Saturday, April 4, 2015

Gene Tierney in Otto Preminger's LAURA

hm, dames...

Otto Preminger's Laura is a crackerjack suspense 'who-done-it-where-is-she' film, and it's all driven by character, motivation, and superb dialog. Hell, even the narration is fitting, at least when it's delivered by the likes of Clifton Webb: he was apparently was the newcomer to film, for the most part, though he was known on Broadway. This makes him an unknown quantity for audiences in 1944, and he comes off right off the bat as a little (or a lot) fishy, as he is in a bath, seeming like an aristocrat but nothing more than a 'columnist' of pretentious heights. Indeed, the best word to use for Webb's performance is pretentious, but in the best complimentary way: you may be able to peg him, but he is able to spin a tail like it's nobody's business. Hell, he even gives Dana Andrews a bit of the slip. At first.

"Are you for real, it's so hard to tell..." Wait, wrong song.
 What drives this story is this woman at the center: is Gene Tierney's title character a dastardly "dame"? What's she playing at? Suspected dead, and yet (as we are soon to find out, not really a "spoiler" exactly, unless you want to go in totally blind), she keeps her own self mysterious. But unlike Webb's character/performance, Tierney may have more underneath, and yet it's interesting how she starts out as a very decent, kind person. That first scene that Lydecker describes when Laura comes up to his table, trying to offer advertising and Laura being rebuffed and her all-too-kind response, says it all, even as it's from HIS point of view. He could make her out to be worse than she is, but if anything she is the sweetest person ever - even, or especially, as she puts him out during his lunch. Good heavens!

Andrews is the detective here, and yet for a role that is practically the straight-guy - that is, the one without the same levels of personality as Webb and Price - he delivers the goods as well. There's a scene where he is alone in Lydecker's apartment at night, pondering details, having drinks like any good private dick in a film noir, and stares at the portait of Laura. For a moment I almost wondered if Preminger would go into the surreal - is Laura's return for "real"? It's that convincing of a film noir world, of the unexpected, of the subterfuge coming up over and over, of the 'disguises', that it could have been plausible, if only for a moment.

Of course, this is Hollywood in 1944, a studio production under Zanuck, so it can't get TOO crazy. What Laura provides for the viewer, most so for someone looking for a solid example of what film noir was, is mystery and intrigue, and Motivations with a capital M. You know there are some slippery characters, and this includes an older woman who admits at a key point to the main character that she *could* conceive of committing murder (though she doesn't). When you have actors playing these people, becoming them even, you know something is up through the first half, you don't quite know what it is, and neither does Andrews' detective. And he may be tricky too: is he falling for her? One can hope, at this point, that it's not so - even if she may be what she appears to be... or she isn't, who knows?

You want to go along for the 'ride' in Laura because of the personalities, and what can turn on a dime in an instant. Preminger keeps the screws tight with the plot, but also manages to get a helluva lot of spectacular images. Sometimes it's just the placement of four people in a frame, showing the depth of the composition, with those blinds-through-the-window providing that light that gives everything a further mystery. One might find it a cliché today, but Preminger is among those creating the language of noir (at the same time as Wilder with Double Indemnity, at least in part with Hitchcock), and it all adds to the material.

Clifton Webb of the Living Dead
There doesn't feel a moment wasted here, not when Laura gets an all-too-bright light shone on her in an interrogation, not when Price tries to flub his way through another talk and barely gets by. It's enticing, exciting, the music is tense and the script has more than its share of wit and zingers. Immensely watchable as a classic 40's noir.

Thursday, April 2, 2015



Ok, that's my review.  You want me to go on?  Alright.  Spoilers, I guess.

I remember when I was once hanging out with my then future wife - roughly, almost, ten years ago actually - and she was trying to get me interested in adapting a series of books into a screenplay or something, I don't know how or to what end.  It's called The Penetrator (not to be confused with the dildo), and is a series of action books about the Vietnam vet Mark Hardin.  Mark will get at the criminals any goddamn way he can, and he can survive anything - and I mean ANYTHING.  Like, a nuclear atom bomb will go off, and the motherfucker doesn't need a fridge (take THAT Indiana Jones, more like Sissyana Jones, right?)  and he'll regularly do things like fight sharks.  It has establishments for villains like the Pink Pussy Casino, and they sometimes have schemes like cryogenically freezing and then selling women to the highest bidder (for, you know, reasons).  They're the most gloriously terrible trash on the planet in terms of literature, and it was one of the things that endeared me to this woman and fall in love so passionately with her.  But I digress.

