Sunday, December 07, 2014

CHANDLER (1971) - Paul Magwood

As the old saying goes, I could watch Warren Oates read the phone book and be happy (Muhlenberg County, Kentucky Edition preferably). In the case of this private dick misfire, Chandler, I'd seriously rather have watched him read the phone book for an hour and a half. Because the script he was given otherwise, oof, what a stinker.

The film starts out promisingly enough. World-weary Oates plays a fallen-on-hard-times investigator named simply "Chandler" working a thankless job for a factory security outfit. He quits out of frustration, possibly to have more time with the bottle, until an old friend shows up to offer him a chance at redemption...a job tailing a myserious French woman arriving at Union Station. The mood is intriguingly lethargic. By the time Oates goes to get his old revolver out of hock at the pawn shop, I was all settled in for a nice character piece, Cockfighter but in the world of the gumshoe. I was wrong.

Because by then we've already been witness to one of cinema's most grievous exposition scenes, two men in a room explaining how they need a patsy for a corporate-government regime changing plot that's of little interest then, lesser interest as the story plays out. Basically, Oates is their hired fall guy, the washed-up schlemiel who they know will go for the girl, thereby providing decoy for...oh, screw it, it's not worth it. Even in the ever convoluted world of noir and detective movies, it makes very little sense.

I feel for Oates. He's exactly the actor you want when you're in the market for world-weary, an off-the-rack and very relatable everyman rube. But the script and direction in Chandler does him a disservice. Even the love interest he's paired with (Leslie Caron) is a bad fit. About the only funny line in the whole film--"Emancipated women can be a pain in my ass"--isn't directed at her but a minor side character. There's no chemistry, no spark. Though Oates name-checks the Grandfather of all Detectives at one point in a phonebooth (" in Raymond"), sadly, all similarities end there.

MARLOWE (1969) - Paul Bogart

Of all the filmed Philip Marlowe incarnations I've seen, this one may be the breeziest. A pre-Rockford Files James Garner (fantastic, R.I.P.) plays the eponymous dick, gliding through crime scenes dropping more quips than picking up clues. The character's dry humor is foregrounded, everything else (suspense, melodrama, etc.) rides backseat. Sure, The Long Goodbye had its light moments (practically the first half hour), but there's always a sense of danger in Altman's constantly zooming lens, something to remind you that, though Marlowe has a wisecrack for every situation he shambles through, these situations are still matters of life and death. In this version of Marlowe, with its TV-friendly framings and obvious production sets, you're not even too worried when Garner goes head to head with Bruce Lee.

This may be a sign of the times or just evidence of lesser directing. Maybe a little of both. Paul Bogart is no Robert Altman. But then Philip Marlowe smack dab in the Age of Aquarius does warrant a lighter touch. As in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe's a walking anachronism here, a '40s throwback that doesn't quite fit. The direction (and Stirling Silliphant's solid script) doesn't quite push it to the breaking point of parody, but there are humorous moments of culture clash, whether it be Garner visiting a hippie drug den in the opening murder scene or being later dosed unconscious in a doctor's office with what seems little more than a marijuana cigarette. All in all, it's not a bad take on the material, Marlowe Light as in Marlboro Light, though this Marlowe rarely smokes in this. Garner's not even much of a boozer in this one. He takes a few nips from a whiskey bottle in his mini-fridge now and then. That's about it.

And what about those early Bruce Lee scenes? After all, that's the only reason most people remember this film. Well, like everything else in Marlowe, they're generally played for comedy. As a henchman who comes to shakedown the nosy dick, Lee fumbles out some awkward lines then proceeds to karate chop and high-kick Marlowe's office to shreds as an amused Garner looks on. Later, when the pair run into each other again at a restaurant atop a high building, a hand-to-hand fight begins to brew until Garner impugns Lee's manhood, suggesting that the kung-fu master's "maybe a little too light on his feet." This sends the young Dragon into such a rage that he flying kicks himself right off the edge of the roof. Suggesting Bruce Lee's "a little bit gay"...apparently, that's all it takes. If only the hundreds of other opponents in his later films knew, they could have saved themselves a world of pain.

