Archive for the ‘tspdt’ 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 vague and various 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 the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, 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.

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.

Blue Velvet

April 17, 2016

David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, which is getting a limited 30th-anniversary re-release in theaters this year, has lost very little of its juice or shock in three decades. Since it wears the sheep’s clothing of fifties retro, not much ties the film to the mid-‘80s, either (other than the Aqua-Netted hair on some briefly seen high-school girls). It’s just this angelic/satanic hybrid reality, full of dichotomies and abstracted imagery and behavior. Like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the film has a mystery at its center, but Lynch just uses it as an excuse to swim around inside his own obsessions, which become — and this is his artistry — our obsessions, at least for two hours.

The mystery here activates when college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), walking home through a field, finds a severed human ear. At one point, Lynch’s camera travels into the earhole, and the rest of the movie could be said to be a walkabout inside Lynch’s head. The ear leads to a drug ring, a kidnapped father and child, and the ultimate sadist and masochist — Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who seems to be made out of profanity, and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who seems to be his not-quite-unwilling sex slave. I really have zero interest in summing up the plot, though, because if there’s one movie that is resolutely not about its plot, Blue Velvet is that movie.

Soaked in Freud and Jungian dream logic, the film proposes a split between darkness and light in which both sides are absurdly, almost cartoonishly heightened. It’s either picket fences or industrial rust, colors that pop in the sunshine or shadows that hide secrets and kinks. Even the dialogue echoes with oppositions: “I don’t know whether you’re a detective or a pervert”; “I don’t want to hurt you, I want to help you.” (With both these examples, the movie proves that there’s no reason both can’t be true.) Frank, enacting his ritualistic tryst with Dorothy (in which conventional coitus, including penetration, seems off the table), flips between being “Daddy” and “Baby” — infantilized by his own thirst for macho domination. Hopper is certainly ferocious as this rough beast, but then he goes beyond that into a weird heartsick sensitivity. Face to face with Jeffrey, his opposite number, Frank taunts him by whispering “You’re like me” and then plants some lipsticky kisses on him. The movie is, in part, about how Jeffrey recognizes this kinship to Frank but then rejects it. The question is whether such kinship, once recognized, can be rejected.

Frank’s violently sexual/sexless relationship with Dorothy and his tweaking of Jeffrey seem to proceed from the same impulse that brings him to Ben (Dean Stockwell), a “suave” and fey criminal of some sort. Frank takes Jeffrey, Dorothy, and his amusingly bedraggled posse of ne’er-do-wells to Ben’s for a brief business meeting, and also so that Dorothy can see her little boy, who apparently rejects her. (Is it because he can sense that Jeffrey has “put his disease” in her?) Ben’s pad is full of matronly women with cat’s-eye glasses and bouffants; whatever else it is, it’s the least likely place of criminal business anyone has ever seen. Frank, who abuses and yells at everyone, seems to respect the effeminate Ben, and stands mesmerized and agonized as Ben lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Frank seems to need this song as much as he needs whatever he huffs from his gas mask; his blasted, hopeless shard of a soul reaches towards the tune. He’s a bastard and a maniac but also infernally human.

Lynch and his invaluable sound designer Alan Splet turn Blue Velvet into an apocalyptic, chthonic noise-scape, wedded to Angelo Badalamenti’s lush, minacious score, whose main melody seems an extension of Bernard Herrmann’s looping music for Vertigo. The movie is perhaps the most conventionally plotted of Lynch’s weirder work — it has clues, narrative beats, a resolution — and that might be why it ranks as many people’s favorite Lynch film, but I think its undeniable technical sophistication also helps put it over for those who would have little patience for Lynch’s later puzzles (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive). It walks and talks like a classically structured movie, and yet it doesn’t; it’s decayed and curled at the edges in so many ways. The movie’s eroticism — the dangerously intimate bits between Jeffrey and Dorothy that pass over into rage and release — is probably still unsurpassed, except perhaps by Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Rossellini possibly isn’t quite acting; she gives physically of herself totally, and her spiky emotions derive from her literal nakedness.

