Author Archives: Alex Good

Before the Flood (2016)

*. Ten years after An Inconvenient Truth really upped the visibility of global climate change as a political issue, Before the Flood only underlines how little has been achieved. Where the earlier movie basically just filmed a PowerPoint presentation by Al Gore, this one follows Leonardo DiCaprio about the globe as he looks at the effects of climate change being happening now while interviewing scientists and political leaders.
*. I mention the dates because the basic message here hasn’t changed in the decade since Al Gore’s movie. Human activity is causing all sorts of environmental degradation (climate change, pollution, species extinction), the effects of which are only going to get worse. But there seems little chance of things getting better. As one interviewee puts it, our political leaders, no matter how well-intentioned, are not really leaders. They follow the political winds. In our own time, these winds, with a lot of help from the corporate media, have been blowing steadily against any change of course.
*. Part of the problem is highlighted by DiCaprio’s meeting with Elon Musk. Now whatever you think of Musk, and his reputation has slid a bit (while his bank account has grown) in the years since this film’s release, I think it’s ridiculous to think he’s going to be part of any solution. DiCaprio might as well have spoken to Richard Branson, an airline owner and novelty space-mission backer who also likes to talk a lot about environmental issues. The bottom line is this: it would be hard to think of a class of people less invested in there being any change to the status quo than corporate billionaires. If you’re looking for white knights who will help change the world then you’re looking at the wrong guys. If they are our last best hope, we’re doomed.
*. This is part of what has become a larger problem with environmental messaging. Much of it has become wrapped up, particularly by its critics, as celebrity or elite posturing. Movie stars or pop stars who make their statements about downsizing and consuming less while living in mansions all over the world and burning boatloads of fossil fuels on private jets.

*. It’s a hard charge to counter. I’m willing to bet DiCaprio’s carbon footprint is several orders of magnitude larger than mine. And while the filmmakers here paid a voluntary carbon tax to offset the carbon emissions of the production, it still seems like it was a pretty carbon-intensive project.
*. I think you just have to look past this though. Even if you can’t stand Hollywood slebs lecturing you on how you should live your life you should at least be aware of the unsustainability if not clear and present danger of our current mass-production/mass-consumption lifestyles. DiCaprio and director Fisher Stevens do a good job putting the case before us, but watching the movie eight years after its initial release I came away depressed at how everything described has only gotten worse, while politically we have even managed to go backward. It’s not that movies like this aren’t alarming enough, but rather that they seem to be missing a more fundamental point. Some inconvenient truths, like our continuing to behave the way we do despite understanding all of the risks, have become taboo.
*. I’ll end off on a lighter note. The MPAA warning alerts you to “some nude and suggestive art images.” As far as I can tell this can only refer to the pictures shown of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a print of which DiCaprio’s parents hung over his crib and which is used as a thematic touchstone at the beginning and end of the movie. That Bosch’s painting requires a warning struck me as kind of funny, given the fact that apparently baby Leonardo had no trouble looking up at its nude and suggestive imagery from his crib. I’m sure there were scarier things being shown on the nightly news, or going on outside his window.

The Hunger Games (2012)

*. The Hunger Games is the first of a series of four films (thus far) based on a series of YA SF-fantasy novels by Suzanne Collins. They (the novels and the films) are very much genre products of their time. For what I guess are pretty obvious reasons, SF&F in the twenty-first century started to take a turn to the bleak, being dominated by various dystopic visions. Environmental disaster, plague, and political slides into authoritarianism were everywhere. Dystopia Now, we might call it.
*. I don’t have anything against such dark forecastings and pessimistic mythologies, but after a while a lot of this stuff started to seem the same to me. Add to this the tendency of all genre fiction to want to stick pretty closely to formulas in order to hit as broad an audience as possible and you had works that soon seemed imaginatively tired. Then add to that the fact that YA fiction in particular likes to simplify adult ideas (coming up with the “kidult” phenomenon that I so despise) and you get a lot of stuff that I don’t find very interesting or enjoyable.
*. All of which is just to say that the odds were definitely not in favour of my liking this movie very much. So saying it was better than I expected might not be saying a lot. Still, despite running over some old ground in predictable ways it held my attention for 142 minutes, which is something I give it credit for.
*. It was met with a lot of criticism, not all of which was fair. Objection was made to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen not looking emaciated enough, given that the people in her district are presumably starving. In which case what I wondered was why they were still eating meat at all. But this is silly. If you want to wonder about things like that you should be questioning the well-fed cast of The Walking Dead, who by my reckoning should be walking skeletons themselves only a month or so after the zombie apocalypse. Yet they all seem pretty well preserved even in the later seasons of that show.
*. Another critique was leveled by David Thomson, who had this to say in his withering review: “the greatest shortcoming is in the matter of combat. Whether the filmmakers like it or not, this is a story about kids killing other kids with knives, bows and arrows, and anything else they can get their hands on. If you don’t like that violence, and if you fear it will jeopardize the box office, then don’t do the story. Instead, the woeful director Gary Ross has elected to present the combat as a mess of trembling hand-held close-ups, rapid cuts, and an overall blurring, so that in effect we don’t see the action. To my mind this is nearly un-American: From Ford and Hawks, through Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann, to Coppola and Scorsese, our cinema has reveled in what is called ‘action’ and made it something close to a philosophy. But in The Hunger Games you feel these scenes are like ink smudged in the rain. Perhaps it was calculated to get a PG-13 rating; perhaps Ross is a chump as a director (he made a similar hash of Seabiscuit); perhaps the script, by Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray (who wrote Shattered Glass) never settled on the level of terror or savagery it was trying for. $68.25 million in a day is not going to persuade them to try harder on three more films.”
*. I love Thomson, but this made no sense to me. He seems to not be taking into account the fact that this is a YA movie and that the PG-13 rating wasn’t really a choice. They weren’t trying for terror or savagery. I was quite impressed at the elision in the action scenes of the violence and gore, especially given how nasty the basic premise is. Despite the overstated claims of this being a Battle Royale rip-off, it’s not Battle Royale, which was a better movie, but also a very different one.

*. The politics are more problematic. You can tie yourself into knots about how ironic or postmodern it’s supposed to be taken, but the basic mythology in play here is an extreme caricature of the faux-populist rural-urban, red state-blue state divide. In the country we have resilient hill people who seem to have stepped out of a Walker Evans book. In the city are the decadent fops and dandies with Roman names who enjoy all the good things in life. Of course they control the media, and have an army of stormtroopers to keep the starving plebs in line. So it’s the people vs. the elites again. All of which might seem if not innocent than at least kind of obvious. But it’s still worth noting how deeply such a mythology had become ingrained into American culture at this time. The poisoned fruit it would bear was still a few years away.
*. The key to successful genre fiction and filmmaking is to give the audience exactly what it’s expecting and hope that slight variations and the introduction of a striking character or the presence of a charismatic star will work some magic and hit a sweet spot with audiences. All of which happened here.
*. I don’t think this movie would have been anything without Jennifer Lawrence. She’s the backwoods mud-honey who can still get glammed up and look great in eveningwear. Given her star power here — and the fact that she can do everything better than anyone else, including being empathetic and mothering when required — Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta turns into something less than a wallflower. Maybe a patch of forest moss.
*. The rest of the supporting cast do their part. Woody Harrelson is there to show that you can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy. Elizabeth Banks has such a fun get-up, in a performance channeling the latter days of Glenn Close, that I wanted to see more of her and maybe find out who the hell she actually was. No such luck. Stanley Tucci is great as the talk-show host. Donald Sutherland mails it in as the president, but that was the part and plus he’s old.
*. So nothing new, and some of the clichés grate. I’ve written before about the manipulative business where you make the core of the movie a show, which then allows lots of cutaways to audience reactions that are used like a laugh track to prompt a response from us. Then there’s the po’ white trash of the hill country districts who not only have a diet rich in meat but also have big-screen TVs in their shotgun shacks and bayou cribs.
*. That said, it’s well enough turned out and Lawrence takes it up a notch, meaning to a level where it’s at least watchable. Though perhaps not enough to interest me in another three instalments. But we’ll see.

