I don’t know. It’s irony? These are the ’80s, you see. And we didn’t have irony back then.
*. Oh well. Shot in 16 days, and maybe written in that many hours. If you’re looking for retro heavy-metal mayhem I’d suggest Mandy, a more ambitious and original picture. I’m really not sure who the target audience was here. Johnny Knoxville fans who may be wondering what he’s been up to recently? No suspense, no scares, no good kills. A listless entry into what’s become a jaded genre.
*. This is one of those movies that I pulled from the shelf at random, not having heard anything about it. Something that, in itself, surprised me, as it has a standout cast and was a remake of a Danish film (Nattevagten, which I’m told means Nightwatch) by the original director, with Steven Soderbergh doing some re-writes. You’d think I would have been aware of it.
*. Well, it disappeared for a reason. It’s awful. The plot is so stupid I’m surprised it got made once, though I don’t know if director Ole Bornedal made something good out of it in the original. I think the only other Bornedal movie I’ve seen is The Possession, which came out some fifteen years later, and it was just as hackneyed as this.
*. A law student (Ewan McGregor) gets a job as a security guard working the night shift at a medical centre with a morgue in the basement. This despite the fact that he is nervous being alone. Meanwhile, a serial killer is going around killing women and cutting their eyes out. Believe it or not, this serial killer has a link to the morgue, being a bit of a necrophile. Then the serial killer starts to frame McGregor for the murders! Oh, the humanity.
*. You’d think such a preposterous plot would at least offer plenty of opportunities for suspenseful sequences and crazy twists, but the twists are even more strained than the rest of the story and while there are some nice stylistic touches there are no scary parts.
*. The serial killer stuff is clichéd to the point where it feels pressed out of a template. And despite a line-up of some of the most suspicious faces in Hollywood — Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Brad Dourif, and even John C. Reilly (uncredited) — it’s not that hard to figure out what’s going on. The real question is what McGregor’s character is doing hanging out with Brolin in the first place. Nobody else seems able to stand him.
*. What went wrong? Well, I don’t think they got off to a good start. Bornedal said of Nattevagten that it was not “a great work of art, but it did help legitimate the idea that even European film art can make good use of generic stories.” That’s not setting a high bar. But then when it came time for the Hollywood remake the wheels came off.
*. You can just listen to the people responsible in their own words. The film took over a year to finish because of negative test screenings leading to lots of reshoots. Soderbergh was writing new pages of script nearly a year after production began. Bornedal: “the actual shooting of Nightwatch was terrific, everything was totally wonderful, and I was free to do as I pleased, but everything suddenly became extremely complicated during the post-production phase.” Nolte: “As the studio got it, they realized that they had a European-paced film, and they kept hacking at it and hacking at it.” McGregor: “this was the perfect example of a film they would not leave alone. There were constant reshoots, including the ending, and they took all the interesting stuff out, making it bland. The original concept was the reason I accepted it in the first place. I had massive strands of the character removed, which is insulting.” He later added that Harvey Weinstein “ruined that film” and “made us reshoot everything — everything that was interesting about the film he replaced.”
*. So it seems nobody was happy with it. A trite script that still manages to be a rickety mess. A good cast (and I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Arquette) thrown to the dogs. A few moments of visual creativity lost in a dull shuffle. Let it return to oblivion.
*. When going over the Something Weird Video catalogue — and let me say up front that I love the work they do — it’s hard to pick a “worst movie” or “worst filmmaker.” I don’t think anyone, least of all the people responsible for this crap, were under any illusions about it being crap. But of all the “major” titles Something Weird has brought out, surely Andy Milligan’s The Ghastly Ones (also known as Blood Rites), a movie that Stephen King dismissed as being made by “morons with cameras,” would be hard to top (or bottom).
*. That said, I actually liked this movie a little more this latest time around. Given how bad I knew it was, perhaps I was more in the mood for enjoying whatever good there was in it. So, for example, while Milligan’s camerawork is awful, the editing is brutal, the sound inaudible, and the lighting hopeless, he does manage to pull off some interesting compositions with the faces in his cast. It’s not Bergman, but it shows he had an eye.
*. There’s also some camp charm, supplied mainly by the talky and sometimes funny script. I like the nod about living in “sexual harmony” at the estate, and the inexplicable business with Walter (“a man of abnormal tastes” who reminded me of the similar role played by Stefan’s “mother” in Daughters of Darkness). Meanwhile, the costumes and décor (get a load of that wallpaper!), which I think fascinated Milligan, do make it all seem a bit different.
