Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)

*. When discussing Burt Reynolds it’s often said that there’s a Good Burt and a Bad Burt, the latter being most easily identified by his moustache. The Good Burt played well in good movies. The Bad Burt was in far more popular movies where he was . . . well, all he needed to be.
*. Watching Smokey and the Bandit II I found myself wondering whether, if you’d only seen Reynolds in movies like Smokey and the Bandit or The Cannonball Run, you would think he could act at all. I think the most you would be able to say is that he had charm. But that charm wore off in a hurry, even when treated in a winking, self-referential manner, as it is here (a manner that, I think, is also supposed to be charming).
*. But as I say, Burt was just doing what he was supposed to do. And in his defence, he thought this sequel nothing but a stupid cash grab (which it was). His co-star, Sally Field, would consider it the worst movie she ever made. Critics came down hard. Roger Ebert called it “basically just the original movie done again, not as well.” Not nearly as well, I would say.
*. To give you some idea of just how stupid and thoughtless it is: how are we supposed to believe that the Frog we knew and loved in the first movie has gone back to marry Junior? They couldn’t think of any other way to reintroduce the same characters except to replay the exact same situation?
*. Nobody seemed to care. In the face of the critical brickbats director Hal Needham took out ads in the trade papers featuring quotes from negative reviews alongside a picture of himself sitting beside a wheelbarrow full of cash.
*. That same spirit of cynicism finds its way into the film. Everyone has their price. Even the fellow running the animal park isn’t going to let Charlotte give birth on his grounds until the Bandit pays him off. Yes, the Bandit calls him a putz later, but he’s no different from anyone else in the film.

*. Ebert didn’t know why the elephant had to be taken to Texas. They never say, but I assume she’s to be the mascot at the Republican convention. What I couldn’t understand is why the Burdette’s want to help out. How do they profit from pre-empting the Governor, whose responsibility this is? I feel like something got left out of the script here.
*. There’s not much more to say. Dom DeLuise shows up as a gluttonous (naturally) Italian doctor with an accent he soon tires of. Mean Joe Greene flips the sheriff’s car, causing Buford T. Justice to expostulate “I knew this would happen as soon as they started that bussin’ shit!” Then we meet Buford’s brother, who is a flaming queen named Gaylord. And I thought this was kind of sad, because there was a time when Gaylord was a normal, or at least not uncommon name before it became a slur.
*. The highlight here is a giant smash-up derby between transport trucks and squad cars in the desert. It makes no sense at all, and has no point, but we get to see lots of cars smashed up in different ways while Snowman and the Bandit go “Wah-hoo!” “Woo-hoo!” and “Woo! Woo! Woo!”
*. How awful were those tight jeans? Burt’s are even tighter than Sally’s. At the time this was the style. One can and should be thankful that the bellbottoms from the first film have gone away, but fashion is cruel.
*. There was a chance they might have done something interesting here with the whole idea of the Bandit having become a legend in his own mind — “one of the most beloved grass-root folk heroes in America!” — but this is so underdeveloped I couldn’t really figure out why they were bothering with it. This isn’t a movie that wants to poke fun at itself, and I don’t know why not. Maybe it’s too busy laughing at us.
*. It was not quite the end of the line. There would be a Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, but Reynolds would only drop in at the end of it in a cameo and Field had moved on. It’s sometimes regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. So just a small step down from this.

Scavenger Hunt (1979)

*. They don’t make them like this any more.
*. That said, at the time it wasn’t that far out of the mainstream. The great progenitor was It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), or more distantly Hellzapoppin’ (1941). Later films that were somewhat similar include The Cannonball Run (1981) and Brewster’s Millions (1985).
*. Even the language that we use to describe such movies has dropped out of common parlance. Who uses words like “madcap,” “zany,” or “screwball” to describe films, even when they’re appropriate? When was the last time you saw a movie that was a pure farce? As director Michael Schultz notes on his commentary, there’s “no subtlety in this kind of humour.” Richard Benjamin based his character on Wile E. Coyote because he thought that was all there was to the part. It is, Schultz admits, a “kind of humour that isn’t done much today.”
*. As Schultz also points out, it actually wasn’t that popular at the time either. Scavenger Hunt failed at the box office, as did Spielberg’s 1941 the same year (a film Schultz sees as comparable). It was also savaged by critics, then and now.
*. Nevertheless, Scavenger Hunt has gone on to attract a modest following. I think this is something that needs to be explained.