Monday, December 01, 2014


As in detective. As in shamus, private eye or gumshoe. Though, who knows, one or two of these paid snoops may end up being kinda douchey too.

In celebration/preparation for Inherent Vice later this month (the only movie I've really wanted to see all year other than Nymphomaniac), I'll be checking out a handful of other films featuring private dicks from a similar era, kissing cousins to Doc Sportello. I considered calling this month "'70s Dicks", until I realized I might be off by a year or two in a few cases. Then I considered calling it "Stoner Dicks", though for some of these ambling flatfoots booze will more likely be the drug of choice. I very nearly called it "L.A. Dicks," which will more than likely be the setting for all these films, but, you know, I didn't want any West Coast friends to take it the wrong way. In the interest of accuracy/simplicity, we'll keep it simple...just plain dicks. OK?

Mr. Anderson, here's hoping you don't disappoint. Von Trier's two-parter earlier this year was a bit of a letdown. But you've been knocking them out of the park lately, and the trailer looks great. Will you be the first to crack the Pynchon adaptation case? Good luck, Doc. Good luck, dicks. Let's get this investigating/ingesting/inebriating underway.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) - Quentin Tarantino

How could I bring November to a close without revisiting this most recent of Nazi scalpin' epics?

I've had plenty of qualms with Tarantino's output post-Jackie Brown (his last truly great movie in my humble opinion, along with Pulp and Dogs). Some of them have been nitpicky issues of excessive length and indulgent cameos in otherwise fine films (Django Unchained). Some of them top-to-bottom problems with execution (Death Proof) or method of exhibition (I still see no good reason for Kill Bill to be more than two hours total, much less two separate films). So it's no big surprise I had some "issues" with Basterds when I first saw it five years ago in the theatre. Watching it again over the weekend, most of those quibbles still remain, those certain showboating Tarantino-isms that tend to pull me right out of an otherwise engaging film. To name just a few...

1. The randomly placed Sam Jackson voiceover (either explaining the flammable properties of silver nitrate film or giving unnecessary exposition about a character--Hugo Stiglitz--with accompanied anachronistic guitar sting)

2. The wildly self-indulgent and unnecessary and nearly half-hour basement tavern scene where the characters are, for some reason, playing the very modern college mixer "Who Am I?" drinking game (what's next, we ask, Beer Pong in Hitler's Bunker?)

3. The very on-the-nose David Bowie Cat People sample ("I'm putting out the fire with gasoline")

4. The bloated run-time, as per usual

5. The unfortunate presence of director/actor Eli Roth, Bear Jew or no Bear Jew

That said, as with most things Tarantino, the cringe-worthy and the inspired often go hand in hand. There are tons of things to admire in this film, and after the disappointments that were the Kill Bills and Grindhouse, overall I considered (and still do) Basterds to mostly be a return to QT's early career form. Historical settings (WWII, the Old West) seem to be serving him well these days. Alternate histories more so. Here are a few of the things that I loved both times around, things that absolutely no director but Tarantino could get away with, and he does...

1. The masterly suspenseful opening twenty minutes at the French dairy farm, on par with anything Hitchcock ever did (or DePalma ever copied)

2. The lovingly detailed close-up inserts of Shosanna's strudel ("Wait for the cream!")

3. The microscopic attention to foreign languages (accents and subtitles not as boring things to trudge though but modes of subterfuge and suspense!)

