A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 536 – The Big Six

The Big Six – August 18th, 2011

You know, if we were going to watch a short movie last night, we really should have watched this back to back with its companion piece. But the plans we’d had last night, and the reason for watching Laserblast fell through and we watched it anyhow and saved this for tonight. I guess that’s actually a good thing, because this right here washed all the horrible aftertaste from Laserblast clean away. It’s another story from Arthur Ransome, again with Dick and Dot and their friends on the Broads, including Mrs. Barrable and her dog and Tom and the twins and the Death and Glories. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as much fun for me as the first one and I’m not sure if I can put my finger on why, but we’ll see.

It certainly isn’t because of the scenery or the acting or the overall tone of the piece. Those are all pretty much exactly the same as Coot Club. However, where the first movie was more an adventure story with mischief taking place, this story is definitely a mystery right from the outset. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s not the mystery so much as that in film format, there’s not as much room for explanation for why these characters act the way they do. The tension of the story requires that the vast majority of the village and the surrounding villages believe that the Death and Glories are entirely likely to do what they’re accused of, but if the events in the first movie are anything to go by, they’re well liked by just about everyone around. In a book – and especially in a book as densely written as Ransome tends towards – there’s ample space to explain events that have might have happened in between, or in the past. Likewise for George Owden, who’s clearly a bad sort in the first movie and clearly a bad sort in the second, yet believed far more easily by the adults than one would expect.

The mystery involves someone on the river casting boats adrift and framing the Death and Glories for it. Of course the Death and Glories have nothing to do with it, but wherever they go, boats lose their moorings overnight and people start to get pretty damn pissed. They go up the river to another village entirely, thinking they can hide out somewhere out of the way to prove their innocence when other boats go adrift. Except the villain of the story is specifically targeting them, so they only spread their problem. The rest of the children try to help them in various ways, hiding them, giving them assistance and so on and so forth. It only makes things worse when they help a fisherman land an enormous pike and an innkeeper pays them a hefty sum for it, but only if they keep it a secret so he can make a big unveiling of it once it’s mounted. So they’ve got money and no alibi and some stolen good are planted on their boat and it all seems like they’ll never be able to clear their names when Dick comes up with an idea using the amazing new technology of a flash pan for night photography!

Really, it’s a simple story. And you know from the outset that it can’t have been the Death and Glories, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re being framed. There’s no question there. And there’s no real tension either. It’s just a matter of waiting until Dick has his brilliant idea to solve everything. But between when they realize they’re being framed and then it just feels like there’s a lot of sailing up and down the river. They go up one way, then turn back. The twins go up by a sort of river-based hitchhiking to meet the Ds, Tom and Mrs. Barrable, then they get called back by their father. The Death and Glories go to one village, then have to run for it when more boats are unmoored and go to another village. Not that I really mind seeing a whole lot of sailing scenes on the river. That’s where a lot of the charm of the whole thing lies. It’s just that it starts to feel as though the story is an excuse to show a lot of sailing as opposed to the sailing being an integral part of it all.

Now, this is an issue with the story, not the movie specifically (since I can’t recall if it’s addressed in the book), but part of my issue with mysteries like this one is that there’s often something in the way of the truth and had it been revealed earlier a lot of fuss would have been avoided. In this case it’s the pike. The innkeeper tells them to keep it a secret, which is all well and good when it comes to the general public on the river, including the boys’ friends, but why not tell the police Constable who’s convinced they’re at fault? It would give them a solid reason for having the mysterious money everyone assumes they got from selling stolen goods and it would establish their whereabouts for at least part of the time. But they say nothing. This is something that comes up, frequently in children’s mysteries, and always bothers me. It’s a convenient and in my opinion cheap way to keep a mystery a mystery.

Anyhow, Dick saves the day with his camera and flash pan and with a photo of George Owden and his friend shoving a boat off its mooring the Death and Glories are off the hook. Their pike is revealed and hooray for the boys! Just like we all knew it would go. Truly though, it’s not the story that’s the point of watching this. The point is the boating and the setting and scenes like the kids all trying some smoked eel and finding it revolting and Port and Starboard hitching their way up the river by traveling with random boaters who take them on for a bit. It’s the atmosphere that I love here. And I’ve got to say, I do love the three Death and Glory boys. They’re good fun to watch and clearly having a good time with it. So despite my issues with the story, I still greatly enjoyed this. I think I’d put in its companion first, but I’f probably pop this in right after just to keep the mood going.

August 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 499 – The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files: I Want to Believe – July 12th, 2011

When this came out in theaters Andy and I were so far removed from the show that it never really came up in conversation. We didn’t go see it and we didn’t rent it and the only reason we own it now is because my coworker’s husband had it used and was willing to sell it cheap. Going into it this evening we were a little worried that having skipped out on the later seasons of the show we wouldn’t be able to follow what was going on in the movie. Luckily for us, for the most part this movie isn’t really a part of the Big Mysterious Plot Arc that the first one tackled. If the first movie is an extended episode tying into the plot arc, this one is just plain an extended episode, complete with unexplained phenomena that never get explained, gruesome murders and plenty of Mulder and Scully butting heads.