*. As so often (or always?) with the Something Weird DVDs, listening to the movie with the commentary is preferable. Here it’s provided by actor Hal Borske, who plays Colin. He doesn’t actually say much about the movie though, preferring to indulge more general reflections on Milligan. There was an uptick in interest in Milligan after a biography came out, but it seems to me that the best that could be said about him is that he was a character. Most of the time he appears to have been a really miserable shit.
*. The acting is wretched. The leads can’t even seem to kiss properly, looking more like they’re trying to push of against each other. But there is one exception. That would be Maggie Rogers as Hattie, who gets to go full Betsy Palmer at the end quite effectively.
*. What was that stuff coming out of the lawyer Dobbs’ nose? Hair? Boogers? A combination of both, I guess.
*. I like the “head in a pot” gag, but wouldn’t it be obvious to everyone that Hattie had to be the killer seeing as she was the one who brought the pot out and set it on the table? I mean, wouldn’t she be the one putting the lid on in the kitchen?
*. I can’t recommend this, as it really is a piece of garbage. I’m not even sure what the point was. Did these films make money? Were they useful as a calling card to greater things? Still, if you’re a fan of junkhouse cinema of the period you may want to check it out. Otherwise I don’t think there’s any reason to waste your time.
*. Spotlight is a sad movie. Not so much because of the subject matter, which is depressing enough, but for the largely unspoken subtext.
*. That subtext is the death of the newspaper industry. Anyone who was in a newsroom during these years — and by “these years” I mean anytime in the twenty-first century — will recognize the funereal tone. The declining readerships. The constant rounds of buy-outs. The shrinking news hole. Newspapers were a sunset industry, and the sun was setting fast.
*. Despite this being the background to the story of Spotlight, and how often it gets mentioned by the real reporters in the supplemental materials contained on the DVD, it’s so lightly touched upon here as to barely be a subtext. I think the tough times are only adverted to, briefly, on a couple of occasions.
*. I don’t know if that was intentional or just part of Spotlight‘s general air of understatement. For the most part this is a quiet movie. Liev Schreiber seems to want to deliver all of his lines without moving his lips, and when Mark Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes loses his cool near the end it strikes a jarring and I think artificial note. The thing is, journalists are professionals, and no matter how big the story they rarely allow themselves these dramatic moments.
*. I think it’s a shame Spotlight doesn’t address the state-of-the-industry subtext more, as the rest of the film, despite being nicely handled all around, is pretty conventional. As with all such tales of intrepid newsmen breaking a big story, our heroes are up against a corrupt and seemingly all-powerful system. Think the government in All the President’s Men or the tobacco giants in The Insider. There’s a scene here where Stanley Tucci tries to explain to Ruffalo what he’s up against while sitting on a park bench (which is where all such conversations take place). The Church is too big. “They control everything.” We are just on the edge of the cinema of paranoia and the great ’70s conspiracy thrillers, only this time it’s real.
*. Of course the other big change in the news business has been the switch to using digital sources for news gathering. There’s a nice scene here that captures this that’s set in the “library,” which is in the basement of the news building. Nobody can find a light switch and the place smells because there’s a dead rat lying around somewhere. Remember those scenes of Woodward and Bernstein doing their library research in All the President’s Men? Well, this is what that has come to.
*. Such movies do at least help to remind us that there’s always a bigger story behind even the biggest stories we read or hear about in the news, and that hidden forces shape what gets reported in all sorts of different ways. The sad thing (yet another sad thing) is that we’ve become so cynical about news in an age of “fake news” and manufactured consent that such a message only undermines our shrinking confidence in journalism, even in a movie that champions the industry.
*. I like Spotlight, but I’m not that excited by it. The thing is, news dramas, like cop shows and medical shows, form a kind of triumvirate of can’t-miss material. That’s a big reason why they’re so popular on TV (the other reason being that they lend themselves so handily to the serial format). So it’s kind of hard to mess a movie like this up. But the screenplay here, which was on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays, doesn’t seem very special to me, and I have a hard time seeing what makes the film itself worthy of all its accolades (for example, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards). I think it’s just the kind of movie that critics and award bodies feel they should get behind: socially conscious, relevant, and driven by its script and performances rather than by the latest technology. But beyond these admirable qualities I don’t think it’s anything special.
