Author Archives: Alex Good

Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1955)

*. I’ve mentioned before how near allied the Dr. Jekyll story is to werewolf mythology, both of them involving the personification (monsterfication?) of human duality and the struggle between our normal or everyday selves and a bestial id.
*. But who says you have to choose? Meaning not that you can have Mr. Hyde and the Wolf Man appear in the same movie, but that they can be combined in the same character, with a bit of vampirism thrown in for good measure.
*. Such is the premise behind Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, which has Janet Smith (Gloria Talbott) and fiancé George Hastings (John Agar) showing up at a generic, fog-enshrouded English country estate that she’s about to inherit (I’m pretty sure you’ll have seen it before in other movies of this ilk). Alas, another part of her inheritance comes due to the fact that she’s actually the daughter of Dr. Jekyll, who it turns out was a werewolf. Which may, we are told, be an inheritable condition. Cancel the wedding!

*. What’s more, this particular strain of lycanthropy, as all the villagers know, can only be dealt with by planting a stake in the werewolf’s heart. A werewolf, George learns from a book that he consults, is a soul that leaves a corpse to suck the blood of living persons. Which is a totally novel conception of what a werewolf is, and is where the vampire angle I mentioned comes in. I wonder if the writer (Jack Pollexfen, who had also written The Son of Dr. Jekyll) even knew the difference between a vampire and a werewolf. Or if he cared.
*. In sum, this is a bit of a grab-bag of familiar ingredients. Despite the title and the presence of a secret chemistry lab (which plays no part in the story at all) it has nothing to do with either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. But there’s more. This is also a gaslighting story, as a scheming doctor with a ready supply of pills and potions is looking to drive the heiress Janet crazy and suicidal. What exactly he hopes to achieve by this wasn’t clear to me, though I’ll admit I wasn’t paying close attention. Then at the end there’s yet another wrinkle thrown in that just makes you want to throw your hands up at the whole thing.
*. So it’s silly, and quick, and mostly fun. Fans of director Edgar G. Ulmer and leading man John Agar will be satisfied. Ulmer does his best, which is pretty good, to take our minds off the worthless script while Agar dons a jacket that makes him look like a carnival barker or member of a barbershop quartet. Gloria Talbott gets laced into a corset and can really scream. Worth a look if you enjoy the low-budget SF-horror of the ’50s but not a movie I can see myself ever watching again.

Macbeth (2015)

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*. Battle scenes were a bit of a joke on the Elizabethan stage. At the beginning of Henry V the Chorus talks about how “this cockpit” (the theatre) can’t hold “the vasty fields of France,” and so imagination will have to fill in all the details. In a later speech he even admits how ridiculous the little bit of swordplay you’ll actually see is going to seem. Traditionally you only had a handful of players run on to the stage from different directions talking about what is going on, or engaging in single combat on a plane that seems eerily removed from the rest of the battlefield.
*. On film you could help the audience’s imaginary forces and do a really epic battle scene but it cost a lot of money, unless you had the entire Soviet army on call to play extras for a reconstruction of Borodino for War and Peace. But then came CGI and suddenly we were looking at armies with tens of thousands of orcs filling our screens, or the allies swarming onto the beach on D-Day, with limbs flying off in all different directions from swords or high explosives. Stunning stuff, but was it more “realistic”?
*. And so Macbeth kicks off here with the Battle of Ellon (what? where? when?), with our hardy Scots all made up like the boyos from Braveheart and clashing in a slow-motion melee. This isn’t your grandfather’s Shakespeare. Or even Kenneth Branagh’s (though they do seem to have trucked some mud in from his Agincourt).
*. I really didn’t like this movie, so I’ll try and be quick about the reasons why.

