Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

The Maltese Falcon

September 26, 2016

the-maltese-falconHumphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of various and vague nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.

This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.

A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.

Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in his Guide for the Film Fanatic, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.

Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

September 18, 2016

henry-portrait-of-a-serial-killerHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a creepy, city-after-dark overtone, an existential chill. It carries a true grindhouse whiff while staking its claim as art. There’s a deep tension between content and context here; the movie shows you hyperbolically grotesque things, but often at a remove, with the camera tracking in or out. The tracking happens during the opening credits, when we see various (usually female) corpses left in the wake of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker). Whether we’re pulling back to take in the entire scene of the crime or pushing in for a better look at a woman’s ruined face, we’re led to look at the carnage as a series of tableaux, as works of art out of time, suspended forever in death and by death.

After making one documentary, director/co-writer John McNaughton made his feature debut with Henry — and directed nothing remotely like it in the three decades since. Despite a few genre pieces here and there (The Borrower is goofy fun), McNaughton has never worn the label of “horror director” well. Henry has more in common with Cassavetes than with Herschell Gordon Lewis, though the movie’s purest demographic exists in a Venn diagram of fans of both directors. The movie is cold and bleak, shot in the bowels of Chicago at night or on sunless days, usually in godforsaken alleys or among dead-looking roadside flora, the kind of places where corpses can be hidden, sometimes maybe found, almost never cared about.

The motor of the minimalist plot involves Henry’s roommate and “friend” Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ visiting sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Tracy grows sweet on Henry, who doesn’t know quite what to do with her feelings. Otis has a thing for Becky, but also puts his hand on the thigh of a guy he’s dealing weed to. Henry is a moral blank, but Otis is a true monster, sexually twisted, possibly by his tightly lidded homosexuality, possibly by his abusive father (who raped Becky throughout her childhood). When this pair invade a well-to-do family’s home, even Henry, recording the whole atrocity on a camcorder, is appalled by what Otis does. It’s as though proximity to Henry has unchained Otis’ demons, and the demons make him giddy. Rooker has since, of course, gone on to many different types of roles, but Towles, I think, here bravely nuked any chance he would have of playing anything other than a slimeball (he died last year).

We need the existence of Otis in order to be able to relate to Henry at all; Henry’s a killer, too, but an affectless one who never seems to enjoy it. He’s gentlemanly towards Becky, and disgusted by Otis’ incestuous/necrophiliac kinks, and that makes him the closest thing to a moral center the film offers — yes, he’s a moral blank, but he’s not actively, gigglingly evil like Otis. Towles manages to make Otis more than a caricature of redneck rabies, and Rooker smolders implosively, hardly moving his lips as he pulls out painful bits of (contradictory) memories about his mother as though prying shards of glass out of his skin. I submit that the scene in which Becky and Henry sit around the table trading familial sex-horror stories is the entire movie in microcosm — everything proceeds from this grim and grimy reality of mothers and fathers who scar their children sexually. Henry’s murders involve the soul more than the body. That’s what makes the movie more drama than horror.

Dr. Strangelove

September 11, 2016

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.

Chimes at Midnight

August 28, 2016

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Orson Welles was just 49 when he started filming Chimes at Midnight in 1964, but he looked 70 — the age he was when he died, in 1985. Partly that’s due to make-up, and partly it’s because he always seemed older than he was. The movie, one of Welles’ finest works and a personal favorite of his, has been difficult to find outside of dodgy bootlegs until it was restored recently, and this week it appears on shiny new Criterion DVD and Blu-ray editions. It’s essential viewing for fans of Welles and of Shakespeare, whose great comic-tragic buffoon Falstaff is at the film’s center, played by Welles as though he knew he might never again get such a juicy opportunity.

As director, Welles contended with a puny budget, which resulted in some infamous issues with dubbing. The words and the images aren’t always in sync; sometimes the characters, played by stand-ins, face away from the camera to hide the fact that Welles didn’t have a particular actor that day. None of this matters, though, because what comes through is Welles’ passion — and, of course, his genius, which presents here as creative workarounds. In the end, Chimes at Midnight is as radiant an example of film-love as any of Welles’ other train sets. Somehow, the movie gods smiled down on Welles’ efforts, and what could have been an embarrassing boondoggle takes its place as a classic.

Falstaff was close to Welles’ heart. At its core, Chimes at Midnight tells the story of an old scoundrel who loves a young man — Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), destined to become King Henry V — as though he were Falstaff’s son. The young man must eventually reject Falstaff and the juvenile antics he represents, in order to earn the gravitas that being the king demands. That Falstaff understands this doesn’t make the rejection any easier, and there may be no more heartbreaking moment in Welles’ career as an actor or as a director than when the former Hal rejects Falstaff and Falstaff’s expression speaks of both pride and despair. The entire dark, stylized movie leads up to that moment, which in its original context as a two-part play about the passing of power from Henry IV (John Gielgud) to his son might come off more as a sad footnote about a supporting character.

The movie is famous for its ahead-of-its-time depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury, filmed in chaotic fragments that nonetheless cohere into a vision of the horrific nonsense of war. Pauline Kael pointed out that the sequence was the only one in the film in which Welles could use editing as an artist rather than as a magician trying to misdirect us from budget problems. It’s ferocious and saddening without an ounce of schmaltz, leading up to the duel between Hal and the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). The movie gives the impression that this is either the first life Hal has taken or the first one that means something to him, and it sets the stage for his maturing and his rejection of his surrogate father. Thus does war destroy anything decent in its path.

Welles said that the movie was less a study of the passing of Falstaff than of the passing of a way of thinking about England. Chimes at Midnight, whose very title resounds with awareness of mortality, is stylistically a bleak and cold vision, with steam often visible on the actors’ breath in the frigid air. At one point, John Gielgud’s ailing Henry IV exhales steam through his nose disdainfully, like a dragon in repose. In opposition to this is the warmth of Falstaff, who in this telling is only incidentally a clown, waddling into battle in his armor and then hiding behind bushes. Falstaff’s “cowardly” response to war seems the only sane reaction to it, and his subsequent attempt to take credit for killing Hotspur reads as a way for him not to gain glory but to forestall the reality that Hal is no longer the Hal he knew. It’s a great, sad, exhilarating, stinging accomplishment.

Deadpool

May 22, 2016

DEADPOOLDeadpool is a superhero movie for people who hate — or have grown to hate — superhero movies. As the man himself — Special Forces retiree and current mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), aka Deadpool — will be the first to tell you, he isn’t a hero. His superpowers (mutant healing abilities) are granted to him as a side effect of curing his cancer; another side effect, alas, leaves him scarred. Deadpool’s entire goal in the movie is to convince the man responsible for his powers and scars, the British snot Ajax (Ed Skrein), to undo his scars so he can get back together with his fiancée Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Save the world? Save the city? Save the block? Nah.

Deadpool nonetheless behaves much like a superhero, in that he fights bad guys, except for the part where he kills them. While Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War agonize over metahumans taking lives, either purposely or accidentally, here comes chipper, cavorting Deadpool to separate many, many heads and limbs from their bodies when he isn’t shooting said bodies full of holes. And all so that his ex-escort girlfriend — for which occupation she is never shamed — won’t find his face repellent. In other words, Deadpool gives up the pretense even of fighting for a greater good, unlike even such a cynical antisuperhero satire as Kick-Ass. Deadpool is highly sexed, casually violent and fluently foulmouthed, and he sees no reason not to be. Perhaps not coincidentally, the movie broke many box-office records upon its February release.

Amusingly, this is tangentially an X-Men movie, as it features two members of that mutant superhero team: the stolid Russian man of steel Colossus, and a character I want to see in a spin-off movie immediately, the sullen Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), whose powers are as excessive as her name. Colossus and N.T.W. step in every so often to lend brawn to Deadpool’s mission, though even Colossus can barely stand against Ajax’s right-hand woman Angel Dust, played by Gina Carano, who seems to have resigned herself to the fact that she can’t act and attitudinizes accordingly. Anyway, few will laugh louder than I if this disreputable, R-rated red-hooded stepchild actually outgrosses the legit X-Men film opening soon.

Directed by Tim Miller, formerly a visual-effects guru, Deadpool makes the most of its peanuts-by-superhero-standards $58 million. The action is hyper-violent but sunny and weightless; it lacks the sadistic stab of the slaughter scenes in Kick-Ass. This movie, unlike Kick-Ass, isn’t trying to moralize with its violence — it’s just PlayStation shoot-the-works splatter with a sneer and a gibe. It never pretends to be “real.” On the other hand, there’s some genuine pathos in Wade’s health situation; he doesn’t want Vanessa to have to watch him die, so he absents himself from her life. She’s appropriately enraged by this. Vanessa, like the other women in the film, takes no crap, and Baccarin has perhaps never been better. Vanessa’s and Wade’s relationship is built on shared callous jokes and fierce sex; since they’re never really romanticized, they come off all the more romantic.

As for Reynolds, this is the role he was made for, and he tears into it as if to make up for the ridiculously terrible earlier version of Deadpool he played in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He’s a good and funny actor, and he doesn’t deserve to be haunted by the emerald ghost of Green Lantern for the rest of his life. Reynolds has, improbably, baked his personality into a role in which we almost never see his face. He wants to have good dirty fun and to share it with us. Deadpool is the sort of pop-culture offense all the uptight moralizers always warn you about — a hero-myth with the soul of Larry Flynt.

The Witch

May 15, 2016

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In The Witch, out this week on DVD, writer/director Robert Eggers drops us into the 17th century and leaves us there. We spend our time with one family, whose patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) has been banished from a New England town for “prideful conceit.” William, whose sharp features and bushy beard recall Chester Brown’s visualization of a dour and angry Christ, brings his wife and four children (with a fifth on the way) to a bleak, arid-looking patch of land, surrounded by looming, frightful trees. This place is kin to the unfriendly, uninhabitable woods found in The Blair Witch Project and Antichrist. Nature itself conspires against William, killing his crops, rotting his corn.

Is there an actual witch in The Witch? For a long time, Eggers operates in darkness and ambiguity. These people fear God and also fear women (the women do, too, having internalized the gynophobia). Fear of witches is essentially fear of female wrath — and fear that one might have done something to incur that wrath, such as fearing a male god. The religious folk in The Witch trap themselves in misery, shame, terror. Everything can be blamed on Satan, but would Satan have been summoned if not for your impurity, your impiety? William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) look agonized and spiritually crushed, especially after their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes her baby brother to the outskirts of the woods and he disappears. Who did it? A witch? Satan, in the form of the family’s black goat, named Black Phillip?

What’s refreshing, and frightening, about The Witch is that Eggers allows no modern consciousness (scarcely any comic relief either) to intrude upon the anguish. We are not encouraged to feel superior to these antiquated people and their beliefs. We’re there with them. At times the movie is unnervingly intense and severe. I give it the highest marks as a cinematic inquiry into faith and fear, but even I have to admit breathing a sigh of relief when it was done with me. The filmmaking itself is harsh, Puritanical — we almost feel guilty for sitting there idle, when we could be milking a goat or doing something useful.

Eggers did years of research into folk tales and witchcraft, and the family’s house was built using the methods of 1630. Big whoop, you may say, but the verisimilitude pays off, and not in the showoffy manner of something like The Revenant. We believe in the people and, more to the point, in the ghastly space they occupy. Eggers was a production designer before turning to directing — The Witch is his feature debut after a couple of shorts based on “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The atmosphere of dread and despair is immaculate. I’d say this is the strongest American debut expressing an utterly and stubbornly personal perspective almost entirely through image, sound and mood since Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

That aside, is the movie “scary”? Not in the sense in which moviegoers usually mean “scary” — there’s little blood, no jump shocks. It is, however, disturbing and disquieting and many other words with the prefix “dis,” including “disgusting” at certain points, as when an apple makes an unexpected appearance, or when a witch smears herself with infant blood. Does she really, though? We return to the earlier question, is there a witch here? The literal horrors we see may not be quite so literal. As Anthony Lane suggested in The New Yorker, people who believe so devoutly — and so literally — in a god may be subject to a kind of collective hysteria or hallucination; thus the Salem terrors. Their imagination manifests as clearly-seen demons, phantasms, debaucheries. (In interviews, Eggers has also advised us not to ignore the detail of the rotting corn — i.e., ergot poisoning, to which some modern scholars have attributed the madness in Salem.) The intriguing suspicion also arises that the horrors are real, and that the family’s fear, not its sins, is what summons the blood and sulfur (as per Jaime Hernandez’s masterwork “Flies on the Ceiling”: “It’s not your sins but your guilt that allows me to come to you”). What The Witch does best of all is to whisk us back to a completely alien-to-us sensibility and the world that it interprets. The daylight is gray and chill, like the withheld love of a disappointed god, and the nights are as dark as the absence of their god.

Accidental Incest

May 8, 2016

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In the affably filthy sex farce Accidental Incest, the title tells the tale: the libertine couple Milton (Johnny Sederquist) and Kendra (Elyssa Baldassarri) both feel like soulmates to each other, but that’s just because they’re technically brother and sister — the separately sired results of their mutual father’s sperm-bank donation. They discover this about a third of the way into the film, and then the plot deals with the consequences, going deeper and darker though no less outrageous. Providence director Richard Griffin, working with a script by Lenny Schwartz based on Schwartz’s play, takes this taboo and good-naturedly manhandles it into service as the premise of a romantic comedy. This, heaven help us, is the ever-transgressive Griffin and Schwartz’s version of a Hollywood meet-cute.

Filmed mostly in microbudget-artsy black and white, Accidental Incest could be described as a boxing match between Kevin Smith and John Waters, with Waters handily winning and then going off to fuck Andy Milligan in a bathroom. The movie has the raffish sexual candor of Smith’s best early comedies, the prankish perversity of Waters, and the all-encompassing hostility of Milligan. Griffin keeps things jumping visually, especially in the sex scenes, edited and rhythmed for comedy rather than eroticism (which, contrasted with the usual po-faced treatment of carnality in American film, just serves to make the festivities more erotic).

The movie signals its stage origins by having the lead characters address us directly, a useful way to cut to the chase. Milton and Kendra have been leaving relationship wreckage everywhere they go, and it becomes clear that the reason is that they hadn’t met the right person yet — i.e., each other. Sederquist, a manic Griffin Dunne lookalike, and Baldassarri, whose smile has a hint of Anne Hathaway innocence, dive into the deep end of sin and hysteria and passion, with Griffin’s eager encouragement. Because these characters start out so scummy and irredeemable, we paradoxically believe that much more in their redemption via taboo.

Griffin’s roots are in disreputable genres — horror, sci-fi — and he and Schwartz throw in some fantasy here; there are angels and a hipster God (Aaron Andrade) who performs a rap. Accidental Incest is partly a musical, and there are some comically bitter or obscene songs here, though not enough to dominate the narrative. They’re essentially what Roger Ebert used to call semi-OLIs — semi-obligatory lyrical interludes; they’re smoothly performed and a welcome way of changing up the tone. The cast is fiercely game, and I confess I laughed hardest at Jamie Dufault’s near-psychotically closeted Alex (Kendra’s ex) and Josh Fontaine (whose comic timing is flawless) as the Gimp-like Adam. Many of the actors are Griffin mainstays, and once again he brings in Michael Thurber, who photographs so beautifully, especially in black and white, and emotes so dead-on satirically that if John Waters ever makes another film he should look to Rhode Island.

If the title Accidental Incest puts you off, truthfully Griffin and Schwartz don’t do much to win you over. It’s as cracked as it sounds. Those who respond to the title with an amused, curious attitude of “Oh, this I gotta see” are probably better-prepared for the party. It’s more sex-positive and less hung-up than the other incest comedy you may have heard of, David O. Russell’s debut Spanking the Monkey. And if it sounds like your cup of iniquity, it could use your help: the movie’s DVD distributor has been gun-shy about it due to its title — and it’s not something you’ll find in a Redbox in any event — so if you’d like to support Griffin and his brand of happy degeneracy, your best bet is video on demand or amazon.com.