Archive for category Crime

Assault on Precinct 13

Assault_on_Precinct_13_Mondo_Poster_2011

“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.

There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of  frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.

Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.

“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.

These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang  problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.

“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.

4/5

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The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

A comical essay on the joys of being Jordan Belfort.

There are those describing “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a white-collar version of “Goodfellas.” They aren’t wrong. Structurally, they both center around a fourth-wall breaking protagonist that cheerfully tells us about his, what might generously be described as, “alternative” lifestyle. While these lifestyles ultimately prove unsustainable, for a while both gangster Henry Hill and Wall Street sleazebag Jordan Belfort make a pretty good run of it. Yet for all these similarities (including their fantastic cinematography and all-around greatness) the nuance lies in the protagonists themselves: Henry Hill loved his career in organized crime, but in telling us about it he didn’t give a damn whether we approved of it, or him. Jordan Belfort, though, cares a lot. Belfort is the consummate salesman, and this film is one massive sales meeting. The pitch? Being Jordan Belfort is the greatest thing ever, and we are all suckers because we are not.

It is a weird sort of sales pitch, granted, because Jordan Belfort dares us throughout the film to dislike him. Just about every stereotype about white males on Wall Street applies to Jordan. He is misogynistic, elitist, materialistic, narcissistic, insensitive, and vile in any number of ways. More than once he directly insults our intelligence, mocks us for having less access to drug or our own helicopter, while flaunting his ability to get away with doing whatever he wants. Save for one moment, Belfort never seems to regret anything he does. While the appropriate response to Belfort is probably indignation and disgust, he knows us better that that. For all our self-righteousness, there is a part of us which is jealous that, for a little while at least, Belfort got to be the embodiment of the capitalist dream, and we can’t help but wonder what it would be like to indulge every stupid impulse we’ve ever had.

Belfort is played with a brilliant snide charm by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose own status as a super-rich star certainly helps his ability to pull of endearing smugness and the dark humor needed to constantly tell us how much better he is than we are.  He also has the chops to start small and relatively innocent, with a young Belfort in the early 1990s learning the ropes from Matthew McConaughey as a grunt at a prestigious Wall Street investment firm. When that firm goes belly-up, Belfort moves to a small firm currently working the penny stock market. Deemed so small and insignificant, the S.E.C. left this market virtually unregulated. With lots of a worthless stock and a cadre of potential investors ignorant as to the difference, Belfort quickly builds up his own investment empire.

It isn’t Belfort’s brains or lack of scruples that make him so formidable, it is his prodigious sales skills. He is able to turn giving money to a whackjob inventing stuff in his grandmother’s garage into investing in an exciting startup led by an innovator with great ideas and a lot of potential. People quite literally give him money for nothing more than the privilege of giving him their money. Of course, it isn’t really stocks that Belfort is selling, it is Jordan Belfort. His first disciples are a small group of friends who know nothing about selling stock, but follow his instructions on their way to millions. (A formula that goes something like Belfort’s sales script + repetition=millions of dollars.) Before long the camera is panning to a bullpen of hundreds of investors taking money from the masses, all acolytes into the church of Belfort. One way or another, everyone in this film is obsessed with Jordan Belfort.

Jonah Hill comes in with a big supporting role as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s best friend and right hand man. Played with a weird Long Island accent and an impressive set of fake teeth, Azoff is in truth more drug dealer and lead partier than investment expert. (Though the scene in which Azoff and Belfort get in a quaalude-riddled fight achieves a special kind of absurd excellence.) With business booming, Jordan Belfort makes little distinction between work and pleasure, with an impressive array of hookers and “team-building” exercises. It is like a frat party but with more money and better drugs.

Alas, all parties must end, but the film is strangely silent on who pays for it all. Certainly as rich as he is, Belfort has no trouble landing on his feet. (What punishment he does receive is exceedingly hollow.) We never see any of the victims of Belfort’s vicious sales tactics. The film doesn’t seem interested in exploring the broader implications of Belfort’s crimes.

What to make of Jordan Belfort, cipher for white collar criminals everywhere? The joke seems to be that whatever we may claim, we need characters like Jordan Belfort. Someone that we can idolize for their ability to game the system and to give us a benchmark to strive for, but also someone to despise for their scumbag ethics and pervess excess. Someone that can manifest both the vice and the virtue of capitalism in one nasty and compelling package. Who better for the job than someone as awesome as Jordan Belfort?

4.5/5

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Serpico

Serpico

A beacon of morality amidst a storm of ethical ambiguity.

I don’t think film cops were ever nastier than in the 1970s. Popeye Doyle and Harry Callahan helped lead the way, but they were just among the first of a slew of morally shaky police officers whose often violent tactics were as dubious as the criminals they were combating. It’s almost as if filmmakers had to shake out all the grime that had been swept under the cinematic rugs for half a century in one decade. In this context, the monolithic virtue of “Serpico” is a compelling aberration and intriguing counterbalance to the uncertain ethics of its contemporaries.

“Serpico” looks like all those other gritty cop dramas of the 70s, while Serpico (Al Pacino, crushing it as he did early in his career) is one of the weirdest and coolest cops ever. He comes from one of those Italian, blue-collar stalwart families in which all the men become cops and all the women become teachers. but for whatever reason he wants nothing to do with his family or their way of life. While he starts as a baby-faced, straight-laced gumshoe, he gets into the counter-culturalism of the 60s. Serpico is a smash-hit at one of those sub-Andy Warhol psychedelic parties with his hippie girlfriend. He lives in Greenwich Village and is into ballet. Other cops don’t quite know what to think of him and he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. After an innocuous conversation in a bathroom with another cop is misinterpreted by a superior, Serpico is transferred to an undercover unit where he grows an awesome beard and looks like a drug-addled vagabond. 

For all his unorthodoxy, Serpico is really good at his job. In what feels like a police-version of the “Little Red Hen” fable, Serpico violates jurisdictional protocols when he thwarts an on-going gang rape in contradiction to a direct order. It is Serpico’s gentler approach which gets one of the perpetrators of that rape to rat out his accomplices. Serpico uses a nifty maneuver to catch two of them at the same time, when no other cops can be bothered to join him on the bust x. Yet there are plenty of cops who are happy to step in and take the credit for Serpico’s work.

Yet for all his crime-fighting prowess, Serpico spends a lot more time worrying about his fellow cops than he does the criminal underworld. Without a uniform to give them away, just about every undercover cop in New York City takes bribes from drug dealers and bookies. In fact, aside from one upstanding sergeant played by Bob Blair, we never see any cops do anything but collect money and harass minorities. So comfortable with the police is one drug dealer that he hangs out with several cops at their desks after being arrested by Serpico.

Despite numerous opportunities, Serpico never takes any of this dirty money. Brilliantly, director Sidney Lumet is so precise in how he paces the film. Lumet slowly phases out any scenes in which Serpico himself does any police work. He instead spends all of his time being hounded by his nervous colleges and desperately trying to get some higher up official.  What starts out as an aggressively apathetic bureaucracy is slowly revealed to be a gang of thugs shielded by powerful but deliberately negligent officials who have no motivation to snuff out the rampant corruption that Serpico incessantly points out. Serpico’s honesty unsettles his fellow cops and leaves him bitter, alone, and utterly terrified.

Even by today’s standards, Serpico’s views about police work place him on the liberal end of the political spectrum. The film never makes it clear where Serpico’s ethical resolve and atypical (for a police officer at the time) views about police work comes from, but his estranged individuality is no small part of it. Without a family, he has no self-righteous excuse to make more money via off-the-book “hazard” pay. He isn’t beholden to public opinion like many of his political-minded superiors. He doesn’t care the least bit about the macho brotherhood which pervaded police culture at the time. He is just a stubborn weirdo who pissed enough people off for long enough to actually make a difference. Sometimes all it takes is one stubborn weirdo.

4/5

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Zodiac

Zodiac

Drawn out psychosexual frustration at its finest.

Admittedly I was perturbed watching “Zodiac” for the first time several years ago. It felt listless and meandering, overblown and overwrought, but worst of all, the film focused on a series of murders that were never solved. At that time it was difficult for me to conceive of a film about a series of murder that didn’t resolve itself in the final moments via some sort of confrontation with the murderer coupled with a psychoanalytical explanation for their actions, not unlike Fincher’s “Seven.” (Nevermind that the real-life Zodiac Killer was never actually found, so “resolving” this plot would be fairly disingenuous.) Several years and films later, this wholesale expectation that every on-screen murder must be solved has left me, which along with the knowledge that this film isn’t the least bit interested in answers, but in questions, left me free to savor how “Zodiac” revels in myopic futility and impotence.

