Where the Sidewalk Ends, Otto Preminger (1950)

A war hero turned girlfriend-smacking drunken lout. A girl who loves him and hates him, stands by him and takes up with another guy, all in 24 hours. A hothead abusive detective with a heart of gold. A by-the-book Inspector who nevertheless knows full well that the only way to get anything done is to do it the dirty way. A hardened crook who’s also easily the most intelligent and reasonable person in the whole movie. Everyone and everything in this tightly-wound, beautifully-shot noir really is equal parts good and evil, and the fine (if sometimes a shade overwrought) acting by Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews kept me engaged and sympathetic from start to finish.

Bummer about the ending, where everyone suddenly gets all one-dimensionally virtuous. It would have been amazing to see Andrews walk off knowing he was going to have to be tormented by his dirty little secret for the rest of his life. If you listen very carefully, you can hear some studio executive muttering about the movie needing to have a moral message. Ugh.

Nice moments in Ben Hecht’s fat-free script, which manages to be both debonair and hardboiled:

Gene Tierney, the girl: Shouldn’t we call the police?
Dana Andrews, the cop: I suggest we leave the police out of this.

One of Tierney’s girlfriends, offering advice in a Joisey accent thick as Sunday gravy: “So he won the war and freed the slaves. Does that entitle him to spend the rest of his life drinking barrels of whiskey and punching girls in the nose?”

Tierney: But if he’s innocent . . .
Andrews: That doesn’t always help.

And, most quotable of all: “How was I supposed to know he had a silver plate in his head?”

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Le Samouraï, Jean-Pierre Melville (1967)

Here’s a police procedural so incredibly, glacially, excruciatingly deliberate it starts to feel like a parody. Just one example: the sequence where the cops sneak into the suspect’s apartment to plant a bug takes, literally, twelve minutes. That’s almost a tenth of the running time. An Anthony Mann procedural would have gotten this done in three minutes, and a Michael Mann procedural in thirty seconds. OK, admittedly, it’s annoying when someone’s trying to pick a lock, crack a safe, hotwire a car, etc. in a thriller: the first attempt never works (suspense!), the second attempt never works (suspense!!), and then the third one, like clockwork, always works (relief!!!). No such contrivance here: Before he finds the skeleton key that opens the door, the cop tries maybe eight or ten. (Not sure exactly how many because I took the opportunity to go make a turkey sandwich while he was working it out.)

Purist francophiles like the ones at Criterion who saw to this release will tell you this movie epitomizes cool, but when you’re so cool you’re barely animate, another word for it is dull. Jim Jarmusch’s samurai movie had a similar problem, but at least had a sense of humor about it, as did Melville’s masterpiece, Bob le Flambeur.

I do have to admit I enjoyed the long sequence of cat and mouse surveillence on the Metro. Nostalgia for good old labrynthine Chatelet, and also a weird and unexpected associative connection with one of my favorite procedural scenes of all time, the mission planning sequence early in Walsh’s Objective, Burma! Didn’t see that one coming at all.

Deadly Is the Female (a.k.a. Gun Crazy), Joseph H. Lewis (1949)

Meat and potatoes low-budget noir, with just barely enough going on visually and pyschologically to keep you from turning it off and just re-watching one or another, or even another, more perfect example of the lovers-on-the-run genre. The movie starts well, introducing the two main characters as kids who’ve been pathologically obsessed with guns all their lives, but once the duo hooks up and takes to the road, mostly because she ostensibly craves thrills, the metaphorical and thematic possibilities of the gun crazy angle are pretty much dropped, leaving us with a straight-ahead on-the-lam movie: cheesy disguises, replacement cars stolen from traveling salesmen, tense close calls at police checkpoints, and finally the classic splash through the swamp to throw off the bloodhounds. I guess there’s some kind of message in here about good gun obsession vs. bad gun obsession, though: he wants to work for Remington, she wants to be a bank robber, and we’re meant to understand that his obsession is OK and hers is not. Well, duh.

There are some fun parts. One hugely ho-hum heist sequence is redeemed–nay, transformed!–by the fact that it’s shot in an Armour slaughterhouse; terrific chase sequence with our gun crazy kids bobbing and weaving between the giant swinging carcasses. And I also like it when the lovers, down on their luck, decide against paying the extra five cents for onions on their hamburgers at a diner, and then eat the burgers with scary voracity. (By the way, what ever became of the mid-century tradition of a cup of coffee with your hamburger?)

One more thing: a movie like this depends utterly on the chemistry between the leads, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a less sexual couple on screen. John Dall and Peggy Cummins seem more like brother and sister than anything. Dall and Farley Granger made a much more convincing couple. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2001/2004)

Long book requiring only a short comment. The blurbs invoke Borges, Dickens, Eco, Garcia Marquez, and Hugo, among others. This is misleading, to put it mildly. What we do have here is a long and convoluted plot with a cast of dozens, in which three separate narratives–the story of a writer, the story of his novel, and the story of one particularly inquisitive reader–are (very) gradually revealed to be three variations on a single narrative.

Borges because there’s a giant library of forgotten books and because the line between the imaginary and the real gets blurry. Dickens because the main character’s a motherless kid coming of age who’s helped by one-dimensionally generous characters and hindered by one-dimensionally evil characters and because it’s really, really long. Eco because it’s a mystery with literary pretensions and because it’s really, really long. Garcia-Marquez because there are some slightly magical realist elements and some extremely complicated family trees. Hugo because there’s a horribly disfigured self-loathing tortured artist. So fair play to you, blurbers, fair play, but you neglect to add that the book’s also overwritten, occasionally purplish, and frequently downright sloppy in its repetitions and lapses in both narrative and psychological consistency.

All in all, a good airplane book, especially if you’re flying somewhere pretty far away, like Mars.

Lilya 4-ever, Lukas Moodysson (2002)

When we first see Lilya, a sparky-looking Russian sixteen-year-old “born the same day as Britney Spears, only four years apart,” she’s preparing to throw herself off a highway overpass. Lilya! What could have brought you to this?! Jesus, where to begin. You’ve grown up in a depressing post-Soviet housing block. Your chief entertainment with your so-called friends–some of whom will later rape you–is huffing glue and listening to terrible techno music. Your best friend is a a little homeless kid who lives in an abandoned military facility. Your mother contrives to move to the USA with her pig of a boyfriend, promises that you’re to go too but at the last moment literally leaves you behind in the dirt, and then later writes a letter to social services formally renouncing her guardianship of you.

To top it off, some Moodysson-ofabitch Swedish director shows up to document all your troubles with a horrifically depressing script for you to slog through and a super-verite handheld camera that bounces around so much you need two Dramamine just to get through a scene.

Thus the first seven minutes of our evening’s entertainment. It gets way, way worse.

When the promised letters and money from mother never arrive, Lilya goes to see her elderly aunt, who kindly advises, “Do what your mother did: Go into town and spread your legs.” This Lilya does, as a last resort. At the club, between tricks, she meets a seemingly nice guy who takes her on innocent dates (bumper cars! McDonalds!). He seems like a Prince Charming, but in fact he’s setting her up to sell her into slavery in a Swedish housing block that looks a hell of a lot like the one in Russia she’s “escaped” from.

This was one of the most difficult movies to watch I have ever encountered. The DVD case said it was 1:49 long; at 1:00 I was already feeling sick to my stomach and at 1:25, after what might be the most disturbing sequence I’ve ever seen in a movie–a series of johns in extremis shot from Lilya’s POV–I had to turn off the set and take a walk around the block.

This movie isn’t a a documentary, but everything it shows is happening right now, all over the world. The only implausible part is that Lilya and her friend get to play basketball in heaven when their suffering ends.

P.S. When you search for “human trafficking” on Google, this ad pops up in the sidebar:

Human Trafficking
Whatever you’re looking for
you can get it on eBay.
http://www.eBay.com

Creepy.

Nacho Libre, Jared Hess (2006)

Not at all racist! Or at least only a little. Which was a relief, because I really wanted to enjoy this, and I did. Jack Black’s role is a lot like his role in The School of Rock. Slacker misfit is obsessed with becoming famous at his outsiderish pursuit but unfortunately isn’t very good at it. Once he realizes he shouldn’t pursue his goals for his own, shallow, narcissistic reasons, but rather in order to make children happy, he suddenly is able to rock/kick ass. One important difference: slightly creepy evangelical subtext in Nacho Libre. (Prayers are answered; sidekick converts.) Another: ironically, the songs in Nacho Libre are way better than the ones in School of Rock. Hess’s grand directorial strategy has two prongs: he chooses a perfectly distressed film stock that beautifully conveys a kind of kitschy 70’s vision of a Mexico both sunbleached and lush, and he keeps the camera pointed at Jack Black, who I think may be the best comedian outside of Sarah Silverman working today.

Actually, for all I know Jack Black has been inside Sarah Silverman.