Author: thefilmsaurus (Page 1 of 11)

Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018)

I didn’t like Winter’s Bone, the director’s most acclaimed film, and so spent a considerable stretch of Leave No Trace in the throes of some imagined portent that eventually dissolved, soon to give way to something like a more surly This is Martin Bonner, where the greatest drama is that a troubled veteran (Ben Foster) cannot rest his unquiet mind, even as his instincts for caring for his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) are sharp and indisputably well-intentioned. The result is an almost-dark film that’s acted upon by a considerably more optimistic (not to mention lovingly detailed) one about the comforts of even the fringest of communities, as opposed to what I’d feared, a film heading towards okay-ness that would be derailed by the long knives of Things Going Horribly Wrong.

Anyway that’s a bunch of stuff that’s my hang-up, not the film’s, so I’d like to turn this qualified praise into real praise: I enjoyed Granik’s skillful direction and the movie’s itinerant, propulsive editing, knowing (appropriately to its theme) when to dwell and when to ramble on. Normally I have an inexplicable, deep-seated aversion to Ben Foster, but he’s very good; McKenzie comes across sometimes as a miraculous amateur, and was surprised to learn she’s been acting in films for a number of years. That her performance, which oscillates between that of an unsteady alien trying to learn human, and an increasingly confident young person learning to call bullshit on her dad, led me to guess that Granik had merely plucked McKenzie out of a crowd of non-actors, is itself a miracle. All in all, a good film that’s structurally sound and doesn’t overspend its credit, and movingly empathetic towards the anxious and ill-fitting of 2018.

The Endless (Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, 2017)

This amusing horror/fantasy (/comedy?), written by and starring the co-directors, bears a striking resemblance to this year’s considerably more ponderous Annihilation. What distinguishes The Endless is its sense of humor, dryly prodding both the expectations of its genre framework and the familial combativeness unique to obstinate, nitwit brothers. (Moorhead and Benson are pretty smart about creeping dread but very smart about feeling frustrated with your family.) The film sometimes loses track of all its threads, but it’s made with care and intelligence and an edge of impatience with the kinds of pitfalls that often compromise similar ventures into stories of cult survivors, cult infatuation, mysterious big bads, and even the Primer-esque twist that clarifies at around the hour mark. Not an altogether success – digressions often resemble fragments of a long, layered novel – but if it wobbles some, it ends well and the Moorhead-Benson duo exhibit a knack for provoking unease with vivid, oddball images.

21 Women Who Made Twin Peaks

Honorable Mention: Candy Clark as Doris Truman

I’m not going to recap Twin Peaks: The Return or go down the rabbit’s hole of problematic-or-not classifying the role of violence against female characters in Lynch’s overall body of work (up to and very much including The Return). I just want to focus on 21 amazing women who made this incredible, towering work of art what it is, and who contributed materially – some to an unquantifiable degree – to the galaxy-swallowing mystery that is Twin Peaks: The Return.

Laura Kenny as “Woman in Car”

Just as the show’s eleventh episode had emerged from the other side of strange (diner drama, shots fired, dull-eyed tykes), Kenny’s one-off character, an extremely irate motorist, soon beset by a young boy with (a) digestive issues, (b) a horrible sense of humor, or (c) something weirder altogether, grabbed the episode by its shoulders and gave it a good, loud tirade worthy of the late Anne Ramsey – or Lost Highway‘s Robert Loggia. Kenny’s nameless character, whose origins are unclear and whose (probably un-serious) fate is unknown, made for one of Lynch’s strangest pit stops.

Charlotte Stewart as Betty Briggs

Stewart had a substantial acting resume – including a long stint on Little House on the Prairie – before Eraserhead made her immortal as the put-upon mother Mary. So when she reprised her role as Betty Briggs, wife of the mysteriously deceased Major Briggs, mother to now-reformed Bobby, she drew on multiple kinds of histories, giving her short scene great weight. Without saying so explicitly, Betty – rarely foregrounded in the original series – made the mysterious quest somehow about family, doing what’s right, and being a part of something eternally good. She was a kind of golden light in the earthly dimension, not unlike a counterpart to the fireman’s wife, in the beyond.

Monica Bellucci as Monica Bellucci

Lynch’s hard-of-hearing G-Man Gordon Cole practically turns to the camera in the fourteenth part of Twin Peaks: The Return to say “And now for something that looks like an arty American Express commercial, featuring your dream actress and mine.” Heaven knows what the Italian goddess was doing – hang on, we know what she was doing in Cole’s dreams – but in terms of the Peaks mythos – if only from a structural point of view – given Lynch’s past work with high-end advertising – Cole is a depraved horndog – there’s a slender chance she’s Judy – and then the – because – well – oh to hell with it. Monica Bellucci, everybody.

Sarah Jean Long as Miriam

Miriam so resembles the unfortunate, collateral victim of Mark Pellegrino’s luckless hitman in Mulholland Dr. both in shape and voice, that, for a time, you were right to fear the worst for the only eyeball witness to Richard Horne’s unconscionable hit-and-run. Her survival, not without cost, was revealed in one of the most magically plain – yet Stephen King-esque – sequences Lynch has made since The Straight Story, with some neighborhood kids playing ball near the trailer park.

Nafessa Williams as Jade

Lynch took a minor shellacking on social media by introducing Jade early on, as Dougie’s first human connection to the real world: a prostitute. But Jade is beautiful, credible, dignified, and in control. And she give two rides. Thanks Jade.

Kimmy Robertson as Lucy

There isn’t much new to say about the wonderful Kimmy Robertson, whose Lucy has always been and always will be one of the moral anchors of Twin Peaks. She was and is an object of humor but never derision, permitting the welcome intervention of slapstick into a fictional realm that’s got plenty of darkness and pain. Lynch also deployed Lucy on The Return to reinforce connectivity with the old series, and she served as a prism through which we felt many crucial moments that touched the Sheriff’s Station. With her, we mourned the passing of Margaret Lanterman (the erstwhile Log Lady) and gathered evidence against the corrupt deputy Chad. And, in a possible homage to the climactic scene in Jackie Brown, she may have actually saved the universe.

Linda Porter as The Lady Who Calls Dougie “Mr. Jackpots”

The incredible character actor Linda Porter is made up to look only a little better than “the thing behind the dumpster at Winkie’s” when she first appears, shooing away catatonic Dougie from her favorite slot machine. Hair, makeup, and costume combine to make her look like an oversized piece of lint that’s been rejected by a choosy vacuum cleaner. The creep factor dials back by about 8% when she begins winning, thanks to Dougie’s super-sense for picking winners. Then, later in the series, her reemergence as a back-on-track human lady caps off the long, miraculous arc that describes the incredible change of heart on the part of the Mitchum brothers. Her transformation turns this part of the story into something like the end of Murnau’s The Last Laugh, a demonstration of blind(ing) optimism, the belief that the right amount of cash will make everything okay, for everyone, forever. It’s fairytale bullshit but we’ll take it, with thanks.

Amanda Seyfried as Becky

I haven’t yet been able to make room in my heart for Caleb Landry Jones – he seems to get cast exclusively in roles requiring him to play a kind of leech-boy, or outsized bacteria, harmful to the touch. I don’t know, maybe he’s one day going to surprise everybody with the definitive Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams and all that. In the Peaks-verse, Jones’s no-account Steven is first spotted cluelessly trashing a job interview in a rumpled shirt and tie, looking like something that had been trapped beneath the refrigerator for the past eighteen months. He’s next seen snorting coke with his girlfriend, Becky, who – in a hoary cliche that subsequently gains traction through repetition – is about 10000x too good for this loser. Thus we arrive at what many would name their first favorite digression in The Return, Becky’s druggy, musical flight in the open-top convertible, an interlude that was as unbridled in its elation as it was troubled by its inception. Go Becky, go.

Ashley Judd as Beverly

One of the crucial charms of The Return is that Lynch often simply let actors do their thing. Without much of a foothold on the plot (such as it is), Ashley Judd only appeared in a handful of scenes. My favorite is the deceptively pointless one Beverly shares with Ben Horne, late at night, at the Great Northern. Under dim lights, on a sparse set, the first scene of Beverly and Ben amusing themselves by trying to figure out the source and nature of some mystery music in the walls resembles nothing more than, well, two actors shooting the shit on a dusty, unused stage. You can say there’s sexual tension, you can say there isn’t any at all, that’s part of what makes this pause in the series – which isn’t exactly a race, anyway – so enjoyable.

Amy Shiels as Candie

Never let it be said that Lynch doesn’t have an odd sense of humor – you can practically hear him and Mark Frost cackling as they devise this minor character of an airhead wallflower who, on the hunt for a pesky housefly, clubs her favorite guy with the remote control, giving him a grapefruit-sized welt on the side of his face. At first incapacitated with guilt, we subsequently see Candie physically on the job but mentally (spiritually?) sailing away on unknown clouds. Glacially slow to respond to simple prompts, is Candie high? Or has her guilt unlocked some higher rhythm that she alone is permitted to groove with? Whatever her deal is, The Return is a story of some souls that can never get clean, and some hearts that will never get stained, and Candie’s heart is as pure and golden as her city has ever seen.

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Chantal

In a surprise, albeit limited, Hateful Eight reunion, Leigh and Tim Roth emerge from stage left and stage right to lend Bad Cooper a hand in getting him back on his destructive path. Leigh’s Chantal is a bit of a stock character bad hombre, a callous assassin who talks up the pleasures of torture. And Leigh is nothing if not overqualified. Be that as it may, Leigh makes Chantal the more credible of this gruesome twosome, and her “Go fuck yourself!” is potent enough to end lives, and if those lives happen to be hers and her beau’s, so falls Wichita Falls.

Chrysta Bell as FBI Agent Tammy Preston

At first blush, Agent Preston seems to have accompanied the boys (Gordon and Albert) as nothing more than eye candy for the oft-remarked-on skirt-chaser Gordon. Bell is, in life, an accomplished musician who’s collaborated with Lynch in music and video. As Preston she’s the target of one of Diane’s earliest and most poisonous “fuck you”‘s. Bell doesn’t seem to be the strongest thespian in the Lynch stable, and her lithe, fairy-like poise dwells just on the far side of plausibility for a federal agent but I enjoyed her presence precisely, and paradoxically, for those qualities.

Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer

One of serial television’s greatest questions (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”) was and was not answered when her father, Leland Palmer, confessed. For Twin Peaks is a universe burdened by the Black Lodge, and with “extreme negative forces” beyond imagining. Leland killed Laura not alone but at the behest of the otherworldly BOB, and not even that solution is cut and dried. For the Palmer residence is not un-haunted 25 years on, the house still occupied by the surviving matriarch of none, Sarah Palmer. One of the unforgettable faces and voices of Lynchiana, Grace Zabriskie made her true arrival relatively late in The Return with a subplot of strangeness that suggested that she was possessed still by an insane malevolence not of this world. Attempting to drink in peace in a trucker bar, she was gifted one of the show’s top “Oh shit” moments, and given how many there are of those, it was a major-league “Oh shit”.

Jane Adams as Medical Examiner Constance Talbot

Point blank, Jane Adams is and has long been one of the most wonderful actors in the world, so even if Lynch saw fit to give her co-credit and equivalent screen time with Kyle MacLachlan, it somehow still wouldn’t be enough. But Adams’s chipper m.e. Talbot, sloshing gloved hands through fetid corpse innards, is a plum part, our ambassador both to Lynch’s affinity for gallows- and dad-humor. Of course she and Albert are kindred spirits – and Cole, once again not a long way from serving as Lynch’s onscreen surrogate – delights in finding sparks fly between two porcupines.

Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne

Another latecomer in the chronology, Audrey’s reprisal sparked some of the most heated debate among Peaksians. Her dialogue across several episodes was with one other actor (Clark Middleton), and they talked almost exclusively about characters we’ve never (to our knowledge) met and never (in our best estimate) will. Fenn’s acting here feels overly demonstrative and blocky, as if she’s trapped in some daytime soap opera. Through revelations inchoate, cryptic, and tinged with violence, it dawns on us that there’s some nightmare upholstery giving form to an arc that would have been, on its own steam, strange styrofoam. Audrey, seen in the second season finale having chained herself up in a Tati-esque bank vault, was the victim of a bomb attack, fate unknown. Tragically she seems to advanced down the field not a single yard, and an unforgettable smash cut reorients all that we’ve seen as the cloth of a great sadness.

Wendy Robie as Nadine Hurley

Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings

Don’t be fooled that this co-ranking diminishes either party. Distinct now from the original series, Peggy and Nadine are two badass and beautiful older women, and while an epic course-correction made by one clears the path for the happiness of the other, and while one might reasonably ask, “What in blazes took so long?”, may we ask you, dear reader, to look upon love not as a vector adhering to a temporal graph, but as a point, everywhere and always? We cheer for Big Ed, not forgetting that his salvation is the result of the agency of the two strongest women he knows.

Catherine Coulson as Margaret Lanterman

The Log Lady often served the original series as a trademark of Lynchian eccentricity, a woman who carried the outside inside, and spoke in riddles. Lots and lots of characters died on Twin Peaks: The Return (like, lots and lots), but Margaret was one of the only ones for whom we took off our hats and shared a moment of silent reflection. Her conversations with Deputy Hawk are, perhaps, the heart and soul of Twin Peaks, pointing to something larger even than the dimension-hopping, and the long looks into the past. The Return once showed Dale Cooper plummeting through the cosmic infinity, but Margaret – and Coulson – really saw it.

Naomi Watts as Janey-E Jones

However you cut it, the women in Lynch’s world deserve better, and Lynch knows it. In a world of doubling, Naomi Watts’s Janey-E Jones shared a reflection with Sheriff Frank Truman’s wife Doris (the legend Candy Clark), a woman who is introduced in a state of seemingly perpetual rage, only later to have the story justify and deepen her every ounce of intense feeling. Janey-E directed against much of the world a lightning strike of impatience, disgust, and incredulity. The world deserves it. What we didn’t expect was to begin, if slowly, to side completely with Janey-E’s struggle, and to want her victory (to stabilize her home, to get help from a good husband, to protect her son) more than anything else in the world. In Dale Cooper’s long, strange trip, the Jones home was but a way station, not “significant” in the Peaks mythology. But when Cooper regained clarity, he correctly snapped to a sense of duty to the Jones house that few could fully understand.

Laura Dern as Diane (?) / (Linda?)

As many writers have observed, Laura Dern means a lot in the great, grand Lynch-verse – as much as anybody. At the risk of diving into recap mode, her character on The Return represents one of the great whatzits of the entirety of Twin Peaks – never appearing on the original, only spoken of, and whose very existence we can now freely question as we comb through The Return for the tiniest clues. Without getting into all that, Dern’s Diane represented an incredible display of female strength and empowerment, sleeping with whomever she chose, smoking wherever she liked, and telling everyone – even transdimensional beings – “fuck you”. Her sex scene with (?) in the series finale, scored to The Platters, enters a realm we were not entirely prepared to face, even if we think we’ve earned our degree in Lynch Studies: something approaching Kundera. Lynch captures (Diane?) in prayer, all right, pushing in but away from a form that may be Dale Cooper and may be no one, who mustn’t/can’t/shouldn’t see her. She’s gone from that shabby motel before morning.

Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer / Carrie Page

Sheryl Lee received credit for all eighteen episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return but only acted in a few of them – a resident (or phantom?) of the Red Room, in a substantial amount of footage from the original series (a good deal of it manipulated by postproduction and special effects), and, in a stretch of Lynchian fiction that will inspire discussion for years to come, in The Return’s slowly disintegrating finale. In Peaks terms, the murder of Laura Palmer was nothing less than a tear in the fabric of the universe on par with the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb. Kicking off the original series un-witnessed, it was the collision of absolute good and absolute evil, a cataclysm so unspeakable that Lynch could not depict it or refer to it except through multiple layers of symbolism. In the final stretch of The Return, Lynch confronts us with the facts: that the rupture can never be healed – in fact, we can hardly even clean around the wound. It’s also a radical inversion of the famous final scene in The Searchers – another story of a righteous man who rescues a woman from a wilderness that signified for her only death – in which sanctity, once lost, can never truly be restored. It’s the old “you can’t go home again”, this time because it isn’t home and you are not you. In both the seventeenth and eighteenth episodes, Lynch uses repetition and an elongated sense of time (slow motion that isn’t slow motion, more like stopped time and deceptive momentum) to imprint upon our brains the overarching significance of who Laura Palmer once was, and who she is (not?) today. Cooper is reduced almost pre-verbally beyond rudimentary law enforcement interview questions, transmitting “What’s your name?” and “What year is it?” almost as afterthoughts. Laura Palmer is at long last reduced, rudderless, to the status of stowaway in the conveyance of her own saga. We can accept that she rests with angels, as we saw in Fire Walk With Me, or we can ponder mournfully the nullifying purgatory that emanates from what ought to have been the Palmer house. Laura…

Concerning Robert N. Bradbury, Who Made Westerns

This is an ongoing, slowly expanding post concerning my admiration for the director Robert N. Bradbury, who is not a major artist, and perhaps not even a minor one. I’ll add some more thoughts on the man and his work, as I continue, and I wish to continue.

Wild horses wouldn’t be enough to pull the name of Robert N. Bradbury out of near-total obscurity and into anyone’s idea of a director’s pantheon. Career-wise, his moment of glory begins and ends with the 13 westerns he made with then-rising-star John Wayne, between 1933 and 1935. When you watch one of these films – when you watch the first minute or two of any of them – you are seized by the almost total deficiency of resources. Like most western directors on poverty row, Bradbury shot outside when he could, and didn’t make a big fuss over interior decoration when he went inside. (Across three or four pictures, you will notice that they keep using the same big tree.) These are movies that people slept through. In the B-movie class, they don’t get much B-er.