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*. In the first place there’s the language. None of the actors seem to have any feel for it, and they rush through their lines without any concern for meter or rhythm. Without subtitles you’re going to be in trouble because Scottish accents are employed and most of the dialogue is delivered in hushed whispers or mumbles. I think the point might have been to make the language seem more “realistic” (again) but this pretty much defeats the whole purpose of doing Shakespeare in the first place. They might as well have just kept the plot and had someone re-write the dialogue. Shakespeare’s language isn’t realistic.
*. Not that director Justin Kurzel seems particularly interested in what the characters are saying. He’s more interested in matters of art direction. The actors are hamstrung through editing. There’s a tradition in filming Shakespeare to let the actors have their big moments in long takes unless there’s some necessity in mixing things up. Kurzel seems to think that no one has the attention span to listen to a speech of more than a couple of lines at a time without editing. To take just one example among many, Macbeth’s “What hands are here?” speech takes five lines of monologue and mangles them with a dozen cuts.
*. It’s hard to judge the actors given what’s done to them. Michael Fassbender was apparently told to play Macbeth as though he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is yet another way of making Shakespeare more contemporary and realistic but is a lot less interesting than the character we have in the play. Marion Cotillard certainly looks the part, more like a Weird Sister than the witches we get here, but she’s undone in the same way. Though at least she does get the movie’s one long take.

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*. Then there are the visual and dramatic clichés. Interiors are all candlelight. Exteriors are postcards. There’s more to cinematography than such prettiness or finding the most beautiful locations to use as backdrops. Especially when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In ye olde dayes they didn’t use candles that much. They were expensive and a terrible fire hazard in wooden buildings.
*. Other clichés abound. Horses rear in a thunderstorm as Duncan is killed. For no reason at all there’s a shot of Macbeth rising from a mountain stream like an underwear model. When Lady Macbeth wants her husband to screw his spirit to the sticking point she of course mounts him and they have intercourse. Get it?
*. Most of all, however, I hated how dull this movie was. How did this happen? Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest, liveliest plays, but the pacing here is dreadful. The ending drags on forever. In most productions you can at least count on the witches to provide a spark, but here even they seem bored (not to mention pedestrian).
*. How many children had Lady Macbeth? At least one here (the child being torched in the opening scene), but I also had the impression that the boy killed in the battle was supposed to be Macbeth’s son.
*. This struck me as a fair interpretation, and it’s not the only one. This may be the worst production of Macbeth I’ve seen — and I’ve seen more than a few on stage and screen — but it’s not without some interesting ideas. I was particularly taken by the smoke from the burning forest being the way Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. It means gutting the text, but I thought it worked.
*. The use of Bamburgh Castle, which stood in for Dunsinane in Polanski’s Macbeth as well, only served to remind me of how far from adequate this version is. There’s just none of the fundamental sense of someone having gotten in over his head and his weariness with the game at the end. We have hints of Fassbender’s Macbeth turning full heel, but he never seems to get there. Meanwhile, aside from Lady Macbeth the other characters are scarcely differentiated. Banquo, Macduff, and Malcolm are scarcely more than cameos. But instead of that placing more focus on the two leads the feeling I had was that Kurzel was more interested in the landscape.
*. I guess I should say something about how well received this movie was. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes and won a bunch of awards. The critical consensus was very high. All of this for a movie so bad that I found it nearly unwatchable or else just unintentionally hilarious after about ten minutes. I realize there’s no accounting for taste, but this has to rank as one of the worst derelictions of critical duty I’ve seen in recent years. This Macbeth should have been met with an at best tepid response. What kind of a world are we living in where it could be taken seriously? It’s a film of no depth. We can only say it looks pretty. For many critics this was enough. Or is that all they’ve come to expect?

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Week-End at the Waldorf (1945)

*. Grand Hotel had been sent up as early as 1932 (the year of its release) in Blondie of the Follies, where Marion Davies did Greta Garbo. Vicki Baum’s novel hadn’t really been a comedy though, and the movie, while it had some light moments, was ultimately a bittersweet melodrama if not quite tragic.
*. In 1945 America wasn’t in much of a mood for tragedy, or European interwar ennui, so this update of the story veers toward bedroom farce and screwball bits. We’re also in New York, not Berlin. So the ballet dancer is now a movie star (Ginger Rogers), the Baron is a war correspondent (Walter Pidgeon), the dying man (Van Johnson) has a hope that surgery will be successful (if he can only discover “the will to live”), and the stenographer (Lana Turner) is actually a good girl.