One of Blue Velvet’s last images, famously, is of a (fake-looking) robin with an insect in its beak, calling back to the vision of Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter and Jeffrey’s sometime helper on this “case,” of the arrival of robins to dispel the darkness. The equally famous opening of the movie, with its hyper-bright flowers and fire truck giving way to Jeffrey’s dad’s stroke (I always think the kinked-up garden hose somehow causes the stroke — does anyone else?) and the subterranean black bugs, seems to be the entire movie in miniature, all its themes laid out in pictures — even the TV playing in Jeffrey’s house foreshadows things to come.

The fake robin may or may not triumph over or devour the insect it’s carrying. Entire books could be (and probably have been) devoted to that one bothersome image. But the very final image is of Dorothy, still wearing her fetishistic performer’s wig, in what you’d think is a moment of reunion and rapture, except that something seems to remind her of her bombed-out rendition of the movie’s theme song, and for a moment her expression becomes troubled. Even if the insect is vanquished by the robin, there are many more like it hiding in the grass, in the shadows under the white picket fence. I think Lynch sincerely wants to believe in Sandy and her vision, but Blue Velvet’s position during the “morning in America” Reagan era is neither an accident nor a coincidence; Lynch wants us to look under the shiny surface, as he did at greater length in Twin Peaks. Days are not always sunny, but nights are always dark.

The Third Man

July 26, 2015

The popular line on The Third Man is that it’s a thriller, or even a film noir, but it reads to me as a tragedy about disillusionment — personal and global. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, and the great city’s old-world beauty is crosshatched with scars. One American pursues another: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has landed in Vienna to take a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Harry has been fatally hit by a car. Apparently it was an accident — or was it? The story keeps changing: two men supposedly carried Harry’s body to the side of the street, but later an unidentified third man is said to have helped move the corpse.

Thus the title, I suppose, and yet it also seems to refer to the overlap that happens when two very different men meet. Holly is a naïve American, the author of many pulp westerns; his outlook on the world has a similar simplistic coloration. Harry is more worldly, an avatar of the moral murk America muddled into during and after the war. Holly would have been shocked by the revelation of bodies strewn like broken toys at Auschwitz; Harry would not. After the movie, Harry was resurrected for 52 radio episodes and 77 television episodes; Holly, poor sap, was not, ultimately being as desolately ignored as he is at the end of the film, when his unrequited love interest (Alida Valli) pointedly disses him in a final shot famous for its bitter understanding of life in Harry Lime’s world.

Welles’s Lime is given an equally famous intro (a little more than an hour into the film’s running time) — first only the feet, then his smug moon face briefly illuminated in the shadows of the city. Harry is the villain of the piece, but Welles, like so many others playing villains, acts as if the movie were really about him exclusively, with him as the misunderstood hero. Welles was a still-ridiculously young 34 when he played Harry, but he was probably born sounding 56, and his voice caresses Harry’s monologues. Oh, how pleased he is with himself — Harry, I mean, not Welles, I guess — when he uncorks his legendary “cuckoo clock” speech, prefaced by remarks about the meaningless shapes moving around down there. This sort of thing sounded self-serving and callow when Joseph Cotten spewed it six years earlier in Shadow of a Doubt, and it sounds the same now. Harry has made money by consigning children to death with diluted penicillin; his villainy is not savory and amusing but sordid and appalling, however he tries to justify it by nihilistic rhetoric.

The movie’s ugliness — wreaked on architecture by the war and on humanity by greed, as if nothing were learned from the war and people were just going to go on doing the same old stupid exploitative things forever — is leavened by aesthetic loveliness. Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot almost every scene off-kilter, except for a few establishing shots, but as soon as people start talking the camera tilts. Anton Karas’ celebrated zither score finds an unstable balance between sprightly and melancholy. All the elements are in place for a standard classic, but the decay is never far from the lovely surface. In that respect, The Third Man is as perverse as any David Lynch film, and probably more knowing on a political level than most of Hitchcock.

