Saturday, June 7, 2008

Winter Light

June 7, 2008

Winter Light (1962) **1/2

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

If a director wants to make a film about a man’s troubled faith in God, then he better be ready to add something new to what may be the most common conflict in the history of all art. Just think of how many books, poems, paintings and yes even films explore this universal human struggle. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made the best film I’ve ever seen on the subject—1957’s The Seventh Seal. In that film, he uses provocative imagery and sets the film in the most dramatic of all periods in history—during the Crusades and the Black Death. One of the most iconic scenes in all cinema involves Max von Sydow and Death engaged in a chess match on a beach. Most people might not know about the great scene that follows their game. Von Sydow enters a confessional to confess that he can’t believe in God anymore. Death sits in the priest’s chamber listening with great interest. The Seventh Seal was exceptionally brave because it wasn’t afraid to go big which makes sense considering the subject matter. I guess Winter Light can accurately be described as The Seventh’s Seal’s infant brother.

Gunnar Bjornstrand plays Thomas Ericsson, a Swedish pastor who has felt emotionally dead since his wife died a few years earlier. His parish, which was once packed, now attracts only about eight people. The first fifteen minutes of the film show the Liturgy of the Eucharist almost in its entirety. Strong close-ups are used throughout in order to emphasize the intimate struggles of the characters. I hated this first scene. There’s no sense of ritual. None of these characters looks bored, except for a little kid. Every single face has a look of worry, or anxiety or dread, especially the pastor’s. Bergman directs this scene too intensely which makes me think that he wasn’t a regular churchgoer. Mass rarely evokes strong emotions, and if it ever does then it does so by accident. The decision to introduce the struggles of the characters during mass seemed too artsy. This may be one of the only films that actually acts out a section of the mass with correct prayers and gestures. Therefore, to use it as a ploy to introduce characters seems to waste what could have been a great innovative scene.

Right after mass, we are shown over and over again how much despair the pastor feels inside. Once we’ve been hit over the head with allusions, we hear speech after speech reiterating what we already know and understand. A young couple talks to the pastor after mass because the husband Jonas (Max von Sydow) is suicidal and can’t get himself out of his massive depression. The pastor, instead of listening, spills his problems out to Jonas, which causes him to leave the church and shoot himself in the head. The pastor’s mistress, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), tries to cheer Thomas up and give him medicine for his cold. Instead of welcoming her assistance, he goes off on her saying that he doesn’t need her to try and take the place of his wife anymore. At a Holy Day service, before it begins, Thomas hears from his groundskeeper that he believes that Jesus’ suffering wasn’t painful as much as it was about experiencing the silence of God in his disciples’ betrayal and in the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Though no one shows up for the service, Thomas begins anyway with what are obviously insincere words of worship and praise.

Too many existential crises are packed into an hour and twenty minutes! Winter Light is almost oppressively grim, which is not helped by the fact that it’s set during a very gloomy winter. For me, the journey this pastor takes during the film does not really add up to much, and it definitely does not present any arguments that I haven't heard before. This is considered one of Bergman’s best. I have a Masters degree in Catholic Theology, and I conclude that Winter Light is not as smart as many believe it to be. Personally, I’d give the pastor a book of Thomas Merton’s writings to cheer him up. I’d also tell him that often people feel God strongly during times of death and grief. Not once in the film did anyone present an argument to try and lead Thomas back to his faith.

Bergman obviously struggled quite a bit with the question of God’s existence, and that could very well have been the most profound struggle of his life. He externalizes his internal struggle through this film. The end product doesn’t work because the pastor personifies only Bergman’s doubt which makes the film feel incomplete. I do know that this is one of three Bergman films that together are called the trilogy of faith. The other two are Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence. Maybe it’s necessary to see those films in order to understand all sides of Bergman’s struggle. Even so, Winter Light seen by itself feels like a fraction of the film that it could have been. I look forward to checking out the other two films in the trilogy. Though, looking at their dreary titles, I’m afraid I’m going to see repeats of the same hopeless examination of faith that was so disappointing in Winter Light.

Broken Blossoms

June 7, 2008

Broken Blossoms (1919) *****

Directed by D.W. Griffith

A few weeks ago, I gave a scathing review to Griffith’s hateful Birth of a Nation. After seeing that film, I took his film Intolerance off of my 100 Greatest Movies list since he made it in order to quiet the backlash that resulted from his earlier film. As great as Intolerance is, its insincerity does hurt my opinion of it significantly. For two weeks, then, I had no D.W. Griffith films on my list, but that’s all gone now. Broken Blossoms has taken its place solidly among the best films I’ve ever seen. This is a masterpiece, and presently my favorite silent film of all time—granted I’ve only seen about ten.

When I learned that the alternate title of Broken Blossoms was The Yellow Man and the Girl, I was concerned that Griffith might be up to his old bigoted ways. Yet, by the end of the film, the Chinese man named Cheng Huan emerges as a hero in spite of the xenophobic ways of the British he is surrounded by. Therefore, terms like The Yellow Man and chinky are meant to make us uncomfortable so that we can sympathize with the injustice flung at Cheng.

Birth of a Nation despicably has white actors act in blackface next to black actors. In Broken Blossoms, a white actor named Richard Barthelmess plays the Chinese character in makeup, and I did not have a problem with it at all. In Birth, the white actors acted like fools since blacks were presented as less than human. Barthelmess’ performance, similar to the film itself, shows the Chinese as a people of honor, peace and reverence. Simply watch how Bathelmess, when not speaking or reacting, simply stands there with his head held high in an almost meditative serenity. Granted, we are dealing with broad stereotypes, but all silent films of that era were performed in a broad and melodramatic style. Also, the makeup job for Cheng wasn’t too bad at all. He has the longer Anglo face without the high cheekbones of most Asians. Yet there were times that he looked almost convincing, and never was I really distracted by the makeup like I was in Birth.

