peteg's blog - noise - movies


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On Dave's suggestion, and something of a Diane Lane jag from Rumble Fish which I began rewatching. A different time of American greatness when they proudly purged Commies, constitution be damned. This mines similar territory to Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck but is far funnier, including some vintage work by John Goodman with a baseball bat. Bryan Cranston as feted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo ably anchors it all and got an Oscar nom. Louis CK and Elle Fanning give him something to bounce off. Helen Mirren does her own thing. Christian Berkel's Otto Preminger is irredeemably hammy. I'll have to go mine Trumbo's oeuvre now.

Manohla Dargis was unimpressed at the time.

Viva Zapata!

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An Anthony Quinn jag from Lion of the Desert and Marlon Brando completism. Entirely black-and-white, 1952. Quinn got an Oscar for his effort as brother to Brando's Zapata. Written by John Steinbeck, directed by Elia Kazan. Over several sittings as it failed to grip. Things go as you'd expect for a fictionalised hagiography of a Mexican revolutionary, who Wikipedia suggests deserved something better. Many shots of Brando (framing, expression, shiny skin, bulging eyes, whatever) reminded me of classic Orson Welles. The scene in the church was pretty funny, and to a lesser extent, the one where Brando meets his future in-laws. Perhaps his flattest performance overall.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

The Awful Truth

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More Cary Grant completism. This one doesn't have a dire IMDB rating, which suggests people no longer watch black-and-white screwball comedies from 1937. At its core is an uppercrust, idle, NYC-society sex farce featuring Irene Dunne. She grew me on me as things dragged on. Most scenes are paint-by-the-numbers, sometimes with mild twists, often saved only by Grant's heroic, sometimes manic, physicality or Dunne's zaniness and dawning awareness that Grant is the singular man in town, just as the formula requires. The dialogue is knowing but not particularly sharp, and completely lacking in broader social commentary. The dog is very well trained, and there's some fantastic work by a black cat in the closing scenes. Grant and Dunne made at least two more of these together. Loads of details at Wikipedia.

Lion of the Desert

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An Oliver Reed (Italian General Graziani) jag from The Big Sleep, and more Rod Steiger (Mussolini) completism. Anthony Quinn plays another Bedouin in a liberation struggle: briefly, Omar Mukhtar leads the peoples of Libya in mounted guerrilla skirmishes against the Italian Fascists who are trying to rebuild the Roman Empire between the world wars. Two-and-a-half hours later he gets hanged for his efforts. I imagine there are more parallels with Giap than the obvious (teacher, strategist in a guerilla war, improbable military victories, etc.).

The production is a bit incoherent as some Bedouin have English accents, as do some Italians (notably Reed). Quinn gets by with his American drawl. There is some hammy work by other actors, for instance by Gastone Moschin whose shtick was significantly more effective in The Godfather II. The goal was clearly a lush Lean-style effort, but the result is a drawn out and constipated history lesson. The high rating on IMDB is probably due to a conflation of art with valour, just like The Bandit. I won't be bothering with director/producer Moustapha Akkad's The Message now.

Vincent Canby connects it with the politics of 1981.

White Mischief

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Greta (you can leave your pearls on) Scacchi — she’s in Palm Beach of course — goes gold digging during World War II amongst the unpatriotic expats of unimaginatively colonial British Kenya. Her entrepôt is anciently titled, landed, porcine, freshly-minted husband Joss Ackland, who feigns unfamiliarity with his accountant and canvasses the possibility of losing the war. An early scene with Hugh Grant assures us that the fight she puts up when she encounters the titled, unmoneyed and entirely resistible Charles Dance (dial familiar from the endless Game of Thrones ads) is just what she was trained to do. The inevitable happens before the characters are sufficiently developed for us to care, and the following necessities (pariahs!) still leaves ten minutes to go. It's a nothingburger; if you've got the genes and the stomach to use them you'll always be just fine navigating patrimonial bullshit.

The draw for me was Sarah Miles (sporting the same boofy hairstyle a decade after The Big Sleep). Her character is a wanton miss, as is John Hurt's. Director Michael Radford did better with his immediately-previous effort: 1984, which was also a remake. Every trope has a short halflife (e.g., the camera goes MIA rapidly), the exploitation is deeply wired (why revisit this stinky topic?), the avarice is mostly absent rentiers. These's an air of fraud to the whole thing.

Roger Ebert in 1988, muted and workmanlike.

3 Women

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Altman completism, and the least least Altman of the Altmans I've yet seen. It's 1977. Two Texan gals move to California in separate waves of migration: Shelley Duval (before The Shining) and Sissy Spacek, both very young but essentially what they've been since. There are very few of his classic moves; all I noticed was the overlapping dialogue around the swimming pool. Things are episodic, amiable but tedious, until identities become as fluid as a much later David Lynch.

I'm not going to claim I understood much, and even Ebert couldn't find the words at the time but spilt many more in 2004.

The Last Picture Show

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A dying small town in Texas, somewhat proximate to exotic, cheap Mexico and about-the-same Oklahoma, loads of old classic folk tunes and barely serviceable trucks, in black-and-white in 1971. It's part of a brace of movies of that time pining for the peak America of the 1950s (cf American Grafitti). The draw was a very young Jeff Bridges.

