Laura (1944)

*. The mystery of Laura Hunt. I like that family name, both mundane and thematically suggestive of what’s to come. But her name’s not the point. When I say mystery I’m referring to the popularly held notion of the character being an unattainable woman of mystery and glamour.
*. This was not the original of Laura, meaning the character created by Vera Caspary in her 1943 novel (which was, in turn, adapted from a play she’d written). Caspary’s Laura was a “bachelor girl” and career woman — someone not unlike Caspary herself. Working for a New York ad agency, she’s Peggy Olson twenty years before that character took on Madison Ave. Certainly ahead of her time, but mysterious?
*. No. In the book she’s a kind person (the word most often used to describe her is “generous”), and despite being a professional she has a romantic streak that gets her into what she later realizes is trouble. Caspary would later describe her, I think critically, as an “independent girl who earned her living and pampered her lovers.”
*. But like any good proto-Cosmo girl Laura sees someone like Waldo Lydecker, who she has some genuine affection for, mainly as a resource to be mined. Not quite a sugar daddy maybe, but pretty close to it. Though they also work well as a team. In one analysis she’s his beard, while he runs interference for her, protecting her from worthless suitors. But it was a good decision to cut the scene (included with the DVD) where Waldo talks about how he made her. That doesn’t ring quite true. I don’t think Lydecker actually understands her at all.
*. For Danny Peary, Laura and Waldo make “the best couple imaginable” in the film, meaning not so much that they’re made for each other as that the alternatives (for her) are so much worse. I think Molly Haskell means something similar when she called them “a dazzling team.”
*. I have to confess I don’t understand what Laura sees in Shelby at all. Neither did Daryl Zanuck, who had a lot of problems with the film at pretty much every stage of its production. Shelby’s just not in Laura’s league. But I don’t think McPherson offers much better. Surely she’ll grow tired of him in a couple of weeks.

*. But in the movie much of the information we need to judge these matters is lost or transformed. Part of the problem is that the book had a sort of collage narrative switching from different points of view (the model was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins). In the movie we only hear Lydecker’s voice as narrative, though the second half of the movie is usually seen as being “told” from McPherson’s point of view (and for which he was originally meant to provide voiceover). Laura herself becomes a kind of blank, not unlike her famous portrait. A portrait you can fall in love with, though without knowing what you’re falling for.
*. Another change from the book is the character of Lydecker. In the novel he’s “a big hunk of blubber” whose “fat flesh shook like cafeteria jello.” He also wears glasses all the time. This reminded me of the character of Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, who is also a fat, bespectacled man-boy. Certainly not Anthony Perkins any more than Caspary’s Lydecker is Clifton Webb. Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with fat people other than use them as comic figures.
*. As a side note, Laird Cregar was considered for the part. He’d actually played a similar obsessive in I Wake Up Screaming and I think he would have been great here. But apparently Preminger thought it was too much typecasting after Cregar’s turn in The Lodger, and that his appearance would tip the audience off right away as to Lydecker being the villain.
*. Making Lydecker trim (Webb thought he looked like Gandhi when sitting in the tub), doesn’t help much in understanding his attraction to Laura. Roger Ebert describes Waldo as “a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual.” I’m not so sure of that. Though Webb was in fact gay I don’t find his performance here as camp as many people do. Instead he just seems like an intellectual shit. The character he most reminds me of is Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Meanwhile, Caspary imagined him as impotent, a point symbolized by his gun being improbably concealed in his cane.
*. Building on this latter point, Haskell took Waldo as the “perfect example” of the figure of the “sexually unthreatening male.” Yes and no. If anything, I’d say Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter seems the gay, unthreatening one. Apparently, however, he is just meant to be dissolute. But in neither case does sexuality seem to be in play. Lydecker wants to possess Laura sort of like an art object (much as the next character Webb would play, Cathcart in The Dark Corner, would collect his wife Mira). Carpenter only wants her money, and is perfectly content to drop her for a sugar mommy of his own at the end (Judith Anderson).