Also, modern viewers need to keep in mind that the film was made in 1919. It would have been unheard of to have a person of a different ethnicity interact with a white actress in a romantic way. It would really take another fifty years before interracial romance was permitted by the censors. Therefore, some concessions should be permitted when reviewing a film like Broken Blossoms. If movies were made five hundred years ago, I’m sure we’d have some unimaginably racist and hateful films. Films from the early twentieth century must be judged in light of their historical circumstances. Birth of a Nation went way beyond mainstream views of African-Americans and worse, tried to pass its ultra-racist views off as authentic history. For that reason, Birth is unforgivable. Broken Blossoms, on the other hand, feels almost enlightened and in awe of the Eastern philosophies of Cheng Huan.

Cheng travels to England in order to bring Buddha’s teaching of peace and respect to the crude Anglo-Saxtons. At the beginning of the film, British soldiers visiting China cause an embarrassing ruckus, which contrasts with the dignity and etiquette of the East. In England, Cheng opens a store, but becomes the victim of ethnic hatred by the uneducated in this seedy neighborhood. His despair leads him to rely on the escape of opium.

Down the block from Cheng’s store, we meet a sad and scared girl named Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), whose father is a champion boxer and an absolute monster, treating her like a slave and beating her if she does not follow his orders exactly. His name is Battling Burrows and is played wonderfully by Donald Crisp. Crisp makes him really mean and menacing, always bordering on comical but never crossing the line. After a harsh beating from Battling, Lucy collapses in Cheng’s store, where he falls in love with her and nurses her back to health. Eventually one of Battling’s friends finds her when he enters Cheng’s shop. Battling forces Lucy home and whips her to death. Cheng forces entry into the Burrows house and finding Lucy’s dead body, kills Battling, takes Lucy’s body to his shop to perform a Buddhist ritual meant to allow her into the afterlife and commits suicide.

This tragedy holds up in its sadness, mostly because of the amazing performances by Barthelmess and especially lovely Lillian Gish. She is able to make our hearts melt with the sadness she can express on her face. I will never forget the fact that her character must actually lift the corners of her mouth with her fingers in order to smile. We fall in love with her right along with Cheng and thus, when the film violently shows her beaten, our emotions are wrenched causing sadness and disquiet.

Both Intolerance and Birth of a Nation had running times of close to three hours. Broken Blossoms is only one hour and twenty-eight minutes. In this time, we are treated to a straightforward story that we can appreciate as much on an emotional level than on an intellectual level. I really didn’t connect emotionally with Intolerance at all, but I was impressed by the film over and over throughout. In Broken Blossoms, I deeply came to care about the characters and what happened to them. That’s what I look for in the very best movies.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Killers

June 6, 2008

The Killers (1946) ***1/2

Directed by Robert Siodmak

The Killers (1964) ***

Directed by Don Siegel

This is a first for me. I’ve never watched two versions of the same film back to back before. The Criterion Collection released a two-disc DVD of The Killers containing both the 1946 and the 1964 versions. Both versions claim to be based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name. Maybe I should read the short story too, because one thing is for sure—either one or both of these films need to include the word “loosely” when they claim that their film is based on his story. These two films, while sharing in common some plot points, are noticeably very different from one another. Which one is more authentic to Hemingway’s source material--I don’t know.

Which is better? Well they are both good, but I preferred the 1946 black and white version starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien. The film begins with an uncomfortable scene that takes place in a small diner. Two killers enter the diner and begin intimidating the man behind the counter by calling him “bright boy” over and over. Granted “bright boy” may be less menacing than the mind games Anton Chigurh plays in No Country For Old Men. Yet, the tension and the sense of danger are very real. These men are looking for a man they call the Swede, played by Lancaster. He doesn’t show up at his usual time for dinner at the diner, so the two men go to his house. Before they get there, another diner patron warns the Swede that these two men are going to kill him. Rather than running, he calmly accepts his fate. The rest of the film centers around the investigation done by insurance claim investigator Jim Reardon (O’Brien).

Beginning with an old woman who is the recipient of the Swede’s significant life insurance payout, the story unfolds in flashback after flashback—totaling probably around fifteen. I was getting pretty tired of characters beginning to tell the story only to have the camera pan to a new flashback. It was fine the first ten times. After that, it gets a little repetitive. Eventually, Jim learns that the Swede was part of a group of criminals that successfully stole hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the middle of everything is knockout femme fatale Kitty Collins (Gardner).

The 1964 version, which I just learned was originally supposed to be a television movie, but after being deemed too violent, it received a theatrical release instead, varies greatly from the black and white version described above. The very different plot of this later colorized movie only utilizes four flashbacks coming from a co-worker, a member of the group of criminals, the head criminal and the girl who may or may not be playing around with John Cassavetes’ Johnny North. In a similarly unsettling opening sequence, this time at a school for the blind, two killers kill Johnny North. Similarly, Johnny doesn’t hesitate or cower right before the gun is fired. This intrigues the older of the two killers named Charlie Strom, played by the great Lee Marvin. He figures that whoever contracted them to kill Johnny would never have done so if Johnny really had the million dollars that was stolen years earlier. If Johnny really did have the money, he would be better alive so he can reveal where the money was hidden. The light bulb shines bright in Charlie’s head when he becomes sure that the person who anonymously hired them to kill Johnny must be the owner of the million dollars. So Charlie and his partner in crime Lee (played annoyingly by some guy named Clu Gulager) decide to travel to Florida where the crime took place. Their investigation leads them ultimately to a showdown involving Johnny’s one time love Sheila Farr (Angie Dickenson), her present husband Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan) and the two killers.

Here’s what the 1946 version got right. First of all, Angie Dickenson is no Ava Gardner. Gardner was smoking hot, and Angie Dickenson is lukewarm at best. The femme fatale becomes that much more dangerous if she is unbelievably alluring. Gardner’s Kitty was a real scary dame because she had men in the palm of her hand. Dickenson had men in the palm of her hand only because that’s what was in the script. She did not bring any real sex appeal. Gardner could have fogged my glasses she was so hot!

Also, though there are too many characters in the old version, there were likeable characters in the mix. Sam Levine and Virginia Christine play old friends of the Swede. They were a lot of fun and they were the kind of couple you’d love to play a game of hearts or bridge with. That made the film a little sunnier, which actually made the dark elements later on more powerful in contrast. Maybe with the exception of the mechanic, every character in the 1964 version is a scumbag. Even the mechanic would probably rather pass out drinking than play bridge.

Again, the problem with the 1946 version that keeps it away from greatness is that it is way too crowded with characters. The film feels like an hour and forty five minute version of the television show Cold Case. Each flashback adds one piece to the puzzle and gives Jim the name of a new person who will be interviewed next, and in this person’s flashback, a piece of the puzzle is solved and another name is mentioned, and so on and so on. Also, one flashback comes from a guy next to death deliriously speaking every word of the plan put in place to steal the money. That was convenient that this guy could conjure up memories in an unconscious state that he wouldn’t have been able to do as well had he been awake. I’m pretty sure memory doesn’t work like that.

The 1964 version gave me my first experience of Ronald Reagan as an actor. He was great in the role, and it was fun to watch him get beat up a little. Seriously, I kept thinking to myself, “Holy crap! That guy just punched the president!” Reagan is so wonderfully evil in this role that I wonder whether his approval rating dropped a fraction of a percentage point every time this film was shown on television during the eighties.

Also, the story is much simpler in the newer version and the killers become real characters, unlike the 1946 version that don’t have the killers doing much after the great diner scene. Those two guys in both films were terrifying but fascinating. The 1964 version chose the right people to lead the investigation.

The colorized version becomes more of a simple-minded car chase film. Sure, it’s more violent and there’s more action, but the whole film seems to work only as a throwaway action thriller as opposed to a noir mystery which describes the tone of the black and white classic. Film noir is becoming one of my favorite genres, and while the 1964 version has touches of sultry dialogue and sexual tension, it doesn’t hold up as a good example of the noir genre. The 1946 version is dark and so extremely sexy if for no other reason than the old version has Ava Gardner. Enough said.

These films are both enjoyable versions of Hemingway’s short story. They’re both worth checking out. After watching them back to back, I feel compelled to fault the source material itself. Again I’ve never read the story, but it’s really not the most interesting premise in film history. A guy gets shot and people talk to people in order to piece together a man’s life in fragments. Both films suffer from a disjointed plot. I actually think both versions of The Killers succeed in spite of Hemingway’s lackluster source material.

The Fall

June 6, 2008

The Fall (2008) **1/2

Directed by Tarsem Singh

What a disappointing movie! My expectations were high for The Fall, and for the first hour, it was totally meeting my expectations. The Fall is an early Oscar front-runner for cinematography, art direction, costume design and editing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarsem Singh also receives a Best Director nomination. Maybe he’ll be that fifth director wild card that happens every year at the Oscars (this past year’s wild card was Julien Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

The Fall is one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen. A few camera transitions took my breath away, including one involving a dead butterfly transitioning into a scene of an island surrounded by water. I’m not sure if they created the butterfly to match the island or if they found the perfect location to match the butterfly. Either way, it was awesome. There are three other transitions from image to location that equal the astounding creativity of the butterfly/island sequence.

The costumes in The Fall are as good as any film I’ve ever seen. Phrases like “Darwin’s fur coat,” “the buccaneer costume,” “the wedding dress with diamonds covering the head,” and “the geisha dress with the facemask,” allow me to conjure images of breathtaking clothing pieces. The cinematography is spectacular. Singh has some real visual tricks up his sleeve which place him among the most talented directors working today.

Where The Fall doesn’t work at all is in its story, which contains a story within the story that is dull and confusing. The film’s plot revolves around two patients that have both been victims of a recent fall. One is a six-year-old girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) who fell from an orange tree picking fruit in the fields with her mother. Her arm is broken. The other is Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a stuntman whose accident has made him lose his girlfriend. His heart is broken.

Alexandria visits Roy who begins to tell her stories. He grooms her with these fantasy tales, keeping her hooked so she will come back again and again gaining her trust more and more. Eventually, he exploits Alexandria’s affection for him and his stories by convincing her to get him morphine with which he will kill himself. At first, she interprets his request in her own way, not giving him enough pills to commit suicide. Therefore, he must continue with the stories in order to keep her trust. Eventually, he has her steal another man’s pills and does attempt an overdose.

Of course, these are placebo pills, and when Roy wakes up, he goes into a rage with Alexandria in the room. This scares her enough that she attempts again to steal pills for him, injuring herself seriously in the process. When she wakes up, Roy is emotionally collapsing and takes the characters in the story that Alexandria loves so much and does horrible things to them which tortures Alexandria. If at this point you think you can guess how the film ends, I’m going to tell you that you’re probably correct. The eventual resolution to Roy’s conflict was obvious from the moment we learn he is suicidal.

The characters in the story that Roy tells are thrown all over the world, often times suddenly when Alexandria doesn’t like the direction the story is going. Similar to The Wizard of Oz, these characters are meant to represent real people in their hospital, and thus they are portrayed by actors we know already. Sure, I get that stories aren’t always neat especially when its characters are embarking on such an epic quest. Unfortunately, whole chunks of the film demand that we like and root for the characters in Roy’s story. Personally, I didn’t care whether they live or die, which is good because they all do end up going one of those ways pretty graphically.

The final twenty minutes of the film are simply cruel and succeeded to anger me. Roy brutalizes Alexandria with how he chooses to end the story. At that moment, I stopped rooting for Roy. Personally, if I were in the same room when he was doing this to Alexandria, I probably would have punched him and called the cops. The film excuses Roy’s abuse of this girl (and yes it is abuse) by first of all, blaming it on his depression, and second of all, by the final happy scene with Roy and Alexandria together. If an adult man physically beats a little girl, even if he apologizes and makes her smile later, then he’s still very guilty of committing a crime. Roy emotionally kicks the crap out of Alexandria. I don’t care how much Alexandria enjoys his stunts later, the guy’s a monster.

