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The Killers (1964)

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***½

Whoever laid this contract wasn’t worried about the million dollars, and the only people that don’t worry about a million dollars are the people that have a million dollars.

This is a bifurcated film.  Both Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager portrayed hitmen effectively and routinely had enjoyable repartees.  Instead of overplaying that, the shared silence both men reveled in, made their conversations and interrogations all the more pleasant.  On that other side of the film there is the story of a racecar driver sidetracked by a dame.  From his fall he winds up assisting in a million dollar robbery, yet somehow winds up teaching at a school for the blind.  Besides encountering the flashback characters through their interrogations, we meet the film’s star, John Cassavetes, when Marvin and Gulager come to kill him in the first five minutes.  They recognize him and that sets them on the trail to figure out what happened to the money and to determine why, for the first time in their careers, their victim stood there and waited to get shot.  Quite the existential question for hitmen and an interesting driving force for me as the viewer.

Nosferatu

2 Comments

****

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens in the original German, tells the story of Count Orlock (Max Schreck).  This 1922 silent horror classic would have been called Dracula, but the owners of the copyright would not sell.  The core to this films resonance is Schreck’s performance.  Almost 90 years later he is still the most frightening vampire captured on film.

See also Shadow of the Vampire, which tells a fictionalized account of the filming of Nosferatu and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake– Nosferatu the Vampyre.

The Hangover Part II

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***½

Come one, just one drink…

The best decision that Todd Phillips made was to not mess with a good thing.  He managed to keep most of the major elements of the first film intact.  Most of the changes seemed natural, as did the way that they dealt with the reasonable obstacles that reality would place to there being a Hangover Part II:  Stu would never have a bachelor party, much less one right before his wedding, why would there be a wedding in Bangkok, and how Alan (Zack Galafinakis) could ever get invited to anything ever again.

Since that summarizes what I enjoyed about the film, and why I think that almost everyone who enjoyed the first film will enjoy this second one, I will now move onto my criticisms.
#1 – Jeffrey Tambor gets 5th or 6th billing in the credits and yet…one scene.  One measly scene with the great Dad from the first film.
#2  – Micropenis.
#3 – Animals almost never make films better and usually only get used for cheap laughs.  Todd Phillips’ Old School gets a wonderful laugh from the ponies antagonized by a tranquilizer gun wielding Seann William Scott.  So in this film there is a monkey.  At first I felt that there was too much monkey for no reason, but then it turns out that the monkey plays a key role in the film.  Essentially, the monkey provides a few laughs, but is also involved in one of my least favorite jokes in the film (see #2).
#4 – Not enough Doug (Justin Bartha).  He spent most of the last film off camera, so it is too bad that he does not get to be a part of the shenanigans this time.
#5 – “Bangkok has them” is not, “what happens in Vegas…”  Not by a long shot.
#6 – There are too many loose ends tied up through convenient attitudes towards self-inflicted harm and blacking out.  I, personally, do not mind feeling a little guilty for laughing at situations even when people get hurt.  This film did not need the sugar coating it got.

The first film took Vegas and bachelor films and cut out the clichéd portion, this film lacks that originality.  On the other hand, I wanted to see these characters again without having a new film crap all over the past (see Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Jaws 2, The Matrix Reloaded, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, etc…).  This film successfully relies on the safety of the familiar, while giving me more of what I wanted–much like District B13: Ultimatum.  Hopefully if Todd Phillips makes a third one, he will take it the way of Die Hard with a Vengeance, that is to say, he just adds Samuel L. Jackson.

Shadow of the Vampire

4 Comments

****

Why him, you monster? Why not the… script girl? 

This film is great for a number of reasons.  First, it tells an interesting story with suspense and comedy.  Second it teaches a fictionalized account of the German classic silent film Nosferatu, a fascinating film in its own right.  Third it functions as an allegory for the film industry.  I really enjoy cast, so maybe that is a fourth reason, or just a support for the first and third reasons.

1. The basics of this story are that a director has a mysterious star, Max Schreck (played by Willem Dafoe), to play his unauthorized version of Dracula.  This star has trouble with the remainder of the cast and crew, but the driving force behind the filming of Nosferatu is the director, F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich), who values art and posterity over everything else.  As the story progresses the double entendres and fear build and build.  There’s some action, an attractive starlette and even a vampire’s take on the story of Dracula.  It might not have been a Friday night with friends movie, but I like it.

2. Anything that makes a classic horror film seem scarrier, deserves credit.   E. Elias Merhige brought an impressive attention to detail to the scenes showing 1920’s filmmaking. I learned from these scenes, but I also found that they grounded the film. Since there is a major satirical aspect to the film, it needed a strong reality not to have the satire overwhelm the story.  By portraying Max Schreck in such a frightening light, the moments of levity come as a relief, not as something that undermines the story.  If you have never seen Nosferatu it is worth noting that the scenes come very close to replicating the orginal.

3. The allegory bites the film industry.  That’s the worst play on words I could think of, but unlike my writing, this film is really clever.  The quotation I picked above addresses Max Schreck’s choice of victims, because that is how cutthroat the world of filmmaking can be.  Each member of the process has his or her own goals and they use each other.  You could say that it’s almost…vampiric.  Okay, that’s enough.

The film does a good job of spreading out the stars.  We do not meet Willem Dafoe for a little bit, and when we do Catherine McCormack leaves the film (only to return near the end).  We get Cary Elwes past the half-way point, and he brings some fresh energy–I wanted to say new blood, but I stopped myself–to the production.  Taking a look back at my Best of 2000 list I do not know how this did not make it to at least #9 (Sexy Beast).  This is a must for people who enjoy films about the film industry.

The Secret in Their Eyes

3 Comments

*****

A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion,his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion… 

This film is like a criminal version of In The Mood For Love.  The two main leads share some sort of connection that crosses decades.  That relationship takes a back seat to the investigation of a rape-murder, which a recently retired inspector/legal counselor/prosecutor decides to recall for a book.

The way the director (Juan Jose Campanella) tells us to watch the characters’ eyes must have put a heavy burden on those actors.  Not only did he name his film El secreto de sus ojos, but he even has the main character, Esposito, recite it while looking at old photographs of the victim.   One of his co-workers teases him about this, while the lead police officer on the case says that he looked at the same pictures, but never saw it–blaming himself.

This is one of the rare films where I thought, I hope that it is not over yet.  Beyond that, the film delivered by not ending at that point.  Towards the end I spent a good 15 minutes leaning forward waiting to see what had truly happened.  During that time the score referenced two other great emotional films, but I cannot place them.  It was both a subtle  move, since even I do not associate them with particular films, but an unsubtle one is that I noticed it.  Regardless, the effect works and I hope that the rape scene does not turn too many people off from this wonderful film.

Witness For The Prosecution

1 Comment

****½

If you were a woman, Miss Plimsoll, I would strike you.

I do not know why this struck me as odd, but this adaptation of an Agatha Christie play is set in England.  My favorite of her characters, Hercule Poirot, a Belgian, has 95% of his cases in England, so why this particular film would be set elsewhere does not really make sense.  My primary objection to the premise (a wife testifies against her husband) stems from its violation of the evidentiary rule known as privilege.  One spouse cannot choose to testify against the other without permission, since it is the accused’s privilege that matters, not the other spouse’s.  This rule applies in England as well as in the US; thankfully this issue gets addressed by the film.

One nice reminder that this film provides is that it reminded me of the British distinction between barristers and solicitors.  Charles Laughton plays a witty, fat, convalescing barrister whose doctor has forbad his taking any more criminal matters.  With his oratory skills he proposes to present the case wonderfully.  His delivery seems not to have changed much from Jamaica Inn (1939).  It was delightful then and it is delightful now (1957).  I do not think I have seen anything with Marlene Dietrich in it, but she has an impressive screen presence.  And on a personal level, she has finally explained the basis for Lily Von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles.  Sometimes the connections between films provide me with the most enjoyment when I am watching them…this time it was the film itself.  Masterfully done. This is my favorite Billy Wilder directed film.  This film is justifiably considered in the top 150 of all-time.

The 39 Steps

2 Comments

****

Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.

The beginning of this B&W film from Hitchcock made me wary that I had made a mistake acquiescing to my friend Mary’s choice.  However, it was simply a delightful parallel between the film’s tone and the main character’s emotional state.  That character is not whom I first expected from the first ten minutes of the film.  This film’s plot reminds me of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes adaptations, where Sherlock faced off against the Nazis…with crappy results for the viewers.  On balance, I think that Hitchcock gave himself some major obstacles (particularly in his choice of how to present his female lead actresses–Lucie Mannheim & Madeleine Carroll) but that by having those obstacles the viewer enjoys the resolution more-so than if he had resorted to more traditionally pleasant archetypes.  I look forward to watching more of Hitchcock’s films.

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