Unfortunately for us, the movie is very clear that it takes place well after the events at the end of the series. How do I know this? Well, because both Mulder and Scully have left the FBI, Mulder is wanted by them and there are several points where it’s clear that the almost-kiss from the first movie clearly heralded a much more intimate relationship. Around when Mulder’s head pops up from beside Scully in bed, Andy and I both said “Well, we did miss something.” And then I looked it up and yeah. We missed a lot. Not that I’m invested enough to go digging around for the episodes, but yeah. Apparently they were not opposed to hopping into bed together, even after some time apart. The movie doesn’t really make it clear how close they’ve been in recent years. Scully’s working as a doctor at a Catholic hospital and Mulder’s living in a rural area, obsessing over supernatural stuff. Scully walks right into his house and it’s implied that she’s been there before and clearly knows how to get there, but then she’s in bed with him and talking about bringing darkness into their home. It’s kind of confusing and distracting because their relationship seems to be key to the emotional impact of the whole plot.

The story is a sort of grisly murder mystery with supernatural elements. I’d call it a thriller but it doesn’t have as much of the suspenseful aspects as I normally associate with the genre. If you’ve seen monster-of-the-week episodes of X-Files, you’ve got the basic tone here, but without the dry humor that the show displayed on a regular basis. It’s however many years after the show ended and the FBI comes knocking on Scully’s office door, asking her to help them find Mulder. And why do they need Mulder? Well, aside from having wanted him for years, they want his advice on how to handle a man who’s come forward claiming to have had visions of a missing FBI agent. But when they followed his visions they found not a missing woman or even a body but a man’s severed arm. So yeah, mysterious. And apparently the FBI has only one go-to supernatural expert and that’s Mulder.

Mulder, of course, believes that the man is a psychic and totally knows what he’s talking about. Scully, of course, is skeptical and thinks he’s full of crap and only gets more skeptical when she finds out that the psychic, Father Joe, is a convicted pedophile. And here is one of my major issues with the movie. The whole secondary arc for Scully, involving a dispute with the hospital administration and experimental stem cell therapy for a young boy with an otherwise untreatable illness feels so very tacked on. The main plot is about this missing woman and then another missing woman and how a man these people might never have given the time of day is somehow able to pinpoint where discarded body parts have been dumped and been able to make connections to the missing persons cases. But then there’s Scully, tagging along going “This is ridiculous! He’s a fraud!” seemingly so that he can then say something meaningful to her and she can go back to work determined to practice her own form of faith. It just feels so clumsily put together. Like they needed something to do with her and couldn’t quite figure out how to fit her into the story. For every somewhat tense moment with the FBI agents and Father Joe and Mulder and the women being held prisoner there’s a moment with Scully looking concerned or arguing with a priest at the hospital. Granted, both plots end up involving experimental surgery, but they feel at best tangentially related.

Now, I actually rather liked the whole kidnapping and murder and dismembered limbs plot, along with the unwitting psychic who doesn’t know why he’s getting the visions he’s getting. I just feel like for such a gory and gruesome plot, with experimental science and all, it really gets short shrift. It’s left unsaid just what’s happening to these kidnapping victims until quite near the climax of the movie, so the bizarre Brain That Wouldn’t Die-ness of it all is barely touched on. There’s not even a whole lot of suspense for it. It just isn’t given time. It could be that this is a problem carried over from the series, but it’s been so long I don’t really remember the whole tug of war between Mulder and Scully feeling so tedious or Scully’s conflicts between her skepticism and her faith feeling so extraneous. I get why they’re in there, I just find it hard to care.

I would far rather have gotten more time to investigate the procedures being performed by the mysterious Russian doctors and found out more about the man being operated on and the man trying to save him. I would rather have spent more time on Father Joe and his visions-of-unknown-origin. They’re never explained, by the way. There’s a connection drawn between him and one of the other people involved but it’s never given the time necessary to give it any impact beyond shock value, which is pretty cheap if you ask me (as is the totally out of left field accusation that Mulder wants Father Joe to be psychic so he can find Mulder’s sister). There’s a lot of stuff like that, things with good concepts or potential but no weight whatsoever. I don’t require black ooze and conspiracies from the X-Files and I don’t require full explanations. But I do prefer to feel like the plots and stories were thoughtfully put together. This feels more like it’s supposed to be character development with a plot tossed on for kicks and it doesn’t hold up. Unfortunate, but there you go.

July 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

July 12, 2011

X-Files: I Want to Believe

I mentioned in the review for yesterday’s movie that I felt like the movie was a lengthy episode of the TV series. That’s actually far more true of this movie. This film is all about catching up with Mulder and Scully to see what’s been up since the end of the show and enjoy one last X-Files adventure with them. Here comes the awkward confession though – I didn’t really watch the X-Files after the last movie. I watched some episodes as a casual fan up through about season five but not much after that. As a result I wasn’t really sure how much in this movie was moving the characters past what they were in the show and how much was just a continuation of themes from the later seasons.

So what have the two of them been up to since the show ended? Well Dana has retired from the FBI at last to follow her career as a doctor, and Fox has been growing a shaggy beard. What’s interesting is that the event that brings the two of them reluctantly out of retirement is not some kind of epic world changing conspiracy, it’s a little tale of abductions, strange medical procedures and psychic powers. Very much like any stand-alone episode of the show this isn’t about the over-arching plot – it’s just about these characters and the slightly supernatural world they inhabit.

An FBI agent has been abducted and the team hunting for her has for some reason turned to a scraggly haired ex priest who is plagued by visions that pertain to the case. See if you can follow this now: the agent in charge of the search for the missing girl wants to believe the visions of the priest, but isn’t completely sold. She decides, therefore, to seek out that famous investigator of the paranormal Fox Mulder. Fox has been living in hiding though because of something having to do with being discredited (I think) and hunted by the FBI. They want to offer him amnesty so they can pick his brain and get the movie going, but they have to find him first. Naturally, therefore, they seek out his old partner Dana Scully because they know she’ll know where to find him. He agrees to go check out this psychic priest but only if Dana agrees to come along to keep him grounded.