*. I begin with the observation that it isn’t funny. I mean it isn’t funny at all. The plot is just a line to run a series of gag sketches on, not one of which is even worth a smile. As befits this style of broad humour most of it just degenerates into characters shouting and screaming at each other. There’s a robbery that goes wrong because the one dummy didn’t cut eye holes in his brown paper bag mask. Another scene involves Richard Benjamin being unable to knock over a pyramid of milk cans at a carnival. There’s a running gag that involves stealing ostriches from the San Diego zoo that only made me feel sorry for the poor birds.
*. The sketches are all so bad I came up with my own contest, trying to decide who was the least funny character in the star-studded cast. I’m tempted to say the French maid Babbette (Stepanie Farracy), but I was ultimately convinced that the dim-witted Marvin Dummitz (Richard Mulligan) had to take the prize. I just dreaded every time he appeared on screen.

*. Some of the bits are so bizarre and random I couldn’t even understand them. What did Richard Benjamin run off to do at the carnival? Was he going to steal the kid’s stuffed bear? It feels like something was cut. Tony Randall being caught on the boat leaving harbour was the result of his trying to get a life preserver. I think. Just why Mulligan kept trying to get himself run over totally escaped me. How was that going to help him get the grill of the Rolls?
*. There are also the usual crude bits that have not aged well. Fat people can’t stop eating. There’s a Japanese gardener who keeps parking his truck right in the middle of the road and then goes full samurai when people have to drive around him.
*. Having said all this, I don’t hate Scavenger Hunt. It’s a totally terrible movie, but I can sort of understand the charm it holds for some people. I think the secret to that charm is nostalgia.
*. The nostalgia is for a style of humour that we can still miss even when it isn’t done very well. It’s also nostalgia for a bunch of actors who were big forty years ago but are probably unknown to many people today. James Coco? Was he the poor man’s or the rich man’s Dom DeLuise? I can’t even remember.
*. And I suppose it’s not all bad. Richard Masur is so annoying as Georgie that he’s actually kind of good, and his antagonism toward Benjamin’s character is a nice psychological observation (the adult baby hostile to a man seeking to steal his mommy away from him). Avery Schreiber as the Zookeeper gets a smile for spraying his lines in everyone’s face. Tony Randall’s poor old dad is sympathetic.
*. I was also impressed by the stunt man doubling for Masur in the car chase. How he stayed mounted on that rocking horse going around the turns or bouncing down a hill was pretty damn impressive.

*. I think, however, that the comment I often hear made about how this is a more family-oriented movie (a “fun family film” in Schultz’s summary) misses the mark somewhat. There is some bad language used, and some parts can be quite cruel. Just like, I would add, Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges were often cruel in their slapstick.
*. I found it interesting that Richard Benjamin remarks on how “clean” the humour is compared to the “language and toilet stuff” being made today. Did he forget the toilet scene here? In any event, I think it’s just that our tolerance for these things has advanced so far that this film only seems tame. In 1979 that toilet gag might have been risqué.
*. So it’s a time capsule from 1979. Have you ever seen the news reports about time capsules being opened? It usually turns out they’re full of junk. Scavenger Hunt is a collection of junk from 1979. Today it’s a curiosity that doesn’t work at all as comedy but nevertheless has a kind of period charm or pleasantness. Sort of like a beach movie from the 1950s. Most comedies that aren’t funny are painful to watch, but that’s not the feeling I had watching Scavenger Hunt. It’s more a sense of wonder that anything this hopeless ever got made.
*. I’d say it was a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t. Instead, what interest it has is only what it has managed to accrue over the years.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

