Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF'14: Foxcatcher: Sibling Rivalries and Wrestling With Demons

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews)

***(out of four)

 
Since its debut at Cannes, Foxcatcher has been earning raves for Steve Carrell's performance as John du Pont, ornithologist, conchologist, philanthrophist and murderer. du Pont was convicted of murder in the third degree for shooting Olympic-medal winning wrestler Dave Schultz. Dave had been coaching Olympic candidates, including his brother Mark, at du Pont's estate, Foxcatcher. du Pont had been ruled mentally ill at the time of the shooting, but fit to stand trial and be sentenced.

The praise for Carrell stems from an erroneous notion that this is his first foray into drama. Comedian Carrell has already proven himself adept at the more respectable dramatic arts in films like Little Miss Sunshine and Dan in Real Life. He is an actor who can break your funny bone and your heart, sometimes simultaneously, as in the bicycle chase sequence of The 40-Year Old Virgin. Carrell will certainly be nominated for an Oscar for Foxcatcher--his character practically wears a huge scarlett letter O bestowed by the Hester Prynne Society of Oscar Bait Performances--but I fear his nod will overshadow a far better supporting performance. 

As du Pont, Carrell wears a huge, though accurate, prosthetic nose that resembles a beak. Director Bennett Miller belabors the hawk-like visual comparison by often shooting Carrell in profile. du Pont holds his head in an almost stereotypical "turning up my nose" posture and speaks in a deliberate manner that can't help but draw attention to itself for being so weird. (Imagine Tim Curry saying "I see you shiver with antici-pation" in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then apply that cadence to almost every line of dialogue.) This may be completely accurate, but it never feels like anything but a performance.

Miller gets more lived-in performances from his wrestling brothers, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). There's a beautiful scene of physicality between Dave, the more experienced wrestler, and Mark that wordlessly sums up the sibling rivalry between brothers better than any scene I can recall. As the two maneuver through a wrestling sparring match, Mark's actions indicate more than a hint of jealousy. Dave takes it in stride.

Mark is summoned to Foxcatcher by du Pont. He tells Mark that he is a wrestling enthusiast who wants to coach Olympic wrestling candidates at his estate. du Pont speaks in jingoistic terms, talking about freedom and America and strength, seducing Mark with the notion that he may be able to stand for something while breaking out from under his brother's shadow. Carrell and Tatum play the scene well; it's the rare moment when we're allowed to accept du Pont's eccentricities as realistic character traits. Tatum helps immensely in his scenes with Carrell by removing all the confidence from Mark Schultz. His face is a perpetually tight rigor mortis of insecurity, perhaps even tighter than the wrestler's muscles that brought him success in the circle. du Pont is clearly feeding Mark bullshit, but it's the bullshit he's been starving to hear.

Once recruited, du Pont asks Mark to call him "Golden Eagle" (again with the bird comparisons) and to participate in a documentary about du Pont's greatness that is clearly biased and manipulated by its subject. du Pont also asks Mark to bring brother Dave along to help coach the team he's building, but to Mark's relief, Dave doesn't want to relocate his wife (Sienna Miller) and his kids. du Pont is stunned that Dave cannot be bought, another rare moment when Carrell breaks through artifice. Eventually, Dave comes on as the coach, driving a bigger wedge between the brothers.

The relationship between the Schultzes is the true power of Foxcatcher. Ruffalo and Tatum are fantastic together, completely believable as siblings. Ruffalo, in particular, handles the role of older brother, mentor and disciplinarian with heartbreaking accuracy--this is the true Oscar-worthy supporting performance in Foxcatcher--and his quiet grace makes the film's violent outcome all the more horrific.

Miller does a great job handling the wrestling sequences. They're detailed enough to satisfy fans of the sport without overwhelming those who know nothing about it. "There's never a good angle with wrestlers," complains the documentarian who is shooting du Pont's feature, but Miller finds a few. What he doesn't find is an access point for the audience to relate to du Pont. We're distanced from his demons and he remains a cipher.

I had the same problem with Capote. Like Carrell, Philip Seymour Hoffman gets maximum value from all the actorly tricks in his arsenal, but through no fault of their own, Truman Capote and John du Pont are devices surrounded by deeper characterizations. In Foxcatcher, du Pont is the straw that stirs the drink, and while he's an integral part in the enjoyment, nobody ever remembers the straw.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF'14: The Equalizer: Denzel is On Fire

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews)

***(out of four)

 
I'm too lazy to search for it, but I'm sure somebody on Youtube has done a mashup between the CBS series, The Equalizer and the 1973 version of The Wicker Man. Both share the late Edward Woodward, and one's premise supports the other. Every week on The Equalizer, Robert McCall would help someone in dire need of protection or saving, free of charge. All you had to do was call him. In The Wicker Man, Woodward's Sergeant Howie answers a call for help and shows up, free of charge, to find a girl who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Robert McCall has better luck than Sergeant Howie, but you could seamlessly edit footage from both series' together into a coherent narration.

You can also seamlessy edit Denzel Washington's version of The Equalizer with another of his productions: Man on Fire. Director Antoine Fuqua gets his Tony Scott on, making a movie where mild-mannered Denzel is eventually revealed to be more lethal than Death itself. Viewers discover that Denzel, like so many cinematic heroes before him, has remorsefully given up killing. His moratorium on whacking people ends when his hand is forced by a villain who's just itching to be shot in the face with a bazooka. The girl who inspires Denzel's reacquaintance with ultraviolence may be older in The Equalizer, and Fuqua's camera is thankfully less hyperactive than Scott's, but truthfully, this is pretty much the same movie as Man on Fire.

Yet I liked The Equalizer better. The quiet moments Washington's Robert McCall spends, at home, work and with costar Chloe Grace Moretz, are achingly delicate. They have the movie-movie sheen of Scott's work (Mauro Fiore's cinematography is one of the film's best assets), but Washington grounds them in an everyman's reality. He totally sells you on the notion that Robert McCall is just a regular schlub, a lonely widower who works at a Home Depot clone and brings his own tea bag to a diner so he doesn't have to read his books alone in his room.

It's at that diner that McCall encounters Teri (Moretz). They have an easy rapport that suggest that seeing each other is a daily routine. Teri is clearly a prostitute, though she has aspirations of becoming a singer. She sits at the counter, he sits at the table closest to the door, and they make idle chat about the books McCall is reading. When Teri finally decides to join McCall at his table, screenwriter Richard Wenk gives her a lovely line about "breaking protocol." Moretz and Washington are excellent in this scene, which capitalizes on Moretz's ability to simultaneously play tough and vulnerable. An entire movie could be made from this scene--My Dinner with Denzel.

Alas, this is an action movie, so poor Teri has to be in trouble somehow. She's working for the Russian mob, who pummel her viciously when she fights back against a client. When they come to retrieve Teri from the diner, McCall gets a feel for his soon-to-be nemeses, one of whom gives him a card with an address and number on it. "Call this number," says the cardholder, for reasons I assume have to do with hush money.

