Playing Catch-up 2

Inland Empire (2006)

inland-empire-version6-movie-posterTime has been an issue with updating here, to be sure, but I also have to admit that the concept of having to say something coherent about David Lynch’s last theatrical movie to date possesses a reverse magnetism that does not exactly draw me to the keyboard.

This much I can tell you: Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, a Hollywood actress having a bit of a lull in her career. Her comeback movie is a script based on a… I think it’s maybe Polish?… movie called Vier Seben,  which was never released. It is reportedly cursed, causing the death of its stars. Nikki begins falling into the character of her role, Susan Blue, and scenes from the original movie keep inserting themselves into her life, and she even sometimes finds herself in the real-life incidents that inspired the original story and there’s some prostitutes and a woman who claims she was hypnotized into stabbing someone to death with a screwdriver and oh hell I give up.

This movie was born when Lynch called up his pal Dern and asked her if she’d like to “Come over and experiment”. Lynch was playing with the new generation of digital video cameras and kept writing short scenes to film while he messed around with the new technology and discovered the amazing amount of freedom the smaller, versatile cameras allowed. The scenes had nothing to do with each other until Lynch started sensing connecting tissue between them and suddenly we’re all sitting through three hours of what the living fuck.

Inland_Empire_17-720x340Some people were turned off by the digital photography. Some didn’t like sitting through three hours of what the living fuck. I can understand all these stances, which is more than I can say for the plot – if such ever existed – for Inland Empire.

2013-06-15-inland-empire-rabbitsI like Lynch. I like that he’s challenging. I like that you absolutely cannot intellectualize his movies, you have to respond to them on a deeper, instinctual, intuitive level. Needless to say, given my babbling, Inland Empire is a major example of this. Ask stars Laura Dern and Justin Theroux what the movie’s about, and they are not going to be able to give you an answer. I’ve seen some remarkable analyses, and now I need to find those again, now that I’ve seen the movie because at the time it seemed like hallucinatory babbling. It may have been.

Past that, the terrifying existential TV show with the bunnies, impromptu production numbers, that damned red lampshade from Mulholland Drive… I got no idea. Watch at your own risk. I actually sort of  prefer just experiencing and surviving this sort of thing to picking it apart.

Here’s the Italian trailer. I don’t think English would have helped.

I’d tell you to buy Inland Empire on Amazon, but it’s out of print in America

Memento (2000)

MV5BMTc4MjUxNDAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDMwNDg3OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_As you’ve figured out by now, it takes me years to get to some movies.

Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who a) is vengefully tracking down the burglar who raped and killed his wife, and B) after that assault (and his own injury) is left unable to form new memories. His life is now a patchwork of tattoos and polaroid instant pictures annotated in Sharpie, as he continues the quest, each day starting fresh.  His current life is complicated even more by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who claims to be an undercover cop helping him (though his polaroid portrait says “Don’t believe his lies”) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who may be his lover but maybe not or maybe she’s the femme fatale in this strangest of films noir?

mementoDirector Christopher Nolan made quite the splash with this, only his second feature. His first, the rarely seen Following, was released on disc by the Criterion Collection a couple of years ago, and features an earlier version of Memento‘s fractured timeline and layered deceptions. This is one of the few times I have regretted watching a director’s films in chronological order, because Following prepared me for the twists and turns of Memento. In the final analysis, that’s no big deal, really, because Memento is still quite remarkable in its concept and execution. The setup is similar to Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist – truly the most elegant example of Wolfe’s penchant for the unreliable narrator – but admirably trimmed down to tell a complete and intriguing story, even if that story is told in reverse order.

I love Nolan when he’s left to his own devices. He rewards and in fact demands attention be paid. There is apparently a remake being planned. You can despair at this new lack of originality in Hollywood, or you can stop and realize that there were three versions of The Maltese Falcon made in ten years. The only real difference is that they stopped when they got it right – and Nolan got it right the first time.

Buy Memento on Amazon

Ace in the Hole (1951)

I thought I was being all kinds of clever when I posted this Tweet:


Ace-in-the-hole-posterOh, quite quickly was I informed that this was not a good movie for that purpose, no, not at all. Perhaps I would like to try some other Billy Wilder movie, like Sabrina, perhaps?

This is just one more example of why we need a font that signifies sarcasm. Like this was my first Billy Wilder movie.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck expatriate New York journalist who talks his way into a job at a small New Mexico newspaper. A year later, he’s going stir crazy, unable to find the big story that will jump-start his career and get him back into the big papes. Assigned to cover a “Rattlesnake Festival” at a nearby small town, he stumbles upon his big chance: Leo (Richard Benedict), the owner of a cheesy diner and trading post, while mucking about in a nearby ruined cliff dwelling for “genuine Indian artifacts” has been trapped in a cave-in.

