Movie diary, 8/24/08-9/14/08.
So, this afternoon I saw "Dead End", from 1937, featuring an early non-starring performance by Humphrey Bogart. He was awesome and pretty much stole the show anytime he was on screen, but he was only in about half the movie. This movie is a pretty great example of proto-noir, and definitely a bit more assured and mature than "The Public Enemy", and in fact, although I always worry about movies from this early in the history of the medium being a bit stilted, this one was unusually well put together. My theory is that this has more to do with the Lillian Hellman script than anything else, though William Wyler's direction may have been a big part of it as well. Hellman's script definitely showed her working-class left wing sensibilities, and included a bunch of things that were obviously acceptable in the 30s but probably directly contributed to her 50s blacklisting. For example, one of the characters is involved in a strike during the events covered in the film, and other characters, both children and adults, are shown to have been turned towards a life of crime by inadequate law enforcement, especially reform school.
The movie weaves together three different storylines. Dave Connell is a local guy with an architecture degree who can't find a job and is doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. He's currently pulled between possible relationships with longtime neighborhood girl Drina (played by the gorgeous Sylvia Sidney) and formerly poor socialite Kay. Babyface Martin (Bogey), a gangster from the area who is wanted all over the country but has just gotten plastic surgery, rendering him unrecognizable, has returned to his old neighborhood to see his mother and his girl. And a group of street kids, who for obvious reasons went on to have a career under the name "the Dead End Kids", cause trouble and get into various scrapes. One of these street kids is Drina's little brother Tommy, who she's raising on her own after their mother died. Tommy's been getting into petty crime and gang activity, and gets in trouble partway through the movie for stabbing some rich guy. Meanwhile, Dave, who grew up with Babyface Martin, has recognized ol' Bogey and wants him out of the neighborhood. Bogey's reunion with his mom and his girl don't go as planned--his mom wants nothing to do with him and, uh, something is... wrong... with his girl? That's not explained very well at all--looking it up, I learned that in the original play, she has syphilis, but Hollywood's censor board wouldn't let the movie say so, so the reason that Babyface goes from being glad to see her to suddenly being horrified is completely unclear and kinda confusing. Anyway, Babyface, being disgruntled, gets more and more desperate and attempts a big crime, leading to him and Dave coming into climactic conflict. This and the situation with Drina's little brother Tommy being on the run from the cops and Kay, the rich girl, eventually making it clear to Dave that she's not REALLY interested in him unless he has money, are all separate plotlines that come to a head through a bunch of action scenes that are very well directed. The ending is not a bad one for our main characters, though it's complicated and not entirely good either, but one thing that's made clear in the movie is that, even if these characters turn out OK, the problems of the inner city slums are much bigger than one set of characters, and they aren't going away. Much social reform, the film implies, is going to be necessary.
Again, I think Lillian Hellman is a lot of what made this movie so good. Her excellent plotting and dialogue and the complicated and not all that positive message of the film added layers of nuance and realism that you just don't find in many movies this old. This movie seems an indubitably important influence on the American noir films of the 40s. The Dead End Kids stuff wasn't quite as good as the rest of the movie, though this might have had something to do with my being unable to understand their chatter without subtitles (and still a bit confused by the archaic slang even with subtitles), and it was made up for by Humphrey Bogart's outstanding performance. I'm not at all surprised that Bogart was able to parlay his appearance in this and other crime films of the era into a position a few years later into one of Hollywood's leading actors.
Basically, if you like noir films and you haven't seen "Dead End" yet, you're missing out. It's pretty much essential.
I'm prone to DVR-ing movies and not watching them for months, and tonight I finally got around to seeing a movie that's been on my DVR since sometime in the spring--"Recount", which was made for HBO and stars Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary. It was done in a similar manner to the movie "The Kingdom", in which onscreen titles identified characters the first time they appeared and gave locations, times and dates. Without any need for any further narration, the movie could get right into the action and show us everything that was happening without any need for expository dialogue. This was nice, as I think most people know the bare bones of the story--about the attempt to recount the Florida votes for the 2000 Presidential election--by heart. Spacey and Leary portrayed Democratic party workers who spearheaded the attempt at getting a recount, while Laura Dern gave a cutting portrayal of Laura Dern and Tom Wilkinson was impressive as James Baker (aka the devil himself). One thing that became obvious during my watching of the movie was that a lot of what happened in 2000, including the outcome, was ultimately attributable to the Democrats' unwillingness to fight for the Florida election, at least at first. When Spacey, as Ron Klain, finally started running the show himself, things got a lot better, but by then it was a bit too late. I've got to give credit to the filmmakers for avoiding any overt side-taking in the way the film was directed, but like the movie "Trekkies", I felt like the information they presented was enough to make clear who was really on the right side in the entire situation. At the end of the movie, when Dern as Katherine Harris proclaims a victory for the rule of law, it's like a knife twisting in your guts. And the final scene of the film, in which Baker and Klain speak on the runway before they leave Florida, and Klain tells Baker that he hopes he's right to be confident in Bush, it's an additional tweak. Of course, it could have been overdone and ended up cheesy and obvious, but the direction was understated as it was throughout the movie and avoided pushing the point too hard. Nonetheless, it just reminds me of how important this kind of stuff really is, and how bad it would be if we as a country sat apathetically through another incidence of this sort of thing. I sure hope that doesn't happen.