*. This leaves us with McPherson as the last man standing, and if you’re picking up some romantic vibes coming off of Dana Andrews here then you’re more sensitive to these things than I am. He seems one of the least engaged (emotionally or intellectually) lovers I’ve ever seen. And is Laura really that interested in him? It’s hard to tell, though whether this is more the fault of the script or the performances is hard to say. Manny Farber described Laura as being “acted by Gene Tierney with no other qualities than there are in a fashion mannequin,” and dismissed Andrews’ McPherson as merely “wooden.” Ebert thought the two leads “cardboard”: Tierney “never seems emotionally involved” and Andrews is a portrait in indifference.
*. Yes, on the surface. And perhaps the surface is all we’re supposed to care about. But I think maybe they’re both playing the angles. I don’t agree with David Thomson’s thought that the film presents “a profound, nearly surreal romance in which desire is seen as more potent than any realization.” Unless. that is, you go on to explain desire for what?
*. It’s a movie that’s much loved (Pauline Kael: “Everybody’s favorite chic murder mystery”), probably more for its oddness than for any feeling we have for the characters. The median split, with McPherson falling asleep beneath Laura’s portrait is sometimes seen as opening the door for interpreting the rest of the film by way of dream analysis, which isn’t strictly justified but does go some way to explain the film’s swerve into ever greater weirdness. And if you consider the absurdity of the initial premise (because the victim was wearing Laura’s clothes and her face has been shot off she is misidentified as Laura?), that’s pretty weird.
*. To take just one example, McPherson doesn’t seem like much of a cop, does he? As Ebert observes, he never even goes to the station (though that depends on where you think he interrogates Laura). To which we might add he never seems to work much with other cops, preferring to let Lydecker follow him around. Is he already playing Lydecker, suspecting something is up? Is there any attraction between them? Critics have looked at that opening bathtub scene and raised their eyebrows. Is a game of seduction going on? And why does he leave the murder weapon at Laura’s place, saying he’ll pick it up in the morning? He can’t be using it as bait to catch Lydecker because Waldo has already stolen a march on him.

*. Not everybody likes it. Manny Farber concluded his contemporary review saying “it is hard to find anything good in Laura, or simply anything.” What he mainly objected to, I think, is the film’s emphasis on superficiality at the expense of moral significance. Even the film’s champions will go along with some of this. Laura is a clever and stylish picture certainly, but it’s also kind of silly and has a maddening (or mysterious) vagueness about it. The question I keep coming back to is whether that’s the point: that this is all there is to Laura and Mark.
*. It’s a movie full of memorable bits. From the opening line “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” through David Raksin’s Laura theme, the iconic portrait (actually a photograph of Tierney that was painted over), the opening scene with Lydecker in the tub and McPherson taking his measure, the unobtrusive way the clock keeps working its way into the frame, the justly celebrated turn in the middle of the picture with McPherson creepily going through Laura’s personal items before falling asleep beneath her portrait, and finally Lydecker’s hunting of Laura while his own voice, pre-recorded to play on a radio show, talks about love in the background. There aren’t a lot of movies that give you as many moments as this.
*. As observers have often pointed out, it’s a mystery without a mystery (since we don’t really care about poor Diane Redfern). It’s also a romance without any romance, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. It’s usually classified as a film noir, but the connection seems shaky there too. In the BFI 100 Film Noirs volume, for example, Jim Hillier admits it is “not a particularly typical film noir” (but then, what is?). In terms of its narrative it seems almost like a fragment: a story that the audiences comes in late for, and which ends before everything is wrapped up. That’s not a fault, but just another point that adds to its obscurity and appeal.

Gringo (2018)

*. I began my notes on 2 Days in the Valley (1996) by talking about the immediate impact Pulp Fiction had and the clones it gave rise to.
*. 2 Days in the Valley also featured the debut of Charlize Theron in a leading role. What’s remarkable is that over twenty years later she’d be back in a movie demonstrating just how long the reach of Tarantino’s masterpiece has been.
*. I don’t want to lean on this too heavily, but you feel Tarantino’s continuing influence throughout Gringo. For example, with the gangster story whose several different threads dissolve into a violent comedy of errors, and the passages of inane argument that come out of nowhere (like what the best Beatles album was, or whether Peter was really a better man than Judas). I see the script anyway as being very much in the early Tarantino vein.
*. I did not, however, care for the script very much. Most of the characters are stupid and they do stupid things. Other characters are introduced who have no role to serve. Did it matter that Harold was married and his wife was cheating on him with his boss? Did we need the drug mule sub-plot at all? I didn’t see the point in any of this.
*. The direction is also flat. It’s the first film by Nash Edgerton, brother of Joel, who plays one of the leads. The best I can say for it is that it’s competent.
*. This is all too bad, as there’s a good performance by David Oyelowo wasted here. Meanwhile, Theron’s role is frankly embarassing. I can only hope she got paid a lot.
*. With movies like this they’re basically just hoping that your desire to see how all the complications in the plot are resolved will be enough to keep a pilot light of interest on. For me it didn’t. I had the sense the story was going nowhere. That said, the ending did surprise me. Just not in a good way.
*. We wind up with a montage showing us what’s happened to all the characters. But the point of the film, or at least its theme, seems to have been that while terrible things happen to good people, in the end everything works out. But then we do not see just desserts being served. For example, why is Sharlto Copley’s ex-spec ops humanitarian one of the only characters to get killed? (I won’t bother asking how he survives being hit by a car in the first place only to be shot later.)
*. I suppose we can write that one off to irony, but then why does Elaine (Theron) get away with everything? She’s just as big a corporate crook as her partner Richard, and just as heartless. Is it because she’s a woman and has to put up with a lot of guys hitting on her? But this makes no sense because she uses sex, very crudely, to get ahead. It seems an odd political and moral message.
*. This may be irony as well, deliberately reversing our expectations, but things get even stranger. I have to admit, I was expecting Harry to disappear off to Haiti so he could continue Copley’s work there. If I understand what’s going on, it’s Copley’s money he’s taking. But instead we see he’s become just another rich guy running a touristy bar down in Mexico. Does he still believe in God? Or Mammon?