Things begin like a series of Altman vignettes before we hit the grooves of an overarching narrative. Timothy Bottoms's Sonny is the pivot around which seemingly all the women swing; for instance forty-something Ellen Burstyn with a steady gaze: "No... I think I'll just go on home." These are stories of those who remained to brave the perennial disappointment in their lack of football skills. The mental impairment of Sonny's brother (?) is sensitively handled. Town bike Cybill Shepherd escapes to Dallas for college and that is that for all the young men in the town. Bridges joins the army and ships out to Korea. The following year's football team is far superior.

The lack of judgement (in both senses) of the inhabitants of the town strikes me as implausible; most small places make something of their generational hatred and feuds (cf Cloudstreet and so forth). The two Oscar winners anchor the older generation: Ben Johnson is the all father (a wised up Ed Hurley?), owner of all three town hubs: the cafe, the pool hall and the movie theatre. Cloris Leachman plays a cougar who's not too happy when she gets traded in for a younger model but allows herself to be talked around after a larger tragedy.

For some reason director Peter Bogdanovich, writer Larry McMurtry and the cast (!) thought a superannuation sequel was a good idea.

Roger Ebert at the time and in 2004.

Wuthering Heights (1939)

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A Laurence Olivier jag from Marathon Man. A classic costume drama in luxurious, Oscar-winning black and white. I read the book a long time ago and recall only its skeleton.

The story proper starts with some excruciating child acting overlaid with the kind of upbeat American music intended to evoke paradisial sproghood. After that the chronology gets a bit difficult to follow as the adult actors/characters do not visibly age, and so I experienced the rest as a series of set-piece encounters between the star crossed lovers which amount to little more than cliché: either the actress playing Cathy (Merle Oberon) was really bad, or the character doesn't translate to the screen, or her accent was off, or something. Olivier's Heathcliff is to the manor borne by currents of American wealth (represented by fine clothes, a horse and a continuing absence of manners). Servants apparently last forever. There are dogs everywhere. Eventually Cathy carks it for the convenience of the plot, releasing us too from its death grip; I'm glad I didn't have to sit through another generation of these characters.

I remember vaguely feeling that the novel doesn't justify the assertions that Heathcliff is dark, evil, etc. by his actions, at least by modern standards; in other words it was all nineteenth-century fake news. Similarly the source material had a kind of virginal perfection to it that slips through the fingers of the vacuous, grasping idle classes here. John Quiggin grimly observes that we're all going to have to get with that program now.

The Enemy Below

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Robert Mitchum completism. Once again it's World War II and the Greatest Generation is showing us how it's done, this time in colour and without excess moralising. Mitchum captains an American destroyer that encounters a German U-boat in a region of the southern Atlantic within a day's sailing of Trinidad (i.e., nowhere). After some vintage stagey posturing in a slow first movement we get a taut chess match with some nice work from Curd Jürgens as the U-boat captain. It's nowhere close to Das Boot but the special effects did win the 1957 Oscar. Mitchum is at peak everyman here: war is just what blokes do. Jürgens anachronistically opines that it has become all too mechanistic.

The Yakuza

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A Robert Mitchum jag from recent things. Before Kill Bill rendered Japsploitation obsolete there was this effort, vintage even in 1972. After some sketchy setup in L.A. the main players move to Tokyo for what I took to be a series of cultural education scenes. The pace is soporific. Yank tanks on the streets of Japan? Running guns to the Yakuza? Transparent twists? Cultural appropriation? They get down to business in the last third and finally let us go do something else.

The Yakuza side of things is all twisty with rules, honour, customs, swords, violence personalized, family, etc. The American side is classic extremist vengeance: let's not concern ourselves with those great Western tropes (law, justice, monogamy, etc. — especially the etc.) for we have the guns. Fortunately the local fixer reassures us that the local cops care less than we do. Director Sydney Pollack has form for this sort of exotic vacuity.

Roger Ebert at the time. For some reason Wikipedia has tons of details.

Marathon Man

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A strange thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. If I got this right, in 1976 Hoffman was tortured and half-killed by Nazi "White Angel" Olivier (in a switcheroo from The Boys from Brazil), up in NYC from Uruguay to cash his diamonds personally after his daigou brother's fatal car accident involving an equally obnoxious Jew. As far as I could tell this was entirely pointless as Hoffman was no more involved than black ops agent William Devane made him; I mean, Devane's entire role seemed to be to talk the plot to him and us as an in-frame narrator. Marthe Keller played the Marta Hari, literally, but woe, she cannot control her emotions. Before we got to that Hoffman's brother Roy Scheider swanned around Europe for quite a while doing god knows what. Why Olivier walked the Holocaust-survivor-filled jewel markets of NYC expecting impunity eluded me. And so forth. I grant that the acting is solid.

IMDB rates it 7.5/10 but it's a lot more vacuous than that: the moral is to keep a loaded automatic handgun in your desk draw at all times, especially if you're a history grad student at Columbia.

Roger Ebert was similarly defeated.


