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The Big Sleep (1946)
Ya gotta love it, no matter how confusing it is
For years, I thought I was going out of my mind every time I saw this classic detective story/film noir. Each time it screened on TV, it seemed to be different. New scenes would crop up; scenes I was certain I had seen in the past were suddenly missing. And always, the plot made no real sense.
Blame it all on Lauren Bacall. She'd been a huge hit in "To Have and to Have Not," playing opposite Bogart in her screen debut. So Warners, eager to capitalize on her natural sex appeal, had rushed her into another film, "Confidential Agent," where she played opposite Charles Boyer. They, it turned out, had no chemistry and the picture bombed. But by the time that had happened, Bogie and Betty had wrapped Bacall's third film, "The Big Sleep." So Warners held up its release so they could shoot some new scenes that would make Bacall look good.
The result was that a couple of different versions of this classic exist today and when you toss in the cutting for TV, you wind up with a mishmash of scenes that leave you guessing as to what the film is all about, who killed whom, and how could writers of the caliber of Raymond Chandler (author of the original novel) William Faulkner and Jules Furthman come up with this mess.
My favorite scene takes place at the rural gambling casino operated by Eddie Mars. There, in a side room, we come upon Bacall singing an obviously heavily rehearsed song with a whole group of backup singers providing harmony. There is no prior reference to Bacall's character being a singer and no further reference to her song in the rest of the movie.
But the real stunner is Eddie Mars' blond wife, played in her one and only scene toward the end of the film, by different actresses in the two main versions of the film.
Never mind. This picture has lots of crackling good Howard Hawks style dialogue and a great, slick Warners film noir atmosphere. Both Bogie and Betty are at the top of their games and are surrounded by great supporting players, from Dorothy Malone to Elisha Cook Jr and B-Western star Bob Steele, who was positively scary when he played a modern day killer.
Watch this one, because try as they might, nobody does this kind of work today.
A tale of abuse and corruption
It's ironic that because of the 1950s TV drama "Dragnet," Los Angeles got the reputation of being a city with a squeaky clean, incorruptible police department. It's ironic because nothing could be further from the truth for much of the city's history.
The 1920s and most of the thirties were particularly lawless decades for LA cops. LA was overflowing with gambling houses and bordellos all operating virtually openly. Cops were involved in one scandal after another, including a police chief caught during Prohibition in the back seat of a police car with a bottle of booze and a half naked hooker; vice squad cops caught up in a badger game targeting a city councilman; and the commander of the police intelligence division convicted of attempted murder in the bombing of the car of a special investigator for the grand jury looking into police corruption.
One of the hardest incidents to comprehend was the 1928 disappearance of 9-year-old Walter Collins, and his return five months later thanks to the "detective work" of the LAPD. That was a case that might have been completely forgotten by now but for one thing -- the boy's incredulous mother who took one look at the returning kid and said "That's not my son!" What could have prompted the LAPD to substitute another kid for the missing boy? Awash in a constant stream of bad publicity, targeted by reformers and plagued by the fact that it was a department of thieves, thugs, and incompetents, the 1928 department under Chief James "Two Guns" Davis was apparently desperate for any good publicity and returning a missing kid to his hard working, single mom seemed full proof. But for one thing: Mom was tougher than Davis and conducted a non stop crusade to uncover the truth and find her real son.
Sadly, unfolding at the same time was the repugnant tale of a serial killer operating out of a chicken ranch in nearby Riverside county and how he was abducting and murdering young boys.
All these elements --the Collins case, the police corruption story and the tale of the serial killer -- are expertly woven together by director Clint Eastwood into a movie that grows more interesting as it goes.
Expertly cast and beautifully mounted (the art direction is a shoe in for an Oscar nomination)the film nonetheless lives or dies on the performance of Angelina Jolie, who plays the mom, Christine Collins. Many of Jolie's roles don't do much to test her acting chops, this one does and she more than meets the challenge, turning in a beautifully controlled performance that should get her another Oscar nod too.
If I have a criticism, it is that the movie in the end gives the impression the corruption may have ended when Chief Davis was demoted following the Collins case. He was demoted, to head of the traffic division, but was made Chief again when Frank Shaw became mayor.
Corruption at city hall and in the police department simply exploded and there were so many abuses by the central vice squad, the Intelligence Division and the "Red Squad" of strike breakers and gun thugs that they eventually led to the 1938 recall of Mayor Shaw and a general house cleaning of the police department, which forced out Davis and more than 40 other high ranking officers.
But see the movie. This one is certainly worth seeing.
This is apparently a screen version of a comic book or a video game, the kind of junk that's turning the minds of young Americans to mush. The plot is that an everyman unhappy with his boring life gets a chance to become an over trained assassin and kill a lot of people, in part to avenge the murder of his father, even though he never knew the old man. That's about all the plot there is here. Charcterization? That's pretty much missing, too. The male star is forgettable because he is almost completely devoid of personality. But he fits right in at the DeCaprio, Toby McGuire school of wimps as heroes.
Morgan Freeman non-acts his way through the number three staring role.
That leaves the woman upon whom box office success rests ---Angelina Jolie. She flashes a couple of smiles, but mostly just hangs around looking enigmatic. Actually, her part could have been played by almost anyone, but she played it, so she is responsible for fostering this non stop exercise in teaching kids violence.
She should be ashamed of herself. She is capable of so much more.
I wanted my eight bucks back when this one was over, but I can never get back the two hours of my life wasted on this mess.
A polarizing movie
This appears to be one of those, you love it or hate it, films. Little room for those taking the middle path here. On the surface, you could say it is just one more Hollywood revenge movie, and as such, a manipulative piece of work that spends most of its screen time setting up the villain for the pay off at the end. And of course, there is the heavy use of sexually explicit scenes and language which seem to offend many people, even more than the brutality and violence.
On the other hand, the whole thing makes perfect sense as a depiction of the criminal class and of a smart, but lazy young woman who gets caught up in that world, in part because she likes the cheap thrills it offers her.
And then it turns pretty convincingly into a story of brutal domestic violence and how the girl sets out to defend herself, using the tools she has at her disposal, namely her own sexuality.
It is a shocking film, though, not for the faint hearted and I have to admit the big scene of domestic violence was almost too much to take.
------------------- spoiler alert ------------------
Some question the final pay back and why it happened the way it did. Why didn't Kat just have Big Al whacked? The answer for me is that he had to be alive so he could realize she was paying him back. She needed to do it that way to get her self respect back.
Although in places its hard to watch, this is a brilliant movie with very strong performances, but none stronger than Milla Jovovich's. She is simply a remarkable actress willing to take enormous risks. I did not discover her myself until "Ultraviolent" which I loved, in large part due to the absolute conviction she was able to bring to the role of a comic book super hero. She did just as well with her role as a small time, street hustler's girlfriend in .45. See it!
Compelling, but not necessarily satisfying
-----------------------------spoiler alert -------------------- Kimberly Peirce's first film since "Boys Don't Cry" tackles a big topic, maybe one that is too big for any director to attempt to cover in a single film. The irony is, she accomplishes her goals in terms of making a riveting movie, but perhaps fails in efforts to truly illuminate as complex an issue as the war in Iraq.
The plot is that Army sergeant Ryan Phillippe, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, finds out on the day he is mustering out of the Army that he is being stop lossed, meaning sent back involuntarily for another combat tour in Iraq.
But plot holes develop almost as quickly as he finds himself conscripted in what he refers to as a back door draft.
The first problem is that he immediately jumps the tracks and goes AWOL, when his carefully crafted image from the early parts of the movie show him to be a thoughtful, highly responsible soldier. Yes, he might eventually break the rules and jump ship, but not immediately and the film would have been even more interesting if he'd fought his situation through legal channels before deserting.
From there, a lot of the film deals with another problem, the post traumatic stress syndrome he and his small town Texas buddies are facing, in his case, largely because he led his men into a rather obvious ambush while in Baghdad, a trap that got his best friend killed and others wounded.
From there, the film deals with his life on the run, ironically with the ex-fiancé of another of his buddies, and that life affords a look at the white working class background upon which America's all volunteer Army is now built. While a little clichéd, it does remind us that there are tens of thousands of troops from that very background, many of whom seem to know or understand almost nothing about the war they have volunteered to fight.
______________________spoiler-------------------------- In the end, Phillippe's character turns himself in and winds up climbing aboard the bus that is the first step on the road back to Iraq. The trouble with the scene is it comes as a shock and its hard to know whether the filmmaker was saying Philippe was wrong all along, or that the average guy is just no match for the pressures being a good, dutiful American place on a young man.
Its sort of like Congress getting a clear mandate from voters in November of 2006 to end the war, but doing virtually nothing about it, because Democrats don't have the votes to overcome a Republican veto and then take the heat that would follow.
Whatever the message, it seemed to me to be a somewhat muddled one, and there is not much resolution to the story, as what it gives us is an ending that would have been more powerful had it come down hard on one side of the issue or the other.
Still, this film in all fairness works as a movie up to the end and I would not stay away just because it falls down there.
High style set in a bleak future
My own history with this movie is as follows: I stumbled upon it on TV while channel surfing one night, but came in half way through the movie and didn't know who or what I was watching. All I knew was, it quickly grabbed my attention, even though I have little interest in comic book violence or martial arts movies. I do love good sci-fi and have some tolerance for futuristic movies, which are often cold and gray by their very nature.
This one was not and so I immediately fell in love with its wonderful art direction.
I was also not really a fan of Milla Jovovich, finding what I have seen of the Resident Evil films nothing but mindless violence. This movie changed all that for me.
I think she delivers a terrific performance as Ultraviolet. While most women seem to me to have to force out the qualities needed to play these kick butt girls, Jovovich struggles to contain what seems like a volcano of anger within her. In one scene toward the end, when confronted by two opponents who warn her they are as strong and as fast as she is, her response is to ask "Are you one tenth as ****** off as I am?" That's the key to her character and she maintains it throughout the film. She is a seething cauldron of righteous indignation. And it seems to me that almost every look, every facial expression and every step she takes reflects this inner anger.
While some of the CGI effects may be substandard for the genre, this is a much under appreciated film. I recommend it highly.
the sum is less than its parts
This is a well produced, well directed, well written and extremely well acted film. Its essentially a one woman show, and Ellen Page becomes a star with this picture, or at least she should.
So why am I not jumping on the bandwagon? Its a game played with a stacked deck and that turns out to be its downfall.
Juno is a 16 year old high school girl who gets pregnant after a single sexual encounter with her boyfriend of sorts, Paulie. Does Juno panic? Not on your life. Juno is smart as a whip, adventurous and once she decides to have the baby, she sets out on her own to find proper adoptive parts. The first family she visits turns out to be a rich yuppie couple who seem fine and they strike a deal. After a few doubts, Juno winds up having her baby and turns the child over to the rather rigid and somewhat frigid Jennifer Garner, who probably takes the kid right home and registers him for the right pre-school.
The problem with this whole thing is that Juno encounters virtually zero problems along the way. She is not kicked out of school or ostracized by her classmates, her parents are supportive, the boyfriend doesn't disappear on her and the adoptive couple, while facing their own problems, don't turn out to be too bad.
So essentially, what we have is the after school special about teen pregnancy, or one of a thousand Lifetime channel stories on the same topic, but minus most of the conflict. Its also minus what seems to me to be the real life emotion 16 year old girls would go through if this happened to them, and any of the self doubt that goes with the decision to give up their baby.
Lastly comes the question of whether any sixteen year old would be as self assured and well rounded as this girl? It's possible, but rare.
As such, the picture is worth seeing for Page's performance, but Juno is not exactly what you'd call high drama.
Michael Clayton (2007)
First rate thriller
Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" builds slowly at first, but always manages to hold your interest because of a little slide of hand. By giving us a taste of one of the film's action sequences at the beginning, it holds on to the action motivated viewer, even as it forces him or her to pay close attention due to all the twists and turns of the complex plot.
In a nutshell, its the story of a corporate lawyer whose best friend in the firm is handing a billion dollar liability suit against a huge Midwestern corporation, only to discover that the corporate was directly responsible for deaths. But since the law firm is representing the corporation and not the victims, Tom Wilkerson, who plays the friend, finds himself in such a moral dilemma that he mentally jumps the tracks, taking off all his clothes during a deposition and chasing people naked through a parking lot. ( in fairness, he is portrayed as a guy who had been on meds for years and has gone off them, triggering the breakdown.) This forces the firm, headed by Sydney Pollack in his actor mode, to send in Michael Clayton to clean things up. This movie is basically something of a character study of Clayton, who even though he is a lawyer and former prosecutor, is now essentially the fixer and sometimes bag man for this monster size, 600 lawyer, firm. Its a role Hollywood has often explored before, in pictures like "The Barefoot Contessa" and "The Harder they Fall" in the fifties, right up to "Syriana" a few years ago. It seems to be becoming George Clooney's screen persona and in this film he makes the most of it, turning in a riveting performance as a talented guy trying to hold it all together. And he has personal problems of his own, of course, not the least of which is a 75K debt to an apparent loan shark over a restaurant investment that went bad. (This is the film's weakest point, as everyone knows most restaurant investments go bad. That's why they hire guys like MIchael Clayton to find arsonists to burn the places down for the insurance money.)
At any rate, Clooney is just great here and may well get himself an Oscar nomination. Also good acting from Tilda Swenson as a corporate lawyer scared out of her wits most of the time for fear of failing, Wilkerson as the lawyer who goes bonkers and Pollack as the seeming sympathetic boss of the law firm who is as manipulative as they come.
He has one of the films best lines in the end, pointing out to Clooney that of course the corporation is guilty; they always knew that; that's how the law firm makes money, pulling irons out of the fire for companies like that.
Clooney comes back for one final big scene in the end, where he wraps it all up; essentially telling the dishonest corporate types that where they made their big mistake was taking him on. Like most corporate types they were good in a board room fight, but rotten in a street fight. Where as he was a pro at being a crook and was in the end going to out fox them one way or the other.
In the Valley of Elah (2007)
The big movies about the Vietnam war -- Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket -- didn't reach the screen until about five years after the war ended. But movies dealing with Iraq and terrorism are cropping up all over even as this war still rages.
What exactly that means is hard to know, but it would seem to indicate that no matter which side of the issue they come down on, the filmmakers are willing to risk alienating about half the potential audience in an America more polarized today than at any point in our history.
"In the Valley of Elah" treads lightly on the politics for most of the movie, concentrating on the unfolding mystery of what happened to a young soldier who vanishes shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Looking for answers are his father, a former sergeant in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, and a young female civilian detective, who gets involved in the case, gets bounced off in a jurisdictional dispute, but winds up back on the case when its determined the crime took place off military property.
While director Paul Haggis gets uniformly good performances out of all the characters, the movie belongs to Tommy Lee Jones as the grieving father and Charlize Theron as the determined detective. Both turn in outstanding performances. Jones shines, playing a man who has spent his life holding in his emotions and can't change now, even as his world falls apart. Theron radiates strength as a woman trying to survive in a sexist police department where all her male colleagues are certain she slept her way into her detective's job. That is somewhat important to the story, because the movie provides a look into the lower class white community that provides the bulk of the recruits in the all volunteer army.
None of this really deals with the politics of the war, though, and it is not until the very end of the film that politics come into play, and even there, it is handled with great care. The message is more about the kind of war America finds itself fighting today and what that type of combat does to the men who engage in it. Unlike world wars one and two, Vietnam and Iraq are not wars between easily recognized enemies. We are not battling the Germans or the Japanese. In both Nam and Iraq, Americans find it is difficult to tell friend from foe. That means they often must make snap decisions that sometimes determine whether they themselves live or die. Needless to say, their decisions also determine the fate of the people in the sights of their weapons..
"In the Valley of Elah" does an excellent job of showing that post traumatic stress syndrome is not an oddity, but rather a growing problem in an army of young men whose job requires them to be quick on the trigger.
Every American should see this movie and then think long and hard about it.
Perfect Stranger (2007)
James Foley's "Perfect Stranger" is neither a really good nor a really bad movie. Actually, its sort of a second feature or B movie type film from the forties shot with an "A" movie budget.
The acting by all the principles is pretty flat and not very involving, just as the plot itself is not very involving.
One of the problems is stories about rich and powerful men who may be murderers are not uncommon in American films. And here just isn't anything new in this film, despite all the efforts to gussy it up with the perils of meeting people on line, or the belladonna connection in the end. Actually, all that stuff did was overly complicate the plot.
What might have made a more interesting would have been to really explore sexual harassment, showing how a rich and powerful boss exploits female employees for sexual favors. You could have left the whole murder plot out, because it really didn't work very well anyway. I never felt Halle Berry was in any real peril and I never found Bruce Willis all that menacing, despite the totally unbelievable scene showing him physically pummeling a subordinate in his office in front of a room full of on lookers. (Can anyone say law suit?) But you could have explored the sexual predator angle quite well with this film and cast. In fact, to make it really interesting, you could have moved the story to Hollywood and made it about a studio boss who constantly demanded sexual favors from pretty young actresses. While Hollywood always denies this sort of thing happens, during the heyday of the studio system some studio bosses even had small bedrooms off of their offices where they could take naps when needed. Right, take naps.
Anyway, this film is probably best left viewed on DVD, where you can skim past the dull parts.