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The Lineup

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 July 2019 01:55 (A review of The Lineup (1958))

The first chunk must be endured before you get to the good stuff in The Lineup. Based on a popular TV show of the era, director Don Seigel is clearly enamored with his bad guy more than he is with the stoic cops from the small screen. Why shouldn’t he be when he’s played with typical live-wire intensity and unpredictability by Eli Wallach? I’d rather watch Wallach behaving badly than Marshall Reed performing on autopilot.

 

Once the generic opening is over The Lineup gets good and weird. Wallach and Robert Keith make for a fascinating duo with Keith all gentlemanly killer to Wallach’s loose cannon. They talk at length in a manner that clearly paved the way for Quentin Tarantino and just as quickly turn deadly and serious. Watching them threaten a woman and child over a stash of heroin hidden in a doll is the best of noir’s descent into the demimonde.

 

The rest of the film, again the part that must bring in the TV players, plays things too safely. We must restore order, of course, but you spend a lot of time rooting for these two to behave badly. When it all comes crashing down in a high-speed chase through a developing freeway, The Lineup manages to convince you that there’s a diamond in the rough. If there’s no more perfect symbol for the film than the under-construction freeway that’s incomplete with a car teetering on the brink, then I don’t know what else it would be.  



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The Burglar

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 July 2019 01:54 (A review of The Burglar)

I can’t quite claim this one as lost curio of the noir era, but there’s still some sweaty sexual neurosis and a leanness to the narrative that’s refreshing. That doesn’t paper over The Burglar’s messiness, like a sexual assault of Jayne Mansfield that’s disturbing now, and I can’t even imagine how it played in 1957. The Burglar is a small-time heist film that quickly unwinds into backstabbing, tragedy, and a sense of confusion over how the improbabilities piled up this high in the first place.

 

Dan Duryea leads a gang into a low-rent jewelry heist that is successfully pulled off. When the heat comes on, Duryea suggests that they lay low. It’s a smart idea that no one can seem to stick with as Martha Vickers and Stewart Bradley manage to find the gang, split them up through seduction, and nearly pull the whole thing down when the cops cannot. I bring this up because this gang just goes parading around in public like the fuzz isn’t breathing down their necks, including Mansfield in a holiday.

 

The story is simple and, frankly, not enough to justify the meager running time. The Burglar feels too often like time is being stalled as the next setup is slowly unfurling. At least Duryea and Vickers manage to liven things up with their sweaty and sultry presences, respectively. Naturally, they’d played these types of parts of before in better films, like Scarlet Street and The Big Sleep.

 

Narrative convenience with little tethering to reality is the order of the day, and this kind of impressionistic approach reaches and apex in the relationship between Duryea and Mansfield. A lot of noir is predicated upon the simmering sexual tension between characters, but The Burglar makes theirs nearly incestual by having her be his ward. Sexual hysteria, both in extreme repression or overindulgence, was a cornerstone of noir and The Burglar dials it up to 11 by having it both ways.

 

Nothing makes much sense, much of it is purple prose and disjointed, and the whole thing is covered in sweat. Part of me wants to praise the balls to the wall absurdity of The Burglar but it never gives in to its own insanity. Some of it just too damn dull.



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Nightfall

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 July 2019 01:53 (A review of Nightfall (1956))

Jacques Tourneur was one of cinema’s great second stringers. A director who could make the feeblest budgetary constraints outshine its big budget brethren through sheer force of style and atmosphere. He shined brightest when his films were their darkest – Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past. While Nightfall is not up to the level of any of those films, it is a sturdy little crime thriller that offers plenty of pleasures.

 

The problem isn’t that so much of the plot feels like it was rolled off the film noir conveyor belt, but that it’s main character never fully commits to his emotional downfall or flirtation with amorality. Aldo Ray’s beefy sensitive artist is setup to everything in his corner so his chase from one greedy moment years prior is not energized by noir’s typical sense of danger or domestic stasis gone out of sync. He’s a white hat character that we’re told is a gray but never really see or become convinced by this point.

 

He’s got an insurance agent on his tail that’s on his side (James Gregory), a beautiful woman (Anne Bancroft), and a narrative that wants to give him a happy ending. A better film noir would fully explore Ray’s opportunist motivations and the ethical quicksand so much of the film plucks him in. There’s still the picturesque climax that places us squarely in the mountains of Wyoming, a nice change of pace from noir’s typically concrete jungle rhythms and imagery, and the solid performances from a game cast to make Nightfall routinely engaging.