4. Every single line that comes out of a perfectly cast Christoph Waltz's mouth (especially "It's a bingo")

5. The laughably fake Hitler dummy that gets chewed to a machine gunned pulp at the end

As far as historically freewheeling revenge fantasies go, you could do worse than treat yourself to a second or third helping of Basterds. If only things could have gone the way they do in that fictitious Parisian movie theatre (i.e., Tarantino's head), the world might have been spared a lot of misery. Cinema as a redemptive force...yes, but only in Tarantino Land. Set those silver nitrate reels ablaze. Kill all Nazis. Burn that fucker to the ground.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978) - Franklin J. Schaffner
& THE FORMULA (1980) - John G. Avildsen

What do you do when it's cold outside and the Thanksgiving weekend gives you an extra day or two off from work? Why, you throw a couple more Nazi Plotsies into your queue, of course! By "Nazi Plotsies" I mean two films that, while set in modern day (modern day being the late '70s), are indebted to the long shadow cast by The Third Reich. More specifically, the inventors and mad doctors once employed in Adolf's cabal.

The Formula centers on the hunt for a long buried Nazi recipe for synthetic fuel and one modern oil tycoon's (Marlon Brando) attempts to foil it, as it might seriously compromise his profits (which in this gas-shortage plagued era were a'boomin'). Sustainable resources...apparently the Nazis accidentally did one or two good things while perpetrating tons of horrible crimes.

George C. Scott plays the L.A. cop put onto the formula's trail after his old partner's death. He's reliably gruff, doesn't stand for a lot of nonsense, and really, really wants to spend more time with his son (and keeps letting everyone know). John Gielgud plays the old Nazi formula inventor. Comely Marthe Keller (also in Marathon Man) plays a German spy, seemingly on loan from a Bond movie, who trails Scott and later becomes his ill-fitting love interest. Marlon Brando plays the deeply corrupt (and deeply blasé) oil tycoon Adam Steiffel, though most of the time it seems like he's channeling Dick Cheney years in advance with a little of Paul Schrader's slurry speech style thrown in for good measure. 

Brando's presence and the Avildsen directing credit is the reason I put this one on disc years ago. Granted, it's one of those later phoned-in Brando performances. He wears a hearing aid in the film that you KNOW someone off-set is reading him lines through, and his mouth seems stuffed with wet cotton (or maybe just craft services M&Ms). Still, Brando is Brando, always interesting to watch. And though the investigation is slow-footed and the action (when there is action) rather plodding, the corporate headquarters showdown finale between Scott and Brando is a treat if just to see these two acting titans go head to head. As far as Avildsen films go (Rocky, The Karate Kid, Save the Tiger, Joe), this is not one for the highlight reel. As far as Nazi Plotsies go, not nearly as good as the film which came next...

The Boys from about a surprise treat! An absolutely over-the-top Nazi conspiracy theory gem! And talk about great actors going head to head! Elder statesmen Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck actually throw down on the carpet and grapple WWE-style at one point (see above). Plus, there's a pre-Police Academy Steve Guttenberg running around Paraguay with a ham radio before being killed at point blank range. What more could you ask for? Hulk Hogan as Himmler? No, not even close.

Olivier plays Lieberman, an old school Jewish Nazi hunter on the lookout for leftover Reich members. With Guttenberg's assist, he stumbles onto Josef Mengele (a hammy, wonderful Peck) now hiding out in Brazil and in the early stages of enacting a plot to unleash little Hitler clones all over the world. Mengele's plan is a tad convoluted-- it involves splicing der Fuhrer's old DNA into laboratory baby boys and replicating Uncle Adolf's childhood upbringing in each one. This requires a doting mother and civil servant father who must later die, in this case in ritual assassinations all over the globe ala The Day of the Jackal.

Never mind all that. Schaffner and his fantastic cast really make this patently absurd material sing. Have you ever fantasized what it would be like to see the Nazi's mad doctor Mengele mangled by angry Dobermans? Now you don't have to. Schaffner and writer Ira Levin enact this alternative history wish fulfillment for you. Have you ever wondered what Hitler reincarnated in a child's body might look like? I'll give you a hint: a black cowlick, unnaturally piercing blue eyes, a generally bad attitude. He also tends to wear a lot of flannel and has a certain Damien in The Omen vibe. In case you want to keep an eye out for this tween Hitler in the street, he kinda looks like this...