*. That last point is a headscratcher. Joan Crawford was brilliant in Grand Hotel playing a secretary with few scruples. You would think Lana Turner could have just walked into such a part. But instead she’s a peroxide-blonde sweetie, holding out for her sick flyboy. Oh well. Next year she’d have a chance to go full tilt in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
*. I didn’t know the Waldorf Astoria hotel was still there. But I looked it up and it is. Still quite a fancy destination, I guess. There were no rooms available when I checked online so I can’t tell you how much it costs for a night. Apparently they filmed some of this movie on location (mostly just the exteriors) and the hotel had wanted the movie shot in colour to play up its luxury. The studio balked.
*. The book Irene (Rogers) is reading (or at least shown holding) at the party is titled The Whiskey Rebellion. As chance would have it, I’d just finished reading The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hogeland the week I saw this movie. Now Irene can’t be reading Hogeland’s book, which was only published in 2010. So I wonder exactly what book she has. It seems an odd thing for a movie star to be holding at a party. I mean, today you couldn’t imagine a movie star holding a book of any kind at a party. Is it a history she’s reading, or a novel? Now I’m curious.

*. Week-End at the Waldorf was very popular and made a lot of money, so I guess MGM knew what they were doing. This kind of light entertainment doesn’t age well though. It seems a ramshackle affair to me too, at least in terms of plot construction. We’re introduced to the hotel by a narrator’s voiceover, but this character will have no role to play in the rest of the film. There are three major storylines, none of which intersect and none of which is particularly interesting on its own. There’s competent direction by the prolific Robert Leonard. Xavier Cugat plays himself and there are a couple of musical numbers.
*. There’s one cute and knowing scene with Roger and Pigeon where he acts out the part of the Baron in the relationship between Barrymore and Garbo in Grand Hotel and she gets the reference. Aside from that it’s hard to think of anything memorable about this. But then, I don’t think being memorable was the idea. You check in to a movie like this for some star-watching. I’m sure I couldn’t get the heist plots of the different Ocean’s movies straight today either, but they were fun at the time. That’s all that’s going on here too.

Grand Hotel (1932)

*. Grand Hotel is one of those movies probably more famous now than seen. I guess everyone knows that Greta Garbo said she wanted to be alone (three times, actually), and that this was the first all-star dramatic vehicle, a huge box-office blockbuster, and holds the odd distinction of winning the Academy Award for Best Picture Oscar without being nominated in any other category.
*. What should your expectations be on watching it today. Pauline Kael provides some helpful guidance: “anyone who goes to see this movie expecting an intelligent script, or even ‘good acting,’ should have their head examined. Most of the players give impossible bad performances — they chew up the camera. But if you want to see what screen glamour used to be, and what, originally, ‘stars’ were, this is perhaps the best example of all time.”
*. This is mostly right, but I’d want to shade it in a bit. It’s a very stagey production (Vicki Baum’s novel had already been a hit on stage), and looks it, though the set for the main desk is impressive. The editing is very choppy. The prolific and versatile Edmund Goulding directs it in a rather dull manner, with a number of shots very poorly framed. But these were the early days of sound and I don’t know how much of this could be avoided. As David Thomson writes, this is Goulding’s best known but not best film, “and it seems likely that on so prestigious a movie his control was reduced by executives and the stars themselves.”

*. Kael is typical in telling us that “Greta Garbo sets the movie in vibration with her extraordinary sensual presence.” If you’re a member of the Garbo Cult then this is holy ground, as she gets top billing and the delayed reveal (in a bed that’s a mountain of satin). I think she’s fine, but I agree with Thomson that “Contrary to legend, Joan Crawford is the best thing in [the] film.” Indeed, after one critical preview drew forth the comment from the Hollywood Reporter that Crawford was the real star (“Crawford has the feminine meat of the show, and how she does take advantage of it”) Irving Thalberg demanded more scenes with Garbo. I think Crawford’s negotiation scene with Preysing (Wallace Beery) is marvelous. Though apparently Beery stormed out of rehearsals saying he would only come back when Crawford learned how to act.
*. Garbo and John Barrymore (playing the gentleman thief Baron Gaigern) got along well on set, but I found their age discrepancy really bothering. She was 25 and he was 50. And 50 in 1932 was like 70 today. He looks much too old for her, or to be playing a cat burglar.

*. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Baum’s novel, which I’ve actually read. They’ve given Gaiger a dachshund to make us like him more, an early example of the pat-the-dog scene. Of course all the nudity is removed, and that was something Baum really dwelt on. Also gone is Kringelein’s crazy day on the town with Gaigern. No high-speed road racing or going up in an airplane. Which you might have expected them to work into such a big picture. But as I say, this is a stagey movie. It doesn’t take us outside the hotel at all.
*. The film follows Baum’s moral judgments pretty closely, and these are odd enough (at least to me) as to maybe call for comment. Preysing is the heavy — and perhaps not coincidentally the only character to affect a German accent, which was apparently a selling point for Beery — while Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a hero, at least of sorts. This strikes me as unfair.