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A bad boy Robert Ryan jag from The Outfit, Robert Mitchum from the Chandlers, Gloria Grahame from The Man Who Never Was. A heavily moralising noir from 1947. Some soldiers meet some people at a bar, a couple of murders ensue, the bad guy did it. Don't be racist, OK. The plot is more talked than developed. Robert Young did put in an enjoyable performance.

The Outfit

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Robert Duvall, and somewhere in there, Jane Greer. A buddy revenge flick: Duvall gets out of the can, his brother buys the farm, he and old partner Joe Don Baker dismantle the operation that they blundered into. His main squeeze Karen Black isn't allowed to get too much in the way of the men and doesn't hold a grudge against some vintage chauvinism. Robert Ryan smolders. I didn't follow all the salients. Nicely shot. Loads of muscle cars. 1973.

Vincent Canby: "a 30-Year-Late B Movie From M-G-M". Roger Ebert saw more in it, somehow. He's right about the shady car dealers.

The Big Sleep (1978)

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Robert Mitchum reprises the role of Philip Marlowe; Sarah Miles, paired with him in Ryan's Daughter, plays a jazzy weekend. The classically labyrinthine Chandler story is streamlined and relocated to England, which at least allowed for a stellar British cast. So many foxy ladies: Joan Collins fends at a dodgy bookshop, while Candy Clark stars in what they're selling out back. Jimmy Stewart is the mostly dead Big Daddy. Oliver Reed threatens but never seems to follow through. It's very poorly rated on IMDB, but not that bad; I grant it gets a bit Midsomer Murders at times. Some of it familiar but I'm pretty sure I haven't seen it before.

Roger Ebert liked it less than Mitchum's previous effort. Janet Maslin was also unconvinced.

Farewell, My Lovely

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Robert Mitchum plays Philip Marlowe. This one was made in 1975 but has its gaze firmly on Bogart's 1940s: there's loads of neon and arty cinematography. The customary overly-complex plot is neatly tidied up in the last 5 minutes. Charlotte Rampling appears as a foxy young thing. Jack O'Halloran is somehow mesmerising as the almost wordless Moose Malloy. The IMDB rating doesn't do it justice: there's a lot to like here.

Roger Ebert got right into it at the time.

The Long Goodbye

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Third time around, another four years later. Altman, Elliott Gould, what a fun and perfect intro: a hungry cat climbing all over him at 3am in old Los Angeles. Writer Sterling Heydon (cloning Hemingway) looks like Nick Nolte with screwed up eyes, a sandpaper voice, histrionics. Quack Henry Gibson propped up the bar in Magnolia many years later. The plot gets talked out in the closing ten minutes or so, and again I'm pretty sure I have no idea what's really going on, but it doesn't matter. Arnie appears in one of his first roles.

IMDB points me to other Chandler adaptations of that era (1970s). Mitchum!

Roger Ebert: three stars at the time, four stars in 2006. Vincent Canby.

The Animatrix

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Apparently there's a fourth Matrix movie in the works, which prompted me to dig up this one which I hadn't seen despite it being from 2003. It's entirely, unimaginatively, meh; the stories are told to far more effect in far fewer words in the live-action movies.


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Second (or more) time around with this Terry Gilliam classic from 1985. It's all so very 1984, replete with totalitarian tropes that become more the lived experience by the year: domestic terrorism and the state's responses, the suspension of habeas corpus and detaining people without notification, the use of government databases to chase romantic partners (eternal, I'm sure), extreme kleptocratic nepotism, endless ducts, faulty heating and so forth. All this goes to show that the real bureaucrats and crony capitalists lack imagination. Then again the working-class Buttles live in what is now a palace, not a human filing cabinet or a concrete box in the sky. Gilliam has an actual bug confusing official identities and we get similar mistakes and more in our robustly electronic world.

There are loads of famous names in the cast, none particularly well used. Some of it is quite fun, with the odd awesome bit of dreamy cinematography. Things stall when the plot needs developing.

Janet Maslin got into it at the time. Roger Ebert not so much.

The Flight of the Phoenix

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Second time around with this somewhat amiable stranded-in-the-desert Jimmy Stewart vehicle from 1965. It's not entirely gripping. I wonder what they were doing between the bouts of frenetic effort. It's not that boring either.

Bosley Crowther found it all too implausible. Of course it is, but come on. I grant him that shooting the camel and not eating it was lame.

The Man Who Never Was

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A Clifton Webb jag from Laura, in colour in 1956. A somewhat fussy World War II military procedural that tries to become a thriller in the third act with an IRA angle. The English (or the Brits, or whoever, but definitely the English) are looking to mislead the Germans about the location of their pending invasion of the Continent; anywhere but Sicily will do. Clearly the only thing that will work is is to inject a dead Scot onto a Spanish beach, loaded with papers. Wikipedia has all the details. Gloria Grahame can't hide her accent; I wasn't sure if she was supposed to be American or a local girl; the soporific pace gives you heaps of time to worry such details. Cyril Cusack is a familiar Irish everyman.

Bosley Crowther at the time. Should have been even more black-and-white, he says.