Thursday, September 28, 2017

Nine Lives (2016)

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; produced by Lisa Ellzey.

A hard-driving millionaire businessman (Kevin Spacey) with an obsession with raising the country’s tallest building buys a cat for his daughter. In so doing, he draws the attention of the cat-shop owner (Christopher Walken) to his less than generous personality. Walken decides to do something about it, and arranges for Spacey’s soul to inhabit the cat’s body until he learns more about human decency.

I wanted to like this movie. Spacey is an excellent actor, whom I’ve admired since I saw him in an episode of The Equalizer in the 1980s. Walken can always be counted on for an interesting performance. And it’s about a cat. What could go wrong with a film like this?

Everything. Despite the star-power, this is a lacklustre movie that plays like a less successful Disney film from the 1970s. Why Spacey agreed to do this, I don’t know. Perhaps he had just bought a new house. Perhaps his girlfriend’s children like cats. He certainly didn’t put anything extraordinary into his performance. It was good, as they usually are, but no more than that. The same may be said for Walken’s role.

The story is unremarkable. Walken’s decision to put Spacey in a cat’s body seems arbitrary. How he does it is never explained. There is no sense that Spacey learns anything profound as a cat, no sense that the change he inevitably undergoes (sorry if I spoiled the ending for you) is real, and no progression shown toward that alteration. We see him re-connect with his daughter, but don’t see any point at which this is accomplished. There is a sub-plot (or perhaps it’s the main plot) of a rival trying to take over Spacey’s company while the latter is in a coma (his body, left without an occupant, goes into a deep sleep), Spacey’s son attempting to head off this catastrophe. That was actually the most involving bit of the story.

The worst of Nine Lives from a cat-owner’s perspective is that the writer either knows or cares little about cats. The cat brought home by Spacey for his daughter is not neutered (there is a joke made later about this status), which means that the character played by Walken (allegedly a cat-fancier in real life) had numerous unfixed cats roaming about, inside and out. Despite the Spacey family home being an immense, multi-storey apartment, his wife (Jennifer Garner) decides to put the litter-box in the kitchen - and next to the cat’s food and water. No mention is made of cat behaviour or habits. The animal in this film could have been a budgie, a gerbil or a dog (shades (no pun intended) of Chevy Chase and Benji in Oh Heavenly Dog, another disaster of a movie), for all the point of it being a cat. It would have been nice if the opportunity had been taken to give a little information about cats along the way, in a humorous and relevant fashion.

And finally, it would have been a pleasantry to have had the title mean something to the story.

This mess had, perhaps symptomatically, eleven people labelled as some sort of producer (executive, line, assistant, etc.) and five writers. But, whether for a Spacey fan, a Walken aficionado, or a cat-lover, Nine Lives is a - I have to write it - a CATastrophe.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Ride Back (1957)

Directed by Allen H. Miner; produced by William Conrad

The plot in this western is simple, as most western plots are. A deputy sheriff (William Conrad) travels to Mexico to bring back to his home county a fugitive (Anthony Quinn) wanted for shooting two men to death. After that, things get complicated.

This isn’t the usual western, with plenty of gunfire and action. There is, in fact, little action as such. This is more of a character study, even a psychological drama. But then, many of the good westerns are. The story seems straightforward at first, but as it progresses, the viewer learns more about the main characters, what drives them and what haunts them.

The Ride Back is propelled by its acting and its script. William Conrad was the original Matt Dillon, when Gunsmoke was a radio drama. His deep, sometimes fearsome voice was made for radio and he was a star in that medium. He also provided the narration for the hit tv series The Fugitive, before having his own success in Cannon and Jake and the Fatman. In movies, he often played villains or shady characters (check out his very cynical corrupt cop in The Racket). His acting in The Ride Back is self-assured, and he has no problem showing his character as a basically decent but flawed man, greatly hurt by life. Quinn’s character is closer to others that he has played, ebullient, full of life, somewhat derisive of others but nonetheless sensitive and sympathetic.

