Posted on March 26, 2023
Whenever I can’t come up with a current or recent title for our weekly movie night, I dip into my list of films noir. Last night, we pulled Criss Cross (1949) starring Burt Lancaster & Yvonne De Carlo.
It was enjoyable, but not nearly the master stroke of, say, Out of the Past (1947) or Gilda (1946) or, my favorite, The Big Sleep (1946).
Directed by Robert Siodmak, this one leans a little too heavy on the melodrama and tropes common to this genre.
Strictly speaking, film noir didn’t exist as a genre or even a concept when the term was coined by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 and it didn’t really catch fire in Europe until the French New Wave of the 1960s. It was a genre created in retrospect by grouping together films with common patterns and devices; among them, flashbacks, a narrator, femme fatale, low key photography, anti-heroes, etc.
You can see these work like magic in Out of the Past. We start with Robert Mitchum as a small town garage owner in rural California, truly living his best life until he’s recognized by a gangster that just happens to be driving through.
From then on out, it’s a matter of him being dragged back into his bad past to put closure to unresolved and unforgiven sins against Kirk Douglas. Which are, of course, the worst kind of sins.
This is how it’s supposed to work in film noir: Start with the problem, flash back to how we got to the problem in the first half of the second act, then flip forward back into the problem for the back half of the second act, before careening into the conclusion where everyone dies.
No sins go unpaid for in film noir. Though that had more to do with the Hays Code than anything else. One of the prime commandments being, “Crime must not pay!”
In the case of Criss Cross, though, all that descends into melodramatic hugger mugger which has the unfortunate side effect of repeatedly releasing tension without resolution.
This story would have played out better if told in chronological order, starting with Lancaster’s character returning from drifting around the country trying to get over his toxic relationship with De Carlo’s character.
This would have allowed a steady degradation of their renewed relationship which would have built tension and suspicion. It would also have allowed the one set they re-used many times to degrade as a symbol of their failing relationship. Instead, the bar set never changes and it gets boring to look at which doesn’t help distract from everyone in the scene, Lancaster included, over acting to the point of comedy.
Much of the strife between the main characters seems unmotivated. Whereas in Out of the Past, the flashback provides a very clear description of how Jane Greer’s character manipulated and betrayed Mitchum’s character. We know what she’s capable of when cornered which helps build sympathy for Mitchum.
Speaking of which, Yvonne De Carlo is miscast in Criss Cross. She’s really more girl next door than femme fatale and the unmotivated sniping just makes her seem hysterical. On the other hand, Jane Greer has the smooth hard surface of chromium steel and you believe her sociopathic selfishness 100%.
And, finally, the ending of Criss Cross seems rushed and even tacked on. It’s also blocked so awkwardly that De Carlo’s final cry is awkwardly laugh inducing instead of terrifying.
Siodmak also directed The Killers (1946) which I haven’t seen in a while but I remember liking but also being a bit hammy and melodramatic as well as relying on multiple flashbacks. Criss Cross may just be emblematic of his style.
In any case, it’s still an enjoyable story. It just doesn’t belong on the list of top films noir.
Next time: Leave Her To Heaven
Posted on March 25, 2023
Q: The Winged Serpent
I should add a fair warning that I’ve fallen down a Joe Bob Briggs rabbit hole so there will be a few posts about drive-in quality movies on here for a while.
As a member of the drive-in generation, I am awash with nostalgia listening to JBB rhapsodize over the movies we used to pile in to see on Saturday night.
The difference between watching them then and watching them now is the quality of the prints.
Seeing this movie at a the Manassas Drive-In on Centreville Road, the print would have arrived in a terrible condition at the ass end of a long circuit of first run, second run, and major market drive-in theaters. I remember these movies as being grainy and sometimes incoherent due to missing scenes.
But the crystal clear HDR transfers we get of these old movies (when made from a pristine print and cleaned up with NASA technology) you can see how gorgeous they are. And ridiculous. Let’s be honest, mostly ridiculous. Especially when it comes to this movie.
The grainy, degraded print from the 1970s big screen would have covered a plethora of faults in the “Special Effects” for Q.
Conceived and written in six days and then shot in two weeks, “Larry Cohen’s Masterpiece” is one of the strangest movies ever made. The star, Michael Moriarty appears to be in one movie, a John Cassavetes movie to be precise, while David Carradine & Richard Roundtree don’t seem to know who their characters are or what they’re doing in this ridiculous story.
Seriously, if you lifted Jimmy’s (Michael Moriarty) story from this movie and added a typical 1970s downbeat ending, he could have won awards for his performance.
There’s also a superfluous story line about a college professor who flays people alive to summon the giant bird. This subplot takes up fully a third of the movie just to explain why the giant bird attacked New York City, a question that wasn’t asked (no one cares) and could have been answered with a line of dialogue.
They shot Q so fast they didn’t have time to work with a special effects team to create the titular bird so the SFX were added after shooting was completed. NOT how that is supposes to work and you can see why in the final act.
The ending, and I cannot stress this enough, should only be watched late at night while high.
But it’s photographed well and is quickly paced. At times, especially when Moriarty is on screen, it’s actually compelling. Some of the dialogue is good, again when it’s coming from Moriarty, and there’s always the completist glow of finally having seen the movie so many people in the horror community talk about.
Personally, I thought it was a hoot, but it’s far from Larry Cohen’s Masterpiece. That title has to be reserved for his episode of Masters of Horror, “Pick Me Up”. Also starring Moriarty.
Posted on March 17, 2023
Bride of Frankenstein
Having heard for most of my life that Bride is one of the few sequels that’s better than the original, I decided to actually watch it for myself.
So… the thing is… okay, let’s put it this way, the appreciation of art is not only personally subjective, it’s context subjective as well.
From a contextual perspective, I watched the original Frankenstein on many Creature Features gatherings. I have warm, fuzzy memories of everyone being terrified in a dark room lit only by the flickering TV screen, my babysitter recoiled in terror.
By contrast, I had never seen Bride. I watched it with the same pitiless remorselessness as anyone who’s been watching movies for six decades.
From a personally subjective point of view, I think Bride is not nearly as strong a film as the original. On its own, it’s actually a generally weak film.
In. My. Opinion.
And here’s why: The opening pantomime with Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, and Mary Shelly is bizarre and unnecessary. And this is why context is important. Maybe at the time, sequels were new and the audience needed to be escorted into the idea of a continuing story? I don’t know, maybe, but this is not a great scene or a valuable one.
The character of Minnie is so awful, so vaudevillian and over-the-top, she’s plays as an alien from a strange and distant culture unfamiliar to us humans. And she ruins every scene she’s in… for me. She also unfortunately highlights the primitive sound equipment of the time by fuzzing out the microphone every time she has a fit.
Pretorius presents his own problems as a character, but the segment with the miniature people is just ludicrous… to me, now as I reside here in the future.
There’s not a lot of motivation for Pretorius’ hold over the doctor. He could have been a Faustian character who wooed Frankenstein back into his unhallowed arts, but he just shows up and says, “You know you want to do this. Also, I’ve kidnapped your wife.” Relieving the doctor of his onerous burden by making it mandatory is a big mistake story-wise…as far as I’m concerned, having not seen this movie until the 21st century.
The ending is both treacly sweet and unfortunate. The movies always want to make the tragedy about the monster, but I feel like the real tragedy is Frankenstein’s downfall. Having the monster urge his awful creator to flee with his bride before he destroys the castle is literally what we used to mean by derisively calling something a “Hollywood ending.”
There were some good things, though. Dwight Frye, as always, turns in the picture-stealing performance. My favorite of his is still him falling to pieces upon seeing the Mummy, but this one is very good, too. No, you know, Renfield is the best. And I can’t wait to see Nicholas Hoult take on the role in the new movie.
I thought Elsa Lanchester’s chin deserved an Oscar, but after a quick google of the subject, it appears the Academy ignored greatness once again.
I remember having long, serious conversations with my friends after a Creature Features session about why everyone in the Frankenstein movies dresses like a German but talks like an Englishman. I don’t remember what we decided, but being nine years old allows you to account for anything.
But the best thing about Bride of Frankenstein had to be its 75 minute runtime which allowed it to be shown on television without being trimmed for commercials.
Posted on March 3, 2023
Don’t Worry, Darling
Olivia Wilde’s second feature landed with some unfortunate baggage. In this age of massive content competition, that’s the last thing your baby needs before you kick it out into the world: another reason for people to skip it.
And that was just one red flag.
But let’s start with the first gorilla in the room and move on to the other hurdles this beautiful, exotic, and compelling film had to overcome when it was released.
Rather than recount every sordid detail of the breathless scandal that revolved around an actor who was or wasn’t fired and what the director may or may not have said, I will just say that I believe Olivia Wilde did everything she was accused of and just add that they are the mildest of the things filmmakers of all genders have done to get their movie made.
It didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now. The problem that kept me from watching Don’t Worry Darling on its release was the other gorilla in the room: this is the kind of story where you know exactly how it’s going to end so all that matters is the journey.
The solution to the mystery is going to be one of two things: Virtual Reality or Post Apocalyptic Island.
Personally, I was rooting for the second one. I really wanted Alice to drive out of the desert and discover the world in ashes. But, honestly, the ending they went with was also fine. Like I said, there was never going to be a surprise at the end. The mystery wasn’t ‘are they in a VR?’ so much as ‘why are they in a VR?’.
And I did like the twist that the husbands schlepp their lives away from a twisted devotion to keep their wives “happy”.
But, as I said above, the joy of this kind of movie is not the destination, it’s the journey.
And this is a gorgeous journey.
Every now and then, I forget the truth about the world and think to myself that actors are just people with a peculiar set of skills. And in most cases, that’s completely accurate. Stars, on the other hand, are a completely different subject.
There is something about certain people, a kind of existential narcissism, that forces us to watch them, to want to watch them. People like Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, and, yes, Harry Styles.
We would watch them do the dishes for hours and come away feeling entertained and fulfilled. It is in our nature. We crave the light reflected from their perfectly symmetrical faces.
So, if you’re going to take us on a journey where the outcome doesn’t matter, you can’t go wrong with people like that.
And, while you’re at it, give us mid-century modern design at its best. Give us ’56 Thunderbirds and country club scenes and cocktail dresses for lunch.
Anything to distract us — at least for a moment — from the nagging questions these stories always raise.
Why does someone die in real life if they die inside the VR?
In The Matrix, they explained that the body cannot live without the mind. But let’s be honest, that didn’t mean anything then and it doesn’t mean anything now.
What was Alice eating all that time she was strapped to the bed? And why did Nick Kroll get a dinky little sedan when everyone else got a cool muscle car?
The answer to all those questions is pretty simple: it doesn’t matter. The point of this whole exercise was for us to have a chance to watch Florence Pugh deliver an excellent performance rife with paranoia and betrayal.
If I had a quibble, it would be only that we could have used more Chris Pine. But that’s true of every movie.
Posted on February 26, 2023
The best horror story ever told, to my mind, has to be The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier. For two reasons: it doesn’t explain the horror and it doesn’t resolve the horror.
Again, according to my own guiding principles, I think of any story that resolves the situation and restores order to be a thriller. By the same definition, any story that allows chaos to endure is a horror story.
Because that’s the one thing we’re all really afraid of. Endless chaos.
In the story, the protagonist smokes his last cigarette waiting to be killed without ever knowing why the birds attacked. In the movie, the survivors slip past the resting birds and drive away. Once again, they don’t know what started it and have no idea how it will end.
I rewatched Hitchcock’s adaptation last night and was struck by how good it is. Granted, I have entered that part of my life where I view with pleasant nostalgia movies made on sets with obvious rear projection, but the dread in the set pieces of that movie are incredible.
One his best tendencies is to drag out the scenes way past where your inner critic is yelling for them to stop. For instance, the scene where Rod Taylor is trying to get the shutters closed while gulls peck at his hands goes on so long it ends just short of comedy.
A point that I think of as “Exquisite suffering.”
The major set pieces – Schoolhouse attack, birthday party, Bodega Bay attack, house attack – occupy relatively small portion of screen time, but they are literally all you can remember when the credits roll.
The only false note in the entire symphony, both in the story and the movie, is when the characters figure out there is a long pause between attacks. In the movie this comes from a radio broadcast. In the story, the protagonist figures out the attacks are related to high tide.
I feel like this lets off too much steam. Without that promise of an extended lull, the scene of the survivors getting into the car at the end would be excruciating.
But one thing we can all agree on is that we know who is behind it all. Right? Has to be the corvids.
Posted on February 23, 2023
X is a throwback to a different kind of horror movie. In the 1960s & 1970s, we got a flood of inexpensive, quick, bloody films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, Don’t Look In The Basement, etc.
They were characterized by a quick setup of paper thin characters and a series of brutal murders. The good ones, like TCM, managed to infuse an extra sense of mystery and dread while the bad ones seemed more like a porno film, a series of threadbare situations meant to show off a kill shot.
Oddly enough, X is about a porno shoot at that TCM family’s farm. There’s a long setup which, weirdly, doesn’t add any depth to the characters, followed by some gratuitous sex scenes, before we dive into the series of killings.
Honestly, it tried my patience and provided very little payoff.
Some of it was so obvious it made me feel like the filmmaker thought I was stupid. But where the writing was often all text and no subtext, the editing, shot composition, and production values were all excellent. I look forward to what Ti West comes up with when he has a more robust script to work with.
Posted on February 13, 2023
Sigh… I hate getting older. At the height of my powers, I could have watched Barbarian and Knock At The Cabin in a double feature. But this guy? This old guy? It took me three sessions to get through Barbarian alone.
Don’t get me wrong. The difficulty had nothing to do with the quality of the movie. It’s great fun, but it’s also a basket full of liquid dread and I’ve reached that point in my life where dread overwhelms desire.
Obviously, if you haven’t seen Barbarian, please stop reading now. This post will have some major spoilers in it.
The first act of the movie is just so chaotic and insane (but steeped in the reality of the AirBnB world) that you never get a chance to gain your footing logically. You’re too busy screaming at Tess not to trust Keith that you don’t really understand the actual situation.
And what brilliant casting it was to get Bill Skarsgard (PENNYWISE) to play a red herring. Or, I guess, more precisely a Janet Leigh.
I was good through all of that. I was good through Tess being locked in the basement. I was slightly less okay when she found the hidden door. And I was super jazzed when she looked into the tunnel beyond and said, “Nope.”
It’s the word we in the audience are yearning to hear in any situation like that.
But then she changed her mind and we get the first reveal of what looks like a torture room with a camera in it. And then we get the second reveal of the tunnel that goes down.
And I was out.
I should mention I usually watch horror movies around midnight when I finish writing. I’m alone in the house, it’s dark, my dog has gone to bed, and I sit dwarfed by my insanely large TV.
So maybe that has something to do with why I turned off the TV and went to bed.
“Okay, seriously, you need to push through. Things are about to change in a very weird way.” That’s my daughter exhorting me to not give up.
So, the next midnight I fire it back up Tess starts going down into the tunnel and Keith lets her out of the basement and then he goes down there and then he screams for help…
And I’m out.
“Seriously, what is your problem? Keep pushing.” This is my fault for getting her hooked on horror movies as a kid.
Midnight comes again and I fire up the stream and, man, what I thought had to be the biggest twist of the movie happened about sixty seconds in. Bye Kieth.
And then, as my daughter promised, the story takes the weirdest right turn in the history of movies. Justin Long (who this kind of stuff seems to happen to a lot) drives into the movie and into our hearts as an absolutely irredeemable douche bag just as his comeuppance arrives.
Anyway, the rest of the movie is actually quite easy to get through. Very entertaining and fun and extremely well done, but nothing near the pits dripping dread of that end-of-the-first-act tunnel exploration.
Posted on February 11, 2023
Bored last night, I was digging around in HBO Max’s nether regions when I came across the entire Bond collection. I had only ever seen part of Dr. No when I was a kid so I decided to turn it on.
How young was I when I watched it first? Well, we apparently hadn’t gotten our color TV yet because I very clearly remember watching it in B&W. Also, I could only remember a couple of things about what I saw: Bond shooting the man who had emptied his gun into the bed and Honey Ryder coming out of the water.
My first real Bond experience was Diamonds are forever. They say your Bond is the one you see when you’re 13. So my Bond was mostly a sweaty, meat faced Sean Connery.
I couldn’t stand Roger Moore’s interpretation of the role. Too campy, for me, I liked my Bond Connery style, but I didn’t really understand what that style was until my actual favorite Bond came along.
Daniel Craig rightly saw the character as a tightrope between sadism and misogyny and did everything in his power to keep from falling to either side.
Connery is trim and young in Dr. No and stretching his legs as Commander Bond for the first time. He’s extremely violent, not yet a know-it-all but getting close, and completely dismissive of the women around him.
That much I get. It was the 1960s, after all. But then, I watched with growing dismay as he murdered an unarmed man and forced a woman into having sex with him against her will… twice.
Watching what amounts to a rape-as-revenge scene seemed to shatter my rose colored Ian Fleming glasses as the whole story suddenly seemed slow and a little silly.
For instance, if you can slip into a man’s hotel room without waking him, you can easily shoot him in the back of the head, something which has a far more likely outcome than putting a tarantula under the covers.
No need to mention the whole bit where people believe there’s a fire breathing dragon on an island until a helpful colonial points out it’s just a machine.
These movies are supposed to be fun, and I remember them being VERY fun at the time. I certainly understand we shouldn’t judge the past by the present’s standards, so watching Dr. No now is better viewed as a chance to measure how we and the film franchise have evolved together over time.
Anyway, I think I’ll watch Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (by the far the best Bond film ever made) as a pallet cleanser tonight.
Posted on February 4, 2023
Lockwood & Co
I’m only one episode in on this Joe Cornish series and I can already tell this is not your standard YA fare. While its protagonists are teens, the story is more Dickens than Rowling.
Great and deep characterization, a slow reveal of the problem and the rules of the universe, and a truly great director of photography make this series a true grownup delight.
FYI, I don’t have anything against YA. I’m just tired of everything I watch revolve around high school. I did high school. I loved it, had a great time. But all my personal adventures took place AFTER high school.
Anyway, watch Lockwood & Co. You will not regret it.
EDIT: And I must add, in the post-Harry Potter deluge, much of the YA on offer, regardless of the medium, was just dreck. As with any genre, some of it is awesome and much of it is oatmeal.
Posted on February 3, 2023
The Right One
I was having a conversation about favorite horror movies today when the subject of Let The Right One In came up. It was the opinion of the majority that Eli loved Oskar, but I’ve always felt she had no real feelings for him. I thought her behavior indicated she was grooming a new familiar to replace her current one who had grown old.
I believe Oskar, and Hakan (?) before him, are more than in love with Eli. I see them as being in thrall to her. That’s the purpose of recruiting them as children, to build that unhealthy dependency on her so they will service her for the rest of their lives.
In either case, this is a beautiful movie and I love it. I even like the American remake.