*. Why? Preysing is in a bad situation through no fault of his own and is scrambling to keep his business afloat. Kringelein, on the other hand, though dying, is a whiny cheat who is scamming the company (and, though this doesn’t get mentioned in the movie, his wife) by blowing all his savings on a wild exit. Preysing is a lech, but Crawford’s Flaemmchen is for hire so there’s no foul there. Meanwhile, Kringelein is just as culpable, or more so, in running off with her to Paris as Preysing was going to be in taking her to Manchester. And with a good lawyer shouldn’t he beat that murder rap? The circumstances seem in his favour.
*. Still entertaining, which is quite an achievement after 90 years. And some of it has stayed fresh, including the relationship between Flaemmchen and Preysing and the way Grusinskaya is bundled out the doors, cocooned from reality by her entourage and still holding on to her dreams. Billy Wilder might have been taking notes for Norma Desmond.
*. But if our interests and sympathies lead us to view it differently than contemporary audiences did, that’s still a tribute to something in it that has stayed relevant long after its star power has been extinguished.

The Unholy (2021)

*. It’s such a generic title I felt sure there must be a dozen movies with the same name. But a quick search only turned up a couple of others (both horror films). Still, the title can be taken as a warning. There’s not going to be anything new going on here.
*. As an aside, it’s based on the James Herbert novel Shrine. I think they should have stuck with that.
*. A woman is hanged as a witch (or more properly a demon) in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, after first receiving the Black Sunday treatment (a mask nailed to her face) and having her soul trapped in an doll bound with itty-bitty chains. The doll business struck me as being a very inadequate way to deal with a demon, and sure enough 175 years later a journalist (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) visiting the spot — a town named Banfield that a librarian later tells us was originally Banefield — breaks the doll open, releasing the spirit.
*. The witch/demon is named Mary, which allows it to present itself as being the spirit of the Virgin Mary because nobody asks for her last name! Anyway, she appears to a deaf and mute descendant named Alice (Cricket Brown) who can suddenly hear and speak and even sing hymns. It’s a miracle! And through Alice the demon can also heal others, as long as they put their faith in “Mary.” Get the dirty trick there?
*. The DVD box promises us that “As people flock to witness her [Alice’s] miracles, horrific events unfold.” My guess is that most people will be coming to a movie like this for those “horrific events.” They will likely feel cheated, as they aimed for a PG-13 rating which means no gore. Indeed, there isn’t even much of a body count.

*. You should know what to expect, and it’s what writer-director-producer Evan Spiliotopoulos delivers. There are overhead car shots. Whisperings on the soundtrack. Bad phone connections. Flickering neon lights. A statue of the Virgin that cries tears of blood. And a CGI demon that likes to jump out at people and say “Boo!” Cary Elwes tries out a Boston Irish accent and it’s quite funny. As long, I suppose, as you’re not from Boston. I hope he doesn’t do that again. Morgan fares better as a burnt-out journo (we’re told that God chose a sinner to better fulfill his mysterious purpose) but I kept wondering why he didn’t just grab his baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire and kick some demon ass. Is it because he’s wearing glasses? I mean Morgan, not the demon. Negan wouldn’t have taken any of this shit.
*. I think a revival tent is the last place I’d want to be in if a fire broke out. And yet this one doesn’t burn. Those are some strange flames. They’re CGI, sure, but CGI flames don’t burn tents?
*. The oak tree was described as an “ancient oak” in 1845, and yet it’s still there, even though it’s clearly dead. Why?
*. Dismissed by critics, The Unholy actually had decent box office (or whatever “box office” meant during lockdown). Which makes me wonder how badly you have to mess up a movie like this to not make money. I’d like to recommend it to anyone interested in some PG-rated religious horror, but to be honest it’s just not very interesting, and it certainly isn’t scary.
*. I’m also not sure how a Catholic is supposed to take any of this. Is it mocking the faith, or just using religion as a kitschy backdrop for the usual raising-the-devil shenanigans before plumping for the value of doubt and making the atheist the hero? As I’ve had occasion to point out many times before, the curious thing about today’s supernatural/religious horror is that forces of evil are seen as real while God is either helpless or MIA. As I said in my notes on Paranormal Activity, “it seems the devil is still with us but God left the building a while ago.”
*. I mean, the priests here are disposed of pretty quickly. I mentioned the low body count. It’s three. All three are priests. It’s hard not to think there was some sort of message in that.
*. Anyway, I pondered all this for a moment or two and then gave up. Not a terrible movie, but not one worth bothering with either.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