“Zodiac” is a film obsessed with obsession. It gets lost in a rabbit hole of ideas and theories which tantalize us with the possibilities of answers, but offers up only paranoia and isolation. It does this using one of the most enticing mysteries of the twentieth century: Who was behind the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s? The end of the film suggests a possible culprit, but with limited conviction. (The man died before any definitive evidence could be cultivated, so this theory, like the others, can neither be confirmed or denied.) Instead, it ponders about a number of possible suspects and the obsessive characters that tried to compile an extremely fragmented string of evidence which seemed to lead nowhere.

Typical crime films give us one protagonist who assembles all the pieces of the puzzle scene by scene and explains precisely how they all fit together in the end. “Zodiac” plays out as if several people are working on the same puzzle, only in different rooms with different pieces, most of which are missing. The official police leads investigating the murder are Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards,) but amatuer detectives Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal,) a reporter and cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle respectively, also spend a great deal of time trying to crack the case.

Whomever was responsible for the series of grizzly murders left an odd crumb trail to follow. There are cryptic letters to analyze, a strange phone call to a notorious psychiatrist, and loads of circumstantial evidence to parse through. Yet most of it leads to nothing more than a series of blind alleys. Characters drop into and out of the investigation, some because of threatening letters and creepy anonymous calls, others because the trail goes dead. Robert Graysmith lasts longer than anybody, but his unilateral focus on a murder investigation that does not directly affect him costs him his family and his career. At one point, Graysmith even ends up in the basement of a Zodiac suspect who would be generously described as “really, really weird.” Eventually, Graysmith begins to resemble the deranged characters he suspects might be the zodiac killer.

I wouldn’t be the first person to observe how psychosexual the experience of many films can be. The very language of the word “climax” suggests a release of all the dramatic tension that has been building throughout the film. If most narratives replicate the sexual experience, “Zodiac” is the cinematic equivalent of blueballs. Answers linger at the edge of the frame, but they never arrive. The murders, which the film shows us in detail, never make any sense, and we are left with a pervasive sense of dread which the film never dispels.

It is important not to mistake this unmitigated psychological distress with a response to the film as a film. The distress is the point, because “Zodiac” is concerned with our need to know, not in feeding that need. It meanders and exploits our anxiety about unsolved crimes, and about unanswered questions more broadly. We as a species love certainty, but this film gives us none. Of course, that that could just be a load of nonsense and “Zodiac” is simply a really well done crime thriller about one of the strangest string of murders in American history. Either way, the 2007 version of me was an idiot. This is a very well-made film.

4/5

 

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American Hustle

American Hustle

A film full of stars helps the mediocrity go down.

The problem with “American Hustle” is that it appears to be oblivious as to how exceedingly silly it is. It has lots of things one expects from an Oscar contender: a monster cast of stars who offer up bombastic performances, a lively camera that zips through a late 70s world of bad hairstyles and funky outfits, and snappy dialogue that mostly crackles and amuses. What it lacks is a sense of humor about its own sense of self-importance. Without it, the film buckles under the weight of all those lofty performances, the camerawork feels superfluous, and the dialogue regresses into a drippy, preachy mess. The film never threatens to fall apart, not exactly, but its playful veneer crumbles, revealing its more cynical Oscar-bait intentions.

The film opens by asserting a vague connection to events that have actually happened, while acknowledging that this connection is tenuous. In a film about lying, this is probably the only bit of honesty that we get from “American Hustle.” The art of the con, as film topics go, is pretty entertaining. even as it isn’t an original one, but a film doesn’t have to be. Using well-worn tropes to provide a bevy of Oscar nomination, though, and that’s a scam. “American Hustle” exists in a netherworld between a scathing critique of the artifice which exudes out of every human transaction and the simple pleasure of a lighthearted romp about an oddball assembly of slimy characters trying to exploit each other. With its feet in both doors, this is kind of like pouring cough syrup on a bowl of sugary cereal.

Amidst this cacophony of corruption, there isn’t any character that one could “root” for, though I suppose our protagonists here are con artists Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams.) Donning a wickedly awful combover and beer belly, Irving has made a living by offering fraudulent loans to the desperate, with Sydney posing as a British aristocrat with access to lending services across the pond. When the duo gets busted by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper,) they find themselves coerced into setting up the much-beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner,) and a number of Congressman who are all taking bribe money in an attempt to rebuild Atlantic City. Complicating matters is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence,) who as a passive-aggressive she-devil is a psychotic wildcard that could blow up the whole operation.

Granting that I’m not a professional actor, these motley characters seem like they would be a lot of fun to play. Yet aside from Jennifer Lawrence’s all-out caricatured portrayal of a jealous wife and a smaller role from Louis C.K. laying down some levity as Richie DiMaso’s much more cautious boss, nobody appears to be having any fun at all. Instead each actor punctuates each line with the grandiose significance of someone with Oscar’s in their eyes. This is more a product of the material, which is frustratingly safe, than it is any choice by the actors. The script needed to be either a lot smarter or a lot dumber.

A smarter film might have bit harder with its criticism, taking its characters to darker places and spending a lot less time telling us what it is about. A dumber one might have been more comfortable with simply telling a weird and goofy story with characters that are more overtly likable. Instead the film languishes in a middle-brow Hell, telegraphing its every move and delivering middling results. It isn’t without its charms, particularly from the wardrobe and soundtrack department, but with a cast this loaded with talent and a director with a reputation for mischief, it should have amounted to something more than a moderately entertaining bit of puffery.

3/5

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Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Home_Alone_2

A bad early 90s classic that is actually good, because it’s bad.

Having just chided “Anchorman 2” for being an uninspired rehashing of its better and more original predecessor, it would seem contradictory for me to heap praise on another sequel for doing the exact same thing. Chalk it up to nostalgic bias maybe, but that is exactly what I’m going to do. In taking the same themes and riffs from the first “Home Alone” movie and cranking them up to 11, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” actually improves upon the shameless and bland middle class sentimentality of the original. Its incessant stupidity is like a running in-joke throughout the film, because honestly, how could such a bonkers idea actually resonate with so many people?

None of this is meant argue that “Home Alone 2” is a “good” movie. It isn’t, but I don’t think it has any interest in any traditional notion of quality. Rather, this film goes for some weird form of satire. Honestly it plays like a parody of a “Home Alone” movie, as silly as it is. In hitting all the same beats as the first film, I suspect the makers of “Home Alone 2” wanted to see just how much absurdity they could cram into this film with as little effort as possible, while still keeping the masses on board. In generating over 350 millions dollars in domestic tickets sales, despite receiving a paltry 24% approval rating from critics per Rotten Tomatoes, it looks as though the filmmakers experience was a success. (While Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist in 1992, nevertheless odds are good that the film critic in your local newspaper told you it was terrible and that you shouldn’t see it, but your family saw it anyway.)

I doubt this film could have stolen any less material from the original. It stars the same emotionally neglected son, Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin, whose indelible charisma and sharp delivery as the child star are the only reason these films work at all,) who once again improbably gets the solitude and freedom he so desperately craves when his overlarge family forgets about him amidst their hectic travel plans. The only difference this time is that a mishap at the airport sends him to New York City while everyone else heads south to Miami for Christmas. Armed with his dad’s wallet and an extremely versatile Talkboy device, Kevin’s freedom is initially intoxicating. Slowly, he realizes how big and unmanageable the world is without his family, and of courses misses them. This is an annoyingly superficial and irritating lesson which is further reinforced by an initially horrifying side character who turns out to be a sage with a heart of gold. (The Homeless Pigeon Lady, played with a bemused indifference by Brenda Flicker.) Do flmmakers really think kids and adults are so stupid? (Yes.) We also get the box-office required, Looney Tunes-inspired showdown between Kevin and a couple of buffoonish burglars, the Sticky Bandits, which has nothing to do with anything. This is nevertheless a great source for a lot of cheap physical gags, as Kevin rigs an abandoned house with booby traps that would kill most humans, but not are shockingly durable villains.