And so we return to Holly and Harry, the soundalikes, two sides of the same rusted coin. Holly, maybe, was driven to the simplicities of pulp by the incomprehensibility of the war. Harry, driven the other way, styles himself an elegant, suave villain, but he’s really a squalid little opportunist (Welles as seen in The Third Man is “the most hideous man alive” used by the girls in Heavenly Creatures as their imaginary kingdom’s hideously sexy villain), and he closes things out in an appropriate place. In the end, though, who truly wins? Harry has at least been saved from the indignities of prison, and chose his old friend as the one to send him off, whereas Holly, profoundly disillusioned, stands on the side of a road at the end, like the two men who allegedly bore Harry’s corpse to the side of another road, or like the third man.

Million Dollar Baby

December 15, 2004

Over the past few years, I’ve said a few times that Clint Eastwood is in the Autumnal stage of his career — the period wherein his movies have started coming to grips with old age, loss, death. Million Dollar Baby, which a lot of people are convinced is his masterpiece, may be Eastwood’s most Autumnal work yet: gritty, dark, melancholy, on speaking terms with failure and regret. By now, Eastwood and his longstanding tight unit of collaborators are incapable of making a slipshod movie; this one is, as usual with Clint, measured and solid and expertly acted. But it left me cold nonetheless. Eastwood is attempting something major here, but the script isn’t complex enough to support it, and nobody here really does anything he or she hasn’t done before.

Consider the heroine, Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor but plucky Southern gal played by Hilary Swank at her pluckiest. Maggie, at 31, wants to be a boxer. She may not have the moves yet, but she has Heart, and, as a century of sports movies will tell you, Heart is all you need. Maggie comes from bona fide White Trash, characterized here with possibly the most blatant set of caricatures in any Eastwood-directed film since Sudden Impact. But Maggie herself is Good and Pure, with scarcely a flicker of ambition or greed clouding her path. She just wants to Be Someone. She just wants to Fight.

Eastwood, as creaky “cut man” and gym owner Frankie Dunn, just wants to Be Left Alone. Yes, Clint is the Irascible Old Coot Who Won’t Give Our Heroine a Chance. But Maggie keeps coming to the gym, and before long, Frankie’s old friend and gym janitor Scrap (Morgan Freeman) starts sneaking her lessons after hours. Oh, what a challenging role this is for Morgan Freeman, who gets to Be Wise and Keep His Own Counsel and Narrate the Movie. Scrap is an old softy, and, it turns out, so is Frankie, who eventually consents to train Maggie.

There is a Training Montage. There are Decisive Boxing Matches, most of which Maggie wins in the first round. There is Foreshadowing: Frankie has a thing about not taking risks with his fighters, because of Scrap’s own Sad Backstory involving the loss of sight in his right eye. There is even a Villain, in the person of dirty-fighting former prostitute Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), this movie’s Mr. T to Maggie’s Rocky. Billie has a nasty habit of sucker-punching her opponents even after they’ve fallen to the canvas. We know, unless this is our first movie, that Maggie and Billie are due for a clash of the titans.

What we may not foresee is the Plot Twist, of which much has been made. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it. It certainly kicks Million Dollar Baby off its expected track, turning the movie into a lugubrious meditation on Life and the Meaning of Same. A priest is consulted. The movie’s already dark lighting scheme goes all the way into shadow. Eastwood holds melodrama at arm’s length with his usual leathery reserve, but it lurks in the movie’s corners. Maggie’s family is brought on for more jeering, accompanied by a Sleazy Lawyer. Eastwood may be trying for archetypes here, the way he did in Unforgiven, but in that movie (which I consider his true masterpiece) he dug around inside the archetypes, casting off the mythological cobwebs that had gathered around them. This movie replaces that with lazy screenwriting (based on stories by F.X. Toole, which I haven’t read); it’s as if scripter Paul Haggis took a hard left turn towards catastrophe because he didn’t know any other way to avoid a clichéd finale, but he just trades one cliché for another.