It's a mistake. Robert McCall is not a regular joe. He's a former assassin and special ops agent who, like William Munny in Unforgiven, gave up the life at the request of his wife. Once Teri is put into the ICU, McCall pays a visit to her pimp, offering him $9,800 to "buy" Teri off the street for good. The pimp and his hencemen seem surprised this uppity Negro would show up at their unlisted location and try to make it rain with $9,800. They call him racial slurs, which is an even bigger mistake than than giving him their business card.

It's no spoiler to say that McCall kills the shit out of these people. It's our first taste of McCall's capabilities, and a warning that this movie is going to be more sadistic than you ever imagined. McCall surveys the room, and Fuqua teases you with quick cuts to a corkscrew, a bottle and the vulnerable human flesh of the enemy. When McCall lept into action, the person next to me covered his eyes. A measure of the carnage: that corkscrew is used in a way that would make Dario Argento proud.

The Russian mob is not happy. The leader, Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) sends his number one henchman Teddy (Marton Csokas) to investigate what he believes to be a hit by one of the other mob factions in Boston. Teddy is just as skilled, and as ruthless, as McCall. They're two sides of the same coin, though Teddy just isn't interested in keeping his violent impulses in check. (I'm glad Teddy doesn't say that "two sides of the same coin" line in the movie.)

Viewers of The Equalizer know where this is heading. The showdown, at McCall's place of employment, should have been called "Home Depot Alone." To protect innocent victims, including the "he's so nice, he's doomed" character played by Johnny Skourtis, McCall takes on Teddy and his henchmen using every sharp, dangerous item you'd find at a hardware store. Drills, hooks, nail guns and other sharp objects find squishy body parts with casual regularity. There's a not-so-subtle wink for lovers of the old TV show as well, though you might be too busy averting your eyes to see it.

The gruesome violence didn't bother me, but I feel I should at least warn you it's there. And Fuqua and Washington take the "walking away with an explosion behind me" action movie trope to an extreme that even Joel Silver might call bullshit on them. "How the hell did he make THAT blow up?" my brain asked, but I was too mesmerized to truly care.

This is Denzel's show, but his supporting cast is memorable. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo show up in an effective two-scene cameo. Leo is so restrained I had to check the credits to make sure it was she. Skourtis is likable enough to make you fear for his safety, Csokas is formidable foe and Moretz is a stand-out in her smaller than expected role.

The Equalizer isn't so much an origin story of Woodward's TV character so much as it is the pilot episode--McCall's first case. At the end of the film, we see the familiar ad that got Woodward his business every week on CBS. I'm not sure how fans of the show will react, but anyone looking for a an exciting, incredibly violent actioner should enjoy themselves here..

TIFF'14: Top Five: Cinderella, Cut It Up One Time

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews)

***1/2 (out of four)


Chris Rock's Top Five is incredibly tasteless, totally politically incorrect and obviously not in a condition the MPAA will grant an R. It is also funny as hell, with leading man/writer/director Rock soliciting laugh out loud moments from every comedian and celebrity he had in his Rolodex. Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg riff on pre-nuptial agreements. Kevin Hart freaks out as a N-word spouting agent. DMX finally admits he lives in jail before launching into a Charlie Chaplin song. And Cedric the Entertainer executes a bout of menage-a-trois coitus interruptus that is just plain wrong on about 47 levels.

I haven't even gotten to the scene the MPAA will explode over, involving a tampon, hot sauce and, oh, never mind. If this visually stays in the movie, expect more than one think piece about just how offensive it is.

Somewhere under all this raunch is a well-written love story between Rock and Rosario Dawson. Dawson gives what may be her best performance as a New York Times reporter assigned to cover a day in the life of famous comedian/actor Andre Allen (Rock). Andre's success has been measured by a series of "Hammy the Bear" cop buddy comedies where he appears, in full costume, as quip-loving bear solving crimes with human partner Luis Guzman. "Andre Allen's movies are so bad," writes one consistently antagonistic New York Times critic, "that I wouldn't watch them if they were projected in my glasses." 

Sick of yelling out "it's Hammy time!" in sequel after sequel, Andre produces and stars in a serious movie about the Haitian Revolution. Playing real-life figure Dutty Boukman, Andre estimates that he and his fellow liberators "kill about 5,000 White people onscreen." It's this destined to flop movie that pairs Andre with Dawson's reporter. Any publicity is good publicity, especially when selling a passion prestige project none of the fans are going to see.

Andre hates reporters, but Dawson is not only easy on the eyes, she's whip-smart and unafraid of challenging the star's answers. Her bullshit detector is on, and like Andre, she's been sober for several years. Rock, who wrote the screenplay, pokes fun at several sacred cows, but plays the alcoholism angle straight. Dawson looks at booze with a mix of terror and desire (at one point, Andre removes a bottle she's been hugging in a convenience store like a security blanket), and the threat of relapse hangs over both protagonists like the sword of Damocles.

Dawson follows Andre as he does photo shoots and inerviews. He also runs errands for his reality show fiancee (a game, brutally funny Gabrielle Union). She cares more about producing the perfect reality show wedding than Andre, going so far as to exchange the wedding rings Andre chose with ones "more camera-friendly, according to the producer." When Dawson challenges Andre about the validity of this upcoming wedding, which has the appearance of media production rather than true love, his response is deeper than expected.

A lot of Top Five feels liks Chris Rock shot scenes of things he would have described in his stand-up comedy. The film riffs on fame, relationships, addiction, sexuality and race. Like his onstage persona, Rock is not afraid to be truly ethnic, as in a great, improvised projects scene where Andre's family is made up of the hottest Black comedians working today; or when Dawson's grandmother shows up in flashback to endorse assplay in Spanish. He's also unafraid to merge his raw comedy with unabashed sweetness. Dawson's reboot of the Cinderella fable, courtesy of her daughter, is a funny, innocent melding of the French story with a funky, Latina twist. The last shot of Top Five gets its emotional power by being a callback to Dawson's lovely monologue about "CIN-der-eya."

Rock gets quality work from his cast, including JB Smooth as Andre's right-hand man and bodyguard. Smooth's hangdog expression is both a source of comic joy and empathy; he looks at Andre the way your best friend looks at you after you've fucked up big time. Union, Jay Pharoah and Hart are memorable with little screen time. And Cedric the Entertainer gets to bump uglies and utter a punchline about wooden hangers that makes absolutely no sense but may be the funniest line in the movie.

But Top Five belongs to Rosario Dawson. Rock makes an extremely charitable ally, both behind and in front of the camera. Their chemistry is palpable, and they handle both comedy and drama with grace and deftness. At the Q&A, Rock joked that Dawson would get Oscar consideration, and while it's deserved, the filth-flarn-filth of this movie might kill Oscar voters before they could even nominate her. I can't stress it enough: This movie is nasty.

The title comes from a repeatedly asked question in the film: What's your Top Five rap artists? Several people answer the question, but unless I miscounted, everyone seems to keep coming up with six entries. It's one of those questions that tells something about the person answering it, especially if the person asking is a rap fan. You didn't ask, but I'll tell you mine:

Salt 'n Pepa, Tupac, Rakim, Public Enemy, KRS-ONE (and since they kept giving an extra as a backup: A Tribe Called Quest.)