*. Smokey and the Bandit was the second-highest grossing movie of 1977, the top spot going to Star Wars. I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t held up as well as Star Wars, though I think it’s a movie everyone still recognizes by name even if they haven’t seen it.
*. It’s quite forgettable. I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it except Burt and Sally grinning at each other. I had even completely forgotten why everyone was driving around so fast, running away from the police. (In case you did too, it’s because they’re transporting a truckload of Coors beer over state lines.)
*. I had also forgotten Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down” theme song, which is actually very good and was a big hit. In my head I’d always associated this movie with the music from The Dukes of Hazzard.
*. But instant forgettability is what you’d expect from a movie that had little script, in terms of plot or dialogue (with most of the latter apparently being improvised). Only the stunts were planned. Reynolds, even at the time, considered the movie to be “a little like Chinese food. An hour after seeing the movie you may want to go see another one.” He then immediately added that it is also, in this way, like sex. So by way of syllogism sex is like Chinese food. I think.
*. It’s a movie that has something to answer for. Hal Needham would continue to cash in, dragging Burt along with him through vehicles like Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run. And there would be The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985) and other indistinguishable crap featuring good ol’ boys, scofflaws, and downright sumbitches racing circles around the moronic authorities.

*. But Smokey and the Bandit didn’t come out of nowhere. It develops out of the countercultural road movie popularized in the early ’70s with films like Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, and Two-Lane Blacktop. What has changed is the cheerful cynicism of the proceedings. The Bandit isn’t a real rebel or outsider, or even a folk hero, but just a show-off and local celebrity. And while those earlier films usually had some notion of a wager driving the plot, here it’s just a dash for cash sponsored by a beer company. Money is the only reason anyone does anything.
*. Sally Field also represents another point of transformation. Her Frog is worldly but wholesome, a type that we wouldn’t be seeing again anytime soon.
*. I was surprised to hear CB (or Citizens band) radios being discussed as a new technology. They weren’t new, but their widespread adoption by drivers (especially truckers) apparently only began after the 1973 oil shock and the adoption by the U.S. government of a nationwide 55 mph speed limit. So I guess the way they talk about the radios here is accurate. Live and learn.
*. I was also surprised to see Snowman’s Bassett Hound Fred swimming. I didn’t think hounds were big swimmers. I mean, most dogs can swim, but are hounds water dogs? Do they like swimming? They really don’t seem built for it.
*. Little Enos is Big Enos’s son. They seem like they should be brothers. Paul Williams was 13 years younger than Pat McCormick but they look the same age.
*. For being a pure popcorn (or Chinese food) movie it’s not bad. Jackie Gleason steals every scene he’s in, and he probably still would even if he weren’t trying so hard. But I don’t think the banter has aged well, and all the driving around gets pretty dull. It even seems as though the vehicles keep driving down the same stretch of forested highway over and over. There is, however, some evidence that Needham was at least trying to make a real movie. Not necessarily a good movie, but a movie. That’s more than I can say for some of his later efforts.
*. But he did make a lot of money. And as we’ve seen, that is the only proposition the movie stands for in the end.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

*. Is there any point calling a movie like this out for bloat? I mean, that’s the joke isn’t it? It’s there right in the mad, mad, mad, mad title (for which Stanley Kramer initially wanted another “mad”). Adjective overkill. Ha-ha.
*. Next question: do bloat and comedy ever go together? How many “big” comedies have there been? There’s something about trying too hard that undercuts comedy, at least in my opinion. Of course there is a style of loud comedy that plays as broad farce, but in this movie we’re talking about something different. It’s a movie that right from its conception was all about doing more, and more isn’t funny.
*. To take just the most obvious example of more, the Criterion DVD release of this title includes a cobbled-together 197-minute extended version of the film. Even if you found it hilarious, could you really enjoy a three-hour-and-seventeen-minute comedy? Everything has its limits.