This film is a master class in camera-mugging led by legendary overactor Daniel Stern, whose finest moment as one of the Sticky Bandits involves howls of pain caused by an electric current so severe that he is briefly transformed into a skeleton. He is not alone in this, as Tim Curry, Rob Schneider, and Dana Ivey are the goofy members of a hotel staff so stupid they fall for the old “Angels with Filthy Souls” trick. Joe Pesci is as mumbly as ever, while all the other actors generate a different kind of laughter as they drip through all kinds of sappy, self-righteous dialogue, which plays every bit as ridiculous as all the bawdy comedy.

Can a film be terrible and still be a classic? I think so. I, of course, regard “Home Alone 2” with a sort of absurdist brilliance, but even if this review is the insane ramblings of a “Home Alone” homer, its 24% on the Tomatometer is far less important in considering its status as a classic than its box office take. A classic denotes a film which resonated, and keeps resonating with a mass of people. A classic is a collective fond memory that can be relived and shared with others, serious criticism be damned. For my generation, the “Home Alone” films certainly are that. For the millions of us that were under the age of ten in the early 90s, explicating “Home Alone” from your childhood is impossible.

3.5/5

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Monsieur Verdoux

Monsieur_Verdoux_poster

Chaplin at his least trampy and most resentful.

Charlie Chaplin wasn’t subtle with the social critique that fueled his comedy, particularly later on in his career. In both the exasperated assembly-line worker desperately trying to maintain impossible levels of efficiency while being force fed by a machine designed to eliminate the need for lunch breaks in “Modern Times” and the metaphor of a flamboyant Hitler playing gracefully with a globe in “The Great Dictator,” (not to mention Chaplin’s speech at the end of that film,) Chaplin wasn’t shy or opaque about expressing his leftist beliefs. Missing from “Monsieur Verdoux,” which takes a very large and very obvious swing at U.S. foreign policy, is that indelible Chaplin charm which let him perpetuate ideologies that might otherwise generate consternation and controversy. (Hence the controversy generated by this film back in its day.)

For clarity’s sake, I do not use the word “leftist” as a criticism unto itself, but as a lazy way of articulating a number of beliefs which are generally ascribed to the American political left. Things like vegetarianism, agnosticism, opposition to military action, support of the working class and a belief in social welfare, which then as now, are linked with such loaded terms as “Communism” and “Socialism.” Chaplin himself espoused pretty much all these beliefs on some form with the films of his eternal Tramp character, mostly to mass acclaim. These beliefs are also present in “Monsieur Verdoux,” only the tramp character is conspicuously absent, leaving the film with a character so enured with bitterness and cynicism that it is hard to see anything resembling hope.

“Verdoux” is about no less than a serial killer who targets wealthy older women, marries, and then murders them in order to cash in on their prodigious financial assets. Per the 21st Century, this seems old hat, but it sounds downright shocking for the 1940s, especially given that the serial killer was played by one of the most beloved actors in the world. Verdoux (Chaplin) has somewhat noble reasons for doing what he does, namely a pretty wife in a wheelchair (Mady Correll) and a wide-eyed son (Allison Roddan) to support after being laid off of his job as a bank teller during The Great Depression, but that isn’t enough to soften the dark edge which cuts through this film. There are shades of “The Tramp” in Verdoux’s character, particularly at times when he is trying to seduce his conquest and in an especially manic scene in which he has to dodge one of his wives at his own wedding, but there is not nearly enough there to mediate the nihilism which oppresses nearly every frame of the film.

The trouble with this film is parsing out where the despair comes from and on what the anger is directed. Human greed provides a reasonable target, certainly, but “Verdoux” is less concerned with the psychological impulse of capitalism than it is in the hypocrisies which it yields. Some dialogue suggests an analogy, and contradiction, between Verdoux’s actions and the military-industrial complex. According to Chaplin, both involve the deaths of many for selfish gains, but the latter receive praise for their actions, and the former are labeled monsters.

That is an evocative point, stated polemically, which was not surprisingly massively unpopular amidst the afterglow of World War II and the defeat of Hitler, one of history’s most magnanimous villains. It is also not a surprise that Chaplin’s career was decimated by this film. Even now, with a film industry more welcome of darkness and scathing criticism, it is tough work to make serial killer likable. I can only speculate as to how to high the degree of difficulty was for that in the mid-1940s, with the killer a stand-in for the U.S. military.