Despite its cruel plot, the performances of the two lead actors are worthy of Oscar consideration, especially nine-year-old Cantica Untaru. She is just amazing in this role. Her performance leaves the performances of past child Oscar nominees like Haley Joel Osment, Anna Paquin and Abigail Breslin in the dust. Lee Pace also gives a great and complex performance. At first, he needs to be charming. Later, he needs to be depressed. In the story, as the buccaneer, he must be handsome and manly. He captures all these different personas very well.

Everyone involved in the film deserves applause and recognition for their exceptional work—except the screenwriters. The story within the story is messy and uninteresting. The story of Roy and Alexandria feels on the one hand very familiar and on the other a little bit slimy. Maybe my problem was that my expectations were too high. Some people really might embrace the film’s story. Therefore, I’d say see it if you want to, especially if you appreciate the technical side of film more than the narrative side. I can’t wait to see Singh work with a better script. He’s definitely a director to keep an eye on.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Man Who Fell to Earth

June 5, 2008

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) **

Directed by Nicholas Roeg

If only the man fell to a different planet—say Mars or even Jupiter—and if only LSD had never been invented, then we would have a completely different film than The Man Who Fell to Earth. If I had my way, I’d sober up the plot and keep Roeg as a director. I’ll admit that the film was interesting. Not once did my mind wander at all. I’ll also admit that the film is well made. Roeg’s direction is stylized and creative. Unfortunately, though, the film as a whole is an unimportant mess.

I’m not sure if it’s Walter Tevis’ novel or Paul Mayersburg’s screenplay that’s truly to blame, but either way, the plot plays out like non-refrigerated gelatin—when you try to grasp on, it simply falls through your fingers. Imagine the following homework assignment. You have an extremely talented director and some interesting actors. With these people, you must make a film that has to be plot-driven, but otherwise doesn’t have to follow any rules at all. The result could very well be The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s 1/9th science-fiction, 1/11th film genre references (notice the western scene in the desert and the 40’s film noir in the final shot over the credits), 1/5th pornography, ½ acid trip and the remaining 97/990th complete randomness.

Films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, which rely ultimately on absurdity, are lazy. It’s easy to be weird. It’s a cinch to be incomprehensible. Films like Easy Rider work because they have something to say. That film showcased the hippie, free-love movement perfectly. The Man Who Fell to Earth has nothing at all to say, or if it does, it’s too muddled with chaos to make its voice heard clearly. Whole characters are introduced only to make us ask who they are and what they have to do with the plot. The only way to explain a film like this is to call the whole thing an acid trip. If we are forced to do that, then the film plays by no rules at all, which I would call cowardly.

Why was this film made? Obviously, druggies wanted a great movie to watch when they’re high. Well, yeah, The Man Who Fell to Earth would certainly add quite a bit to an acid trip, that’s for sure. Also, the film wants to be a sexual turn on with graphic (and I mean GRAPHIC) nudity. Possibly, the film wanted to showcase David Bowie’s odd persona. Either way, to watch this film sober, sexually uninterested and not as a huge Bowie fan means that I witnessed a cluttered and bizarre waste of time. Speaking of time, the film is close to two and a half hours! I desperately wanted the film to end earlier especially considering that it gets stranger and stranger as it progresses.

Buck Henry and Rip Torn do great jobs with their supporting roles in the film. Henry plays Bowie’s lawyer and Torn plays a chemist employed in Bowie’s company. Bowie’s character, named Thomas Jerome Newton, is an alien from a drought-stricken planet who traveled to Earth to get some water to bring home. He patents some products and starts a multi-million dollar corporation all for the purpose of building a spaceship that can return him to his thirsting wife and two children. On Earth, he succumbs to the vices of sex and alcohol, which leave him too pathetic to ultimately save his family. His sexual partner is named Mary-Lou, played by Candy Clark whom you may know as the girl in American Graffiti who gets hit with the water balloon. I found her character in that film to be annoying and I found her performance in this film to be the equivalent of teeth scraping on a chalkboard (which I can only guess would be infinitely more painful to hear than fingernails). I absolutely hated her character and her performance. Bowie has an androgynous presence on screen that can’t be denied, but he really doesn’t actually act in this role. He mostly looks sullen or speaks in a soft voice. He’s right for the role, but I don’t think it was really too much of a stretch.

The first hour plays pretty straight-forward, but then becomes very trippy. Perhaps the film is a metaphor for an acid trip. I’m pretty sure that acid, like most other drugs, needs a little bit of time to kick in, but once it does, it hits you hard, just like this movie.

There were moments while I was watching The Man Who Fell to Earth where I began hating the film for wasting my time. Ultimately, though, I changed my mind because I was certainly never bored, and underneath everything, I could sort of see that maybe the film could be interpreted as some kind of cautionary tale against drug and alcohol abuse. Even if that was the message intended by Roeg and the writers, and I doubt that it was, the film is simply too bizarre and scattered to merit spending time trying to figure it out with much success. I don’t judge films while I’m high on acid. If I did, maybe I’d give this one five stars (or twenty moons or seventy-five suns). Sober, the film deserves only two—one for its direction and one for not boring me.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

June 5, 2008

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) *****

Directed by Seth Gordon

Is The King of Kong trying to mock people that dedicate much of their lives attempting to beat high score records of classic video games? If I answer yes to this question, then I’d have to fault the film for being mean spirited. It’s simply not nice to make fun of innocent people, and it’s even less nice to make a movie making fun of innocent people. Besides, can I really approve of a film mocking people’s hobbies? After all, I write a film review blog in my spare time; therefore, I’m pretty sure a film could be made making fun of me. Come to think of it, if anyone wants to make a movie making fun of my film review blog, I’d give my permission as long as I could get paid for it. I’d even post a review of the film about my blog on my blog itself!