The Truman Show (1998)

*. In hindsight we might call 1998 the Year of the Simulacrum. The two big films that are most often paired are Dark City and The Matrix, but The Truman Show is very much a work in the same vein, playing especially close to Dark City. When Truman punches a hole in the horizon, with only a mysterious void beyond, it’s a near equivalent moment to John Hurt’s breach of the wall at the end of Alex Proyas’s film.
*. It might have been even closer in spirit to Dark City if the original concept had been filmed, which was more of a suspense thriller set in an ersatz Manhattan. But things went in a slightly different direction, leading to a (somewhat) sunnier vision of a man trapped in a fake reality.
*. Of course Seahaven is a much sunnier place than the dark city of Dark City (though they both seem to represent a strange amalgam of 1940s America). It never rains in Seahaven (except for very local cloudbursts) just as the sun never rises on the dark city. But The Truman Show is a sunnier film in other ways as well. The ending, with the viewers cheering (ourselves included, since the viewers on screen are just there to play a laugh track-like role), appears to have only a minor irony attached to it, as the television audience realize the show is finally over and they can change the channel. Truman has demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit. Now on to the next station.
*. The sunshine also means that it has to hold back from killing Truman at the end. Christof seems willing, but the executives all around him plead for Truman’s life. “We can’t let him die in front of a live audience,” they insist. Compare the studio suits in Network, who have no hesitation in killing Howard Beale for ratings, or Robert De Niro’s Conrad Brean (a showrunner not unlike Christof) who can casually order the execution of Stanley Motss. Wag the Dog being another simulacrum movie that came out just the year before. This sort of thing was all the rage in the late ’90s.

*. Is Christof an artist? He does wear a beret. Or is he just interested in ratings and keeping the cash cow that is Truman going? He also has wire-rimmed glasses. Apparently Ed Harris was given a lot of back story to help him understand the character better, but he remains a mystery to me. Perhaps he’s less the creator of Truman’s world than someone who has been swallowed up by it himself. When he insists that its ideal environment is in fact normal we sense that something is very wrong.
*. The idea that this is really The Christof Show also fits with the way it is presented as a narcissistic fantasy. The whole world really does revolve around Truman, even if he doesn’t know it. Within such an environment he can remain a man child forever. Indeed if he were to grow up or show signs of maturity he would have to leave Neverland.
*. Was it a film ahead of its time? Anthony Lane was one critic who couldn’t understand why billions of people would watch Truman, but hasn’t that question been answered now? Millions of us watch people online play video games and open boxes of toys, so.
*. Whatever happened to Jim Carrey? At the time of this movie he was one of the biggest stars in the world, but for the last fifteen years he seems to have done nothing but crap. Talk about a disappearing act.

*. Carrey was widely praised, but I felt the role could have been so much more. There’s really only the one scene where he has much of a chance to show anything, and it’s the wonderful one where he finally confronts his wife as she tries to jam in some more product placement. I wish there were more scenes like that. But even at the end he seems to have retreated behind the plastic smile again. Which may be meaningful and sad — that part of Truman Burbank, even if he knows it’s fake, is all he knows — but it’s frustrating as well.
*. I still like The Truman Show and I think it’s aged reasonably well, if not as well as the other Simulacrum movies I’ve mentioned in these notes. Perhaps it just needed more cynicism or irony. There were a number of interesting directions it could have gone in — like, for example, a reflection on Plato’s parable of the cave. Might Truman have been happier staying in Seahaven, even knowing the truth? Wouldn’t the audience turn against him for breaking the fourth wall? Instead there’s little development of any of the issues raised, like authenticity vs. reality, or public vs. private life. These are points that the film raises, but, at least to my eyes, fails to address.
*. Instead I remember it mainly for its imagery and few effective moments. The idyllic town. The warnings that seem torn from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The extras as automated as the robots in Westworld. The ship’s bow puncturing the skyline like a Guy Billout cartoon. Of course it all looks terribly fake, and maybe that was a missed call. When fakery finally took over it wasn’t so obvious.

Wag the Dog (1997)

*. This was a timely film in 1997, being released just a year before the Monica Lewinsky story broke. That said, I don’t think it’s really a political movie and I don’t think the creators had Clinton in mind.
*. Instead, I think other developments the next year help place it in its proper context. What I’m talking about is what I’ve called the Year of the Simulacrum, meaning the year of Dark City, The Truman Show, and The Matrix. These are all movies about the creation of a totally fake reality that is in effect more real than the real world.
*. So even more than jumping the gun with the Lewinsky affair, Wag the Dog anticipates a change in the zeitgeist, away from what Karl Rove famously dismissed as “the reality-based community.” Under the new media dispensation those with power — TV producers, politicians, ailens — create their own reality, leaving the rest of us to only comment on it.
*. Why did this idea take hold so firmly at this point in time? Maybe it had something to do with the way the Internet was knocking on the door. Let’s face it, as bad as things are presented in Wag the Dog they were about to get much worse. On the commentary track Dustin Hoffman says that the drive behind the film was Barry Levinson’s hatred of television, and Levinson adverts to this in his commentary as well. When people complain about being too cynical with regard to TV he counters that “it has played perhaps the biggest role in the second half of the twentieth century. I don’t think there’s anything that’s come along that has affected our lives as much as television.” This is a notion that a few years later would come to seem quaint.
*. To take just one example, the sophisticated editing done in studio to create the video of the girl with the cat can be achieved today by one guy doodling on a tablet with some off-the-rack software, and then be posted online as a “deep fake.” And today we’re still only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

*. I’m dwelling on the question of how prescient a movie this is because that seems like its main point of interest today. But personally, what I find most compelling is the tragic collapse of Hoffman’s Motss. There’s no situation he hasn’t handled before (“this is nothing!”), but he is ultimately undone by his producer’s ego. Isn’t that the essence of classical tragedy? This campaign is his show, and he wants to be respected, or at least acknowledged as a real artist. He’s tired of just being the puppetmaster and man behind the scenes. He doesn’t need an award, or money, but he does need someone to pay attention. This is what an artist needs more than anything. The threat of anonymity is what breaks him.
*. It’s a tight script all the way through, though it strikes me as being a two-man show. There’s a great collection of talent, but I think Andrea Martin only shows up for a minute or two and Denis Leary only has the one good line. William H. Macy and Woody Harrelson are both very good but in very limited parts. Anne Heche is also good but her character remains passive throughout and she disappears completely at the end.
*. As for the two leads, I don’t get the sense that they’re working hard but they are effective. De Niro might be reprising his role as Mr. Louis Cyphre, only gentler around the edges. Hoffman was apparently channeling his father.
*. And yet despite being so well turned out this remains a minor film, without the fierce impact of Network say (which had been twenty years earlier). This is the downside of being ahead of the curve, as the curve always ends up being even sharper than you think. For all its cynicism and darkness, the satire here plays in a genial key. The reality, I think most of us feel, is, if not quite so strange, very much worse.

The Forest (2016)

*. The Forest is a horror movie set in Japan’s infamous suicide forest: the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji where people often go to kill themselves. I thought it looked like Oregon. The forest you see in screen was in fact in Serbia. According to director Jason Zada’s commentary it was “a dead ringer for the actual forest in Japan.” So I guess forests look pretty much the same everywhere.
*. Horror movies are mostly the same everywhere as well. At least forests are about as archetypal a setting for a scary story as you can get. Followed closely by basements and attics.
*. I was contemplating things like this because I wasn’t that interested in the plot of The Forest. It feels like an American version of a J-horror flick, making use of a lot of the same tropes but not having the same resonance. There are lots of odds and ends borrowed from various other movies (demonic Japanese schoolgirls, a cabin in the woods) but they seem thrown together carelessly, in a way that I found ultimately defeated coherence.
*. The basic set-up is . . . pretty basic. Sara’s sister Jess (Natalie Dormer in a dual role) has gone missing in the forest so Sara goes looking for her. Apparently the forest is also a haunted place, filled with ghosts that have come back angry. Sort of like the animals buried out at the Pet Sematary. In any event, Sara is warned not to go off the path and not to stay in the forest overnight. Of course she disregards this advice and begins having hallucinations of ghosts, which she has also been warned about.
*. This is where the movie lost me. Sara is so messed up even before she gets to the forest that it muddles the question of what is real even further. Is she hallucinating? Just having a bad dream? Or do the ghosts have an objective reality? The answer seems to be, at different times, all of the above. As we get deeper into the woods I started wondering how all of this was going to be resolved. Well, spoiler alert, it isn’t. Fooled me!
*. I initially thought Sara had some kind of repressed memory thing going on, but according to Zada she’s just an unreliable narrator telling Aiden a made-up story about her parents’ death. But why? This sort of thing kept popping up in the film, confusing me and not in a good way.
*. The ending is another mystery. Zada talks about Sara committing suicide by slitting her wrist, but when she does this it’s clearly an accident. If the yurei (ghosts) trick her into killing herself, that’s not suicide. Also it makes us wonder whether she actually died in the basement (if there really was a basement) or was dragged to hell out in the forest. I don’t see how it’s possible to sort any of this out.
*. So I didn’t like it. I think they were trying to be more psychological than gory, but what they got was a mess. So much effort is put into making us suspicious of Aiden that his character is left a cipher. How did he know that poem? Where does he go to get that rope? Meanwhile, Sara behaves so randomly that we can’t relate to her or her predicament. I also think Dormer makes a poor Scream Queen. Listen to how she delivers her line “Daddy no, let me go.” She sounds like someone who just wants to get out of this movie.
*. I’ll end with an appreciation of a couple of things. The river that reverses course is a neat idea and nicely played. And the ViewFinder of memory is well done, at least until the predictable jump scare at the end. Together, however, these two items take up less than a minute of screen time, which leaves us with a lot of time left over to just look at the trees.

Your Face (1987)

*. Is there any point digging deeper here? To look beyond the surface of things? Your Face is a short animated piece, an early example of what would become Bill Plympton’s signature style. A man croons of his lover’s face while his own face twists and bloodlessly deconstructs in various ways, the warping and the contortions providing a perfect visual counterpart to the vocals (“Your face is like a song”). It’s being sung by Maureen McElheron but then slowed by a 1/3 to give it a sense of wax melting as well as a more masculine cast.
*. So sound and image are drawn together in a hand-drawn choreographed dance. It’s inventive, funny, and at times even knowing, as when the face goes through metamorphoses hinting at various periods in the development of modern art. But then the face is swallowed by what seems to be the ground, with a loud gulp and a slurp of the lips during the end credits. As if to say there was really nothing to this but an exercise in bringing to life a sketch pad of studies of the human phiz. An accomplished diversion. So accomplished it would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award.
*. Is there a message to it though? I can read one into it. I think it’s having fun with how ridiculous we make ourselves in chasing after love. Like birds doing a dance or some other form of courtship ritual we sing a song or flutter our plumage in some way, with no idea of how silly it all seems from an objective point of view.
*. But is anyone listening? The song plays like a videogram or YouTube video addressed to some unnamed (and faceless) spectator. Perhaps we can imagine he’s singing to us. But whatever the intended audience we see the singer at the end being gulped down by what I’ve said seems to be the ground. But maybe it’s the film swallowing its own tail. Has the singer been looking in the mirror all this time, making faces while singing alone? Now that really would be tying himself in knots.

Dragged Across Concrete (2018)

*. I can’t be entirely sure, but I’m willing to guess that Dragged Across Concrete spends more time looking through the front windshield of various vehicles than any other movie ever made. It’s 159 minutes long and I think 45 minutes of that, at least, is looking at characters sitting in their cars.
*. It shouldn’t work, since such a limitation on the action suggests that the movie will be leaning heavily on dialogue, and the talk here isn’t good. The characters we meet are mostly types, of an overly-drawn sentimental type. Flawed heroes, or tough guys with a human streak. Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) has a wife at home with multiple sclerosis. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) has a little brother at home in a wheelchair. Some reviewers were surprised that so much time was given over to Jennifer Carpenter’s character (a new mom with a baby back at home), but she’s just another, even more sympathetic example of the same type.
*. The emotionless killer is another cliché, but I like how Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) is presented here. We never get a good look at his face, and his voice, even without being altered, sounds like something automated. Then again, none of the characters show a lot of emotion. Their lack of affect goes along with the sense of a constant, brooding focus throughout.
*. Throw in a wildly improbable bank robbery that falls out in a violent struggle over the stolen gold and you’ve got a movie that should barely be watchable at this length. It’s much to the credit of writer-director S. Craig Zahler then that Dragged Across Concrete is this absorbing. The climactic battle in what appears to be a wrecking yard is actually quite suspenseful and compelling, with several surprising twists. That Zahler, as you’ll probably know by now, is in no rush to get to the end adds to its fascination. As with many “slow film” movies (a label I wouldn’t apply here), I found myself wondering why so many shots and scenes were being held or kept going as long as they were. But once you give up thinking about the why you’re only left with the how it will all wind up.

*. One partial explanation for why it works is that while the story and characters are clichés nothing comes across as inauthentic. Ridgeway and his partner Anthony (Vince Vaughn) probably would be like a couple of TV cops in real life. And since stakeouts are, I am told, excruciatingly boring, it’s neat how that boredom is evoked through the bitching over trivial irritations like snoring, munching loudly on food, bad breath, the use of hairspray, or even just the sound of breathing (“processing air”). This sense of brooding focus that I mentioned is reflective. Just as the characters are focused on their mission, or their targets, so we are zeroed in on them. We can’t look away from that windshield because there’s nowhere else to look.
*. Zahler also does a good job directing Gibson, getting him to tone down on his more exaggerated and annoying mannerisms, like his trademark twitchiness and rolling eyes. You still know you’re watching Mel, but he’s not as loud as he usually is and that’s a good thing. Even his lines, whether being offensive or trying to be humorous, are underplayed, making his character more credible.
*. I certainly did not like the fairy-tale ending. How did the sole survivor manage to fence all that gold? It couldn’t have been easy. And really, are we talking all that much money? And his moving on up to that kind of lifestyle didn’t raise any suspicions? Why swerve from the rest of the film’s realism so much for such a ridiculous coda?
*. The coda also quickly dismisses what I take to be the film’s theme, which is all about strong men who are failures at just about everything. Including staying alive. As with Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, heroes are ultimately swallowed up by violence (literally in Bone Tomahawk and only slightly metaphorically here). It’s a grim take on the action genre that gets blown away at the end.
*. Critics were a bit divided. Those who didn’t like it complained about the pacing (and so had a lot of fun playing with the title), but for me the pacing is what it was all about, what made it work. Looking back on it I can’t say it’s a movie I want to see again anytime soon, but I enjoyed the drag.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

*. Can we say there’s a typical S. Craig Zahler movie? He does have a signature style, characterized mainly by a willingness to move at a deliberate pace and stick for long takes with particular compositions that catch his eye. More than that, however, there are thematic resemblances that tie major films like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete together.
*. At the core of every story we have the very violent Zahler hero, a powerful and morally ambiguous figure who has to take on a figure of unbelievable depravity and evil. He wins, in the sense that he kills the bad guy, but he also loses in that he dies. He’s a kind of sacrificial figure who must make the supreme sacrifice. Is there any special meaning behind Bradley’s bloody hands and feet in this film? I’m sure there is.
*. Why must the hero fight this battle? To defend, or at least provide for his woman/family. Zahler takes a pretty simplistic attitude toward these things. A man’s a man and what a man does is protect his family. I sometimes hear Zahler praised for his strong women, but they all just seem like ploys for the audience’s sympathy to me. Yes, Lauren Thomas gets to be a bad ass in the final minutes here, but she quickly relapses into being the expectant mother of Bradley’s child, jerking more tears.

*. Prison films aren’t my favourite genre. I think this one works pretty well not by upending conventions but by pushing them to an extreme. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen. Vince Vaughn is a big guy and he uses his physical presence well. He even beats the shit out of a car to start things off, just to set the tone. The fights are impressive, and I say that as someone who isn’t easily impressed by movie fights. The movements are slow but weighty, and you can almost feel the impact at times. The broken bones (and there are many) are just the cherries on top.
*. Aside from the brutality there isn’t much else going on here. The plot is fanciful. I never felt Redleaf was a real prison. It’s a medieval dungeon, with the requisite black-clad guards and a sadistic warden (name of Tuggs, played by Don Johnson). I wasn’t sure what the drug kingpin was up to, or why he was bothering with such an elaborate and protracted revenge. But then I don’t think Zahler is interested much in plot beyond setting up the basic elements he needs to introduce his violent, lawless universe.
*. Simplicity, even when drawn out over two hours and taken to brutal extremes, can be effective. It’s hard to complain about details when a movie takes you by the throat. This is Zahler’s method and so far it’s worked. One gets the feeling, however, that like any creator who pushes the limits he may be bumping up against his ceiling. I like his stuff, and this film in particular I would rate his best work, but I also have the sense that he’s pretty much shown us all he’s got.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

*. Not at all what I was expecting. For some reason I was thinking this was going to be a western-horror-comedy. I honestly don’t know why. But keep in mind that writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s only previous film had been The Incident and the mix of genres here sounded funny. Cowboys vs. Cannibals? It seemed improbably loopy.
*. And as the film starts I was still thinking along these lines. Sid Haig? I like Haig, but he’s an oddball who’s usually cast in oddball parts. And Patrick Wilson has always struck me as an actor more suited in lighter roles too. I thought his comic touch was a big part of what made those Conjuring movies as good as they were.

*. I was entirely wrong. There are no laughs in Bone Tomahawk. Instead the presiding spirit seems more like Cormac McCarthy, with its heroes being broken on an odyssey into the heart of darkness, albeit without any literary style points. I suspect that Zahler had McCarthy in the back of his head somewhere though.
*. Without more of a sense of style, literary or visual, the movie does tend to regress to contemporary horror standards. It’s talkier and more character-driven, but in the end there is the same nihilistic bleakness and emphasis on suffering and cruelty. As a horror movie it isn’t scary or suspenseful in the slightest. Its horrors are only there to be endured.
*. Almost as surprising as the tone of the film is its pace. Bone Tomahawk is what is sometimes referred to as a “slow burn.” At least, people use the term slow burn when they don’t want to say a movie is boring. Since I didn’t think Bone Tomahawk was boring, even at over two hours running time, I’ll stick with slow burn.

*. One moment in particular captured this for me. As Patrick Wilson is gamely limping his way along some rough terrain he stumbles and almost falls. The camera then just watches him as he stands, leaning on his crutch, getting his breath. By my count this shot is held for 20 seconds. That’s a very long time to hold a shot where nothing is happening, but I think Zahler just wants us to experience how it feels for Wilson’s character and maybe invite us into his head in a quiet moment.
*. Another thing about such a deliberate pace is that it makes the eruptions of violence more striking. Even when you can see them coming (does the black guy really have to be the first guy who gets it? even in the Old West?) they still have the power to shock. Though I wouldn’t call Bone Tomahawk a particularly gory film. There is one scene in particular that is horrific and it stands out not just for being an exception to most of the rest of the movie but for being presented in such a realistic and even understated way. I mean, I don’t think there’s even a score here.
*. Speaking of understated horrors, it’s easy to miss the very brief scene as the survivors are escaping the cave where they pass by the breeding stock of the cannibals. Those are not corpses, and they remain the most striking image for me in the entire film. But they are observed without comment.

*. I think Bone Tomahawk is a good movie, and I wouldn’t call it slow. I would, however, characterize it as stiff. There’s an excessive formality to the proceedings that covers everything from the script to the set design. In terms of the former, apparently the film’s script was shot exactly as written, with no changes or improvisations. In general, I don’t advise this. Actors should be encouraged to take some liberties in appropriate places in order to make things more natural.
*. Then there is the film’s look. None of the interiors here look very lived in. In part this may be attributed to it being a time when the Old West was still new. And maybe Hope is a new town. But even the bar looks like it has a floor you could eat your dinner off of, and the homes seem absolutely perfect, with no rough edges. Then when we get to the main fire pit of the cannibal cave things get even tidier. Nothing looks out of place, and the floors appear to have been freshly swept. Hell, even after the big butchery scene there is no sign of blood on the ground later. Who is keeping this cave so clean?

*. Come to think of it, even the exteriors look tame. I kept thinking that if the camera had panned just a bit more in one direction we’d be seeing cars tearing down the freeway, or an expensive modern home nestled in the hills. And I’m not saying that because I know it was shot just outside of Los Angeles. I made a note about it before I watched the accompanying featurette on the DVD.
*. The point is that this kind of a look, which has more to do with design than photography, seems out of place in a movie that is all about a descent into ultimate savagery and wildness. It’s a vision of the West that’s too darn domestic.
*. For a tribe of cannibals living somewhere out in the desert, they all seem remarkably well-fed. I guess the eating is good picking off settlers.
*. I had one fairly big problem with the story. The three able-bodied men are bushwhacked by the tribe and killed and captured, while the badly injured one, despite talking to himself, falling down hillsides, and even firing his gun off several times, sneaks up on them unawares? How did that work? And this is not a minor point to quibble over. It’s absolutely key to the plot and it makes no sense to me.
*. That said, I found Bone Tomahawk fresh and mostly enjoyable. The cast is wonderful and I think Zahler did manage to come up with something that was, for me at least, quite unexpected.

O Lucky Man! (1973)

*. It’s of some significance, I think, that Malcolm McDowell begins his commentary on the O Lucky Man! DVD by saying that the character of Mick Travis in this film has no relation at all to the Mick Travis in If …. (or, one presumes, Britannia Hospital). There were three Mick Travis movies, sometimes referred to as a trilogy because all three were directed by Lindsay Anderson and starred Malcolm McDowell as Mick. But according to McDowell here, the only reason they went with the name Mick Travis in this movie is because they couldn’t think of anything else to call the main character.
*. This is more than a bit glib, but I think it’s a good entry to O Lucky Man! This Mick Travis is almost the exact opposite of the boarding school Mick. Revolution never enters the “lucky” Mick’s mind. He’s ambitious not to overthrow the system but to make it to the top. Anderson wanted McDowell to read Voltaire’s Candide in preparation for playing the part, which in a way is strange because Candide doesn’t have much of a character of his own. He’s just a blank who wanders about, experiencing all the horrors of his world and having his idealistic views tempered by experience.
*. Mick is even less than this, in that he only seems to go with the flow. He can be a capitalist, or he can be a sort of holy fool. McDowell saw him as someone who was “forever searching, forever reaching for something,” but what? Nobody involved seemed to know. From beginning to end he’s just there to slip into different roles, play different parts. But he has no personal investment in any of them. His smile isn’t sincere, it’s just vacant. Even the posh girl he meets (Helen Mirren) finds him “hopelessly conventional.”

*. The movie can get away with this because it isn’t about Mick. Not at all. It’s a “condition of England” movie, or as is said on the commentary, a film about the “nervous breakdown of the United Kingdom.” As such it lines up all the usual targets of Britain’s class system: politicians (local and national), the church, the police, the scientific establishment, the military, the courts, and big business. Anyone in a position of authority is presented as being moronic, cruel, insane, or some combination of all three. At your first sight of the judge you know he’s the wearing fancy underwear under his judicial robes and is being flogged in his chambers. He’s the same type Monty Python made fun of and Pink Floyd wrote songs about. It’s a British thing.

*. The blend of realism and fantasy works surprisingly well. For the most part the cast don’t overplay their roles, despite all the potential to do so. And many points in the script are grounded in real experiences. McDowell’s brief stint as a coffee salesman, for example. Or his fellow boarder who was a tailor giving him a gold suit. Apparently that really happened. And the whole incident of the car accident, down to the radio coming on inexplicably. This is something that screenwriter David Sherwin says happened to him.
*. The movie needs this grounding because so many of the scenarios spin off the rails into craziness. The goat-man (or whatever it is) being only the most bizarre example. But does such trippiness undercut the political message by allowing us to not take it seriously? Probably. But then the politics are so heavy-handed that they need some undercutting to make the film watchable for three hours.

*. Another good move is employing various leitmotifs into the story so as to hold it together a bit better. The plot has no structure, with Mick only wandering from one situation to the next and frequent cuts to black emphasizing the lack of continuity. So in place of narrative flow there’s a musical chorus and recurring images like gold. The business of Mick’s smile also makes a nice way of tying the end up with the beginning.
*. The ending though is also a bit surprising. This is not Candide retiring to his garden, a sadder and a wiser man. Instead, Mick has lost his sincerity and authenticity, becoming a mere actor. So for all the joy of the dance this is about as cynical as it gets. I wonder if that’s a cynicism directed at the movie business specifically though. Sort of like Altman’s invocation of the happy ending in The Player. Either way, Mick’s luck will continue to bounce up and down like those balloons. It’s a less moralistic work in this way than Voltaire. Candide at least comes to a point of rest. For Mick, however, life is a lottery that makes no sense at all. He is closer to being our contemporary.