Having cleared all that up, I have now watched six of the 13, and I will stake that Bradbury was skilled at what he did, with what he had. All six thus far have been enjoyable in almost exactly the same way, with few distinctions. One of the ones from 1934, ill-named The Star Packer, begins with many evocative grace notes, culminating in a “secret knock” and “man in the shadows beyond the wall” sequence that’s straight out of Fritz Lang; there’s also a shoot-out by night that’s creepy at first but ends comically. Always nice to see a smart girl handling a gun.

At this point in my (more or less accidental) journey through the Bradbury/Wayne 13, I watched The Lawless Frontier (1934), and I couldn’t recall if I’d seen it already. The first 10 minutes set me at ease. This one uses the plot of the powerful Mexican bandit, roaming and stealing and killing with impunity, which was time-honored by 1934 and would endure through Peckinpah and The Rifleman. (In a 1958 episode of the latter, the great character actor Akim Tamiroff, born in Georgia – the USSR republic, not the US state – played just such a kingpin.) Somehow the obligations of the plot’s early disclosures (Wayne’s parents are killed in the opening, an indeterminate amount of time passes, we meet the bandits, we meet their next quarry, etc) stunts the pace of The Lawless Frontier‘s momentum. At moments it acquires the stark qualities of an Andre de Toth western. Wayne’s character, immediately beset by tragedy, is denied a life in town and even a sidekick. In short, the film’s front half feels heavy but harsh and dry.

This is a screen capture taken near the end of The Lawless Frontier. I found the shot oddly moving, and it reminded me of the opening line of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

The Lawless Frontier – it’s worth noting, and should come as no surprise even if your only exposure to these movies is through the words I’m putting down here, that these titles are often totally unrelated to a given film’s plot or theme (or, alternatively, each title is vague enough that it could apply to any other film without a serious challenge) – is a little more diffuse than the other Bradbury westerns I’ve seen. It comes to pass that the malevolent bandit villain is only one of two antagonists, as the Wayne character comes to be falsely accused of murdering his friend, and must escape and… well you can probably paint the rest of the picture on your own.

I watch or (more commonly) sample many B-pictures – there are countless titles available online, chiefly on Amazon Prime and Youtube. (Netflix doesn’t really give a shit about movies made before their incorporation, and Hulu mainly serves the next-day TV crowd. FilmStruck is the Criterion surrogate, with some added dressing.) Any cinephile afflicted with the “if I start the movie, I must finish it” discipline will find B-movie spelunking arduous – and just as likely, impossible. If you have a 61-minute western or whodunnit from 1942 or 1932, you can wager with confidence that the quality on display during the first three or four minutes after the opening titles will accurately predict the quality of the rest of the movie. I turned 40 earlier this year. I think often of death. I have no compunction quitting on a movie that isn’t giving me the goods.

In fairness, I will often power through a bad B-movie if the spirit moves me. Which is why, when these movies are good, or aren’t precisely good but are shot and edited with a modicum of urgency and contain unexpected moments of beauty or strangeness, I take notice. Within me there’s a tripwire that lets me distinguish when I’m having a good time watching a film, and when I’m not. The Bradbury westerns trip the wire frequently.

The Trail Beyond – again with the titles, there’s no reliable meaning behind them – has an extraordinary first act that I think of often.

It begins with non-incident, as Wayne’s character rides up to his friend’s ranch, and his friend says something along the lines of “I want you to find my estranged niece who’s somewhere up in Canada” and you just know she’s the one Wayne’s going to marry at the end.

Following that, we see Wayne relaxing in a train compartment, dressed not in dude clothes but in city finery. A younger friend of Wayne’s happens by, they exchange kind words, and the friend is next seen trying his luck at a rigged poker game a few drawing room compartments down the way. One of the sharps is killed, it looks bad for the friend, but Wayne intervenes.

 Wayne incapacitates the other two sharps and the pair make their escape.

By jumping from the train.

Into the river.

So far, nothing to write home about. The action is enjoyably brisk: the friend adjourning to the card game, the card game going south, the cheat getting a bullet in his belly, his two accomplices holding the kid, Wayne busting in and taking out the two sharps, the escape. I timed it – I’m not fooling, from the kid sitting down to play poker to the river jump, 60 seconds flat.

But forget that. A jump in the river, no big deal. What amazed me was that, hardly two minutes later, the following sequence plays out:

  • After catching their breath on the riverbank, the two walk to the nearest town;
  • They rent a pair of horses;
  • The sheriff of the town where they rent the horses gets a telegram describing the previous scene – the murder and all;
  • Putting two and two together, the sheriff rounds up his posse and they give chase;
  • Knowing they’re once again being pursued, Wayne and his friend ride into the woods;
  • They come to a river. The posse is fast on their heels. They’re boxed in. There’s only one way out. You guessed it:

That’s about three and a half minutes for opening business, and another four minutes to justify and depict two death-defying leaps into the river. I cannot conceive of a mind unwilling or unable to enjoy such lunacy.


City Beneath the Sea (Budd Boetticher, 1953)


Not to be confused with:

  • City Beneath the Sea (Irwin Allen, 1971)
  • City in the Sea (aka War Gods of the Deep) (Jacques Tourneur, 1965)
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Irwin Allen, 1961)
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (TV series created by Irwin Allen, 1964-1968)
  • City That Never Sleeps (John H. Auer, 1953) – also starring Mala Powers!
  • The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, 1953)
  • The Unchanging Sea (D.W. Griffith, 1910)

Unlike many similarly-named adventure movies, this 1953 Budd Boetticher-directed adventure movie is largely free of any mystical overtones – at least, until the end. (Even then, it’s not explicit.) No, this is nine tenths a macho diving and treasure-hunting story in which Robert Ryan and Anthony Quinn, pals in a freelance salvage outfit, are hired by wealthy Karel Stepanek to locate a sunken ship containing a million dollars in gold bullion. Both are given to drinking, chasing women, and getting into bar brawls, but Quinn plays the one more likely to have his hand caught in the till, and that’s part of the reason the drama gets whipped into a froth.

The pro forma story could easily have been refitted as a western or a space opera, with only cosmetic alterations. The script is credited to two writers, neither of whom seemed to have been in their prime in 1953. I make the suggestion that the script was rescued from a long unopened file drawer.

The high point of this likable film is not the diving sequences, which take too long and seem to have been filmed entirely using the same lighting setup, in the studio pool, but a terrific bar fight at about the halfway mark. Drinks and fists and tiki torches fly in every direction. Lots of cutaways to different spectators, like the owner, cowering behind a chair, and the pianist, not looking particularly interested in the outcome.

As I see many films by the same director, I’m reluctant to look for consistent themes, because I don’t think the activity is conducive to promoting auteurism as I practice it. City Beneath the Sea lacks some of the moral and spatial geometry that Boetticher would come to practice in his more universally-celebrated westerns. But it has more in common with his lifelong obsession with bullfighting than an early joke on the subject. Many of Boetticher’s movies, from Behind Locked Doors to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, portray their heroes not simply getting into predicaments at the climactic moments, but living their day-to-day lives getting into scrapes and behaving dismissively at the suggestion that their lives may be at risk. Ungainly as the metaphor may be, it’s not hard to apply the image of the bullfighter, eternally dancing around the charging bull, to the heroes of many of his non-bullfighting-themed films, including this one.

The Woody Allen Project: Take the Money and Run

You’re free to write off What’s Up, Tiger Lily? as a botched stunt (not without a few yuks) and declare that Take the Money and Run is Woody Allen’s directorial debut. It’s front-loaded with the best gags; it’s not a long film but after the amazing bank robbery sequence (the one where the entire bank, staff and customers alike, takes Virgil to task over his typos), the romance plot cuts the film’s momentum by about 60 percent, and callbacks dilute the joke-per-minute density even further. Jokes like an irate Fritz Lang impersonator and a contemptuous psychiatrist don’t really land. That having been said, the first twenty minutes are full of energy and inventive camerawork. And the above image, pure genius.

The Woody Allen Project: What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

The premise is so light, you can transmit it to someone by breathing on their skin: A Japanese action picture is dubbed over by nonsensical comic dialogue written and performed by Allen and his confederates. In the spoof genre, it was a total original. Not long afterward, it was completely subsumed by the surreal irreverence of the Police Squad! series, the 1980 movie Airplane!, and others.

This would be a downright avant-garde pick for someone’s favorite Woody Allen picture, like declaring loudly that you prefer Tonight for Sure to The Godfather, Part II. The most inventive part of the film is the title sequence, a hybrid of the Pink Panther-inspired trend of animating caricatures into Duck Amuck-style contortions, and the still-relevant trend in the James Bond franchise to put pictures of naked ladies through a storm of graphic design effects.

The source movie, Key of Keys (an installment in the International Secret Police series, led by Japanese action star Tatsuya Mihashi), is suitably corny, adventure/suspense serial fodder, most of it taking place on stationary ships.It’s not unreasonable to conclude that What’s Up, Tiger Lily? wouldn’t be as much fun if Key of Keys wasn’t any good; the direction and editing clears an acceptable minimum of crisp competence, and the movie has that sweaty, sun-baked charm of a thousand 007 knock-offs.

The main conceit, of course, is the dubbing. Talking over movies is now largely out of fashion with the advent of smartphones; clowns in the audience are more likely to text or tweet or Snapchat their jokes to absent friends. (The legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 also casts a long shadow.) Concerning Allen and company’s proto-RiffTrax job on Key of Keys, picture a job of ad-libbing that would normally fall to idle teens in the balcony rows now carried out by a crack squad of Borscht Belt comedy writers. Provided you’re in the mood, there’s lots of funny stuff – for me, the ideal state was achieved during the safecracking sequence, where we see no faces, and hear only Allen’s cabal rendering an absurdist play-by-play with a perfect punchline.

T2 Trainspotting (Boyle) and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie)

I often pursue the new work by familiar directors based on a minimum degree of fondness for one of their past efforts. Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie were not, until recently, high on my list of … anything, really. My youthful self’s surprise and macabre delight at the original Trainspotting has long been squandered by the erstwhile wunderkind Boyle, in misguided enterprises too thick to tell apart. (Pleading that you don’t ask me to explain, I’m quite taken with 2014’s Steve Jobs, which I’ve seen three times.) He seems now to dwell fitfully in the prestige class, having made one Best Picture Oscar winner and another that was nominated.

Ritchie opted for an alternate sustainability route, getting hired for the 2(-3?)-film Sherlock Holmes franchise, as well as large-scale projects like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the forthcoming live-action Aladdin, and this year’s King Arthur epic, starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 10.46.44 AM

Throughout Ritchie’s promoted status, having earned admission to the multimillion-dollar club with visually inventive crime films like Snatch. and his 1998 debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (and stumbling only momentarily in the eyes of the Entertainment Weeklys of the world with the ill-fated Swept Away, starring his then-wife, Madonna), the director has applied a sometimes enervating, sometimes thrilling restlessness to a wide range of source material.

I sided with Ritchie at a late hour: I didn’t think much of his 2009 Sherlock Holmes, but I was won over by the 2011 sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (reviewed here). The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which barely earned its keep at the global box office, is even better: an indulgently lackadaisical cold war thriller that spends as much time arguing about ladies’ belts as shooting it out with the bad guys. Ritchie’s impatience with linear narratives continues unabated, pausing films midstream to rewind and re-examine scenes to change emphases and reveal new information.

Ritchie’s handiwork on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword makes for an interesting auteurist case study. Please note that I am employing “auteurist” not to suggest “because I like the director, the film is automatically good.” Rather, I’m considering how a specific personality made an imprint on a movie that would not have been made, had another director been hired in their place.

Sometimes this guessing game is easy: when William Wyler took over the 1936 film Come and Get It from Howard Hawks, the result was a movie that was 90% vintage Hawks and 10% unmistakably someone else. Or take the scenes Orson Welles didn’t shoot for The Magnificent Ambersons: they stick out like crabgrass. On other films, like 1945’s A Royal Scandal, which Ernst Lubitsch began and Otto Preminger completed, it’s not so easy.

This isn’t to say King Arthur is the patchwork result of a studio hiring a 2nd (or 3rd, or…) director to complete reshoots, as was the case with last year’s viscerally unpleasant Star Wars entry, Rogue One. But the project, which boasts a half dozen writers and twice as many producers (including the current US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin), very strongly suggests an enterprise in which many of the design and aesthetic decisions were made in advance of hiring anyone to conduct the presumably more pedestrian duties of directing.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 11.59.40 AM

A good 40% of King Arthur is Peter Jackson-inspired garbage: perfectly uninteresting visual effects reels with a handful of handsome compositions scattered throughout. This is the producer’s bailiwick – blasting the audience with smoke and lasers in the hopes that they won’t notice that nothing’s there.

The other 60-odd % is clearly given over to Ritchie to do with as he pleases: the soon-to-be King is a street punk, and the script is peppered with language that isn’t quite modern but isn’t exactly Chaucer. Ritchie presumably had a free hand in script and dialogue here, and it suits him to economize and transform large parts of Arthur’s tale into Lock, Stock, and Several Smoking Arrows.

This is a fun film that occasionally drowns in absurdly presumptuous gravity; Ritchie might be wholly defeated by one sequence, then put all his energy into the next. Sometimes there’s no division, and your heart goes all over the place. After a crushingly dull CGI finale, Arthur whispers to his foe, “You make sense of the devil” – a pretty good line. And throughout, there are suggestions of a tale told in postures and gestures, like Jude Law’s complacent slump, a foreign envoy’s shrug, and various street toughs’ “come here and push this chip off my shoulder” poses.

T2 Trainspotting isn’t exactly fun, although it sometimes signals that it’s trying, especially when it makes explicit visual callbacks to the 1996 original. Reuniting almost all of the primary, secondary, even tertiary collaborators from Trainspotting (although author Irvine Welsh’s blessing seems ambiguous and largely hands-off, from skimming the reports), T2 is nothing if not fully aware of how bleak its predecessor was, and how multiply sad it is that the four main characters end up in the roughly the same predicaments, two decades on. Surprisingly, T2 emerges as a model for continuing a long-thought-dormant story and ethos: moreso than its scrappy crime and drugs scenarios, it’s driven by thinking about itself as well as its source. It doesn’t just attempt to relive old glories, but it reflects wistfully on the folly of such attempts. If this is how you’re going to wallow in your own mythology, I have to concede, well done.

Russell Mack, on the Attack: Scandal for Sale, Lonely Wives, Night Work

Here, watch the remarkable first 30 seconds of Scandal for Sale:

The rest of the film is (for the moment) on YouTube. It’s a pip.

Russell Mack

Night Work (1930)

You figure mountain climbers pretty much know all the mountains. You meet a mountain climber, you figure they can just rattle off the major peaks on Planet Earth. You probably can’t surprise them with peaks they didn’t know about. “Mount Whitney? No, never heard of that one.” That’s not a mountain climber, friend.

Not so with movies. I’ve been in this game since the early 1990s, well over half my life. I’ve watched hundreds of movies from the 1940s and 1930s – with a recent rate increase, thanks to my ever-growing distaste for current cinema. Still, I didn’t know that Eddie Quillan was somebody. Turns out he was. Turns out he had over 200 film and TV acting credits, beginning in the silent era and ending with shows like Matlock and The A-Team. Turns out I would have seen him in up to a dozen pictures, including John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln.

Furthermore, for a time, Quillan was a comic star in his own right, expected to carry vehicles in the same manner as W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy. Well, maybe he was more in line with Dick Powell – a bright kid with a bright face, an actor who seemed to draw power from the Hollywood sound stage, just like the big lights.

Night Work is a pre-Code comedy mish-mash with very little to distinguish it, except its patchwork quality. It begins as a department store comedy – there were plenty of those, going back at least as far as Chaplin’s The Floorwalker. Quillan plays a low-level window dresser who serves double duty as the “fired man”; whenever a customer complains, Quillan pretends that he’s from the department that has erred, and after a little dumbshow, he’s “fired”. Nobody isn’t in on the fake-out except the customer, and he resumes his duties dressing the dummies.

Next there’s some hijinks at the orphanage, and we get something like two dozen face-pulling professional toddlers eager to pitch their talents as the next Shirley Temple, only we didn’t have Shirley Temple in 1930.

Then the orphanage stuff leads into some half-hearted adoption melodrama, which isn’t really very melodramatic.

Night Work is shaped like a string, and from that string are hung comedy and musical bits. It’s practically an anthology of audience comfort mechanisms. There’s the one where Quillan, looking to avoid getting canned for fraternizing, pretends that the girl from the such-and-such counter is a real dummy, and begins undressing the wide-eyed lady so his boss is none the wiser. The kind of thing that would show up in a Carry On movie or Are You Being Served? Waiting tables at a night club, Quillan tries to catch a few Z’s while the band plays a hot tune. He tries to silence a particularly spicy trumpet by hanging a hat over the bell, to no avail.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 1.31.08 PM

Lonely Wives (1931)

Russell Mack’s movie career is dense but brief – after spending the largest part of the 1920s in theater, he joined pictures around the advent of talkies, took 2-3 directing assignments a year until 1934, then (seemingly) abruptly packed it in. He lived until the early 1970s (departing finally at the age of 79), so you can rule out a plane crash, manslaughter, drug overdose, and alcoholism, the usual culprits for a studio residency abbreviated just when it’s getting going.

Lonely Wives is a different type of comedy than Night Work. It’s one that’s hard to do well – the kind of Noises Off!-style farce where, when people run out of things to do, they scream or cry, or someone walks in with a pistol, that kind of thing. Edward Everett Horton, who acquired immortality as a supporting player for Lubitsch, Sternberg, and Fred Astaire, is the star – in a trick dual role, no less. Here he’s an uptight, married attorney who turns into a Casanova at eight in the evening. He also plays a gifted stage actor who claims he can mimic anyone, so that, once he dons a Lenin-esque mustache and goatee, he resembles the first Edward Everett Horton, who, of course, doesn’t usually have a beard in movies. Lonely Wives runs 70 minutes, and like many 70-minute movies, it seems to be made up of 10 bits of business that each take 40 minutes to explain and execute.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 1.31.52 PM

Scandal for Sale (1932)

This fast-talking newspaper melodrama led me to the above to pictures, not the other way around; without Scandal for Sale, I probably wouldn’t have landed on Lonely Wives or Night Work. Mack seems to be a very minor director who can carry good material over the finish line without tripping. From the available evidence, Mack lives to serve, and recognizes the strengths of his collaborators.

Chief among the virtues of Scandal for Sale is its leading man, Charles Bickford. A genuine lifelong badass with biographical details including an attempted murder charge at the age of nine, when he shot a motorist who ran over his dog, and an unpleasant run-in with a lion in 1935 that left him heavily scarred, Bickford can be credited with the original “gravelly voice” of talking pictures. He was also gifted with a high degree of gravity and confidence – like having a jackhammer on the screen. He was made of stone and he rolled.

Bickford wasn’t long for leading man roles, but a salty/peppery 75-minute drama about getting the scoop at all costs turns out to be just the thing; he’s plugged in, and the picture moves. There was a time when movies didn’t overstay their welcome.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.22.03 PM Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.22.17 PM Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.22.28 PM

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 1.35.00 PM

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.22.38 PM Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.22.52 PM

The Truth About LOGAN (It’s a Bad Film)

Logan Movie Trailer Poster

WARNING: Great heaps o’ spoilers.

These days I make it my business to avoid almost every movie that makes shit-tons of money at the domestic box office, but every now and then, I find myself lassoed into checking out some big-tent Main Attraction motion picture. This year, it was Logan, the nth installment in the X-Men franchise, and Hugh Jackman’s nth appearance as the claw-wielding Wolverine. What was the magical or chemical formula that induced me to peek beyond the curtain of my non-participation in what’s come to feel like state art? I wear no badge of loyalty for the franchise, nor for the director James Mangold, inexplicably (to me) lauded at Chez Bordwell-Thompson. News that Logan paid considerable homage to the venerated 1953 George Stevens western Shane, didn’t sell me, either – but my combative relationship with Stevens movies is another topic for another day.

Nevertheless, thanks to whomever among my friends or colleagues compelled me to do so, I jotted Logan down on my scratch pad as an iTunes rental. (Sad, desiccated shell of my former cinephile self, I rarely go to movie theaters anymore.) Here’s a quick summary – spoilers abound: in the medium-distant future, Wolverine is an Uber driver, transporting dumb Americans hither and yon along the US-Mexico border. When he’s off-duty, he cares for the dementia-afflicted Dr. Charles Xavier. Playing nursemaid is the sun-fearing Caliban. That third character, last seen as a sharply-dressed huckster in X-Men: Apocalypse, is played by British comedian and writer Stephen Merchant. (Yes, I’m fully up to date on my X-Men film franchise. I do not avoid big-budget movies, Mandrake. But I do deny them my essence.) All three principals are past their sell-by date. Yes, it’s going to be an Outta Retirement For One Last Job story.


Enter various parties who recognize Logan from Before, including menacing Pierce and desperate Gabriela, the latter with pensive Laura, pint-sized, in tow. The mercenary wants the munchkin, who’s apparently late of a top-secret genetics lab. The mother, who isn’t the mother at all, is killed, and the moppet becomes Logan’s problem. Yes, it’s also going to be a Road Movie/Life Lessons story.

But wait! Forget all that story shit! Logan is rock hard! It’s got huge balls! Like 2/3rds of a snowman! In the opening scene, Logan, sleeping off a bender in the back of his stretch limo Cadillac (he drinks hard!), is awakened by no less than a battallion of carjackers (he apparently parks hard?). Mangold wastes no time showing pocket aces as Wolverine, between jokes, severs limbs and punctures skulls. Blood spills, bullets fly! Because Logan has an R-rating! It’s hard! It’s not some shit-kicking PG-13. Grrrrr!

Half the show here is just that: Logan luxuriating timidly in its R-rating. Blood doesn’t so much spill as spritzes, in chaste CGI, edited quickly so as not to provoke the viewer’s object permanence. Logan presents as raw and hardcore but its treatment of violence is no more advanced than an installment of Castle Wolfenstein: bad guys suck at fighting, fall like dominos, and their corpses are irrelevant to the forward progress of the game. Perhaps the legacy of grindhouse/spatter is too cruel a yardstick to lay across Mangold’s hands, but it’s not out of bounds to object to the film relentlessly trying to show us that it can wear Big Boy pants.

Okay but back to the summary, this too-long-by-half chore of a movie ends with Logan’s death at the hands of a lab-bred doppelgänger – you know, like when a computer-1984’d Arnold Schwarzenegger appears in Terminator: Salvation, or when Tony Stark puts on a terrifying holographic diorama of Tuff Turf-era Robert Downey, Jr. for MIT students in Captain America: Civil War. While the oft-alluded-to “what happened in Westchester” is ultimately laid at Professor Xavier’s doorstep (he killed all the X-Men in a seizure/mindquake, spoiler alert), the movie bears the marks of some structural hedging, as if, at little cost, the backstory could have accommodated Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s 2008 comic, Old Man Logan – yeah, I looked it up – which blames the Wolverine for the mass mutant-ocide, due to mental trickery courtesy of the supervillain Mysterio. With that tweak in the movie’s script, Logan’s test-tube double could have served the film with some thematic weight, a living manifestation of the Wolverine’s conscience, come to call: “he” “kills” “himself”. Snikt.

Anyway, tempting as it may be to entertain wouldas, a provisional other-movie isn’t an entirely relevant digression. Logan‘s reason for being consists of a handful of basic elements: (1) to adjourn Hugh Jackman’s (and, secondarily, Patrick Stewart’s) 17-year run, (2) to perpetuate the franchise, (3) to administer franchise fans with a “no kidding around” big finish, with blood and F-bombs and whatnot. (And exactly one pair of boobies.)

To upholster these reasons with some movie meat, Logan beckons from co-writers Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green a script of decidedly ordinary proportions. I’ve already made fun of what Mangold the director does given the purported hedonistic bliss of a gloves-off R-rating. (Which, by all accounts, also means no hints of sex, no truly horrifying carnage, and absolutely no humor.) What defies comprehension is the sheer, brain-smoothing ordinariness of every scene. And I’m not talking about the ordinariness of life, observed unadorned yet artfully, in the manner of Ozu or Pialat. I’m talking about the agonizing, head-on-desk banality of ninety-nine out of a hundred movies and TV shows, only what makes Logan doubly infuriating is its airs of realness and no-prisoners-ness, its overtures to noir and western genre films that would sooner laugh Mangold and his cadre out of their dive bar than give this movie the time and temperature.

This is yet another big-box retail movie product that speaks the point of every scene in kindergarten scrawl. I don’t know this Michael Green character but I have to assume Scott Frank (The Lookout, Out of Sight) was signed on to give Boyd Holbrook lines like “Wull wull wull, what have we here” and “As I live and breathe.” You know, real Jim Thompson sour mash, to shake off the fainters and bed-wetters. Three brains agree to pepper the dialogue with lots of “fucks” and “shits” and “assholes” but, naturally, never anything really creative.


Which is in itself no grievous offense, except the hypothetical “what if you took a superhero movie and let them say ‘fuck’ once or twice every ten minutes” doesn’t really scorch my bark. Does X-Men: Days of Future Past improve if Nixon said “fuck” and called Magneto a cocksucker? What if the sentinels had futuristic android schlongs? What if worms had machine guns? Who cares?

I’m dwelling on Logan‘s pseudo-boundary-pushing pretentiousness because it irks me so, but if I’m being honest, I’d give all of that a free pass if the movie’s scene-by-scene, moment-by-moment, act-by-act strategy wasn’t straight out of the manual. You get business like the head mercenary discovering the coordinates – the fucking coordinates! – to the good guy hideout just in time to stand between our protagonists and the finish line. There’s no labor involved in what the bad guys do, they just hop in their convoy and show up exactly where the script requires them to be, smug as you please. When Logan or his double sustain critical injuries, the film introduces a glowy green healing serum. (Maybe this bogus miracle elixir has some background in the books, but I don’t see why that should make it less bullshit.) Down to his last spiritual nickel, Logan juices himself with the whole vial and makes one last charge.

This is all flat-footed storytelling expediency with no interest, suspense, or insight – IKEA screenwriting. It’s away from the action spectacle that this mindlessness really stings, like the seemingly innumerable temper tantrums Logan throws concerning the X-Men comic books Laura’s reading; he’s always barking “This isn’t like the comics, this is real!” or some variation. At one point, Professor Xavier say to Logan, “This is what real life is like” and what he means is, look at this family, they’re living off the land and whatnot. Only it’s an awful television family projected onto some indeterminate piece of America by a couple of writers drinking craft beer by a poolside in L.A. This is, in point of fact, the ceiling that keeps Logan from rising above its own mediocrity: characters are constantly telling each other “This is real” and pointing to something counterfeit.

I’m almost done but what the hell happened to futurism? This misfortune is too vast to pin on Logan alone but the film is symptomatic, just the same. It’s decked out in Prudent Futurism, an orchestration of tech as we understand it today, or what we’re pretty, pretty, pretty sure we’ll have in 10-15 years. Factory farming is rampant (check), highway trucking is piloted by computers who blast safety beeps (check and there’s actually the hint of plot relevance related to a near-catastrophe caused by a self-driving truck but the screenwriters can’t decide if they’re going to litigate so that tiny thread is terminated with “I dunno”), and there are mechanical limbs for the likes of Pierce, which are cool and highly responsive yet still kinda Skid Row Steampunk Chic. There was a time when movie designers would indulge highly fantastic concepts for futurism, and adhering to what’s being discussed on CNBC and the investing class was never a top priority. I tend to think Minority Report was the last time I truly felt immersed in smart, fantasy-driven futuristic design.

I wrote this post not to drag or shame or otherwise excoriate fans of the film. The way I see it, if you like a book or a film or what have you, go with god. I like the Guy Ritchie The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I like the Alex Proyas Gods of Egypt. I like Paul W.S. Anderson and Jerry Lewis and 57-minute John Wayne westerns from before Stagecoach and late Woody Allen and Edge of Tomorrow. So yeah, I like some stuff that’s not always in everyone else’s top drawer, and that’s okay.

No, I wrote this because, for whatever reason, I felt I should watch this film, and after I did, I couldn’t remember the reason – I could only dwell in the aggravation it caused me, which was considerable. I wrote this to exorcise my irritation. Maybe it did that for you, too.

by Jaime N. Christley

Hey look, I’d be derelict in my self-care duties if I didn’t mention my Patreon. I’m a writer, and I need to get paid for what I do, so I can keep doing it. Did you value this unabashedly clickbaity-yet-artisinal Logan takedown? If so, consider becoming a patron or benefactor of some kind. Thanks!

Page 1 of 11

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén