Sunday, July 31, 2016


That Brian De Palma documentary is bullshit if the director doesn't wake up at the end and realize he dreamed Brain De Palma.” - tweet I tweeted immediately after finishing Dressed to Kill

I want to say I have a love/hate relationship with Brian De Palma but it’s really more a like/hate relationship with a heavy emphasis on kind of not giving a fuck.

My mind is all over the place after finally watching Dressed to Kill, which I remember from its original release, but I was too young to see it. I also remember its opening scene from some random night on cable about 15 years ago, when for whatever reason I did not finish the film. Had I done so, I would probably not be reviewing it now. I coudn’t see it returning to my queue in anything under--well, it would take me over two years to watch every other Criterion currently available first, so let’s say 3 years.

We can even begin with that first scene. If you ever need an object lesson to illustrate the male gaze, it’s this: Angie Dickinson in a shower performing a masturbatory dance in hopes that her husband will notice. The audience for this routine isn’t really the husband, though, who continues shaving, blissfully unaware; it’s the movie-going public, here in our role as peeping tom. It’s also the ticket-buying audience 90 minutes later when Nancy Allen achieves orgasm at the mere touch of the water stream from the same showerhead; the same way De Palma tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by creating a grotesque approximation of the theatrical arena by arranging an unrealistic number of mental patients to watch his villain in the asylum. We have seen the voyeur, and they is us.

The best part, though, is how obvious it is that it’s not really Angie Dickinson’s body, a fact that horny men my father’s age never realized back in 1980 and probably vehemently deny now. De Palma is the king of the fake-out, and that is just the first of many in Dressed to Kill. Some of them are earned (the unexpected arrival in the film’s genuine climax is a pretty great twist); some of them are not (oh, hello, last three scenes).

For those not in the know, here is the basic plot: a bored wife (Dickinson) goes to the art museum and hooks up with a man who seduces her--via a visually clever chase amongst the paintings, no less--only to be murdered in the elevator after leaving his apartment. Liz (Allen), an escort working in the building, stumbles across the murder in progress, and when the police suspect her of the killing, she has to find the blonde woman in trench coat and sunglasses she saw in the elevator mirror--who also may or may not now be stalking Liz. Both helping and hindering Liz are the dead woman’s psychiatrist (Michael Kaine), her son (Keith Gordon), and the homicide detective assigned to the case (Dennis Franz). (The husband, it would seem, is useless throughout.)

As plots go, it’s not much, and really, it’s just a gender-bent Psycho. The whole film, really, is what if Alfred Hitchcock adapted Penthouse Forum. That the nerdy son--a De Palma stand-in who loves cameras and recording equipment--never even makes a move on Liz is kind of ludicrous. So I guess kudos to De Palma for not succumbing to that obvious happening.

It’s not all that De Palma gets right. One can always praise his technique. His use of split-screen, for instance, is both dazzling and efficient, bringing an added layer to the storytelling, juxtaposing two scenes while also linking them (in one scene, he has two characters watching the same expository Phil Donahue episode while otherwise going about their seemingly unconnected business). In these instances, and elsewhere, De Palma lets the action run large, and in the sequences leading up to the first murder, even lets them play without dialogue, enticing the viewer through lush orchestral music and leading us to focus on various details, some of which are clues and others which are red herrings. De Palma and director of photography Ralf Bode also know how to compose a shot so that the foreground and background have two different courses of action, artfully hipping the viewer to certain info about what the varying characters are doing. They also use carefully placed mirrors to create echoes and dualities, the reflective glass being both a storytelling clue and a de fact conscience, depending who is looking at themselves and how.

And if we’re being generous, De Palma seems sympathetic to the trans community, and is progressive for his time, even as he exploits being transsexual for the purposes of plot. It’s easy to see the dangerous clichés he falls into now that a couple of decades have passed, but consider that he never suggests his villain is evil because of being trans; that person’s identity is never denigrated, nor is their identity suggested to be a dangerous psychosis, they just happen to have homicidal tendencies. Dressed to Kill may be problematic, and carries baggage that De Palma wasn’t even likely aware of, but it never suggests that its villain is deviant or wrong just for accepting their own state of well-being, the murders are motivated by some other impulse. And it doesn’t seem sexual either, even if the overall symbology is that in both the case of Dickinson and Allen’s characters, it’s the sexually active women whose lives are threatened. Which, let’s be honest, is a whole other set of problems, and perhaps lends more weight to the notion that De Palma hasn’t really considered the implications of his choices all that much, he just likes blood and sex.

All the skill and good will aside, though, Dressed to Kill is a decent movie, but it’s not a very good one, and De Palma is a proficient filmmaker, but a hack storyteller. Dressed to Kill’s plot is thin, and many of its machinations are contrived to the point of straining disbelief. The narrative meanders, but it holds interest throughout, never entirely tipping its hand toward the solution of its plot ahead of the full reveal. De Palma tries to cover his ass with a denouement where many of the movie’s internal failings are explained, yet it feels like too little too late--especially when the auteur succumbs to the classic “one more shock” blunder. That event in itself is not a bad idea, but the negation of it in the very last scene is. This is De Palma’s m.o., and his regular employment of “then I woke up” endings is easily his worst trait. As it stands, the final scene in Dressed to Kill doesn’t give us one final thrill; on the contrary, it just seems like a director who didn’t really have an ending, so he tacked one on. Not quite the cop-out of some of his other work, like Femme Fatale, but cheap all the same.

Friday, July 22, 2016


I bet ghost stories are one of the most ancient of arts. Probably right around the first time a sentient human died, those close to him or her wondered what happened to the being inside the body, and then wondered if he or she were somehow still around. Add in the element of grief, and the natural desire to have the person that was lost stay near, and it's a short step to imagining every bump in the night, cold wind, or familiar scent is the deceased sticking around.

One can imagine further that it's comforting to the individual who believes in ghosts, to envision an existence where you never really leave, you can have ways to remind folks that you once were alive, goodbye is never forever.

Which brings us to our movie. Lewis Allen's 1944 spook story The Uninvited. Some of these ideas are touched on, at least to a degree, if not explicitly than implicitly. A ghost haunts an old family home on an English cliffside where she died, and the question of why she lingers still is the central mystery of the film. It's unfinished business, but it is it selfish or generous. Is she looking to expose someone, or can she just not leave her daughter?

Such is the story that brother and sister Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) stumble into when they take advantage of the too-good-to-be-true deal on the spacious home. He is a musician turned music critic and she is...well, his sister, and they leave London, giddy London, with their dog, cat, and lady servant for a view of an ocean and more rooms than they'll ever need. Once there, Roderick falls for Stella (Gail Russell), the daughter of the specter, probably because she was against her grandfather (Donald Crisp) selling him the house in the first place. (You know how men are...) Stella has an unhealthy attraction to the house, and it has a dangerous sway over her. If she visits, don't be surprised if Stella goes running toward the same cliff where her mom plummeted to her death.

Whether that was an accident, a suicide, or a murder is a riddle that will have to be solved if Roderick and Pamela are going to clear the way for Stella to hang out all the time. Local gossip provides different versions of what went down, but as these things go, each new witness the siblings find adds to what came before, altering the tale just enough to keep everyone guessing. Meanwhile, they must deal with the nightly sobbing of the dead woman and their own skepticism. Roderick believes a spirit is crying in the shadows, but he isn't convinced that séances are real--at least not until the one he joins gets away from him.

The Uninvited is an enjoyable horror movie, even if it's not all that horrific. Maybe in its time it sent shivers down the spine--its ghost is nicely done--but it's so damned genial during its non-spook time, it's kind of hard to go with the chillier moments. Which isn't to say it's not entertaining, or even unconvincing, it's just too polite to be frightening. It's lighthearted and romantic, and there is never any convincing threat or unsettling occurrence. Even the big revelation of what really happened on that fateful day has lost its scandalous edge, social mores being what they are and all.

It's a matter of storytelling, not writing. Structurally, the script by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos (from a novel by Dorothy Macardle) hits the right beats, teasing the facts at the appropriate pace; it's the visual presentation where Allen lets us down. There is not much to separate the haunting scenes from any of the others, it all looks crystal clear and decidedly un-moody. Likewise, the characters don't freak out all that much, they soldier through, keeping calm and carrying on. The whole of The Uninvited is just too damned British and polite to ever unnerve the viewer.

So, The Uninvited is best approached as a sort of gothic romance. Like Wuthering Heights crossed with Topper. The ghosts are real, but not too dark to care.

Friday, July 15, 2016


Time, time, time...see what you’ve done to me?

Time and its effects play an important role in the films of Alain Resnais. In Hiroshima mon amour, two lovers steal secret hours in order to forget the atrocities of war; in Last Year at Marienbad [review], the past emerges at a most inconvenient time for a couple guilty of infidelity--so inconvenient, they try to deny it. In both films, the past and present seem to run along parallel courses, sometimes converging, sometimes becoming jumbled.

All these things come to bear in Resnais’ 1963 film, Muriel, or The Time of Return, crystallizing what the filmmaker had done before in a dual narrative, depicting both the young and the old as victims of repetitious history. If Hiroshima was about the flames of early romance, then Muriel looks at a romance that has burnt out and sifts through the ashes.

Marienbad star Delphine Seyrig rejoins Resnais for Muriel, playing Hélène, a widow living in the costal town of Boulogne. She runs a furniture store specializing in vintage items, and the shop doubles as an apartment for her and her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée). One could suggest that their home is essentially a storehouse of memories--though largely those of other people. Which isn’t to say they don’t harbor some of their own. Both have secret wounds that haunt them, and Hélène is about to bring some of her worst to the fore. She has invited her lost love, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), to come visit. He is eager to rekindle their affair, but she is more interested in poring over what went wrong. You see, back in the day, Alphonse went off to North Africa to fight in WWII, breaking several promises to Hélène, and never returning to her arms.

As we go, we will learn more about why Alphonse did what he did, and also how Hélène was not exactly the faithful paramour she suggests she was. We will also learn what Alphonse hides now, including the true nature of the “niece” (Nita Klein) who travels with him, and how Hélène has a gambling problem. Meanwhile, running concurrent with these revelations is Bernard’s story. He is freshly returned from the war in Algiers, an experience that has changed him. He is now mostly idle, experimenting with art and film, but also in his own love affair. He evokes the name of Muriel when referring to the woman who has a lock on his heart, but that too is a ruse.

For Muriel, Resnais collaborated with writer Jean Cayrol, who also wrote the commentary for his documentary Night and Fog. Together they craft a tricky narrative, one that, in execution, plays with time in a literal fashion. In some scenes, we see two timelines at once. We may see a street at night, and then see a quick flash of how it appears in the day. We also see moments repeat, one on top of the other, compounding increments using slivers of the whole to suggest the complete action. In a similar manner, Resnais employs quick-cut montages to indicate the passage of time, though if one pays attention, it’s almost as if there is more happening than would be possible in the space allotted. As Alphonse’s overnight trip extends, it seems as if months go by; to listen to dialogue later in the film, it’s merely a week.

This makes sense in a world where Alphonse’s trauma from combat is as fresh as Bernard’s, even though decades separate their tours of duty. We are meant to see the two men as one and the same, Bernard is the young version of Alphonse, the future stands next to the past here in the present. Muriel is also Hélène, the woman left behind by a soldier. All is fair in love and war, but in this case, the latter has turned the former into a tragedy.

Yet, we can also see Bernard’s existential plight as a critique of Alphonse’s. What we learn about Bernard’s time in Algeria has more in common with what would go on in Vietnam over the next decade, a predictive of modern warfare. The horror and pain is real and fresh, and lacking the clean justification usually associated with WWII. By contrast, what we know of Alphonse’s time as a soldier sounds almost sanitized, as if it were fiction--which we can eventually argue maybe it was.

So, too, are all the love stories. They are passionate fictions, a clinging to something that never was. Hélène tells Alphonse that, “I loved you with no help from you.” This is true of all of our lovers. They are pursuing their own concerns in their relationships, and the other half of the equation is practically immaterial. This is why none of the versions of their shared stories line up. It’s not just a matter of perspective, but also participation.

As is to be expected, Seyrig carries the picture. As we would see years down the road in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [review], she doesn’t really need anyone else on the screen with her--though her co-stars ably back her up. She is particularly good playing off of Thiérrée, whose wooden posture is reminiscent of Martin LaSalle’s meticulously choreographed turn in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. Thiérrée is more operational, while Seyrig is deep in each moment, each emotion. She plays older here, Hélène is middle-aged, but the make-up is casual and not overdone; Seyrig is excellent as the concerned and nervous mother-type. In the first scenes with Alphonse and his niece, when she brings them into her home and feeds them, she never stops moving, putting the needs of everyone else ahead of her own, and thus making her selfish addiction all the more shameful for her.

Eventually, truth outs everyone, and time catches up, and Resnais leaves us both hopeful and unsure. There may be options for a better tomorrow, but it may also just be that the past is repeating once more.

Muriel, or The Time of Return has been available on DVD before, but it’s been a decade or so since the last release, and the new Blu-ray was struck from a recent 4K restoration. The colors are vibrant and the picture is crisp, showcasing the beautiful photography of Resnais’ regular DP Sacha Vierney (who also shot Belle de jour [review]). The disc has several documentary and interview clips, including a 1969 piece with Seyrig and a 1963 chat with composer Hans Werner Henze (The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum [review]), whose ambient score sits in between classical composition and more modern textures, thus expressing the themes of the movie through sound.

Alain Resnais

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


My thing about movies that are about movies is that the good ones make me want to watch other movies. If I watch The Bad and the Beautiful, for instance, I’m going to want to chase it with Cat People. Who didn’t watch the opening of The Player back when it was released in 1992 and not immediately go view--or even re-view--Touch ofEvil? Or how about pairing it up with Bicycle Thieves [review]? Better yet, another movie about movies, based on a book about movies, Elia Kazan’s vastly underrated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Monroe Stahr, the movie mogul in The Last Tycoon, was modeled after Irving Thalberg, whom surely director Robert Altman and writer Michael Tolkin had in mind when they created Griffin Mill, their motion picture wunderkind, as played by Tim Robbins.

And it’s not just that The Player is about movies, it’s utterly in love with them. You get that right from the virtuoso opening shot, which runs without cutting for 8 1/2 minutes (certainly no coincidence), referencing not just Touch of Evil, but The Sheltering Sky and Rope and a couple of other films that pulled off similar feats (this was pre-Tarantino, mind you). There are easter eggs throughout this thing, and not just the cameos by then au currant celebs, but jokes and winks and the careful placement of other films and filmmakers to cue the audience to what is coming next. Be it Griffin walking under a movie marquee as the lights go out on The Bicycle Thief to signal his own oncoming moral dilemma, or the fake-out of Lyle Lovett walking by a Hitchcock photo as an indicator of suspense and a deep visual pun about “the wrong man.” The murder victim declares, “See you in the next reel, pal,” ironic last words befitting the noir plot Griffin Mill will find himself in, as predicted by the posters in his office.

If you’re a cinephile, you’re going to eat this stuff up.

If you’re not, if you’re just a casual movie fan, then no worries, you’re going to dig The Player, too. It’s more than a collection of in jokes and elbowing Hollywood in the ribs. Altman and Tolkin bring an honest-to-goodness murder plot along with all the references. The Player is a movie that aims to be as good as all the other movies it emulates.

In terms of story, it’s simple. Griffin Mill is a hotshot Hollywood producer who appears to be going cold. In the midst of his concerns that his boss is bringing in his replacement (Peter Gallagher), he’s also getting harassing post cards from an anonymous writer that he never called back. When the threats turn scary, Griffin tries to figure out who it is, settling on one writer in particular, David Kahane (played by a young, nearly unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio). Griffin tracks Kahane to a revival screening of the Neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves) and tries to reason with him. Only, Kahane isn’t the guy--even if he hates Griffin all the same. Accusations cause tempers to flare and a scuffle ensues, leading to the writer ending up dead and Griffin trying to make it look like a robbery.

And he’s successful for the most part. The only problem is, someone saw the two of them together, and the cops (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett) think it’s suspicious that the movie exec was somehow randomly the last person to see a no-name scribe alive. This line of thinking is only heightened when Griffin starts dating the deceased’s girlfriend (Greta Scacchi). In any conventional script, Griffin would certainly look guilty.

Which, of course, we know he is, but that’s immaterial. The question that lingers, what will he do to get out of it? That’s what any good suspense movie is about. Plus, we know that the real stalker is still out there, and he could strike at any minute. Somehow these things have to converge, right? That’s what the rules of screenwriting have taught us. Not to mention that the fake moviemakers in the movie we are watching keep harping on the need for a happy ending. Griffin Mill has to find his way out of it, or The Player will fail.

That might actually be The Player’s most ingenious bit, how Tolkin builds in all this conventional wisdom about what makes a successful movie--twists, turns, sex, surprising rescues, happy endings--and then delivers on each. It’s the artiest of blockbusters, The Player is. Like if the Kaufman Brothers in Adaptation cracked the code and managed to sincerely make it work. (Which, let’s be honest, it works in Adaptation; as soon as Donald takes over, the film becomes a crowdpleaser.)

Tim Robbins brings an interesting energy to his performance. He is both slimy and trustworthy, at times believably dim and yet otherwise extremely cagey. It’s excellent casting, how we feel about Griffin is probably how a lot of people feel about Robbins, who himself can be seen as a little pretentious and also a bit of a windbag due to his openness about his politics. Yet, he also always seems like a decent guy, he’d probably be pretty nice in person. We like him, but we want to hate him, too.

Fans of Hollywood lore will see other nods to history in The Player, perhaps most deftly in Fred Ward’s fixer character, which resembles MGM’s Eddie Mannix, immortalized in both the films Hollywoodland and more recently Hail, Caesar! There is also some amusing commentary about television actors wanting to be in movies, which seems only ironic and outdated given how so much and so many have shifted from the big screen to cable television for better opportunities in recent years. Tim Robbins himself was last seen on HBO in a bad Dr. Strangelove rip-off.

Television may be the current perceived assassin of big studio pictures, but moviemakers have had many threats before this one--including TV, which was originally supposed to be the death knell of the moviegoing experience back in the 1950s. Most would say the changing of the guard in the 1960s was the true end of Golden Age Hollywood--which is largely what Altman is paying tribute to here. His movie studio resembles the classic system as much as it does the bloated 1980s version he’s critiquing. The Player actually came at a time when independent films were having their heyday, and the Sundance crowd was moving in. I guess these things are cyclical. If the auteurs of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to the blockbuster, then the indie scene of the 1990s gave us the mega blockbuster. Would there even be a Griffin Mill now, or would he just be a collection of stockholders?

I guess it doesn’t really matter. All we can say for sure is that he’d still be getting away with it. Now more than ever.

Tim Robbins, Sydney Pollack, and Robert Altman on set.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

THE IN-LAWS - #823

From a mathematical standpoint, there are so many movies made every year, and have been for over a century now, it's pretty easy to understand why all cinema fans have holes in their viewing diary. You just can't see everything.

Even so, there are still movies that land in my queue that, when I do see them, I can't understand what took me so long to get around to them. I always knew they were there, so how were they not part of my life? The In-Laws is just such a movie.

Directed by Arthur Hiller, a studio director with credits dating back to early television, with a script by Andrew Bergman (Oh, God! You Devil, Fletch), The In-Laws is a smart and fun action-comedy that melds genres for a quirky story all its own. Imagine Father of the Bride but with guns. Peter Falk and Alan Arkin star as the respective fathers. Falk plays Vince Ricardo, and his son is going to marry the daughter of dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin). The two families have yet to meet, and are doing so just days before the ceremony. Part of the delay is down to Vince's strange work schedule. Though he presents himself as an international businessman, that is not the whole truth. And as The In-Laws gets underway, we aren't entirely sure what to believe about his clandestine life. In the opening scene, he is part of a heist, robbing a Federal Treasury armored car for some engraving plates to make large bills. Once he pulls Sheldon into his current scheme, he will claim to be CIA--though the agency itself may disavow him. (Look for Ed Begley Jr. in a small role as a CIA contact.)

Of course, that's the fun of Bergman's story. We are as confused by these turns of events as Sheldon--though we are also more intrigued by Vince's smooth talking and adaptability. It's not us getting shot at. The two characters operate at opposing trajectories. As Sheldon grows more anxious and unhinged, Vince actually gains confidence. With each setback, he becomes more determined to make it work. Because not only do their lives depend on his plans paying off--there are some crooks who aren't happy about having to wait for their cut of the robbery--but he also has to bring the timid dentist around to his side so he won't call off the wedding. Oh, and the Feds are after them, too.

Falk and Arkin are a real dream team. The script plays to each of their strengths. Falk is loquacious and likable, a little bit of Columbo by way of James Bond. Arkin is all indignation and nerves, pinging between blustery rage and near-catatonic fear. Of course, his arc is that the more that happens, the more capable he proves himself, tapping into reserves he never knew he had. In one action scene, he leaps on top of a car! Shortly after, though, there is a bit of business that shows how clever the character building is here. Facing a firing squad, under the orders of a South American crime lord (played hilariously by Richard Libertini, with a bit of a nod to Señor Wences), we can see who each man is by his choice of blindfold and/or cigarette. (A scene so memorable, Criterion put it on the cover.)

Hiller's deft direction works whether he is aiming for laughs or thrills. The armored car robbery would be at home in a vintage noir, while the shootouts are expertly choreographed to create real danger. But even in those, he can get a good guffaw or two. The "Serpentine!" bit works brilliantly, and with very little set-up and surprisingly, without milking it via needless callbacks further down the line. In modern hands, that would be a catchphrase, but The In-Laws is so fleet of feet, as soon as it has finished with one gag, it's already on to the next. It never lets up, either, right down to the last "gotcha" at the end.

Which would explain why it has become such a perennial. The In-Laws is just pure entertainment through and through, nothing more, nothing less. Best of all, it respects the audience enough to let us go along on the ride rather than merely taking us for one. Why anyone decided to make this years later is beyond me, because this 1979 original is just about perfect.