Quiz the twenty-sixth: A game of chess (Part one)

I’ve never been any good at chess. I know the basic rules, but I don’t think I’ve ever won a game against someone who really knows how to play. Or against a computer, even with the difficulty set at the easiest level. I doubt I could last very long against some of these masters.

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Feed the Gods (2014)

*. Just don’t expect much. I mean, this is credited as “Braden Croft’s Feed the Gods,” and if you’re wondering who Braden Croft (the writer-director) is, you’re not alone. On the DVD box cover his name is misspelled as “Branden Croft.” That’s not a good sign.
*. This is basically a very cheap Canadian horror production, shot in British Columbia without much in the way of effects and no gore to speak of. Ostensibly a monster movie, the Bigfoot creature isn’t even seen until the very end, and then only for a few seconds in some closeups.
*. Various paths it might have gone down are hinted at, but then not pursued. Three young people (two brothers, Kris and Will, and Kris’s girlfriend) head off to a remote town to find their parents. Will is an aspiring documentary filmmaker and has a camcorder device that gives us some shaky-cam shots, but this isn’t a found-footage film and indeed nothing is done with the POV angle at all. Then there’s the town with the guilty secret, but this isn’t developed either and we never meet any of the townspeople aside from the three guys who may be in charge. We also never learn how the lottery system is supposed to work.
*. Perhaps the biggest road not taken, however, is that of horror-comedy. I’m still undecided about this. Was it meant to be a comedy? The muscular Will (Shawn Roberts), who often gets to pose his “steroid jacked” body in a wifebeater, is cast mainly in the role of comic relief, speaking in a faux-German/Werner Herzog accent and generally being a giant scaredy cat. He even gets to kill a total of four (four!) people, totally by accident! That had to be a joke, right?
*. I don’t know. If it was meant to be a comedy I can only say that there’s nothing funny about it. But it doesn’t really work as a horror movie either. There’s no suspense, and only a plethora of jump scares, all of which involve someone coming up behind someone else and giving them the old hand-on-the-shoulder routine.
*. The idea is kind of interesting, sort of like an episode of The X-Files stretched out to (barely) feature length. But nothing is really explained. How did the business with the Passover paint work? What has happened to Will at the end?
*. I usually don’t jump on continuity errors, and in a movie like this it’s not really fair, but if you’re going to have a big scene with one of the main characters getting his face shaved with a straight razor you can’t have him in closeup a few minutes later with a couple of days’ worth of stubble on his chin.
*. This isn’t a bad movie, but it doesn’t have a lot to work with and despite its short running time it has a slow build that doesn’t lead to much of a climax. I end up watching a lot of low-budget Canadian horror films, and some of them have managed to impress. Afflicted and Black Mountain Side, for example, which came out around the same time as this. But Feed the Gods doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The Periwig-Maker (1999)

*. This isn’t quite what I was expecting. I didn’t know much about The Periwig-Maker going in, though it won scads of awards. I thought it might be a morbid little film along the lines of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Instead it’s adapted by the brother and sister team of Steffen and Annettte Schäffler from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, with overtones of Death in Venice.
*. The nod to Mann’s novella introduces a creepy note to a story that’s ghoulish enough as it is. The business of the Periwig-maker digging up the little girl’s corpse to cut her hair is bad enough, but when he sits up in bed wearing her flaming locks he might be the tarted up Aschenbach, grotesque in his dandy haircut and rouge.
*. Is the little girl the wigmaker’s Tadzio? I don’t think so, as there’s no hint of the erotic, even the morbidly erotic, here. I don’t think the wigmaker is sexually attracted to the little girl. He just seems to have a fetish for hair. Which is even creepier. Note that when he first sees her crying over her mother’s death he immediately thinks of her hair, reaching out to touch a wig in his shop. He doesn’t show any empathy.

