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Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
Unpopular movie opinion: Live Free or Die Hard is the best Die Hard movie.
It's the only one that makes a series attempt at a thematic point. It's not about some deep relationship between the viewer and the world, or even the viewer and movies, but about the change in the nature of action in action movies over the decades since the original Die Hard. It also has the best villain since Hans Gruber going for it.
Some hackers have delivered code to a shadowy organization and then started getting killed off one by one. John McClane, for slightly unclear reasons, is sent to New Jersey to pick up Matt Farrell, one of the hackers on the FBI's list, for questioning. So begins John McClane's next foray into combatting terrorism and thievery, and I think it's the smartest of his adventures. It really begins with the introduction to Farrell for McClane. It's pretty typical generational stuff with the old man who doesn't get all the young person stuff that Farrell spouts out of his smart mouth. That's not the interesting part. What quickly manifests is the fight that breaks out between the terrorists out to kill Farrell and McClane.
As Thomas Gabriel says later in the film, McLane is a "Timex watch in a digital age." He's outmoded, and that extends into a meta commentary about the nature of action movies. McClane is a punch and shoot type of action hero. He doesn't do acrobatics, but in the 2000s, that's the sort of thing that was dominating action movies thanks to things like The Matrix, parkour, and some French imports. This wasn't the age for John McClane's brand of action, and yet here he is in a film in that time period. Do the filmmakers treat it as a throwback to another time? No, they bring the creaky old McClane into that era and have him fight that era itself. The French unit sent by Gabriel has a freerunner who uses motion to get where he needs to go, and McClane needs to figure out how to deal with it.
The visual nature of the conflict is at its height, though, during the chase through D.C. McClane has taken Farrell to the FBI who then redirect them to the NSA for questioning. As they progress through the city, Gabriel sends his helicopter of French mercenaries after John and Farrell in the car below. So, it's McClane, using tools he can only access from the ground, fighting the representation of the new style of action movies that use a helicopter and never come to the ground. McClane uses the car to overturn a fire hydrant that shoots water into the sky, knocking one of the mercenaries out of the helicopter. At the end of the chase, McClane uses the actual car to take the helicopter out of the sky. He's using the tools on the ground to take out the new antagonists in the sky. I love that.
The other major thing that I love about this movie is Timothy Olyphant as Thomas Gabriel. Gabriel is a really good bad guy. He's got a strong motive. He warned the Joint Cheifs of America's openness to attack on the digital front, they destroyed him for it when he tried to go around their backs. So, he's there to make his point (with promises that he could fix everything that he broke), but also to enrich himself, all stemming from his sense of bruised ego, actual harm, and sense of righteous anger. On top of that, the way Olyphant plays him is great. Gabriel is completely in control, reminiscent of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, and alternatively sardonic and threatening when those around him screw up.
I really like the rest of the cast. Bruce Willis is somewhere between trying and giving up, but he still manages to make the role work. Justin Long is fine as Farrell. It's Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy McClane that stands out for me. She's strong and pig headed, just like her father, and when she gets re-introduced late in the movie, the way she fights back against Gabriel instead of playing the helpless victim is great.
The action is well filmed and actually carries a point beyond the mayhem. The acting is quite good, especially from Winstead and Olyphant. The antagonist has very solid motivations and his plan is both large scale and understandable (if, like most movies about computers, it overstates what computers can do). This really is the most complete package of a Die Hard film.
A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
I'm not one to demand that films in a franchise adhere to the conventions and formula of those that preceded it, so the fifth entry in the Die Hard franchise doing stuff like going to Russia and essentially becoming a spy action thriller don't bother me. What bothers me is that the trip to Russia is thinly drawn and ends up making little to no sense and the spy action thriller stuff isn't exactly good.
There's an exchange in Live Free or Die Hard where John McClane and Matthew Farrell are driving to West Virginia where McClane describes why he's going through such a big effort to help: "I do this because there is nobody else to do it right now. Believe me if there was somebody else to do it, I would let them do it. There's not, so I'm doing it." As a contrast, here's what John's son Jack describes John as in A Good Day to Die Hard: "F***ing killing bad guys, that's your thing." In one movie, the franchise decided that John McClane wasn't an everyman who just happens to get into over his head situations, he's just someone who kills bad guys. He's a generic action hero. He could be literally any other action hero since there's nothing distinctive about him anymore.
One of the ironies of A Good Day to Die Hard is that John McClane is probably the best part of the film (despite Bruce Willis's bored performance) and that the movie would have probably been improved by having less John McClane. The source of that irony is the fact that this isn't John's movie, it's his son's. Jack McClane is a secret agent in Russia out to protect a Russian in jail and on a hit list in order to find a file that has incriminating information on a prominent Russian politician. And, John just walks into the rescue attempt, screwing everything up and then tagging along for the rest of the adventure.
And the rest of that adventure is a bad Bourne knockoff. It feels like an attempt to extend the Die Hard series by introducing a new male action lead in the form of Jai Courtney as Jack, but the extension is literally just a bad Bourne knockoff. Shaky-cam car chases, European setting, even the Russian politician angle is all ripped straight from The Bourne Supremacy in particular. What makes it all worse is that this is another film in the franchise (after Die Hard 2) that's so purely driven by plot needs that the several reversals of minor characters that turn the plot all fall flat because we spend literally no time getting to know the doctor Jack is rescuing or his daughter. So, when someone betrays someone else, it's met with more confusion than shock. When it happens again, there's little more than a shrug and a sigh and a hope that the movie is almost over.
The action ranges from competent to incomprehensible without any consistent aesthetic. The early handheld filmed car chases end up giving way to elaborate slow motion shots with heavy special effects. The plot resolution feels dead. The interactions between father and son feel thin. Ironically, this was the only film in the franchise explicitly written as a Die Hard movie with John McClane at its center, and it's also the one that feels like it shouldn't be a Die Hard movie at all (tying the wannabe Airport that is Die Hard 2).
I didn't hate this movie. I mostly found it boring and unengaging. It was simply too inept to get all worked up about.
Structurally odd with some fun sound advancements
This feels like is should have been an early Hitchcock film that fit in easily with the parts of his filmography that he's famous for like The Wrong Man or North by Northwest, but Murder!'s story of one man alone without being able to call the police is really weirdly built. It also contains some more misconceptions about the use of sound that were fairly common in the early talkie era.
My problem with the film is that an alternate theory to the murder doesn't come up for about an hour. In that first hour, we see the immediate aftermath of the murder with Diana Baring, an actress, sitting over the corpse of a fellow actress from the same acting troupe, a quick trial, a long deliberation in the jury room, and one of the jurors deciding that something was missing from the evidence and deciding to take on two other actors from the same troupe to start up his own investigation into the murder. There's a lingering question in the juror's mind, one Sir John, about who drank the brandy from the empty container in the room, but it takes an hour for him to finally decide that someone else must have been in the room other than the two women.
I think it's the jury room scene that highlights my issues with the first major part of the film. It's a drawn out scene of about ten minutes where the jury foreman collects the votes (temporarily mislaying several of the votes along the way in a curious addition) and tries to come to a unanimous decision. The vote starts as 9-3 to convict, and he talks through all three jurors who voted to acquit. Most of the conversation revolves around dual personalities, fugue states, and the morality of putting someone to death. It would be an interesting enough discussion in a drama out to detail the ins and outs of the questions, but it ends up being a distraction and not germane to the point of the film which is a search for the real killer. It feels like talk for talk's sake, a way to create a dialogue scene rather than using dialogue to tell the story at hand.
Well, Sir John is the final juror and the rest of the jury pushes him into voting guilty along with them. One thing about this film is that it continues to demonstrate Hitchcock's visual acumen. The film is filled with moments of great visual flair and the eleven jurors towering over Sir John in a single shot, each of the twelve in frame and perfectly visible, is great. There are others like the early scene when an actress is talking with the landlady right after the murder and they go from one room to the next and back and the camera dollies back and forth with them which shows Hitchcock able to playfully and dynamically integrate sound into his films.
Anyway, back to the story. Sir John brings in two of the acting troupe's members, a husband and wife pair, to help him navigate the crime scene and its surrounds and he does the work that the police should have done. I don't object to the police doing a poor job of investigation when they are presented with evidence and a suspect that won't say anything. I did find it weird that Sir John and Diana seemed to have some personal connection, but it was never explained until late in the film when the connection was really thin. It felt like, for a while, that Sir John was doing this less out of a sense of guilt over injustice and more out of personal pique. That's a problem with clarity more than anything else.
Again, it takes about an hour before Sir John looks up and says that there must have been someone else in the room. It's a weird hole in the character's thinking because it seems easy enough. He's convinced that she didn't do it, but the idea that someone else entered the room and did it instead of her doesn't come to him until quite late, and by that point, we've mostly forgotten the other members of the troupe.
There's a scene very early when a policeman enters the troupe's performance backstage and tries to interview them. It's our introduction to everyone involved, but the movie drops all but two of them completely for an hour. So, when Sir John starts listing all of the other members of the troupe and how they could have been involved, it's been too long for the audience to easily recall the names and faces required to help make the connections. We get lost easily by this point.
However, once they do decide on a suspect and move in on him, things pick up a bit. The confrontation is based around Hamlet's confrontation of Claudius by Sir John presenting the actor with a scene of the murder itself, hoping to find a reaction. It works well enough to tell the killer that they're onto him but not well enough to get him to give himself away, and the action culminates at a circus where he's doing trapeze work.
The movie is overall pretty visually inventive, the problem is the plodding nature of the investigation itself. It takes forever to get to a point that it should have reached at the fifteen minute mark at the latest. What buoys the movie is really that visual inventiveness, especially when combined with the use of sound, and the rather effective ending to the film. As a showcase for Hitchcock's directing ability, it's a bit of a showcase. As an example of his grasp of story structure, it feels limited.
In Time (2011)
There are two major things to think about when trying to parse In Time. The first is the basic building blocks of story, the plot, characters, and structure. The second is the metaphor. Normally something like a metaphor wouldn't take a huge spot in analysis because it's usually not that prominent, but with In Time, there's just so much attention given to the metaphor that there's little space left for any of the other elements of storytelling.
This movie is really, really stupid. It's a surprise to me to write that even ten years after the movie's release and its reputation of a dumb, thin action movie metaphor has been solidified by time, but Andre Niccol is still the man who wrote and directed Gattaca, one of the great science fiction films that maturely approached the idea of genetic engineering in humans as a vehicle through which to look at prejudice. In Time feels like it was written by a guy who watched Gattaca once, felt like it needed a more obvious message and a lot more out of nowhere action heroics.
I will say, the early conception of how the world works is kind of neat. Time has replaced all currency after genetic engineering has won and everyone is kept at the age of twenty-five for the rest of their lives. It's the sort of concept that can support a short film pretty easily, but by stretching the idea out to feature length, Niccol took it past the breaking point. It simply stops making literal sense after a certain point, really once he tries to expand the world. A lot of what makes the concept stop gelling is the metaphor.