Spencer (2021)

*. This movie started out being a hard sell for me, as few things interest me less than the doings of Britain’s royal family. I think they have the collective intelligence of a bag of sand, combined with about as much personality and charm as a tile drain. What’s more, I don’t think Diana Spencer did anything to raise this bar when she married into the House of Windsor. In fact, she fit right in.
*. In brief, the royals are about the most useless family of celebrities you could imagine, at least before the advent of the Kardashians. And yet Diana’s funeral drew a British television audience of over 32 million. Did people really have nothing better to do? Or did they just want to hear Elton John?
*. I begin with this bit of grousing only to let you know that I went into Spencer with low expectations. However, this usually works out well for me, as it did again here. Spencer was better than I thought it would be. At least up until the last act. But more about that in just a bit.
*. First off, this is a star vehicle. There are some capable supporting workers — Sean Harris as a somewhat disturbing head chef, Sally Hawkins as a submissive dresser, Jack Farthing as a goblin-like Prince Charles, and Timothy Spall as a sour security man — but the show belongs to Kristen Stewart, who was “thrust” into the Oscar race with the release of the trailer.

*. Stewart is good. Not great, but good. But it is great casting because she works better for not being great. She mainly copies a couple of Diana’s mannerisms — in particular, canting her head to one side and speaking in a low, breathy voice that probably helped disguise a barely passable accent. What she projects is exactly what Stewart has to offer: a star quality that Diana is uncomfortable with. She seems like a model burned out from too many Vogue covers, and maybe that’s what Diana was by this point. I bought into the performance, if not the character, completely.
*. As for that character, I have to leave off any opinion on how accurate it is. I figured Diana was a mess, but didn’t see her as being this much of a drama queen. In any event, here we just have to accept her as the neurotic bird in a gilded cage, with little apparent understanding, even after the fact, of what her job (that is, her marriage) entailed.
*. As she heads for a nervous breakdown the spirit of the film takes on a horror feel. I thought director Pablo Larraín built this up well, evoking a lifestyle of luxury without any sense of comfort or well-being. Diana seems to be going full Repulsion, and we almost expect to see arms starting to reach out of the walls of Sandringham as the camera dollies behind her manic dancing walks down the hallways. Or maybe she’s about to turn a corner and be confronted by the ghost of Ann Boleyn or a couple of creepy little girls. Even Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy score doesn’t seem out of place.
*. As an aside, the camera dollies a lot. I thought Larraín maybe got a little too fond of this.
*. As another aside, one of the subtitles (not the closed captioning but a prepared subtitle) describes how “water swashes.” I didn’t think “swashes” was a word and I had to look it up. I guess the meaning here is that of a gentle splashing sound. I don’t think it has any meaningful etymology though and is just an onomatopoeic coinage.

*. Unfortunately, Larraín doesn’t stick to the royal-horror approach and Sandringham as the house that drips blood, giving in to a crazy pop turn at the end where the whole movie falls to pieces. Just when our loving, warm, and all-too human mom is about to be crushed by the cruelly medieval system of the monarchy she breaks free in a laughable moment where she snaps her necklace/collar of pearls and sends them dramatically bouncing down a flight of stairs. Try to think of something cornier than that. If you do, it might be interrupting a hunting party so that she can liberate little William and Harry and whisk them away with her to freedom. And if you want to add the cherry on top, hit the car stereo system and turn on Mike + the Mechanics so that you and the happy kids can sing along to “All I Need is Miracle.” Because whatever happened in Paris is going to stay in Paris and Hollywood wants a happy ending.
*. It’s particularly sad when a movie that looked like it was going to work crashes and burns this dramatically. What might have been a chilling psychological thriller ends as pop farce, with Stewart looking out at the city in the clever disguise of an Ontario Provincial Police ballcap. I got the impression that we were meant to be considering what Diana was feeling or thinking at this moment. Whether she thought all of it was worth it, or if, like Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part II, she realizes she has gained the empty bauble of a world but lost her soul. I say that’s what I think we’re meant to be wondering. But the only impression I was left with is that Diana wasn’t thinking or feeling much of anything at all, and that this was as per usual.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