Ultimately, I conclude that The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is not trying to be mean, but instead it desires to show the ultra-competitive and often pathetically self-worshipping world of middle-aged men who obsess over old video games, specifically Donkey Kong. Don’t get me wrong—there’s quite a bit of mocking in the film, and we do laugh at the expense of others. The distinction lies in the fact that Gordon’s documentary doesn’t insult the drive or even the obsession of these men, but it insults the pathetic callousness of certain individuals in this world of classic video games that are willing to go to ridiculous extremes in order to cut people down to make their sad selves feel better. The number one villain—and one of the great movie villains of all time in my opinion—is a man named Billy Mitchell. I promise you that after watching this movie, you will never forget his name and you sure as hell won’t forget his face. This guy is a tool, and the filmmakers obviously agree. It’s fun to watch a film pommel the gargantuan ego of an absolute jerk to a pulp.

The line separating good and evil is clearly drawn between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. Steve is a good natured, obsessive-compulsive family man from Seattle who, after being fired from his job, dedicates much of his time mastering the retro-arcade game Donkey Kong. On the internet, he learns that the Donkey Kong high score record of around 840,000 points is held by gaming icon Billy Mitchell. Wiebe records a world-record winning game on tape (also included in the tape is a hilarious vocal cameo from Wiebe’s young son). The official gamers’ record keeping website refuses to recognize the score until they see Wiebe break Sullivan’s record in person.

Steve thus travels to Florida in order to prove his skill. While his hopes of facing Mitchell head to head are in vain because Mitchell’s too much of a coward to risk looking like a fool, Wiebe succeeds at the game itself, reaching a score of over 940,000 points. After finding out that he’s now second place, Billy enlists the help of 82-year old Q-Bert world-record holder Doris Self to deliver a tape on which Billy is seen to have reached one million points. The same website that rejected Steve’s filmed score accepts Billy’s filmed score, despite a suspicious flaw, and proclaims Billy a continued Donkey Kong world-record holder. Steve is obviously bummed and frustrated, so he attempts twice more to beat Billy’s million score in public. The ending is appropriately unforgettable!

There’s no way in the world that the records website is objective since they allowed Billy’s tape and not Steve’s. Yet, The King of Kong is clearly biased in favor of Steve. If you’re looking for a clear explanation of this competition, first of all I’d think you quite the nerd, and second I’d say that Gordon’s film doesn’t even come close to showing all sides equally. With subject matter like this, it’s okay to be slanted and maybe even a little deceptive. Why? Because despite what most of the people in the film would have you believe, achieving the world record in Donkey Kong is not an important moment in history. Sure the accomplishment is impressive and something someone can be proud of, but these people would rank this in the same league with Armstrong’s walk on the moon. I’m not kidding. Much of the comedy in The King of Kong finds its source in many of the hyperbolic statements of these gamers, but these idiots deserve to be laughed at. The way Steve is treated by these self-important, there but for the grace of God nitwits is absolutely horrible.

If I made this film, I would have included more scenes of the video game itself. The skill of these masters is beyond impressive. Many moves involve split second timing and intricate strategy in order to advance on to the next level. Also, I never knew that all the old games have what’s called a “kill screen.” There’s only so much memory possible in a game like Donkey Kong, and thus, once you get to the last board programmed into the game, the character just spontaneously dies. Therefore, there’s a way to “end” these games. This fact actually adds to the effectiveness of the film. If there were infinite levels, then the achievement of reaching a high score would always be accompanied by the fact that many more people have the potential to beat the record in the future. With games like Donkey Kong, it’s that much more important to use skill since these records are achieved by reaching the kill screen. Therefore, it’s just as imperitive to build your score throughout as it is to not use up your lives.

My synopsis of the film takes the sport much more seriously than the film. The people in the film are all fascinating characters, and their self-proclaimed significance makes for some great comedic moments. The King of Kong similarly works as a sociological study of the reality that people often view their self-worth based on their accomplishments. It’s also a great film for those that loved those great old games. More than all of this though, this documentary entertains and inspires big time. At only 80 minutes, Gordon knew exactly how much to include without giving credence to those that believe Billy is a god for holding his record.

Do I believe that my film review blog is the best in history? Well, maybe not the “best,” but definitely in the top three. No, I’m kidding. I do this for fun, and I enjoy it immensely. Most of all, I don’t take my blog too seriously. It’s people like Billy Mitchell that take the fun out of Donkey Kong, a game invented for people to simply enjoy. Let his legacy be that he has done irreparable damage to the reputation of these iconic and wonderful old games. Let Gordon’s legacy be that he has made at least one spectacular documentary.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

June 4, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) ****

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Eighty-two years old! I’m absolutely awed that Sidney Lumet, director of such classic films as Dog Day Afternoon from thirty-three years ago and 12 Angry Men from fifty-one years ago, still directs so spectacularly. The best aspect of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (besides the cool title) is in fact Lumet’s direction. There are some wonderfully creative camera angles, including a shot of the two main characters Andy and Hank Hanson which frames them from below allowing them to hang their heads in fear and shame while the viewer still gets to see their expressions. Also, simply look at how this film is lit. Andy’s office and the drug dealer’s apartment are shown so sterile and cold which connects us completely with Andy’s emotional façade. Every once in a while, the cinematography draws attention to itself when it switches from steady cam to handheld camera work. The dramatic changes in style helped keep me alert and in sync with the frustrating tension throughout the entire film.

I almost avoided watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The title evoked images of evil beyond evil, and the film definitely lives up to that image. Yet, the film is more emotionally wrenching then violent. While there are some graphically violent images, there’s nothing worse here than in something like 3:10 to Yuma or for that matter The Godfather. What makes Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead a somewhat oppressive experience is that we spend two hours with horrible people in unimaginably unpleasant situations. I remember a colleague of mine mentioning that her daughter wanted to walk out of the movie, but decided to stick it out because she was in the middle of a crowded aisle. After seeing the film, I can definitely understand why she might not want to keep spending time with these characters.

