Month: June 2016

Lost Masterpieces of Pornography (David Mamet, 2010)

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Venerated (and, almost as often, ridiculed) playwright-filmmaker-novelist-loudmouth David Mamet seemed to disappear from moviemaking after the quiet failure of his 2008 mixed martial arts drama Redbelt ($7 million budget, $2.6 million global box office), although his 2013 movie for HBO, Phil Spector, garnered strong reviews and a slew of Emmy nominations. Ever the weirdass public figure, you might pin the apparent dissolution of Mamet’s filmmaking career to his ever-embiggening profile as a crypto-fascist barstool shouter, obsessed with masculinity and just generally mashing his face against the uncooperative grain of a handful of industries (let’s call them The Arts) that tend to lean left. You might do that. On the other hand, over the last 10 or 20 years we’ve witnessed a creepily Agatha Christie-like attrition of movie directors of his make and model, very often but not always born during the Truman or Eisenhower administrations, who just can’t get pictures made anymore. Jason Bailey wrote an article about this phenomenon in 2014, citing effectively MIA names as John Waters, David Lynch, and others, arguing that, since the celebrated boom of indie movies in the 1990s, we’ve reached a pretty pass where, if a movie isn’t budgeted at one million or a hundred million dollars (and not between), chances of getting a green light are rapidly approaching zero point zero.

The appearance of having dropped off the face of the earth isn’t necessarily the reality. In a surreal turn of events that’s mostly gone unremarked upon, Mamet contributed a handful of shorts to the comedy website, “Funny or Die”. More in the spirit of the site than might have been intended, these short films lack a certain sense of having been thoroughly workshopped, burning the fuel of something that’s almost a concept, and not really an idea. Danny DeVito gets into makeup as Gandhi while giving an “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-style interview; a theater employee inadvertently makes a puerile pun on the marquee; a movie shoot goes awry when the wind machine creates too much effect; media mogul Arianna Huffington peddles a dual biography of Pablo Picasso and a guy who paints cars at competitive rates.

None of these are particularly funny, although the last one, titled simply Two Painters, wrested from me a modicum of admiration for sticking to its concept longer than necessary. The others have a “cut and run” quality in which they almost seem to apologize for their single, undernourished jokes.

My favorite of the lot is Lost Masterpieces of Pornography, a double-homage that satirizes sober-minded Public Broadcasting fodder, with a straight-faced Ricky Jay introducing a fragment of a vintage 1930s porno movie, itself premised on a break in Supreme Court proceedings devolving into a gang bang. All of the marks of vintage-ness are achieved, from the poor sound recording to the almost non-existent pretexts for getting undressed, but the short derives great charm by risking utter tedium – an unavoidable byproduct of the non-sex parts of a porno. There isn’t any sex in Lost Masterpieces, but there’s plenty of legal banter between justices (played by Ed O’Neill, Bob Jennings, and Jack Wallace) and the sole female, law clerk June Crenshaw (Kristen Bell). The movie grinds to a halt when June can’t or won’t unfasten her bra, and there’s a piece of clandestinely shot footage of her berating one of the men (O’Neill) for having a small penis. A cut returns us to present-day Jay, wearing an apologetic “look, they can’t all be winners” frown, and it’s curtains.

Imperfect as the comedy short can often be, especially at that point in the timeline of internet video, which had not yet reached the machine-tooled efficiency of today’s output, spurred on by Vine and Instagram Video, not to mention billions of dollars flowing through YouTube’s coffers, Lost Masterpieces disappoints as it bows out without a satisfactory punchline. But I found it compelling and dryly funny until that point, as the mystery of how it would proceed, and how long, without a sex act, and what excuses would be made to reinforce the delay. By the time the Dred Scott case seemed to be carrying on for what seemed to be an eternity, I was convinced that this was one of Mamet’s strongest recent films.

Adjudicate the film’s quality for yourself, here.

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Three (Johnnie To, 2016)

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The English given title of Johnnie To’s latest action thriller (his first in that vein since Drug War in 2012) is Three, which calls to mind Triangle, an omnibus crime story he made with Hong Kong fellows Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, with each director picking up the story thread of three errant crooks where the other left off. Another title that could have been used is Bullet in the Head, already in use by John Woo’s seminal 1990 film about friendship and PTSD, while that title also indicates some crucial business that links Three with To’s 2009 film, Vengeance: in backstory, one of the principal characters suffers a non-fatal gunshot wound to the head. The bullet in each film performs a story service similar to the classic MacGuffin: unseen but ever-present, it’s a concealed Sword of Damocles that bends the story according to the risk it poses.

It’s no relief at all that the afflicted in Three is a bad guy, not a good guy, for a variety of reasons. A criminal mastermind with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of a broad array of subjects (Wallace Chung), he refuses surgery in order to buy more time for his associates to wreak more havoc, rescue him, and exact revenge on the cops. Smugly malicious, he trains his long game on the police and otherwise amuses himself: he teaches the patient in the next bed, an eccentric klepto (Lo Hoi-pang, another To regular) to remove a restraining bib so he can take himself to the restroom with dignity, rather than use his bedpan.

Three, finally, points to three professional codes, each competing for total domination: criminal, law enforcement, and medical. More precisely on the third, medical ethics as it pertains to “do no harm” in all its permutations, even as it may lead one down a blind alley.

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All of which sounds reasonably compelling for your garden-variety Hong Kong suspense thriller. Clocking in at around 87 minutes, including end titles, Three wastes no time setting its triumvirate of irreconcilable vectors on a collision course; in fact, it relies heavily on elliptical cut-outs, excising various bits of business and leaving the viewer to fill in undepicted events, completing the story on their own. There’s no doubling back: Three moves only forward, like a stone across a pond.

As much as duplicity, short cons and long cons guide much of the behavior in Three, the film itself uses its light, “meat and potatoes” approach – it’s the kind of movie where the villain whistles the famously jaunty opening bars of Mozart’s “Eine kleine nachtmusik” as a harbinger of indeterminate menace – as an alibi for transmitting a worldview that is far more comically dark, more bitter than sweet. The bullet-saddled criminal savant, possibly the smartest person in the game, plays his hand brilliantly, while the surgeon (Zhao Wei), torn between her duty to medicine and the responsibility she may have to helping the police, while driven by perfectionism, is compromised by fatigue and overwork. Even worse, the lead detective (Louis Koo), while paying lip service to duty and the law, habitually yields to the temptations of his post, planting evidence, abusing suspects, and plotting to kill the bedridden crook to prevent larger catastrophes. The cop and the doctor both see themselves as paragons in their respective fields, but, despite their noble intentions, often make decisions that show them up as corrupt or incompetent. If Three has a twist, it’s that we in the audience must contort our own perspectives to trust in these two damaged representatives of goodness and order to defeat the forces of evil, as represented by the amorality of the criminal underworld.

When critical mass is achieved in the elaborate, climactic shootout, which often employs bullet-time technology to examine up close and in near stillness a world coming apart at the seams, To pays homage Woo’s Hard-Boiled, as well as Eisenstein’s Potemkin (by way of De Palma), and, arguably, Dr. Strangelove. Not surprisingly, To emerges from his experience making the 3-D musical epic, Office, somewhat transformed. Three spends not a minute outside the hospital set, which is home to balletic movement no less elaborate in its depiction of mundane background business than the more eye-catching shootouts and chronological needle-skipping of the climax. While the film doesn’t reveal, and revel in, its artificial sets the way Office employed many hand-tipping pullbacks and offstage glances, the extraordinary sets in Three are nevertheless imbued with the ethereal falseness, much of which is simply the character of antiseptic, modern architecture.

After serving a bellyful of mayhem, explosions, and flying bullets, To follows the clean lines of fate to their brutal, unavoidable conclusions. An outrageous high-altitude rescue seems to indicate a generic victory, but the final moments hamstring any joy we might have gotten from it. Deaf to the blunt-force messages the universe had been sending him, the detective (who’d just been one firearm malfunction away from killing an unarmed suspect) comes clean about his ethical transgressions, exactly one moment too soon, his career effectively annihilated – indirectly, perhaps even by happenstance – by the same doctor whose erratic track record had been established at the outset. Three‘s vision of a universe managed by clean lines, punishing those who stray from their path, suggest a dark worldview more in line with the final shot of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 than the Pyrrhic ecstasy of, say, Vengeance or ExiledThree ought to inspire heated debate concerning why things happen to people – not bad for an 87-minute exercise in genre gymnastics.

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Dark City (William Dieterle, 1950)

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An entertaining, brawny noir that deserves to be better-known and better-regarded. A wobbly script (by Lawrence Marcus and John Meredyth Lucas, from a story by Marcus) that gets wobblier as it rounds the home stretch is redeemed considerably by director Dieterle’s inventiveness and zeal, Victor Milner’s cinematography, and a stacked cast, led by future superstar Charlton Heston, who makes a surprisingly convincing disaffected lout, equal parts cocksure and self-loathing. This is nearly the High Noon of noirs, a display case of surefire genre devices and attitudes, the look of B- rendered by a wealthy studio’s A-team. But it’s a lot of fun, and when it gets bored with one town, it heads to another.

Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

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Fate in the Boetticher westerns is often powered by the irresistible impulse: characters who simply can’t help themselves. The lion’s share of these movies, which include The Tall TRide Lonesome, and others, are brief affairs, opening either on the middle of a story or near enough to its conclusion that it’s no challenge to visualize what’s going to happen, and to whom, with Burt Kennedy’s efficient dialogue serving exposition in precise strikes, as needed. Most of these men are about to die, but they meet their ends not facing their maker but each other, sometimes jaws clenched, sometimes surprised at the rude cancellation of carefully laid plans. Few western directors so frequently dwell on the un-empty gaze, the violent hand stayed with great effort, often only in temporary stalemate.

The fatal math of Seven Men from Now is borne by the title and its barely-veiled premise: Randolph Scott means to kill seven stickup men who pulled down a Wells Fargo gold score, in which his wife was a casualty. Revelations and secrets disclosed (or, more accurately, dislodged) delay and complicate the inevitable, but the film cannot and does not end until Ben Stride (Scott) finishes what he starts.

Into the mix, two outlaws, Masters and Clete (Lee Marvin and Don Barry, western icons in their own right), invite themselves along, not to assist Stride, but with eyes on the gold loot. Masters and his largely silent, bull-neck companion are a pair of rude appendages, as Marvin often played rude bastards with rude faces, insinuating dialogue, and loutish manner. In the tradition of the studio western, all his best efforts to serve his self-interest come a cropper, but his service to the story as an ambivalent but paradoxically moral spectator add not insignificant inflection to an arc otherwise defined by Stride’s taciturn, prideful revenge mission. Largely sidelined by necessity, Masters shrewdly usurps Stride’s agency when the latter takes a rifle shot to the leg, casting off the emotions that defined him in the middle scenes (hatred for the ex-sheriff Stride, lust for the wagoner’s wife, an aspiring homewrecker’s contempt for the wagoner) in deference to his greater greed.

Boetticher and Kennedy habitually include a character like the wagoner in their films, a weakling with one or more qualities that are unwelcome in the Old West, as well as in the western genre: softness, the smiling politeness of the out-of-towner, a readiness to compromise, a vague eastern-ness, etc. Anyone who sees the character in two Ranown westerns will mark him for death in the third. It isn’t that this habit is objectionable, per se, but when the films resort to storytelling expedients, it can be hard to watch. One can be a little disappointed when the Boetticher-Kennedy combine cuts corners, when their films are otherwise standard-bearers for genre leanness and purity.

The Kennedy scripts sometimes acquire their efficiency on credit, entreating us to look the other way when the fatal arithmetic gives the plot few options but to force a character illogically into or out of harm’s way. When the wagoner finds his gumption, he pays the highest price for it, in a showdown that’s less for our credulity than to push Masters off the fence. The logistics that bring to the killing floor the remaining “from Now” men, now no longer seven, is untidy, but soon enough the path gives way to a short burst of bittersweet crescendos, such as Masters’ realization that the wagoner was actually a standup guy, the lifeless Masters clutching the padlock on the Wells Fargo strongbox (his death outmatched finally by his greed), and Stride, now relieved of high emotion, seeing the Wells Fargo strongbox into the right hands, in an unmarked gesture of farewell to his murdered wife redirected by a lawman’s routine function.

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