2015 Summer Movies #4
Posted by Gerald on June 21, 2015
Summer Movie (additional) – Carlos (Oscar Assayas, 2010): I’m not putting this in my movie count because it is technically a TV miniseries. This tells the story of the terrorist “Carlos” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) from the time of his first attacks in the early 1970s until his arrest by the French Secret Service in 1994. Despite its nearly six-hour length, it never lagged or seemed bloated. Edgar Ramirez does a great job portraying Carlos as being on the one hand very charismatic but on the other quite vain and abusive – especially to the women in his life. Carlos is neither shown as hero or villain, but as a violent man whose reputation was frequently used by others for their own ends. One of the most fascinating things about this miniseries is how it depicts the international links between terrorist groups in the 1970s – a time when strikes centering on the Palestinian struggle were being carried out by German and Japanese radicals. It is also interesting for how it weaves in the growing power of Islamism in these Arab states during the 1970s and 1980s. Very worth watching.
Summer Movie #31 – Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004): This is a Hong Kong action film by the always excellent Johnnie To and starring one of his frequent leading men Nick Cheung. This has all the hallmarks of the better films of this genre. Like many of To’s later films this operates on a couple of levels. At base it is a an actioner about an armored car robbery leading to a manhunt – with a fanatically determined police inspector played by Cheung leading his unit in pursuit of the cool and villainous Richie Jen (an actor who looks remarkably like a Chinese version of the American actor Billy Drago) – that culminates in a gun battle and hostage situation in an apartment building. On another level this movie is about media in the digital age. A police commissioner played by Kelly Chen winds up in a battle via the internet with Jen’s character over control of the narrative of the events in the apartment building. She is trying to build positive PR for the department by feeding carefully edited footage and images to the media, he counters with his own cellphone pictures of police defeats and missteps. There is a wonderful scene where both sides “break for lunch” and make sure the media sees it as a way of trying to humanize themselves. This ends with a great chase scene where Cheung’s relentless pursuit becomes almost comical in its intensity. I loved this. I’ve not been doing the Hong Kong films for awhile – I think it is time to get back to those.
Summer Movie #32 – Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013): This is a thriller about revenge and family. However, what makes it brilliant is that it isn’t a macho power fantasy. While remaining very tight and suspenseful, it never lets you forget that violence is ugly and that revenge is a very uncertain endeavor. The cinematography is beautiful, the editing is spot on, and the performances are excellent. Probably the best thing, though, is the writing. You discover these characters through real dialogues and action. At no point do we have a scene that is there just for exposition. The filmmakers trusted the audience to be able to fill in the gaps themselves. An intelligent film, but not always easy to watch – this one is very good.
Summer Movie #33 – Thief (Michael Mann, 1981): This was Mann’s directorial debut and it has most of the hallmarks for his career overall – visual style, prominent use of music to set the tone (in this case the score was from Tangerine Dream), all in service to a neo-noir story. The performances are good – James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky,… The film also marks the debuts of both William Petersen (as a bartender) and Dennis Farina (as a goon) as well as an early dramatic role for Jim Belushi as Caan’s younger partner. It also features an unfortunately underdeveloped role for Willie Nelson as Caan’s mentor. The story is a decent version of a standard – the criminal who wants to move on to the “straight” life after one big score. It has good characters and dialogue but does suffer from being a bit predictable – of course the Big Gangster Boss (Prosky) is not going to let the Master Thief just retire and of course the Master Thief’s Young Partner is dead as soon as we see him joyfully frolicking in the surf with his girlfriend as they celebrate the big score, etc… Like many of Mann’s projects, though, the fact that you don’t need to really think about the plot gives you more time to enjoy the massive loads of style. Here he adds to his later repertoire a visual fascination with machinery that rivals the opening credits of “Twin Peaks”. All in all, this is well worth watching.
Summer Movie #34 – The Double (Michael Brandt, 2011): This is a spy thriller with a couple of decent twists and action scenes that are outweighed by plot holes and general mediocrity. I didn’t think it was as bad as most of the critics seem to have, but that doesn’t mean it is good. If you want 90 minutes of spy drama, this is one – but there are far better out there.
Summer Movie #35 – Suddenly (Lewis Allen, 1954): This is a decent suspense film with Sterling Hayden as a town sheriff and Frank Sinatra as a would-be Presidential assassin. The film has a sort of film noir sensibility without fully embracing that genre and also feels claustrophobic in that most of it occurs in a single house where Sinatra and his flunkies (including frequent Jay Ward and Rankin/Bass voice actor Paul Frees) hold a family hostage as they await a train carrying the President. Hayden is rather under-used as the typical stalwart hero. All the fun stuff goes to Sinatra as the vain sociopath gunman. The film is also interesting to watch because of its theme; a Presidential assassination set some nine years before Kennedy in Dallas. There is also an interesting subplot from a modern perspective about how the mother of the hostage family is keeping her son from playing with toy guns because of her husband’s death in World War II. This, of course, is roundly condemned by the male characters, especially Hayden’s sheriff, who see that as both emasculating the boy and stunting him in learning to be prepared to fulfill his duty to defend America when he grows up. This is pretty good, but also very much a product of its time.
Summer Movie #36 – Malta Story (Bruce Desmond Hurst, 1953): I’m planning to watch some Alec Guinness films. This is one. Guinness stars with Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Steel in a story about the heroic defense of Malta during WWII. Upper lips remain stiff, quips fly between chums, the Maltese are appropriately subservient, and the Germans are faceless and evil. Spoiler – the British win. If you enjoy incredibly traditional war films (and I do at times, despite the snark) this is good. If you want something more, you will not find it here.
Summer Movie #37 – Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963): This is one of those movies that just seems to distill the early 1960s into a single movie – Donen directing what some people have called the greatest Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock didn’t make, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, a supporting cast that included Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass (who was in every movie in the 1960s, I think), and the music was done by Henry Mancini. The movie is at times a thriller and at times a screwball comedy – a feeling strengthened by the presence of Grant who was a master of both. The directing is tight and the performances are predictably wonderful. For me the only things that didn’t work were the last two plot twists (in a film with several). The reveal of who was the murderer was spoiled for me in that I had figured it out about twenty minutes into the film (and pretty much anyone who has viewed some thrillers would do the same). There is also a twist right at the very end that I thought was just false – the movie hadn’t earned it and it soured the ending for me. I think all of the Hitchcock comparisons really come down to Grant being in the film – Donen could be a fine director (“Saturn 3” notwithstanding) but he was no Hitchcock. Still, the virtues of this film far outweigh the faults. It is fun, exciting, and enjoyable.
Summer Movie #38 – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014): This is tagged as “the first Iranian vampire Western” – which describes it, yet doesn’t. The film is in Persian and has an Iranian cast and is described as being set in the “Iranian ghost town” of “Bad City”. However, it was actually filmed in southern California. It has many scenes and tropes one would associate with Westerns, and the southern California location adds to that, but it is more a story about an underworld of pimps and whores, drug addicts and drug dealers, than it is a traditional Western. The central character, the eponymous “girl” is a vampire, but this really isn’t a “vampire movie”. That tag would suggest some campy send-up. Instead the humor is sly and the film is self-consciously stylish and evocative of film genres without belonging to them. The movie it reminds me of the most, although it is VERY different, is Kathryn Bigelow’s first directorial effort, “Near Dark”. That was a noir-ish and heavily violent vampire story set in the modern (1980s) west. It is a favorite of mine and the best parts of it are echoed in this film. This movie also leaves the viewer with a lot of blank canvas upon which to fill in their own parts of the story. It doesn’t always work, some parts are to obviously “artsy” for the films own good – but still this is brilliant. It is one of those movies that movie makers are going to talk about.
Summer Movie #39 – Desert Sands (Leslie Selander, 1955): I recently read an observation that maturity in assessing art comes when one can distinguish between liking something and something having merit. I liked this, but it has no merit. Ever since reading “Beau Geste” I’ve had this thing for Legionnaire stories. This is a classic Hollywood Legionnaire movie – meaning it is a western in disguise. Ralph Meeker leads a group of white guys in defense of a Legion outpost against a group of “Arabs” entirely played by white guys (led by John Carradine). Marla English, despite being both pale and blue-eyed, plays the stereotypical “fiery princess” who winds up switching sides and helping the Legionnaires because of Ralph Meeker’s overwhelming maleness. The defense of the fort plays almost exactly like the movie “Zulu”. It was fun. It was also a piece of crap.
Summer Movie #40 – Intimate Enemies (Florent Emilio Siri, 2007): This is a French film that deals with the psychological trauma of war as experienced by the French soldiers who fought in the “undeclared war” in Algeria (1954-62). The film is powerful, but more for the subject matter than for the way it was handled. Frankly, the movie is very evocative of “Platoon” (Oliver Stone, 1986). You are following a fairly decent man through the horrors of a brutal insurgency. Much like “Platoon” we see the atrocities committed by both sides, but for the protagonist’s side we also get to see the soldiers as human beings. The enemy is presented as mostly faceless and brutal (although this movie does make more of an attempt to personalize the other side by presenting a few characters who support the FLN). The best part of this movie, and the most difficult to watch, it the way it depicts how a decent man can become a monster. The weakest part of the movie is an unfortunate tendency to rely on some fairly familiar tropes from war films generally. Not a flawless film, but certainly worth the seeing.