*. The idea was inspired: why not team up Sherlock Holmes with Sigmund Freud, two rough contemporaries, in a new adventure that has Holmes traveling to Vienna to get treatment for his cocaine addiction while solving the mystery of an abducted singer.
*. Nicholas Meyer had written the source novel and also did the screenplay, which got an Oscar nomination. Stephen Sondheim wrote a delightful song for the Madame at a brothel to sing (“I Never Do Anything Twice”). Ken Adam was in charge of production design and his Victorian interiors look great, showing he was a master of more than just those giganto-sized villain’s lairs in the Bond movies or the war room in Dr. Strangelove. And the cast is first rate, with Nicol Williamson and Alan Arkin in the leads and Robert Duvall surprisingly solid as Watson, Joel Grey as a creepy villain, and Laurence Olivier as the world’s most distinguished red herring. Vanessa Redgrave looks as though she doesn’t want to be here, but then she may have read the script and been wondering what exactly her role amounted to.
*. About that script. I’m afraid it’s part of the reason the movie dies. Meyer really wanted to do something quite different from the book, while director Herbert Ross kept pulling him back. This suggests they weren’t on the same page, and the results show. The story never comes together, feeling in the end like a couple of different movies pulling in different directions and never settling on a clear tone. A review in The Daily Telegraph opined that “the tale drags on for reel after reel before we cotton on to the fact that it is meant to be funny.” But is it meant to be funny? I’m not sure.
*. Meyer wanted it to be “not a Sherlock Holmes movie, [but] a movie about Sherlock Holmes. That’s different.” One thing this meant was rehabilitating Watson, who Meyer thought had been too much the buffoon made famous by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes movies. But enlarging Watson means diminishing Holmes, not to the extent here as would be done in Without a Clue to be sure, but this Holmes is still a wreck. Freud is very much the greater man, and the hero.
*. This is reflected even in the nuts-and-bolts of the crime story. I’m afraid there isn’t much in the way of clever detective work going on. Holmes’s deducing that Lola Deveraux (Redgrave) had been abducted is kind of obvious from the nature of her injuries, and following a trail of dropped lilies (really?) to where she’d been taken is very sub-Conan Doyle. Meanwhile, Freud is way ahead of the legendary detective. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes you’re probably going to be disappointed at your hero’s performance.
*. Ross was probably a bad choice to direct as well. There’s no excitement on tap, even with a train chase and a sword fight to finish things off. This climax is then followed by a long and cringey denouement, as we learn the historical source of Holmes’s addiction problems and Moriarty fixation, which is both clichéd and wildly over-the-top. An epilogue then reintroduces Holmes to Ms. Deveraux, an even more cringe-inducing scene where the chanteuse seems anything but thrilled to be going on a cruise with the famous detective. But then he seems discomfited as well. Are we supposed to imagine this as a budding romance? Because there’d been little hint of that in the movie we’ve just seen. Which is just another way the pieces don’t come together.
*. In the brief interview featurette included with the DVD one gets the sense that Meyer himself didn’t think much of the film, and that’s understandable. Because of the credits this is a movie that still has a bit of a reputation today, and even some admirers, but despite all the talent assembled and the good use of locations it really is a stuffy and stiff piece with a stupid story that doesn’t make anything out of the intriguing pairing at its heart.