*. I’ve written before about the moral calculus that occurs when dealing with the characters in dead-teenager movies. Basically the people we meet are just jerks who we don’t mind seeing killed off, but you don’t want this to be taken so far that you’re cheering for the villain, or have no one you want to see survive.
*. The Rental isn’t quite a dead-teenager movie because the characters are all a bit older, but it has many of the same basic plot ingredients and it suffers from a failure of the moral calculus because it doesn’t take long after meeting our four main characters that we hate all of them. Or I hated all of them. Perhaps people younger than I am might find something relatable or endearing about them. But I wanted them to, if not die, at least shut up. And I felt this way five minutes into the movie. I know because I wrote the time down.
*. Meet the meat. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Sheila Vand (Mina) are business partners launching a new app or some such thing and need to take a bit of time off. They rent a luxurious coastal home for a weekend to share with their significant others: Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), Michelle’s boyfriend and Charlie’s brother. So Charlie and Josh are bros, but because they really are brothers they’re actually bro-bros. This is a joke the movie makes in the early going.
*. A barely concealed message, in this and other films, is that the only people who matter in the new economy are jerks launching a tech start-up. Everyone else is either a “loving and supportive” trophy girlfriend or loser boyfriend. Of course, since Charlie and Mila are alpha jerks they screw around. Meanwhile, as young people in love who have seen a few too many movies about young people in love they all talk funny.
*. Example: “I’m constantly terrified she’s gonna leave me. . . . She’s just so fucking smart and talented. And, you know, I just want to be better for her, and I want to be able to challenge and inspire her, but I feel like she doesn’t even need that from me, she’s already fulfilled in that way.” A cri de cœur from Josh that is answered by Michelle: “Trust me, I hear everything you’re saying, and I think what she needs from you is not for you to occupy the same space as her work partner.” This is ironic foreshadowing, but is it really how young people talk these days? You can see why I just wanted them to shut up. Which was long before this bit of dialogue on the beach occurs, or even before the first bro-bro bomb gets dropped.
*. Another annoying thing about these kids (as I’m old enough to call them) is their sense of, yes, entitlement. Do they kill the innocent Taylor? Well, yeah, but he’s “a racist piece of shit” so he had it coming to him. Then they have to cover up for Josh because who wants him to go to jail “for the rest of his life.” As if! Manslaughter at worst. He’d be out in five years. But for these people five years is a life sentence.
*. Dave Franco’s debut effort as director. He’s married to Alison Brie. I don’t think he’s very invested in the horror genre, but, as it so often has, horror provided a cheap and relatively lucrative entry point. Wes Craven didn’t set out to be a horror director either. The only problem here is that I didn’t get the sense that Franco’s heart was really in it. He seems more interested in the awful couples stuff, and the movie only really turns into a horror flick abruptly in its final act.
*. I did like that final act, though it seems to have turned off a lot of people. It is abrupt, brutal, and grim. There are also some decent twists. I smiled at how Josh was expecting a control room beneath the house, because weren’t we all? That’s a great bait-and-switch. If only the kids had watched some more splatter films instead of talky rom-coms they’d have known enough not to split up so they can all get hunted down separately. Don’t they know the rules? Well, maybe Scream (1996) came out before they were born.
*. Unfortunately, all of the psycho-killer stuff does seem tacked on. It’s not just the splitting up that fits the bill of the dead-teenager idiot plot. Why is Josh running around trying to find Charlie after he learns that Charlie has been screwing Mina behind Josh’s back? Doesn’t he have some slightly more pressing issues to deal with, like a crazed stalker? And he knows that Charlie left already to go and find Michelle, so why is he looking for him in the house?
*. There was one fun moment, for me, when Mina goes rummaging through some shelves of puzzles to find the surveillance equipment and pulls out a box of the puzzle “Lost in a Jigsaw.” As fate would have it, I’d been working on that puzzle the very morning of the day I watched this movie! It’s a great puzzle, but difficult. I’ll admit I cheated a bit on it at the end.
*. Franco wanted an open ending to allow for the possibility of a sequel. I don’t see where a sequel would be anything but more of the same Airbnb horror, though more of the same is not necessarily a strike against a horror franchise. But, released in the plague year, I don’t know if it did well enough on home platforms to justify a new gang of housemates. Plus there wouldn’t be any mystery in a follow-up, as we’d know the Man was out there with his hammer and mask. Which is not saying I wouldn’t watch another one of these, only that I wouldn’t have my hopes up too high.