THE DAMNED (1969) - Luchino Visconti

My first foray into Visconti territory and, man-o-man, what a decadent trip. An obscenely wealthy steel industry family, the Essenbecks, mingle and do business with the Nazi Party in their early days during the lead-up to WWII. In the wrong hands, this material could have easily been staid TV mini-series fare ala The Thorn Birds. But under Visconti's lavish lens it plays like a deranged Dynasty, a nasty bit of Euro soap opera in which no party comes away clean.

During the brilliant, extended "Night of the Long Knives" scene, in which a drunken party among SA officers turns into a sort-of orgy and then into a definite bloody massacre when SS officers arrive, the German subtitles mysteriously vanished on my copy. I was worried at first that I would miss crucial narrative info, debated pausing the film to find another copy. Until I realized I didn't need the subs. Visconti's languorous pans and busy Caravaggio-like framings told me everything I needed to know.

So many great actors in this ensemble. Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Charlotte Rampling to name a few. But, really, it's Helmut Berger's movie (he of Salon Kitty). As the gender-fluid Martin, the black sheep of the family (and in a family like his that MEANS something), Berger's drag rendition of Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again" at his visibly perturbed grandfather's birthday is the show-stopper that gets the movie started and the most iconic image associated with the film. But it's the scenes of Berger playing hide and seek with the younger Essenbeck children that packed the creepiest punch. It's a bit of a surprise when you later find out Martin has a girlfriend in town, not so much of a shock when it's insinuated she may have been a beard for him to molest one of her neighbor's children next door. Martin may have no head for the family business initially, but when that business becomes inextricably intertwined with the Nazis it's only fitting that this deeply corrupt black sheep not only survives everyone else in the Essenbecks but becomes a thriving member in the SS ranks.

Monday, November 24, 2014

AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998) - Tony Kaye
& THE BELIEVER (2001) - Henry Bean

Were all Neo-Nazi youth in the late '90s, early aughts named "Danny"? Judging from this weekend's entertainment, it would seem so. Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) meet Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling). The two of you have a lot to learn from one another. You're both on the fast track to a violent, untimely death, thanks to your backward beliefs. Or maybe thanks to your older brother's influence (Edward Norton). Either way, one last Aryan bullshit session over Bitburgers seems in order. Even doomed Neo-Nazis need new besties, right?

Though I'd heard good things about both of these films years (and years) ago, I'd yet to have the displeasure of meeting either Danny. Watching them one after the after, I couldn't help but be reminded of another pair of similarly themed coming of age flicks from earlier in the decade...Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society. It might seem counterintuitive to compare those South Central gangland staples to a duo of movies about White Power teens (one in L.A., one in New York). But I see it like this: They're all street movies about powerless young males (black or white) from lower class surroundings reacting (poorly and violently) to their environments. They are all about race and racism but from flip sides of the coin. Too easy? Too reductive? Maybe. Just go with me on this very SAT-like analogy. It will make for a shorter blog posting, at least.

American History X is to Boyz N the Hood as The Believer is to Menace II Society. There, I said it. Now what does that mean? It means American History X is the flashier but also the clunkier of the two. There are some brilliant, harrowing parts. The scene in the street where Venice Beach neo-Nazi Edward Norton stomps a black carjacker to death in his underwear and Doc Martins as his young brother looks on is just about as disturbing as you can get (I will forever be haunted by the image of teeth clamped down on a concrete curb). The prison laundry room scenes where Norton befriends a black inmate and begins to learn the errors in his thinking do not come off too forced. The monochrome flashbacks are annoying at first, but you get used to them. Even the tragic twist ending doesn't feel like a total cheat. But for every Edward Norton scene that works (B&W or color) there's one with Edward Furlong that plays like an after-school special. I mean, the framework of the entire film is about a school assignment he's writing about his brother's life entitled American History X. So when all is said and done you're left with an uncomfortable feeling of having done homework...Hitler Youth: The Hollywood, Cliff Notes Version.