By the force of his own brash personality and a cagey partnership with the local corrupt sheriff, Tatum quickly takes possession of this human interest story (the original title of the film), even to the point of interfering with the rescue process by forcing the crew to take a more laborious, time-consuming approach to the trapped man. Tatum needs the story to play out over a week or more for maximum drama and circulation.

ace-in-the-holeHis manipulation extends to the owner’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling, holding her own and occasionally surpassing Douglas), who first sees her husband’s entombment as a chance to split a no-win situation for her, then cashes in on the media frenzy that follows Tatum’s ballyhoo, charging for parking and even admitting a carnival to entertain the flood of bystanders and gawkers crowding the area. Tatum, who started out insufferable, only becomes worse as his power over the story is consolidated, but the inevitable outcome of such hubris is not long in coming. Leo contracts pneumonia and Tatum’s conscience comes roaring back, dooming him as he discovers his insistence on drilling through the cliff to rescue the man has rendered any chance of a speedier recovery impossible.

Ace in the Hole is based on the 1925 death of spelunker Floyd Collins and its ensuing media frenzy, and it may represent Wilder at his most cynical, but certainly at his most perceptive: this movie presents Truth with a capital T and it has aged damned little over the course of 65 years. A few hours after Leo’s death, the crowded field between the highway and the mesa is empty, except for windblown garbage and Leo’s mournful father – Lorraine hitched a ride out in the exodus.

bw-Ace-in-the-HolePerhaps as contrition on my own part after that duplicitous first Tweet that caused so much concern on the part of so many, I bookended the experience with this Tweet:


Buy Ace in the Hole on Amazon

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In-the-heat-of-the-night-cartelSpeaking of finding oneself in the present day…

A nighttime patrol finds a dead man in the sleepy streets of Sparta, Georgia late one night. An impromptu dragnet nets an unfamiliar black man waiting at the train station, and as it is 1967 in the Deep South, he is immediately taken into custody. However, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Portier) is a homicide detective from Philadelphia, just trying to get home. When local Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) calls Tibbs’ superior to confirm his identity, said superior offers Tibbs’ services to the Chief, seeing as how there’s a homicide and all. Gillespie doesn’t want Tibbs’ help, and Tibbs would just like to be rid of this town and its cracker population – but the real sticking point is the dead man was a rich industrialist from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, and his widow (Lee Grant) threatens to cancel the project unless the “Negro officer” remains on the case.

This movie was very much a cause celebre in my youth, and how the hell I managed to go so long without actually seeing it is one of those puzzles I’d probably need Virgil Tibbs’ talents to unwind. The pedigree of the film is impressive, even outside the two stars: Directed by Norman Jewison, written by Sterling Silliphant, cinematography by Haskell Wexler edited by Hal Ashby, music by Quincy Jones. It’s one of the few winners of the Best Picture Academy Award that I can totally agree with (Steiger, Silliphant and Ashby also took home statues. But not Portier. Don’t be absurd, he wasn’t even nominated).

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, 1967

The script never takes the easy route, and fully exploits the thorny and dangerous difficulties of the set-up. Tibbs is playing Sherlock Holmes without a Watson, against a roomful of Lestrades; Gillespie twice makes the wrong arrest based on partial information. Even then, it’s the character of Gillespie that actually makes the story work so well. Though he verges on stereotype several times (and the rest of the police force is squarely in that category), Gillespie is determined to do the right thing, and however unwillingly, becomes a strong ally. He’s almost as much an outsider in the town as Tibbs, unpopular and threatened with dismissal by a City Council that’s dismayed their Chief didn’t shoot Tibbs when he returned  a rich white planter’s slap.

In-the-Heat-5-Slap(That is one spoiler I’m glad I avoided all these years. Evidence points to the murder victim having been on the planters’ property the night of his death, and when the planter (James Patterson) realizes he’s being interrogated, he slaps the uppity nigra and Tibbs immediately slaps hims back, stunning not only the planter, but Gillespie and the black manservant. That scene must have hit like a thunderbolt in urban theaters in 1967, and I’m glad I had no idea it was coming because it is fucking awesome.)