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*. Victory is one of my favourite Joseph Conrad novels, though it’s not very well known. It’s the kind of book that makes people say of it that it has some of Conrad’s best writing and some of his worst.
*. And so with The Bad Sleep Well. This is a movie I really love . . . most of. There are passages, especially the opening wedding ceremony, that I think are among the best things Kurosawa ever did. But at the same time, this has never been one of his most popular films.
*. Why? I think the far-fetched story alienates some people. It was the result of a collaboration among five screenwriters (Kurosawa being one), and apparently a lot of rewrites were done on the fly. As it stands, it’s two and a half hours of a grotesque revenge plot involving secret illegitimate children, identity swapping, and scaring people insane with ghosts.

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*. Does it have much to do with Hamlet? Not to my eye, though the business with the wedding cake can be seen as a version of the Mouse Trap (only it can hardly be a tool for getting the guilty board members to expose themselves, since Nishi is clearly already convinced of their culpability in his father’s death). Aside from that, the only thing it really borrows is the notion of a son avenging his father’s murder.
*. Admittedly, this is a storyline that isn’t all that common. Usually we have heroes avenging the murder of their spouses or children. Not often a father. And it’s even a bit of a stretch here, as Nishi wasn’t very close to his dad.

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*. Kurosawa was going contemporary after several films set back in samurai days. But how feudal is his contemporary Japan? The Public Corporation is like a fiefdom, demanding a superhuman level of loyalty.

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*. This, in turn, leads us to a bureaucratized evil. You even get the exclamation/excuse that in doing such bad things the men in suits were “just following orders.” It’s a murderously corrupt system, and the Corporation is clearly a quasi-criminal enterprise (it could have been called the Syndicate or the Organization), so in the end who’s responsible?
*. It’s beautifully photographed, with brilliant framing that is perhaps only a bit overly formal. It’s hard to say though as this was very much the custom in what we think of now as the art house cinema of the day, and the layout of Japanese homes, with all their screens and grids, exaggerates the effect even more.

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*. Even a location like the ruins of the munitions factory is invested with a kind of cinema vérité poetry. And it’s crammed with symbolism too, from the bunker to the smokestack to the beam that separates Nishi from Yoshiko.

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*. To what extent is this a black comedy or satire? I honestly don’t know, figuring that I’m probably losing a lot in translation. But the score seems to strike a comic note at several points where I didn’t expect it.
*. I didn’t even recognize Toshiro Mifune. Did he gain a lot of extra weight for this role? And he’s hiding behind that blank corporate façade perfectly.
*, Kurosawa thought it was too far ahead of its time, that he made it too soon. That may have been true in Japan. I think it would have worked for an American audience in 1960, and it holds up very well today.
*. The ending is particularly ambiguous given the title. Will Iwabuchi sleep well, given he didn’t sleep at all the night before? Or has he murdered sleep? You could argue that the alienation of his children is a form of punishment, but does he care? Or does he care about the corporation’s welfare more? I take this latter position, which makes the ending particularly dark. His kids are gone, but he has to answer that phone, literally bowing to head office’s authority.
*. As for his kids, Yoshiko and Tatsuo, what exactly are they going to do? He’s a drunk and she’s a cripple. They’re both adults but don’t seem to have jobs while still living with their dad. So where are they going?