Point is, Furious 7, as did Fast & Furious (part 4, yeah I know) and Fast Five had (and I imagine Fast & Furious 6 as well, though I haven't seen it in full, just long-form video reviews), is at its best when it tries to go for Penetrator-levels of daring-do.  There's a lot of gloriously stupid shit in this movie, things that should not, under any circumstances, be actually possible.  There are things in Furious 7 the characters do that would make Iron Man and the Hulk go "Yeah... no."  And for those sections of the film, you go for the ride.  When it tries to be an actual movie with characters to invest in and care about, with or without the prior movies reference... well...

Jason Statham this time is the villain, who is the brother of the villain from Furious 6 - Shaw - and, lo and behold, he is a super-killing-machine assassin who can't really be killed  by things like, you know, conventional means.  He's set up right from the opening to be a killing-and-maiming-and-destruction machine as he visits his brother in the hospital (so... he isn't dead, but hey, vengeance is vengeance), and lays everyone in the hospital in tatters because... reasons.  He is mainly after the men who did this, who are Vin Diesel's Dominic Turretto and his merry gang - the late Paul Walker, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, and 'back from the dead' Michelle Rodriguez.

After some set up that really gets the ball rolling with a fantastically fun-stupid fight between Statham and The Rock (I should call him Dwayne Johnson, but fuck it, the way he acts in this movie he's the Rock, and I'll get to that in a moment).  The Rock tells Diesel about Statham coming after them, and there is an initial face-off between the pieces of bald and British granite respectively.  That is until Kurt Russel's secret agent man comes into the picture offering a deal of all his resources in exchange for getting a piece of surveillance/sonar equipment that is lifted as much from The Dark Knight as the whole Brother-Revenga scenario is lifted from countless other action movies (I mean, seriously, it's the same principle down to a T).

So Turreto and his family get into the Shit once again, going to the far-off mountains and the Arab Emerites to find a computer MacGuffin to get the Revenge plot into more of a swing.  This is not to say that Statham's Shaw doesn't track down the heroes anyway - one wonders if the movie could end sooner with maybe one or another confrontation, it's 2 1/2 hours long which is kind of nuts - but it all has to lead up to "Back Home" on the streets of LA, where the kind of carnage happens that would make insurance adjusters either very very pleased or shitting their pants in unison.  The point really is: you get to see all your favorite characters getting into craaaazy stunts and things.

I mean, ridiculous kinds of things, but within this realm, hey, why not go with it by this point?  Like a carnival barker here's what happens:

SEE: Five Cars drive out of a moving airplane in the sky and as they fall they use GPS to carefully track down to land perfectly on the ground with - not kidding - parachutes!

SEE: Another car driven off of a 100-stories high or so in a tower off of one skyscraper in Abu-Dhabi and crash perfectly into ANOTHER adjacent building window, drive some more, crash yet AGAIN, and then once more crash perfectly into the next building - like Mr. Owl would say about the Tootsie Pop, a 1-a-2-hoo-a-three - and, hey, it's cause of the brakes not working, dude.

SEE: The Rock, in his hospital bed recovering in LA, witnessing the madness that is going on in the city as an arms dealer or some sort of nefarious-who-gives-a-shit villain (played by Djimon Honsou, and you know he's evil because he's got the goatee), and apparently he has healed so well - not that surviving a drop onto a car after an explosion from a building several stories high could do him in (sadly sans car into another building) - and, yes, yes, yes, he uses his muscles to flex out the cast holding his broken arm into dust, it being perfectly healed (how long has he been in the hospital, eh, fuck it, he's the Rock ya Jabroni) and 1) use an ambulance van to take out a drone coming after two of our heroes, and 2) using the machine gun from the drone or whatever to go after the bad guys yet AGAIN.  CAN YOU SMELL WHAT HE'S COOKING, PEOPLE?! 

(And See... the last performance of Paul Walker, who wasn't a bad actor, and decent enough for what he's asked for.  And there's a fitting tribute at the end, which I'm surer will get a lot more people than I crying in their seats, seriously, it's a good send off and it's one of the actual-genuine accomplishments of the film that they could finish it, likely with some Walker-CGI in places I couldn't tell you where, and it breaks the fourth wall in a fine way... anyway)

The director this time is James Wan - something I was intrigued by after his success with The Conjuring (and almost forgetting his career-start 11 years ago being the more rancid-bat-shit crazy Saw #1).  What he brings to this movie, to be honest, I'm not sure.  He certainly does keep the action a-pumping when things like the car-chase to get that MacGuffin chip from the bus exciting (and in another fine casting choice, Tony Jaa plays the henchman who's sole act is to kick the shit out of Walker's Brian).  The unfortunate thing for me, whether it's due to the PG-13 rating or not, is that the film has equal parts riveting-crazy action, and shittily-shot super-cut action.  Sometimes when you can see what's going on it's exciting and engaging, and other times it's shot either too close and/or too fast to tell what the shit is happening.  I know, I know, this is your Comic Book-Anime-Live-Action movie on Monster Energy Drinks and Doritos.  But can't I be able to see the Doritos and Energy Drink? 

Actors like Statham and the Rock are as dependable as you can ask for for material like this.  Russell, who is there mostly to grin and give exposition and the occasional sort of joking advice or tip or comment, is kind of wasted in the film.  He doesn't give any kind of bad performance, but by the time he gets into the action-mode in his big set piece about 2/3rds of the way in, it lasts, literally, all of 10 seconds (if that) before he's out of the film (not dead, just out in other, nebulous-plot ways - how his men couldn't help at the end, by the way, is another big mystery that seems rather stupid... this movie stupid, no way).

But it's when the film has to go with the main cast that things are a little shakier for me.  Something I noticed with these main hero characters is the Avengers or Ghostbusters/Ninja Turtles effect - Diesel, Walker, Ludacris, Tyrese, and Rodriguez up to a point (there's also another sexy-female addition, who has one eye-catching ::wolf whistle:: scene and then spends the rest of the film as a laptop-holding exposition machine).  Personalities are defined far as they can go, except here there's a difference: Ludacris and Tyrese are kind of the comic relief, with Tyrese much more of the wise-cracking joke-bot.  Some of his lines are ok, some of them are painful (though the audience I was with was eating it up, so what do I know) and Lucacris as the Donatello/Spengler/Bruce Banner tech whiz.  But the problem for me lies in Diesel and Walker being too close in personality.  Diesel may be playing more of the Captain America/Leonardo/Stantz hero-type, but Walker's Brian, aside from having a more stable family who's away for most of the film, is without much personality. 

(Perhaps one might chalk this up to, you know, the character having to be meat-and-potatoes for the plot, who knows how much was actually shot, albeit the fights with Jaa are genuinely exciting, stupid as anything else but with their own kind of rapid intensity created by the Protector star, but again I digress.

And it's to this, these characters, that the film only works up to a point.  I can mostly admire Furious 7 for all of its absolutely bonkers set pieces - chiefly the ones above, though there's sort of sub-groups in the climax that make that final half hour just a colossal, wondrous Testosterone-fest, especially when it comes time for Diesel and Statham to have their "street fight" - of course on a roof-top - which has all of the human context of the Wolverine fighting a Sentinel (or even still, your Wolverine/Sentinel action figures having a fight).  But whenever it tried to be real movie, i.e. the Diesel/Rodriguez romance - or have *consistently* good choreographed action - it falls flat or just goes on too long.

Perhaps this may be on me as well; I went into this not being any kind of massive fan-boy of the previous films, and at best, parts four and five are mindless, dumb Hollywood fun that amps up the cartoonish action.  But within the bounds of the film itself, with these actors working together so much, there could have been more of a foundation - the Die Hard films, as the best example, when they were trying the most, could have that mix of good character/acting and implausible peril and destruction.  But Diesel... I dunno.  He's great as Groot...  Compared to him, the Rock's Cary Grant.

I say all this, and yet if you had it already in your head to see Furious 7, there's nothing I could say that would stop you - and I wouldn't necessarily want to, either.  The film is flawed, HEAVILY flawed, some plot turns you can drive a drone into, and has some of the most truly, stupendously mindless stunts in modern cinema history.  I don't mention something like the Penetrator lightly - it's an obscure reference, to be sure, but once you experience Mark Hardin you don't go back - and FURIOUS SEVEN is a pretty good Penetrator movie.

And I hope it's the last one.  At least for a while...

"You haven't looked that way since you got fucked by your brother in the 3rd grade... oh, a different movie, right"

PS: Seeing Statham in what is practically a Terminator role... it just made me want to see him as Chev Chelios in Crank 3.  Like, a lot.  Like, Now.  (That, too, is a Penetrator movie - both of them being among the best in the past ten years)