Steiger is nicely complex as Gillespie. Sidney Portier, as ever, is America’s foremost portrayer of capable black men in difficult circumstances (also in the aftermath of that slap scene is the revelation that Tibbs is concentrating on the planter as a suspect to “bring that fat cat down”, and Gillespie’s quietly surprised “You’re just like the rest of us, man.” It’s a brave script on many levels). Portier would return to the character twice more, in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, and I’m curious enough to check those out. Warren Oates, as the officer who discovers the body, arrests Tibbs, and eventually becomes a suspect himself, continues to hone his reputation as America’s foremost portrayer of hapless motherfuckers that you somehow still can’t bring yourself to hate.

inTHOTNThere’s no real open reconciliation between Gillespie and Tibbs, no sudden buddy-buddy, but there is a quiet, realistic respect between the two at the end that feels earned. It really is a stunning, vital piece of 60s cinema, and I have no idea how they managed to make a TV show out of it. Nor am I that interested, even though the cast is full of actors I like; the movie has made that much of an impression on me.

Buy In the Heat of the Night on Amazon


The ABCs of March, Part Six

Finally finishing out’s March Movie Madness challenge. It got to be a little wearing there, toward the end.

The Villain (1979)

villainDear sweet mercy, is there anything worse than an unfunny comedy? This is stuntman extraordinaire Hal Needham’s third movie, after Smoky and the Bandit and Hooper. It is a Western parody, and if you are expecting Blazing Saddles, you are probably in the same shoes as everyone who paid to see this in theaters, sucked in by an ad campaign and a trailer with far better pacing and editing than the movie itself. Cactus Jack Slade, a down-on-his-luck professional bad guy (Kirk Douglas, of all people) is hired by crooked banker Avery Simpson (Jack Elam) to waylay the somewhat less-than-virginal Charming Jones (Ann-Margaret) on the way back to her pa’s silver mine and steal the money she’s transporting so Simpson can foreclose on the mine. Trouble is, she is being protected by a clueless lunkhead literally named Handsome Stranger (Arnold freaking Schwarzenegger). The other problem is that Cactus Jack is an idiot. cactus jackNo, the real problem is that the decision was made to make this a live action Roadrunner movie, with Kirk Douglas in the Wile E. Coyote role. They even do the painting-a-tunnel-on-the-side-of-the-mountain bit, for God’s sake. The problem is, neither Hal Needham nor his editor are Chuck Jones, and all the bits fall flat, flat flat. Kirk Douglas has good comic timing, and is game as hell, but the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and full frontal nudity could not have saved this movie. I haven’t even gotten into Paul Lynde and Robert Tessier as Indians. Nor will I.

White Vengeance (2011)

white-vengeance-poster-previewThis is the second Chinese historical epic I’ve seen in the last couple of years that had the original title The Feast, that has been changed to something more commercial for Western audiences. the first, an Asian “Hamlet”, was re-titled Legend of the Black Scorpion, which is a bit odd for a movie bereft of scorpions of any color. The re-titling of this one makes more sense, at least. White Vengeance tells the tale of Liu Bang (Leon Lai) and Xiang Yu (Feng Shaofeng), two warlords seeking to overthrow the crumbling Qin dynasty and become Emperor themselves; seeking to drive a wedge between the two men, King Huai proclaims that whoever takes over a certain town will become its Lord, a stepping stone to the Imperial Throne. It works, and Liu Bang manages the feat without shedding a single drop of blood; thus begins an internecine war between the two men, fought with armies, yes, but mostly through the machinations of each man’s counselor. Anthony-Wong-in-White-Vengeance-2011-Movie-ImageThe battle of wits seems to come to a head at the Feast of Hong Gate, where Xiang Yu’s elderly, blind mentor Fan Zeng (Anthony Wong) and Liu Bang’s right hand man Zhang Liang (Zhang Hanyu) play five games of chess simultaneously. Well, not chess, but Go, a Chinese version that has subtleties of its own. Though it seems to end with Xiang triumphant, the chess moves continue for months, even beyond Fan’s eventual death. That’s the White Vengeance of the title: the white pieces on the Go board, vying for advantage even when there are no hands to move them. White Vengeance does have massive armies charging at each other, and those scenes are well done; but I do admit I love movies that value strategizing and the movement behind the lines. There’s also a love story almost buried within the cut and thrust of the main storyline, and it seems superfluous – though it does add a bit of sweet and forlorn spice to the otherwise Machiavellian mix.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-Men: First ClassWhy did it take me so long to see this movie? Well, I guess I knew that some day I would need a movie starting with X that I hadn’t seen before. This is the oddest Franchise reboot in a while; most reboots update the characters, not backdate them. This one places the X-Men at the Cuban Missile Crisis, which wasn’t the fault of the Soviets, but that nasty old Kevin Bacon, here playing Sebastian Shaw, a character that didn’t actually crop up until the late 70s. First Class  gets pretty cavalier about which characters it wants to play with, and schizophrenically taking pains to explain why Mystique is so young-looking in the 21st century X-Men movies, while blithely ignoring any other number of continuity problems. X-Men-First-Class-MAgnetoIn all, this is a pretty necessary move if you want to maintain the backstory of Magneto as a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. The graying of their mainstay characters is the problem Marvel and DC have been having for years with characters like Nick Fury – most notably not with the Howling Commandos in the Captain America movie. Sgt. Rock was still kicking around the civilian world in the 70s – that’s realistic enough – but DC would like us to forget that Bruce Wayne ran into Rock back during WWII, behind enemy lines. And I guess since they recently slash-and-burned their entire heritage, they can now legitimately say that never happened. Bitter, me? Nah. I have the trade paperbacks. Anyway, fun movie. Not going to be in my top ten, but a good superhero movie.