During the film, I was often conflicted by what I was seeing. The film seemed equally conflicted. A running gag revolves around Verdoux’s repeated attempts to kill a particularly obnoxious wife of his, played by Martha Raye at her loud-mouthed finest. Verdoux tries chloroform, strangulation, and drowning, but something happens each time to thwart him. Our instinct as film fans is to rout for Verdoux, but should we be disappointed or elated by his failure? Perhaps the answer lies in how seductively easy it is to endorse the actions of those we identify with, even when those actions are horrible.

At times, his proselytizing is shameless. In one particularly pernicious scene when we first meet Verdoux’s “true” wife, a close-up shows us her sweet and slightly sad face, before the camera pans down to reveal that she is in a wheelchair. Certainly a bit of cheap emotional manipulation, but I wonder how deep Chaplin’s serial killer/military industrial complex analogy goes. Is the wheelchair-bound wife a metaphor for the self-righteous reasons we use to justify going to war in order to cover the secretly base reasons for what amounts to mass murder? Without the buffer of “The Tramp,” the rawness of Chaplin’s disillusionment is unnerving and even shocking, but at the same time no less fascinating.

4.5/5

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Monsieur Hire

Monsieur_Hire

Sexual chemistry between a middle-aged voyeur and a young exhibitionist is the best kind of sexual chemistry.

Nobody does odd romance quite like Patrice Laconte, whose authentically idiosyncratic lovers manage to find their perfect match in a world of busted and disingenuous relationships, despite the odds. The rub, of course, is that rather than the end of their problems, meeting each other usually is the start of the them. “Monsieur Hire” plays much the same, with the creepy voyeurism of the titular character meeting the wry exhibitionsim of his young neighbor, with tumultuous results. As for what does this nutty relationship means, I’m baffled.

Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) is one of those absurdly French creations, a man who is exceedingly odd but utterly contented in his oddness. No matter how people perceive him, he carries himself with the air of a man steeped in self-importance and dignity. A reclusive bald, portly middle-aged tailor living on his own, Hire does inscrutable things which I’m sure are wrought with some kind of meaning which is lost on me. More specifically, he has a collection of pet mice, of which he periodically picks one, kills it, and chucks into a river. Why? I dunno. Probably some kind of visceral metaphor for the futility of existence.

His female counterpart is Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire,) a young country girl living in a flat with wide open windows which curiously lack anything resembling blinds. Hire sees literally everything that goes on at her apartment, because when he isn’t working or killing mice, he just stands next to the window and stares at her, or follows her when she goes out with her dubious boyfriend/fiance Emile (Luc Thuilier.) If this sounds horrifying, it isn’t for Alice. After seeing Hire’s face in the window thanks to a timely lightning bolt on a stormy night, Alice realizes that she gets a sexual thrill from being watched by Hire. Knowing this, she begins tantalizing him in various ways, from dropping tomatoes in the hallway to having wild sex with Emile with Hire gazing at them from afar.

This “romance” plays out amidst a murder investigation in which Monsieur Hire is the chief suspect, largely because of his serial-killer vibe and lack of an alibi. Hire is too obvious a culprit to have actually done it, but the detective suspects Hire knows more than he lets on, a la “Rear Window.” Plus, like everybody else, the detective seems to genuinely dislike Monsieur Hire, and the investigation gives him a chance to harass Hire and otherwise pry into his, voyeurism and creepiness aside, rather dull personal life.

Most of this film is a mystery to me, probably because I lack the cultural and cinematic language skills to decipher it. I spent most of “Monsieur Hire” wondering what I was supposed to get out of this quasi-love triangle between a middle-aged voyeur, a young exhibitionist and her rapscallion of a fiance. These aren’t exactly relatable characters, and it isn’t as if this is a film in which you root for the “lovers” to end up together. So, mostly I just watched the film in stupor, while occasionally scratching my head. Don’t mistake me, however. This film’s strangeness is commendable, and the film oozes style and sexual energy, even if it is unseemly. Hire and Alice’s relationship is ultimately unsustainable. This is likely true for all passionate romances, but the acuity of their fetishes makes it more explicit that sexuality alone isn’t enough form the basis of a long-term partnership. Nevermind the romantic impulses which drive them towards poor decisions. Sometimes love don’t feel like it should, I guess.