Macbeth (2010)

*. Two things struck me as significant, or at least out of the ordinary, before I even started watching this production of Macbeth.
*. In the first place, it’s a full three hours. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and even a full-text version (which I think this is quite close to, though some parts are rearranged) plays pretty fast. I have no objection to the pacing here, but it is a movie that doesn’t feel in a rush. That’s something that I usually enjoy when it comes to Shakespeare.
*. The second surprising thing is that we have an older Macbeth. In fact I believe Patrick Stewart was 70 years old. Of course he looks quite a bit younger, indeed he’s remarkably buff in a tank top at the end, but he’s still not a young man. I think it’s more usual to cast Macbeth as being younger. This is something Roman Polanski deliberately went for in his Macbeth, casting Jon Finch in the title role (Finch was 29). This was apparently because Polanski thought younger leads would appeal to a youth audience in the 1960s, but I think it also fits with the idea of Macbeth as being an ambitious man on the rise.
*. Here though I thought an older Macbeth also worked very well. The idea was to make Scotland over into a Cold War Soviet-style state, with a Macbeth modeled after Romania’s Ceaușescu, and Stewart has the look of an old-school apparatchik who has put his time in and now wants the limos and the dacha.
*. The setting — the film was shot at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire but it looks like it takes place in a fallout bunker — also underlines the joyless elite squalor of the Soviet. One feels anew the play’s theme of the pointlessness of political ambition. Macbeth has to wade into a sea of blood to achieve . . . what? He’s not even going to get a corner office with a view.
*. I like this slant, and think the movie looks good. It’s a bit like Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus (2011) in its evocation of a militaristic/fascistic dystopia. But as always when updating Shakespeare, contemporary relevance and impact has to be measured against elements that no longer make a lot of sense. I was wondering how Birnam Wood was going to come to Dunsinane here and was surprised at how well the soldiers in forest camo (“leafy screens”) worked. On the other hand, the supernatural stuff, like the witches and Banquo’s ghost, were a let-down.

*. The witches struck me as particularly off. They’re certainly striking, mainly appearing as masked nurse/nun figures, and their chanting is presented like it’s the music video of a girl goth band rapping. But they’re so modish they don’t register as being threatening. Given the décor of the bunker I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would have been to have cast Tobin Bell and Robert Englund in the parts. Jigsaw and Freddy look like they belong in this setting. Throw in some reject from a Rob Zombie movie and you’d have a good trio.
*. Stewart is solid, as you’d expect, though a bit loud and hoarse. Kate Fleetwood seems to be channeling Siân Phillips’s Livia from I, Claudius, and doing a pretty good job of it. She actually looks witchier than the witches in the first few acts. Director Rupert Goold (whose stage adaptation this originally was) sticks pretty close to his theatrical roots. The various rooms all have a stage-like quality to them.
*. I thought I was going to dislike this one after the opening scene. The wounded soldier is a bloody mess, which is fine, but he takes to an extreme the sort of naturalistic delivery that will be used throughout, which I’m really not a fan of. Growling, snarling, or sobbing the lines trashes any sense of rhythm they might have. There is no music to this play at all. As noted, even the witches sound like people spitting into an open mic on poetry night.
*. Once you get used to it though this turns out to be a fair production. I actually liked the setting, though the film as a whole had a bit too much of a stagey feel to it. Goold loves a direct camera placement with actors facing us square on, with the Porter breaking the fourth wall being particularly disconcerting. That’s not the way you play a scene like that in a movie. There were times I really wanted Goold to get the camera moving through some of these dingy, flickering hallways, especially as the action picked up. What we have instead is a movie that feels static, though not without impact.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)

*. Believe it or not, Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum starts out looking like it’s going to be something different. A killer named McBirney who’s been sentenced to the electric chair escapes from the courthouse and goes to visit a doctor who has a lucrative business performing plastic surgery on criminals seeking a new identity . . . while running a wax museum as a front! But McBirney is so impatient to get his revenge on Charlie (whose evidence had sentenced him to the chair) that he’ll risk everything to take our hero out even before the bandages are off. A trap is set . . .
*. In other words, not the usual whodunit and on the whole a pretty basic set-up. Until the second half, when things become bewilderingly complicated in the usual fashion. Even the murders are bizarre, from a rigged electric chair to blowguns firing darts dipped in tonga, “a poison used by the Dayak headhunters of Borneo.”
*. What we end up with then is not much different, and not much better, than the usual run-of-the-mill Chan adventure. Victor Sen Yung is the sole bright spot, even if he has to work harder than usual to sell the gags. The business of having someone turn the lights out while they run off or destroy some evidence had become an obligatory scene in the series, and here they use it twice.
*. Not bad. Maybe slightly above average, especially for the Toler Chans. The setting had unrealized potential to be used for more than just the usual “dummy” jokes played with the various effigies, but it still gives the proceedings a nice bit of atmosphere. But Toler is stiff as usual and the plot again tries to cram way too much into too small a box.