I see all kinds of hints of character traits that were played up extensively in the show here. Particularly Scully’s whole clash between her scientific scepticism and her Catholic faith. She’s working now for a hospital that is run by a gaunt priest. She is desperate to save the life of her (apparently) only patient, who is a boy with some degenerative brain disease and is willing to use controversial experimental therapies to do so. Then it turns out that Father Joe is not just a psychic ex-priest, he’s a convicted pedophile. It’s all tied together. The whole thrust of the episode movie is that people don’t know if they can trust this fundamentally flawed man. Either his visions are a genuine psychic phenomenon and a way for Father Joe to redeem himself somewhat or he’s a loathsome shyster trying to scam the FBI. Naturally Fox wants to believe him and Dana despises him from the moment she discovers his past.

Gillian Anderson has the most to work with here. Scully spends the entire movie being conflicted, which means she has a whole lot of scenes of soul searching – perhaps too many. I know that Amanda’s biggest problem with the movie is that Dana is not really part of the main plot, that her whole thing with the dying boy in the hospital has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s most confusing when you come to the fan service scenes. We get to see Dana and Fox in bed together acting like an old married couple (even though they never refer to each other using their first names.) Then Scully agonises because she doesn’t like the whole dark world of the FBI and she just wants to live her life without all that.

Meanwhile David Duchovny has a lot less to work with. Fox starts out as a recluse living in the woods with his beard and his newspaper clippings, and the movie is just him turning back into the character he was in the show. He re-discovers his passion for paranormal investigation, which is fun to watch and all, but it doesn’t really give him anything new to do.

I actually had more fun with this movie than I did with yesterday’s. It’s not really trying to be more than a fun episode of the show, and I enjoyed being brought back to those strange and creepy shows that made me enjoy the X-Files back in the late nineties. It reminded me what it was about the show that worked, and it proves that even when the ongoing unresolved sexual tension of the show is finally out of the way these characters are still fun to watch. Maybe it could do with a little less angst and a little more supernatural horror, but it works well enough for me and it left me wanting more.

July 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 486 – Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia (2002) – June 29th, 2011

We bought this on the strength of the cast, which looked excellent. I knew very little about it aside from that it was a thriller/crime drama/murder mystery. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of crime dramas out there. But then we realized this evening that it was directed by Christopher Nolan, which, along with the cast, elevates it quite a bit on potential alone. And that was really all I knew going into this tonight. Run time, basic plot concept, cast and director. That sort of stuff. And knowing it was Christopher Nolan, I admit my expectations went up a good deal.

I wish I could say that the movie completely lived up to those expectations, but it’s not quite there. Oh, it’s not that it doesn’t work. I was just hoping for more twisty-turny psychological effects of the film’s gimmick. After all, part of the conceit of the story is that the main character, Detective Dormer, doesn’t sleep at all through the entire movie, which takes place over the course of a week. The murder mystery takes place in northern Alaska in the summer and the sun doesn’t really go down. The brightness coming in around the curtains of his hotel windows keeps Dormer awake through the night, leaving him bleary and confused during the day. Not the best mental state to be in when investigating a murder.

I would not be able to live in Alaska in the summer. My sleeping habits are atypical at best – I’m nocturnal and I’ve dealt with insomnia in the past – and the idea of having perpetual daylight and not being able to sleep? I’ve been in that state where you’re so tired you can’t trust what you’re seeing and you still can’t sleep and you would give anything to just get a few minutes. If you’ve never experienced it I don’t recommend intentionally trying it. We sleep for a reason. And this movie does an excellent job portraying the experience of being sleep deprived. Dormer focuses on sounds and the world recedes and he sees people where people aren’t. The thing is, while the cinematography showcases the visual effects well and the sound department did a fantastic job with the audio effects and Al Pacino gives an admirable performance, I felt like the movie could have gone further. It could have used the confusion more explicitly in places.

Part of Pacino’s character’s story is that he’s doing things that good cops don’t do. He’s acting questionably. And throughout the movie I had the suspicion that some of what he was doing could be attributed to sleep deprivation and unclear thinking. But then the movie goes and says no, not necessarily. Which means that the effects I was hoping for from the sleep deprivation aren’t so much from the sleep deprivation, which means I think that aside from Pacino’s performance and the handful of explicit moments of visual and audio confusion, it doesn’t so much affect the actual plot as much as I wanted. One thing it does do, however, is provide a link between Dormer and his prime suspect, author Walter Finch.

Finch calls Dormer in the middle of the night, talking to him about how isolated you feel when you’re awake that late. How it seems like you’re the only person in the world. This late night call connects the two and introduces Finch to the audience. And he has a good reason to be calling Dormer: He believes they’re alike in more than just their inability to sleep. He sees them both as accidental killers, unintentionally causing people they cared about to lose their lives. Because he saw Dormer and his partner in the fog, when they were out looking for him. And he saw Dormer take aim at his partner and fire. And he saw Dormer’s partner try to get away from him and he saw Dormer hold him as he died. So the movie links the two men, the detective and his suspect, through both action and reaction. Through manslaughter and insomnia and guilt.

