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Death Proof (2007)
5/10
Spare the Stuntman
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
There's always been a thin line between Quentin Tarantino's maniacal zeal for pop culture and his ability to integrate those enthusiasms into a worthwhile narrative; sorry to say, here he's succumbed to exclusionary self-indulgence. I found the mirroring roles of two quartets of female friends interesting, as well as the implications of Stuntman Mike's sexual desire channeled into vehicular, head-on ramming. But with the overwhelming amount of time devoted to stilted chatter, character development is a secondary consideration. Unfortunate, too, since there's so much fertile ground left uncultivated by the director-writer-DP, who has conceived his characters as sounding boards to his obsessions, which include many interminable dialogues about Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and "the original" Gone in 60 Seconds, as well as alluring women literally costumed in obscure filmic references. The actresses, with the possible exceptions of Vanessa Ferlito and Rosario Dawson, are clearly adrift in this shapeless world and compensate with unbelievably annoying line readings. What remains, or has been added, from its Grindhouse provenance is a tedious cataloguing of QT's faves in unmotivated pursuit of a story. The point might be to get lost in a low-budget, drive-in aesthetic, but the clever frame-skipping, variable sound, and scratched print of the (far better) first half is largely missing from the last hour, which statically records banter before clumsily transitioning into the much-ballyhooed chase finale. This is a stylistically uneven and selfishly insular movie.

But then there is Kurt Russell, direct and authoritative as Stuntman Mike, cutting through the BS and articulating an honest, intricate, even sympathetic portrayal of criminal compulsion and masculine confusion in roughly thirty minutes of verbal screen time. Easily the best thing about Death Proof, he wrests a great performance from the director's pervasive self-attention.
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I Am Legend (2007)
7/10
Satisfying blockbuster
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Despite a final act that isn't quite up to par, this is one of the most satisfying blockbusters in recent memory. A supposed miracle cure for cancer has wiped out Earth's population, except for scientist/soldier Robert Neville (Will Smith), who's immune to the virus, and a genetically mutated species of "darkness seekers," hairless vampire-zombies that roam free at night. The best sections of the movie simply document Smith and his German shepherd passing the time in a deserted New York City, hunting deer on the barren streets, hitting golf balls from the wings of fighter jets, and checking out videos from the local shop. The eeriness of being the last human in a city built to sustain a population of millions is acutely evoked, allowing us to absorb the situation's enormity through long takes, panoramic shots that dwarf Smith in his environment, absence of music, and the absolutely brilliant integration of production design (shot on location) and special effects to present a hollowed-out metropolis littered with empty cars, wild animals, and buildings submerged in water (seeing this in IMAX increased my appreciation tenfold). Reminiscent of the abandoned London in 28 Days Later, yet it doesn't feel derivative in the slightest. By the time the story opens, Smith has already developed a routine and familiarity with his surroundings, so we're watching a man who has fashioned a degree of normality from chaos, which is strangely more unsettling than if we were to witness him waking up to a changed world. Smith is altogether fantastic portraying a man of active intelligence whose faith in finding a cure slowly crumbles due to tragedies that consume his soul and all-consuming loneliness (his complete meltdown in a video store is a lesson in how to show turning-point despair without going over the top). The dog playing his companion Sam deserves a large degree of credit as well, essentially standing in for Smith's daughter—a metaphor completed by the daughter handing the puppy off before departing—and making the human-dog interactions touching and indelibly sad; it reminded me, in a small way, of how the adults in Children of Men kept trinkets and dolls to help them remember and to assuage their loss.

However, the film isn't just a poignant character study: Lawrence delivers skillful suspense in Smith's daylight encounter with a pitch-black zombie hovel that relies more on anticipation than effect. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that I was somewhat disappointed with the ending. The movie works so well as an isolated survivor tale that the introduction of a mother and son from a Vermont colony felt like an unwelcome intrusion (it doesn't help that their characterizations are perfunctory compared to Smith's three-dimensional one). Then, the film imparts an element of religious faith that at first appears forced, but leads to Smith's last mortal act that is more hopeless and despairing the more one reflects upon it. Although the God-fearing mother's voice-over ends the movie on an optimistic note, consider two things: the futile look Smith gives the uncomprehending, glass-bashing zombie when Smith realizes the sick don't want to be cured; and, therefore, for whom is the new vaccine intended if not for the sick? If the already immune possess the cure, then what purpose does its existence serve? Factoring in the challenges to the audience represented by the minimalist, experiential narrative, and the emphasis on observation rather than visceral force, the irony present in the seemingly clean wrap-up seems like one more challenge to look beyond the obvious. Even if not entirely successful, I'm grateful for the attempt.
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The Apartment (1960)
9/10
How to get ahead
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The work-home boundary endures constant revision in this deceptively tough romance that asks the question, "To what degree would you allow yourself to be used, manipulated, and mistreated in the fulfillment of a goal?" In the case of Lemmon's earnest accountant, the threshold is very high. After all, how else to get ahead at a company of thirty-five-thousand employees? It's a simple transaction: executives use his apartment to entertain their mistresses while he's strung along with promises of a big promotion. He permits this arrangement because, like so many ladder-climbers, he clings to the illusion that work will provide the happiness that he lacks in his personal life. Shirley MacLaine's elevator girl desires love and hopes to find it through an office romance with the suave, double-talking Director of Personnel played by Fred MacMurray. What follows is a near-perfectly written joining together of two used people discovering, respectively, self-respect and self-worth through a relationship built on open communication and blunt honesty. Wilder depicts the corporate office as a nexus of numbing sameness, the precise square rows of desks mirrored exactly by the quadrilateral, equally spaced fluorescent lights—exactly the sort of environment that fosters Lemmon's emotional stasis and inability to break from routine. Brilliantly acted, deftly directed, and briskly edited, The Apartment points up the mercenary nature of corporate life, presenting a uniquely unsentimental romance that is honest about the difficulty of connecting with another person in a mechanized age of impersonal transactions. Charles Williams composed the memorable orchestral theme, "The Jealous Lover."