The Little Things (2021)

*. “The past becomes the future, becomes the past, becomes the future, becomes the past . . .” That’s not quite Shakespeare but rather the drunken ramblings of Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a cop with a past, and whose past is his future. You might even call him a burnt-out case. In the storied tradition of buddy-cop movies he’s paired in The Little Things with a buttoned-up case, the fresh-faced detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Together they are looking for a serial killer in 1990 L.A. who may or may not be Jared Leto. Heaven knows Mr. Leto looks and acts suspicious enough. But is he quite as creepy as Malek? That’s a tough call.
*. I begin with Deke’s line about the past becoming the future because it gets at the main feeling I had watching The Little Things. Of course, just in the one-line plot summary I’ve given you can tell it’s a genre picture that is following all the usual conventions. Deke and Jimmy are the odd couple. Their investigation is frustrated by police protocol and rules. Deke likes to break those rules, though not such conventions as making a wall of photos to stare at while he tries to put all the pieces together. There’s even a scene late in the movie where Leto says to Malek “You know, you and I are a lot alike. In another lifetime, we could be friends.” My jaw dropped when I heard this and I said (aloud!) “He did not just say that!” But he did.

*. You could say it’s darker and more ambiguous than the usual detective thriller. I think every review of it made some comparison to Se7en, but I think the closer Fincher connection is to Zodiac, especially with the open ending. Still, we’re on familiar ground here. Writer-director John Lee Hancock wanted to upset the usual paint-by-numbers serial killer plot, and that may have been true, at least to some extent, when he wrote it. This much is to his credit. But things had moved on.
*. The script had been written by Hancock way back in 1993. Now think about that. Nearly thirty years ago. And this is the point I wanted to make about the past becoming the future. In my notes on Fatale I mentioned how its mixing of neo-noir with Fatal Attraction was evidence of the nostalgic rut that our culture has fallen into, as described in the writings of critics like Kurt Andersen and Ross Douthat.
*. The basic idea here is that the twenty-first century has produced nothing new in terms of its popular art (music and film), and that it now just keeps itself going by remaking and remixing stuff from the 1980s and ’90s. I always want to dig my heels in against arguments like this because they sound too much like just the sort of thing that people my age (who were young in the 1980s and ’90s) would say. But there are days when I think there’s really something to it. Like when I listen to student dance parties playing songs that were hits thirty or forty years ago, or when I see a movie like this being released in 2021.

*. It was originally (that is, back in 1993) going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, or Danny DeVito, or Clint Eastwood, or Warren Beatty. In the end, Hancock took it on himself, and he does a respectable job. He can handle suspense, and Thomas Newman’s score helps. The script, however, is nonsense. The character of Baxter didn’t work for me at all, especially at the end where he is easily manipulated by Leto’s slimey Albert Sparma. As Clint Eastwood might have reminded him, had he been helming this, there are two types of people in the world: those with bullets in their gun and those who dig.
*. Another script point, while I’m at it. Why on earth doesn’t Baxter just meet with Sparma at the bar? That way he can keep his eye on him, and even talk to him all night if he has to. Sparma seems like a lonely guy and would probably like to spend an evening talking to a real detective.  But instead they go with a plan that’s guaranteed to only keep him out of the house for a few minutes.
*. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Hancock’s writing anyway. I believe he wrote this right after A Perfect World, which was a film I hated. The Little Things isn’t quite as portentous and drawn out, but you can tell he was being tugged in that direction. What’s with the cross on the hill? Who is the Christ figure? Leto looks the closest. And I don’t think the banter all that great either. “Your dick is as hard as Chinese arithmetic”? Is Chinese arithmetic hard?

*. I guess the period atmosphere worked, though as I mentioned in my notes on Fatale it’s striking how movies like this make us feel as though the ’90s weren’t that long ago. But were the freeways in southern California really so deserted you could drive down them in reverse and never encounter another car? I don’t remember that.
*. All told, it’s still a reasonably effective thriller, though I thought Malek mostly wasted and Washington was performing just a couple of notches above mailing it in. Not a great movie, but if we really are living in a culture of nostalgia then it may be the best we can expect. In resurrecting a thirty-year-old script they were at least going back to the source.