3.5/5

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The Godfather

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The best film about the tension between capitalism and humanism that money can buy.

Trying to review a film which is an unmitigated classic is a rather hopeless task. When pretty much everyone has echoed the same “The Godfather is great” sentiment for years, adding your voice to the chorus feels rather redundant, and finding something new to say (particularly when you haven’t read a fraction of reviews out there) seems a fool’s errand. So let me make this clear: I’m a fool on an errand. I don’t purport any of these thoughts are original, nor indeed insightful, but here is my praise-filled review of “The Godfather.”

Instead of focusing on the fact that “The Godfather” is great, I tried to ascertain what makes it great. Not the “It features great writing, acting, cinematography, and score” kind of analysis, all of which is perfectly true, but what attributes does this film possess that makes it not just captivating entertainment, but a compelling cinematic artifact? The first thing I noticed is “The Godfather’s” slavish emotional distance from its characters. I suppose Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is our protagonist here, but the film certainly doesn’t identify with him. It also has no qualms about ignoring him for awhile to show us not only Michael’s father Vito (Marlon Brando) and his brothers Sonny (James Caan) and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), but any number of minor characters as they wind their way through the lethal political landscape of organized crime. While moments permeate with emotions, the film takes great pains to make it clear that the emotions belong to the character’s. What we feel is left up to us.

I don’t know what I think about Michael Corleone’s rise to power in this film, which admittedly left me with an empty. hopeless feeling at the end. This is accentuated by the copious amount of back story which clearly impacts the narrative but which is only alluded in the vaguest of ways. It is not hard to imagine a young, rebellious Michael calling his father a no good crook en route to joining the army. The weight of this never-discussed struggle is felt in one of the film’s many iconic moments, in which Michael shows up just in time to save his hospitalized father from an impending hit by a rival gang. Michael quietly whispers, “I’m here,” indicating not only his obvious physical presence in the room, but his new found emotional presence in his father’s life. Should I be happy he has rejoined the family business, or pity him? As the heir-apparent to Corleone dynasty and raised on the legend of their greatness, it is no wonder Sonny has the patience of a toddler and the ego of Kardashian. What to say about poor, inept Fredo? I suspect if video games and the Cure had been around when he was a kid, he would have spent almost all of his time in his room.

The characters also embody all sorts of delightful contradiction which only makes them that much more enticing. Vito, a man whom has made violence and intimidation his livelihood, is shown playing with a kitten at the beginning of the film. Despite his powerful position, it is affection and respect that Vito wants reflected back at him, not fear. Sonny becomes enraged at the physical abuse his sister Connie (Talia Shire) suffers at the hands of her husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), but otherwise ignores the psychological abuse he inflicts on his wife via his infidelity. Michael, paradoxically, as the one least interested in power is the one most adept at wielding it.

The most thematically resonant contradiction lies it that repeated line, “It’s just business.” Typically said in defense of attempted murder, as though getting killed because someone is indifferent to your life is somehow better than getting killed because someone hates you, that phrase embodies the capitalistic metaphor at the heart of this film. All these gangsters are merely entrepreneurs. Much like Walter White, these men just want to make some money for their families and get their slice of the pie. That sometimes a few people need to get bumped off in favor of the bottom line is part of the occupation. Really, why wouldn’t human lives be expendable on a ledger sheet? To expect otherwise would anti-capitalistic, at least in the sense that capitalism is only concerning about making money.  Nevermind that pretty much everybody involved in the “industry” loves their work and that nearly all of the deaths at the end of the film could be construed as a very “F-U” from Michael to everybody involved in his father and brother’s eventual deaths. Literally cut throat tactics are about dollars, not resentment.

The joy of capitalist thinking is that you are never satisfied. There is always greater profit margins to be had, or at least gains to be defended. Markets are ever-changing, and business owners, legitimate or otherwise, need to stay limber and flexible to stay ahead of the curve. That is why Vito is targeted, because he wasn’t a good enough capitalist. He wanted to slow down progress for something as inane as moral sensibilities. Michael, on the other hand is perhaps the perfect capitalist. Cooly immune to such human failings as ethics and sentimentality, he is free to pursue his (and I suppose his families’) economic interests to their fullest extent. Vito represents the old ideals (money and power, with some limitations) and Michael the new (money and power with no limitations.)