 

It’s just a film that will always a B-lister in comparison to far better work by Tourneur, like the similarly “man haunted by his past” noir Out of the Past.



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Human Desire

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 July 2019 01:53 (A review of Human Desire (1954))

A reunion of director Fritz Lang and stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame after the previous year’s successful noir masterpiece, The Big Heat, but this one can’t help but feel a bit like a cooldown. There’s plenty of style to burn and a delicious pair of performances to thrill as often as they repel, but something about Human Desire just isn’t quite as compelling. It might have something to do with the wind dissipating from the sails before the final credits roll.

 

Maybe a better descriptor would be that the train runs out of steam before reaching the station as much Human Desire concerns railway workers. Based upon Emile Zola’s novel La bête humaine, Lang’s film is too stodgy for noir and too mean for literary adaptations occupying a fascinating netherworld where Grahame and Broderick Crawford give two of the greatest performances of their careers as a toxic, tragic married couple. This doesn’t mean Human Desire is a failure as a film, far from it as it’s a solid example of Lang’s craft, but that it’s a fascinating oddity that I strongly admired.

 

Ford is a bit of stiff drip as Jeff Warren, a Korean War veteran caught in sexual frenzy with Grahame’s complicated femme fatale and the object of affection for a bland good girl (Kathleen Case). While his decency could be properly projected to project tension and inward anger coiled inside a respectable exterior, he seems a bit too levelheaded to the pulpier aspects of the script. He’s essentially the straight man to the crazier, juicier supporting players.

 

Jeff crosses paths with Vicki (Grahame) while her husband (Crawford) commits a murder on a train. Vicki’s responsibility for the murder is questionable, but her marriage is a portrait of mutually assured destruction and abuse. Crawford’s big lug characters often seemed more bellow than follow-through. Not so here as Crawford’s Carl openly hits and repeatedly hits Vicki, demonstrates a murderous possessiveness, and nearly earns a modicum of sympathy with his pathetic displays of insecurity and neediness. It’s a marvel of acting that Crawford alternates between humanizing his abuser but never apologizes for him.

 

Just as complicated is Grahame’s ability to keep us somewhere between sympathy for her circumstances, revulsion at her actions, and enthralled with her bad behavior. This is what Grahame excelled at as an actress. She was at home in film noir and indispensable as a femme fatale. Her appearance added to the vibe and overall artistry of any production she was in, and some of her best work was with Lang in this film and The Big Heat. Her sultriness is at its ripest here, and her victim/victimizer character must be one of the best performances in her career.

 

It is in her and Crawford’s depiction that the sexual frenzy and animal lust so endemic to film noir exposes the rot inside the genre. Shame that it’s Ford’s innocent brought into their twisted back-and-forth that remains the central point-of-view. His character never really seems to lose his barring on the real world as he enters the twisty funhouse of Grahame and Crawford. Frankly, there doesn’t appear to be much internal struggle with his character. He moves through the motions too easily for a story so based in human emotions and base instincts.

 

Lang keeps a cool, nearly impassive eye on the proceedings, but Ford’s character leaves the film with a bitter aftertaste of a man done in by a “bitches be crazy” plot with a side order of virgin vs whore complex to boot. Compare Human Desire to The Big Heat’s triste on men going to power for purpose with a woman’s manipulations as mere pretense, and it’s no wonder that Human Desire has languished in its shadow. It’s still a fascinating misfire that often approaches near greatness.



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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 5 July 2019 08:16 (A review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019))

Long gone is the muddied politics and visual poetry of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, which found the titular kaiju providing salvation from humanity as a by-product of his own biological imperative to be alpha over all others. He wasn’t the benevolent protector of humanity as he became in many of Toho’s weirder sequels, but far closer to irradiated rage and psychological scars of the first film. Humanity was dwarfed an impotent to provide help in his presence, and we were mere ants in his battle with MUTOs. Humanity was collateral damage in their warfare.

 

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is more in-line with the weird, kooky, colorful stuff that Toho did to the franchise throughout the 60s and 70s. It’s big, it’s dumb, it’s a ton of fun. Just don’t think too deeply about many of the story beats or images on display, such as a character clearly inhaling a tremendous amount of debris or the ability of several characters to shrug off a radioactive blast and keep moving.

 

Of course, with a subtitle like King of the Monsters, I doubt a subversion take on the material was what anyone going into it was expecting. Consider my expectations matched as Godzilla battles with/against Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah repeatedly in scenes of CGI overload and ludicrous physics. Who knew such towering beasts could move so limberly or bounce back so quickly?

 

No matter, I’m probably giving this too much thought. There’s a grand scale to these fight scenes that makes Godzilla: King of the Monsters one of the more visually comprehensible and borderline nihilistic summer blockbusters to come out in a while. We can be told that Godzilla is inherently a benevolent protector of humanity and the Earth’s ecology, but he sure does lay waste to the city with an ease and uncaring that seems to underscore the mythology of the character a near-deist entity.

 

It is when we focus in on these interesting world-building sequences and scenes of primal carnage and rage that everything works in sublime popcorn entertainment concert. It’s a damn shame that so much of the movie is preoccupied with petty family drama that just isn’t very interesting. There’s Kyle Chandler, Vera Farminga, and Millie Bobby Brown as the broken family with Brown stuck between the ideologies of her two parents and used as an unintentional pawn. Godzilla’s destruction of San Francisco killed their other child in a bit of a retcon to the previous film, causing Chandler to go into hiding with his research, Farminga to become something of an eco-terrorist hellbent on releasing these creatures to cleanse the planet, and Brown stuck in-between.

 

That’s some thin stuff to propel 132 minutes. Farminga is the villain of the piece, but she’s not a very interesting one. No sooner has she released Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah than she’s blinking at her own attacks and ideology. If she can’t convince us of the justice of her plan, then she’s not a villain worth investing in. Her eventually redemption is more perfunctory than satisfying as is her reunion with Chandler. We know these beats are coming, and they’re just kinda there because they must be.

 

Everyone involved in more concerned with the glorious spectacle, as they should be. If you’re not going to commit to your “kaiju as gigantic, lumbering metaphor” or “kaijus are actually eldritch horrors and pagan deities,” then just invest fully in their scenes of ever-escalating destruction. Bring on Godzilla vs Kong, coming in 2020. I’m primed for more mindless kaiju-versus-kaiju fun.



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The Elephant Man

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 5 July 2019 08:15 (A review of The Elephant Man)

David Lynch’s second film, The Elephant Man, appears on the surface as one of his more outré works. Nary a twisty narrative that takes multiple viewings to possibly discern, The Elephant Man was nearly like Lynch going all prestige on everybody… on the surface. Peak deep enough beneath the surface and you’ll find scenes of hallucinatory beauty and a more emotive structure.

 

There’s plenty of facts in The Elephant Man, but there’s just as much fiction to elicit a response in the viewer as we traverse from unease at John Merrick’s disfigurement towards seeing into his soul and finding the beauty there. That combination, or combative tension to be more precise, between horror and beauty is a Lynchian trademark. Think of Blue Velvet’s pastoral suburbia giving way to the rot and festering maggots beneath the surface, quite literally.

 

Lynch also transitions the film from firm timelines and slow burning developments into a heady rush of incident as it goes along. Clocks and punctuality are underscored throughout the earliest scenes only to disappear as days/months dissolve into a handful of scenes that explain vast expanses of time. Once again, beneath the beautiful images and respectable costuming there’s a Lynchian sense of narrative malleability at play here. We go from dire reality to wish fulfilling social life then fold back into a terrible reality as man’s monstrous nature disrupts Merrick’s modest idyll.      

 

It’s not as if this more impressionistic second half comes out of nowhere. Lynch opens the film with a dream-like vision of a pregnant woman attacked by elephants and throws in plenty of slow-motion circus imagery at the same time. This sequence is repeated as Merrick prepares to die at the very end of the film. His mother speaks in this bookending surrealistic sequence, quoting from Lord Tennyson’s “Nothing Will Die.” These pieces bookend the film and poetical tie it all together making a visual rhyme as mother and son suffer and die to the strands of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

 

There’s another Lynchian trademark: the easy delineation between good and evil with the setting functioning as a character onto itself. The characters of The Elephant Man are types deployed with effectiveness by a game cast. There’s the kindly doctor (Anthony Hopkins, showing flashes of his later ham years), the tough but tender matron (Wendy Hiller, bringing layers to a thinly written part), the cruel surrogate father (Freddie Jones, absolutely stellar), and the noble victim (John Hurt, completely unrecognizable but towering). We know these types well, and Lynch gets new wrinkles out of a cast that manages to find sneaky bits of business that subvert our expectations.

 

Hurt is the wounded heart of the film. He’s buried under layers of prosthetic makeup leaving him with little of his original self, yet he manages to project a wounded pride and soulfulness through it all. If it hadn’t been for Robert De Niro’s career-defining work in Raging Bull, I wonder if that year’s Best Actor Oscar would’ve found a different outcome in Hurt’s favor. I’m normally suspect of actors transforming underneath layers of makeup but Hurt manages to shine something through it that others do not. He makes us feel every hurt, every victory, even the inevitable peace of his death feels like the rational thought of a mind tired of being gawked at and exploited.

 

These make The Elephant Man clearly a piece of Lynch’s wider work, even if history and general audience reaction to it categorize as his most standard, normal film and everything else as “weird.” Reductive, to be sure, but The Elephant Man is nearly abstract in its ending run of scenes and emotional crescendos, but the presence of period trappings and actors of note like Hopkins and Hurt somehow smooth out these oddball choices. Here is the sum of Lynch’s work up to this point and various breadcrumbs of where he was about to go.

 

It’s easy to write The Elephant Man off as Lynch playing it straight on a surface level, but is he really doing that? Yes, it’s simple, but it’s also overwhelming in its visual beauty, surrealistic flourishes, and obscure sound choices, such as Merrick’s mother narrating over his death from the afterlife, seemingly. The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most straightforward, linear film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in line with the rest of his work. It is very much as strong an auteur statement as Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway.



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Mulan II

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 5 July 2019 04:30 (A review of Mulan II (2004))

One of the worst aspects of the first Mulan was the presence of Mushu, Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon that was an obvious attempt at recapturing the magic of Robin Williams’ genie from Aladdin, so here comes Mulan II doubling down on his presence. While he was a supporting player in the original, a major one but still technically one of her sidekicks, here he is elevated to a major player. This isn’t even the worst aspect of Mulan II, but it is endemic to its worst impulses.

 

Mulan II doubles down on the modern philosophies and viewpoints invading an ancient story. In this film, it manifests in the way that Mulan seeks to dismantle the arranged marriages of the three princesses and help them find true love. Arranged marriages for political purposes is a tale as old as time and trying to dismantle it because of a concept as relatively new as “true love” is a bit of historical revisionism that stands out in stark contrast to the politics and time period of the setting.

 

So here we have Mulan and Shang, newly engaged, escorting the three princesses (Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Lauren Tom) with the help of her three best buds from the military (Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, Jerry Tondo). If that three-to-three ratio seems suspiciously symmetrical, then congratulations you know exactly where the story is going. Everything fun and interesting about the original film is slowly sapped out here as the characters are twisted into unrecognizable shapes. Mulan is all about duty and honor, but here she’s freewheeling and prone to breaking promises and sidestepping the law for her own personal amusement. Who is this person?

 

These direct-to-video cash-ins are the worst impulses of the Disney money-making machinery in action. Why create art when you could just create something lacking in integrity or artistry and print money? Thank god these films came to a crashing halt as they diminished not only their source films, but the entirety of the Disney brand along the way.



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Atlantis: Milo’s Return

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 5 July 2019 04:30 (A review of Atlantis: Milo's Return (2003))

So, this was clearly intended as a trial-run for an Atlantis: The Lost Empire spinoff TV show, right? I mean, it just seems so obvious given the way that the three different adventures involved have clean three-act structures and obvious breaks for commercials and separation into individual episodes. I’m surprised Disney didn’t go through with the project as the pulpy adventure story of Atlantis felt so primed and ready for further exploration but seeing how limp the final pilot turned out… maybe it wasn’t such a shock.

 

Long gone is the visually appealing takeoff of Mike Mignola’s style in favor of a blockier, chunkier style the reads as passable for a mass-produced series but woefully for a movie. Just a reminder that this was not intended as a standalone movie, I guess. Here the main group of explorers from the first film launch into a steampunk X-Files agency that encounter Lovecraftian horrors, a rogue Asgardian god, and a trickster coyote spirit in the American southwest.

 

Each of these stories contains a connection to the hitherto unexplored history of Atlantis and its wider connections to the outside world, a fact that the original film flirted with and used as a reason for their eventual hiding. There’s vast potential here but the insistence on making them digestible 22-minute adventures leaves much of the potential undiscovered. Frankly, I’d have much preferred a 90-minute story involving the gang encountering that Lovecraftian horror and realizing how its existence is the basis for a variety of mythological creatures throughout the world and history.

 

Atlantis: Milo’s Return, which is misnamed as Milo never left Atlantis in the first place, needed to go full pulp fiction when it merely cockteases. These damn direct-to-video sequels, prequels, and in-betweens really do cheapen the value of the original film, even ones as cult-ish and fringe as Atlantis: The Lost Empire. But I still fully expect Disney to announce a live-action remake of it any day now, cause the House of Mouse just can’t stop itself.



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The Indian in the Cupboard

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 5 July 2019 04:29 (A review of The Indian in the Cupboard (1995))

The foundation for the story is the childhood belief that your toys could become real, or even were real when you weren’t looking. This idea appeared in two divergent films in 1995: The Indian in the Cupboard and Toy Story. One of them had a ton of heart and spawned a long-lasting franchise, while the other was an average film with a bitter aftertaste that it seemed completely unaware of as it played out.

 

This adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks’ children’s novel rises more complicated issues than it is capable or interested in answering. The toys placed in the magical cupboard don’t just become real, they’re brought to life by displacing people out of time and merging them with the plastic figurines. This element of intended horror is slowly dripped out, and The Indian in the Cupboard begins to flirt with the idea of the child as a god. It never does anything of interest with this idea.

 

Here is a film where Little Bear, the titular Indian, proclaims that there is no god, and there’s no dramatic resolution or import afford that line. It’s just casually tossed off – in a family film from 1995! Surely, there was more territory to explore with a line and development like that. Much of the problem is in the unease that director Frank Oz clearly exhibits with the material. He’s not a director made for family entertainment, and it shows in his awkward attempts at Spielbergian wonder.

 

Directing child actors to authentic performances is a hard job. Some kids are naturally gifted at appearing at ease in front of the camera while others are clearly in high-performance mode. Hal Scardino is permanently breathless, and Rishi Bhat comes across way too bratty, despite ostensibly playing the best friend role. Much of the film follows their melodrama and classroom scenes, and The Indian in the Cupboard is disappointing when we spend too much time away from the magical realism portions.

 

Litefoot is much better and more involving as Little Bear. He feels more engrossing, complicated, and aggressive than the rest of the balmy film knows what to do with. His rage threatens to disrupt the film, and his passages of wisdom can feel like Oz shouting, “pay attention – this message is important, kids!” I’ll assume the adventure was more involving on the page than it is on the screen.

 

I remember this being a film they’d wheel out on rainy days and end-of-the-year movie days in elementary school. But I also remember never finding the movie particularly engaging even at eight-years-old. It’s passable enough, I suppose, but it sure is disappointing.



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Gay Purr-ee

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 29 June 2019 11:17 (A review of Gay Purr-ee (1962))

What do you get when you combine the talents of Chuck Jones, operating as a writer and producer, and a vocal cast that includes Judy Garland, Robert Goulet (in his film debut), Red Buttons, and Hermione Gingold? Well, you get Gay Purr-ee, a film that’s more visually arresting than it is capable of holding your attention. The disparate parts of Gay Purr-ee are wonderful, so it’s a damn shame that don’t quite fit together.

 

The limited animation doesn’t help, not when so much of the background and montage work is so adventurous. I guess UPA didn’t have the budget of a Disney or Warner Brothers, but the so-so quality of the animation starts to pop out in scenes that are supposed to suggest tension or action. Physical comedy bits feel like they’re missing in-between sections to smooth over their actions.

 

At least the character designs are pleasing, especially Gingold’s villainous Mme Rubens-Chatte, a corpulent purple cat with piercing eye lashes and bright eye shadow. Meowrice’s four hench-cats are an interesting visual invention, too. Four inky, jagged black cats with yellow slits for eyes, they move as if a refraction of each other in ridged geometry.

 

Even when the story or song falters, the act of looking at Gay Purr-ee remains an enjoyable experience. One of the best montages involves Garland’s Mewsette reimagined in a series of paintings by various French impressionists, including Gaugan, Van Gogh, and Seurat. The provincial village where Mewsette and Goulet’s Jaune-Tom reside in the earliest scenes resembles one of Van Gogh’s sweeping vistas with unexpected color combinations and broad strokes. If Gay Purr-ee manages to pull off such a neat trick on a limited budget, then just imagine what director Abe Levitow could’ve accomplished with more time, money and resources. It’s a cute little tchotchke, but there’s obviously something better waiting to spring out.



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