*. You’ll have guessed I’m not a fan of the movie. I sat through both versions and I was there for a long time, not a good time. Just as everything else about it is inflated — the bombastic, Oscar-nominated title song, the “all-star” cast, the super-wide screen, the trashing of entire buildings — so was much of the critical praise directed at it. Sure it’s big, but is it a classic? A classic what?
*. I think the gigantism works against it almost every step of the way. It feels laboured as well as loud. Many of the stars were actually television veterans (10 of the 12 principals, according to the commentary) and they look out of place in a 70 mm landscape. Meanwhile, the very few moments that registered with me were the quiet or silent ones. I love the smoothly developing cynicism of the group when you see them deciding to go for it over Jimmy Durante’s body. Or the way you can hear their eyes rolling when Jonathan Winters’s Lennie keeps going on about having to pay taxes.
*. I’m not even sure the whole idea of just having a bunch of stars doing cameos has a point. They cameos are unnecessary and rarely funny. It’s fun to pick their faces out of the crowd but that’s it. I defy anyone to explain what’s funny about the appearances by Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, and the Three Stooges here. They just show their faces and that’s it.

*. These were talented comedians, but what’s funny about the script? There are only a few lines that raise a smile. Many of the gags are old, and even get repeated within the film (the map in the face while driving comes back with the bug in the cockpit of the plane).
*. The chase comedy wasn’t new. The screenwriters, William and Tania Rose, had even done one themselves with Genevieve. Still, I think this is the movie that defined the genre, both for its size and its profitability. But I don’t see how this is to its credit.

*. Here is Lou Lumenick in his Criterion essay: “Mad World has provided the template for countless other chase comedies in the decades since its release, among them Ken Annakin’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (1981), Richard Fleischer’s Million Dollar Mystery (1987), and Jerry Zucker’s Rat Race (2001).” Yikes. What kind of legacy is that? And he even leaves Scavenger Hunt off his list.

*. I think a lot of people like this movie for sentimental reasons. They enjoy seeing all the old familiar faces and pristine places. I can’t believe how fresh and clean Los Angeles looks. But it’s a curiously downbeat film in terms of its moral universe. These are people driven by greed, for the most part behaving very badly if not downright cruelly to each other. Even the cop, saintly Spencer Tracy, is corrupt. There’s an attempt made to leave us laughing but it’s forced. The men anyway have been left crippled and in Tracy’s case ruined. But they can still laugh at the old banana-peel gag.
*. I do think it looks good, and I think I might enjoy it more on the big screen. The stunts are impressive and the process shots match up really well. It got Academy Award nominations for editing, sound, and photography and on these counts I wouldn’t slight it. But a great movie? A funny movie? I’d stick with just calling it big.

The Predator (2018)

*. It was with feelings of shame and even horror that I realized, not far into The Predator, that I was this film’s target audience. I’d been to see the original Predator (twice!) in the theatres when it came out, and the reason finding myself targeted for this reboot/sequel was so bothering is that I don’t think the producers here were aiming so much at nostalgia as they were counting on the original audience (that is: me) not having grown up, at all, in the last thirty years.
*. I start off mentioning this because The Predator is a conscious throwback, even getting the iconic author (I’ll hold off on auteur) of ’80s action flicks Shane Black to direct as well as do the script this time. But was Shane Black ever any good? That’s a question this movie made me ponder.
*. Thirty years later, I have to say that almost none of it works. Is it too easy to say Black is still stuck in the ’80s? Yes, but I’m not sure that’s the problem. It’s just not a good screenplay.
*. There are a lot of jokes attempted but none of them are funny. There’s a shaky, rambling structure to the story, which may have come about due to the extensive recutting that was much reported on. Whatever the cause, whole characters (like the hero McKenna’s wife) are just left in the air. And finally the central premise, which has the Predators stealing human DNA in order to speed and direct their own evolution, is just plain stupid.
*. Here I have to make an angry digression. Specifically, it’s DNA with a predisposition for autism that the Predator wants to borrow. Now here’s something I said in my notes on The Darkness: “Hollywood needs to let autism go.” More precisely, Hollywood needs to stop presenting people with autism as superheroes, as they’ve taken to doing a lot lately (see, for example, what I had to say about The Accountant).
*. McKenna’s son Rory, you see, is somewhere on the autism spectrum. Not so much that you’d think there’s anything actually wrong with him, but just enough to make him the Smartest Human Being on the Planet, capable of understanding alien technology just by looking at it. In other words, he has Hollywood autism. This makes him a real prize in the DNA lottery. As the one scientist explains: “You know, a lot of experts say that being on the spectrum isn’t really a disorder, it’s actually the next step on the evolutionary chain.”
*. This is, as near as I have been able to figure out, total bullshit. About the best that can be said about it is that it’s so stupid it actually sparked a bit of public backlash. Could it be that the end is in sight for this particular bit of stereotyping? Fingers crossed.
*. Apparently the new and improved Predator, in addition to being even bigger than previous iterations, has an armoured exoskeleton underneath his skin. Which explain why bullets have no effect on him whatsoever. So what exactly is the plan at the end? Are they just going for head shots? Why then do they have such trouble hitting him in the head? Or is it just that only some head shots get through?
*. For the most part The Predator received very negative reviews. It is not, however, without some redeeming moments. There’s a really interesting bit at the end involving the force field on the Predator’s spaceship. But aside from this and maybe a couple of other scenes I found it incoherent and tired. At every step you can see what it’s trying to do and how it’s just not working. It’s like watching somebody try to throw a piece of garbage into a garbage can over and over and missing every time. You keep hoping it will eventually go in so that he’ll stop. But the closest he comes is a couple of bounces off the rim. It’s not exactly boring, but at the same time you don’t really care either way. That’s how I felt.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