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Get Carter (1971)
9/10
Remarkably grim revenge story
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Mike Hodges caught my eye with his fatalistic I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, in which the protagonist's vengeance was doled out with such sad, resigned futility and the gray sky seemed to engulf the characters, judging their abject dealings. A similar air of determinism permeates his first feature, a remarkably grim revenge story whose avenger might be the most corrupt figure in the film. Michael Caine is Jack Carter, the smooth antihero who can only communicate through money, sex, or violence, utterly incapable of real human empathy. Resembling James Bond in his lothario qualities—and the way women seem to suffer most at his hand—and a transplanted Philip Marlowe in his affected, aloof manner of speech and action, Carter ventures up north to London to bury his brother and maybe to see if any foul play was involved. Of course there was, in the form of a local crime syndicate that traffics in drugs and sex. The revelatory scene where Carter puts the pieces together is a brilliant piece of acting, direction and editing, as Caine begins the scene as casual observer and gradually registers increments of grief, guilt and anger while the camera proportionately cuts back to the shocking evidence at which he's aghast. One might say that his subsequent path of rampage is an agonized attempt to exorcise his guilt—at not being there, at being so slow to uncover the motive, at being a voyeur to the crime—and as such there's no valor in his vengeance, only a meaningless quest to mollify his soul. Hodges' refusal to beautify Carter's violence lends the picture an unusual complexity, a kind of implicit mourning for the world's perpetual cycle of violence that benefits no one. (When Carter dumps a key player over a parking-garage wall, Hodges lingers over the car he fell on as paramedics remove the vehicle's likely deceased innocent bystanders.) Jack might think he's gained some hard-earned wares on that beach with his vanquished enemy, but his self-satisfied smile is quickly and permanently removed. This is another extraordinary, unsparing movie from Mike Hodges.
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Lost Highway (1997)
9/10
A fearsome reckoning
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
As I find with most of Lynch's films, Lost Highway works best if one can decipher the basic story framework through which the illusory doublings and wish fulfillments, and desires and agonies filter. A sort of male antecedent to the distaff Mulholland Dr., the story is likewise driven by sexual obsession, denial, and intense guilt that leads the protagonist, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), to create a dream scenario into which he can escape his inner torment. He's perhaps even more delusional than Diane Selwyn, however, and at one point he voices a maxim ("I like to remember things my own way; not necessarily how they happened") that both illustrates his fear of confronting reality and neatly explains the vertiginous twists and refractions contained in the film, which is Madison's chronicle of reckoning with horrific choices. Lynch prepares the viewer for the big twist (Balthazar Getty taking Pullman's place in the story) by suggesting Madison's turbulent inner life with frames that jar in and out of focus—approximating subconscious interference and, in Getty's portion, the intrusion of reality—extreme close-ups, figures materializing in darkness, and his own disruptive sound design, full of synthesized industrial noise and heightened everyday sounds. Appropriately, Madison recasts his victimization tale as a film noir, with himself-as-Getty as a mechanic who falls in love with a gangster's pretty blonde moll, played by Patricia Arquette, who also plays his slain brunette wife. Madison deifies her as an insatiable love goddess, irresistible and ever-receptive to his needs, but tarnished by her dissolute associations with other men, a jealousy that mirrors his adulterous suspicions involving his wife, a smut peddler, and a man named Dick Laurent, envisioned as an old gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia).

Further doublings, reflections, and parallels between the two stories abound—there's an unidentified incident that Getty can't remember, and the vision of an inversely exploding cabin bookends the central transformation. There is a thrill in trying to unlock the puzzle, but the film is most significant for seamlessly evoking the layout of an involved dream-delusion—Getty's repeated exclamation, "I want you," to the idealized image of Arquette (who replies, "You'll never have me"), concurrently summing up the state of waking from a great dream and Madison's sexual despair, may even top Mulholland Dr. for mapping out tactile subconscious yearning—and detailing the bleak recesses of a tortured soul. More than just an oracle of figurative states, Lynch also displays a finely tuned sense of droll humor. Like the bumbling hit-man in Selwyn's projection, Mr. Eddy's menace is absurdly realized in his battery of an obnoxious tailgater. Aurally, Angelo Badalamenti shares the soundscape with various rock contributors, notably Lou Reed and David Bowie, whose brooding "I'm Deranged" sets the tone from the opening credits. So easy to get lost in such an immersive ambiance, which truly provides an embarrassment of sensory riches; one can simply coast along for the ride and still find a transportable experience. Lynch is that rare director who can illuminate unknown territory through his complementary cinematic and storytelling abilities.
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5/10
Snide & unfunny
1 April 2014
What's the point of making a parody of an unintentionally funny movie, at least one as self-evidently specious as Reefer Madness? Not unlike hearing a really bad joke and then being subjected to an endless explanation of its underlying humor, RM: TMM riffs even more exaggeratedly on everything from the 1936 film that's been disproved by advances in science and psychology. However, the real subject of this ugly, unfunny movie is moral revisionism, i.e., pretending that our enlightened age is safe from the prejudices and errant thinking of previous generations. It's quite a snide little film, taking safe jabs at a perceived backward era without adding anything substantive to the mix. This is the height of lazy thinking and broad, liberal pandering, as if a couple of psych-major potheads screened the original film, got all indignant, and decided to decry its factual inaccuracies in musical form. Of course it screened at Sundance and of course it was heralded as a comedy gem.
