The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

February 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Director Ida Lupino — an early woman filmmaker who got into directing because a director fell ill and she was on the set as an actor — crafts an impressive story here based on a real-life 1950 story.  Billy Cook murdered six people before taking two men as kidnap victims on a ride to Mexico, where he hoped to escape but was captured. The psychopathic hitchhiker in this film is named Emmett Myers, and portrayed by William Talman. His performance is the best thing about the film — he seems like resentment personified as he prods the two men along, and terrifically creepy as he sleeps with one damaged eye literally open and directed at the two men.

A lot of the shock value has been lost in more than fifty years, and the violence is too clean to be terribly believable, a bit like the violence in old Westerns where people can shoot guns out of each other’s hands.  I do wonder if it was considered a little tastless to produce the film three years after six people were killed, even with all the names changed. Thankfully, Lupino takes the time to make all the characters seem human, even Emmett Myers, though he’s clearly damaged beyond hope of repair.  There’s also an impressive scene where the car was apparently filmed by another one ahead of it with a camera on a trailer, so we’re able to follow it over bumps and down small hills. It’s enough to make you wish for more innovative moments, but Lupino has done extremely well, encouraging strong performances in an engaging film. The only disappointment is the somewhat abrupt ending.  Just how deep do the phychological scars go after spending days captured by Myers? We’re not quite sure, the men get a couple of lines and limp away into the tall shadows so often found in film noir.

Things to Come (1936)

February 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Based on the H.G. Wells novel The Shape of Things to Come, and with a screenplay by Wells (though apparently not much involvement beyond that) this is an interesting, if remarkably dated film. Released in 1936, it portrays an England going to war around Christmas 1940 which was not far off, as it turned out, and it’s the first of three stages of a potential future the film presents. This first stage is remarkably anti-war, something I suspect wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later and into wartime. Characters make exasperated statements about the waste of it all, and in a long montage of barbed wire and bombs going off, the war is portrayed as lasting for decades and pummeling society back to the dark ages, so that people are reduced to living in rubble, trying to avoid disease, and pulling cars around with teams of horses. John Cabal (played by Toronto born Raymond Massey) is introduced, fights in the war and then disappears from the film for a while.

The second stage of the film has “social vitality” finally beginning to return around 1970, but society has become fragmented, and different warlords claim different parts of the country. The “Chief” of one particular region gets a visit from a grey-haired John Cabal in a nifty flying vehicle (and he wears a helmet the size of a small fridge) so Cabal can explain he’s part of a larger government restoring order and trade, and wiping out tinpot dictators and fragments of England that claim to be independent sovereign states. Of course, the tinpot dictator throws him in jail, and the second part of the film portrays the struggle to overcome the Chief, ultimately fairly easy once some giant warplanes are established, and knockout gas is used. It’s here that casting hurts the film quite a bit, because while Massey is okay if somewhat bland, the Chief is really a tremendous dork in a fur coat that wouldn’t be elected the head of a social club, never mind a chunk of England.

Another montage then takes us to 2036, a hundred years after the film was produced, and while I suspect this is meant to be a progressive montage to balance the war montage, it’s basically dislocated shots of people standing next to huge vats of goo, and massive drills reshaping the landscape (look at us, we can kick the crap out of mountains!) before finally the whole world is made up of clean, white cities with tremendous blank walls and everyone wears dresses. Er, great. I know filmmakers search for something different when portraying the future, but have a hard time understanding why it frequently needs to be either as clean as this, or as cluttered as Blade Runner (1980), except to say we seem to have trouble imagining the kind of compromise life usually becomes.

While the film is visually impressive, with some great model work for the time, the three segments are progressively blander, with the conflict in the final segment reduced to the descendant of John Cabal (again played by Massey) trying to protect his space program from a mob that appears to be motivated by some other prominent citizen, and the lamest speech ever (“We must stop this progress!”). All through the film, characters don’t speak as much as make pronouncements, making the film feel more like an essay brought to life than a drama.There’s only one moment in the first segment, when we see the body of a child in the rubble, that the film makes a powerful visual statement that isn’t someone telling us what to believe. And of course, enough time has gone by that we know none of these things are quite happening — we can only note the general lesson: that no matter what age it is, progress will be a struggle, and some people will fervently believe in doing absolutely the wrong thing.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

February 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

I remember thinking the first Hellboy had a routine plot, but a lot of refreshingly original moments along the way, like a plain old Christmas tree with funky ornaments.  The sequel is similar, except that  writer / director Guillermo Del Toro appears to have had licence to be even more imaginative with his cherished dreamlike fantasy figures, making the sequel an improvement. It isn’t too surprising he was trusted more, given the success of the first Hellboy (2004) where he played the same roles, as well as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) in between.  And you won’t regret taking a look back at The Devil’s Backbone (2001) either, perhaps the only poetic horror / suspense film I’ve ever seen.

As I’ve suggested, the plot isn’t complex, involving an angry elf warrior dude who thinks humans have wasted their control of the earth creating “parking lots and shopping malls,” (it’s a bit hard to argue with that) and wants to beat the world to a pulp using the golden army and start over.  The action is impressive, as well as clean and easy to follow, unlike the slightly frantic Quantum of Solace (recently reviewed here), and all the acting is solid. Ron Perlman deserves some kind of makeup medal — the man has probably spent thousands of hours in the chair, from TV shows like Beauty and the Beast to these kinds of films, and of course he has a great voice.  Despite layers of makeup he makes Hellboy into the Tom Waits of superheroes, reluctantly kicking the crap out of things with the fervent wish he could just go home and drink a beer.  “My body is a temple,” a sidekick says.  “Well, now it’s an amusement park,” he replies, handing him a beer.

Ultimately, I think Del Toro should really be making more meaningful films (along the lines of some of the ones he has made already) but a little like Tim Burton making two Batman films, it’s kind of nice to have someone with their own unique style doing this series.  It never seems to last too long, but the results mean more lasting films instead of a couple of summer blockbuster throwaways.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

February 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

I first saw Daniel Craig in a film called Some Voices (2000), a thoughtful and sincere film about a man who hallucinated while trying to maintain a life, and while I can’t say how accurate a portrayal of mental illness it was, I remember thinking Craig was excellent as a fairly lost character who considers cooking a decent breakfast a victory. Needless to say, the idea that he’d play James Bond didn’t occur to me, but it was a crazy little miracle and an inspired choice to make Craig the new Bond in Casino Royale (2006), a film that wisely re-started the franchise in a tough new mold, after twenty previous films.

But here’s the thing: the Bond films have always been swinging back and forth like a pendulum, in terms of approach. Sean Connery fought a nasty international organization called Spectre before that whole approach was abandoned, never to be mentioned again, and Roger Moore films fluctuated between underwater cars and giants with steel teeth (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977) to much tougher and grittier films free of gadgets (For Your Eyes Only, 1981). Timothy Dalton finished off the eighties with two films that took a more serious approach (he actually requested fewer lines, and hissed comments like “If he fires me I’ll thank him for it”), and while people appreciate them now in hindsight, audiences didn’t at the time, after so many years of giants with steel teeth.

Next, Pierce Brosnan made five films, and as much as I suspect Brosnan is a decent man (and an environmentalist, apparently) I’m afraid I find them all too formula, and his Bond a bit creepy, though they’re at least notable for trying to occupy some kind of middle ground between far-fetched stuff that approaches parody and something more serious.  But certain elements were re-introduced that should have been left alone — it somehow worked in the sixties for Connery to meet characters like Pussy Galore and say “I must be dreaming,” but thirty years later, for Brosnan to be meeting Russian agents named Onatopp (just to he can raise an eyebrow and say “Onatopp?”) simply no longer worked. The scriptwriters in the nineties may have been under the impression Bond seemed sophisticated making those kinds of jokes, but actually he just seemed like a teenager. And if Moore was charming without being believable as a tough agent, Brosnan was the other way around, tough while forgetting to be someone we’d really give a damn about.

There are a few things thankfully different about the Daniel Craig films: they’ve restarted things, with no suggestion he’s a guy that’s been running around since the sixties without aging, and Casino Royale was such a success that for the first time ever a Bond film has more than a passing reference to a previous one. The gadgets, and the scene where he’s introduced to them by Q (one of the more routine elements of the formula) are still gone in Quantum of Solace, and Craig is still outstanding as a Bond that is both tough and human.  Remarkably enough, he still seems human even as he survives wildly unbelievable action sequences, and I really couldn’t tell you how Craig does that except to say again he was an inspired choice for the role, and the best Bond since Connery. Somehow, his Bond seems real enough as a fairly intelligent thug, a kind of human pit-bull with great instincts, huge amounts of loyalty, and the faint hope he’ll figure out how to be happy.

The plot finds Bond investigating a nasty international organization called Spectre — er, sorry, Quantum, in a somewhat muddled plot that has a lot of creepy dudes exchanging briefcases of money and getting pissy with waitresses. Unfortunately, the action sequences are a bit muddled too, with editing so fast I found them a bit of a chore to follow. A friend of mine suggested they at least mirror how out of control those situations would feel, but I still think I’d prefer to know what’s happening every step of the way. On the positive side, there are some great stunts here (particularly in a sequence near the beginning) and it’s an entertaining and engaging film even if it doesn’t match up to Casino Royale. Maybe the villains in this one are a little underwhelming if they seem like nothing more than creepy businessmen, but I’ll take them over cartoonish giants with steel teeth any day, and so will most of the audience today, it seems.

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