I saw "Mutual Appreciation" the night before last. It was pretty late when I put it on and I barely made it to the end without falling asleep, but that wasn't the movie's fault. I thought it was quite good, better than Andrew Bujalski's previous movie, "Funny Ha Ha" (although I liked that one too). One thing that was nice was that I could hear the dialogue a little better in this movie than in "Funny", which was a bit tough to understand at points. I like how Bujalski manages to create movies full of little tiny scenes where nothing much seems to happen, and then to add them together in a way that tells a strong and clear story, even though nothing in particular seems to happen at any given moment. It's easy to say that "Mutual Appreciation" is a story about a love triangle between three Brooklyn friends, one of whom has just gotten to town, but that makes it sound like the narrative throughline is SO much stronger than it is. And yet, that's really what's going on in this movie. That and Alan, the main character (played by the dude who sings in Bishop Allen, whoever they are), trying to find a drummer to play music with. And dealing with a local indie girl who loves his music and therefore wants to sleep with him. There are some interesting storytelling choices made--for example, I felt like the story of the love triangle, such as it was, didn't end during the movie. There's a sort of ending offered, but it still just feels like more is going to happen later, and that the real conclusive events that will inevitably occur don't happen until after the movie ends. But I kind of liked that--that the way the film is constructed makes clear that the actual big ending isn't really even the important part. It's the little interactions that don't seem like much when we try to describe them later that are the really important moments. I feel like Bujalski pulls off his attempts to show that these are the important moments, which is even more impressive since he doesn't use all the typical Hollywood directorial tropes like music to let you know how to feel about the scene, and etc. I was interested to see what he'd come up with once he had more of a budget, like in "Hannah Takes The Stairs", but then I found out that he didn't even direct that, only wrote it, so I guess I still have no way of knowing. Hmm.
Tonight I saw a documentary produced originally for HBO called "Roman Polanski: Wanted, Desired". It's about the Polanski underage-sex case that drove him to leave the country. I expected to get detail that would allow me to understand what Polanski actually did that got him in trouble, and whether or not he was really a rapist on a non-consensual level or more just on a statutory level--i.e. she was into it but the law says she's not old enough to make that decision. I didn't get that sort of insight, first and foremost. It's incredibly vague. Once there's a reference to the girl saying "no" but it is quickly contradicted and it's not clear what sort of investigations were done, what the results of those investigations were, etc. So I still don't know the answer. What I do know is that the victim of the crime was in the movie and had no residual anger towards Polanski. Then again, it happened 30 years ago, so she's had plenty of time to get over it. Suffice it to say, I still don't feel like I know the answer.
But what I did learn from the film is that the judge in the case was manipulating the events of the case from behind the scenes. Both the defense and the prosecution attorneys discuss this in detail during the film, and I felt like Polanski didn't decide to leave the country because he was guilty and running from his crime but because he felt like the judge was totally willing to manipulate the terms of Polanski's plea bargain in order to receive positive publicity. The movie also took side trips into earlier significant events in Polanski's life, such as his parents being killed in the Holocaust in Poland during WWII, and his wife Sharon Tate's murder in 1969 by the Manson family. One thing I did not know was that, at the time of the murder, the general speculation in the press was that Polanski had secretly flown back to the US from Paris and committed the murder himself. This explanation was juxtaposed with shots of Polanski breaking down crying in public during the first few days after the murder. It just made it that much clearer what an ordeal that experience had been for him, and why his relationships with women might have been fucked up for a while after that happened. It doesn't excuse what he did, if he did what they said he did, but it does make it a bit more understandable.
I thought the movie was very well-directed. It had a dark, foreboding feel throughout. Narration was posted onscreen, typed white letters on a black background, rather than spoken in voiceover, and I thought this helped contribute to the mood as well. The one part in which this sort of thing didn't work was when they used excerpts from the victim's testimony to the LA Police, by showing small white strips on a black background, with black type running down the middle of them. The type was very nearly too small to read on my 27 inch living room television. On the 19 inch TV in my bedroom, I wouldn't have been able to read any of it. As it was, I squinted and made out most of it. This narrative technique would have worked far better if the type had been slightly bigger. Fortunately, they only used it once. I felt that the depressing feeling of the movie's overall direction worked especially well both in its resonance with the tone of a lot of Polanski's movies and in the way it was used to tell a story that, regardless of Polanski's ultimate level of wrongdoing, was ultimately a story of a guy losing his way and ending up doomed. That mood was communicated very effectively. Polanski's redemption at the end of the movie seemed almost surprising, despite the fact that I knew about it in advance, simply because of how bad everything seemed to be going up until that point.
Tonight's movie was "The Stranger", an Orson Welles-directed picture from 1946 that was apparently his first commercially successful film, and one of his only ones. That's depressing to think about. Anyway, it was quite good. Not as overtly noir-ish as "Third Man", came out a couple of years later and which he didn't direct anyway, and apparently not as noir-ish as his followup, "The Lady From Shanghai", either. I need to see that next. But yes, "The Stranger" was still quite noir in tone. I don't really feel like I can talk much about the plot because something unexpected and awesome happened about 5 minutes into the movie and I don't want to ruin it for anybody (the descriptions I had read didn't ruin it for me either, wonder of wonders), but a bare-bones sketch of it is this: Edward G. Robinson is a detective, and he's on the trail of a Nazi war criminal that is hiding out in a small town in the northeastern US. That criminal is played by Welles himself, and as usual, his acting is fucking masterful. I swear, every time I see this guy in a movie, I'm blown away all over again at how well he gets emotion across, and how he's able to do it in so many different ways. If he's trying to express something that befits scenery-chewing, he'll do that, and do it up RIGHT--after all, he got his start in Shakespearean stage acting, and no one chews scenery like Shakespearean stage actors. But, if he needs to get something more subtle across, he's capable of shifting gears completely and becoming exactly what he needs to be for the emotion he's communicating. At points in the movie, he had to act like a guy trying to act naturally while he was freaking out under the surface, and it almost seemed like he was sweating on command. Incredible. He's supposed to be the second lead, under Edward G. Robinson, but Welles easily steals the movie from Robinson and everyone else in it.
And then there's his directing. "The Stranger" isn't nearly as ambitious as "Citizen Kane" was, but there are plenty of interesting and awesome things going on in the direction, nonetheless. Scene transitions, mood setting... I'm really trying to avoid mentioning plot at all, and so much of what I'm talking about hinges on plot points that I can't really explain very well without doing so. But one thing I feel like I can mention without revealing anything is that Welles's character fixes the town clock that hasn't operated for decades about 2/3 of the way through the movie, and once that happens, the feel of the movie gets more foreboding by virtue of the fact that the clock will strike ominously in the background quite often during tense scenes. I thought this trick was quite effective, and it could have been too emphasized and totally fallen on its face. Welles expertly avoids that pitfall, and really, other than a rather strange post-climax final scene that I felt didn't match the tone of the movie, the whole thing is incredibly well-directed. From seeing "Citizen Kane" multiple times, I'm aware that the man had a vast reservoir of talent, and from reading about him and seeing some of his other efforts, I'm further aware that a lot of what he did after "Citizen Kane" was messed with by studios. I could guess in a few spots that "The Stranger" was restricted by the desires of the studio, but for the most part Welles does what he wants to do, and the movie is very strong for that reason.
Oh OK so I need to mention that I went to see "The Dark Knight" last night. Empty first run theater, 10:20 showing on a Monday night... perfect. No obnoxious kids anywhere. Just, as it turned out, ME, jumping at every big startling moment in the whole damn movie. I am no good with that kind of shit, and there's a lot of it in this movie. That said, I did not have any objection to the plot, I thought the direction was badass, Heath Ledger gave the definitive performance as The Joker, and in general I loved the hell out of this movie from one end to the other. I did have a pretty skeptical response to the cellphone-sonar trick, though. How the fuck could that even be possible? I don't care if it IS possible or not--just give me a reasonable explanation. There isn't one given, though, so I just kinda had to stop thinking about it and roll with the rest of the movie. Fortunately, that was easy to do. It wasn't the greatest movie ever made, and really, nowhere near the same level as the last movie I saw and felt was an instant classic, that being "There Will Be Blood". But it was damn good at being exactly what it was supposed to be--a dark, creepy superhero action movie. And if nothing else, Heath Ledger transcended the great-but-not-deathless quality of the rest of the movie and gave a deathless performance, making it all the sadder that he managed to end up dead so quickly after.
Tonight I saw "Rounders". Brandon's been trying to get me to watch that movie for years, and I never have because I was never quite in the right mood. But tonight it looked cool, and we needed something to watch because the Jets/Patriots game was boring. So we put it on, and of course, Brandon was right, it's an outstanding movie. I've long thought that Matt Damon's association with Ben Affleck and Hollywoodness in general belied the extent of his acting talents, and "Rounders" is yet more support for that position. Edward Norton was brilliant as well, but that's never a surprise. I loved the plot of the movie, too--the intrigue and false placidity of the high-stakes illegal poker gambling underground is the kind of thing I find fascinating, and the movie played on that to keep me riveted, especially at moments when the calm was shattered and everyone revealed the hostility and violence that had been under the surface the whole time. The ending was especially awesome, and I liked that it gave me a feeling of redemption without everything necessarily turning out all that well. It wasn't too sad of an ending, nor too happy of one--all the notes were perfect. The way Edward Norton's plotline turned out was also well handled, and I liked that he bowed out of the action early. It seemed like the kind of decision that could be risky in a movie, but the director made it pay off in "Rounders". I couldn't name a single thing wrong with this movie, and I will probably go back and watch it again at least a few times in the relatively near future.