*. Given how painstaking a process this kind of stop-motion animation is, you have to pay attention to every detail, however large or small. Among the large details I would rank the exaggerated shape of the wigmaker’s head, which tapers to a dagger-like pointed chin. His eyes are also grotesquely enlarged, and seem to protrude through a series of vertical parentheses, climaxing in eyebrows that suggest a permanent sense of surprise. You expect such a weirdo to sound like Vincent Price, not Kenneth Branagh.
*. What do such distortions mean? The eyes make him out to be a voyeur but vulnerable, looking out his windows at the plague world that he sees as such a threat. The pointy chin is sinister and though not strong, dangerous. Compare the size of the little girl’s button eyes, so like the doll she’s identified with.
*. Among the little things worth noticing are the reveal of the rain in the shadows running down the windows, and its mirroring in the melted candle. This is a world dissolving before our eyes. Or watch the shadow play of the little girl’s dead body being dropped into the wigmaker’s lap. Windows are a major motif throughout the film, and what’s interesting here is how we see through them both ways. We look out and the world looks in.
*. It’s the weirdness of The Periwig-Maker that stays with me. The subtext. I mentioned how Branagh’s narration doesn’t really fit the strange wigmaker, and when you watch the movie several times you start to wonder if it’s even meant to. Nothing in the narration really has to do with any of the action in the film at all. What the wigmaker is thinking has to be guessed at, interpreted through his gestures and expressions. What we suspect is something very strange. Perhaps something noble, or depraved. We can’t be sure.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

*. File this one wistfully under “What might have been.” The idea had huge potential, and with Steve Martin as the golden-age gumshoe Rigby Reardon and Rachel Ward as the damsel in distress they had two perfect leads. But somewhere along the way they forgot something.
*. Specifically, they forgot to write a script. The concept of the “collage film” put together out of short clips from noir classics no doubt hurt them in this regard. Whatever story they came up with was going to have to be written around the various clips and cameos they wanted to include, and not the other way around.
*. Given the limitations that come with such a concept, they must have had a lot of trouble coming up with a decent script. And by decent I mean something funny or at least coherent.
*. Though I suppose they could have got by without coherence. Noir is famous for its plots that don’t always add up, and at the end of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid they have some fun with this, as Martin and Carl Reiner get in a duel to see who can best explain what’s been going on. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few good scenes in the movie.

*. Where Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid fails is in its lack of laughs. The way that clips from other old movies are woven into the fabric of the film is interesting, but by contemporary standards it seems pretty crude. Except for one scene with Martin and Cary Grant sharing a train carriage (taken from Suspicion) it’s all done by way of editing and over-the-shoulder shots. More to the point, however, is that aside from the game of trying to recognize the sources there’s nothing funny about the resulting interactions. Sure they’re clever, but none of them have any real connection to the plot and few of them work as comic bits. Trying to give Edward Arnold from Johnny Eager a puppy and having it crap on the floor is a highlight, which tells you something.
*. Making matters worse is just how awkward so many of the cameos are. It doesn’t take long before we realize they’re merely throwaways that have nothing at all to do with the main plot, so we stop paying attention to them. Five minutes after they appear, and then quickly disappear, could you remember who Burt Lancaster (from The Killers) or Ray Milland (from The Lost Weekend) were playing? Even Bogart, as Marlow (drawn from a few different movies), has nothing to add to the proceedings.
*. This leaves us with the rest of the movie, which has little more to recommend it. Where are the funny parts? In Reardon groping Juliet while she’s unconscious? In her sucking bullets out of his shoulder? In Martin getting dressed up in drag? Certainly not in the lame vaudeville gag that has Martin going into full meltdown mode every time he hears the words “cleaning woman.”
*. So the promise was there but it remained unrealized. I know a lot of people like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, but I think most of them just see it as a charming homage to favourite films of the past. Judged on its own it seems to me to be a trifle, and an unsuccessful one at that. Ironically, the movies it mines for material are all more watchable, and seem far less dated, today.

The Accountant (2016)

*. From murky beginnings, the autism spectrum diagnosis really took off in the twenty-first century. Indeed, it became so common/popular that it eventually shed any sense of being a disorder and instead became a marker of special genius. Individuals “on the spectrum” were not just different, but better; not “neurotypical” but homo superior. Shakespeare, it was said, must have been on the spectrum. Einstein too. Soon celebrities were lining up to claim their place. Could it be long before the autistic became superheroes?
*. Not long at all. In The Accountant this change in the way we look at autism is absorbed into the maw of the cultural maelstrom that we might call, for lack of a better word, superheroism. Our hero Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) may seem like a (very) mild-mannered and sexy accountant but in reality he’s a highly-trained killing machine (crack shot, master of the martial arts) with advanced math skills and a penchant for fine art. Was James Bond on the spectrum too? He is now.
*. I’ll leave aside the question of the film’s presentation of autism. It’s certainly hard to call it out for presenting any negative stereotypes, though I have to wonder if the message of autism as being a special gift isn’t going a bit far in the other direction.
*. I’ll also leave aside any further discussion of The Accountant as a superhero movie. Suffice to say it checks all the boxes: giving us the essential origin story and introducing us to the supporting characters we will surely meet again in the sequels.
*. This leaves us with the movie itself. I thought it was surprisingly bad.

*. The cast isn’t bad. Affleck doesn’t have to work very hard to sell the murderer-savant, though in several scenes I thought he was starting to look disturbingly like Steven Seagal. J. K. Simmons knows the drill and performs. Anna Kendrick, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, and Jon Bernthal also know the drill, but seem not to be too happy about the limitations of their characters. Kendrick in particular has the look of someone who can’t believe how little she is being called upon to do.
*. The script lets everyone down. I didn’t know what Braxton’s job description was. I didn’t understand (and really didn’t care) what kind of a bad guy John Lithgow was supposed to be. A psychopathic philanthropist?
*. Despite being vague on details like these, it was perfectly clear how everything was going to ultimately work out, and the ending of the movie just runs out of steam and treads water for the final act. I was left wondering why it was taking so long to tell such a simple story.
*. In sum, I can’t think of anything really nice to say about this one. It’s just another superhero franchise start-up. The only wrinkle is that John Wick has been bitten by a radioactive spider and is now really smart as well as deadly. The action sequences are nothing special, and the final shootout is a total yawn, with the mooks just getting blown away like metal ducks at a carnival. It seems to want to give us some kind of positive message about kids with learning disabilities or behavioural problems, but if the takeaway is that we should seek to empower such children by sending them to bootcamp and ninja school then I don’t think that’s going to prove very helpful.
*. On the other hand, surveys have found that accounting is one of the happiest professions, with accountants reporting enviable levels of job satisfaction while enjoying excellent pay and high social status. Young people who are good at numbers should be encouraged to take it up.

Point of No Return (1993)

*. I didn’t have any expectations that Point of No Return would be as good as Luc Besson’s Nikita, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.
*. It should have been good. They stuck to the original’s script remarkably closely, at least through the first couple of acts. The changes they made are for the worse, but they are mainly cosmetic, basically just making it more Hollywood (in a bad, and literal, way). Nikita is now Maggie and her love interest is a photographer not a checkout clerk. She actually blows up the hotel room she brings the room service to. She and her fiancé go to New Orleans not Venice for her first undercover kill. The final target isn’t an embassy but some mansion in the hills overlooking L.A.
*. The end of the movie, however, is just a total fudge. Maggie inexplicably falls apart on her final assignment but somehow gets out of it without the assistance of a berserker Victor. We don’t get the scene where the boyfriend (what was his name? J.P. Yeah, J.P.) tells her that he knew about her double life all along. We find out that her handler Bob (Gabriel Byrne) was still in love with her. Victor the Cleaner is disposed of in a very silly, Hollywood way.
*. The cast is hit and miss, but overall I would rate it as strong. I really like Bridget Fonda and she should have been up to this part but she’s horribly misused. There’s no moment of agony when she opens up the present of the gun in the restaurant, but she breaks down in the kingpin’s lair. That makes no sense. Nikita at least had a coherent character arc. As for the rest of the names, Miguel Ferrer is as enjoyably sleazy as usual. Gabriel Byrne seems even sleepier than usual. Anne Bancroft is a strong presence that is wasted. Harvey Keitel starts off in good form as a nerdy version of Jean Reno’s Cleaner but is then simply dropped off a cliff. Tarantino would bring him back as a clean-up man the next year in Pulp Fiction.
*. So they had a good script to work with (meaning the original), and a decent cast, and they still came up with this. I blame director John Badham, who seems to have no feel for, or even interest in, the proceedings. The action and suspense sequences here all fall totally flat. Meanwhile, I could name a dozen individual shots in Nikita that stand out as so well composed and embedded as to have become nearly iconic. Point of No Return hasn’t a single one. Badham didn’t even keep any from the original!
*. Writing about this movie is making me hate it more. Because it’s so close to the original it’s one of those remakes where you have to wonder (and in my case I can only wonder) what your response would be to it if you hadn’t already seen Nikita. Would I have enjoyed it more? I like to think I wouldn’t have just because it’s such a lousy piece of filmmaking. Having seen Nikita first only made it seem worse.