(Aside: I don't know why Top Five currently has no distributor, because this movie is going to be a hit.)

(UPDATE: Looks like Paramount will be releasing Top Five worldwide. Good luck getting that R, Paramount!)

Monday, September 8, 2014

TIFF'14: The Reach: You, Sir, Are No Rutger Hauer

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews)  

* (out of four)


 In 1953's Inferno, an evil, sexy, shot-in-Technicolor Rhonda Fleming and her lover left an incapacitated Robert Ryan in the desert to die. This was a mistake; any noir lover knows that, if you have the chance to kill Robert Ryan, you kill him. Robert Ryan had no patience to wait for the Grim Reaper. Not only does Ryan survive his desert ordeal, he seeks violent retribution against those who have wronged him. And he does it in 3-D.

Inferno was the first movie that popped into my head while watching The Reach. Jean-Baptiste Leonetti's latest doesn't cite Inferno as an influence (it's actually based on a 1972 novel called Deathwatch), but the plot is similar: Ben (Jeremy Irvine) is left in the desert to die by a traitorous business partner of sorts named Madec (Michael Douglas). Madec shows up in the Mojave desert driving a $500,000 Mercedes-Benz six-wheeled truck, complete with cappucino maker, toaster oven and martini maker. He wants expert desert tracker Ben to guide him into the Mojave to illegally hunt a big-horned ram. The town sheriff (Ronny Cox) looks the other way after seeing the color of Madec's money, money Ben could sorely use in order to chase his girlfriend to her college town. He takes the job against his better judgment.

When things go awry, and Ben gets forced to brave the elements, a second movie popped in my head: 1986's The Hitcher. In that film, C. Thomas Howell picks up a killer hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) who makes his life a living hell. Hauer has a supernatural ability to show up whenever it seems Howell has escaped or may be saved. In The Reach, after Madec shoots a person instead of a sheep, he frames Ben, then forces him to strip to his BVD's and bare feet and walk the desert until he's a crispy-fried British actor. Whenever Ben uses his skills to get water or some clothing, Madec shows up out of nowhere to fuck up his survival plans. 

Madec's appearances are just as absurd as Hauer's hitchhiker--in fact, they make The Reach look like a rip-off of Eric Red's nightmarish classic. The difference is: Rutger Hauer's character is scary and convincing. Michael Douglas' Madec is neither of these, not even when armed with a rifle that "shoots like a missile."

The multi-talented Douglas is equally adept at playing predator or prey, though I've always found him more compelling as the former. He can play evil and sexy; he can play evil and charming, too. What The Reach proves is that he cannot play evil and psychotic. He's about as terrifying as tumbleweed, and forced to utter slasher movie lines that would make Freddy Krueger disembowel his screenwriter. During one of the exactly 700 million times Madec corners Ben, Douglas uttters the worst line of his career:

"Fool me once, shame on you," he says. "Fool me twice, I KILLLLLLLLL YOUUUUUU!!!!!!"

This movie does not make one lick of sense, and it lacks the suspense or terror to make us forget its illogic. So you're left to question its every move. Did Madec intentionally kill that guy? I mean, human beings don't look like big ass rams, so it must have been part of the plan, right? Why did the murder victim conveniently bury things in the desert for Ben to find? Why doesn't Ben flinch when Madec fires bullets dangerously close to his prone body? How does Ben know Madec is going to his helicopter? Why does Madec's deal to sell his company to China hinge on Ben's death? And why would a certain character go back into trouble after he gets away from it?
 
I've been chewed out for calling this a "horror movie," but when a movie has a dream sequence of a killer showing up to murder his victim, and then the victim wakes up to find the killer is actually in the room, you know you're not watching a Merchant-Ivory movie.

The only things The Reach has going for it are Madec's Mercedes-Benz and the convincingly gruesome burn makeup effects used to turn the star of War Horse into The English Patient. Look for pictures of the F/X and the Mercedes on the internet and save your money. 

As an aside: Michael Douglas sat behind me during the screening here at TIFF. He looked great and expressed fond enthusiasm for the movie during the Q&A. I'm so glad he was behind me during the movie; had he been in front of me, he might have turned around and seen me rolling my eyes like a slot machine for 90 minutes. I would have been embarrassed had he caught me. Embarrased, but not sorry.

TIFF'14: Ruth and Alex: The Married Life of Fast Black And Annie Hall

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews) 

** (out of four)


I do not mind a little emotional manipulation in my movies. In fact, I can handle more of it than most critics. But Good Lord! Even I had to wave the white flag of surrender at Ruth & Alex. Thanks to its leads, and the younger actors who play their characters in the past, Ruth & Alex is at times very effective. But one can only go to the emotional well so many times before it runs out of water and the bucket hits bottom. This movie's bucket busts right through the well and keeps going until it hits the Devil down in Hell upside the head.

Based on the book by Jill Ciment, director Richard Loncraine's latest stars Oscar-winning veterans Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as an old married couple looking to move from their Williamsburg walk-up for reasons that aren't completely clear. The walkup has so many stairs the family dog doesn't want to navigate them, and even their real estate agent niece (Cynthia Nixon) is exhausted after reaching the apartment. Ruth and Alex aren't getting any younger, so they start considering places that have an elevator.

(Aside: Since imDB lists her character as "niece" and I have forgotten what the movie calls her, I am henceforth referring to Nixon's character as "Miranda," because she is exactly like her Sex and the City character.)

Miranda offers to help her auntie and uncle sell the place they have inhabited for the past 40 years. With gentrification turning Williamsburg into a fashionable, trendy hellhole, I mean, hotspot, Miranda thinks she can get over a million dollars for the listing. We are then treated to an occasionally amusing series of prospective buyers who are all quirky though tolerable caricatures. Miranda refers to them by cutesy nicknames, as if this were a low-rent Rear Window. Artist Alex (Freeman) acts gruff while retired schoolteacher Ruth (Keaton) greets each increasingly warped apartment visitor.

So, we have a movie about a charismatic aging couple who stand to make a profit on a home they bought when their 'hood was unpopular. They relate, fight, make-up, and show incontrovertible affection for one another while navigating the exhausting NYC real estate market. Keaton and Freeman are good, as expected, and my brain warned me that "they probably won't even move at the end." This would make a fairly decent, perfectly acceptable movie.

But lo! I have barely scratched the surface on plot, emotional effects and predictable happenings! An itemized list:

1. This movie has narration. It's by Diane Keaton. Just kidding. Mr. Freeman occasionally narrates the story, and I was reminded of his first spoken words for a Clint Eastwood tribute: "Yes, it's me again," Freeman said on that narration track. This is incredibly lazy shorthand, a crutch way too many movies have leaned upon. But I love listening to Freeman's disembodied voice, and the narration is used sparingly, so I could live with it.

2. When not narrating, Alex reminisces about the decades he and Ruth spent in their apartment. This sends the film into flashback mode, where the younger actors (Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson) do a better job playing Keaton and Freeman than Keaton and Freeman do. The flashbacks are mildly intrusive in how they're invoked, but they serve to enrich character development. To my pleasant surprise, the younger actors play scenes that address their interracial relationship and its hardships. van der Boom is especially good in a scene where her family makes her choose between her Black fiance and them. And these two generate a passionate, youthful heat that explains why their older counterparts are still together. Unlike the narration, these flashbacks are useful. 