The story follows Dormer as he goes to Alaska to help investigate the murder of a young woman, but that’s not really the story on its own. Because Dormer’s problems in LA, where he’s from, don’t go away just because he’s been sent north. He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs. His partner has decided he has no choice but to cut a deal. And Dormer knows that this will not go well for him. It colors every move he makes. Every decision. Which is what makes the whole insomnia aspect not matter as much as I want it to. The things Dormer does and doesn’t do and his reasoning for everything could well have happened back in LA, without the sunlit nights and lack of sleep. The only thing that really seems extreme for him is when he shoots his partner, and that happens well before he’s so sleep deprived that he’s seeing things. I guess I just don’t feel like the movie took its hook and fit it well enough into its plot.

Now, Dormer and Finch? They are very nicely built characters with lots of motivation and personality. And Pacino and Williams play their roles extremely well. I do love seeing Robin Williams do roles that don’t depend on his manic comedy persona. But there are a number of minor roles that could have been more fleshed out. There’s the murder victim’s abusive boyfriend, whom we only meet a few times before he’s framed for his girlfriend’s murder. There’s the innkeeper for the lodge where Dormer is staying, who listens to him and talks to him and tells him how there are two kinds of people who live in Alaska: People who were born there and people who came there to get away from something. And there’s the local detective, Ellie Burr (played by Hilary Swank), who’s followed Dormer’s career for years and is eager to prove herself both to him and in general. And I wanted more meat for all three of those characters. They could have figured in a lot more and for the latter two it seems like they really should have. Burr is such a pivotal figure in a lot of what happens at the climax of the film and the innkeeper has some lines that suggest that she’s meant to mean a lot more than she does. It’s frustrating, feeling like I’m missing bits for them.

All that being said, despite my criticisms of the spare treatment of a few characters and the uneven handling of hook vs. plot, I really did enjoy this movie. It’s visually gorgeous, and not just because of the beautiful scenery. It’s superbly acted and while I would have liked the plot to be better dealt with in places the actual lines as written all work on their own. I loved seeing the play between Dormer and Finch and how they interacted. I loved seeing Burr figure out much of the puzzle on her own. And I had to take some extra time to think about it before I could finish my review. Which is something I don’t usually allow myself but I really didn’t want to rush this one and I still feel like I haven’t done it justice. I wish it had been better, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.

June 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Insomnia

June 29, 2010

Insomnia

A couple odd coincidences tonight. We pretty much drew this movie at random from our collection to watch this evening and it just happens to be our second remake in two days and our second Robin Williams movie this week. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about this movie before I started watching it tonight. I knew the basic premise – Al Pachino is a hardened detective in Alaska, Hilary Swank is the brilliant rookie who idolises him and Robin Williams is his prime suspect. I knew it was a taut psychological thriller. What I didn’t know, or had somehow forgotten, was that this was directed by Christopher Nolan.

Now that we’ve finally watched this movie I have to say I think it’s the best thing I’ve seen Al Pachino in a long, long time. Maybe one time he was a powerful legitimate actor, but I have lately come to associate him with crazy over-acting. He’s the devil in Devil’s Advocate. He’s the megalomaniacal nemesis Willy Bank in the third Ocean movie. He’s a coke-snorting crazy fiend with a little friend. He’s Shakespeare’s Semitic villain. It was refreshing to see him in a more restrained and intense role. Make no mistake – this is his movie.

Pachino is Detective Will Dormer. His boss in LA has sent him up to help out with a murder investigation in Alaska – mostly to get Will and his partner Hap out of the city because Internal Affairs is causing heads to roll back home and Will is a tempting target for a ball buster looking to make political points. He has a long career of catching slimeballs and he worries that if IA were to concentrate on taking him down all his past victories would be undone.

Amanda and I watch a lot of procedural crime shows on TV. Mostly Criminal Minds these days. So there’s a certain familiarity to the notion of the a couple veteran detectives flying in to help out the locals with an unusual case. The twist is that this movie is not just about catching the criminal. It’s about a detective torn apart by the compromises he’s had to make to catch the perps he knows are guilty. Things get far worse for him when Will accidentally shoots his own partner while attempting to capture his suspect – his partner who was getting ready to play along with the Internal Affairs detectives in LA.

It is mid-summer in northern Alaska, and the sun never sets. It just circles the horizon, providing twenty-four hour light. As the action in the movie progresses Detective Dormer is unable to sleep at all and slowly begins to lose his mind. Through some questionable police work he’s able to uncover the identity of the killer, but the killer knows what happened to Dormer’s partner and is threatening to destroy Will’s career if he’s brought in. It becomes a cat and mouse battle of wills, with Dormer’s very soul on the line.

It’s great to see Robin Williams in a completely serious role after the insanity of his performance in Aladdin. As the killer Walter Finch he is all cold calculation and sinister betrayal. He’s a worthy adversary for the sleep-deprived Will, and it’s a role for an accomplished actor at the top of his game. Williams provides just the right combination of smarmy and desperate. Finch sees himself as less of a rival for Dormer and more of a fellow killer. They have both inadvertently taken a life and both gone to great lengths to cover it up. How, then, can Dormer claim the moral high ground?

As soon as I saw Nolan’s name on the box I started to really look forward to this movie. I had heard some about it before but didn’t really know what to expect. What I got was an intense, sometimes disturbing look at how fighting crime can make somebody into a criminal – how constant exposure to that world can harden a man and corrupt his sense of right and wrong. This movie is gorgeous, powerful and contains some of the best acting of both Williams and Pachino’s careers. It makes me look forward to watching it with my mother-in-law, who is also a big mystery and procedural crime drama fan.