Nikita (1990)

*. Along with a lot of other people (albeit not so many French film critics) I was pretty much blown away by Nikita when it first came out. What surprised me on this latest re-watch is how it hasn’t missed a beat despite having had many imitators, including a remake (Point of No Return) and a television series.
*. A less happy reflection is that despite all of his promise on display here, Luc Besson never came through. From what I’ve seen, Nikita may still be his best movie.
*. Obviously he’s infatuated with the character of the Manic Pixie Asskicker, his main protagonist, but I still prefer Anne Parillaud to Milla Jovovich or Scarlett Johansson in this role. And while he would go on to work with much bigger budgets I think Nikita manages to do more with less.
*. I mentioned that French critics weren’t as thrilled by Nikita, which may have something to do with Besson being hailed as Mr. Hollywood. I don’t know how fair that is. Nikita is a genre movie and Hollywood does define genres, so there’s that. Even Hong Kong action films were “Hollywood” to a large extent. But Besson does have a signature style even working within genre conventions. I mean, Point of No Return is, at least until the very end, a very close re-working of the same material and compared to Nikita it’s just dead.

*. One of the things that impresses me about Nikita is how stripped-down it is. A movie like this could have spent forever dealing with Nikita’s personal history and training, but Besson knew this was immaterial, inessential. So his heroine has her past erased and her training is foreshortened to the point where it seems almost comic. She’s already a master of the martial arts and is handy with a gun, which is simply given to her seemingly on Day One. Of course it isn’t Day One — her leg, for one thing, has had time to heal — but it seems like her training has just begun.
*. The other thing that stands out is the sense of style I mentioned earlier. It’s style employed with intelligence and restraint. There’s nothing over-the-top about Nikita, and I especially love how assured Besson was to run that whole hotel scene and not have any payoff. The American version was not so confident.
*. Anne Parillaud is great as the tough-but-vulnerable action hero and you couldn’t go wrong with this supporting cast. Tchéky Karyo is an actor I always enjoy watching. Jeanne Moreau is class, and Jean Leon is Victor the clean-up guy, a performance so good they had to bring him back. Who can forget that tub scene?
*. In his review Roger Ebert references the Pygmalion story (one “for our own violent times”) but I was thinking of Vertigo. Either way it’s part of that male fantasy of molding the perfect woman (or weapon) to your own specs. It’s a nice touch to have the two men abandoned at the end wondering what happened. Maybe Nikita was just a dream.
*. This is one of the best action films of the ’90s, but like I said earlier Besson never really built on it. I find this very hard to understand. Yes, he made some other good movies but there was so much promise here that was left unfulfilled. Why was it such a creative dead end?

Nashville (1975)

*. You could debate Robert Altman’s best film, with a number of plausible contenders, but I think the majority opinion is that Nashville is his most representative work. In the words of David Sterritt, it’s “the film Robert Altman was born to make.” Now: what does that mean?
*. Is it a movie about Nashville, Tennessee? Or the country music business? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence Altman cared much about either. It may be a movie about America. But the way I see it, what it’s mostly about is how people relate to one another.
*. Not having any clear agenda, it has left itself open to a variety of interpretations. Given my own reading of it, I want to look a little more closely here into how this works by discussing how Altman presents his characters, and how critics have responded to them.
*. Pauline Kael: “During this movie, we begin to realize that all that the people are is what we see. Nothing is held back from us, nothing is hidden.” I don’t know what to make of this. On the face of it, I think it’s very wrong. Altman’s fly-on-the-wall approach — showing not telling, with most of the dialogue coming in overheard fragments — only lets us see pieces of the people on screen. Some pieces are more revealing, or at least seem more revealing, than others, but they are still just pieces. Why does Kenny shoot Barbara Jean? Was that even his original plan in coming to Nashville? And what do we know about Tricycle Man? Is that all he is? A bike? Or is he just a narrative element, mere “connecting tissue” in Altman’s words.

*. I’m not criticizing Altman for this approach. I appreciate what he’s doing. How much do we know about anyone else in our lives, even those closest to us? How well do we really understand them? We have to make our judgments based on fragments. But such judgments can only be speculative, partial projections and shots in the dark. So when Kael starts explaining what the characters mean to her (all they are, remember, with “nothing hidden”), I tend to dig in my heels. How does she know?
*. For example. (1) “Barbara Jean is the one tragic character.” Really? Nashville seems stocked with tragic, sympathetic figures, with Sueleen Gay and Mr. Green being only a couple of the more obvious. (2) Tom (Keith Carradine) sleeps “with Geraldine Chapman, whom he’ll barely remember the next day, and with Lily Tomlin, who he’ll remember forever.” It seems to me as though he won’t remember Tomlin five minutes after she’s out the door. I think Kael wants Tom to remember Tomlin, but it’s not at all obvious he will. (3) Who, watching Haven Hamilton sing “Keep a’ Goin'” “would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?” Again we have Kael discerning a character’s true spirit on spotty evidence. Hamilton seems like a pure shit to me. Was he really thinking of the audience before himself at the end, or was he just trying to keep his political future on the rails?
*. In his Great Movies essay on Nashville Roger Ebert quotes from a couple of Kael’s readings and agrees with them. I find them unpersuasive, as I do Kael’s initial premise that “all that the people are is what we see.” Still, if that’s the way you want to read the film, it is at least a point of view that’s available.
*. Standing before such a monument to indeterminacy and irresolution I don’t think it’s really possible to say what Nashville is about. I can only say what it means to me.

*. A constant motif throughout the film is that people don’t listen to each other. Nashville is a place where everyone wants to be a star, which means they want to be heard without having to pay attention to anyone else. Shelley Duvall’s L.A. Joan is a comic example, but really everyone is like this. The groupie and the celebrity have much in common.
*. This is something we see repeated over and over. Opal tells Bud Hamilton she’d love to hear him sing the song he wrote and then just gets up and leaves him when Elliot Gould walks by. Does anyone listen to the loudspeaker van or is it just background noise? When Winifred gets to sing at the racetrack we can’t hear anything over the noise of the engines, and presumably no one else can either. Del doesn’t want to hear about his boy’s swimming lessons. Pfc. Kelly doesn’t care about Wynn’s wife Esther dying, while Wynn isn’t interested in anything else. Finally, when Winifred sings “It Don’t Worry Me” it seems not so much a plucky or courageous anthem as simply a reflection of the crowd’s apathy. A couple of people have been shot but they’re all still there. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t care, any more than they care about the politics. They’re just there for the free concert and the hot dogs.

*. I think this is the central irony of Altman’s presentation: the overlapping, fragmented and muddy dialogue forces us into being ever more intent upon hearing what nobody in the film is listening to. I think it’s interesting that one of the few times we do see a character paying attention is when Del listens in on Linnea talking to Tom, eavesdropping (like the audience) on a conversation he isn’t a party to.
*. The film itself thus becomes a sort of exercise in determining what’s important. Given that there’s a lot of dialogue that’s hard to hear, and improvised, or just plain inconsequential blather, we have our work cut out for us. And this is one of the reasons why interpretations of the film diverge. We hear what we want to hear, or what we came in primed to hear.

*. I don’t know what it was with Altman and misandry. He made shocking changes to his sources in films like The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to work in violence toward women. According to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, when giving directions for the script for this film he only said he wanted a woman to be killed at the end “for whatever reason.”
*. The improvisation and humour foreshadow the comedy of Christopher Guest, as does the focus on celebrity culture. The two seem to go together, and to be sure the awful banality and amorality of publicity are easy marks. Fame is a cruel game. The vile crowd of local politicos hooting for Sueleen to strip are really no worse than the Opry goers who boo Barbara Jean during her on-stage meltdown. The public can be so demanding, and what it demands isn’t always right.

*. The ending seems slack to me, with its waving flag and sense that the show will go on even after everyone has gone home. I don’t see it as at all hopeful or affirming anything. We’re not even sure if Barbara Jean is dead. It’s a conclusion where nothing is concluded, which is fitting for a movie that was only superficially going somewhere all this time.
*. It’s hard to pin down the magic of a film like this, and of Altman more generally. The style is that of a documentary, which may be thought of as a kind of anti-style. Altman certainly didn’t want you to notice anything about the filmmaking. Then there’s no real plot and a general diffusion of interest across a wide spectrum of characters who often aren’t even connected. As already noted, much of the dialogue is just presented as background noise. Hell, even most of the music, and there is a lot, is pretty bad (again, deliberately). And yet one can’t deny the fascination such a film has, even (or maybe especially) on repeated viewings. Perhaps it’s the constantly teased connection between order and chaos, meaning and its absence, the significant and the ephemeral. Make of Nashville what you will and it obliges.