I’ve never had the desire to turn a film off because of its unpleasant subject matter. As a matter of fact, I enjoy being emotionally connected to a film, even if the emotions aren’t all pleasant. What would make me stop watching would be violence (or the tension of impending violence) that I can’t handle. I’ve been able to handle all the violence I’ve ever seen in films, but I always dread that one image that may stay with me that I don’t want to think about over and over again. If you’re worried that this film is too violent, then I’d say that it’s not that bad. If you’re worried that this film is completely grim and hopeless, then your worry may very well be justified.

The very first scene gratuitously shows Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Gina (Marissa Tomei) having sex. Afterwards, they chat a bit giving you the feeling that there are some serious problems in this marriage. Every scene in the rest of the film connects to a crime gone wrong which results in the death of the mother of Andy and Hank (Ethan Hawke). We first see Hank’s life for the week before the crime occurs, then we see Andy’s, then we go back to Hank in the hours after, then Andy, then their father Charles (Albert Finney), and so on and so on. The film jumps around with time in a way that felt a little strained and became slightly distracting. The twists and turns in the plot aren’t significant enough to justify the annoyance of the gimmicky time jumps.

The most unpleasant yet effective aspect of the film is the fact that many of these characters are responsible for actions that are beyond despicable. Only one character in the film isn’t pathetic in some profound way. Hoffman’s Andy is worst of all, and Hoffman is such a powerful actor that he makes every moment his character appears on screen uncomfortable and cringe worthy. Hawke’s Hank on the one hand is much less disgusting and messed up than Andy, but on the other hand, his culpability in the crime itself is much greater than Andy’s. His evil actions are motivated by the fact that he doesn’t have enough money to pay child support to his ex-wife. Underneath the surface, though, Hank is fighting for his personal dignity and self-respect, both of which have been stripped away from him by everyone in his life, especially his brother Andy. Despite this, it’s impossible to feel sorry for Hank because as messed up as life can be, good people don’t commit crimes that put their family in danger.

Andy and Hank only intended to rob from their parents’ jewelry store to get money—Hank for child support and Andy to start over since he’s about to be caught swindling money from his company. They never meant for anyone to get hurt, especially their mother. In the grand scheme of things, though, does this really make much of a difference? Only the very worst people on earth can follow through with a crime like that and justify that their intentions weren’t all that bad. Neither brother is crippled by guilt after the crime. Instead, they are enslaved by the obsession that they must not get caught. This new motivation results in the film’s bloody conclusion.

Hoffman is terrifically unsettling as Andy, and Hawke completely holds his own even in scenes with the two of them together. Tomei’s Gina is a thankless role requiring her to be nude in more than one scene without much else to do. Yet, Tomei is excellent, as she has been in many films recently. Finney, as the father, seems like he might have studied Hoffman’s acting because he similarly goes way over the top in a role that requires him to be on the brink of a total breakdown throughout. The conclusion of the film gives us some obvious imagery about the one character who may be able to escape eternal damnation (figuratively at least). Personally, the ending felt a little too neat and clean and therefore, it felt disconnected with the chaotic and ruthless tone of the rest of the film. Yet, it’s not the last scene that has stayed with me all day. I can’t shake loose how evil these people were, and in turn how evil people have the capacity to be.

Lumet delivers a powerfully gripping cinematic tragedy. I’m amazed that at his age and with his accomplishments, Lumet wanted to throw himself into the world of these appalling characters. On his page, it says that Lumet is signed on to direct a film slated for a 2009 release. That will make him eighty-five. Good for him! Though not for everyone, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an effective portrait of people that only make the world that much more dank. Don’t be ashamed to feel morally superior to Hank and Andy. It’s not really our place to judge others, but maybe there are some rare exceptions for people like Andy and Hank.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

June 3, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007) ***

Directed by James Mangold

The ending saved this movie big time! For the first hour and forty-five minutes of this two hour film, I felt repeatedly manipulated which caused me to get angrier and angrier. The final scene could be argued by some to be stretching the complicated moral nature of Crowe’s Ben Wade a bit too far. Yet, it worked for me. Maybe I bought into it because I appreciated that this film was brave enough not to settle for a clean cut happy ending. Just about every scene preceding the end was predictable and formulaic. A surprise ending therefore was most welcomed!

Of course, one must keep in mind that this is a remake of a western from 1957 of the same name directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. I have not seen the film yet (I look forward to comparing the two and seeing whether my criticisms of the more recent version hold up), so I am not sure whether the far-fetched story progression and the ridiculously lame final shoot out should be blamed on the old version or Mangold’s version reviewed here. Either way, I’ll judge the 2007 version as an autonomous film for now and praise and blame it in its own right.

Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a crippled former Civil War soldier with a wife and two sons, the older one resenting his father’s lack of pride and courage. The character’s name is William and is played by Logan Lerman. Dan owes a debt to a pretty rotten guy that burns down his barn, cuts off water flow to the house and threatens to burn his house down if the debt is not paid for in two weeks.

Enter Ben Wade, a notorious and black hearted criminal who leads a villainous, hard-core posse. If a member of the posse makes a mistake, then Wade will not hesitate to shoot him dead. They ambush a coach carrying cash and manned by Pinkertons, or policemen, killing all but one passenger. The spared man is Byron McElroy, played by the great Peter Fonda, who rounds up a posse of his own, though they’re not really much to speak of in terms of skill or brawn. They capture Ben Wade and begin a mission to put him on a train to Yuma prison. Dan offers to help provided he gets paid $200 to clear his debt.

The rest of the movie involves the journey. Ben Wade is smarter and more ruthless than any man accompanying him and sometimes gets the upper hand. Then he ends up losing it again because of the luckiest coincidence possible. Control goes back and forth between the men, especially Dan, and Ben. Sometimes, they even have to join forces to fight a common enemy.

Christian Bale is one of the most hyped actors in Hollywood, and after just visiting his page, I realized that I’ve really never seen him in a movie before, except for Newsies and Empire of the Sun, both of which I’ve only seen clips and both of which he was still a boy. If I were a betting man, I’d bet a huge amount of money that Bale will be an Oscar winner in the next eight years. By far, Bale’s performance is the best part of 3:10 to Yuma. He’s quiet and stoic when he needs to be and vulnerable and scared other times as well. Personally, I think Bale stole every scene he was in with Russell Crowe.

No one can deny Crowe’s talent as an actor. Here, I don’t think he is menacing enough. He comes off more as a wise ass than a dangerous presence. Logan Lerman’s performance as 14 year old William taught me something I didn’t know before—emo teenagers existed back in the late 1800s. Talk about adolescent angst! For most of the movie, Lerman has the most exaggerated scowl on his face. William acts like the sort of kid that shoots cats with a BB gun and then goes inside to play with matches. This kid needs to tone the acting down about twenty-two notches.

Speaking of an actor that needs to restrain himself, Ben Foster gives a truly bad cartoon-like performance as Charlie Prince. Think of a redneck mixed with Zac Efron, and you get what comes across in his performance. Foster still looks like a boy, and therefore he has all the villainous charisma of Shirley Temple. His performance is clichéd, mannered and embarrassing.

3:10 to Yuma contains quite a few, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” moments. First of all, when they catch Ben, they bring him first to Dan’s house to have dinner with everyone. Okay, why serve him as much food as everyone else? Why have him sit at the same table as a nine or ten year old boy? Most of all, WHY GIVE HIM A FORK WHICH HE WILL OBVIOUSLY USE LATER TO PUNCTURE A MAN’S NECK? The last twenty minutes of the film involve a final shootout between Dan and Ben’s posse. Dan is so completely outnumbered that I had to ask myself, “Why didn’t they just go in and shoot Dan and get Ben?” Were they really that afraid of Dan’s one gun as opposed to their twenty or thirty? Also, there’s no way, simply no way, that Dan would have survived that run to the train. We are supposed to believe that these crooks missed over and over and over and over again, even when Dan was running in the middle of the road. Finally, I rolled my eyes as Ben Wade reveals what event in his past made him so bad and misunderstood. Can’t a bad guy just be a bad guy? Do we really need this pseudo-psychological crap?

Once again, I do want to mention that I was extremely satisfied with the conclusion of the film. Also, the cinematography and the musical score are both top notch. Bale’s performance adds credibility as well. 3:10 to Yuma isn’t boring, that’s for sure. It’s a technically well-crafted film, and yes, I’d even admit that it can be fun at times. Unfortunately, there’s too much that antagonized me in this 2007 version to consider it a real winner. My expectation for the 1957 version has been lowered significantly. You never know… maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Top Ten Movies of May 2008 (and the five worst)

June 3, 2008

The Top Ten Movies of May 2008 (and the five worst)

Counting short films, I watched 51 movies in May! I think that’s impressive and pathetic at the same time. Anyway, just counting feature films, I saw 43 films this month which I will choose from to pick my ten favorites and my five least favorites.

10. Juno- Though I saw its flaws much clearer this month on my second viewing, I still recognize Juno as a brilliant and very funny look at a fully realized title character in a difficult yet believable situation with heartwarming results.

9. Rebecca- This is a sly film, challenging us to hate a character that doesn’t even appear in the movie itself. I despised Rebecca the character which made me love Rebecca the movie even more!

8. Blowup- I don’t think I’ll ever forget what an odd but absorbing film Antonioni made in the late 1960’s. Blowup forces the viewer to interpret parts of the film that aren’t automatically clear. This is a film for thinkers (or anyone that enjoys fashion).

7. The French Connection- Popeye Doyle continues to scare the crap out of me! I’m so glad I gave this film another chance because The French Connection is infinitely better than I gave it credit for ten years ago.

6. The Maltese Falcon- I am a little concerned about the fact that I can’t help pointing out flaws in films that I see, even if I love the film overall. That being said, I couldn’t think of a single flaw in The Maltese Falcon when I was writing my review. Here is a perfect movie. I know that I’ll watch this film over and over again in my lifetime.

5. The Bicycle Thief- This film is so damn gorgeous and poetic, yet it’s extremely entertaining and accessible. Watching De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief was a truly wonderful experience. I love this film!

4. Once- Keep in mind that the top three films on my list this month are three of the very best films I’ve ever seen. They would have to be in order to make a film like Once come in fourth place. Watching Once for the first time was one of the great cinematic experience of my entire life. Watching it for the second time allowed me to relive that wonderful experience all over again.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial- Here was the most powerful emotional response I had to a film this month. The sheer happiness and jubilation I felt watching E.T. made me that much more content with the fact that I will be spending a good portion of my life watching as many films as I can! This is one of the true treasures of American cinema.

2. Sunset Blvd.- Even though it’s at number 13 on my greatest films list, it’s definitely one of my five favorite movies of all time. Watching Sunset Blvd. for the second time this month made me appreciate how completely engrossing and entertaining Wilder’s dark masterpiece truly is!

1. Casablanca- Though I have a greater affection for Sunset Blvd., that film (and the eight others on this list) aren’t in the same league as Casablanca, a film so brilliant in its dialogue and timeless in its appeal that it earns the right to be hailed as the most beloved film of all time. Casablanca exemplifies exactly what movies are capable of achieving.