June 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 465 – The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon – June 8th, 2011

It had been some time since I’d last seen this movie before tonight. I last saw it for a film class in high school, which was more years back than I usually think about. And to be honest, I don’t remember what I thought about it then or what my response to it was when we had to write about it. The class was a sort of quick overview of film and covered a strange array of titles (off the top of my head I can think of this, The Rules of the Game and The Deerhunter) over the course of a single semester and I know for certain that we watched this. But while I can vaguely remember what I said about The Rules of the Game and vividly remember what I said about The Deerhunter, what I mostly remember about watching this movie was that it wasn’t quite my genre but I liked it fine anyhow.

And it still isn’t really my genre. It’s not that I don’t like mysteries or noir or the sort of private eye that Sam Spade is. It’s just not my go-to genre. Which makes this movie difficult to review much in the same way No Country For Old Men was. Fortunately for this movie it’s got a few things that I find interesting and the main character is one of them. I actually rather like Sam Spade. He’s very much looking out for himself and I think I’ve made it clear I find that sort of character fascinating. But what makes him even more interesting to me is his secretary, Effie. I love Effie. I love her so much she’s going to get her own paragraph in a moment.

Now, Sam is a detective. And he’s got a partner, but of course he can’t keep that partner for long. Miles Archer gets bumped off just a few scenes in, setting everything else in motion when his widow sends the cops in Sam’s direction. He’s been approached by a woman with a patently false name to tail a man she claims is up to no good. Of course there’s more to the story and it turns out that the woman, Bridgid, along with two men (Kaspar Gutman and Joel Cairo), is after something important and valuable and there are people willing to kill to get their hands on it. The movie is full of double crosses and lies and bribes and deals. And through it all Spade has to figure out what the real story is, since none of the three main players is telling him, and also figure out what to do about it. After all, he doesn’t want his former partner’s murder pinned on him and there are two more deaths that he’d like to steer clear of. And Sam does so by paying close attention to everything around him and playing everyone off each other, including the cops.

But Sam also has an ace up his sleeve and that ace’s name is Effie. She’s his secretary, but while the role is a small one I can’t help but think about it in more detail. Effie’s always around the office and seems to be quite observant. She makes some interesting deductions of her own, suggesting them to Sam (who of course tells her why they’re wrong but also acknowledges that they were good ideas). She helps out with Bridgid, taking her home and trying to keep her safe. And when Sam comes into possession of the Maltese Falcon everyone’s so hot on obtaining, who does he trust to go and retrieve it and bring it to his meeting with Gutman, Cairo and Brigid? Effie. She’s depicted as a genuinely good person, smart and trustworthy. She’s not Sam’s type romantically, but that doesn’t matter one bit.

I do have some problems with Sam as a romantic lead. He’s not romantic. At least not for me. Maybe it’s that the ladies who fancy him so are attracted to the fact that he doesn’t seem to give a damn about them? I don’t know. I’ve never been much for that sort of romantic relationship in movies, but I suppose it’s a trope. Maybe it’s that some gals have a thing for Bogart. I don’t. Oh, he’s fun to watch and he does an excellent job in this role and there’s nothing terribly objectionable about him given the time period, he’s just not for me. Also, I would like to note that he doesn’t hit any women in this movie. He does slap Joel Cairo (played fantastically by Peter Lorre) and tell him “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” But I would just like to note that Woody Allen can kiss my ass for Play It Again, Sam and the constant references to punching women.

Regardless, I just don’t find this a very romantic movie. There’s a good attempt at it, with lots of dialogue between Brigid and Sam as well as some scenes that suggest that Sam’s been chased by the widow of his former partner. But they’re really not the highlight of the movie for me. The highlight is watching Sam work through the puzzle of it all and figure out a way to come out clean. This certainly isn’t my favorite movie in the world and it’s not flawless, but it is fun and it’s a solid mystery with some great performances, so I don’t argue with its classic status for one moment.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Maltese Falcon

June 8, 2011

The Maltese Falcon

It’s shameful admission time. Tonight is the first time I’ve ever seen this movie. It’s one of those classic movies that everybody has heard of and if you’re a movie fan people kind of assume that you’ve seen this sometime. It’s got the WB stable of forties actors. Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre would all be back in one year to make Casablanca, which I have seen many a time. My sister went through a Humphrey Bogart phase at one point in our youth and rented every one of his films, but I must have not been home when she watched this one.

Having finally seen this I have to admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed. It’s not a bad movie, and it has some fun performances, but it’s not really all that. Maybe the problem is that the movie is so commonly praised – my expectations were set too high.

I did really enjoy Bogart’s Sam Spade. It’s not as though Bogart is a stranger to the role of a hard-boiled detective, but this was not quite what I was expecting. I’m much more familiar with his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and I was pleasantly surprised that this character is so different and distinctive. It’s the sly kind of humor he brings to the part that I find so enjoyable. As a character Sam Spade is what Amanda would call Methosian – he’s a survivor and although the other characters in the movie seem to have a lot of trouble figuring out whose side he’s on it’s pretty clear from the very beginning that Sam Spade is on Sam Spade’s side.

He finds himself embroiled in a situation filled with danger, double crosses and avarice. When a woman hires Sam and his partner to tail a man that she claims her sister has run away with everything very quickly gets bad. Sam’s partner ends up dead, as does the man he was tailing. The police figure that Sam himself is the prime suspect in at least one of those murders. Sam’s a canny man though, he figures that he’s being played by the mysterious woman who has lied to him about everything from why she wanted a man tailed to what her name is.