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*. But to return to a point I raised earlier, who is head office? In the Kurosawa documentary included with the Criterion DVD the caller is referred to simply as a “great evil.” So somebody higher up the corporate ladder? The government? Whatever it is, I like it that we’re not told, and that we never hear the voice on the other end of the line.

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*. When I was a kid I had one of those Weird Tales-style comic books that told the story of a corporate climber who kept moving up the ranks, but always being put off from seeing the big boss by a secretary posted outside the boss’s office. When the man on the rise finally takes over the company and is allowed to enter that office he finds it’s only a black void that he will now presumably be trapped in for eternity. You could think of it as a corner tomb, or a portal to hell. But all it really was, was a perfectly black frame.
*. I was reminded of that comic at the end of this movie. Is the great evil just the fact that there’s no directing intelligence at all? That the bureaucracy, the corporation, the system, is all there is?

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Manufactured Landscapes (2006)

*. When I first saw Manufactured Landscapes ten or so years ago I was impressed by the photography but thought it an awkward film. I wondered if it was about Edward Burtynsky or about his subject matter: the impact of industrialism on the environment. There’s no reason it can’t be about both, and it is, but it has trouble being about both in any depth.
*. Thus we see flashes of Burtynsky at work and hear his voice, but we don’t find out much about him or his attitude toward either his art or the industrial reshaping of the planet. He is deliberately (and I think, like most artists, wisely) quiet on the matter of his intentions and reluctant to offer up interpretations of his own work. And while what we see is eye-opening (Chinese factories, a ship-wrecking flat in Bangladesh, the building of the Three Gorges Dam), we don’t really learn much about the environmental issues involved since the emphasis is all on the images and not on any information in the form of voiceover or interviews.
*. Another awkwardness of the “neither this nor that”: it’s a movie made about a still photographer. So it’s film shoots of photo shoots, but we never really feel as though we’re seeing much “behind the scenes.” How did Burtynsky select these locations? What went into decisions like the perspective and framing of particular shots? Jennifer Baichwal’s director’s commentary fills you in a lot more on the political issues of shooting in China at the time, but that’s not part of the movie.
*. I’m happy to say though that re-watching it today I was more impressed, and none of this bothered me as much. The basic point is pretty clearly illustrated: that twenty-first century industrialization is a nightmare, creating a hell on earth. It’s hard to imagine people living like this. I’ve worked on a factory floor and to call it soul-destroying isn’t even the half of it. Watching piece-work being done here I couldn’t help thinking how this just isn’t something our species was meant for. We evolved to do this?

*. I also had to think of Adam Smith: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
*. Except I wouldn’t want to say stupid. What I’d say is bored. The manufactured landscapes here recall another voice, that of Günter Grass in The Tin Drum. In that novel the cement pillboxes that are part of the German Atlantic wall defence system are seen by their creator as works of art (called Structural Oblique Formations), and perhaps the only works of genius of the twentieth century. They come with the subtitle Barbaric, Mystical, Bored. Another character, on hearing this, says “you have given our century its name.”
*. Burtynsky has an eye for this same aesthetic, and the structural oblique formations of mass industry. It’s not so much a movie about man interacting with nature (as Burtynsky says in the intro), because nature feels non-existent here, or is just there to be dug up and shit on. Instead, nature is that massive factory floor we dolly through in the nine-minute opening shot. The “Factory of the World” is what it’s called, and the workers later assemble outside for a group photo that not even Fritz Lang could have imagined. And while the apocalyptic vision of Metropolis has been expanded exponentially, for the workers it’s only Tuesday.
*. The photos show what the industrial sublime of an artist like Charles Sheeler, who made industry seem inhuman but pure, pristine, and coldly rational, has now turned into. Here industry, however gigantic and baroque, is messy, squalid, and dirty. I suppose some sense of mysticism attaches to it, but lots more barbarity and boredom. Meanwhile, the humans have become mere cogs in the machines. They seem almost like microbes feeding on an industrial corpse. Nearly twenty years later, I also had to wonder how many of these jobs have now been replaced by robots.

*. The anti-humanism is of a piece with the anti-naturalism of the film’s vision. This isn’t industry as man’s nature but operating as a force destructive of that nature. This also made the introduction of the Shanghai real estate agent seem out of place. What part does she play in any of this? She’s fabulously rich, but just another microbe. They were wise to cut the scenes of the stonecutter, included with the DVD. He’s an artist from a vanished world in more ways than one.
*. So it’s a movie that has really held up, packing just as much of a punch as it did when it came out. So much so that in 2018 Anthropocene: The Human Epoch wouldn’t have much to add aside from more spectacular imagery and a bit of voiceover.
*. What I miss here though is the other half of the equation. This is the story of mass production, but mass consumption is largely left alone. Obviously that’s not Burtynsky’s bailiwick, but I still found it a present absence. What we do see is Burtynsky’s photos being consumed, in their way, in art galleries. This forces us to see them as being as much a product as the steam irons and widgets turned out by the Factory of the World. Burtynsky even talks about this in the bonus material included with the DVD. Without oil and the industrial economy there wouldn’t be a movie like Manufactured Landscapes, not because there’d be nothing to film but because the film itself couldn’t be produced. I think it’s even called an irony at one point. But it’s also something darker than that.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

*. We start in a drive-in movie theatre. In 2013? This is some indication that we are in a land that time forgot. Perhaps somewhere near the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey. And a really bad dude with the really bad name of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) is abusing his girlfriend. Then he beats the shit out of a guy who comes in to break things up. And you think “Is Out of the Furnace going to all be like this?”
*. Pretty much. Out of the Furnace is Hollywood doing rust-belt America. Specifically the mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. And places like the backwoods/hill country of the Ramapos. For some reason Harlan DeGroat is connected to a bar owner in Braddock, despite it being a five-hour drive from where he lives. Also in Braddock live Russell Baze (Christian Bale), who works at the mill but has just got out of prison, and Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) who has just got back from Iraq and now makes a living by kicking ass and getting his ass kicked in the backyard fight circuit.
*. That pretty much gets the whole underclass of America in one basket. Failing industry. The carceral state. Vets with PTSD (“I gave my life for this country, and what’s it fucking done for me?”). A failing health care system (Mr. Baze senior is dying pathetically at home). Drug use. Crime. Tattoos. Fight club. When the movie came out the good citizens of the Ramapos filed a lawsuit against the studio for portraying their locale as one filled with “lawless, drug-addicted, impoverished and violent” inbreds that even the police were afraid to venture into. But there was nothing new in any of this, or particular to the Ramapos. It’s part of the long shadow of Deliverance, and the backbone of American horror since Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
*. Heavy stuff then, and it’s made heavier by the partnership of director Scott Cooper and star Christian Bale, who would later team up in the even more dour Western Hostiles. Bale here does his usual Bale thing, which is a lot of intensity without much in the way of intelligence. When you spend as much time as I did wondering why he didn’t just cut his hair instead of always running his fingers through it to keep it out of his eyes then you know there’s not much to the character.