Million Dollar Baby is certainly a somber enough piece of work to explain all the accolades and awards. But, to paraphrase Frankie, somber ain’t enough. This is Eastwood’s weakest work in years, perhaps because it yokes itself to a hot-button theme instead of a story that resonates. I also think the movie might’ve been more touching with a cast of unknowns: The reason we were able to buy Sylvester Stallone as a broken-down, below-poverty-level contender in the first Rocky is that, at the time, that wasn’t far from his reality. Stallone also managed to write a denouement (if we forget about the sequels up until Rocky Balboa) in which failure and realism co-existed with triumph and a dream fulfilled. Here, we have rich Hollywood actors shuffling around in the gloom of expensively grimy sets, pretending they live there, and at the end, the characters have to pretend to make a hard choice, though, when you think about it later, the script leaves them no other choice.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

December 17, 2003

Last December, summing up my experiences to date in Middle-earth, I wrote that the first Lord of the Rings installment (The Fellowship of the Ring) had interested and entertained me, and The Two Towers had hooked me. The final chapter, I’m afraid, has lost me. The Return of the King is far from a turkey — for what it is, it’s as exquisitely crafted as its predecessors. Peter Jackson deserves respect and recognition (from the Academy or otherwise) just for having mounted this formidable project. But I suppose the problem, for me, in this finale must go back to the old wizard himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. This road goes ever on and on, and Tolkien liked it that way. Jackson, straining for fidelity, dramatizes a lot of stuff that feels like padding.

What can you say about an epic in which the biggest conflagrations, we’re repeatedly told, are just distractions to keep the eye of Sauron off of a hobbit? You may say, Wow, some distractions — Jackson rounds up what look like millions of combatants, on foot or astride horses or elephant-like beasts or winged nasties (sorry, I don’t care enough to look up the critters’ actual names), bashing each other for the better part of 90 minutes (with a good amount of cross-cutting to less testosteronal happenings). It’s safe to say the big screen hasn’t seen gigantism on this level since the glory days of Fritz Lang (who had to gather his masses without the aid of computers). But there’s just too damn much of it, as there’s too much of most everything else here. A lot of it is just hacking and slashing on a mammoth scale, which is still just hacking and slashing. If you’re happy with that sort of thing, ROTK has a ton of that sort of thing.

While all that’s going on, the weary hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Samwise (Sean Astin), accompanied by the duplicitous and conflicted Gollum (voice and modeling by Andy Serkis, who also plays the pre-Gollumized hobbit Smeagol in a prologue), trek up the hazardous face of Mount Doom, where they must dispose of the One Ring. Poor Samwise must fend off the ring-greedy Gollum while looking after Master Frodo; very little doubt is allowed to cloud his pure, stainless love for the frail ringbearer. Do we ever feel they’ll give up or be defeated? Is this the final three hours of a nine-hour cycle? Quest narratives like this are too predetermined to fool you for even a moment. The whole gargantuan thing is meant to test the fortitude of the heroes, the weakness of the villains, and the bladders of the audience.

Back in the fray, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) gets some supernatural warriors on his side with some fancy rhetoric and, mostly, his comically long (Jackson pans up the blade in priapic awe), newly reforged sword that proves he’s the top dog. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) sneaks into battle with Eowyn (Miranda Otto), while his buddy Pippin (Billy Boyd) hangs out with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and discusses the meaning of death. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has exactly one crowd-pleasing moment, when he takes down one of those elephant things, but otherwise recedes into the background, a cipher firing arrows. The only actor who moved me was John Noble (who looks like a dissipated Terry Gilliam) as the mad Denethor, who has already lost one son (Boromir, in the first film) in battle and now thinks he has lost the other. Noble’s performance pushes against the heroic constraints of the epic; he’s allowed to be flawed, mad, human.