The Believer, like Menace, digs a little deeper into a similar milieu. It is American's wilier New York cousin. As a well-educated Jew who turns his back on his upbringing then turns his anger into a worrisome belief system (cherry-picking parts of Nazi ideology where he needs it...sometimes just for shock, sometimes not), Gosling's Danny is a far more compelling character. He's not only at war with all the minorities around him, he's first and foremost at war with himself. This guy doesn't need an older brother to look up and/or fear. All he has to do is look in mirror, see the prayer gartel strapped about waist...hanging out from beneath his swastika-laden tee, of course.

Yes, there are also a few heavy-handed black and white flashbacks in The Believer, mostly to do with Gosling's character fantasizing about being an SS torturer in gruesome WWII scenarios. But his character's journey, despite ending in a similarly tragic fashion, in the end doesn't need to rely on a twist. An infinite loop maybe (Danny climbing an unending set of stairs where he meets his old rabbinical school teacher at the top of every flight), but definitely not a twist.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BETRAYED (1988) - Costa-Gavras

Poor Debra Winger. In terms of leading men, the '80s started out pretty great for her. A handsome mechanical bull riding Travolta in Urban Cowboy. A young, heroic Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. She even got some rogue Nick Nolte action in Cannery Row.

But then come the mid-to-late '80s, and things get sketchier. Husband Jeff Daniels ("Flap") not only cheats on her in Terms of Endearment, but cheats on her WHILE SHE HAS CANCER. In Mike's Murder, her one night stand winds up dead then turns out to have a been drug dealer and possibly of a different sexual orientation (i.e., he REALLY wasn't that into you). In Black Widow, she lands a wealthy tycoon for all of two seconds until her real love interest, Theresa Russell, kills him off almost as fast. Then comes the end of the '80s and Betrayed, and who does Winger wind up in bed with? A militant racist Tom Berenger...and in a muddled, middle of the road Joe Eszterhaus script. Watching this movie, I couldn't help but feel for Winger (Sympathy for the Debra?), one of my actress faves. Betrayed? Yes, indeed.

Plus, the original synopsis I read for this flick was kind of a misnomer and therefore a bit of cheat in terms of this month's theme. In Betrayed, the man FBI agent Winger is investigating (Berenger) is not so much a Nazi or Neo-Nazi. He's more your garden variety racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic redneck murderer who also happens to own a very large cache of guns. Kinda of like Sgt. Barnes in Platoon but without the U.S. military imprimatur. In fact, there's a scene (above) where Berenger, with Winger along for the ride, rolls up next to some actual Neo-Nazis selling antique Lugers at a racist retreat (think Disneyland for the wildly intolerant). He spits in contempt, shouting after they leave that his "granddaddy died fighting those bastards in WWII." It's actually kind of a funny scene (intended or accidental), a peek into the extravagantly compartmentalized mind of your average country bigot. Berenger's character doesn't seem to realize that they are, by default, on the same side.

Beyond the odd Nazi vs. Peckerwood showdown, there's not a lot to recommend about Betrayed. Costa-Gavras is not the most subtle of directors, and this is by no means his classic Z. There is one disturbing scene where Winger goes to tell one of Berenger's kids a bedtime story, only to be met with a spew of racist epithets. Out of Berenger's mouth, these would sound routine. Out of the mouth of indoctrinated babes, however, it's nothing short of creepy.