The script for The Ride Back was adapted from what I believe was an unused Gunsmoke story, but the lawman Conrad portrays is miles away from the confident, intimidating Marshal Dillon, and the latter would not exhibit the weaknesses that are mirrored so well by Quinn’s strengths. This is the tale of two opposites, and how, even if they don’t come to respect each other overly much, come to understand one another. I really wasn’t sure how the movie was going to end, which is unusual in any film, let alone a western, and if the finale is a little weak, it is nevertheless very much in keeping with the characters’ behaviour throughout the story.

The writing (by Anthony Ellis) is sparse. One reviewer noted that only six characters have lines. I counted eight, but that includes a boy whose only words are “bang, bang!” and a woman who is heard but never seen. The Ride Back is essentially a two-man story, impressive enough for Quinn to have starred in this low-budget production the year after his Oscar-winning role in the critically-acclaimed and popular Lust for Life.

The direction is deliberate, and the pace, frankly, slow. The action is in the dialogue and the relationship, not in the barrel of a gun. While I like the flamboyant direction of a spaghetti-western, I also like the deliberate work of a good emotional and mental showdown. The Ride Back won’t appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed the work of two actors at the top of their form.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Big Shot (1942)

Directed by Lewis Seiler; produced by Walter MacEwen

This lesser known Humphrey Bogart film seems, from what I can find, to be noted, when at all, for being the last time the star portrayed a criminal prior to his penultimate film The Desperate Hours. But The Big Shot deserves to be a bit more famous. It is a good Bogart film, if not a very good one.

There are a couple of aspects that stand out. The story is one. Though it seems a straight forward tale of crime and criminals, it’s a contrast to many in that the protagonist doesn’t have it all his own way. In fact, almost everything he does backfires or causes problems for people he never intended to hurt. This is the premise of The Big Shot  From the opening scene, with Bogart lying in a hospital bed, there is a sense of doom hanging over the main character; a grim sense that once he makes a particular decision, events went awry. This is heavily foreshadowed when Bogart mutters, in self-derision, that he was a big shot, someone who figured all the angles. The viewer realises - as the protagonist now realises - that when a man thinks he knows everything, he in truth knows little.

A great deal happens in the film. In eighty-two minutes, there are a failed armed robbery, fugitives on the run, a rigged trial, betrayal, blackmail, a prison-break and an extended car-chase. The viewer really has the sense that much is happening to the characters, and they are not getting a breather.

The second aspect that raises The Big Shot above expectations is the action. Though 1940s movies often had plenty of gun-play, this has more stunt-work than was normal. The robbery features a car-crash of a sort unusual for the time, and the climax is a chase down a wintry highway in which all the skids and twists were probably not intentional.

The script is good, with some sympathetic lines regarding former convicts who can’t get a chance from society, and who see their only way out of despair as being the way back into crime. And Bogart’s opinion of children, from the viewpoint of a man always looking for a score is clever: “Kids don’t pay big, but they pay steady.”

The acting is capable, with the cast filled mostly with players who are no longer famous, if they ever were. Howard da Silva (who has been in three or four films I have watched recently) is probably the best known of the supporting players, but all are convincing. Bogart, of course, could make such movies watchable in his sleep, and his role is not a stretch for him. But, while we’ve seen his character suckered in other films, they usually end with him besting his foes. In The Big Shot  it doesn’t quite work out that way, as his worst enemy is himself. It’s a bit of a change for Bogey, and worth a look.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Directed by Doug Liman; far too many producers to list.

One of several science fiction films Tom Cruise completed in the last decade, Edge of Tomorrow is the story of an alien invasion, and one man’s attempts to defeat it.

Cruise plays a publicist commissioned into the U.S. military to provide information to the public on the latest technological inventions that, it is hoped, will win the war against the enemy. Arriving at the London headquarters of the allied forces, he is told that he will be accompanying the next day’s invasion of alien-held Europe. This does not sit well with Cruise, who is, frankly, a coward. He tries to run but is captured and sent, as a private soldier labelled a deserter, to a combat unit. The next day, he is part of the invasion force, and is swiftly killed. He immediately wakes up the day before, and lives that day over again. Predictably, his bewildered attempts to explain that he somehow has already experienced the day fall on incredulous ears, and, once more, he is killed in battle. This happens repeatedly, and each time, Cruise learns more about the enemy, and about himself. Will it eventually be enough to beat the aliens?

Though the premise is reminiscent of the comedy Ground Hog Day (1993), it occurred to me that Edge of Tomorrow’s spiritual progenitor is, in fact, a 1908 British Army textbook. I kid you not. The Defence of Duffer’s Drift is a book meant to teach small-unit tactics to junior officers, but in an entertaining, as well as informative, fashion. Written by Ernest (later Sir Ernest) Swinton, Duffer’s Drift describes a young lieutenant’s recurring dream: he must hold a position against attacking Boers in the recently concluded South African War. In the first dream, the officer is quickly overwhelmed. But he recalls the earlier dream in the second, and profits from the experience. Each dream provides him with more lessons, until he eventually learns enough to win.

Unlike Duffer’s DriftEdge of Tomorrow's hero is not dreaming, and unlike Ground Hog Day, an explanation for events is offered. The explanation is significant in fighting the extraterrestrials and, in fact, is used by both the humans and aliens in a see-saw battle of tactics, as one side utilizes information and misinformation based on what the other knows about the repetitions. Unlike the simple shooting-gallery action of a film such as Aliens, there is science in Edge of Tomorrow’s fiction. That science may be questioned at the film’s conclusion; the finale is a puzzler that viewers must think about and, because of this, may be interpreted any number of ways, from simple to complex. It may even be dismissed as nonsensical. For myself, whether an ending that requires deep thought is preferable to one on which a brain can ride through on neutral, depends upon the story. And Edge of Tomorrow’s plot is comfortably complex.

There is plenty of action, from expansive, well-staged, computer-created battle scenes to more claustrophobic confrontations in flooded tunnels and burning aircraft. Many of the scenes are repeated, as must be with such a story-line, but an element changes in each one, making it different and, as the movie progresses, setting the stage for following scenes.

An opinion of any movie starring Tom Cruise, however, seems often to depend largely on one’s opinion of Cruise himself. Many find him off-putting; many think his acting feeble. I find that, though he frequently plays a similar character in all his films, various aspects of that character are accentuated to create contrasting personalities. Here, his character progresses from coward to hero but, by the time he attains the latter status, he has fought so long and so much that he is a very tired hero. There is an image, shown at a point at which Cruise has probably re-lived his day hundreds of times, that shows his utter fatigue and desperation. It is a telling scene, and is typical of Cruise when he’s good; subdued, without showing off.

There is also humour in the film, usually at Cruise’s expense. His interaction with co-star Emily Blunt, whose character is pivotal to the plan to defeat the aliens, is successful. In her reactions to him, we best see Cruise’s evolution as a character. And, despite a kiss they share, it’s clear that it is as friends and comrades that they come to respect each other. The other actors are adequate, though most parts could have been filled by any competent player. Bill Paxton is enjoyable in one of his last movie roles.

While I am not a consistent fan of Tom Cruise, he is an actor who usually knows how to market himself and to choose his roles successfully. In Edge of Tomorrow, the plot nearly upstages him, which makes it a good science fiction film to see, even if you don’t really care for the leading man.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The 13th Letter (1951)

Directed and produced by Otto Preminger

At first, one might think this a re-make of M (think about it…) but in fact it is the re-make of a French film about a town in Quebec victimised by a series of poison-pen letters. These seem to centre about the new doctor (Michael Rennie), an Englishman who is tight-lipped about his past. The town becomes suspicious as to the author of the letters, and feelings run high, especially after a young man commits suicide following the reception of one of the missives.

This film was not a success. Firstly, there is the problem of the mystery. I think the writer (Howard Koch) wanted to create a story that would have been well directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, there is little suspense. The feeling of growing paranoia among the town is not really conveyed. The townspeople seem annoyed by the malicious letters, rather than frightened. Preminger is reckoned a good director, but I suspect that his vision of the film and the writer’s were at odds.