*. Billy Wilder does Sherlock Holmes. Get ready for a letdown.
*. A very long prologue, the first 30 minutes, introduces us to Holmes, a man you’d figure would need no introduction. But this isn’t the way things were planned. Instead, the film was written, and indeed shot, as having a serial structure, composed of four separate episodes. It ran “not much short of 4 hours” according to editor Ernest Walter (I’ve also heard the rough cut was three hours and twenty minutes). A couple of the episodes, and a present-day prologue, were cut. Whatever else this did to the movie, it’s the sort of thing that plays havoc with a film’s sense of structure.
*. I said Holmes is a character in need of no introduction, but this is a Holmes that perhaps does. He is both repressed and depressed. Wilder saw the two as linked. He wanted to present Holmes as gay but closeted. Unable to declare his love for Watson he becomes an addict, something that Watson, not entirely admirably, enables.
*. This is fine, but because the love that dare not speak its name doesn’t speak its name we’re left in a kind of gray area. The whole gay idea is a labored gag in the first part of the movie, but then nothing much is done with it. Personally, I think it’s still pretty clear what Wilder intended, but it’s another example of something that feels like it’s missing from the film.

*. In any event, the problem with Holmes here isn’t his sexuality or emotional state but the disappointing fact that he’s not very bright. It’s essential for a good mystery to stay a step or two ahead of the audience. That’s not how things work here. Is there anybody who doesn’t figure Geneviève Page isn’t on the level from her first appearance? What makes her deception of Holmes even worse is the fact that, perhaps due to the matter of sexual orientation just discussed, he’s clearly not that into her. Then, upon our first hearing a mention of the Loch Ness monster doesn’t everyone immediately think of a submarine?
*. This is the thing that bothered Roger Ebert the most about the movie. In addition to finding it “disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication,” he thought it too obvious. “It takes Holmes about half an hour longer to solve the case than it takes us, and poor Watson never catches on.”
*. Wilder himself judged the film “not a success,” and I wouldn’t disagree with that. None of the parts add up. Part of that may be due to the way the original concept of a series of linked episodes was cut. Another contributing factor may have been the reluctance to do more with the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This latter point leads to a confusion in tone. At times The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes seems a very melancholy film, and at others it plays as almost slapstick.

*. Perhaps it would have been more successful if it had been less ambitious. It had a large budget, some huge production elements, and the massive running time of the rough cut suggests the desire to really do something big. Also there was some original thought given to casting Peter O’Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson (with Christopher Lee being a late replacement for George Sanders). Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are both capable actors, but neither was a star. This in itself needn’t have been a problem (and was apparently what Wilder wanted), but when Pauline Kael found Stephens lacking in “the star presence that Holmes requires” I think she really meant the star presence that a big movie required.
*. In all these ways The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes feels like a big movie cut down into a small movie, in more ways than one. I think it would have been better if it had started out small.
*. The elements were all here. A story involving spies, amnesiacs, midgets, canaries, and a mechanical Loch Ness monster should have been a lot of fun, especially with Wilder helming it. And I know a lot of people who rate it very highly. I don’t deny some occasional charm, and I find the end moving in an understated way, but overall I still think it’s a mess. Wilder gives us an interesting Sherlock Holmes, but his adventures are silly and second-rate stuff. You can’t blame the editing job for that either. I just don’t think this was ever going to be great.

TerrorVision (1986)

*. There seems to be a generational effect when it comes to nostalgia, relating to the amount of time it takes for something that was once cool and then passed out of fashion to come back again and be seen as camp, kitsch, cool, or even in a few exceptional cases classic. In the 2010s the 1980s enjoyed such a rediscovery.
*. Even in the 1980s, however, there was a sense of self-awareness about just how ridiculous the 1980s were. TerrorVision is evidence. If you were looking to send up that decade you could do a lot worse than just cutting and pasting this mess.
*. TerrorVision was an Empire International release, and qualifies as one of their less restrained efforts, which tells you something. Charles Band’s company was behind a lot of the sillier horror-comedies from this period, including titles like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Ghoulies. TerrorVision, however, really goes off the rails.
*. It’s less well known than those other movies I mentioned, and I think for good reason. It begins with a monster being put into a garbage disposal unit on the planet Pluton, from which it’s accidentally beamed to a satellite receiver on Earth. The monster then proceeds to egress from television screens, leading a lot of cheesy chaos.
*. If you thought scary things coming out of your TV set got started with Ringu then you didn’t live through the ’80s, which gave us this movie as well as Poltergeist, Videodrome, and Shocker. Where the idea first began I’m not sure, but I’d be willing to bet sometime in the 1950s. It was in the ’80s however, with the advent of VHS and satellite receivers, that people really started getting anxious about what was coming into their homes.

*. TerrorVision could have been, if not good, at least a lot better. There’s the family of stereotypes: a little boy who no one believes has seen a monster (while his parents just want to put him back on his meds), a New Wave daughter dating a metalhead boyfriend, a crazy grandpa, and swinger parents (with Mary Woronov reprising this role from Eating Raoul). And there’s a slimy dumpling of a monster that devours its victims by sort of melting them down into puddles of goo.
*. On the horror-comedy scale TerrorVision tilts heavily toward comedy, with most of the humour being very loud and broad. Today it’s hard to find anything funny in it at all. Indeed, it would be much funnier if they had played it straight. That’s part of the generational effect I mentioned.
*. But if TerrorVision tilts toward comedy it tilts even more toward incoherence. The thing about hysterical movies like this is that they have to maintain some sense of artistic control or else they just feel like they’re falling apart. TerrorVision feels like it’s falling apart. The main joke seems to be that TV is toxic garbage. It’s noteworthy that part of the architecture of Pluton includes a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise (which I noticed right away because I had that model hanging from my ceiling when I was a kid). The point being, I think, that Star Trek was just as much a piece of crap as the slimeball that Pluton beams to Earth. When the alien appears in a kind of PSA, begging us to turn off our TV sets or we’ll be devoured we understand the point he’s making. Look at what channel 69 did to the parents.
*. That is, however, a simple joke and it isn’t developed in an interesting way. In fact nothing about TerrorVision is interesting, or funny. When silliness is just silliness it starts to wear on us pretty quickly, and TerrorVision outstays its welcome by more than an hour. Even television in the ’80s wasn’t as bad as this. Honest!

Detour (1945)

*. Why is a movie as bad as Detour considered to be a classic? Not because it’s so bad it’s good, in a campy Plan 9 from Outer Space sort of way. Its shortcomings aren’t that entertaining. And I don’t think it scores points for being quick on its feet at just over an hour. In fact, on every occasion I’ve seen it again I’ve been disappointed at how slow it moves. So, to ask the question David Thomson asks (but doesn’t answer): “how is a film like Detour endurable?”
*. I think its durability and the high esteem in which its held (however reserved) is due mainly to its purity. There are many formal elements of noir in place, and they’re taken to an extreme. In the foreground is the weak male lead, Al Roberts (Tom Neal). Al isn’t just a wimp, he is the wimp. It’s there in the flaccid brow of his hat and his hangdog face and his constant harping on all the bad breaks in his life — breaks that he can’t even rouse himself enough to get mad about. Instead he just registers as peevish and petulant.
*. Roger Ebert: “Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He’s pleading his case, complaining that life hasn’t given him a fair break.” That sounds right to me.
*. Before moving on, I’ll interject a point here that Ebert and a lot of other critics I’ve read bring up, and which was apparently first raised by Andrew Britton. This is the idea that we need to call into question Al’s account. But why? Sure, we have no way of knowing if he’s telling us the truth. And I guess he has plenty of reasons to lie. But you could say the same for almost any first-person narrative. We can’t be sure if any voiceover, in any movie, is telling us the truth. What’s the point in doubting Al? “The world is full of skeptics,” Al tells us. Yes it is, but I don’t see where such speculation gets us.

*. Returning to what I’ve called the purity of Detour and its archetypal leads, we next have Vera (Ann Savage). She takes Al’s weakness and flips it to the opposite extreme. It’s hard to think of a femme more fatale. I will, however, pull up short of Danny Peary’s judgment on the pair. Yes, “Roberts is one of the screen’s all-time great losers,” but is Vera “quite possibly the most despicable female in movie history”? She’s bad, but shares the same sense of a fate controlling her destiny as Al. I think she knows that she’s a loser too. Only that knowledge has made her bitter where it’s led him to become resigned.
*. Adding to my list of pure noir elements is the dialogue. We expect some jaded poetry, tough talk, or snappy patter in a noir but as Peary points out the script here reads like a Bartlett’s of such gems. Again I would insist that these aren’t good lines, but they are somehow the essence of noir. Al’s description of a ten dollar bill as “a piece of paper crawling with germs,” or Vera as looking like she had been “thrown off the crumbiest freight train in the world.” The bickering over the cut Vera is going to take on the sale of the car. Vera mocking Al about getting caught and winding up “sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.” It’s practically all like this.
*. Fate is the final noir element that I’d add to the list. It’s Al’s fixation but as I’ve also said Vera is just as stuck on its workings. “Life’s like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you find it’s the ninth inning.” And it’s not just talk. The thing is, Al’s story is one of terrible coincidences and bad breaks, to the point where, like the characterization of Al and Vera and the cheesy dialogue, it comes to seem almost ridiculous.
*. Detour‘s reputation soon outgrew the film itself. I always believed the legend (repeated by everybody who wrote about it) that it had been shot in 6 days for $20,000. Actually it was shot in 18 or (in some reports) 28 days (which strikes me as rather a lot) and cost over $100,000 (going well over budget). Does that change how we view it? I think it does make it seem a less impressive achievement. Couldn’t Roger Corman have done as much with less? Given how much time and money Ulmer actually had to work with, what excuse is there for the film’s more slapdash qualities?
*. Maybe not. Maybe there’s something to the idea that Edgar G. Ulmer was the Orson Welles of Poverty Row. I’m not as impressed, though I do enjoy Detour quite a bit. But I think it’s more of a guilty pleasure, something to be enjoyed for its silliness. It’s not a movie whose craft I appreciate in any department, or one that carries much of a message. To just change the title a bit, I’d call it a diversion.

Quick Picks 2019

Welcome to my second annual awards show. In case you missed what happened in 2018, here are the rules. First I make a list of all the 2019 releases that I saw in 2019. This is a long, long way from being a representative sample of anything, with the titles being drawn mainly from the DVD Quick Picks shelf at my local library. As you will immediately notice, this sampling includes few if any of the usual suspects that get awards from presitgious critical bodies. They just happen to be movies I felt like watching on a given day, for whatever reason. From this list I then pick my own best and worst film of the year, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay.