File this movie under "Otherwise." And next time, let's find a Winger a nice certified public accountant with zero past to shack up with and/or investigate. Agreed? Agreed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

DOWNFALL (2004) - Oliver Hirschbiegel

The Hitler movie that launched a thousand screaming memes. I'd never seen it before and only one or two of the YouTube parodies. Turns out, it's also quite good in its unabridged, two and a half hour form. There are even a few moments when Hitler (a brilliant Bruno Ganz) almost seems relaxed. Almost.

In case you haven't been on the internet in a decade, Downfall is the story of Der Fuhrer's final hours in the bunker as the Russians are bombing Berlin to smithereens outside, told from the POV of one of his secretaries. Yes, there are almost too many Raving Adolf scenes to count. The man is very, very angry and generally clueless up until the very end as to the extent to which his battered German forces are FUBAR (fickened up beyond all repair). There are nearly as many ritual suicides, especially when it becomes apparent that all Nazi hope is lost.

Though Adolf's self-offing is the Big 'Un everyone's waiting for, Hirschbiegel makes the interesting narrative choice of placing it not at the end of his film but closer to the middle (there are still about 30 to 40 minutes left when he takes a Walther to his head along with a poison capsule). This being Hitler, there's not much love lost when it happens, even less considering how much the man seems to thoroughly disregard the legacy/survival/safety of his own people. The hard ones to watch are the scenes with the children, Mrs. Goebbels roofie'ing her six children to sleep then placing poison capsules for them to bite down onto while they snooze. Harder than this, Hitler poisoning his own dog, Blondi (a German Shepard, of course).

It's one thing to dose a gaggle of Aryan moppets who would probably grow up to be horrible people. But, I'm sorry, the dog, too? Hitler, maybe you haven't heard the latest report from the front. You weren't just history's most horrible person. You were the world's biggest dick to boot.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

SALON KITTY (1976) - Tinto Brass
& STALAG 17 (1953) - Billy Wilder

You probably won't find Salon Kitty and Stalag 17 paired very often, say, in a WWII-focused film festival or Nazi-themed retrospective. And if video stores still existed, you'd be hard pressed to find them on the same aisle. One's a comedy in the Hogan's Heroes vein by one of the all time great American émigré directorsThe other, a sexploitation film by the same Italian guy who directed Caligula. One takes place in a raucous German prison of war camp, the other in a racey SS cabaret-brothel. Other than the fact that, yes, they do both contain Nazis and Nazi intrigue, you'd guess the similarities end there. You'd mostly be right, except for the fact that both venues are BUGGED. Clandestine surveillance within the German high command...this is their link.

In Salon Kitty, Nazi officer Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) recruits the most comely and willing National Socialist nymphs from all over Deutschland and installs them as working girls in a Berlin brothel, Salon Kitty, a brothel where the "love rooms" happen to be crawling with wall-to-wall wiretaps. But Wallenberg's not looking to get vicarious jollies so much as to ferret out reluctant Nazis, those not fully converted to the Fuhrer's cause. When his number one girl Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy, McDowell's sister in Caligula) falls for a soldier with divided loyalties, Wallenberg has him killed. Only to have Margherita undertake her own private wiretapping experiment on the voyeur officer to get revenge.

The clandestine surveillance in Stalag 17 is slightly less technologically savvy, significantly less perverse. It involves a chess piece (don't touch that Queen!) with a removable top in which notes can be passed, notes which alert the German officers at a POW camp about American plans to escape or revolt. Everythone thinks it's William Holden who's the Nazi stool pigeon. But it's not, it's...OK, I won't spoil it outright. Put it this way: Have you ever seen Airplane? Have you ever seen a grown man naked? Do you like movies with gladiators, Joey?

Hmm. Maybe these two flicks have more in common than I thought.

To sum up, Salon Kitty is a better, smarter film than expected (though about as nudity-rich as one would guess). And Stalag 17 is a good, but lesser Billy Wilder picture where a lot of the jokes fall flat. Still, Otto Preminger as a Nazi Commandant? Sure, I'll heil to that.