yellowbrickroad (2010)

yellowbrickroad-movie-posterI wonder if I would have ever settled down to watch this were it not for March Movie Madness? Possibly not. I found it on Netflix while looking for a movie beginning with Y, and here we are. The setup is this: in 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire, headed down a mountain trail. Some were found frozen to death. Some had been savagely slaughtered. But most were simply never seen again. One of the few survivors could only keep asking, “Can’t you hear it?” A husband and wife team, hoping to write a book on the subject, have spent years trying to get the official documents so they can retrace the town’s journey. Finally succeeding, they embark with a psychiatrist, a wilderness expert, a husband-and-wife cartography team, an intern, and a girl from present-day Friar, who has to show them where the path begins: a stone marker with the words “yellowbrickroad”. Well, before you can say Blair Witch Project (though this isn’t a found footage movie, I should add), our party is subjected to whirling compasses, a GPS that says they’re in every country in the world except where they are, and music constantly playing in the distance. When even shooting the stars with a sextant proves useless, all they can do is follow the music, while their sanity slowly unravels, and it’s not too long before the first murder happens. yellowbrickroad1The padding’s at a minimum (though still unfortunately there), and you have to admit we know these people before they meet their various ends. The slow burn material makes me think of Ty West. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we like or identify with them, which may be the movie’s greatest weakness. The other weakness is the ending. A lot of people hate the ending, but I’m not necessarily one of them. It turns out this is a problem I have with a lot of modern horror fiction; there’s a superb amount of dread built up, and there isn’t a satisfactory conclusion, so you go obscure, you go strange, and leave it at that. Though the ending of yellowbrickroad is disappointing as to the reveal of the end of the trail, the imagery it ends with is horrific enough that I was satisfied. Your mileage may vary.

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (2007)Been meaning to watch this forever. I was stymied when the used DVD I bought was a full-screen edition (“What is this? Medieval times?“), which I finally replaced, and I needed the Z flick anyway, and I had already watched Z. Zodiac is about the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer whose identity and exact body count is still a cause for conjecture (though the movie, and the book it’s based on, settles on a fairly good suspect). The actual murders take up a rather small portion of the runtime; most of it is given over to the investigation by police inspectors (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and newspapermen (Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal). Oh, and I nearly forgot Brian Cox as Melvin Belli. Hope you like procedurals, because there’s a lot of it in the 157 minutes. kinopoisk.ruThat’s a damned fine cast, though, and David Fincher and his crew do a spectacular job of re-creating 60s through late 70s San Francisco. The character count does start getting unwieldy as more and more police departments are brought into the investigation, but that really does help the viewer understand the complicated nature of police work, and how frustrated the detectives working the case become, not to mention a public on the verge of hysteria. No wonder Dirty Harry became a hit using the thinly-disguised Scorpio as the villain. I was wondering how they were going to fill out that running time when there is no climactic chase or cathartic capture; the movie instead zeros in on how the pursuit of Zodiac comes close to destroying the lives of these men. There was, at least a cathartic moment for me toward the end, when a rack of paperbacks at a airport revealed that yes, the book that was being written during the movie was the one I read in 1986. Also, if you’re a Donovan fan, be aware that this movie will spoil “Hurdy Gurdy Man” for you forever.


Well, that was fun, but as I mentioned earlier, getting to be a grind toward the end. In the week before the Challenge ended, The Hobbit and Zero Dark Thirty both hit the stores. I would have loved to watch The Hobbit again, but no, I had the end of the alphabet to contend with. Still, I stuck it out, but now I have a bit of a problem getting excited about watching a movie again – this was too much of a good thing. I need to get over this because there’s a Crapfest tomorrow, and maybe that’s just what I need – too much of a bad thing.