3. Alex keeps running into a precocious little girl (Sterling Jerins), both at the viewing for his house and when he and Ruth start viewing potential replacements. The young actress who plays her has several short, well-acted scenes with Freeman, and her glasses clearly evoke Keaton's, but nothing is done with her. She exists just to be a cute device of a little girl whose weird mother likes getting into other people's beds. Don't ask.

4. Remember Ruth and Alex's dog, the one with the aversion to stair climbing? It gets sick. Really sick, to the tune of $11,000 in vet bills. It needs surgery and may be paralyzed for life. It's a damn cute dog, too, and there are numerous scenes of the vet (Maury Ginsberg) calling to give Ruth suspenseful news about the dog. There are so many plot developments with the dog that the phone calls approach farce, and every time the film cuts to the dog, it hits you in the heart with a sledgehammer. A shot of the dog's bandaged paw reaching out to Ruth might cause your tear ducts to burst into flames. But come on, who can resist a doggie in distress?

5. The film sits Ruth and Alex on a bench near a famous New York City bridge in order to shamelessly, and repeatedly, invoke memories of Woody Allen's Manhattan. This is not a good idea.

6. Speaking of famous NYC bridges, there's a man of Arabic descent who has jacknifed a fuel truck on the Williamsburg Bridge before fleeing the scene. Every news outlet immediately refers to him as a terrorist, and throughout the film, news anchors hit that possibly incorrect note over and over because they has nothing else to go on. This plays as a scathing indictment of the garbage that passes for news on CNN, Fox News and the major networks, but does it really belong in this film? It is in the book, according to the author, but Ruth & Alex manages to trivialize it, especially after the suspect is erroneously accused of robbing a store. We spend so many scenes being shown TV footage of this unfolding story, yet the movie completely fails to do its outcome justice.

This may not sound overwhelmingly manipulative, but in any five minutes of Ruth & Alex, you'll find narration and/or a flashback and/or the sick doggie that's putting its owners into hock and/or the latest threatening news about the truck driver and/or the cute little girl and/or the Manhattan evocation. And I haven't even discussed the lesbian couple whose dog has a learning disability and who are adopting a kid from India and could REALLY use Ruth & Alex's apartment. Eventually, I found myself internally screaming "MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP!"  

TIFF 2014: Big Game: Becoming a Man By Kicking Ass With Sam Jackson

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews)


*** (out of four)

Big Game is a coming-of-age movie where the young man in question matures into an ‘80’s action movie hero. It features a 13-year old boy on a quest to prove his manhood, a quest that was supposed to involve big game hunting but evolves into a mad dash to save the President of the United States. Before the closing credits, this young man will execute feats of derring-do straight from the fantasies of a teenage boy in 1984. That Big Game makes this believable and cheer-inducing is one of its pleasures. Another pleasure is the casting and chemistry of its two leads, one of whom is the reliably profane Samuel L. Jackson.

Sam doesn’t play the kid. That role belongs to Onni Tommila, last seen in Big Game director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports. For such a young actor, Tommila is very good at bringing credibility to situations that the normal brain would register as preposterous. He has an underlying vulnerability that makes one believe the impossible things Helander has him do. In Rare Exports, Tommila found that Jolly Old St. Nicholas actually belongs on his own naughty list. In Big Game, the lack of faith his family and his village has in him completing his quest for manhood inspires him to leap off mountains onto a generator being carried by a helicopter.

Inside that generator is Samuel L. Jackson, but more on that later. Like the men before him in his village, Oskari (Tomilla) is being sent into the Finnish woods to prove himself by hunting big game. The villagers have no faith in Oskari; he’s weaker than the average 13-year old kid. “He won’t come back,” one man says. But Oskari’s father, a powerful man, pulls some strings to give his son the chance at honor and manhood. Armed with a bow and arrow he can barely shoot, and a map with a specially marked X from his Dad, Oskari heads into the woods in the hopes of snaring a bear as big as the one his dad once snared.

Also in the woods is a terrorist played by Mehmet Kutulus. Kutulus is a throwback to the days when movie villains just wanted to see the world burn. He’s a cinematic descendant of Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, right down to the perfectly trimmed beard. Armed with a missile capable of taking out a jet plane, he waits for his target to do a fly by. To pass the time, Kutulus tests his airplane missile on the pilot unfortunate enough to have flown the villain to the current location. The test is successful.

Meanwhile, President Oba—I mean Sam Jackson--flies high above Oskari’s woods en route to Helsinki. When Kutulus’ missiles register on Air Force One’s radar, Jackson’s top Secret Service agent, Morris (Ray Stevenson) forces the president into an escape pod and ejects him from Air Force One. Morris sends a team of soldiers to assist the President, though he conveniently forgets to tell them their parachutes don’t work. Morris jumps from the crashing Air Force One soonafter, with plans to rendezvous with Kutulus.

Oskari sees Air Force One plummeting to the ground, giving him his first opportunity to outrun metallic carnage and fireballs. Finding the President’s pod nearby, Oskari releases him. “What planet are you from?” Oskari asks, before introducing himself to the leader of the free world. President Jackson immediately tries to commandeer Oskari’s scooter. “This is now property of the United States government!” he exclaims. “This is my forest,” Oskari replies, reminding the President that he is way out of his geographical element. “You will not survive without me.”

Back in Washington, CIA agent Felicity Huffman, vice president Victor Garber and terrorism expert Jim Broadbent wonder what the hell happened to the President. Their scenes are set in a command center that feels about as real and as accurate as Dr. Strangelove’s famous War Room. Broadbent, sporting a credible though unplaceable American accent, delivers the kind of deliciously hammy performance for which his fellow Brits are known. He seems to have predicted exactly what happened to the Commander-in-Chief, which no one onscreen finds suspicious even after he’s proven correct.

The hidden treasure Oskari’s dad left for him turns out to be the aforementioned generator. Inside it is an already killed animal, proof that his dad shares the villagers' belief that he's too weak to succeed on his own. But disappointment turns into determination, especially after Kutulus and Morris show up to shove the President into that generator. Sensing that his honor depends on returning the President to his father alive and in good shape, Oskari starts taking pages from the Stallone/Schwarzenneger playbook. Morris and Kutulus are more than happy to try and kill Oskari with extreme prejudice, but as any parent will tell you, it’s damn hard to keep a determined teenager from trying to rebel.

For a change, the bad motherfucker here is not Jackson. In fact, Sam gets his ass kicked repeatedly in this movie. The Black President gets beaten up so many times it almost feels like we’re trapped in a Republican’s wet dream. This gives Oskari ample opportunity to be heroic. His speech in Finnish before leaping off a cliff to save Sam is more rousing than anything Rambo ever said (and like Rambo’s dialogue, it needs subtitles). Big Game is Oskari’s show, but lovers of ass-kicking Sam and his favorite 12-lettered best friend need not be disappointed; both eventually show up in a well-timed crowd-pleasing moment of pure bliss.