More importantly, the motive for the crimes is psychological. Now, I like a good psychological mystery, but the genre brings its own dangers because the reasons why someone would commit crimes in such a movie have to be convincing, and convincing due solely to the writer’s skill. A crime revolving around revenge or greed can present its motives in a straightforward manner: a million dollars is a motive everyone can understand. But psychology makes an analyst of everyone, and, at least as far as films are concerned, one viewer’s opinion is as good as another’s. So the motive must be convincing, and in The 13th Letter, it is not. Even if the psychology of the criminal is accepted, the conclusion is murky; I wasn’t sure who the criminal was really trying to victimise, nor was I sure who actually wrote the letters. (On that point, the total number of letters is never mentioned, so ‘thirteen’, chosen, I assume, for superstitious reasons, is irrelevant.)

Then there is the inevitable love-story sub-plot. In this case, it is between Rennie and one of his patients (Linda Darnell). Theirs is an off/on/off/on affair, though why it exists at all is a mystery. There is no chemistry between the two and no hint as to why they find each other attractive.

That I didn’t much care for any of the characters reflects the writing and direction more than the acting. The tragedy of the suicidal war-hero barely affects the viewer, for instance, simply because we are not given the opportunity to know him.

Then there is Rennie’s hobby. He collects old and expensive time-pieces. There is no explanation given for his interest in these items. It need not be necessary to elaborate upon every character’s pastime in a movie, but, since a conversation is held regarding the clocks; Rennie’s interest in them is cited, and it is intimated that they are costly enough to require a private income, the viewer is led to believe that they are important, if not to the plot, then to Rennie’s character. But we are told nothing about the clocks nor about their collector’s interest in them. For that matter, why is Rennie living in one room of a boarding house when he is clearly wealthy enough to rent or own a house? These are threads of the story that the writer dangles but never ties up.

The acting is good. Charles Boyer does very well, portraying someone in advance of his 53 years at the time, while Constance Smith gives an involving performance as Boyer’s young wife. The supporting players are all capable. Michael Rennie himself, however, has always struck me as someone whose on-screen demeanour fitted him for supporting roles, rather than those of a leading man.

Even so, the fault with The 13th Letter is in the writing and direction, two elements which not only don’t seem to jibe in the movie but are, alone, lacking. The viewer would be better to read Agatha Christie’s book The Moving Finger which deals with the same subject, but more entertainingly.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Roxanne (1987)

Directed by Fred Schepisi; produced by Steve Martin (executive producer), Daniel Melnick and Michael Rachmil

I was never a fan of Steve Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ period, and I think it was Roxanne that made me see that there was more to the man than manic humour. This is an adaptation of the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, an adventure-romance about a man with a ludicrously large nose in love with a beautiful woman. Ashamed of his appearance, Cyrano does nothing but when his handsome young friend, Christian, wants to woo the girl, Cyrano agrees to use his way with words to bring the two together. Initially, he does this simply because of his innate kindness, but then he begins to put his own heart into the letters that he writes on Christian’s behalf.

In Roxanne  the story is updated to modern times. Cyrano becomes C. D. (Charlie) Bales, a shop-owner and volunteer fireman in a small Rocky Mountains resort town. Roxanne is a visiting astronomer and Chris is a professional fire-fighter in town to instruct the volunteers.

This is a fun, funny movie, driven by Martin’s performance. He was once quoted as saying that after this movie was released, he received from the entertainment industry what he had not been given before: respect. It is easy to see why. The comedy is not the ad hoc, almost immature lunacy for which he was known, but a restrained situational humour. There are moments of silliness, and jokes added without reference to the story (witness my favourite sight-gag involving Martin’s reaction to a newspaper) but these are in character, whether it is Martin’s character or that of the story.

C. D. Bales is an instantly sympathetic person. In the first scene, he is accosted by a couple of jerks who, to their cost, make fun of his nose. At first Bales literally goes out of his way to avoid trouble, but no doubt having had a lifetime of such abuse, he does not submit to it lightly. He is clearly a well-liked and respected member of the community.

That community is peopled by funny individuals who are nonetheless realistic, not ‘quirky’ for the sake of procuring laughs. They are, in fact, mostly decent people you wouldn’t mind meeting. The good nature of the characters is part of the charm of the film, which was shot in Nelson, British Columbia (though set in the U.S.). Roxanne is proof that comedy need not be acerbic or insulting in order to be amusing. There are unpleasant characters, but they get what they deserve in an old-fashioned way.

Notable is the number of stand-up comics and comic actors who appear in small parts in the film. Fred Willard, Kevin Nealon and Damon Wayans are probably the most recognizable, but any regular viewer of late-night talk-shows from the late ‘eighties would know many of the cast by sight, if not by name. Large Max Alexander, chinless Steve Mittleman, gravel-voiced Ritch Shydner and Australian Maureen Murphy all play parts. And there’s irony in Michael J Pollard stating that C. D. Bales is “kind of funny-looking.”

There are flaws, however; one being, I think, the casting of the title character. Daryl Hannah lacked the appeal that persuaded me that several men would fall almost instantly in love with her, and her chemistry with Martin produced only a mild reaction. And she is, frankly, miscast as any sort of academic. As well, the resolution of Chris’s involvement was weak. But it is a measure of the success of other elements that these, which should be central problems, are not great.

When I first saw Roxanne  I thought that Martin - and audiences - would benefit from more of his adaptations of classics, to which he could give a unique interpretation. Here, he showed himself capable of good writing and versatile acting, creating a character who was amusing, sad, decent and involving. Some years later, Martin came out with A Simple Twist of Fate, based on Silas Marner, a more dramatic production than Roxanne  but with touches of humour. Unfortunately, nothing further of their kind was forthcoming. So Roxanne stands as one of Martin’s shining moments, an enjoyable film to watch with friends, a date or alone with a big bowl of popcorn.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

I Wake Up Screaming (a.k.a. Hot Spot) (1941)

Directed by Bruce Humberstone; produced by Milton Sperling

The title of this film tells me two things about the main character: one, he is under a great deal of stress; two, he probably doesn’t keep girlfriends for long.

But seriously, folks, this is a nifty film noir, one of the earliest, in which pretty much everything works. The story is about a sports promoter (Victor Mature) who is the prime – only – suspect in the murder of a beautiful young former waitress (Carole Landis) whom he was lifting to celebrity. On his side is the victim’s sister (Betty Grable) who, reluctantly, has fallen in love with Mature. Against him is the unstoppable veteran detective (Laird Cregar) heading the inquiry.

The writing here is better than I expected, with time taken – but not wasted – to build characters, and with humour added to lighten - but not change - the mood. The mystery of who killed Landis is given more than one plot-twist, and even when the murderer’s identity is revealed, there is another surprise that is as logical as it is unexpected.

Just as important to I Wake Up Screaming is the acting, making the characters real. Mature begins cocky, but reveals himself as a poor boy made good, someone who enjoys the luxuries he has won for himself but remains loyal to his old neighbourhood. Though his character lives largely at night clubs and sporting events, Mature leaves no doubt that he is a good match for the quiet, shy Grable. Pin-up girl and superstar Grable is equally convincing as the cautious heroine; the chemistry she and Mature share makes their conversations, and especially their humour, realistic.

But it is often the secondary actors who come to the fore in movies, and here Laird Cregar shoulders his ample size to notice. His detective embodies menace which, at first, is assumed to be directed at any evil-doer. It is only later that the viewer sees that his doggedness in pursuit of Mature has become obsession. The creepiness that he exudes is only assisted by the lighting used; for the most part, it is all Cregar and, despite his frightening fanaticism, he manages eventually to create pity for his unlikeable character.

(Cregar died of a heart attack when he was but thirty years of age, depriving Hollywood of one of the great character-actors. He invariably portrayed men considerably older than himself, always convincingly and usually with no more special effect than his talent. In I Wake Up Screaming, his character states that he has “been in this racket for fifteen years.” Whether he is referring to police-work in general or homicide investigation in particular, he would have to be at least a decade older than the actor portraying him.)

Also on hand are Elisha Cook in an early role, displaying an unsettling nervousness, and Allyn Joslyn and Alan Mowbray as Mature’s pals, both of whom give their characters unanticipated pathos.

I Wake Up Screaming was re-made twelve years later as Vicki. I don’t care for re-makes on principle and have not seen Vicki, but it would have to go some distance to improve on this effective film noir that was simply done right.