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Holiday (1938)
8/10
Highly recommended
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
An excellent Hollywood chamber drama. Cary Grant plays an investor who dreams of saving enough money for early retirement, and then discovering his real purpose in the world. He's set to marry the daughter of a banking tycoon for whom the accumulation of wealth is everything. Almost completely set within the family's sprawling mansion, the film is essentially composed of two extended set-pieces consisting of Grant's efforts to gain the father's marriage blessing and the ensuing New Year's Eve celebration. Grant gradually learns that his fiancée is very similar to her father, but the other sister (Katharine Hepburn) finds in him a kindred spirit, and a drunkard brother (Lew Ayres) encourages their budding infatuation. There's quite a lot of pleasant humor, but also a palpable sense of deep-seated resentment and stifled dreams that play out against a well-defined family dynamic. Most beautiful are the scenes set within a rustically designed room—an escape from the father's unwavering stoicism—viewed by the estranged characters as a revivifying place where the real living happens, divorced as it is from crippling bourgeois expectations. Cukor's economical direction makes the most of the geography of several rooms and Donald Ogden Stewart's screenplay is particularly attuned to the broken relationship between the old-fashioned father and Hepburn's free-thinking dreamer, as incisively drawn here as in The Philadelphia Story. Highly recommended.
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7/10
Byzantine
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Returning to the hermetic Boston neighborhoods of Mystic River, a familiar atmosphere of blight and hopelessness pervades Gone Baby Gone, which presents a morally byzantine world whose laws don't always protect the innocent, making the very idea of doing the right thing a vastly complex negotiation. The story concerns Casey Affleck as a private investigator hired by the family of an abducted child to augment the search. He's intent on cracking the case and restoring the child to her family, but the job proves much more troubling, revealing twists of motivation that severely test his steady, Catholic-informed code. Ed Harris is terrific as a passionate veteran of a child crisis unit. He and Affleck share a perfectly written scene following a bloody siege on a squalid house of horrors, in which Harris reveals unethical choices he's willingly made in the past to benefit at-risk children. This five-minute exchange unearths buried secrets and personal thresholds, forecasting on a character level the story's climactic decision. (Crucial is Affleck's rejection of Harris's moral relativism, a necessity in this ethical morass.) Although director Affleck stumbles somewhat in the third act, which employs one too many misdirecting flashbacks (and requires one to piece together some story threads almost by inference), the final 10 minutes are finely judged, including a devastating final shot. Films that approximate life's situational complexities are all too valuable, and this one is exceptional in that regard.
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Badlands (1973)
10/10
The face of crime
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The word "pre-moral" kept floating through my head as I watched Badlands. I've never used the word before, but it seems particularly apt in describing Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), two abnormally naïve lovers on the run. Movies often present amoral psychopaths, but these are two carefree souls—one of whom kills without any notion of consequences—who see everything with unmitigated wonder; conscience doesn't yet exist to them. When Kit kills, not only is he unaffected by the act, but he views it as an almost natural course of human relations. A young teen, Holly's just happy to be with a loving someone, fascinated by her newfound freedom. Spacek narrates the film's events in a tone of childlike fascination, rife with questions about her destiny and matter-of-factly bearing witness. This is her coming-of-age story.

The couple's primitive exposure to the world is beautifully dramatized in their Edenic forest safe-house, in which Kit hunts for food and sets traps as Holly tries on makeup and peers through her father's stereoscope while musing on what might have been and what will be. The leisurely pace of these sequences and the exploration of their peaceful, makeshift universe is incredibly disquieting following Oates's murder. Their pie-eyed fascination with forest sounds and cloud shapes—captured photographically in impossibly radiant tones—evokes Thoreau's ideals about subsistence and rebirth through nature, but since the subjects lack the intellectual (let alone spiritual) capacity for such ideas, the cinematographic beauty creates a cognitive dissonance that lingers and haunts. This contrast of sublime creation and human underdevelopment gives Badlands its consistent, implacable power.

Malick brilliantly tips the film's moral equilibrium further askance by inserting disarming touches—e.g., Spacek grabbing her school books from her locker so she won't fall behind; Sheen's irrelevant dusting off of his fingerprints—to illustrate the couple's youthful ignorance. However, rather than justifying or diminishing their crimes, Malick sees this inexperience as dangerously seductive. (Pace Bonnie and Clyde, their recklessness is not an expression of antisocial rebellion, just the natural drift of arrested children suddenly unleashed on the world.) Skip ahead to the ending, specifically in how Kit's fresh-faced geniality appeals to the officers. Seduced by his easygoing attitude, the guards warm to Kit's amiable display of disaffected machismo ("just like James Dean"), the likable flipside to a fanciful grip on reality. Everything he knows he's learned from magazines and movies. With this movie, Malick explores the face of crime, implicating no one and everyone, somehow staying true to the complexity of human experience. It's a masterpiece.
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9/10
Longing for clarity
1 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
One of the greatest films about romantic longing, In the Mood for Love details the missed opportunities and self-deceptions that block consummation. Redolent of emotional opacity and consisting of resisted moments of fulfillment, a sort of love purgatory is created through the elliptical, space-fractured editing, faces reflected through kaleidoscopic glass, and shots blocked by hazy foreground objects; obscured views that evoke the undefined nature of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung's love story. Their affair is based on a woeful premise of commiseration: they role-play prior domestic situations to overcome their shared grief, rehearsing what they'd say to their adulterous spouses. Consummation is constantly teased. Leung reveals that he's fallen in love with Cheung, but the same lines are restated as a rehearsal, a recurring narrative device that archly toys with convention. This repetition motif is central to the mood of time lost and inhibited passion, as in a recurring slow-motion interlude backed by mournful strings, which wordlessly conveys what they've agreed to suppress. Still, this fragile emotional vortex that Wong, Doyle, and Pin Bing Lee have so masterfully created might dissipate like vapor if not for a poetic, resonant ending that affixes a tangible context to its maelstrom of motifs. Taking a page from Tarkovsky, the film's virtual mourning in a ruinous Cambodian temple demonstrates that where love may be short-lived, regrets and second-guessing own a permanent place in the memory.
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9/10
Just passing through
10 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
In this doomed love story of an ex-con (Henry Fonda) trapped in a world that won't forgive or forget and the woman (Sylvia Sidney) unconditionally bound to him, Lang sees the criminal potential in everyone, from the neighborhood cop who swipes apples from an immigrant fruit-seller, to the station attendants who exploit the couple's gunpoint gasoline theft for a payday of their own, to the guards who leer over Henry Fonda's supine form as it awaits escort to the chair. The whole world is on trial, and found guilty. Heroes and villains are splintered into categories of those who are punished for their crimes unto mortal eternity, and those who persist in petty, under-the-table wrongdoings within society's aegis. In the former category are the protagonists: Eddie, just notified of his exoneration from bogus murder charges, kills the kindly priest in a moment of disbelieving panic; Jo leaves her baby behind to prolong the adventure of a fugitive romance. Prior to these events, Eddie endeavors to go straight and set up a homestead, but his attempts to reform are blocked at every turn by exploiters and busybodies who forbid his dream of a quiet, quotidian existence. His life is reduced to the confines of a spare room, existence an unending rebuke. Lang empathizes with Eddie and Jo not because of their purity—anathema to Lang's worldview—but because of their faith in one another, which transcends the human birthrights of petty malfeasance and self-interest.

The film's structure is dauntingly clear yet purposeful, provocatively reenacting one crucial decision in order to illustrate the immutability of Eddie's fate. Following a rain-soaked bank robbery—one of several violent, weather-determined setpieces; here, Lang rhymes a wipe edit with the getaway car's flattening of a cop—all evidence points to Eddie's involvement in the crime, which resulted in six casualties. Innocent but determined to flee the fourth-strike rule and certain death, Eddie equivocates just long enough to be apprehended. His jailbreak on the eve of execution is punctuated by his first murder, necessitating his going on the lam—an initially voluntary choice recast as mandatory destiny. Innocence leads to a death sentence; guilt leads to literal death. A miracle is offered, but it arrives when he's distracted, at his most hopeless. And death becomes all, as an outcome of running and not running—living is the farthest idea from mind.

But it's living, Lang finally expresses, even at its most miserably futile, that affords grace. Jo resurrects Eddie from his boxcar tomb with exhortations to live for as far as roads will take them, perhaps all the way to border freedom. Those back roads open up to country vistas, Eddie's predominant mode of physical confinement recedes, and life is simplified to necessities of the moment. This serene spartan outlook radiates through the film's last scenes, as Eddie and Jo suffer their last trial, as Eddie gazes off inscrutably from a hilltop, still trying to elude his pursuers. Piercing through this tragedy is the return of the once-unnoticed miracle: Eddie's moment of grace revealed as deliverance from humanity's mudded reflection into spotless rebirth. At once a relieved affirmation of the film's title—i.e., the Langian notion that in death we will all one day blissfully escape mankind's stark judgments—and stunning evidence of a heretofore unseen Christian sensibility, Eddie's contented exodus from a damned life gives the priest the last word: death is renewal.
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8/10
Phantom Menace
10 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Although the propulsive idea of an innocuous choice that has unfathomably dire consequences courts the existential trappings of film noir—into which movement Ministry of Fear has uneasily been assimilated—the distinctiveness of the nightmare motif that Lang elegantly weaves between third act and epilogue, which conveys the intensified trauma of a just-released asylum detainee (Ray Milland, perfectly cast as an avatar of vague imperilment) immediately thrust into an Axis espionage plot, makes this a film with which to be reckoned on its own terms. As prelude to his second run-in with the police, which he's warned by the asylum director "would not be easy," Milland chooses to mill about in a charity-run carnival before embarking on a London-bound train. Lang's masterly talent for evoking psychological states through visual form is evident as Milland strolls through a tableau of darkly lit patrons in foreground, encircled mid-frame at a weight-estimation booth by inquiring old maids and oddly eager geriatrics, triggering a reactive flare of tension that registers in his physical disposition. This scene, the composition alone, proposes that despite his expressed desire to rub shoulders with other people, Milland is ill-prepared for that reality. Lang's stroke of sadism, then, is to put this unstable man through the paces of having to depend on and fear fellow citizens in uncertain quantity, voiding the slow re-acclamation process that his doctor prescribes. The story's three acts could be respectively classified "mystifying hostility," "digging for clues," and "full-fledged atavistic nightmare," each section highlighted by a defining outburst of violence mounted in a desolate space: the first is a chase through a field under attack by Nazi air raid, in which a faux blind man is blown up while protecting a coveted cake pilfered from Milland; the second is a suitcase bomb that detonates in a vacated apartment, knocking out the hero; the third is a shootout atop the Nazi ringleader's home base, menacingly fading to black before any triumphant celebrating commences.

It's the structure of this final act, and its last shot, that interests me. At its start, Milland awakes in a hospital bed, his sight filled with the rear form of a black-clad Scotland Yard detective tilting back in his chair at a distorted angle. After pleading his innocence to accusations of murder, Milland takes the detective and crew back to the scene of the first-act explosion, certain he will find something in the cake's remains to prove his outlandish claims of government infiltration. And he does, in a microfilm detailing British embarkation strategies, but in the process Lang echoes the earlier tableau of figures surrounding Milland in implicit condemnation—a return to the form of his story's onset and its defining incident, as well as the doctor's warning realized, with Milland's fate played out under the surveillance of strict judges. Fast forward to the climactic shootout, in which the detective's obsidian form materializes once again, this time as savior. But the film dissolves before any resolution with authority can be struck, before any relief over dead Nazis or foiled plots can be declared, at the moment in which that formidable man-of-law emerges in a doorway, still distant enough to be taken for a phantom. The circularity of nightmare complete, the screen abruptly fades away…and the story reassembles in bright daylight with a lovers' ending. I understand that Lang reproduced this conclusion to literal effect in his next film, The Woman in the Window, but I can't imagine a more sutured visual evocation of the oft-derided dream denouement, whose queasy jump from dark to light preserves the mystery of its story's serpentine chain of events and its victim's still-traumatized relation to them.
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7/10
Working the system
10 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Opening with a death-row electrocution and ending at the moment in which a man is presumably sentenced to the same fate, Reasonable Doubt is defined by its audacious, sensationalistic arrangement of events. The story's anti-capital punishment premise—a struggling writer frames himself for murder to prove the fallibility of the death penalty—obviously lends itself to pulpy embellishment, but the film's most spectacular feat is its jaw-dropping last-reel twist, which puts its own purported moral stance through the ringer by positing emotion as the true determiner of principles. Lang baldly manipulates the audience with this reversal, but his purpose, deeper than momentary awe, is to illustrate the eternal conflict in society between humankind's self-preserving unpredictability and its own noble, if constantly undermined, search for unified moral judgments. What ultimately transcends the stodginess of the theoretical conversations between the main players and their necessarily shallow characterizations (the film hinges on befuddlement for a reason) is Lang's empathy for a condemned man, a sensibility fully embodied in two shots: a close-up on a revoked certificate of pardon and the reverse shot of its regarder as he sadly considers freedom for the last time. In retrospect, the story's outcome is established in one of its very first shots, as the guilty party looks unblinkingly upon an execution while the other spectators turn away in disgust. Lang's thesis is easily described after all: the only man who can emotionlessly observe the practice of capital punishment is himself a murderer.
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Fail-Safe (1964)
8/10
Brilliant suspense
16 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Unjustly deemed the dull stepbrother of the contemporaneously released Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe was never given a fair chance in 1964. Accused of plagiarizing Peter George's novel Red Alert, which was the basis for Kubrick's film, Fail-Safe was subsequently dogged by poor publicity, and then meagerly distributed and exhibited several weeks after Dr. Strangelove, effectively nullifying its cold-blooded nuclear horror story. It is now readily apparent that the studios and public were wrong: Fail-Safe is genuinely terrifying and plausibly plotted, illuminating the inherent folly of ceding wartime logistics to a technological system when nothing less than the survival of the world is at stake. Nuclear deterrence was nothing if not an emotional and moral pact between the US and USSR, which rested on a simple mutual threat: If you attack us, we'll obliterate not only you but perhaps the entire world with you. Fail-Safe, then, examines a possible result of entrusting such protocol to a computer, which tends to glitch and freeze at the worst times, as it inevitably does here. American fighter jets loaded with the nuclear payload to level Moscow reach their "fail-safe" points (areas just off Russia's coast at which they are either instructed to turn back or strike) and are given the go-ahead when headquarters isn't able to patch a busted microchip in time to issue fallback orders. Upon passing through fail-safe, the pilots are to complete their mission regardless of any further command, since any subsequent communication might well be enemy subterfuge.

This brilliant suspense scenario in place, the remaining two acts and epilogue oscillate between fascinating philosophical ruminations about human responsibility for the impending disaster and how to deal with its aftermath—Walter Matthau is particularly good as an adviser who functions as a prophet of war, as essentially George C. Scott's character in Strangelove played straight, to frighteningly zealous effect—and the efforts of those on both sides to stop the bombers from reaching Moscow. The film has a few weaknesses, both minor, in its simplicity of staging and occasionally severe camera angles, which seem to strain for austere effect. Otherwise, this is intellectually engaging and aesthetically satisfying, with director Lumet expertly building the tension between four primary locations, inspired black-and-white photography that occasionally goes negative, or X-ray-like, as in the inventive, cyclical opening and closing scenes, and a handful of noteworthy performances from Henry Fonda as the American president, Dan O'Herlihy as a good military man with a haunted conscience, and Frank Overton as a general who rises to the occasion with admirable courage.
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7/10
Another success for the pre-code Warner Bros. studio
14 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
This overachieving prison drama is yet another success for the pre-code Warner Bros. studio, which seemed to churn out brisk, deceptively artful crime films like this one by the dozen. Typically, the film's force derives from raw depictions of societal conditions coupled with blunt performances, montage-heavy storytelling, inspired use of light and shadow, and brash, innovative sound design. 20,000 Years's title sequence begins with a pan across a row of prisoners, each identified by a blown-up numeral designating his sentence. The film opens proper with a train containing cocky new inmate Tom Connors (Spencer Tracy) hurtling towards Sing Sing, the central conflict between penitentiary depersonalization and a larger-than-life personality set into motion in just two scenes. An avuncular warden (Arthur Byron) embodies the other half of this dialectic, a trusting, unfailingly decent man whose implausible kindness flies in the face of Hollywood logic relative to jail-keepers. (The story, adapted from real-life Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes's memoirs, hinges on a preposterous act of compassion that simply must have been embellished in the retelling.) As mentioned, photography by Barney McGill is stellar throughout, especially during an escape attempt that shifts perspective between the prisoners and their captors with astonishing skill, and boasts a slyly subversive motif of guards' shadows menacingly creeping closer to foil the plot. Michael Curtiz has an innate gift for knowing where to place the camera and his editing acumen is evidenced by a montage of Tracy's glum face superimposed over strictly ordered prison routines that covers a month's time. While 20,000 Years might not be in the same class as The Public Enemy or The Roaring Twenties, its final scenes have a cold, clear logic that anticipate noir and the final shot is a wavering counterpoint to one of the warden's sturdy philosophies that draws a fitting close to the Tracy-Byron relationship. This is another intelligent entertainment from a productive period in studio film-making that doesn't belabor its social relevance but moves with an assured touch.
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8/10
Wild Bill's Wild Boys
10 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
An invaluable time capsule and an effective tale of kids forced to grow up prematurely, this decidedly austere, Depression-era saga begins with a celebration of youthful adventurism before that innocence is flattened by a hard world. Filmed with the torrid sweep of a Warner Bros. gangster picture, Wild Boys is remarkably unsanitized in its depiction of adolescent suffering, making the perseverance of its characters all the more shattering. Frankie Darro is fantastic throughout and in one scene in particular. I'm thinking of the way he and his father relate after he's just sold his beloved "Leapin' Lena" automobile to a junkyard to help his family pay the bills. Such a sharply written and acted moment, but the grace note happens shortly thereafter when Darro, unable to bear the sight of an empty garage, bars the doors shut: a child who wishes he was too tough to cry in front of others, but too proud to mourn alone. Darro's performance mirrors teenage illusions of invincibility or perhaps a boy who's seen too many movies, emulating Cagney in his scowling resentment of the many corrupt adults he encounters bumming around the country with his quieter buddy, Tommy. The harrowing bulk of the movie revolves around their attempts to stay safe and unseen while hitching trains, and finding shelter, food and work at all stops between. Wellman's enthusiasm behind the camera is evident, often dissolving or cutting in mid-word as if he can hardly wait to show us the next setup. However, he belies a personal feeling for the material in shots that linger, on Darro and Tommy sobbing together, or on Tommy's artificial leg abandoned in the mud of Cleveland. Mostly, though, this is a lightning-paced adventure full of horrific incidents—who can forget a young Ward Bond as a despicable trainman (actually credited as "Red, the Raping Brakeman") who underestimates the young mob?—sketched in with a keen eye for realistically grim settings and broken characters. This is a vital film about the Great Depression's most precious casualties, and therefore, in dire need of rediscovery.
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7/10
"I have been ordained to destroy all evil!"
3 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Exactly what I was looking for on a sleet-filled Sunday night—a 60-minute crimer that is as ludicrously entertaining as it is nonsensical. A serial killer calling himself "The Judge" strikes on rainy nights, strangling his victims and leaving behind stenciled notes with warnings like, "I have been ordained to destroy all evil!" That one was left behind on an editor's desk, after the killer pitched the newspaperman through a second-story window (notable for the victim narrating the struggle in flashback). The cops are given hilarious dialogue that never fails to provoke a giggle. In one scene, the tough detective covering the case runs down the list of evidence. Regarding the killer's personality, he offers, "And we know how he thinks—he likes passing judgment on people." His wisecracking partner actually gets off a few humorous quips. The detectives get the inspired idea to create a faceless dummy to supplement their "routine bulletin information," which adds absolutely nothing to that knowledge but an odd, faceless, 3-dimensional model to complement their faceless, 2-dimensional sketches. And what a rough customer the protagonist is! He's absolutely ruthless to a (beautiful blonde) reporter, heaping insults at her ("that rag of a newspaper belongs in the river!") and basically scolding her for being an information whore. Somehow she falls for him. As written by Lillie Hayward and Anthony Mann, the film has a surprising streak of ill will towards print media; through Lundigan, they effectively state that newspaper coverage will inspire a breed of copycat killers. And did Anthony Mann step in to direct that incredible finale in a chemical plant? I wonder. It features his fascination for geometric angles and outstretched hands to the face and such. I never tire of movies like this. An unpretentious good time courtesy of the old RKO studio and solid worker-bee Richard Fleischer.
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Major Dundee (1965)
6/10
No lost masterpiece
3 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I never expected to see a forgettable Peckinpah film, but here it is. Sandwiched inauspiciously between his excellent debut, Ride the High Country, and his hellacious masterpiece, The Wild Bunch, Dundee is the director's flawed attempt to create a Custer-like portrait of military glory-seeking in the form of Charlton Heston's titular martinet, who employs a motley crew of Confederate prisoners, horse thieves and assorted miscreants to hunt down an Apache war machine. There's an epic ambition here that's never realized, suppressed by the conventional screenplay and intrusive diary narration that leaves little room for authentic character interplay or Peckinpah's characteristically rich colloquial dialogue. Despite a lack of cohesion—the film haphazardly unfolds as a string of desultory incidents—several scenes bear the director's rugged sensibility and look forward to later triumphs: R.G. Armstrong's reverend sticking up for a black soldier and giving Warren Oates one hell of a beating; Heston nursing his ego at a Mexican brothel; and Richard Harris's decisive final act, exposing Dundee's true colors and the consequences of his heedless exploits. Peckinpah had a real gift for illustrating the hypocrisies of the powerful and Dundee's final scenes have a knife-twisting irony that reveal a traitor to be a true patriot and a proud, medaled commanding officer to be a reckless, undependable coward. At its best, the film provides an instructive aesthetic bridge between the classical assuredness of Ride the High Country and the ruthless kinetics of his 1969 crowning achievement. But, sadly, it's no lost masterpiece.
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9/10
Hugely entertaining
20 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The larger-than-life figures of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and the specters of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, loom over director Anthony Mann's hugely entertaining first western with James Stewart. Although Stewart's quest to avenge his father's murder is the primary story, Winchester '73 is really an ensemble piece, with the eponymous, one-in-a-thousand firearm passing through the hands of many colorful owners, including a wry trader (John McIntire, especially great) and outlaw Dan Duryea, who's even more despicable than usual. The film's conflation of fiction and history produces a breezy pace and an ambivalent tone brilliantly in step with Mann's pared-down, compositionally rigorous film-making. His themes of psychological unrest and past dictating present faintly underlie this tall tale of good and bad men chasing after a fabled gun, but they starkly emerge in a vignette about a husband's cowardice and failed attempt at atonement, and are defined in Stewart's conversations with sidekick Millard Mitchell. Mann's use of environment is what sets him apart from other filmmakers of westerns. Instead of gazing at vistas from afar, he incorporates them into the drama as characters that redirect, complicate, or evoke the human characters' goals. Just as mountains, caves, and rapids had to be accounted for in The Naked Spur, here a gunfight occurs amidst the loose rocks and boulders of a small mountain, a physical obstruction that fatalistically determines the roles of victor and victim between two equally skilled sharpshooters. (I would be remiss in not recognizing cinematographer William H. Daniels's contribution, particularly his superlative day-for-night, open-range photography.) Not merely an adept outdoorsman, Mann presents an equally vivid picture of Wyatt Earp-patrolled Dodge City, primarily through scaled, multiple-plane staging. The shooting contest does not depend on brisk camera shifts or twitchy cuts for effect because Mann instinctively knows where to place the camera and how to move it to display the greatest density of information in a given shot. Nor does he care to spell out the plot in dialogue, relying on the actors' eyes or a well-chosen image to convey the stakes. One scene in particular serves to explain his attitude: Mitchell's telling of Stewart's motivation to Shelley Winters, which is interrupted by the climactic gunfight that soon enough reveals all. Light without feeling insubstantial, intense without being overbearing, Winchester '73 seems more modern than its contemporaries and is a joy to behold.