Screenwriters Helander and Petri Jokiranta have all their bases covered. They manage to seal or obscure the biggest plot holes, and even offer a dénouement most American films wouldn’t dare consider. Despite the guaranteed (and unwarranted, despite the profanity) R-rating this will get from the MPAA, Big Game will play like gangbusters for teenagers who feel as undervalued and underestimated as Oskari. It’s silly as hell, to be sure, but dammit, I had a good time cheering as its hero earned his stripes.

TIFF 2014 Reviews

Here's the one-stop shopping list of the movies I'm seeing here at TIFF, in the order I'm seeing them.

I'll post a link on every review leading back here so you can have all the entries in one location.

Update: Still will be posting reviews as the days go by.

My TIFF Diary can be found at RogerEbert.com

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
THE HUMBLING
FORCE MAJEURE
BIG GAME
RUTH & ALEX
THE REACH
BEYOND THE LIGHTS
TOP FIVE
THE EQUALIZER
ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
FOXCATCHER
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
MAPS TO THE STARS
LEVIATHAN
INFINITELY POLAR BEAR
LAGGIES
THE IMITATION GAME
THE COBBLER
WILD
BEFORE WE GO
THE CONNECTION
REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Breakfast at TIFF '14, or Sleepless in Toronto

by Odienator

Once again, I'm up here in Toronto doing the TIFF thing. Last time I was up here, for the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, I panned To The Wonder and was duly punished by dreadful films by Bill Murray and the Wachowskis. I also got pretty lazy (and drunk) and stopped posting reviews. That won't happen this year, as I've something to prove and I'm stubborn enough to make sure I prove it. So expect to hear from me fairly often this time. Unless, of course, I'm felled by movies as bad as Cloud Atlas and Hand Job on Hudson.

Until a few hours ago, my first movie was on September 5th. Thanks to IFC, I was able to snare a ticket to the off-sale Clouds of Sils Maria for tonight. Oliver Assayas' film provides the first of my three run-ins with Hit Girl, Chloë Grace Moretz. She's joined in this by Kristen Stewart and Oscar winner Juliette Binoche. Every time I read the title, I think it says Clouds of Silas Marner. George Eliot should tell me to clean my glasses.

September 5th is Bill Murray Day, with free screenings of Stripes, Groundhog Day, and the movie that turns 30 this year, Ghostbusters. It all leads up to St. Vincent, Murray's latest movie. I was unable to get into that, but another screening was just added, so I'll try to leap on that in the morning.

I'll tweet review links as the festival churns on. In the meatime, here's what I'm seeing, in the order I'm seeing it. I'm sure more will be added as time goes on.


CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
THE HUMBLING
COMING HOME
BIG GAME
RUTH & ALEX
THE REACH
BEYOND THE LIGHTS
TOP FIVE
THE EQUALIZER
STILL ALICE
ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
FOXCATCHER
MISS JULIE
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
MAPS TO THE STARS
LEVIATHAN
PASOLINI
INFINITELY POLAR BEAR
LAGGIES
THE COBBLER
WILD
BEFORE WE GO
THE CONNECTION
REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Noir City XII #7: The Last Stop On The Train To Darkness

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XII pieces, go here)


 The Castro Theatre, from its balcony


So here we are at my final dispatch from Noir City XII, a journey interrupted by an incredibly bad Super Bowl and a redeye flight directly into a New York City snowstorm. I missed the final two movies of the festival, but I'd seen them before. The last day focused on Hollywood's interpretation of the Far East, which is as good a place to start as any.


Fred MacMurray is just one of a long list of old movie stars I was introduced to by Disney movies. MacMurray may have been an absent-minded professor for Uncle Walt, but it's Ava Gardner who can't seem to remember anything in 1947's Singapore. Pearl smuggler Mack Gordon (MacMurray) begins the film telling us about Gardner's Linda Grahame, a woman he falls in love with in wartime Singapore. The Japanese invasion cuts their whirlwind courtship short on the eve of their wedding, leaving Gordon injured and Grahame presumed dead.

After the war, Gordon returns to Singapore to sneak a huge payload of stashed pearls past Richard Hadyn's Chief Inspector. While attempting to steal them from his old hotel suite, Gordon runs into Linda Grahame. She doesn't recognize her name or her fiancee--she's got the dreaded amnesia! She's now married to a wealthy plantation owner who took care of her while they were interred in a POW camp during the war. 

Memory loss isn't Mack Gordon's only problem beginning with M; he also has to deal with Mauribus, his old shady business partner. Mauribus wants his cut of the pearls, and is willing to send his fabulous henchmen Sacha (George Lloyd) to intimidate and/or smack up Gordon. Sacha is a lot of fun, and he proves that people threw shade as early as 1947. (Watch his reaction when he bitchslaps the incapacitated Gordon). 

Though gleefully convoluted, Singapore's ending packs suspense, changes of heart and a sweet bit of happiness that director John Brahm allows to play out in understated fashion. Gardner and MacMurray's chemistry carry the day, with the latter proving yet again how versatile an actor he was. Whether playing a Billy Wilder heel, a comic foil or the father of three sons, MacMurray was always great.


While watching this next feature, I thought of another MacMurray character, Double Indemnity's Walter Neff. On Argentina Noir Night, we find director Hugo Fregonese, whose brief Hollywood career included Joan Fontaine's Decameron Nights. For his native country, Fregonese made Aprenas un Delincuente (Hardly a Criminal), which tells the tale of a bank employee (Jorge Salcado) whose greed leads him to rob his employer. He discovers a way to outsmart the laws with a technicality that will allow him to get away with the money after serving a maximum of 6 years in prison.

Unfortunately, Salcado is way too impatient to wait this sentence out. Flashbacks show how deeply his greed goes (he's one rotten little bastard of a kid), and current-day scenes show him seeething as he thinks his own brother is trying to swindle him. This paranoia leads Salcado to escape prison, leading the police on a wild goose chase that can only end badly.

Fregonese's films, in Hollywood and Argentina, concern themselves with characters trying to escape situations. Like Walter Neff, Hardly a Criminal's anti-hero attempts to use his knowledge of legal loopholes to execute his crime. He and Neff come to the same conclusion: They don't get the money. To quote Neff: Pretty, isn't it?


The French coined the term film noir. Noir City XII said thank you with a Saturday chock full of French movies. The day began with the earliest film in the entire series, 1937's Pepe Le Moko. Pepe Le Moko holds a special place in my Looney Tunes loving heart for two reasons: Its title and its remake starring Charles Boyer provided the inspiration for this guy:


I've got Jean Gabin's name and Charles Boyer's voice...


Marilyn Monroe once sang that "the French are glad to die for love," and the uber-French Jean Gabin is more than happy to prove her right. As Pepe Le Moko, Gabin's suave jewel thief is the most famous cat in the Casbah. He's so cool that the entire Casbah in Algiers has his back. He's so cool that he hangs out with the inspector (Lucas Gridoux) who vows to catch him. They even have a bet on how and when Pepe will get caught. Pepe could easily have the inspector killed, but I sense he delights in outsmarting him.