After much warfare (during which even the thrill of seeing men plucked up or batted aside, complete with their horses, by giant adversaries loses its novelty) and much pain and anguish on the path up Mount Doom, the journey reaches its end. The movie, however, continues forward for another twenty minutes or so, with reunions and marriage and tearful farewells and, for all we know, in the eventual extended edition on DVD, a dance number or two. The Return of the King reminded me why I got bored with Dungeons & Dragons after about age fourteen. When all was said and done, I was ready to re-enter the real world, go home to my DVD player, and pop in something raw, gritty, and short.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

October 10, 2003

Forget what you’ve heard, the good and the bad: Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – Vol. 1, the geek master’s first movie in six years, neither reinvents the cinematic wheel nor reveals its author at a low point. It’s not a great movie — not the great movie Pulp Fiction was — but it’s great fun. Tarantino has assembled an adoring remix of everything he’s ever loved in movies on the theme of revenge: some spaghetti Westerns here (ever seen 1967’s God Forgives, I Don’t? You can bet QT has), some Asian standards there, mixed in with Truffaut (whose The Bride Wore Black informs Kill Bill more than a little, though Tarantino has denied seeing it; I doubt this) and nasty X-rated Swedish exploitation (They Call Her One-Eye, an influence on the heroine and one of her betrayers). I would’ve loved to have seen it all in one mammoth, glorious, three-hour-plus gulp (Miramax, imitating the heroine at the House of Blue Leaves, cleaved the film into two parts); as it is, Vol. 2 can’t get here fast enough.

Trembling and bloodied, Uma Thurman’s Bride (known by no other name in this volume; her real name is bleeped three times) chokes out four last words before Bill (David Carradine), the eponymous focus of her vengeance, blows her brains out. Well, almost. That’s the first shot of the movie, and we learn that the bullet knocked her into a four-year coma. She escapes an aborted bedside murder attempt by Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah, cold and mean as a knife here), one of Bill’s minions. “Don’t you ever wake up,” Elle snarls, but eventually the Bride does snap out of it; you know this is an exploitation picture because she has to kill two loutish rapists within five minutes of her resurrection. Willing her coma-stiffened legs to function, the Bride takes off, Death List in hand, and sets about her course of action: slashing through each of her former cohorts on Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — including Elle, the domesticized Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), and the fearsome O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) — before tracking down Bill.

Thurman spends most of her screen time seething with scarcely repressed homicidal rage, though she’s got a cheerier moment here when she poses as a bubbly American tourist who just happens to have stumbled into the sushi bar of retired-and-in-hiding master swordsman Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, whose name Tarantino can now cross off his list of Movie Gods I Want to Put in My Movies). Hanzo fashions the Bride a sword sharp enough, one imagines, to slice the thoughts of air molecules. It slices, all right; in the designed-to-be-legendary Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, it drenches the floor, ceiling, and walls in hissing, gushing arterial spray as the Bride carves her way through O-Ren’s cadre of assassins (the Crazy 88s) as though they were soft ice cream.

Kill Bill is a temple of worship — a devout hymn of praise to crap cinema (which isn’t always crappy). Tarantino, a generous filmmaker if ever there was one, pelts us with stylistic jabs as well as flying body parts. O-Ren’s origin story, for instance, is told as a spectacularly gory anime cartoon, and that’s pretty much what you’re watching all along. The movie, though, retains Tarantino’s preference for long breezes of rhetoric (though shortened somewhat and honed to a point here — most of the wordiness here is on the part of those hoping to avoid the Bride’s wrath) as well as quiet, still moments. Tarantino, who’s seen everything and knows how it works, isn’t trying to subvert anything this time out. His goal, it’s clear, is to make the ultimate revenge movie with the ultimate sword battle scene.

The latter might well occur in Vol. 1, but never fear, more impressive stuff is on tap for Vol. 2 (from what I remember of the script, which, like many, I’ve read online). Tarantino ends this first part with a line from Bill obviously intended to get people to come back for the second part (effectively giving away a surprise that had originally been saved for the saga’s last act), but it’s hardly necessary. You want to see what happens next with the Bride — not whether she gets her revenge, but how, and what toll it may take on enemies and innocents alike. I’ll miss Lucy Liu as O-Ren, smugly cocooned in her stature and acumen, and Chiaki Kuriyama as O-Ren’s psychotic bodyguard Go-Go Yubari; but we have more Daryl Hannah coming up, and more Michael Madsen (barely glimpsed here) as Budd, the team’s only male Viper; and we’ll get to meet Bill and see for ourselves whether we — and the Bride — still want him dead.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

December 18, 2002

Even though I was lost through some of it, I liked The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers better than its predecessor, The Fellowship of the Ring. As the middle section of what is really one long story (or one long nine-hour movie), it doesn’t bother setting anything up — it assumes you’ve seen the first one — and just plunges in. Whereas Fellowship gave us the sunlit complacency of the Shire darkening into grim duty, Two Towers begins on a note of near-disaster — a dream of the standoff between the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the fearsome Balrog — and mostly keeps its jaws clenched in readiness for hopeless battle. The theme of this Act Two is good warriors standing tall in the face of odds that could hardly suck worse.

If that sounds like a downer, it isn’t; Peter Jackson, delivering the second of his three Christmas gifts to J.R.R. Tolkien fans worldwide, comes most alive during the scenes of peril and evil, of which there are enough here for a year’s worth of movies. One could conceivably enjoy The Two Towers knowing very little of its conflicts or interspecies politics; it can be processed as pure cinema, and forget about the plotlines, which in any event are unavoidably way stations to The Return of the King. We do spend a great deal of the movie watching characters prepare for things that won’t happen in the movie; even the big-bang sequence, the battle at Helm’s Deep, is but a minor skirmish in the grand scheme of things.

A good deal of the dawdling is fun. The fearful comic-relief hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) find themselves hanging on a massive walking and talking tree — an Ent, really, a sort of plant elemental that watches over the green. These Ents talk slowly and arrive at decisions even more slowly; Jackson seems to be tweaking the ponderousness of most epics. Meanwhile, the human warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) tries to get the woefully unprepared kingdom of Rohan ready for legions of merciless Uruk-hai sent by the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee); and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), bearer of Tolkien’s mystical McGuffin the One Ring, and his loyal friend Samwise (Sean Astin) slouch towards Mordor to dispose of the thing, accompanied by the wretched Gollum.

Most of the hype surrounding Two Towers has centered on Helm’s Deep and Gollum. Of the two — and the battle is one of the best of its kind in film history, a symphony of bloodlust and hopes dashed and restored — I prefer the little creature who used to be called Smeagol before the Ring stole his mind and soul. As you’ve heard, Gollum is played in voice and gesture by Andy Serkis, and fleshed out digitally by Jackson’s computer wizards. You’ll always be aware that Gollum isn’t literally “real,” but in his pathetically addled way he’s more real than anyone else in the movie. Jackson seems to have studied Jar Jar Binks and learned from George Lucas’s mistake.

Two Towers may play narratively as a downer, but Jackson is too spirited a director to get bogged down: Characters are always reminding each other to keep hope alive in the midst of dread and panic. Hope is there, too, in the raw beauty Jackson finds everywhere, whether in battle or in a poetically downbeat episode at Rivendell with a weeping Arwen (Liv Tyler). Jackson hasn’t disdained his horror-movie roots, either: no director could be happier among the Orcs and Uruk-hai, and he has the diabolical wit to end this second entry on a note of demented enthusiasm that functions as a chilling cliffhanger. Fellowship interested and entertained me; this one hooked me.

Y Tu Mama Tambien

March 29, 2002

In the sex comedy Y Tu Mamá También, which has dominated the Mexican box office, two teenage boys facing the dusk of their high-school lives find themselves on a road trip with an attractive older woman. One of the boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal), comes from a much humbler background than the other, Tenoch (Diego Luna), whose family is ostentatiously wealthy; yet they have a lot in common, starting with a teenager’s devotion to raunchiness. With each other, they brag about what they do in bed with their girlfriends; the reality, as we see it in the film’s opening minutes, is a bit more flailing and abrupt. Their travelling companion is Luisa Cortés (Maribel Verdú), the wife of a pompous and pathetic writer. Perhaps close to thirty, she’s missed out on a lot of fun. For her own reasons, she takes the boys up on their offer to tag along for a weekend ride to a beach.

Y Tu Mamá También is a return to roots by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who came to America in the ’90s to direct such neo-classical eye candy as A Little Princess and Great Expectations. The new movie is considerably franker and rougher-edged; the MPAA, in its infinitesimal wisdom, refused to let the film slide with an R rating, thus depriving the American Julios and Tenoches in the audience of seeing a truthful but warmly composed reflection of themselves. (It’s permissible, of course, for teenagers to enter the MPAA-approved sex-equals-slaughterhouse world of Jason X.) As with all movies the MPAA apparently considers too explicit, Y Tu Mamá También is not too explicit — merely honest and unblinking. The sex scenes are generally played more for frantic comedy than for eroticism, which of course makes them more erotic.

Julio and Tenoch throw a bunch of junk into Julio’s borrowed car and scoop up Luisa at her antiseptic apartment. Something about the noisy squalor of the car, and the noisy enthusiasm of the boys, seems to unlock Luisa; something else does, too. Before the trip, we see her sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and though I won’t reveal why, you can probably guess why; doctors are never mentioned in movies unless the very fact of them portends something grim. In any event, during the course of the journey, Luisa — whose husband has called her with the drunken, sobbing news that he’s just cheated on her — singles out the boys for sexual play, first Tenoch in her motel room, then Julio in the back seat of his car, then both at once at the end of a tequila-flavored night.

Many articles have bundled Y Tu Mamá También together with 2000’s ferocious triptych of love, Amores Perros, partly because of the angle that there’s something new and exciting going on in Latino cinema, partly because both films share an actor, the amiable and soulful Gael García Bernal. I don’t think Y Tu Mamá También is nearly as richly textured or as provocative as Amores Perros, but the comparison is bankrupt anyway; Y Tu Mamá También is to Amores Perros as, say, American Pie is to Pulp Fiction — both fine entertainments, but one generally seeks only to amuse, whereas the other is a fuller, denser package.

At times, Y Tu Mamá También tries to be deeper than it needs to be. At regular intervals, a narrator interrupts the proceedings to inform us in dispassionate voiceover about facts and events irrelevant to the action. The irrelevance says “art”; it’s a comment on mundane life marching on around the realized sex fantasy of the boys (and of the woman). And Luisa’s character arc is a little too “Seize the day” for my taste; the revelation of her secret shames and humbles the boys, who were only out for a fun getaway. Foreign films (the overpraised Amélie is another recent example) are threatening to become as glibly life-affirming as any American Chicken Soup for the Soul fable financed by Miramax in search of Oscars. Still, Y Tu Mamá También offers a shot of wise, freshly etched character comedy in a time when it’s desperately needed. Once again, a foreign director shows Hollywood what Hollywood should always be doing but has presumably forgotten how.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

December 19, 2001

All right, everyone can relax now — and I mean that both ways: the first of the three Lord of the Rings movies has emerged triumphant, but it’s not going to alter the course of mankind (it’s just a movie, folks). The wildly ambitious (and, fortunately, just as wildly talented) New Zealand director Peter Jackson has delivered what everyone should have been delivering for years: a good story well-told, a massive adventure painted in strokes bold and subtle on a vast canvas. I expected no less from him, though I come to The Fellowship of the Ring as a Jackson fan, not so much a J.R.R. Tolkien devotee (I last read the books, oh, twenty years ago), and this wouldn’t be my favorite Jackson film — second or third, maybe.

Given his biggest piggy bank ever and almost three hours in which to sprawl, Jackson still has to speed through the book. Invariably, when he does dawdle, he dawdles over fairly uninteresting stuff; no matter how much golden light he throws onto the Elves, for instance, they’re still pretty dull and can’t compete with the forces of evil for sheer cinematic power (the Rivendell footage tends toward the blandly idyllic at times). Jackson’s at his best here working with dark colors — the corrupt wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who’s building an army of half-man, half-Orc creatures; the truly frightening Ringwraiths, who bring a shiver of dread into the movie every time they ride in on their black and shrieking horses; the various monster-movie obstacles, including a giant troll and the much-beloved-by-Tolkien-fans beastie the Balrog, with its ferocious whip of flame. Not to mention the chief Big Bad — Sauron, whose tainted Ring sets the plot in motion.

Pitted against all this evil are a motley crew of four hobbits, a wizard, an Elf, a dwarf, and a couple of regular guys. (No girls allowed in this Fellowship, though Jackson — to the disgruntlement of many purists — has given Liv Tyler’s Elf character Arwen a slightly more active role than in the book.) Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who has inherited the aforementioned Ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm), must take it to Mount Doom and destroy it; the wise and mighty wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has advised Frodo never to wear the Ring — its corruptive power is too great — but of course on several occasions it finds its way onto his finger. It’s a proactive ring — it can even adjust itself to fit any finger.

There’s unfortunately some rushing of things that shouldn’t be rushed, even at almost three hours. The confrontations between Gandalf and Saruman (yes, I realize they weren’t in the book) feel a bit too Matrix-y — yeah, they’re wizards, but they’re also old, and should they really be able to be flung all over a vast room without breaking a hip? The Balrog gets more build-up than actual screen time; at times, the movie has the same thin, one-damn-thing-after-another tone as Harry Potter, which also tried to pack too much into a reasonable sitting time. But Jackson’s storytelling economy also serves him well here; when Bilbo gives Frodo his sword Sting (which glows blue when Orcs are near) and magical chain mail, we’re fondly reminded of Bilbo’s own adventure, which he’s busily recording in his book There and Back Again (Tolkien renamed it The Hobbit, of course). In the same scene, Bilbo shows us a flash of ring-addiction that’s chilling for being so sudden — Ian Holm, making a deep impression despite scant screen time, gives us an invaluable sense of how dangerous the Ring really is.

In addition to Holm, the film is immaculately cast. Elijah Wood is as much the ideal Frodo — wide-eyed, sincere, frightened yet determined — as Ian McKellen is the textbook Gandalf — wise, wry, sometimes self-satirical (as when Gandalf, in his first scene, tries hard to be stern with Frodo and can’t quite keep a straight face). It’s a good thing Jackson populates the Good with so many vibrant actors, because his Evil — with the exception of Christopher Lee’s Saruman, who occasionally bears an eerie, obviously unintentional likeness to Osama bin Laden — hardly has a human face. Evil in this movie snorts and writhes in shadows, or hisses to itself in demented supplication to the Ring (what little we see of the mutated Gollum in Fellowship is mitigated by what we hear — Andy Serkis deserves kudos for making that famous “my precioussss” vibrate with menace and madness).

As the first act in a trilogy, Fellowship is all set-up and quest. It inevitably suffers from reverse been-there-done-that; Jackson is competing not only with fan devotion to the books, but with all the Tolkien rip-offs and knock-offs of the last fifty years, including a quarter-century of role-playing games. I grew bored with Dungeons & Dragons by age 14 or so, so it’s a testament to Jackson’s skill that I was with the film throughout, given that it often plays like a D & D game writ large. The proceedings are a bit more solemn than usual from the previously prankish Jackson, though he still manages to sneak in some humor: the bumbling hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan); the very tall Gandalf’s trouble adjusting to the very small Bilbo’s hobbit-hole; the perpetually snoopy Samwise (Sean Astin); a dwarf one-liner that, I’m certain, did not come from the books; the burping, blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the director himself, who, Hitchcock-like, has found his way into all his films except his puppet satire Meet the Feebles.

Jackson also, it must be said, conjures the most potent major-motion-picture magic in years. The landscapes get a tad too pictorial in the tradition of bad ’70s folk-album covers, but when Gandalf breaks out his enchanted fireworks for Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, you feel that this is what dazzlement was always meant to be, and that what we know as fireworks today are just a weak dilution of the age of sorcery. When the swords and arrows come out, as they frequently do, so does Jackson’s love of hack-and-slash; the fearless human men of the Fellowship, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the conflicted Boromir (Sean Bean), speed into the fight with full-blooded battle lust — the spectacle is all the more thrilling for packing an emotional charge. Fellowship is a big one, with two more to come; if some part of me isn’t all the way into the story Jackson has chosen, I’ll still definitely be back to see what else he does with it.