Part of the problem with this movie for me is that I never for a moment saw any hint of romance between Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. As Brigid O’Shaughnessy Mary is convincing and manipulative. She’s a woman who never once seems to tell the whole truth, and the Sam is well aware of this. And yet there’s supposed to be some attraction between the two of them. The climactic moment at the finale of the movie relies on there being a connection between the two of them which forces Sam to make a choice between self preservation and love for Brigid. I don’t sense that necessary conflict, and it robs the movie of its power.

The other bad guys, however, are plenty of fun. Peter Lorre with his distinctive look and accent is fantastic as the weaselly and somewhat effete Joel Cairo. Then there’s Sydney Greenstreet as the corpulent Kasper Gutman, who seems honestly to enjoy Sam’s antics almost as much as the audience does. Perhaps even more so. I enjoyed watching both of them throughout the film.

This movie has everything you’d expect from your hard boiled detective drama. Double crossings. Mickey finns. Irish police officers. Murders. Tails. Guns. Even a kickass loyal dame who helps Sam out at every turn (and I really wish that the character of Effie were featured more prominently.) But I couldn’t help feeling at every turn that I had seen these cliches used better – even in some cases by the same actors we see here. I do wonder, though, if maybe they weren’t so cliched at the time. Perhaps the movie would have been more powerful to me if I had not been raised on so many stories that clearly used this movie as their inspiration. When you’ve seen Captain Picard playing on the holodeck as Terrance Dicks so many times in clear spoofs of precisely this kind of movie it tends to lessen the impact of the source material.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 454 – Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark – May 28th, 2011

Before tonight I had only seen this movie once and it was enough to make a lasting impression on me that stuck enough that I insisted that we add this to the collection when we started the project. Andy hadn’t seen it and I was absolutely thunderstruck when he said so. He hadn’t seen this? With Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin? Really? There are some bizarre spots in our collection where I’ve seen classics he hasn’t and he’s seen classics I haven’t. Between the two of us we’re very well-watched (and by the time we’re done with the project we’ll both be considerably more so). The thing is, the collection was largely bought by Andy, so it’s weighted in his favor in terms of things one or the other of us has seen. This was an exception to the rule.

I have to say that I’ve been very lucky in my education. I had some teachers who managed to ruin subjects for me (I will never forgive my Philosophy professor from college for being so tied to her own opinions that she made discussion impossible) but I also had some amazing teachers who introduced me to fantastic ideas and media. I was an English major and I did my best to take film-related classes whenever I could count them towards my major. But I watched this movie for the first time when I was in seventh grade. My school separated boys and girls for seventh grade English for some reason. It was the only academic class I can think of where that was done. My class bonded pretty tightly over the course of the year, thanks, I think, to the teacher we had. So Dale DeLetis, if you ever read this, please know that you had a profound effect on me as a student and a reader and a viewer.

We watched this movie in a theater. Not a full sized screen, but fairly close to it. Big enough that it gave the feeling of being in a real theater. There were maybe fifteen of us, probably fewer. We had small classes. And the lights were turned all the way down aside from the emergency exit signs. And none of us had any idea what we were going to be seeing. There’s a moment in this movie – a crucial moment – that made every single one of us jump out of our seats. Which was precisely what Mr. DeLetis was intending and apparently it’s a common reaction to the movie. I have never experienced a phenomenon quite like it. Tonight, even knowing it was coming, I jumped. That is the sort of movie this is. It is a movie that is so well built and so well acted and so well filmed and so well directed that it can cause that sort of reaction even in someone who’s expecting it.

No question about it, this is a thriller. And it’s a very tightly focused one at that. There’s really only one location for this movie: The basement apartment where Susy Hendrix and her husband Sam live. Sam is a photographer and Susy doesn’t seem to have a job really, but that’s apparently because she’s fairly recently become blind through an unspecified accident and has been going to school to learn the new skills she needs to be independent. Susy is the heart of the movie and Audrey Hepburn plays her wonderfully. She’s so determined, but at the same time aware that she’s new to being blind and she doesn’t yet have the confidence and experience she wants. She’s frustrated by not being able to do the things that she feels should be simple and hates depending on others, but knows that for some things (like seeing if there’s a car parked outside without actually going out to check) she must. The character is sympathetic, likable and strong, which makes her a wonderful lead for the movie.

On the other end of the spectrum we have our villain, Roat, played by a very young Alan Arkin. And he is evil. He radiates malice in a way I would never have guessed Alan Arkin could. But he does. From the moment you meet him you know that this is a man who knows how to do terrible things and would feel no remorse for doing them. And he proceeds to do terrible things throughout the movie, not the least of which is manipulating the entire plot in such a way that Susy is thoroughly terrorized by the end. And he’s experienced in these things. That’s what makes his character so much worse. He is the sort of man who buys plastic gloves by the roll for use in unsavory dealings where fingerprints would be unwanted.

The plot revolves around a doll filled with heroin. A woman smuggling it into the country passed it to the innocent Sam, intending to retrieve it later. Unfortunately for her, Roat and two other men intend to get it themselves. And unfortunately for Susy the doll is missing. Roat and his new compatriots devise a scheme to get Susy to give them the doll, assuming she knows where it is. The terrible thing is that Susy doesn’t know. And Sam’s been sent off on a wild goose chase, leaving Susy to cope with these three men she can’t see who are bent on tricking her. They disguise themselves, claim visual cues that aren’t there that she can’t refute and play out an elaborate charade designed to break her down. It really is far more complicated than it needs to be – a sort of good cop/bad cop/loose cannon cop deal. But I don’t mind the complexity, largely because I think it adds to the character of Roat.