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Targets (1968)
8/10
Disarming
16 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Targets' unbearable tension can largely be attributed to its ruthlessly bifurcated structure, as the story cross-cuts between an old movie actor's (Boris Karloff, essentially playing himself) moody reflections about changing times and a clean-cut young adult's inexplicable rampage. It's a disarming storytelling strategy that Hitchcock would have loved: one half thoughtful and talky; the other half suspenseful and purely visual. The sniping sequences are among the most harrowing ever filmed, with Bogdanovich forcing us to peer down the sniperscope while the killer picks off hapless targets. Topical then as it certainly is now, the story was based on Charles Whitman's then-recent killing spree in Texas, and the film was released contemporaneous to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) is the disaffected youth, still living in his childhood home with his wife and parents. He has an insurance job, smiles a lot, prays at dinner, and drives around with a small arsenal in his trunk. We know it's only a matter of time until he snaps and Bogdanovich mercilessly teases that anticipation by cutting back to Karloff's story at the queasiest moments, such as when O'Kelly grabs a handgun from his trunk after his parents have gone to bed, re-enters the house, switches off the lights behind him, and the black screen transitions into a television presentation of Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code, which Karloff is viewing in his hotel room.

Editing and scene construction are just as meticulous throughout: a shot preceding the murder of Thompson's family begins with a big close-up on the word "DIE.", and after the massacre, itself reliant on montage for effect, the camera tracks along the carpet until it stops on the letter that O'Kelly was finishing as the scene began. Bogdanovich tempers these punishing sequences with cathartic doses of classic-movie love, e.g., the aforementioned Hawks' film ("all the good movies have been made," laments Bogdanovich's director character), but also Karloff's unforgettable campfire tale, ostensibly told to an obnoxious radio-show host but addressed to us, his faithful public. These moments function as respites in the narrative, but also, crucially, as needed escapes from the incomprehensible brutality of current times, restorative plunges into nostalgia. The movie comes down to a collision of past and present (fiction and reality) that gives Karloff one final show-stopping act, recalling an earlier moment in The Criminal Code and cleverly matching his concurrent actions in the real-life film-within-a-film, The Terror. It is to Bogdanovich's credit that such heady self-reflexivity never distracts but is adeptly woven into the story to make a statement about cinema's place in the present.
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Fat City (1972)
7/10
Yesterday is dead and gone
15 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Few directors have portrayed the dead-end dreamers of small-time boxing with as much sincerity as John Huston. His style is empathetic in its raw, eye-level honesty, and he never condescends to beautifying the characters' forlornness: the camera is kept at an observant distance, largely eschewing the emotional shortcut of a well-placed close-up, allotting ample time for the three central characters (Tully (Stacey Keach), a washed-up fighter always planning another comeback; Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a likable kid whom Tully discovers in a YMCA; and Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a disillusioned barfly) to inhabit their environments in lifelike duration. This languid approach to pacing and behavior complements the run-down bars and gyms they frequent, and the cramped apartments that can barely contain their desperation. Even the boxing is subdued, lacking the grace and fluidity typical of cinematic depictions, staged here as base, cumbersome punching-contests. Contrary to the title, this is a lean, direct conception of life on the fringe, whose participants struggle to maintain their optimism amidst crushing failure; in short, a wholesale atmosphere of abjection suffuses every moment. As miserable as these settings and lives are, screenwriter Leonard Gardner's characterizations are surprising and well-considered, as evidenced by his fair portrayal of a local boxing manager (Nicholas Colasanto) who enables his fighters' illusions because he wants something to believe in as much as they do. And when he withholds a portion of Tully's cut to compensate for cash advances, it's clearly an act of loyalty and faith, not greed. Conversely, Susan Tyrrell's critically lauded turn strikes me as the wrong performance for this movie, more bawdy affectation than low-key naturalism; she's dialed-up when she should be dialed-in. No matter: the scenes between Keach and Bridges are intimate and powerful, never more so than the final shot, which vividly evokes a state of spiritual desolation, set to the final stanza (the remainder plays over the opening credits) of a lonely Kris Kristofferson song: "Yesterday is dead and gone…help me make it through the night." Huston uses his big close-up here and the discipline pays off: Tully's abandoned expression packs a real punch.
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8/10
Devastating
14 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The themes could be characterized as news-media exploitation or the human need for individual glory at any cost or the destructive allure of publicity, but that wouldn't begin to describe Wilder's caustic examination of humanity's ignoble qualities, here its ugly opportunism in the face of tragedy. As well-made as it is hard to stomach, Wilder's film sticks it to journalism, middle-class tourism, rubbernecking, and unfaithful women with equal aplomb to illuminate the moral desensitization of American society in an age of trivial entertainments. (Possibly the most misanthropic shot I've ever seen: a locomotive bearing the name of the dying man bringing in hundreds of paying guests, the camera panning to catch them all running towards the carnival setup as a country-western band sings the victim's ballad.) The main character, Chuck Tatum, is observed in the opening shot riding in his car while being towed to the Albuquerque newspaper, his latest job opportunity in a career of burned bridges. The newsroom is presided over by a scrupulous editor whose motto "Tell The Truth" is embroidered in a deliberately quaint, relic of a portrait. After talking the editor into giving him a job, Douglas walks toward the camera, and in a brilliant touch his figure creates a momentary black screen that gives way to his re-emerging into frame exactly a year later, wearing the same unfashionable belt-suspenders combo for which he teased his boss—an inventive jump-cut not only for its artistic skill, but also for defining a professional nadir that impels Tatum to exploit the cave-in for personal notoriety. The way that Tatum's careful scheme comes crashing down around his ears is akin to Walter Neff reaching for ill-gotten gains and being doubly rebuffed for his efforts. However, Tatum's pathetic end is more demonstrative than resigned: in his fall from prestige, he conjures up one of cinema's unforgettable closing lines. This is a devastating satire, blunt and unsparing.
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9/10
Eye-blowing
13 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Featuring purportedly one of the most accurate re-creations of the antebellum South, Buster Keaton's second feature prefigures The General in its prominent use of an early wood-burning locomotive as both stunt-apparatus and homage to the past. The "Rocket's" trek from New York to Trenton occupies nearly two reels and stands as one of Keaton's towering achievements. The train suffers animal obstructions, uneven tracks, resourceful hobos, and design flaws while its passengers are jostled about, their faces smudged by the fumes. Everywhere on the journey, onlookers gather to watch this strange contraption. One of Keaton's best visual gags is a long shot of farmhands scurrying towards the foreground to watch the train pass. The subject is kept out of view for a good thirty seconds until it rushes in from off-screen, its two-car caboose shambling past the observers who plainly return to their jobs following this all-too-brief spectacle. Keaton is clearly fascinated with documenting reactions to progress: in one scene, he sits on his hobbyhorse waiting at a crosswalk as an old guard relates the dangers of horse-drawn carriages.

Mostly though, as in all Keaton films, his precise sense of visual humor is the true subject, an ingenious succession of absurd predicaments, obscured compositional elements, and infinite off-screen space that seems to lurk just beyond camera, permanently ready to throw another obstacle in the hero's path. Take the fishing scene, for example: Keaton, on the run from a rival family, grabs a pole and attempts to blend in with the landscape. Cut to two farmers, who blow up a nearby dam to irrigate their crops. Keaton, seated beneath the spot of runoff but fortunately set in from the ledge, is blocked by the waterfall just as the brothers emerge in frame, looking in his direction. Or the chase down a mountainside, as Keaton ties himself to a rope that suddenly drops into view, unaware that his pursuer is attached to the other end. His comic gift lies in creating humor through disjunction, in this case between what we can see and what his protagonist cannot—a very sophisticated punch line that would likely be lost without his exact incorporation of camera placement, staging, set design, and editing. The thrilling, climactic waterfall rescue is Keaton's greatest coup, with a bit of physical timing that must be seen to be believed. For the attentive viewer, Keaton's movies never stop giving, seeming to transcend physical boundaries right before our eyes.
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I Confess (1953)
6/10
Mediocre Hitchcock
9 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Noticeably lacking the visual and narrative fluidity of the majority of his output, Hitchcock's tale of a priest implicated in a murder after hearing the confession of the real killer traffics in didactic visual metaphors (the Crucifixion statuette hovering over Clift as he testifies), and is marred by labored pacing and an atonal Dmitri Tiomkin score that overplays all dramatic cues. The uninspired result is vexing because the crackerjack premise seems right up the director's alley. I Confess certainly starts on the right foot: an economical opening montage establishes place and motivating incident, and the murderer's confession that dissolves mid-stream is a classic piece of audience manipulation. But stolidity forms in the handling of the police investigation and a long flashback sequence detailing Clift and Baxter's courtship is needlessly drawn out with superfluous uses of slow-motion and extreme angles. One can almost feel Hitchcock straining to transcend banality purely through technical virtuosity, a description that applies just as well to the climactic courtroom scenes. Best of all is the priest's characterization: Clift's silent resolve could either be honorable, foolish, or masochistic depending on the viewer. Had the direction been more focused and the production more understated, this could have been a dynamic character study; as is, the film simply lacks juice and momentum.
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8/10
Finding peace
7 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Rich, beautiful film about facing mortality with dignity and integrity. The first post-credit scene has Joel McCrea entering a town in which his way of life is so outmoded that its elements have become fodder for a Wild-West carnival. Automobiles have replaced horses and horses are only used for historical re-creation. McCrea has come to this place to find an old friend (Randolph Scott) to join up for one last job transporting gold for a bank. McCrea finds his ex-partner working a penny shooting-stall whose walls are adorned with sensationalized western lore. Their conversation—a stalwart piece of acting and writing deepened by the stars' long-time association with the genre—is tinged with some shame at the hand life has dealt them in old age; the subtle dialectic between McCrea's healthy self-respect and Scott's yearning to find justification for the wasted years quietly introduces the story's central conflict and themes. These two characters refreshingly act with a force of purpose, driven by their realizations of old age and personal ethics, which give McCrea solitude from a society he doesn't understand. Scott seeks that same freedom and thinks he can attain it in stolen gold, a recompense for years of unacknowledged civil service. On the surface, this is an argument of moral righteousness vs. relativism, but in Peckinpah's hands it is the weighing of two ideas of independence: the everlasting virtue of inner peace—which McCrea finds in his final look at the sky over the mountains—and the illusory riches of monetary wealth. Central to nearly all the Peckinpah films I've seen is the notion of finding peace through a sense of honor that must be honed and perfected wholly by the individual. This theme finds its greatest advocate in McCrea's unwavering man-of-character, who does the right thing because it yields solace. To echo the film's most memorable line—"All I want is to enter my house justified"—a justified life is an imperative of choice and action, not of entitlement, a truth that Scott's character must discover for himself.
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