Here is the list (I can’t really call them nominees):

Alita: Battle Angel
Annabelle Comes Home
Avengers: Endgame
Captive State
Child’s Play
Cold Pursuit
The Curse of La Llorona
The Dead Don’t Die
Domino
Escape Room
Glass
Happy Death Day 2U
The Haunting of Sharon Tate
Hellboy
It Chapter Two
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Ma
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Pet Sematary
Us

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Captive State (2019)

*. The aliens, who at least in their most common form are giant bipeds covered in spiky quills, have taken over. And it seems as though we have welcomed our new porcupine overlords. They keep the lights on and in return we apparently do some physical labour for them.
*. At least I think that’s the arrangement. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why they were keeping us around. They need us to dig up our natural resources for them? They don’t have machines to do that? Because we have machines to do that. In any event, I guess things are working out, at least for some people. Employment is high, crime is low, the trains and buses are running on time. They’ve taken away our Wi-Fi but that might be a net plus. There is also an increasing gap between rich and poor, but again I’m not sure why. Since the aliens are the government and the army, why do they need a human class system?
*. Obviously the aliens are just stripping Earth of mineral assets, and even though we’re not told what they’re endgame is it’s hard to feel optimistic about our eventual fate. The majority of people, however, are happy to go along with things. Meanwhile, a handful of rebels plot an uprising.
*. This may sound kind of vague, but Captive State seems to want to make a political point and I can’t figure out what it is. The set-up is very similar to a TV series that was just winding up at the same time called Colony. In the case of that show the alien government was meant to represent the Nazi occupation of France, and on the commentary track here writer-director Rupert Wyatt mentions this as well. But what’s the connection? Who are our Nazis? Who are our collaborators? The Deep State?
*. Then there’s this: If the aliens are Nazis why aren’t they more evil? Are people being worked to death in slave pits? Are humans being raised for food? What happens to prisoners sent “off planet”? We don’t know any of this. It’s possible — unlikely, but possible — that the “roaches” are wholly benevolent. So how can we get on board with heroes who are suicide-bombing terrorists? Whose motto (repeated in the movie) is “light a match, ignite a war”? If you want audiences to relate to these freedom fighters some idea has to be given as to what’s at stake, of why we should be on their side.
*. Put another way, an ostensibly political movie like this needs to be angrier. But I never got a sense of anger from Captive State. Perhaps because we don’t get to meet any true believers either. There’s the crowd of sheeple at Soldier Field singing a bastardized version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but we don’t know these people. Are they all suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? Do they just prefer order to chaos? Or here’s another question: Are elections still being held? The only real political authority belongs to the alien Legislators. The human leadership makes the claim that they stand for democracy vs. anarchy, but how is this a democracy?
*. Even when the Legislators call in Predator-like Hunters to take out the terrorist cell it’s only in response to a flagrant attack, and we don’t see any massive reprisals. Instead it’s the Stasi human police force who are the villains: brutal thugs wearing ski-masks and wielding batons on the ground and operating a vast surveillance state behind the scenes. Shouldn’t these be the guys Phoenix is targeting?
*. I can’t praise much about the film except its look. The burnt-out Chicago has a 1984ish rawness to it that works well with its low-budget vision of a low-tech future. Without digital communication people have apparently gone back to reading books and newspapers! (You see what I mean about a net plus?) The use of carrier pigeons is admittedly a bit extreme, but what really tipped me off the most about how changed a world this is (aside from the wall of bookshelves in Vera Farminga’s apartment) were all of the wristwatches. Remember them? I still wear one.
*. The confusion as to what is at stake, however, makes the movie feel slack. A. A. Dowd: “it’s not unreasonable to expect something like excitement out of a story about freedom fighters plotting to take back the planet. Captive State does not clear that fairly low bar.” In other words, it’s dull.
*. Dull and depressing. Again, we don’t know what Rafe’s fate will be when we see him along with a long line of others being sent off-planet but I figure it must be terrible. Perhaps worse than death. And while some scattered shots of an Earth Spring uprising playing over the end credits may be meant to give us some hope that a match has been lit, how can we believe humanity has a chance against a powerful force that is now so firmly entrenched? Nothing we’ve seen in the course of the movie gives us any grounds for feeling hopeful. I’m not making an appeal for a happy ending here, but again just wondering what the point of all this was.