Wrapping up a critique of capitalism in a film which loads of capitalists appreciate and enjoy is probably “The Godfather’s” greatest strength, and the reason for my ambivalence regarding Michael Corleone. It is easy to admire his tenacious and big picture-thinking, as he schemes and murders his way to the time and assures his family’s relevance in the criminal underworld. In the purest sense, he is what Americans strive to be. Yet the way he quickly sheds every aspect of his humanity makes that ideal seem utterly unappealing. (particularly with what we know from “The Godfather Part II.”) Confronted with the reality of that ideal, we are left with a cold feeling and the lingering thought that maybe that ideal should be tempered by,…..something.

5/5

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Gaslight

Gaslight

 

A short marriage’s journey into Hell.

There are few films as drenched in paranoia and hysteria as “Gaslight.” While not a horror film per se, it is nevertheless horrifying in the way it drags Paula (Ingrid Bergman) slowly into the depths of madness, such that when hope begins to present itself, she cannot accept it, so shattered is her belief in her own mind. This anxiety about our own mental health is especially acute given what we now know about Alzheimer’s, and what it actually can do to perfectly sharp minds, “Gaslight” preys upon our own fears that our grip on reality will slip away from us without warning, while exposing a particularly insidious form of domestic abuse in this Noir-infused drama.

Set some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, the film begins with a burst of happiness. Paula and Gregory (Charles Boyer) meet in Italy and fall instantly in love. After a very brief courtship, the two get married and move into Paula’s childhood home in London. Things start out well enough, though things are little off. Gregory is not always as nice as he once was, and he seems to particularly wish to avoid social interactions.

From there, the situation really starts to get uncomfortable. Gregory hires two maids, including the flirtatious Nancy (a young and rather sassily sexy Angela Lansbury), both of whom seem to loathe and dismiss Paula. Gregory starts accusing Paula of losing things, like jewelry and watches. Gregory gets mad about pictures that are inexplicably taken down and found in odd places, again supposedly done by Paula. While Paula has no memories of doing any of this, she begins to doubt herself. Claiming to worry about Paula’s health, Gregory refuses to let her leave the house and prevents the neighborhood gossip from snooping around. Paula begins to notice the gas-lit lights going dim at, despite the fact that nobody is using the other lights in the house, and she hears footsteps from the supposedly empty unit above her room.  Slowly, she goes mad.

In watching Ingrid Bergman progressively lose her mind, it is no wonder she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1945 for her performance in this film. Most of it entails watching her face go from nervous, concerned, and pleading to withered and withdrawn as she tries to process what seems to be happening to her while her sanity is slowly chipped away. While it is pretty obvious from our vantage point that this all part of an elaborate pattern of psychological abuse on the part of Gregary, who is both in charge of the situation, needlessly mean, and irrationally mad about a few missing items and prone to strange outbursts at the oddest times. I found it hard not to scream at the screen, so badly did I feel for her. Yet, like many domestic abuse victims, Paula just can’t see what is happening to her. Gregory’s manipulation runs too deep. He is shockingly cruel in how he torments her by belittling her in front of the maids, or promising a trip to the theater only to take it away when he “discovers” a missing picture. At one point Paula asserts her desire to attend a music concert, Gregory tries to call her bluff by saying she has to go alone. When it doesn’t work, he tags along and hides his watch in her purse, claiming she put it there and leading to a very public breakdown, which seems to break whatever mind she had left.

So powerful is the destruction of Paula’s belief in her own sanity that even when help comes in the form of an Inspector from Scotland Yard played by Joseph Cotten, she isn’t sure whether or not she is dreaming the encounter. While films like “The Shining” might ramp up the visual spectacle and horror of domestic abuse, while the Lifetime Channel might exploit it for cheap drama, “Gaslight” revels in the pure psychological distress of it. Paula’s home literally becomes her prison. Her husband is her warden and almost every word he utters to her is poison. All without ever laying a hand on her. How can you help someone who doubts whether or not you exist? The scary part, trapped in an environment in which everything reinforces the notion that you are crazy, how long could you last before it became true?

4/5

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