As I mentioned, Roat is experienced. For me it’s that experience that makes the character, because while the plot itself is incredibly complicated, I can’t help but think that it was set up to be so not because it was necessary but because Roat was amused by it. He could have gone in and just plain tortured it out of Susy if he’d wanted to do it the fast way. He doesn’t seem to have any objections to hurting her and it’s implied near the end that even when he gets what he wants he’ll still hurt her. So why the play acting with the other two, Mike Talman and “Officer” Carlino? And aside from the dry answer of dramatic tension, I think the answer is that Roat prefers it this way. It’s more fun for him. And that makes him a very scary villain indeed.

Fortunately for Susy, she has an unlikely ally in the moody and temperamental teenage girl, Gloria, who lives in an apartment upstairs and sometimes helps Susy out with grocery shopping and the like. They don’t get along too well at first, but eventually they have to work together as the three men get more and more desperate to find the doll. I like that Gloria gets some key moments in saving the day. But I like it better that while Gloria does help quite a lot, it’s Susy who comes up with how Gloria can help, and Susy who ultimately saves herself. It’s a fantastic role for Hepburn and she plays it magnificently. She and Arkin really steal the movie between the two of them, which is a bit of a shame for Richard Crenna, in my opinion. He plays Mike Talman, who spends most of the movie trying to get in good with Susy, convincing her that he’s an old friend of her husband’s. He gets a ton of screen time and he does an excellent job with the role. He’s a bad guy, no doubt, but it’s clear by the end that he’s got some sympathy for Susy, which, of course, is why he’s not the ultimate villain.

I love every moment of this movie. It’s just all done so brilliantly. I love Hepburn and Arkin. I love the growing bond between Susy and Gloria in this terrible situation. I love when Susy figures out what’s going on and moves from panicked despair to determined action. I love when she realizes what she needs to do to even the playing field. I love that this movie has a clever heroine who can take care of herself even if she needs to adjust to the tools she has to do that with. I love that it’s a movie about a woman with a disability and said disability doesn’t make her weak. It means she needs help for some things, but it doesn’t mean she’s helpless. It’s a major plot element both in how she’s tricked and in how she eventually faces off with Roat. As I said, I love everything about this movie. I love the script, the cinematography, the directing and most certainly the acting. And I love that even after all these years and knowing what to expect, it still worked on me just the way it’s supposed to.

May 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 440 – Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf – May 14th, 2011

This is a movie I’ve been hearing little things about for some time. I’ve meant to watch it for ages, but it’s so long! And it’s subtitled! And it seemed pretty dark. All together that’s a pretty hefty movie viewing experience, so I put it off. And put it off. And put it off. Until tonight when we had the time and Andy suggested it and a long dark French period piece sounded like a good idea. I don’t know why it appealed to me tonight and not some other night before now, but it did and so we put it in utterly ignorant of what we were actually going to end up watching.

I’m not entirely sure how to even begin to describe this movie. It isn’t any one single type of story. It isn’t even two types. It’s a whole laundry list of genres combined into something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before. Oh, I’ve seen period action, which is part of what this is. I’ve seen political drama, which it also is. I’ve seen political action and period political. I’ve seen mysteries and martial arts and supernatural themes woven in through intrigue and I’ve seen many combinations. But not all of them in one place. Oh, I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t seen them. But now I have seen this and it is a wonderful thing to know that it exists.

The story is apparently at least superficially based on actual historical events involving a beast or beasts that killed a large number of people in south central France between 1765 and 1767. The exact nature of the beasts responsible for the historical killings is still debated, though there were two large wolves killed at the time which seemed to stop the attacks (if you’re curious, try poking around the links in the wikipedia article on the beast). In the movie the beast attacks are merely the hook to draw the viewer into a story of political intrigue, religious fervor and a small and somewhat isolated town terrorized into submission. It appears to be a supernatural thriller but really, Sherlock Holmes might as well be in play here, for all the actual supernatural events that happen.

The main character in the movie is Grégoire de Fronsac, a royal taxidermist and naturalist who studies animals and has done quite a lot of traveling. He is indisputably the hero of our story, arriving in the area to study the beast’s attacks and to preserve it once it’s caught and/or killed. And Fronsac quickly determines that the beast is far from supernatural, but is also far from the wolf most people believe it to be. It’s something else entirely and he aims to figure it out. Staying at his side is the mysterious Mani, a Mohawk shaman whom he met when in America. Mani may not be the hero of the movie, but he is certainly awesome, kicking a fair amount of ass as well as giving some great little quips and sly looks at just the right moments. Fronsac is all well and good and I certainly liked him as the hero, but Mani’s more fun to watch, and not just because he’s played by Mark Dascascos (who is also the Chairman on Iron Chef America). Of course, since Fronsac and Mani are so determined to get to the bottom of the whole situation there will have to be something standing in their way.

I don’t think I can really go any further with the plot synopsis without spoiling things even more than I already have so I’ll gloss a little. There’s a lot more at work here than a beast attacking shepherds. The title alone implies that there’s a group involved and that group has a motive and a goal and they certainly don’t want Fronsac ruining it all. And all of that would be complex enough, but then there are the two female leads. On one hand you have Marianne, a young noblewoman whom Fronsac becomes enamoured of right from the start. She’s sheltered and young but also clever and compassionate and unwilling to be swayed by tricks and wit. She holds her own quite well for the vast majority of the movie, even in the fairly constrained position she’s grown up in. On the other hand is Sylvia, an Italian courtesan who works in a local brothel. Sylvia is, without a doubt, my favorite character in the entire movie. Mani’s a close second, but Sylvia wins, hands down.

Sylvia is ruthless and calculating and cold and brilliant and very well versed in manipulation and observation. And Sylvia has her own agenda and motives and follows her own path through the events taking place around her. She sleeps with Fronsac several times and seems to know far more of what’s going on than anyone else does. But being a woman of ill repute, she’s gone unnoticed by those who might otherwise try to silence her. Sylvia kicks ass. Sylvia is precisely the sort of character who always makes me giddy and she is played beautifully by Monica Bellucci. I loved every second she got on screen and she certainly made the entire plot more interesting and complicated and I love that.

And even after all of that I have yet to really touch on the fight scenes, which were a fantastic combination of styles and weaponry and camera work. I hadn’t been expecting the sorts of fight scenes this movie has, with beautifully choreographed stunts and enough martial arts to keep it from being just brawling and European swordfighting. Not that I’d have been disappointed with swordfighting! But that would have been expected and really, nothing about this movie is what I expected. Not the action, not the plot, not the intrigue, not the characters and not the epic quality to it.

The movie exists in several acts. There’s the first act, where Fronsac arrives and studies the situation and meets Marianne and her brother, Jean-François and the marquis, Thomas d’Apcher and all the rest of their friends, relatives and associates. The second act involves Fronsac and Mani returning from Paris to resume the hunt. And the third act is when it all comes to a head, with Fronsac exposing the whole conspiracy and exacting revenge for every wrong done against him, his friends and the people of the area. That, plus the gorgeous scenery both inside the buildings and out in the countryside make this movie feel larger and more expansive. It’s both folklore and political history wrapped into one package, a politically minded tall tale with the ultimate femme fatale and some truly awesome fight scenes and yes, it’s a little long, but it’s worth every minute.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brotherhood of the Wolf

May 14, 2011

Brotherhood of the Wolf

I’ve wanted to watch this movie for ages. The very concept of it so intrigued me. A French wire-fu action movie about werewolves? How on Earth did such a thing come to be, and how could I possibly have gone so long without seeing it? What I was not expecting, and what nobody had told me to look forward to was a lush and beautifully produced period drama.

The movie takes as its jumping off point the true mystery of the Beast of Gevaudan, a creature that killed around one hundred villagers and peasants between 1764 and 1767. It features a large collection of actual historical figures and a meticulously designed and executed replication of the world of pre-revolution France. It looks realistic to my untrained eye, at least it looks like most other costume dramas I’ve seen before – only more lavish and higher budget. That’s the end of the realism though. This is decidedly an action/drama/romance/horror/fantasy/mystery. So not so much with the historical accuracy.

Instead what we get is a film that almost defies description, which makes it kind of hard to review. For one thing it has a wealth of characters and some political intrigue which, when combined with reading subtitles to follow what was going on began to stress my plot-following capacity around the first time a whole room full of French aristocracy got together to gossip about the beast and the various efforts made to stop its brutal murders. There’s our hero Gregoir de Fronsac and his Indian companion “Indian Companion.” I mean Mani. Gregoir is a naturalist, taxidermist and scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Mani is a kickboxing Mohawk, last of his tribe, mystic and spirit walker. The two of them have come to the Gevaudan region of central France to investigate the creature and assist in hunting it down.

As I said there are whole awful lot of characters here, like the local priest Sardis and the elderly healer and his epileptic daughter and such, but there’s only a few you really need to know. There are Gregoir’s two main love interests: the sheltered but independent young Marianne and the worldly and mysterious courtesan Sylvia. There’s the snide one-armed Jean-Francois who delights in hunting and causing trouble. It took me about half the movie before I figured out that he was Marianne’s brother.

The first half of the movie illustrates just how uncatchable this mysterious creature is. We are introduced to it in what appears to be a direct reference to Jaws when it grabs a fleeing young woman and throws her around like a rag doll without ever appearing on screen. Gregoire is unconvinced that it is any simple wolf, and tries to scientifically understand what it is. he measures bite marks (enormous) and examines wounds (revealing the surprising discovery that the beast seems to have metal fangs when one breaks off in a victim.) He cannot make any sense of the data though – this beast defies all common sense.

Then before Gregoire can complete his research the King dispatches a well regarded toadie to eliminate the threat. This agent of the King has Gregoire mock up a fake beast corpse that can be paraded about Paris to prove that the beast is dead and that nothing can escape justice in France. Of course the real beast remains at large, and now it is not just a fearsome and mysterious predator but a threat to the national security since the King cannot afford to be embarrassed by having his ruse exposed.

Gregoire returns to Gevaudan against the express orders of the king’s agents and soon finds himself embroiled in a battle between conspiracies. There’s politics, betrayal, murder and secrets revealed. Things go particularly badly for Gregoire and everybody who is closest to him. Ultimately his quest goes from one of scientific curiosity to bloody vengeance.

This movie is such a unique and beautiful creation. It has intense martial arts fight sequences. It has long quiet scenes that can only be described as melancholy. It has mysticism and magic blended with science and rational thought. It has a mystery at its heart and a horror theme of the unstoppable beast and political intrigue and romance… it’s like about ten movies all blended together into a single film and what is most amazing of all is that it works. Damned if I can figure out how, but it works as a whole. It’s beautiful and haunting and thrilling and touching.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment