The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

*. The Thomas Crown Affair is a weird movie. Weird, I think, when it came out, and perhaps even stranger now. I don’t think it’s very successful, and there are a lot of things I don’t like about it at all, but somehow it stays in your head.
*. Let’s start with the credits and the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Michel Legrand (the composer for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). “Windmills” was a big hit, won an Oscar for Best Song, and went on to be covered several times, including by Sting in the 1999 remake.
*. I hate it. I think it sounds drippy. Norman Jewison thought the lyrics captured something of Thomas Crown’s rootless character, but I found them so banal they could have been referring to anything. As for tone, what do the lyrics suggest? A heist picture? A romance? It’s hard to see the fit.

*. From the credits we move swiftly into the bank job, which is presented through the use of split screen. I’ve nothing against the use of split screen, but I don’t think it serves any purpose here. What the different gang members are doing isn’t important, interesting, or connected in any significant way. But Jewison had just seen the technique used in some experimental films at Montreal’s Expo so at a late date he worked it in. David Thomson thought it “tiresome” in 1968 and “inane and incredible now.” I just find it pointless.
*. Is this important? Well, the chief accusation against The Thomas Crown Affair is that it is an exercise in pure style. Or, as Jewison puts it, “a film of style over content.” The script, a James Bond fantasy by a Boston lawyer who had never written a screenplay before, was considered to be simple and largely expendable (leading to Roger Ebert’s verdict that it was “possibly the most under-plotted, underwritten, over-photographed film of the year”). Jewison only saw in the script a chance to play variations on a theme. The dialogue, for example, he found to be “just kind of dumb” but it was “something you could play with because it’s kind of unreal.”
*. In an experiment of style over substance (or content, or story) matters of style are important. And by style I mean more than the well-dressed, nay, sensationally dressed leads. As an exercise in filmmaking this was for the time state of the art, with delightful camerawork by Haskell Wexler and editing by Hal Ashby. It’s not flashy because that wasn’t the style in 1968. This isn’t an Ocean’s movie. But it is smooth and achieves the glossy but rich texture of a fashion mag (which is not a dig at fashion mags).

*. They tried different titles out but I think settled on the best. The affair is ambiguous, referring both to the case being built against Thomas and the romance between Thomas and Vicki. It is not a heist movie, and in fact has a curious structure in that regard. The climactic action takes place in the first act and the rest of the film is denouement. I think this was part of the problem Jewison recognized in there not being enough story in the script.
*. Is it as much a woman’s picture and fantasy as it is a lawyer’s dream of James Bond? Vicki is . . . what? Classy, self-assured, well turned-out. But surely not a hotshot international insurance investigator. She doesn’t even know what the word “arbitrage” means. She cracks the case because her instincts on seeing a photo of Crown tell her that he’s the one. She then takes out an ad in the newspaper offering a reward for information that leads to her kidnapping the son of the gang’s driver. With the assistance of the police. This really is a fantasy.
*. But to return to my question, just who is she? Instead of answering directly, when confronted with her professional infidelities by Eddy she responds “I know what I am” and defies his insinuated label. So I guess we know what she is.

*. Then again, who is Thomas Crown? A self-made man? The scion of some Boston old money? His character is a puzzle. He has all the money in the world but he’s bored. He wants excitement. So he fights the Man, the system. Presumably the same system that he has cynically manipulated all his professional life. It’s 1968, you see, and he’s no square. Norman Jewison was at the time a self-styled beatnik, while Steve McQueen fought to be in the film because it would let him wear a suit. That’s quite a ball of irony there: McQueen angling to play Cary Grant if Cary Grant were really Steve McQueen. Grant might have played polo and piloted a glider, but take breakfast on his rooftop without a shirt? Never.
*. Is Thomas a rebel? I have trouble with that. What he seems to be more like is one of today’s tech billionaires, cultivating the image of a rebel while all the while being just another arrogant CEO who feels that rules don’t apply to him. Slugging the cop struck me as crazy, that is until you realize that he probably thinks he can do anything and get away with it.
*. So they’re a dream couple. “It’s a love story between two shits is what it really is,” Jewison says on the commentary. Do they deserve each other? Does he deserve to get away? What exactly do they deserve? The ending is just another bit of fantasy. With or without the evidence of the telegram that Vicki seems to think she has destroyed (surely there will be a record of it), isn’t the fact that his driver arrives at the pick-up in Thomas’s car basically incrimination enough? Or is Thomas planning on jetting away someplace where there is no extradition treaty with the U.S.?

*. Then there’s the chess game. Apparently only two lines in the script that Jewison knew he would take two days to film. It plays off the dinner scene in Tom Jones and it’s all kind of silly and obvious and over the top, even by today’s standards. Nicki’s revelation of some side boob, and the way she fingers her bishop is more than just suggestive. But are they really into each other all that much? They seem more like a pair of narcissists sharing their fascination with themselves. Those matching close-ups make it seem as though they’re looking into mirrors.
*. Easy come, easy go. Thomas is on his jet off to . . . somewhere. Vicki has lost the only playboy of the western world but it was fun while it lasted. That torn-up telegram is an apt gesture, signaling the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. Hey, even the banks had insurance. But perhaps its fantasy texture, easy on the eyes and the head, is what has let it stick around. Everybody has a dream, and the dreams of The Thomas Crown Affair are pretty durable. Money, freedom, beautiful lovers, a beach.

Advertisements

Sleuth (2007)

*. It should have been good, if not great. Anthony Shaffer’s play has a timeless quality about it. Michael Caine and Jude Law are more than capable of holding their own. Harold Pinter did the script and Kenneth Branagh was behind the camera. So what went wrong?
*. To answer that I want to go back to what I said about Deathtrap. Instead of that “timeless quality” Sleuth had that I just mentioned, Deathtrap was very much a film of its time (the early ’80s). The same goes here, with Andrew Wyke’s country manor now being redone as an ultra-modernist dream home that we could never imagine anyone actually living in, complete with a full suite of CCTV cameras (that, curiously, play no part in the plot). Only ten years later it looks silly.
*. Another thing that’s been lost is any sense of Andrew being an author possessed by his genre. Olivier in the original was someone who had trouble separating detective fact from detective fiction, he’d become so steeped in the latter. In both Deathtrap and this film Caine is playing a hack who doesn’t seem that interested in whodunits, which makes his obsessive gamesmanship (in both films) harder to understand.
*. More than this, what’s missing (again, as in Deathtrap) is the sense of fun. In the first Sleuth movie both Andrew and Milo were people who loved playing the game, putting on performances, and besting their rival. Here they just like being mean to each other.
*. The Shaffer/Mankiewicz Sleuth had its dark moments, but was still a comedy. Deathtrap tried to be funny, and maybe it was in 1982, but the jokes haven’t aged. This Sleuth, however, doesn’t even seem to try for laughs. There’s a laboured bit of stale Pinter in the “I’m you, you’re me” scene but aside from that there’s no attempt at levity that I can discern.
*. The homosexual couple in Deathtrap was obviously not a match made in heaven, but it was at least believable and didn’t play to stereotypes. The seduction scene here is, to use the cliché, cringe-inducing. The final third of the film plays the gay angle as something sick, making the nastiness even more distasteful.
*. Distasteful and dull. I mentioned how surprised I was in my notes on the 1972 version that it was so long. This movie is nearly a full hour shorter but actually feels the opposite. The final act (or, in the tennis lingo they use, set) of the original game is disposed of so that the icky and ultimately very boring homosexual angle can be played out, which was more lively and sincere in the original for being left unstated. Here the only thing that happens is that Andrew pretends (or does he?) to fall in love with Milo, who plays along in kittenish fashion until he finally calls Andrew a poofter, which gets him shot. How interesting is any of that?
*. For what it may be worth (and I don’t think it’s worth much in this case) Caine says on the commentary that he thought Andrew only wanted a companion and not a sexual partner in Milo. Hm.I think the sexual angle is played up pretty obviously from the moment he makes his proposition.

*. A proposition, by the way, that Branagh found “touching.” An older man offering to buy a rent boy? I doubt Pinter thought there was anything touching to it.
*. That’s Pinter (interrogating Branagh) appearing in a cameo as the detective on the crime show Andrew is watching on TV. I wasn’t paying much attention and thought it was John Thaw’s Inspector Morse.
*. Branagh wanted to keep things interesting without leaving the confines of the postmodern box of a set he’d constructed, which leads to a lot of irritating camera work. None of it seems natural and it has the effect, I found, of depersonalizing the leads when what should have been driving the film is their personalities. I mean, we don’t even see their faces until about eight minutes in.
*. I’ve mentioned how unnatural the sets and camera work is and I’d say the same about the acting. The way Law in particular uses his body and bellows some of his lines seems very much geared toward playing to a live audience and not to the camera.
*. So Sleuth (1972) is still there, despite Pauline Kael’s saying that only two or three people were still interested in it ten years after it came out. Deathtrap has dated less well but still has some admirers. This movie, however, is already almost entirely forgotten. Which is, I think, probably for the best.

Deathtrap (1982)

*. In my notes on Sleuth, a film that Deathtrap derives at least in part from, I mentioned how the genre of the country estate murder mystery was both historically bound and for all time. As a result, it’s a play (and a film) that hasn’t dated.
*. Deathtrap is slightly less successful in this regard. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Deathtrap is not a great film and will not live forever.” I’d concur with both points, though it has managed to hang around longer than I think he might have suspected.
*. There are elements that stand out as dated. The theatrical poster, for example, has the cast popping out of a Rubik’s Cube. We’ll grant them a pass on that, however, as the same conceit was used on the poster for The Cabin in the Woods (2012), where I thought it was kind of witty. Things that haven’t aged as well include Clifford’s boots (which are, alas, mentioned in the script several time) and references to the Merv Griffin Show. I wonder how many people today even know who Merv Griffin was, despite all of his success in creating game shows. Along with most of the other wisecracks from the play, the references to Griffin’s show don’t even bring a smile.

*. Then there is the fact that the two leads — Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve — play a gay couple. This was pretty daring for 1982, and their on-screen kiss even more so (a kiss that isn’t in the play). It was also a big risk for Reeve, who was best (or really only) known as Superman up till then. And here he’s not only gay but a sociopath as well!
*. I wonder how much the gay subplot confused audiences at the time. I mean, it would be clear to most people that Sidney staged the murder of Clifford, but to what end? I think that’s a twist that might have surprised people in 1982, though it doesn’t now.
*. This brings me to the biggest difference between now and then. Today we’re used to complicated plots like this, and movies with several surprise twists. As a result, Deathtrap just doesn’t seem sophisticated or complicated enough. I think modern audiences have an easy time staying on top of it and there really aren’t any big surprises. Even the murder of Myra is no big shocker, being taken directly from Les Diaboliques. I was actually thinking she was going to be coming back at some point.
*. So is it still enjoyable? Not so much. For me, with every twist it became not only more improbable but far less interesting. More than that, however, is that nobody seems to be having any fun. Compare Olivier and Caine in Sleuth, where the two characters they play are obviously both enjoying themselves immensely as they put on a show for one another.
*. Pauline Kael: “What this comes down to is a broad, obvious movie that looks like an ugly play and appears to be a vile vision of life. . . . the actors don’t disgrace themselves. But their skill gives no one pleasure.” No one involved, and few people watching.

Sleuth (1972)

*. Sleuth is a classic two-hander, meaning a play with only two main characters. In fact, despite the necessary subterfuge here in the credits there are only ever the two characters on stage (or screen) period.
*. Being a filmed play already puts the movie into a bit of a box. Most filmed plays look like filmed plays. They are stuck with certain limitations put on them by their origins on stage. But in the case of Sleuth this is compounded by the fact that there are only the two parts and the action takes place on a single set with one scene break.
*. With all that said, I was surprised how little this movie made me think I was watching a play. Yes, we go outside on a couple of occasions, and move about different rooms, but I think what really opens things up is the use of all the closeups on the menagerie of automatons. By focusing so much on these smaller things, and the tiny dioramas of Andrew’s novels, it makes the rest of the film look bigger.
*. Another point in the film’s favour is its pacing. This is a long movie. Two hours and 18 minutes. Why? I’ve seen stage productions that ran well under two hours. Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth (admittedly a very free adaptation) came in at a tight 88 minutes. But it doesn’t seem like this version dawdles.
*. Still, I think it’s fair to ask why this movie is so long I’m not sure. There are some visual elements that are added, but they mostly take the form of quick cutaways. The main thing, I think, is that the film gives Olivier and Caine a lot of room to move about and use the physical space of the set. Which is, in turn, another way the film is made to feel bigger.

*. The two players get a lot of credit, and I think it’s mostly deserved. The first time I saw it I thought Olivier was hamming it up a bit much, but then I thought that Andrew is a ham. Indeed what I think makes the play so much fun is that both characters are: they love putting on a show. Milo, however, realizes that a show is all it is. Andrew has gone over to the other side and it’s all he has. Writers lead lonely lives. And chances are he’s in the closet too.
*. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in pointing out Andrew’s attraction to Milo. It’s there in the play, as he hates Milo for his very attractiveness and then is drawn to him as “my sort of person.” That is, they are both performers and both love playing games. Indeed they are almost (in Andrew’s eyes) soul mates. It’s cut from the film, but in the play he even calls out to Milo as he leaves to get Marguerite’s coat: “Don’t go. Don’t waste it all on Marguerite. She doesn’t appreciate you like I do.”
*. The movie doesn’t play this angle up (I mentioned how that line has been cut), but it’s still there in Olivier’s performance (and will be made explicit in Deathtrap and the 2007 Sleuth). Andrew is a dandy, and his movements are at times effeminate, especially as he almost dances with himself to his show tunes. Most noticeable of all, however, is that admiring glance he gives Milo as he forces him to strip to his “smalls.” It’s hard to mistake that. Is Andrew really impotent then? Or is it just a matter of orientation? Is he in denial? Each man kills the thing he loves.

*. Shaffer’s play was first produced in 1970, so this film is nearly contemporary. But already inflation has set in. The £90,000 Milo was going to get for selling the necklace has almost doubled to £170,000 (in 2007, if you’re keeping score, it will become £800,000). I wonder how much of that is due not to real inflation in the broader economy but rather to the inflation of making a movie vs. putting on a play.
*. There are a couple of other minor changes that have been made. Milo’s Jewish grandmother is quietly elided. They could get away with calling him a wop but that’s as far as they’d go. He also runs a hairdressing salon now instead of a travel agency. That makes his skill at disguise easier to credit and I guess makes him more of a ladies man, perhaps someone a bit like George Roundy in Shampoo.
*. English country-house murder stories enjoyed a golden age and today seem very much a product of their time, but they also have an eternal appeal. I think the film draws on this, while cutting almost all of Anthony Shaffer’s more direct, classist critique of the genre (“It’s a world of coldness and class hatred” being another line that’s dropped from the script). As a result, it feels a little safer, a point I feel is underlined by the change in the play’s final line. Yes, it’s all been a bloody game. But don’t we think Andrew will have a good lawyer? That he’ll be able to come up with a new narrative? It’s not game, set and match. He’s still playing.

Quiz the fifty-ninth: Did you get his plates? (Part one)

Years ago I was advised to never get vanity license plates. This was because, if I ever did something wrong, it would make my plates easy to remember. I never had to put that to the test. Still, looking at the line-up of pictures for this week’s quiz I was reminded of how a clever or distinctive license plate can stick in your head. See how many of these you can recall.

Continue reading

Atomic Blonde (2017)

*. I wasn’t paying much attention when I decided to take a chance on this one. Directed by David Leitch. The name didn’t ring a bell, but then the DVD box says that he directed (co-directed, actually) John Wick. Oh, shit.
*. I don’t mean to knock Leitch. He got his start, I believe, as a stunt man and he’s certainly capable of doing a great fight scene. But I didn’t like John Wick (though I did like the sequel, not directed by Leitch) so I didn’t have much hope for this one.
*. It should have been much better. I’d rather watch Charlize Theron for a couple of hours over Keanu Reeves for any amount of time. The action scenes are almost exclusively martial arts and fisticuffs instead of first-person-shooter video game nonsense. But aside from that . . .
*. Well, the fights are good. Theron makes good use of a power cord in one, and then there’s a prolonged tussel in a stairwell and adjacent apartments that’s wonderfully done up to make it look like it’s all a single take (which it isn’t). But, um, aside from that . . .
*. I can think of few other action films where I cared less about the plot. I mean I cared so little I didn’t even bother trying to follow what was going on. There’s a twist at the end that meant nothing to me. These twists only work, I think we can lay it down as a rule, when you actually care what’s going on before the twist.
*. It’s apparently based on a graphic novel that I haven’t read. As far as I can tell, Leitch didn’t really care much about this side of things either. On the DVD commentary he remarks how the music was meant to drive the movie right from the start. So again we’re watching a video game, maybe one of those Grand Theft Auto ones with the retro soundtrack turning it into a violent jukebox.

*. I guess I should like the music more, since it’s what I grew up with, but it’s all remixes and I didn’t see how much of it had anything to do with what was going on. I laughed the first time I heard Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and rolled my eyes the second time.
*. Nice seeing Stalker on the big screen, but was that really what East German audiences were watching at the multiplex in the ’80s?
*. Yes, Theron as the lethal lady in lingerie, and with a (clichéd) lesbian sex scene to boot, is a plus. But was she even trying to act? She hardly shows any emotion at all the entire movie. Keanu Reeves might have done that.
*. For Leitch the directive was that “cool overrides everything.” Given the basic grammar of this type of movie, isn’t that more like a default setting? Wouldn’t it have been more of a challenge to have injected a note of almost anything other than cool into the proceedings?
*. Was there really any point to the framing device of the debriefing? The story certainly didn’t seem complex enough to warrant it, and I don’t see how it made any difference.
*. I’m a little surprised at the decent reviews this one got. Theron got a lot of praise, but I thought she was basically a robot and anybody could have played the part as well. Other than that, this is a movie with a couple of really good fight scenes and nothing else.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

*. I had a moment of misgiving just before I started in on John Wick: Chapter 2. Not because I didn’t like John Wick (I didn’t), but because I’d pretty much forgotten what that film had been about. Was I going to be able to follow the sequel?
*. There was no reason to fear. Chapter 2 begins with John (Keanu Reeves) messily tidying up loose ends from the previous film and it didn’t matter (at least to me) that I had no memory of what those loose ends were. It was all just carnage.
*. So the story here is that John thought he was out of the game but he gets roped back in by way of some arcane oath of the assassins’ guild that he’s a member of. He performs a high profile hit in Rome but soon realizes he’s been double crossed and that there’s an open contract on his head. I think that covers it.

*. Given how little I thought of the first movie, my expectations were low going in. I’m happy to say however that those expectations were surpassed and that I actually liked Chapter 2. Sure it’s dumb, but it’s a lot more fun than the previous film. Here are some improvements.
*. (1) It’s less of a video game and more of a comic book. What I mean by this, primarily, is that there’s more of a fantasy superhero storyline to follow and less first-person shooter fight scenes (though it has those as well). And the storyline was even a bit interesting. Certainly more so than the first movie, whose plot I had, as I’ve said, totally forgotten.
*. (2) There’s more humour. I mentioned in my notes on John Wick how they hadn’t exploited Keanu Reeves’ constipated delivery and natural comic ability to deadpan everything. Think Christian Bale with a saving hint of irony. Well, they get more out of that here. “The blade is in your aorta” is almost laugh-out-loud good (I mean, how does he even know?), but most of the best lines (not the ones written for the trailer) bring quiet smiles. Look at the expression on John’s face when Franco Nero asks him is he has come to Rome for the Pope. Damn, Keanu Reeves is actually good in this movie. I’m as surprised as you.
*. (3) We get some nice scenery. Mostly Rome (which, according to producer Basil Iwanyk in one of the “making of” featurettes, “has been around for a thousand years”) and New York (or Montreal standing in for New York). They also pick some nice settings for the fight sequences. I liked the dramatically lit catacombs and the rolling down the steps and the struggle on the subway car. OK, the hall of mirrors is old, but it looks terrific here tricked out to look all bright and shiny like a pinball game. You can’t go wrong with the classics.

*. Because it’s a comic book it’s all a fantasy, so you don’t even mind the way John keeps shooting up cities without any sign of law enforcement. Nor does the general public seem all that impressed at what’s going on. It’s almost like John and the assassins exist in some kind of parallel reality next door to our own, what I think director Chad Stahelski means when he talks about the “Wick World” on the commentary. The assassins walk (and fight, and shoot) among us, but we can’t see them.

*. In addition to all the great locations from the action sequences I have to acknowledge how much I enjoyed the assassin switchboard. I think it was the way all the ’50s-style operators are covered in tattoos. Tats are big in Wick World.
*. So John has a bad-ass dog but he doesn’t bother giving it a name and we never see it doing anything. Perhaps in the next film. Otherwise I’m not sure what he’s there for.

*. Ruby Rose looks tough, but she doesn’t get much of a final fight with John does she? On the other hand, since we never actually see her die she might be back for the sequel. I’m assuming Cassian (Common) will have that knife out of his aorta by then too.
*. Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King seems to be settling into his role as Wise Black Man now. Which is almost a shame. But then, Ian McShane is just as typecast these days.
*. Yes, it’s all brainless noise. But in a market crowded with brainless noise it’s better than most. The end here even left me looking forward to the next instalment. It’s John against everyone now, and do you doubt he will prevail? To adapt Archimedes: just give him enough bullets and he could depopulate the world.

The Forbidden Room (2015)

*. The Forbidden Room has no linear narrative. Instead it has a nesting structure, what Hillary Weston in her essay included with the DVD liner notes likens to a set of Russian dolls. The stories within stories form a series of echoing rings around each other, and we start on the outside and work our way in.
*. The structure fits the theme, which (at least in my reading of it) is all about digging into ever deeper layers of the unconscious. We begin in the depths, on board a submarine, and from there go even deeper. This spelunking may be presented in physical terms: entering a cave, for example, or “going deep, going deeper, deeper still” into the skull of a man with a sexual fetish that surgery is seeking to correct.

*. What this is all meant to represent, again in my opinion, is psychosexual mining. The forester enters the pink cavern to look for his kidnapped love, the volcano bubbles over with hot flowing magma, the submarine, the psychologist’s cigar . . . that sort of thing. I don’t think there’s any section of the film that doesn’t make use of this motif. The captain’s mother’s room on the submarine must be a womb, wherein is found a naked woman covered in pink gel. And the shot of the train entering “within a broken pelvis” (on the x-ray) is an entry into just another forbidden room stacked with the mess of memory and desire.
*. Even the way the film moves, with its repetition of going in and pulling out, is sexual. And all that heavy breathing, which is pushing air in and out, complements the pervy action perfectly.
*. Now noting that the structure fits the theme is one thing. But as themes go it’s kind of vague and, as I began by saying, there’s no story to carry it. Personally, I think some of the signals get mixed. For starters, the point of the movie was to recover a bunch of unfinished or lost films from the silent era. Since this has always been a big part of Guy Maddin’s thing as a director it should have been a perfect fit. And it is, if what you want is a creative reimagining of the films of that era.
*. It doesn’t look anything at all like a silent film though. It’s a completely different aesthetic. The rapid editing, jerky camera, weird angles, and constant layering and superimposition of images seems more like Oliver Stone’s JFK than anything from the silent era.

*. What a weird commentary with co-directors Maddin and Evan Johnson. I wonder if they really take all that stuff about appropriating voice, mansplaining, and the male gaze seriously. It was like listening to Jordan Peele’s commentary on Get Out and wondering how many times he would say “woke.”
*. I did like the suggestion they made that they were remaking Inception. I’m sure that was a joke, but there’s enough of a hook there for it to be funny.
*. Just like Inception, or any such framed narrative, when you get all the way in you realize the structure of the film has turned inside out and you’re back on the outside being drawn in again. At least that’s the feeling I had. It’s not a movie I wanted to re-watch right away, but I have gone back to it a couple of times and I’m sure I will again. It’s that rich, in ways both premeditated and accidental.
*. Well, I know a lot of people don’t care for this kind of filmmaking but I really enjoy it and I had a great time with The Forbidden Room. I thought it was clever, funny, intriguing, silly, and even beautiful at times. I don’t think it adds up to anything more than a filmmaker’s sketchbook, but where else are you going to find movies of this unique a texture?