You see, Andrew Niccol doesn't like capitalism, but he doesn't seem to understand what it is. Instead of a creating a science fiction society where the economic system is one where free trade between willing individuals is the norm, he created one where an elite control a top down economy with extreme regulations around the basic transfer of wealth including simply moving from one area to another. You know...not capitalism. It doesn't help that the main bad guy, Phillipe Weis, says that the game of poker he plays with Justin Timberlake's Will is pure capitalism, the world of dog eat dog. A game of poker.
Fine, let's just give it its poorly thought out metaphor that doesn't mean what it think it means, and let's talk about the rest of the film. First things, first, the world makes no sense. It reminded me of Panem in The Hunger Games, but it felt significantly smaller, like the entire map shown in the office of the police was about the size of Los Angeles. That's an entire command economy ruled by an elite in a few hundred square miles. It's the sort of size that makes sense, again, in a short film format but makes less sense once pulled out to feature length. It makes the world feel small. The other thing is that, apparently, there's no industry in the world other than the creation of the little metal things people carry around to store extra time. Late in the film, all work stops when everyone gets a bunch of time, but what are people doing with that time? What are they spending it on because suddenly no one's making anything. Also, banks are shockingly poorly defended to the point that over the course of a week, Will and Phillipe's daughter Sylvia can ram vans through all of their glass fronts to steal all the time and hand them out to anyone gathering around. This world makes no sense.
Did you know there's a story in this movie? I mean, it's hard to tell with all the piss poor world building and thin and stupid metaphor, but it's there. Well, sort of. It's also stupid especially in its moments of "high drama". Will gets a hundred years from a rich guy tired of living, and as he goes to meet with his mother, she runs out of time as she's flying through the air to grab hold of her son in her final seconds. The sight is kind of hilarious. From there, Will decides to take his anger out on the system, so he goes into the rich part of town and...immediately goes to a casino. Where he wins a few centuries from a rich guy (Phillipe). It almost feels like this guy with a dead set purpose is just wandering around in an effort to accommodate world building, because that's exactly what's going on. He gets found out on suspicion of the rich guy's death (with police who are entirely uninterested in investigating a death) and immediately becomes an action hero, pulling guns from police holsters and firing perfect shots to escape, kidnapping Sylvia along the way. They become a Bonnie and Clyde type pair and Sylvia instantly falls in love with him (because they are both the leads, you know). It's all thin and stops constantly so that people can make the metaphor clear just one more time in case you missed the thirteen other times it's been made clear in the last fifteen minutes.
The movie looks pretty good, though. Props to Roger Deakins for keeping things in focus while probably wondering why he had accepted the job at all for weeks.
The more I think about the movie, the less I think of it. I'm happy to accept metaphor in film, but it'd be nice if it made sense and wasn't constantly repeated again and again and again. There are a lot of storytellers who have one good film in them. Niccol managed two: Gattaca and Lord of War. This movie is an embarrassment and Niccol should be ashamed of it.
When your final third simply invalidates everything in the rest of the film
I was with this movie for maybe two-thirds of it. I wasn't quite loving it, but I was going along with the twisting narrative and contradictory stories well enough. It was a lesser version of Kurosawa's Rashomon, but it worked. And then it took the twists into overdrive and I just lost it. James Vanderbilt, the screenwriter, has said that he wanted to make a movie where no one would guess the killer in the first ten minutes. Well, he succeeded because this movie is impossible to predict based on the evidence it presents until about the 95 minute mark. So, I guess that's some sort of success.
Samuel L. Jackson's Colonel West takes six soldiers deep into Panama's jungles for a training exercise. They don't make their extraction point and the local base commander goes out to find them to discover one soldier carrying another and firing live rounds at a third. Colonel West is nowhere to be found, and the last living and conscious soldier isn't doing any talking. So, the base commander calls in an old buddy, a former Army Ranger and current DEA agent on the outs for suspicions of bribery, Tom Hardy played by John Travolta, to come in and unofficially question the soldier.
What follows for the next hour or so is an investigation of the event from the two survivors who have conflicting narratives. I was okay with this. I wasn't trying to penetrate to the truth, just letting the different tales happen, confident that none of what they were saying was completely the truth (this ain't my first movie). One says that Colonel West was killed by one of the other soldiers, and the other says that it was another soldier, both drilling down into different reasons. The first was for personal animus and the second for a small drug operation run out of the base's hospital. This is fine. The differences of the stories build on each other well, deepening the mystery while providing new clues.
And then the movie gets stupid. It turns out that one of the soldiers isn't who he says he is, having stolen the dog tags off another soldier who had fallen in the jungle, and no one on base noticed. Okay...I'll believe it. It's thin, but I'll believe it. The problem is that it completely and entirely changes the nature of the conflicting stories we've already heard and the movie only gives us a very quick montage of things we've seen before but cast correctly in order to catch up, and it doesn't slow down from there, piling new revelation on top of new revelation, at one point revealing a piece of information that was given to Travolta early in the film but we didn't hear because reasons (a personal bugaboo of mine).
Nothing that follows makes sense considering what came before and the movie doesn't tell the new revelations at a pace that audiences can absorb. You want to talk badly paced movies? Basic is badly paced. It's too fast. But, slowing down wouldn't fix too much because none of what happens in the final twenty minutes or so was built up. It's all a trick to get a particular type of movie viewer to think he's right at the beginning of the film and then end up wrong. Let's just say that this is less that entertaining fare.
That being said, it's actually filmed rather intelligently. The different stories are presented dramatically and they're filmed from the perspectives of the person telling it. There are strong visual cues that relationships and dynamics are completely different from one telling to the next. The film is almost entirely filmed at night in a hurricane, and it uses that visual well. It's a good looking and intelligently filmed stupid movie.
It saddens me that this is probably how McTiernan's career is going to end. After this he entered his legal and bankruptcy troubles and he hasn't made a movie since, and I doubt he'll ever get the funding for another one. He obviously hadn't lost his ability to make a movie. He just needed to work off of a better script.
John McTiernan faceplants hard
I'm not sure I've ever seen a talented director faceplant as hard as John McTiernan does here. This goes beyond bad story choices, performances, and unfortunate effects. There's an amateurishness pervasive through this film that makes it feel like the first film of a film student given too much money rather than the tenth film in a career that includes The Hunt for Red October. This is an embarrassment. McTiernan should have removed his name from the movie and attributed it to Alan Smithee.
Reading a bit about the film afterwards, I found information that the original script of this remake was actually really well received. It was sometimes called superior to the script to the original Norman Jewison film. However, McTiernan didn't like the social commentary aspects of the script and completely rewrote it with an emphasis on action. Well, that was certainly a mistake. He most assuredly did get rid of the social commentary with any potency, but the fact remains that the shell of the movie that remains feels like it requires social commentary. It doesn't surprise me that McTiernan would be uninterested in social commentary considering his filmography. The only movie that came close was Medicine Man, and that was mostly a selection of a topic rather than a serious attempt at digging into a topical issue.
What was left is, well, awful. Starting with the action, the supposed raison-de-etre of the film, it's pretty much incomprehensible. I think the problem may have been the set itself. There's a rink of a sort where the titular sport is played. From afar it looks big, but when you start picking out the details you realize that there's shockingly little room for a camera rig to move, especially with the two small towers at the center. It's an extreme limitation on the ability of the cameraman to actually capture action, preventing him from pulling back to film the movement of the sport in any sort of exciting way. The sport itself is supposed to be some kind of hard hitting action slugfest, but that sort of thing is hard to film from far away and sell convincingly to the camera without actually hurting someone. So, in order to convince the audience that the hits are hard, you have to go in close to do some in camera trickery that makes it look like the hits are hard, and the set is really small and has a lot going on (about ten people on rollerblades with at least two motorcycles at one time). I imagine they thought the set was big enough until they actually got onto it with a camera. I can imagine the panic that must have set in as everyone realized that the reason this movie existed wasn't going to deliver well.
Usually, though, it's not just action scenes that drive movies, it's the drama as well. What about that? I mean, there are actors spouting dialogue that seems to have something to do with each successive scene. I guess. Jonathan Cross is a guy who races down hills in San Francisco in grungy outfits, gets picked up by his friend in a Porsche in the middle of a race, and told that he can make big money playing in the Rollerball league. Except that the movie makes a point later to say that nobodies make no money and only a couple of marquee names make money. So...how is this grungy guy racing down hills the marquee name? I mean, I guess there's someone filming him as he does it, but it's never shown that the handheld video that gets destroyed in the chase is making him a name in the world of extreme sports.
Anyway, we skip ahead a bunch of time and we're in the middle of the season, and the league has finally decided that it's going to jack its ratings up by causing bodily harm to its players...in a game that includes metal balls flying at dangerous speeds and motorcycles driving amidst people on rollerblades. I mean...I guess? That's supposed to be the moral quandary of the film, but the characters are all so thin, poorly written, and barely sentient that when they start making the connection, we're wondering why it took them so long to figure it out.
The absolute nadir of the film, though, is the green sequence. Rollerball, much like The 13th Warrior, had a disastrous test screening and went through massive reshoots, except that McTiernan actually helmed them this time. One of the scenes they had to reshoot completely was a nighttime chase through the Arabian desert on a motorcycle. They filmed it too dark originally, and then they screwed up the reshoots by not allocating enough money to do nightshoots right. So, they tinted everything green like it's night vision or a silent movie from the 1920s. It also looks like it was filmed on video instead of actual film. It looks really cheap, and, to make matters worse, there are random cartoon sound effects peppered throughout as though the sound editor had simply given up and was trying to screw with the production.
The plot resolves with violence and no one cares because it's all stupid. Hell, the very last moments of the film feel like the editor joined the sound guy in giving up and just stopped the movie.
I'll say it again, but Rollerball is an embarrassment. John McTiernan should feel bad for loosing this upon the world. It's flatly acted (except by Jean Reno as the owner who's just having a ball), flatly filmed (when it's not embarrassingly filmed), confusingly told (no except, it's always confusing), and rather painful to sit through. I hated this movie.
The 13th Warrior (1999)
Separation of main character and protagonist
You can separate your main character and you protagonist, but it's hard to do well. The 13th Warrior attempts it, but I don't think it's really all that successful. There's a technical polish to the film, especially in isolated sequences, and obvious talent behind the camera, but the story is surprisingly disengaging.
The problems are obvious from the beginning with an introduction that hops and skips from Baghdad through a long land journey northwards to Viking territory, an attack on the road, a brief introduction to the Vikings, the introduction of the foreign threat they must face, and the absorption of the main character, Ahmad, into the group as the titular thirteen warrior. It's most jarring when the old crone announces to the surrounding tribe that the thirteenth is foreign (Ahmad being the only foreign man of fighting age there) and then there's a hard cut to him packing up his horse to go along with them. He's never given a moment to question the request or even consider it. He's just automatically part of it.
The next major emotional hurdle comes when the group of thirteen warriors makes it across the water to find Hrothgar and his hall. There's no attempt to get to know the villagers cowering in fear of the Wendol terrorizing them. Instead we get some vague palace intrigue that culminates in a fight between one minor character and another person who never rises to the state of character that ultimately makes no difference to the story. Ahmad does get some intimate time with a young, attractive woman of the village, but it couldn't possibly leave an impression because she's in and out with little introduction.
The movie works best when the action moves towards the quiet inspection of the clues in pursuit of the Wendol, the mass of bear men that descend on the village, killing as they will and taking the bodies of the slain to eat (this was based on Eaters of the Dead, of course). There's a scene where Ahmad and the other twelve find a ransacked farm, and the camera quietly moves through the farm to follow Ahmad as he walks in and out. It's a quietly effective scene.
Action in general is dark but assured, but there's a curious distance to most of it because so few of the thirteen warriors make an impression. There's Ahmad, his friend Herger, and the leader Buliwyf who make a real impression, the rest just feel like background noise, and as the action scenes play out more and more of the background warriors get chopped away, feeling like little is being lost.
Now, to talk about the difference between the main character and the protagonist. Ahmad is the main character, but Buliwyf is the protagonist. It's Buliwyf who makes the decisions that drive the gang from one place to the next. It's him who makes the large strategic decisions. It's him that the final battle ends up revolving around emotionally, and yet, we don't really follow him. We're with Ahmad all the way, playing as follower to those around him. That moment early when he suddenly joins the other twelve is a prime example. He exhibits no agency on his own. The rest of the twelve affirm their desires to go on the journey, but Ahmad just appears in line. His efforts to fit in range from rather ingenious (John McTiernan has a thing for intelligently demonstrating the transition of languages) to amusing, but the amusing bits aren't what drives the film, they end up feeling like distractions.
A final note: There are serious questions about the film's authorship. By everything I've read, John McTiernan, the director, and Michael Crichton, the writer/producer, clashed extensively on set. After a disastrous test screening, McTiernan did not come back to the project (apparently off working on The Thomas Crown Affair that ended up releasing before The 13th Warrior), instead Crichton directed the rather extensive reshoots. So, who's film is this? McTiernan is listed as director, but it's an obviously compromised production with two authorial hands at play.
I'm rather mixed on this film. From a purely technical perspective, there's a good bit worthwhile, but there's also a problem in terms of emotional disconnect based on some narrative choices that don't really work. The adaptation of Eaters of the Dead (which is, in turn, a rather clever take on Beowulf) could have been more engaging and entertaining than it is. It's far from a disaster, but also far from a success.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Solid, adult fun
This movie is at its most entertaining when people are stealing things, art in particular. It's the story of a rich man who's always in search of thrills and decides to steal one of the most valuable pieces of art on display at the Met. He's fabulously wealthy and doesn't need the money, but we could believe that he wants to keep it hidden behind a print of The Son of Man by Rene Magritte just as a private joke. The only problem with the film is when it asks us to emotionally involve ourselves in the lives of these people. They're too cynical and detached from real life for that sort of investment.
The movie fires on all cylinders at the start and the end when we watch the two heists. The first gets laid out in exact detail with Thomas Crown, rich financier, going about his day making big deals and stopping by the Met to look at "his haystacks" by Van Gogh, a team of thieves sneaking into the Met through a hollow horse statue, getting into the room with the Monet, "San Giorgio Maggiore at dusk", setting off all the alarms and giving Crown a way to quickly move in, grab the Monet off the wall, and throw it into his briefcase before simply walking out. Combined with the witty and fun score by Bill Conti, this first twenty minutes of The Thomas Crown Affair is the movie at it's most effortless and fun.
That's not really to say that the rest isn't fun, it's just different. In comes Rene Russo's Catherine Banning, an insurance investigator who is out to save some Swiss men a one hundred million dollar check. She quickly zeroes in on Crown, and while she doesn't have the kind of hard evidence that would allow Michael McGann, Denis Leary's police detective, to actually do anything, she isn't limited by warrants. She just needs to recover the painting, and in by being matched with Crown, the two have found the perfect match for each other.
They're both thrill seekers and both know exactly what the other is about. She knows that he stole the painting, and he knows that she's out to find the painting. He keeps her close because of the excitement and she reveals herself for the same reason. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that I felt was never about genuine emotion. It was always about using the other person to get what the other wanted, and when, late in the film, we see that Catherine had developed real feelings for Thomas, I didn't really buy it. I suppose it was the depth of feeling implied by the sudden weepy turn by Russo, but it just didn't feel like it fit the film. The Thomas Crown Affair isn't about deep emotion, but thin fun.
The movie ends with its second heist, the effort to put the Monet back, and the manner in which it plays out is fun, calling back to the film's opening, with a wonderful, if a bit outside the realm of believable, resolution. And, of course, the deep emotions get paid off through another couple of twisty turns.
I think if the film had managed to keep its eye on the fun angle more closely without falling into an emotional pit it didn't really earn, this could have been a more clear-cut thin romp at the movies. Brosnan and Russo are fun as the leads. Leary is understated and effective as the police detective who's sometimes a step behind on the plot but always clear-eyed when it comes to Catherine. Bill Conti's music is delectably amusing, and John McTiernan's direction is assured and confident. It's a solid time at the movies.
Last Action Hero (1993)
Deconstruction requires love
In order for deconstruction to really work, the one doing the deconstruction has to love the thing to begin with. They have to love it and know it inside and out so that they can invert everything within it and make the work essentially regard itself in the mirror. That means the deconstruction needs to be honest but well intentioned. It's not a reaffirmation, but a reexamination. And you know what? Last Action Hero is just that about the action movie genre and Arnold Schwarzenegger's on screen persona. Schwarzenegger, John McTeirnan, David Arnott, and Shane Black came together to form a loving reexamination of everything that made Arnold's career.
Using the fake franchise around the LA cop Jake Slater in its fourth installment, Last Action Hero uses literal magic to inject the audience stand-in of Danny Madigan into the action extravaganza and provide that knowing meta commentary about how things will play out in much the same way that Randy Meeks laid out the rules of the slasher film in Scream. He's thrown into the Jake Slater movie by a magic ticket from Houdini given to him by the kindly old owner of the run down single screen movie theater on the corner of Danny's little neighborhood in New York City. Once there, Danny interacts with all of the characters, pointing out the ludicrous nature of the film universe from its endlessly attractive women to the cartoon cat police officer, but Slater just thinks of the kid as crazy. His world is normal. It's all he knows.
One of the things that I've grown to appreciate about John McTiernan's movies is that he populates them with intelligent characters, especially antagonists. From Hans and Simon Gruber of his two Die Hard movies to the alien in Predator, antagonists don't make stupid mistakes. They are smart, challenging foes, and the character of Benedict, played by Charles Dance, is no exception. He is the visually distinctive villain of the movie within the movie, the counterpoint to the cartoonish buffoon Tony Vivladi played by Anthony Quinn. He figures out quickly that Danny doesn't belong in the world and, after a quick investigation, claims the magic ticket for himself, not quite sure what it does. Once he does figure it out, though, he quickly takes advantage of it, realizing the limitations of the world he currently inhabits and the limitless possibilities of being able to move into another world at will.
And its through that conflict that we get what the movie is actually about. It's nothing particularly novel, but it's certainly about the joy and magic of the escapism of movies, especially big, dumb action films with dubious logic holding them up. For, when Benedict escapes into the real world to discover that cops aren't on every street corner, crime can happen without consequence, and bad guys can win, he feels liberated and suddenly Danny and Jack are running to catch up. Danny isn't in control anymore because the rules he knows so well no longer apply. Benedict going into the real world levels the playing field.
Danny is really the anchor of the whole story. He does function as the audience's stand-in, but he's still a character in his own right. His home life sucks, and he's obsessed with movies, particularly those starring Arnold. He lives with his widowed mother in a small apartment. He's even afraid to go out his front door for very good reason being terrorized by a criminal with a knife in Danny's own apartment when he opens the door at the wrong time. It's through Arnold movies that he feels powerful, and it is by bringing the lessons of the Arnold movies into the real world that Danny becomes stronger as the movie enters its final stages.
Arnold's Jack is no less a character, though his central dilemma of discovering that he's nothing more than a fictional character gets a scene that Arnold can't quite carry because he doesn't have the range and then gets forgotten. He's best when he's playfully and charmingly interacting with the kid he doesn't believe, explaining away the absurdities of his universe, and humoring Danny. It's not that Arnold is bad, it's that the script wants to go places and explore aspects of a fictional character realizing the limitations of his existence and the cyclical nature of going from one ridiculous adventure to the next, it's just that Arnold isn't up to the task in those moments.
I do wonder what this movie would have been if it had been able to use a real franchise as the movie within the movie. I'm not sure what would fit best (maybe Lethal Weapon), but the added nature of the audience seeing an actual franchise get taken apart this way might have been interesting. As it is, I know that initial reaction to the film wasn't entirely positive. It's a meta commentary that was at least ten years ahead of the rest of the movie world. Maybe if it had waited until Scream, it would have played better, but audiences apparently didn't like seeing Arnold send up his on screen persona and the genre they loved, feeling that it was disrespectful. But, if that was the case, then it was a misinterpretation on their part, because the movie reaffirms its love for Arnold and his films by the end. It's Jack who saves the day, not the real Arnold.
On top of the strong storytelling and deconstruction, there's simply a lot of fun to be had on a moment by moment basis. Little nods here and there to the ridiculousness of the universe keep the affair lighter and breezier than one might expect. The little cameos, embrace of the absurd like the cartoon cat and the central movie plot involving two mafia gangs and a corpse filled with poison gas (which I feel goes on for too long, to be honest), and poking fun at F. Murray Abraham because he played Salieri in Amadeus are all amusing and help add a lot of color to the deconstructionist affair.
I kind of love Last Action Hero.
Medicine Man (1992)
John McTiernan tries to get serious, with a romantic comedy
John McTiernan had just completed The Hunt for Red October, which gained plenty of accolades and quickly embraced as one of the finest submarine movies ever made. He seems to have been eager to move beyond simple action filmmaking and become serious, a trap many genre filmmakers fall into. So, he picked up a heavily sought after script filled with topical things, brought Sean Connery back (who obviously really wanted to do the film since he has an executive producer credit), and even got Lorraine Bracco fresh off of her best supporting actress nominated turn in Goodfellas. So, how did this potent mix of potential and talent come together? Not well, to be honest.
I've seen Medicine Man described as a romantic comedy, and, if it is that, it spends a lot of time doing other things. It's also a medical mystery and a message movie about the rainforest at the same time. Now, can a movie grab hold of elements from several different genres and make them work together? Of course, it's very possible and many very good films have done so. They've done it by actually making the individual parts good while interweaving the disparate elements well, none of which Medicine Man actually does.
Connery's Dr. Robert Campbell has been working for a pharmaceutical company doing research deep in the Amazon rainforest for six years and popped up to ask for resources and a research assistant. In walks Bracco's Dr. Rae Crane to act as his research assistant and to also gauge the company's interest in any further investment in Dr. Campbell's work. Well, Campbell has discovered a cure for cancer, but he can't replicate it. And therein lies the two major narrative thrusts of the film. The first is the meet cute of Dr. Campbell and Dr. Crane who loath each other at the beginning and, of course, grow to love each other by the end. The second is the search for the missing peak (Peak 37) in the chromatograph's readout by distilling a flower hidden in the forest's canopy and making a compound from it.
The first story is predictable and kind of weird considering the rather extreme age difference between Connery and Bracco, but I won't hold that against the movie. It helps that the relationship that develops isn't driven by sex but by their professional attachment. Their bickering gets a little out of hand and is never quite as endearing as the writer seems to think it is. The medical mystery story is far more engaging until it telegraphs the solution a couple of times and things then get tiresome as we wait for the very smart characters to catch up with the dummy audience. And then the "save the rainforest" story is introduced very early, forgotten for most of the film, and re-introduced very late in the film, injecting a bunch of physical danger that feels out of nowhere.
Structurally, the movie's an odd duck as well. The source of that really seems to be Dr. Campbell's backstory. He has a dark secret that he's trying to hide from and deal with at the same time, and it gets teased out really when he takes Dr. Crane to see the village's medicine man who went away after Dr. Campbell cured someone of a belch using Alka-Seltzer. He's looking for an answer that we're already going to get the answer to (the juju in the sky flowers), but it takes an entire side trip as the pair wait for some new samples to mature three days.
There's just so much going on the film and so little of it ends up working very well. Even the medical mystery stuff just ends up falling apart. It has so many markings of a director trying to become serious, of John McTiernan trying to make his The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun, but he chose the wrong script to do it. The failure is rather complete here, and it's a bit depressing.
Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995)
McTiernan rights the ship
Well, that's significantly better. Where Die Hard 2 felt like the laziest kind of sequel, Die Hard with a Vengeance feels really fresh in comparison. It's still following a lot of the basic formula from the first film (in particular an antagonist with outwardly terroristic ends but privately greedy ones, McClane operating alone, and English actors pretending to be Germans pretending to be Americans), but there's more to the motions than simply repeating what came before. It's actually a really clever packaging of the formula that makes it feel like it's something different while still delivering a lot of the same beats. That's not to say that it's just a well dressed remake, there's a lot of other fun stuff going on as well. Aside from a few nitpicks, this is really the best of the Die Hard franchise up to this point.
One of the things that sets this film apart is simply how clever it is. It starts as one movie for almost an hour and then completely morphs into another, and the change is seamless. John McClane, back to being a New York cop, is on suspension when a bomb blows up a department store in the city. The police receive a call from someone calling himself Simon playing "Simon Says" and demanding that John McClane perform a series of tasks or more bombs go off around the city, the first of which is to wear a vulgar sign through Harlem that will surely get him killed. In comes Samuel L. Jackson's Zeus, a small business owner who simply doesn't want to see a white man (especially a white cop) get murdered on the streets of Harlem in broad daylight, knowing that it would only invite more white cops into his neighborhood. Attached at the hip because of Simon's insistence, the two spend the rest of the first hour racing across the city to Wall Street in order to get to a payphone, answer it, and prevent another bomb going off, but the timeline is literally impossible. Through some creative driving straight through Central Park, they barely make it but the bomb still goes off.
That first hour is really, really well done. We are right there with McClane, navigating the streets of New York as a very credible threat builds up around him. He and Zeus develop a 48 Hrs. type relationship where Bruce Willis and Jackson play really well off of each other's antagonism. It's taut, tight filmmaking.
And then, after the bomb in the subway under Wall Street goes off and Simon places a new threat on an unnamed elementary school in the city, New York's finest very believably dedicate as many of their resources as possible to addressing this very credible threat, leaving open Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and the movie to take a step back and show us Simon for the first time, managing a team to break into the Federal Reserve and its gold to haul away in dump trucks. The movie plays catchup, allowing the audience time to get a feel for Simon as he works his team and occasionally breaks away to taunt the police or McClane again. Hans Gruber from the first film is still a better villain, but Simon Gruber is good on his own, a definite step up from the non-entity that was Colonel Stuart in Die Hard 2.
One of the things about movies like this in general is that you need to find excuses for the hero to act alone without simply calling the police or for backup. If he could just do that to help relieve the threat, why doesn't he do that? Well, Die Hard with a Vengeance answered that easily with the elementary school bomb threat, selling the reality of the bombs to both the police and the audience really well, and providing a couple of other extra explanations for why John can't simply call things in. It's a stretch of reality, but the movie sells it well enough so that it never really comes up as a question.
All of the pieces propel towards the conclusion filled with great stunts and fun action. My only real problem with the film is some moments of convenience that pop up from time to time to help keep the story moving, like when McClane launches out of an underground aqueduct being flooded, flying fifteen feet up in the air, right next to Zeus who's driving along a road at the same time. The odds of that happening are not good, but hey, the movie needs to keep moving at this point and not slow down for McClane to catch a ride. I'll accept it without too much complaint.
It's intelligent and preposterous in equal measure. It takes the time to sell its own reality. It gives space for all three principle characters to play off of each other. Die Hard with a Vengeance feels open and alive and better constructed than any other film in the franchise up to this point. And, hey! They got rid of the idiotic police character who only gets in John's way! I'm quite appreciative of that.
Die Hard 2 (1990)
McClane gets added into an Airport sequel
This is a movie that is driven purely by plot needs with no room for anything else other than action scenes. No one feels like they have a life outside of the basic plot actions that they need to fulfill. The whole exercise then feels like a mechanical product with no life or soul to it. It feels dead because there doesn't feel like there's a single living person involved.
It's pretty obvious that this movie was originally a script that had nothing to do with John McClane because McClane feels oddly out of place for most of it. He wanders in and out of rooms that he shouldn't even begin to have access to as a Los Angeles police officer in a Washington DC airport. His emotional connection to the terrorist attack on the airport is thin, almost tacked on. McClane has one very brief interaction with the main antagonist, Colonel Stuart, at the very beginning of the film, and the two don't meet until they're punching each other on the wing of a 747 at the end of the film. There's a deep disconnect between McClane and the rest of the movie that feels like a lost Airport sequel more than a sequel to Die Hard.
Speaking of Colonel Stuart, he's a waste. William Sadler is one of those really interesting and intense character actors who popped up everywhere in the 80s and 90s, and all he really does in this is explain and dictate. He explains his plan and he dictates rules to the airport's control tower. He talks about his motive once, but most of his interactions with other characters are perfunctory and plot based. This is where the lack of interaction with the main character really begins to fray the film. Stuart interacts so much more with the air traffic flight director Trudeau than with McClane, like the original story was about them in a game of wits and the screenwriter simply added McClane running around the airport as filler to get him into the story.
In the original Die Hard, John came to Los Angeles in an effort to make good with his wife, and a bunch of terrorists got in the way, taking Holly hostage. In the sequel, it's unclear how much danger Holly is ever actually in, and it seems arguable that all of McClane's actions actually put Holly in greater danger than if he had simply waited in the airport terminal for everything to resolve on its own. You see, Colonel Stuart's plan is to hold the airport hostage for an hour (58 minutes, actually, after the source story's title) so that a foreign dictator can safely land at Dulles and Stuart can steal him away for a, supposed, payment and a hit against communism somehow. At no point does Stuart seem willing to kill everyone in the sky if things go well. He does crash one airplane, but only after Trudeau and McClane (on his own) try to get to a communications tower in contradiction of Stuart's orders. Stuart never threatens to down any other plane in any other circumstance unless he doesn't get what he wants. I do not see how McClane reads this situation as one where he needs to make the terrorists' lives harder. If his objective is to save Holly, he should stand back and let things play out. If his objective is to simply do the right thing, he never seems to realize that he's putting his wife's life in danger. Either way, the smart everyman of the first film has become a psychopathic moron in the second.
The structure of the film is also really weird, mostly around a US Special Forces team led by Major Grant. They're introduced about halfway through the film, do nothing for about half an hour until they have a staged shootout, and then they turn on the good guys with about twenty minutes left in the film. The late addition and lack of attention given to them makes their betrayal feel empty not surprising. I think they should have been introduced no later than half an hour in, taken a lead on the counterattack for an hour, working hand in hand with McClane for the whole time, and then, when things are looking like they're unraveling completely, they turn on McClane, pushing the nadir further. This would also require more time spent with Grant and his men than with another pigheaded idiotic cop (the airport police chief Lorenzo) in the disdainful tradition of Deputy Chief Robinson from the first film.
In addition, the effort to bring a bunch of the pieces of the original Die Hard over and in Dulles Airport strains credulity. John McClane is there on the ground. Holly, his wife, is in a plane overhead. Okay, I can accept that, but then Roger Thornburg just happens to be in the same plane. And John calls Al for help.
Oh, and the throwaway tagline from the first film that became super famous simply had to be included in this one even though it actually made sense in context of the first film and comes out of nowhere in the second.
I simply do not like this film. It's poorly constructed, wastes a great character actor in a nothing part for its antagonist, feels randomly assembled from different ideas, and continues ideas in the flattest possible way from the first film. Renny Harlin is a hack.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Admiration, but from a distance
The people who love this movie seem to love it for that certain feeling that it gives them. Reminiscent of an era they lived personally, the film evokes their own past experiences, or at least past experiences they wish they had had, that enhances the craft and lax storytelling of the picture into something else entirely. I do like the film. I think it's an interesting film with a worthwhile story to tell and that it does it well, but there does seem to be that sort of disconnect because I was never a child of the 60s learning to say goodbye to the hippie era.
It's a road trip movie without a real destination. It's a race movie where everyone stops for coffee so the other guys can catch up. There's no real destination. There's no real purpose to the journey, and that's the purpose of the film. Of the four main characters (you could say six if you include the two cars), only the Mechanic seems to know exactly what he wants, and that's to wander from race to race with his car, fixing it when it breaks and fine-tuning it before every showing. The other three, the Driver, the Girl, and G.T.O are almost completely defined by their purposelessness that manifests in different ways.
The Driver starts the film like the Mechanic, only out for the next race, but it's the introduction of the Girl that upends everything. Not immediately, of course, but steadily, the Driver seems less concerned with his core purpose as the Girl gets closer and then pulls away, undermining the relationship between Driver and Mechanic. The girl is purely a drifter. She jumps into their car at a roadside restaurant after collecting her things from a rundown van and just accepts their destination as her own. She's never gone east, you see, and going east sounds cool so she's on board. She doesn't seem to understand the effect she has on people, blind to how they see her, and in a complete haze. She's disengaged from everything save what's in her own head. The last character is G.T.O., played wonderfully by Warren Oates, and he's a motormouth who's constantly changing his story about where he's going and where he's from. His shifting tales tell us his uncomfortableness in any one spot, and he's the perfect guy to simply take up a random challenge for a cross country race.
As mentioned earlier, the other two characters are the cars themselves. The Driver and Mechanic drive a 55 Chevy that they've souped up lovingly, and G.T.O. drives a, well, a G.T.O., fresh off the assembly line. The people jump into and out of each car almost randomly. G.T.O. picks up hitchhikers as often as he can, giving them a new version of his life story, and the Girl slides into the passenger seat before the occupants of the two cars have even really introduced each other. Quickly follows the challenge to go from Arizona to D.C., and the movie feels like it's going to be an actual race for about five minutes until G.T.O. gets pulled over by the cops and the Driver stops to tease him. They stop a bit further up again where the Mechanic looks at the G.T.O.'s engine and tells him he needs a new part within fifty miles, but sure, they'll wait until G.T.O. has taken care of the issue. By the end of the film, the race has been completely forgotten as the Driver tries to get the Girl back from G.T.O. at a roadside diner, and then she just jumps onto the back of a motorcycle and drives off away from both of them. The race is over before they get past North Carolina, and they all go their separate ways, the Driver and the Mechanic to find another race, and G.T.O. to find another hitchhiker to tell another story to.
The point of the film then becomes obvious. None of these people have a real purpose. Even purposes that they define for themselves are tossed off without a second thought. They have no place in society, and they can't seem to make one for themselves out of it. It's an interesting portrait done well, but, as I said earlier, I think the real connective tissue between the film and the audience is the era, that space between the 60s and the 70s where the hippie movement died and those who could have been part of that were still searching for something to latch onto. It's a feeling thing that doesn't really translate across generations, but I can understand it intellectually if not emotionally.
In terms of the actual craft of the film, it's really well made. Monte Hellman is incredibly precise with his camera, coming up with surprisingly striking compositions to capture action and movement across all three dimensions of space. I love Warren Oates as G.T.O., but I find James Taylor a stilted performer as the Driver. He's often called introverted by those who love the film, and while that's true, he's also not great at actually delivering dialogue.
The much better version of Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop is a loving look at the hole between generations. It's well made and largely well-acted, but it really does seem to require a personal connection to the era in order to work as well as it can. Maybe further viewings will help bridge that gap. I'm perfectly willing to give it multiple viewings, though. It's definitely worth the time.
Juno and the Paycock (1930)
Quick! Film a Play!
This has to be Hitchcock's least cinematic film he ever made. It's a filmed play with almost nothing cinematic to add to the mix. It's a miscalculation of the early sound era that equated theater and film because they shared a lot of the same parts. There are actors, sets, lights, and dialogue, and yet the mediums are actually really different because of the camera and the edit inherent in film.
The story itself is nothing that special. It's the counterfeit rise and then real fall of a poor Irish family in the early 20th century. The titular Juno is the female head of a small household of four with two adult children, and the paycock is the male head. Juno's level-headed while her husband, Jack, spends as much of his time drinking in a bar as possible. The girl, Mary, is courting a young man while the boy, Johnny, lost his arm in the Irish Civil War while fighting with the IRA. There's a good amount of time trying to set up all four characters, but most of the time is really dedicated to Jack, the vessel through which most of the exposition flows.
The story turns when they discover a relative has died and left them several thousand pounds. Their hardscrabble life is over. Jack's drinking away all of their extra money is done. Immediately Juno goes out and starts taking out large loans for furniture and other items around the house. Mary gets the attention of a new beau who whisks her away from her current beau, Jack feels like a big man around town, and Johnny stays remote and hidden in the background, consumed about news that started the movie of one of his friends from the IRA having gotten killed. The treatment of Johnny is the only real cinematic touch in the entire film. As conversation goes on around him, the camera pushes in to watch him at key points of the film. It's probably the only way to highlight him since he's so quiet through much of the story anyway.
The predictable thing happens and the money from the relative doesn't come through. Seriously, the second I saw Juno in the furniture shop taking on the debt, I knew there wasn't going to be any actual money for the family. The family then gets brought low. They have to sell everything from the new furniture to the old to settle their debts. Mary's new beau disappears after he impregnates her, leaving her a ruined woman in 1924 Ireland and disowned by her father. Johnny gets carried away as an informer by other members of the IRA. Jack takes the last of his money from his shoe and goes off to have a drink. Juno's left alone in the empty apartment, wailing about the fate of her family.
Now, the weirdest part of the ending is that, at least the way the film presents it, it feels like the movie itself agrees with Juno's assertion is that Jack is the source of their financial woes, but it wasn't Jack who went and took out massive loans. She was the cause of the family's newly destitute state. Jack just drank, like he always did. If the moment is supposed to be ironic, that depends on the execution of the individual performance, and I don't think the movie captures that feeling.
Anyway, in terms of the story itself, it's fine. It's not great, but it's fine. In terms of its cinematic execution, it's boring. It's a series of long, static shots that never look in the direction of the fourth wall in any of the limited environments. It's quite literally a filmed play, and I think it suffers for it.
Blackmail was in production when The Jazz Singer came out and they retooled it for sound. It was already effectively one picture that got sound added. Juno and the Paycock feels like a studio not quite sure what to do with sound finding one of the more obvious choices (a play) and just handing the assignment to one of their contract directors. I get the sense that it was filmed really quickly, possibly in less than a week, and then quickly assembled for release. This feels like chasing a fad more than compelling storytelling.
Saul fia (2015)
One of the great Holocaust movies
Well, that was cheery.
Alright, it's hard to imagine many Holocaust movies being fun, but this one so effectively creates the subjective reality of one man's need to do one thing right in the middle of a near literal Hell on Earth. Every piece of the film is designed to enhance the audience's immersion into this world, and it's almost entirely done in closeup without seeing much of the horrors of the death camp directly.
In Nazi death camps there were a group of prisoners called the Sonderkommando who helped guide the new prisoners in, disrobed them, piled up their possessions, cleaned the gas chambers, and helped feed the fires of the crematoriums. Saul, our main character, is one of the Sonderkommando, and the way the director, László Nemes, the first time Hungarian director, choses to follow him is kind of brilliant. As I wrote, nearly the whole film is done in close up with a very shallow depth of focus. We follow Saul, often from the back, only barely able to discern the bodies, mud, and death that surrounds him, but it implies how Saul survives in his day to day life. He can't focus on the people he's helping to marshal into the gas chambers. He's inward facing, just doing what he has to do in order to avoid the gas chamber himself. The film sells that to the audience through that shallow depth of field so that we know what's going on, but we're not focusing on it. It's such a great way to film the particular story.
Saul, as he says late in the film, doesn't consider him or any of the other Sonderkommando to be alive. They're already dead, but something changes within him when he sees a small boy survive the gas chamber only to be suffocated by the Nazi doctor. Saul clings to this boy's body, begging the prisoner doctor to help him preserve the body from the furnace so that he can bury it properly. The movie is Saul's day and a half long quest to find a rabbi to say the Kaddish and give this boy a proper burial (which is apparently not necessary for a proper Jewish burial, but what matters is Saul's quest to make it happen, not the specifics of the ritual). He goes from rabbi to rabbi in the camp among the Sonderkommando, all of whom are hiding their status as rabbi out of fear of the Nazis. When Saul approaches one he doesn't know, the rabbi, realizing that others know he's a rabbi, immediately tries to drown himself.
And why go through all of this? As Saul does this, the other Sonderkommando are planning an insurrection against the Nazi prison guards, a plan that Saul gets forced into contributing to when he retrieves gunpowder from one of the women sorting through the possessions of the victims of the gas chambers. Should he be concerned with the burial of a boy already dead or more concerned with helping his fellow living Jews find a way to survive? As he says, he thinks they're all already dead, so he wants to do one thing right. I don't think the movie has a real answer for which way he should have gone because Saul isn't following the correct procedure for the burial on the one hand and the insurrection has little to no chance of any sort of success on the other. He's in the middle of Hell with no good choices, and he chooses to do one small thing he can do.
One thread that runs through the film is that Saul calls the boy his son. I didn't think that the boy was his son at all, but reading up on the film afterwards I saw that early drafts of the film (which don't count, only the final product counts) made it explicit that it actually was his son. I prefer the reading that the boy is just some boy and that Saul desperately needs to do something good before the Nazis liquidate the current crop of Sonderkommando and he loses all chance of doing anything right again. So, while Saul insists to his fellow Sonderkommando that the boy is his son, no one believes him and the movie never gives a solid answer. I chose my interpretation there.
This movie is harsh and ugly in all the best ways. It puts the audience right in the middle of the reality of the death camps without ever breaking from its method for aesthetic or plot reasons. The central performance by Géza Röhrig is understated, haunting, and perfect for the part of Saul. I loved this film. It is one of the great Holocaust films.
Die Hard (1988)
The everyman as action hero again
I've always wondered why I've liked this movie than what seems like the rest of the population, so going into this watching, I was determined to figure out why. I definitely figured it out, and it's a solid thirty-minute chunk in the middle of the film. Everything around it is top notch entertainment, but that block of the movie's runtime is kind of painful.
The main reason the movie works so well beyond that chunk is really Bruce Willis as John McClane. He's the everyman (but also a cop). He gets roughed up but defiantly maintains a certain humor about his situation. He strikes a balance between taking the situation seriously and maintaining his sanity through the insanity that erupts around him. He's a rather instantly likeable lead to guide the audience through. Across the way is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, and he's just a fantastic bad guy. He's smart, in control, and he has a plan. He only ever really breaks down once, when someone calls him a petty thief. He is an exceptional thief.
And when the movie is about these two antagonists working against each other, the movie works like gangbusters. McClane shows up at the Nakatomi Tower to try and reconnect with his wife at her company's Christmas party, but Gruber shows up with a dozen men, intent on breaking into the company's vault, killing whomever they need along the way. The game of cat and mouse that develops between Gruber and McClane is fun, until it stops for thirty minutes. It's the second that Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson shows up that I begin to turn against the movie.
Robinson is aggressively pig headed and stupid. I'm sure there are many police administrators out there who are just the same in real life, but that doesn't necessarily translate to compelling drama. He's got Sergeant Powell standing next to him telling him how to do everything right (something that begins to grate after a while, to be honest) and Robinson is completely dismissive. He doesn't seem to follow any known procedure, just throwing police bodies at a fortress without any concern. And, to make matters worse, John McClane can do almost nothing about it. He does end up saving the police after a while with a well timed application of C4 and a computer monitor, but watching our hero shout pointlessly at a window because everyone else is stupid is really frustrating. And then there's Ellis.
I think if Robinson hadn't been in the movie and Ellis had been exactly as he is, he wouldn't bother me so much. But, right after Robinson is done being a complete idiot and derailing the central conflict, here comes Ellis to do the exact same thing, but smarmier and more 80s businessman. So, we get a full thirty minutes of two secondary characters dominating the movie by being idiots. Don't get me wrong, the action of the failed police incursion is done well and the tension around Ellis' failed negotiation works in isolation, but they push McClane to the sidelines.
Once that's done, though, and the FBI shows up, the movie is right back on track. Now, the interesting thing about the FBI agents (Johnson and Johnson, no relation) is that they have a plan and fail at it as opposed to Robinson who had no discernable plan and just did stuff. Also, the FBI plan ends up successfully setting up the movie's action climax and gives us tense action beats that actually directly involve McClane.
And that feeds into what, again, makes Gruber such a great villain. The FBI does what it should do. It follows a rule book, but Gruber knows the rule book and uses it against them. It's a competent plan by the FBI being outsmarted by an intelligent bad guy in Hans Gruber. As opposed to the police incursion which is pretty much just Robinson hitting his head against the wall for no reason.
So, I've complained enough. My problems with the movie are really that thirty-minute segment in the middle of the film. Outside of that, I love the movie. Willis and Rickman are great. The supporting cast is really good. Action is great. Tension is palpable. The character of McClane strikes a delicate balance between indestructible and vulnerable while Gruber is really smart and very good at what he does, creating a great foil between protagonist and antagonist. I really like this film, I just kind of wish I liked it a bit more like everyone else.
What I find most interesting about Predator from a narrative perspective is the fact that it changes genres after half an hour. It quickly runs through the conventions of a big budget 80s action movie with a huge action set piece led by the muscle bound lead Arnold Schwarzenegger, the plot essentially resolves, and then it becomes another movie for the next hour or so.
The action movie of the first half hour is quick and dirty. We get a group of elite mercenaries who are given a mission by a CIA operative to go into another country and extract a foreign minister, and we have just enough time with each of them to differentiate them from each other. We know little of them beyond one is a sexual tyrannosaurus, another loves telling dirty jokes, and the rest look different. Along the way to the remote rebel base in the middle of the jungle, there are hints that there's something else out there, but they're largely pushed aside in favor of focusing on the mission. The attack on the base is a great example of excessive action filmmaking from the 80s with quippy one-liners from Arnold, big explosions, lots of gunfire, and a well placed knife to the abdomen from several yards away. The plot resolves when Arnold finds out that his old buddy, Dillon the CIA operative, was lying to them about there being a foreign minister in need. They were after a document stash instead. This doesn't really come up again. It does provide a bit of tension within the group as they head back to the pickup site where Dillon isn't viewed as trustworthy.
It's at the tail end of the attack that we get our first real confirmation that there's something else in the jungle with them. I gotta say that I love the point of view look for the Predator, using faux heat maps to view the world. It's decidedly different from how we look, more than just a filter over an image but something almost alien that we have to interpret in a new way.
And that's the point where the movie turns from an 80s action movie into something else. It's a claustrophobic monster movie that's set outside and where we barely see the monster. I find the first half hour of the film fine if not particularly special, but I find the rest of the film something else entirely. It's a survival horror film against a powerful and intelligent enemy that gets three, count 'em, three separate reveals, each one cooler than the last.
As the hunt goes through our discernable mercenaries, ultimately leaving Arnold and the young woman they captured, the deaths become more elaborate and brutal. One of the joys of the film is the fact that both predator and prey are actually intelligent. The mercenaries set traps. The predator can work his way around them. It's a game of cat and mouse, and its only by chance that Arnold figures out a way to hide himself (though wouldn't the mud heat up to Arnold's body temperature after a time?) leading to the final large confrontation. The way Arnold almost gets the predator into a trap, the predator figures it out and sidesteps it is a really satisfying moment. It shows that both Arnold and the predator are smart and strong opponents.
Of course, the creature design is great. As I said, the predator has three reveals. The first I the first time we see his light bending camouflage. The second is when he uncloaks and we see him with his mask. The final time is when he takes off his mask, revealing his fantastic set of elaborate and hideous jaws underneath. Each time we see the creature, he's revealing more and it's really satisfying, reminding me how the xenomorph keeps changing form in Alien.
It's first act is rudimentary and functional, and the thinness of the characters doesn't help. However, the style and execution of the bulk of the film is what makes it special. It's a very fun creature feature that understands the basics of how to use its creature effectively in ways that Spielberg accidentally found in Jaws. It's a really fun balance that we get a lot of looks at the creature but it gets to keep changing, taking the design deeper several times. Arnold is himself, and the rest of the cast acts appropriately tough and scared. It's a good time at the movies.
The Rock (1996)
San Francisco goes boom
One of the reasons this movie works so well is the complete commitment to the reality of the film from the actors. From the main three actors to every marine, SEAL, and FBI agent, every actor is 100% committed to the story of a deranged marine general stealing chemical weapons and threatening San Francisco. The style is hyperactive, the music is pounding and propulsive, and the action moves at a high paced clip from beginning to end, almost never slowing down to breathe, but through it all, Nicholas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris sell their characters fully. It provides us with the emotional grounding that we can hang onto through all the insanity that surrounds it.
Ed Harris' General Hummel is a really good antagonist. I mean, really good. He's driven by an injustice that he sells to the audience really well. Men under his command, doing illegal missions for the US government, were left to die in the field and their families told nothing while given no benefits. Men he was in charge of and forced to watch twist in the wind to no purpose. His rage, sold by Harris, is palpable, but Harris doesn't overplay it. It's the contained rage of a man who's been fighting battles for his whole life. It's the focused rage of a man who knows how to make a plan and follow through. It's the dedicated rage of a man with resolve. When he and his men storm into a naval base under the guise of an inspection and walk away with fifteen VX gas rockets, we see a man of honor taken to the extreme.
On the other end is Stanley Goodspeed. He's a chemical weapons freak who leads a boring life. He drives a Volvo, a beige one. Our introduction to him is watching him use a toy gun to start a Rube Goldberg machine that ends with a hula statue consumed in flames. He's also thrown into a glass room where he has to deactivate a sarin gas bomb against a ticking clock showing how in control he is in a stressful situation involving his area of expertise. It was almost a lab experiment, though. The only people around him he ignored or shoved away in order to work. He was given the weapon to defuse, he didn't have to go out and find it.
The third main character is James Patrick Mason, Sean Connery's character. He's a British Intelligence operative who's been in the American prison system for over thirty years, escaping from two maximum security prisons along the way, including Alcatraz where General Hummel has set up operations. I like the little theory that Mason is an alternate universe version of James Bond. It's amusing.
Anyway, getting Goodspeed and Mason to the Rock involves a car chase through San Francisco (with plenty of destruction) and an underwater incursion into the bowels of the former prison. It's slick, frantic, and done with good humor to help balance out the destruction. The pair soon find themselves alone on the island against a bunch of marines when the SEALs providing them support walk into an ambush and all die.
And that's when the movie distills down to a conflict between three people. General Hummel is trying to smoke out the two last members of the incursion team while Goodspeed is focused solely on the deadly chemical primed to shoot and Mason is more concerned with finding a way to escape everything at last. It's that dynamic that really drives the film up to its exciting, explosion filled conclusion, but the movie makes its one serious mistake in order to extend the movie to its final fight.
Hummel has brought a cadre of marines with him. He knows most of them, but not all, represented by two captains, Frye and Darrow. Why a general with decades of combat experience couldn't find a full team that supports him (I'm think of Marco Ramius and his officers in The Hunt for Red October) escapes me, but on top of that, the second they show up on screen it's obvious that they are psychopaths with no interest in the point of the mission. They stick out sorely, and they are there because Hummel is a man of honor and a soldier and not a murderer, so once he flinches in the final act, the threat of deadly force on the city disappears. It has to be replaced with something outside of Hummel, and they chose cartoon characters. I can imagine other ways to extend the threat beyond Hummel (having one marine who believes in the mission, doesn't care about the money, and decides that the lives of the civilians of San Francisco are less worthy than the memory of his fallen comrades), but they didn't go with that. I really want this movie to be a solid fifteen minutes longer (on an already kind of long two hour and fifteen minute runtime) in order to build up this new character I've just made up in my head and sell the final turn better.
The action is frantic but clear. The movie clips along breezily as it destroyed half of San Francisco. The actors are all shockingly good in characters that all feel surprisingly believable. All of it revolves around a bad guy with a strong motive. Really, aside from Captains Frye and Darrow, this is just propulsive action filmmaking at its finest.
Figuring out this new fangled sound machine
This was Britain's first sound picture, immediately on the heels of the technical marvel that was The Jazz Singer, and it shows. Hitchcock did manage to do some interesting things with his first foray into sound design, but the bulk of the sound, especially in the film's first half, is laborious and almost pointless, an excuse to use sound rather than a way to extend the story.
This movie takes forever to get to the point. Alice is in a relationship with a young police officer, Frank. She's not terribly faithful to him and spends a long scene with him at dinner in a restaurant going back and forth on whether she wants to go to the movies with him, ultimately angering him so much that he storms off. She very quickly meets up with a local artist of little renown and goes up to his flat where she models for him before he tries to rape her and she ends up killing him with a nearby knife. That sequence of events takes about half an hour and is punctuated by long scenes of dialogue that seem to exist for the point of existing. Conversations are flat and meandering, and they're filmed boringly too.
The first rigs to capture sound with picture were ungainly and very loud, so loud that the camera and cameraman had to be completely encased in a box to keep the noise from reaching the microphones. This limited what the cameras could do, and Hitchcock, who had been making movies for a few years and had developed a certain flair with camera movement, suddenly had to have his camera locked down in a single spot to capture everything. In terms of camera, the cinematic form actually took steps backwards by about twenty years, and the Blackmail in particular suffers for it. It's really easy to tell which parts were filmed for sound and which were filmed silently because the parts filmed silently are actually interesting to look at.
The titular blackmail doesn't actually appear until about an hour into this eight-five minute movie. Alice has become consumed by her action, seeing the limp hand of her attacker everywhere she looks and focusing on knives in unnatural ways. The single best sound part of the film happens while Alice is sitting at her dining table, surrounded by her fellow residents, and the conversation falls away save for the recurring use of the word knife by one woman. It's actually quite inventive and forward thinking, showing that Hitchcock was looking for the best way to use his new tool early in its life. It's after this, as Frank figures out most of the truth based on some evidence he found at the crime scene, that a local ruffian tries to blackmail the two. He has the upper hand, but Frank ends up turning the tables and initiating a chase into the British Museum.
I don't think the movie has quite figured out the moral of the story by the end. Alice committed what would arguably be justifiable homicide (though I'm about as far from an expert in British criminal law of the 1920s as anyone could be). The blackmailer wasn't using blackmail to wrongly accuse anyone of anything, but only to let the truth out that Alice had committed the murder. Should he have died for that? He wasn't a good man, but was death the right price? It's also interesting that Alice ends up deciding to turn herself in only for Frank to stop her. Should she have turned herself in or not? It's like if Crime and Punishment had ended with Raskolnikov just wandering away from the police station without turning himself in.
Individual sequences work quite well, especially the chase through the British Museum, and there's one really good example of early sound design, but I think the movie hasn't quite thought through its own story and most of the sound work is really boring. It's a mixed bag that's remember more for its place as Hitchcock's (and Britain's) first sound picture than its merits as a film. Anny Ondra is really good as Hitchcock's lead again as well.
The Night of the Generals (1967)
In the middle of a war, does one murder still matter?
In the middle of war, with death everywhere, the loss of a single life should still matter. That's pretty much the message of the film, though it does try to become a sort of mini-epic that includes the July 20th assassination attempt on Hitler that does tie in a bit thematically with the main plot. It's chock full of great actors doing their duty as actors and is all handsomely presented. It's one of those interesting little World War II movies that largely sidesteps and ignores the bigger issues of the war (never mentioning Jews, camps, Roosevelt, or much else about the conflict overall), instead just telling a procedural murder mystery that happens to be set in Nazi occupied territory across several years of the Second World War.
A prostitute is murdered in Warsaw in 1942, and the only witness saw the perpetrator walking away, but the only detail he could make out was that the man was wearing the pants of a German general. In comes Major Grau, a German officer dedicated to the ideals of justice. Yes, there is death happening everywhere in the world right now, but, as he quotes the Furies, blood has been spilt and justice must be done. What makes men heroes on the large scale makes them monsters on the small scale, he reasons, and he must bring justice.
There are three generals who cannot account for their whereabouts that night in Warsaw. Grau wants to interview all three, but none of them want to give a major, concerned with one little murder in the middle of a war, any of their time. Grau, though, before he can do any real questioning, gets promoted and sent away, knowing full well that he was gotten rid of. The setting jumps to Paris a couple of years later when all three generals are in the same place and Grau shows up, able to continue his line of inquiry.
Two of the generals are involved in the July 20th plot (with Rommel given an ahistorical role in a cameo for Christopher Plummer that ends with him getting gunned down by Allied aircraft), but the third, Peter O'Toole's General Tanz, is not. He's a psychopath, and we've seen that from the beginning as he tore down a section of Warsaw in response to a single sniper. Grau couldn't quite zero in on Tanz, though. He had seen too many vicious men in war who did not go off and murder prostitutes in their spare time, besides, he couldn't account for the whereabouts of the other two either. And this is where the movie kind of loses me for a bit.
We see Tanz through the eyes of his temporary driver, Corporal Hartmann, a young NCO and hero of the Eastern Front who wants little to do with war, having his hero status mendaciously foisted upon him by his superiors to cover up an embarrassing defeat where he was the only survivor. Hartmann ferries Tanz around Paris in civilian clothes, stopping twice at an art museum to inspect some decadent capitalist art where Tanz focuses on van Gogh's self portrait done in the insane asylum. Tanz, you see, is crazy, and the movie wants to explore that insanity, but the movie has nothing to say about that insanity and it doesn't document it that well either. This extended sequence of Tanz going around Paris, seemingly on the verge of snapping the whole time as he downs a bottle of cognac and smokes like a chimney, feels like far too little material for the time given to it. I think they covered his madness better while in Poland, watching him tear down a city because of the actions of a single man.
I had questioned the movie's framing device early, and while I don't think it's particularly well integrated, especially in the beginning, it does ultimately have the story's resolution. The problem, especially near the start of the film, is that we're looking at characters that we don't really know and don't get introduced to until much later. On top of that, the story being told isn't being limited by point of view, instead we're seeing the movie unfold as it would without the framing device. It takes a little more than halfway through the film before we really feel like the stuff interspersed through the story will actually pay off. The payoff is well done and satisfying enough, but I largely wish that it felt more satisfying early instead of confusing.
At the heart of all of these characters and stylings, is the question that drives Grau, does the life of an individual matter less in a time of mass death? I think the contrast between Grau's search for the killer of a prostitute two years earlier with the attempt to assassinate Hitler is an interesting one. Grau attempts to arrest the guilty general just as the Valkyrie plot falls apart, and he gets asked the question about why he cares about one death and not the attempt on another life, his Fuhrer, and Grau doesn't seem to have an answer. His smirk is enough, though, and it seems to be the difference between war and mere violence.
It could have gone further with its questions. It could have used its framing device better. It could have spent less time trying to not understand Tanz. And yet, I'm actually quite happy with the film. It's a bevy of high quality actors doing what they do best in a story that, despite its flaws, is actually quite interesting with something on its mind.
The Manxman (1929)
Missing all the work in between the dramatic high points
Here's a weird little movie that leaves out all of the legwork needed to make dramatic moments work but still manages to raise an interesting moral question at its center. It's based on a novel by Hall Caine, and it feels like many subpar adaptations of novels that are more interested in getting the great moments into the movie rather than building a cohesive narrative that can stand on its own.
It begins with two lifelong friends, Pete, a working class fisherman, and Philip, an up and coming lawyer, (we are merely told that they are lifelong friends instead of really seeing it in the movie's first instance of skipping over the legwork of dramatic narrative) getting a petition signed in favor of the local fishermen. This is literally never mentioned again after the five minute mark.
Pete decides that he's going to go abroad on a ship to make his fortune, and before he leaves, he runs to Kate, his crush, to get her promise to save her hand for him until his return. Being a flighty girl, she accepts. Pete is elated, but Kate realizes what she's done and feels like she might have made a mistake. Pete convinces Philip to look after Kate while she's gone. In the movies next large example of skipping over the legwork, Kate and Philip growing closer and falling in love is covered by a view of Kate's diary that covers months of time. We literally never see them together until after Pete has sent word that he's coming home. The first time we see Kate and Philip alone together is essentially a breakup scene. This scene carries absolutely none of the dramatic and emotional weight it should because we haven't seen them together before.
Pete comes home with some money, and he and Kate get married rather quickly, much to the satisfaction of her father who was disapproving of Pete before due to his previous poverty. In the movie's next large legwork skip, we go from the wedding day to an intertitle that says that Kate is trapped in an unhappy marriage and Philip has gone to London to study law in preparation for his assumption of a judgeship at home there on the Isle of Man (called a Deemster there). The first scene we see Kate, she looks pretty happy, but then she breaks down later bemoaning her unhappiness, unhappiness we'd never seen anything of until that point. It's another emotional moment that falls flat because the dramatic legwork hasn't been done. Instead of showing us how she's unhappy with a doting husband with money, all we get is an intertitle.
Philip returns and Kate tells him that she's pregnant. The timeline is squiffy, but it seems like Philip and Kate had a physical relationship (it doesn't help that we see literally none of their relationship), Pete came home, Pete and Kate married, Philip went away and return in no more than three months, long enough to Kate to have sex and find out she's pregnant without anyone else realizing it. Maybe four months. Anyway, she has the baby, but she's still unhappy. We, of course, never see her unhappy at home, so when she shows up at Philip's new office as Deemster and says she's unhappy, we can't really believe it. She's so unhappy that she leaves her baby alone at home for presumably hours before Pete shows up to find their baby alone.
The truth comes out in a dramatic courtroom scene where Philip gets accused by Kate's father of bringing dishonor upon his daughter, having figured out the truth through a series of clues. Philip resigns from his position on the spot, takes Kate and the baby, and Pete returns to the sea a broken man.
Okay...so if the movie had actually done the dramatic legwork required to tell this story, I'd actually be really happy with it. The big moments are there and they work quite well. I don't really like the performances of the two male actors (Pete overacts and Philip is one-note depressed), but Anny Ondra, who plays Kate, is really good. She carries her moments really well, and since she's the dramatic crux of the film, she more than carries her weight through dramatic scenes that add up to less than they should. The central question, though, is inherently moral, and the movie comes to a conclusion on that question that is surprisingly moral and open ended. It's one of the more interesting things about pre-Hayes code movies. There was still a high moral component, but there was no directive that the bad guys lose. Twenty years later, Pete would have gotten Kate, the baby would be unquestionably Pete's, and Philip would have resigned and gone off on his own.
It's a real mixed back that should be better than it is. It's an example of how adaptations go wrong, making sure to get in all the good bits without working to make the connections between the goods bits just as good. The movie is less about being a story unto itself and more about being subservient to the novel on which it is based. Hitchcock's last silent film is another stumble that misses the mark.
A movie with no idea how messed up it is
This is an odd little movie that wants to be a comedy but takes its main character to a very, very dark place and doesn't seem to realize it. The comedic bits are broad, but they're surprisingly far apart. It's a weird little movie.
So, The Girl (these characters don't actually have names) flies her airplane out into the middle of the Atlantic where she intentionally crashes the plane near a steam ship to Europe where her beau is. She's in open defiance of her father who's very against the arrangement. She's a flighty creature who's willing to crash an airplane in the middle of the Atlantic in order to be close with her beau on a whim. Her beau is shocked by the act, but he's still pleased to see her, though she immediately starts flirting with another man on the ship, a mustachioed older man while the beau deals with sea sickness.
In Europe, The Girl parties away while the beau looks on with disapproval (making me wonder why they're together at all), and her father arrives with bad news. His wealth has disappeared overnight, and they have to live in poverty. Both the beau and the older mustachioed man get driven away as the girl and her father begin their new lives living hard scrabble.
The ironic thing is that the father's lying (we find out fairly early) and the wealth is still there, but he's putting on a charade in order to drive a wedge between his daughter and the man he considers to be unworthy of her (the beau, he never seems concerned with the mustachioed man for reasons that become clear later). This ends up making literally no sense. But I'll get to that in a second.
The girl becomes increasingly desperate for money and gets a job in a nightclub. This is where the girl enters an absolutely awful state that the movie doesn't seem to understand. She's making tiny bits of money, but a wealthy patron offers her money to prostitute herself, and the nightclub owner encourages it. After just a very brief moment of contemplation, the girl happily agrees. A formerly wealthy heiress has gotten so low that she decides it's fine to prostitute herself. That's a cold, dark place, and the movie treats it as just another light and airy moment. It's, weird.
Well, the secret comes out to the girl that her father isn't bankrupt when he hands her a newspaper article detailing the scheme. So, the whole world knew except her. I can accept that. It's a stretch, but I can accept that. What I can't accept is the beau falling for the ruse. It makes literally no sense that the plan would be on the front page of a major newspaper and he wouldn't know about it. The ruse was designed to ward him off of her so that she would decide that he's not worthy of her, but he should know before everything begins that it's not real.
Anyway, they take a boat back to America where all of this comes out and all four players are onboard. It turns out that the mustachioed man is a friend of the girl's father and was involved at his behest in another effort to dissuade the beau. But, the beau has proven himself by staying with her, and all ends well.
This movie is really messed up, and it seems to have absolutely no idea. There are comedic bits here and there that a amusing (like the girl hugging the beau with flour covered hands leaving handprints on his back that he doesn't realize are there), but as a comedy overall, it's just not that funny. Acting is actually pretty good and it looks good, so there's that, but it's simply not enough to recommend it. Another stumble for early Hitchcock.
The Death of Stalin (2017)
These people were really awful, weren't they?
I was expecting a much more straight comedy based on the movie's marketing than what I got, but while the movie is often uproariously funny, it's still the story of a handful of awful people fighting to the death for control of the living corpse that was Soviet Russia. The comedy is there, not for no reason, but because it helps highlight the absolute absurdity of the overall situation but it also brings to the fore the strong personalities involved.
Like most Russian literature, I have trouble keeping Russian names straight in The Death of Stalin. I remember that in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment that there are two main characters whose names start with R, but one has a k somewhere in the middle while the other looks flat from the second letter on. That's how I kept those characters straight while reading, and I kind of had a similar experience while watching this. Other than a handful of names (Stalin, Molotov, and Khrushchev) I was lost in a sea of syllables I couldn't recall, so the use of both well known and easily distinctive actors was a very good idea, helping me get used to names to place with easily identifiable faces rather quickly.
We also spent a lot more time with Stalin than I was expecting. Based on the trailers, I estimated that Stalin died within the first five minutes and the rest of the movie was vulgar bickering between the Politburo with no clear path forward. Those trailers were incredibly deceptive, but in a way that I really appreciate. What the trailers hid was a rather intelligent synthesis of the events at the highest levels of Soviet power in the first moments of post-Stalin Russia. In order to sell that, though, the movie needed to sell the final days of Stalin ruled Russia, and it does that very well with a view of a Stalinist purge being carried out alongside the camaraderie between the main players in the upcoming drama (Molotov, Khrushchev, Beria, and Malenkov) where we can sense the hidden animosities buried just underneath the surface.
The confusion and forced mourning over Comrade Stalin's death very quickly gives way to politicking and scheming, especially on the parts of Khrushchev and Beria, while Malenkov has the power of Stalin awkwardly placed upon him, a man unequal to the task of handling the Politburo full of schemers. It's a war of words and whispers that breaks out as both Khrushchev and Beria work to undermine the other, both assuming (rather rightly) that Malenkov is simply too weak for the position. In the middle is Molotov, whose wife Beria returns after several years of punishment for sedition (either very clear or unproven depending on who's listening) while he feels more inclined to support to more reform minded Khrushchev.
The movie is at it's funniest when people are insulting each other. My favorite is when Stalin's son Vasily yells at one of the doctors brought in to examine his father that he is mostly made of hair, but, in terms of laugh per aggressive sneer, it's Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov that takes the cake. He's wonderfully entertaining as he Yorkshire growls through every insult in every direction while cheerily joining Khrushchev against Beria because Beria undermined Zhukov's authority as his first act after Stalin's death.
As with all movies based on history, I assume this is about 90% ahistorical, but The Death of Stalin, seems to capture the truth of the moment really well. It's a complete power vacuum as the central authority dies. There are protocols in place to try and smooth over the transition of power, but it's obvious from the start that the protocol will mean nothing when faced with the reality of power in the Soviet Union. The only thing keeping the letter of the law remotely alive (as excerpted in title cards throughout the film) is the memory of the fallen leader. It's a pretext for civility that hardly masks the incivility that guides every player's actions.
Another smaller thing that the film does really well is capture the absolute terror of simply living in the Soviet Union. Molotov (played wonderfully by Michael Palin) cheerfully denounces his wife as worthy of her punishment in front of her because saying otherwise could send him to the gulag. The director of the radio program that transmits the Moscow's philharmonic completely recreates a performance because Stalin called and asked for a recording (after the performance ended) and he hadn't recorded it. And, the most simple and elegant example, the guards outside of Stalin's room refuse to check on their dear leader after the obvious sound of a falling body because to disturb Stalin while sleeping meant death.
This is some of the most entertaining history, especially history that is so cruel and hideous, I've seen in a long while. Wonderfully acted, consistently funny, and alternately terrifying, The Death of Stalin is a marvelous look into a pocket of history with world shaping results.
Who is the antagonist? This question popped into my head after I finished Bong Joon Ho's Parasite and as I read some snippets from Bong himself. He consistently refers to the film as a tragedy, and, as I wondered who the antagonist was, I remembered that in Greek tragedy, the fall of the hero always stems from a flaw within themselves. Then the answer clicked. The antagonists are the Kims.
So, the Kims are a poor family of four, struggling to make a living in Seoul and conning their way into life's niceties. In the opening scene, we see them clamor up to the corner of their bathroom (where their toilet is elevated above the rest of the room) to steal wifi after their upstairs neighbors put a password on theirs. The son, Dong Ik, gets an offer from a friend to cover for him as an English tutor to a daughter of a wealthy family. Dong Ik uses his position to get one for his sister as an art teacher/therapist for the younger child, a position driving the patriarch for his father, and the position of housekeeper for his mother. The first two positions are simply open and require nothing more than convincing the mother of the house to give them a shot, but the house already has a driver and a housekeeper. And that is where the con takes another level.
Ki Jung leaves her underwear in the car when the driver drives her home, creating the impression, when the patriarch finds them, that the driver was having sex with women in his car. He gets let go, replaced by Ki Taek, Dong Ik's father. To get rid of the housekeeper requires more planning, since she had been with the house from the house's previous owner. They end up having to take extreme measures which include convincing the mother of the house that the housekeeper has tuberculosis and triggering the housekeeper's life-threatening allergy to peach fuzz. The Kims are not good people. They're deceptive, cruel, and dishonest.
The Parks, on the other hand, are a mixture of detached, thoughtless, and unfeeling. They're not really good people either. They dismiss the driver without asking him about the underwear, fully believing the worst of him based on a single piece of evidence while discounting all the time they have spent with him. They cast off the housekeeper without even asking her if she actually as tuberculosis.
The key is that both groups are their own destructive forces. It's hard to get into how that manifests late in the film (essentially past the halfway point) without digging into spoilers, so I'll speak in generalities. It's the Kim's duplicitousness that gets them into the situation that undoes them. It's their lies that keep them from finding solutions that will actually work. On the other side is the Parks whose thoughtlessness and lack of feeling brought in the destructive force into their homes to begin with. There are no heroes or villains in this story, only flawed people who can't grow.
The movie is filled with imagery as well. From the scholar's rock that Dong Ik carries around, meant as a symbol for wealth, to the constant vertical motion of the characters. There's a large sequence where a torrential downpour hits the city and the Kims, after having been trapped in the Park's house because of their presumption that the richer family would be out of town all night, run down the hills of Seoul to their half-underground dwelling that's been filled with water, the toilet spewing a black substance because of the messed up pressure. The Kims left their window open that allowed the water in. Would they have left it open if they hadn't spent the night at the Parks' residence? The rain isn't the fault of either the Parks or the Kims, but it affects both families very differently. Atop their hill in their mansion, the Parks simply watch it from their window, appreciating the aesthetics. The Kims get wiped out and end up abandoning their home to sleep on the floor of a local gym along with the others who were displaced.
It's an interesting and highly entertaining look into the class differences present in South Korea. It's alternatively extremely funny, horrifying, and even touching. It can be all three in seconds, and it ends up working because the tone never really jumps. It's evenly and expertly filmed with an eye towards black comedy and tragedy mixed into one package.
The Black Stallion (1979)
A wonderful film
I love how quiet this movie is, and I also love how loud it gets. The sound design of this film is absolutely amazing and really helps with the fact that there's so little dialogue in general, especially in the first half, and the center of the story is the relationship between a boy and a horse where they can't communicate verbally. With that in mind, sound design isn't just important, but it needs to be visually engaging, and The Black Stallion is really beautiful.
Alec is a small boy on a trans-Atlantic voyage with his father, a good man who likes to gamble. While wandering the boat alone, Alec finds the titular black stallion that's being transported with them to America. He immediately tries to form a bond with the wild creature, offering it cubes of sugar, but a disaster strikes the boat in a storm and the two end up stranded on a small island together with the rest of the ship's compliment lost at sea. The quiet of the lazy sea voyage on a steamer breaks into an all-encompassing din of fire, rain, screams, and whinnies. When Alec wakes up, everything is quiet again on his small island with nothing but the soft waves crashing against the shore.
It's this time on the island that the movie is at its absolute best. It's almost a silent movie in that there's no dialogue, not even Alec talking to himself. We see his early struggles to survive (including a failed attempt at spear fishing with a pocket knife), and his ability to adapt by eating seaweed. It's the horse, though, that is Alec's main focus once survival has been accomplished. The relationship feels very earned as Alec slowly gets close enough to feed the stallion with some seaweed and the horse saves Alec from a cobra. It's when the two connect completely when Alec figures out how to ride The Black, and it's a completely magical moment.
Alec draws The Black out into the water, and it's all filmed from below the water's surface. We just see their legs, Alec leading the horse, until Alec's legs and feet disappear from the sandy bottom to reappear on the horse's sides and we realize that Alec has mounted the large animal. They tear across the beach, with Alec falling off and learning to maintain himself bareback on a wild horse, and it's obvious that Alec is played by Kelly Reno, the boy who plays Alec the rest of the movie. This reminds me of how it was plainly obvious that David Bradley was always the one interacting with the kestrel in Kes. I know that Kelly used a stunt double for some of the stuff later in the movie, but it was key to see him in the island setting and be completely convinced that it was him the whole time there in order to sell Kelly on the horse in the races later in the film.
Once Alec and The Black get rescued, the movie loses a bit of something. What follows is still good, and often very good, but the magic seeps out of the film a bit. Alec and The Black meet up with Mickey Rooney's Henry Dailey, a former jockey, who ends up teaching Alec how to ride in races. The scene where Alec proves the speed of this paper without horses to those in charge of racing decision to face The Black against the two most prominent race horses in America at the time is done in the dark, in the rain, and we see everything from the sidelines, watching Alec disappear out of frame, hearing nothing but the beat of rain. It's really tense and wonderful.
The eventual race is a bit predictable with a shaky start and last second win, but it works. It works because of the emotional bond between Alec and The Black the movie has been building since the opening minutes. Even in the final seconds of the race, the focus narrows back down to the two, giving us brief flashbacks to Alec's first rides on The Black on the island. The satisfaction comes less from the win and more from the reclamation of the feeling Alec had on the island. Ever since he came back to civilization, the relationship between him and his horse has been muted somewhat in the new setting. Life in civilization has put a shroud between them, and it's only in the final moments of the race, when the boy and the horse gel for the first time since the island. It's a moment of elation as Alec spreads out his arms, not in victory, but in joy.
The movie is beautiful to look at, wonderful to listen to (sound design for which it won an Oscar), with a solid child performance, and a very good supporting performance from Mickey Rooney. It's core, though, is extraordinarily strong, with the bond between Alec and his horse very clear and well done, mostly without any dialogue. It's a wonderful film.