Though Pepe has a way with the ladies, one of the "fairer sex" leads to his downfall. She's Gaby (Mireille Balin), a Parisian tourist who represents both lust and freedom to Pepe. He drops his gypsy lover Ines (Line Nono), who has been loyal to him since he entered the Casbah, and plans to run off with Gaby. 

With all the dialogue about slapping and abuse, the French have some effed up ideas about gender equality in 1937. At least they adhere to that old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. It looks like betrayal, but I found Ines' actions a deserved leveling of the playing field between the sexes. 

The tres-French ending would be ridiculous if director Julien Duvivier and Gabin didn't play the ripe melodrama to the hilt. Gabin is so good that you surrender to his pathos. His fate is the true representation of Noir City XII's tagline: "It's a bitter little world...but it's beautiful too."



How many people does it take to kill one dirty old man? Before Quai Des Orfevres ends, you'll hear confessions by a jealous husband, his songbird wife and her loyal best friend, a woman who not only goes into the crime scene to retrieve someone else's fox stole, but who also takes the time to wipe off fingerprints.

We're firmly entrenched in the world of the great Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of the terrifying  Les diaboliques and the spectacular The Wages of Fear (which also played here at Noir City XII). In 1947, Clouzot adapted this novel for actress Suzy Delair, who plays Jenny Lamour. Lamour is a performer who, in a bid to go to Hollywood, disregards her husband's concerns and gets flirty with the aformentioned dirty old man. After her plans go murderously awry, Lamour runs to her pal Dora (Simone Renant). Dora, who's apparently far more adept at cover-up than the novice Jenny, risks her freedom to retrieve evidence from the crime scene.

Meanwhile, Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) investigates the murder. He suspects everyone, from Jenny to her hotheaded husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) to Dora. Maurice was last seen threatening to kill the victim, but Dora was last seen taking a cab to the scene of the crime. Clouzot's affection for tenacious, meticulous Inspectors is reflected in Jouvet's fine performance and the title of the film (which is Parisian slang for the police hq). He also gives Jouvet a memorable piece of comedy with that pesky fox stole Dora retrieves from the crime scene, leading to the film's best line.

Quai Des Orfevres also reflects Clouzot's love for screwing with the audience: He gives us so much information that it seems we're ahead of Inspector Antoine, then Clouzot pulls the rug from under us with a flourish of plot twist. This is lighter and funnier than the director's more famous classics, but deserves a place beside them nonetheless.


French Noir Night featured two movies by famous directors. One was an American making a movie in France, the other a Frenchman making a movie in America. The American, Jules Dassin, made Rififi, perhaps the quintessential caper film. Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible reboot pays homage to it, and many other heists films owe it a debt. I've written about it before, so I'm going to focus on the other film.

It's only appropriate for this Jersey City native to end his Noir City dispatches with a film about Manhattan. I saw it every morning growing up, glistening just across the Hudson River, and I spent almost 20 years working there. Jean-Pierre Melville, director of classics like Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai, casts himself as a French journalist in Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan (Two Men in Manhattan). He's investigating the disappearance of a French United Nations representative who missed an important vote. Moreau (Melville) knows the rep is a carouser, so he sets out to interview the rep's many mistresses. Perhaps he'll find the missing man with one of them.

Assisting Moreau is his buddy, Pierre (Pierre Grasset), a photographer straight from the trashier days of Confidential and the National Enquirer. Moreau awakens Pierre from the slumber brought on by Pierre's latest conquest (who seems oblvious to Moreau's presence). As the two Frenchmen roam the night in the city that never sleeps, viewers are treated to great black and white footage of the NYC of 1959.

Though shot in America, Two Men in Manhattan never loses its French-ness. There's a wonderful jazz performance (by Glenda Leigh), numerous scenes of macho, masculine behavior, men casting irresistable spells on women, sleek montages of the city streets at night and a suspicious car that shows up so many times that it becomes an intentionally funny running joke: one expects Jerry Lewis to pop out of it at any moment.

Director-screenwriter Melville is clearly in love with his location, and he infuses it with the same kind of idealized, occasionally misguided foreigner's gaze that Sofia Coppola brought to Lost in Translation. He also brings a touch of morality to the proceedings, staring from under Moreau's hooded lids at the sleazy sinner who inhabits Pierre. Melville and Grasset make a fine noir duo, and while their adventure isn't as dark and dangerous as many of the other Noir City features, it kept me riveted to the screen. Seeing my favorite city on the screen was the perfect end to my last Saturday night in Noir City.

See you noir lovers next year, for unlucky Noir City XIII!

I clean up nicely here in Noir City, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Noir City XII #6: The Grisly Death of Innocence

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XII pieces, go here)

 
Perhaps the biggest score of Noir City XII was 1953's El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire), an Argentinean remake of Fritz Lang's M. Brought to Czar of Noir Eddie Muller's attention by film historian Fernando Martín Peña (who also ran the subtitles on several of the films from Argentina), a newly struck, gorgeous 35mm print of El Vampiro Negro received its first American showing at the Castro Theatre. It deserves more widespread attention, and numerous repeat showings. This may be the most harrowing picture I've seen at any of the 6 Noir City festivals I attended. 

Starring the "Marilyn Monroe of Argentina," Olga Dubarry, El Vampiro Negro adds a maternal angle to M.  Dubarry plays Rita, a performer who endures less than ideal employment circumstances to make enough money to support her daughter. During a dressing room costume change, she sees a man in the shadows dump a child's body into a sewer. This man is a killer on the loose whom the police dub "The Black Vampire." Though Rita's screams are heard by numerous patrons of the nightclub, her colleagues and bosses tell her not to report her eyewitness account to the cops.

The homicide division, led by Dr Bernar (Roberto Escalada), makes it easy to understand Rita's trepidation; Bernar have a tendency to arrest anybody who shows up with information. Bernar's intensity is partially due to his feelings of helplessness at home. His wife suffered a paralysis that left the couple unable to have children. Catching The Black Vampire is a way for him to feel a protective parental instinct. Bernar realizes Rita is hiding something, and his interrogation takes an unsavory turn that imbues his character with a refreshing, sad complexity.

This type of character complexity is woven into El Vampiro Negro by screenwriter-director Román Viñoly Barreto. A scene between Rita and Mrs. Bernar late in the film is a haunting dialogue exchange between Dubarry and Gloria Castilla. Dr. Bernar is trying to take Rita's daughter away because of her nightclub job, and Rita appeals to his wife. Both actresses play on the theme of motherhood and how the loss of a child (and the loss of the ability to conceive) affects women. Barreto makes the interesting choice of leaving us out of the most damning part of the conversation, opting instead to play the aftermath out between the married couple.

A respect for contradictory, human personalities makes El Vampiro Negro so compelling. This respect extends to the child killer, Teodoro, a professor whose lousy luck with women has fueled his murderous tendencies toward little girls. Like Peter Lorre before him, Nathán Pinzón plays the murderer as a man fully conscious of his horrific desires but unable to control them. The sight of blood satiates his passions, and at times he resorts to self-mutilation to keep the demons at bay. But the demons usually win, and when Rita's daughter is taken by Teodoro, the audience is suitably terrified. We've come to know Rita, to like her and even be angry at her withholding her witness testimony earlier, so this development has a sick, karmic energy.

The child-in-peril motif can be a lazy way to generate suspense, but Barreto doesn't go for easy shocks. Teodoro responds to Rita's daughter in an unexpected fashion, which may be even sicker than what the audiences fears.


If you've seen M, you have some idea how El Vampiro Negro ends. A community of the less-fortunate bands together to confront Teodoro, and Pinzón passionate, pitiful declarations are as brilliantly rendered as those of his predecessor, Peter Lorre. 

Shot stunningly in black and white by Aníbal González Paz, El Vampiro Negro is the rare remake that's as good, if not better, than its source. Movies like this are the reason one goes to Noir City.



Spain's Noir City contribution to the cinematic slaughter of the innocents is Muerte de un Ciclista (Death of a Cyclist). It begins with the titular event, where adulterous lovers Lucia Bosé and Alberto Closas run over a cyclist on a deserted road. Bosé convinces Closas to leave the victim to die (it's a sadistic touch that we see this development through the victim's eyes). The lovers are soon blackmailed by Carlos Casaravilla, whose Rafa character is the kind of sexually ambigious, vicious wit Clifton Webb would have assayed if this were a Hollywood studio release. 

What Rafa has seen (or hasn't) is unclear to Bosé, but this being a noir, the guilty are strangled more by the thought of the noose than the actual rope that creates it. It leads to the pitch black jolt of irony lovers of noir expect, a throwback to the opening scene that reminds us that karma is cyclical. Or in this case, bicyclical.


Sir Richard Attenborough directed Gandhi, but before he helmed that hideously boring, Oscar-winning biopic, he threw salt into viewers' eyes as the lead villian in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. I include it in this entry not because innocence dies here, but because this was one instance when I wished it had. Somebody needed to shake some reality sense into the innocent character in this movie.

A few entries ago, I talked about the character I referred to as "the incredibly stupid, young girl in love." Brighton Rock has the quintessential version of this, a teenager named Rose (Carol Marsh) who falls madly in love with Attenborough's Pinkie. Contrasting her is the more experienced, jaded Ida (Hermoine Badderly), whose brassy, baudy nature hides a tenacity to protect Pinkie's paramour and expose him as the murderer he is.

Attenborough is fantastic, as is Badderly. But I could never warm to Rose, a girl who is willing to blow her own brains out as the ultimate act of love for a heel. She made me want to pull out my hair, but Greene and his co-writer, playwright Terrence Rattigan, have more sympathy for her than I do. Greene's Catholic sensibilities give Brighton Rock a far more charitable bent toward Rose. Greene's sensibilities also show up for Pinkie--Greene gives him a phone number that ends in 666. These two elements merge in the final scene, where a phonograph record does what all phonograph records eventually do. It starts skipping just when the song was getting good. This is proof that Noir City's black heart occasionally beats red.

Next up: Saying goodbye with France and Hugo Fregonese (who's driving me crazy).

Friday, January 31, 2014

Noir City XII #5: In Praise of Older Women

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XII pieces, go here)

I've always been into older women, and there's a special section of Noir City XII made just for me. The more experienced ladies get their props from the Norwegians, the Argentine, and the British. If only they got their due from the Hollywood of today...

But I digress.



Since today's dispatch is all about the more experienced ladies, I'll begin with the first woman to direct a noir. You may recall Ida Lupino helmed The Hitch-Hiker, but she did so in 1953. Besting her is Norwegian Edith Carlmar, whose 1949 adaptation of Arne Moen's novel, Døden er et kjærtegn (Death is a Caress) made up one half of Noir City's Double Dose of Death night. Those Norwegians have a different take on the genre, though the outcome is no less dark.

For starters, there's nobody for the illicit lovers to off. When Sonja Rentoft (Bjørg Riiser-Larsen) and Erik Hauge (Claus Weise) begin their adulterous affair, Mr. Rentoft could care less. He quickly provides a divorce and runs off to America. Erik's fiancee, Marit (Eva Bergh), is left out in the cold but plans no revenge. And Erik's co-workers at the garage where he and Mrs. Rentoft first meet are all envious and supportive of Erik's adventures. There's no blackmail or secrecy to be found in Norway!

There's also no Hays Code in Norway, so it's blatantly stated that people are screwing their brains out in this picture. Erik has carnal knowledge of Marit despite the fact they're unmarried, and he's perfectly willing to be cougar bait for Sonja Rentoft. Since this is directed by a woman, it is made clear that the female characters are getting theirs too. "The sexual bliss is ecstatic," reads the blurb over at the Noir City website, and that bliss is for both parties. People are also open about affairs and sexual attraction.

Though it has none of the usual noir motives, Death is a Caress sneaks its true noirish intentions into its title. Erik and Sonja's relationship plays out like a normal dramatic relationship, and therein lies the kiss--I mean the caress--of Death. Suspicion abounds. Lovers tire of one another before realizing they're trapped in marriage. It's all the more suspenseful because it lacks the juicy dramatic artifice of pulp, at least until the bloody stabbings and strangulations plummet us straight down to the hellish depths of good noir.



The Brits fit into this dispatch with 1947's It Always Rains on Sunday, an Ealing Studios drama starring Googie Withers as a married woman whose former lover has just escaped from prison. Robert Hamer helms this kitchen-sink drama/slice-of-life noir adapted from Arthur LaBern's novel. The film unfolds like a novel as well, with Withers dealing with her new husband's idiosynracies and his angry daughters while also harboring the escaped convict for whom she may still carry a torch. The daughters have their own subplot, and it's sometimes several minutes before we return to Googie and her fugitive.

 
But when we do, Ms. Withers' character is in charge of the situation. Though dangerously still in love with her ex, she's unwilling to let him destroy the stable married lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. Withers plays it smart, even when finally succumbing to her baser instincts. I liked how the film shows all corners of its characters' universes rather than treating them as asides in service to the main plot. There's a meandering quality to It Always Rains on Sunday that doesn't take away from its central crime story. Instead, it enriches it.

Perhaps the most entertaining older woman thus far here at Noir City is Aunt Rosa, the blind matriarch in the second half of the 1952 Argentinean film No Abras Nunca Esa Puerta (Never Open That Door). Despite its horror movie title, this is a two-part anthology based on stories by famous noir author Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich is a favorite of Noir City denizens (movies based on his work pop up at the festival every year). Never Open That Door demonstrates why.



The first tale has a Frederick Knott quality to it. A wealthy woman finds herself at the mercy of a blackmailer. When the blackmailer forces her to remove all her funds from the bank, it leads to her suicide. Her brother takes matters into his own hands, working from the first-hand knowledge of how the blackmailer uses the telephone to contact his victim. It leads to a vengeful murder and a darkly comic ending centered on a ringing phone.

The second tale is a bit of a heartbreaker, though in Noir City that's always going to be tempered with the reminder that the audience may be the only ones with hearts to break. Aunt Rosa shows up here, with her helpful niece. Rosa's son, Daniel has disappeared for 8 years, without so much as a note saying if he's OK. Rosa repeatedly hopes and prays for her word from her son, and just like the son in The Monkey's Paw, Daniel returns as a new entity in the same body. Except in Woolrich's world, Daniel's a hardened criminal. 

Director Carlos Hugo Christensen uses silence to great effect in this section. Aunt Rosa is blind, but she knows her house and she uses her other senses preternatually. Genuine suspense abounds as Christensen and Woolrich lead this woman into terrifying, dangerous situations as she tries to outsmart her son's gang. The actress who plays Rosa is convincing both as a blind woman and as a mother who realizes that the son she loves and misses so much is now irredeemable. 

Aunt Rosa's tale ends on a bittersweet note that thankfully spares her while allowing the audience the full ironic brunt of the outcome. Before that happens, however, we're treated to Aunt Rosa in action. Noir City's audience once again erupted in cheers when Christensen's camera revealed blind Aunt Rosa pointing a gun to protect her homestead. And not for a moment did we think Aunt Rosa would be a bad shot if she had to use that heater. Bad-ass Blind Ladies Who Pack Heat are just another type of character you'll find here in Noir City.

Next up: Cyclists beware, the director of Gandhi turns out to be a ripe bastard, and Hugo Fregonese is driving me crazy.

Noir City XII #4: Drunk Doctors and Lost Gats

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XII pieces, go here)


Long before Hugh Laurie's Dr. House, Noir City was full of self-medicated doctors--and they had better reasons for their addictions. The Castro Theatre bore witness to two such physicians, courtesy of writer-directors Akira Kurosawa and Wolfgang Staudte.


Let's start with Staudte. His film, DIE MÖRDER SIND UNTER UNS (The Murderers Are Among Us) is easily one of the best noirs I've seen. Made just a year after the end of WWII, this German film was financed by the Soviets and made a star of its female lead, Hildegarde Knef. Despite having his darker, more vengeful ending changed, Staudte's movie is a stunning condemnation of Nazi atrocities, made all the more powerful by the timeframe in which it was produced. In addition to its compelling story, Murderers serves as a time capsule of what postwar Germany looked like in 1946, and what services were available to its inhabitants.

Wilhelm Borchert stars as a doctor prone to drinking himself into a stupor before staggering home to the disdain of his neighbors. The war has made Dr. Mertens a barely functioning wreck, but for much of The Murderers Are Among Us, his role is left undisclosed. Staudte shoots him like a ghost walking through the rubble of Berlin en route to a drink or a night club. Even drunk, Mertens somehow manages to find his way back home. This familiarity with his surroundings will come into play later, while he's plotting his revenge.

Disrupting the doctor's routine is the return of Susanne (Knef), a concentration camp survivor who used to occupy the doctor's apartment. Since technically she still has a lease, Mertens is forced to find other arrangements. Susanne offers him half the apartment, much to his chagrin (he'd prefer if she left), but he acquiesces to the living arrangement.

 
As they share the apartment, Susanne returns to the rituals of daily life. She washes Mertens' clothes and cooks for him. There's comfort in returning to old rituals after her time in the camps. But the doctor, who was in a far better position than Susanne during the war, repels all notions of a return to normalcy. He remains dead inside until Susanne finds a letter given to Mertens by his former war captain. The letter was to be delivered in the event of the captain's death.

Mertens tells Susanne to let sleeping dogs lie, but as he warms to her, he agrees to let her deliver the letter to his late captain's widow. Upon delivery, Susanne discovers that Captain Brueckner is still alive. This development sends Mertens on a downward spiral of revenge. He sets out to kill his former superior officer. 

His first attempt is foiled by a great scene where the doctor rediscovers the joy he once felt in his medical calling. But this is a pitch-black noir, so expect that respite to be short-lived.

What Brueckner did, and whether the doctor was complicit, I'll leave for you to discover. When you do, notice how Staudte shoots the scenes of confrontation between Mertens and Brueckner. In the climax, Brueckner is framed in Mertens' shadow as the shadow grows to gargantuan proportion. Other noirs have done something to this effect, but the imagery Staudte composes pushes this scene to the top of the list of great noir moments. After all, noir lives and dies in its shadows.


Akira Kurosawa and his favorite actor, the great Toshiro Mifune, got their own noir night at Noir City. Mifune brought his trademark intensity to both sides of the law in 1949's Stray Dog and 1948's Drunken Angel. The former marked the duo's first collaboration, and the latter finds them already settling into the groove they'd reside in for 16 films.

Drunken Angel casts the equally great Takashi Shimura as the titular character, a doctor whose bedside manner is intense and comically mean. Into his office comes Matsunaga (Mifune), whose yakuza ties are responsible for the bullet in his hand. Dr. Sanada brutally removes the bullet without anaesthesia ("none of that for your type," growls Sanada), but briefly softens after discovering Matsunaga has tuberculosis. When Matsunaga stubbornly refuses to stop boozing and whoring so that he can recover, Dr. Sanada returns to his normal level of screaming and lecturing. 




Kurosawa plants one of the great cinematic grumps in a tale of redemption and hope. Using the filthy, polluted swamp stagnating in the middle of town as a symbolic metaphor, Kurosawa tackles the postwar return of organized crime, and how power can be as deadly a disease as tuberculosis.

Sanada constantly threatens Matsunaga, but as the former colleague who sent him to Sanada knows, Sanada is a tenacious pitbull when it comes to trying to save his patients. He takes on more powerful men, and equally tenacious women, to get his job done. Mifune is an intense actor, but he's matched note for note by Shimura. When a doctor is scarier than the Yakuza, you'd better follow his prognosis to the letter.


1949's Stray Dog reteams Shimura and Mifune, this time as a seasoned and a rookie cop respectively.  In the opening scene, Detective Murakami (Mifune) loses his gun to a pickpocket on a crowded bus. This puts him on a rollercoaster of guilt, grief and anxiety. The rollercoaster speeds up when Murakami's gun is used in a series of crimes. Detective Sato (Shimura) warns Murakami that the gun situation will burn him out if Murakami keeps reacting at this level. The far wearier Sato has been down this road, and though he is a good mentor and assists Murakami in trying to crack the case, he can't change Murakami's emotion-filled approach.


Kurosawa uses the stolen gun as an embarrassing neutering for the cop and a symbol of masculinity for the criminal who uses it. He shows how crime wears down those who swear to protect society. An early scene of Murakami falling deeper and deeper in despair seems to go on forever, to the point where you wonder if Mifune will collapse under the stress. A later scene where he does crack is one of the most powerful moments his beloved director has filmed for him.


Stray Dog also presents a theme that Noir City will revisit: The incredibly stupid young girl in love. Between this film and Brighton Rock (which I'll cover later), I'd had my fill of this character. Despite being played superbly by Keiko Awaji (who passed away on January 11, 2014), you'll want to choke her immature showgirl, especially when you see how much pain she causes Murakami. Maybe I'm being a tad harsh, but you know how I prefer my women here in Noir City.

Next time: Death by cars and caresses, and how a more experienced dame deals with being stupidly in love with a killer.