*. The plot is heavy too, with clichés. Bale wants to look out for his kid brother, but the kid gets into trouble when he has local barkeep Willem Dafoe set him up in a fight in the Ramapos. If you’re thinking there has to be an easier, albeit no less criminal, way for this guy to make some money you’d be right, but we need a movie here. Which means Rodney hasn’t figured out any way he could possibly make money by winning the fights he gets paid to throw.
*. These points that make no real sense but just have to be included to keep the plot moving are as maddening as they are inevitable. Another example takes the form of Bale’s ex (Zoe Saldaña) leaving him to shack up with the Braddock police chief (Forest Whitaker). This keeps all our main characters connected, however unlikely it may be.
*. What I’m getting at here is the incongruity between a movie that goes for grit and the kitchen sink but at the same time always feels like a movie. There’s a laboured parallel, for example, between Rodney getting killed in the Ramapos while Russell and his uncle hunt a deer. The parallel is only there to be noticed, and probably make you think of The Deer Hunter as well (Bale, like De Niro, lets the deer get away). But it’s a movie deer hunt, because when people hunt deer they sit all day in a blind or a stand and wait for a deer to come by. They don’t go walking through the woods hoping to sneak up on one unaware.
*. Another point of incongruity in the drive for authenticity: apparently Bale learned how to operate the machinery in the mill for the film so they wouldn’t need a double. Why? I knew this factlet before I saw the movie so I was hoping to see him show off some of his mill moves. If he learned anything I don’t know what it was. We’re talking about only a few seconds of screen time.

*. You’ll have gathered from the names I’ve mentioned that this is a strong cast. And I didn’t even drop in Sam Shepard as Russell’s uncle, because it’s an entirely superfluous part. But this is an incongruity too. It’s like Hollywood-on-the-Monongahela here.
*. Despite all of this, Out of the Furnace actually works pretty well. The photography is first rate, as is the set design. The home interiors do look authentic. Yes, the plot plays out exactly as you know it’s going to, but despite this it actually remains entirely watchable and I don’t recall ever being bored by it. I guess it’s hard to mess material like this up as long as you play it straight (and keep kids out of it, unless you want to end up with something like A Perfect World). And heaven knows Cooper and Bale are two guys who are going to play it straight all the way down the line.
*. Aside from that, there may be some kind of message in here about a crisis in contemporary masculinity, but I sure didn’t feel like pulling it out. Rodney’s angry tirade about the horrors of Iraq reminded me of Pacino talking about junkies putting babies in microwaves in Heat (an urban legend, at the time). Not because people being blown apart or babies in microwaves isn’t awful, but because of the way it’s played in both movies as a trump card for what real men have to endure while civs stay safe at home.
*. While not necessarily toxic, this angry, suffering masculinity didn’t seem very healthy either. I might say the same for the politics, as a dig is taken at the liberal betrayal of the working class. And we know how that has played out. All of which finally made me wonder if anyone is well served by Hollywood venturing into this territory.

Quiz the one hundred-and-seventy-seventh: Just a note (Parts five and six)

Just a note to say that the quizzes are back after a short break. And with a double quiz full of notes, just to celebrate! It’s all very notable.

See also: See also: Quiz the twelfth: Just a note (Part one), Quiz the thirty-first: Just a note (Part two), Quiz the one hundred-and-eleventh: Just a note (Part three), Quiz the one hundred-and-forty-ninth: Just a note (Part four).

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Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)

*. There were six Mr. Wong movies all made by Monogram within a couple of years, which gives you some idea of how carefully they were turning them out.
*. Basically James Lee Wong (played by Boris Karloff in the first five films) is a stately and urbane Charlie Chan rip-off. But since Charlie moved to Monogram it was a case of share and share alike, as the script here was remade almost shot-for-shot eight years later in the Chan vehicle The Chinese Ring. They’d also re-use the bit about trying to blow Mr. Wong up in a cab that’s ditched in an alley in Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat. So they were ripping off the rip-offs by that point.
*. The story that was so nice they had to do it twice has a Chinese princess showing up on Mr. Wong’s doorstep. While she waits for Mr. Wong to finish dickering around with some experiment in his lab a hand sticks through a window and uses a “sleeve gun” to shoot her with a poisoned dart. Needless to say, killing someone in Mr. Wong’s own house is playing dirty pool indeed. “Now this is this is a payoff,” the police inspector says. “Murder in the house of Mr. Wong! Now we’ve seen everything.”
*. Before she dies, the princess is able to write a cryptic note for Mr. Wong about a “Captain J.” Alas, as things turn out there are two Captain J’s! No one saw that coming.
*. In fact, you’ll see most of this one coming (just as you’d see it coming again with Charlie Chan in the lead role). There are, however, a few nice touches. A lot of attention is given to the back-and-forth between dumb-as-a-brick but handy with the fisticuffs police inspector Bill Street (Grant Withers) and intrepid lady reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). Reynolds is great, though what she sees in Withers is beyond me. Our Bill isn’t much of a charmer. Mostly he keeps telling her to “beat it” or “be quiet.” Their best bit of repartee has him asking her “Do you know something I don’t know?” and her replying “That wouldn’t have to be much!” Otherwise he mostly he fills the role of one of Charlie’s sons, jumping the gun in proclaiming every false lead proof of guilt.
*. Other bonuses include the exploding cab, which actually looks pretty good for Poverty Row, and the bizarre wrap-up at the end. Basically, Mr. Wong finds out who the killer is because he ties the disappearance of the dwarf witness together with the fact that the main villain had recently said he buried one of his giant guard dogs. He knows this is wrong because “one does not bury the body of a vicious dog in a pet cemetery under an expensive headstone.” To be fair, this was before Mondo Cane and Gates of Heaven, but why Wong would think it must have been the dwarf that was getting buried in the doggy grave is beyond me. Why would the bad guy think the dwarf needed an expensive headstone?
*. Not a bad entertainment of its kind and period, but by that I only mean that it’s cheap, stupid fun and Reynolds is a treat.

Old (2021)

*. I wonder if M. Night Shyamalan likes making these kinds of gimmick films, or if it’s just something he fell into and now is stuck with. I actually think he likes making them. Otherwise he would have probably moved on.
*. The main idea here, of a beach where the visitors begin to age at a supernatural pace (two years an hour), came from a French graphic novel, but Shyamalan added his own twist. I think it’s a good premise, and the twist at least has its own sort of logic. Indeed, it’s not really a surprise at all. But the basic problem with all such twists is that they breed an impatience in the audience. You just want to find out what’s going on, and you don’t care so much about what’s happening at the moment, which all feels contrived anyway.
*. A film like this also not only dares you but begs you to question how well its bizarre premise holds together. I’m afraid it doesn’t. I was bothered by a lot of what was going on. Why do the kids seems to grow old so much faster than the adults, and how do they develop such intelligence and emotional maturity to go along with their physical growth? How do the people end up back out on the beach after suffering some kind of pressure sickness when they try to leave? Why do the dead bodies decompose so quickly? None of this made sense to me, along with much else I won’t get into.
*. Is it watchable? Yes. Shyamalan seems to have really been taken with panning the camera in this film, and he works the beach well as a location. We go through all the fairly predictable, and one not-so-predictable, crises and failed escapes. But the characters are nothing but the usual stereotypes (the accountant who won’t let up talking about the odds, the trophy wife who turns into a monster) and the story just sort of limps along. I wrote in my notes that it felt like a Twilight Zone episode put on the rack, and found out later that Shyamalan himself called it a “two-hour Twilight Zone episode.” So that’s exactly where you are.
*. Any thought of deeper connections is just wishful thinking. Shyamalan says he wanted to invoke the spirit of movies that developed a sense of natural supernaturalism like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but there’s none of that. Nor is there any of the moral or political edge of The Exterminating Angel, which is another comparison that’s been made.
*. Instead, what with the (very) young lovers getting at it the movie that strangely crept to mind was The Blue Lagoon (1980). This made me wonder how many people today even remember The Blue Lagoon, which was quite the succès de scandale at the time. It seems to be one of those movies that has pretty much dropped off everyone’s radar today. It’s interesting how that happens.
*. Will Old fare any better, or will it disappear into the sands of time like the bodies on its beach? I suspect it will be remembered as a minor novelty, which is all that I think it tries to be. A bit disappointing given the potential it had to go in different and more interesting directions, but from this particular genre of beach movie there really is no exit.