And the bottom five:

5. Out of Africa

4. Across the Universe

3. The Prince of Tides

2. The Birth of a Nation

1. Silent Running


June 3, 2008

Gandhi (1982) *****

Directed by Richard Attenborough

At some point while watching Gandhi, I stopped judging it as a film. There is really only one single moment of cinematic indulgence, and that is the final image of water flowing with sitar music playing in the background. Otherwise, the film feels real, organic, focused and surprisingly humble. I believe Gandhi himself would approve of Attenborough’s triumphant 1982 biopic. It got to the point where I couldn’t think about performances or cinematography or direction—I just focused on Gandhi himself and his story. I was deeply moved and inspired by Gandhi’s message of peaceful aggression against injustice, and the film itself has the courage to let its audience experience the man rather than a film about the man. Attenborough’s Gandhi has been lauded, but the film isn’t often mentioned as one of the best movies of the last thirty years, though I think it absolutely deserves to be hailed as such. Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary has an entry called The Gandhi Film which refers to a movie that once you’ve seen it, you have no reason or desire to go back and see it again. The individual who submitted this entry (Ebert allows contributions from his readers) maybe needs another viewing. If any film deserves to be revisited by today’s generation, I’d say Gandhi might just be it.

Ben Kingsley gives a powerhouse performance as the title character. Kingsley has the ability to be an ethnic chameleon, playing Arab, Jewish, White and Indian. Other than a small role in 1972’s Fear is the Key, this was Kingsley first movie role, and it is perhaps the greatest debut performance in history. He won the Oscar that year and has since gone on to be one of the most interesting and busiest actors in Hollywood. By the second and third hours, I stopped seeing Kingsley’s acting and started seeing Gandhi. This performance is spectacular, sometimes stoic and sometimes eccentric, but always complicated just like the man himself.

Every once in a while, we see shots which look like they contain thousands of extras. I’m not sure if they were done with special effects, but they looked absolutely convincing. In these impressive sequences, Attenborough never seems to dwell on the grand elements of these scenes, but instead allows everything to feel authentic and extremely organized. Out of Africa, another epic filmed three years later, is all over the place with its cinematography, while Gandhi in comparison remains ultra-focused and simple, which helps the intricate story to remain clear. There is an intimate feel to Attenborough’s direction within what is obviously a huge epic production.

I didn’t know before seeing the film that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was first a well trained British lawyer. He first experiences injustice in apartheid South Africa when he is thrown off a train for refusing to sit in third class with the rest of the “blacks,” as they refer to him. The British Empire controls South Africa and as such, Gandhi begins to feel that Britain needs to know exactly how unjust their strongholds are. Eventually, he moves back home to India where British police are acting like tyrants. Gandhi leads his people in peaceful noncooperation movements, including sit outs, fasts and walks that lead directly into beatings.

Eventually, the British police get so frustrated that they open fire on a group of Indian protestors locked inside of a prison yard. Over 1500 were killed, which adds international support and fame to Gandhi and his mission of an independent India. Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen play two members of the press eager to show this fascinating man to the world. Once the British Empire releases their hold on India giving Gandhi and his people the independence they fought for, Gandhi next attempts to bring peace to a conflict between Hindi India and Muslim Pakistan. Gandhi fasts for peace almost to the point of death before peace is finally felt in the land. Unfortunately, he is assassinated a few days later.

Gandhi wasn’t born a revolutionary. As a matter of fact, he seems to have been born very privileged. In fighting against injustice, he realizes that he must assimilate himself with the people he is representing. This led him to wear almost nothing but a cloth wrapping, even when visiting dignitaries like the Pope or the King and Queen of England. We privileged Americans can follow in his footsteps, giving up everything for a cause greater than ourselves. Most of us just aren’t as brave as Gandhi. This man deserves a perfect film, and Richard Attenborough gave him exactly what he deserves!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Place in the Sun

June 1, 2008

A Place in the Sun (1951) *****

Directed by George Stevens

A Place in the Sun is a chilling masterpiece that plays around with mood in a way I had never seen before. I didn’t know anything about this film as I began watching. The first hour comes across upbeat and sunny, while the second hour pivots into a pitch-black tone of judgment and condemnation. What’s refreshing about Stevens’ film, which is based on a play that’s based on a novel, is that good and evil are not always obvious to the characters themselves. One can reach his or her own opinion about whether or not George Eastman is a monster or a victim. The character himself struggles with his guilt or innocence all the way up to the second to last scene, so that his final journey in the last scene carries with it an acceptance of personal culpability (or lack thereof). I thought I finalized my judgment of George more than once while watching the film, and yet, I changed my mind completely at the end, which forced me to reevaluate the character instantly and intensely. Therefore, when the film was over, it really stuck with me!

Montgomery Clift, with all the charisma of James Dean a decade later, plays George Eastman, a poor young man from an odd background whose uncle owns a factory in which George becomes a laborer. His mother turned to a life of religious fervor leading street hymns and running a mission. Nine out of ten workers at the factory are women, and George is warned that it is strict company policy that employees do not socialize together. A young woman named Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters) catches George’s eye, and they secretly date, leading to a bad decision one night that leaves Alice pregnant with George’s baby. Before he learns about this, George submits a financial plan to his uncle, Earl Eastman (Keefe Brasselle), who invites George to a party at his house in order to offer him a promotion.

At the party, George catches the eye of Angela Vickers, the daughter of wealthy parents who are friends of Earl Eastman and his wife. Angela is played by Elizabeth Taylor, who is absolutely stunning in this picture. It’s kind of sad that my generation really only knows Elizabeth Taylor as the media hungry nutbar which she became later in her life. When she does pass away, I believe that a new respect will be given to Taylor by younger adults once they discover what a true talent she was. I’ve seen her in Giant, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and now A Place in the Sun, and I’ve come to recognize her as one of the great screen actresses in history.

Angela and George quickly fall madly in love, which presents a real conundrum for George when he learns of Alice’s pregnancy. In a very brave scene for a film from 1951, Alice visits a doctor to seek an abortion, but the doctor refuses. It seems the only option left for George is to honor his responsibility to marry Alice as soon as possible. They agree to marry on September 1st, but this must change when Angela invites George to spend his holiday with her and her family. George lies to Alice about why he needs to postpone the wedding, and she discovers his lie when the papers print a picture of George and Angela together. Alice calls George at Angela’s parents’ house and demands that they get married immediately or else she will go to the newspapers and tell them everything.

George and Angela by this point have fallen totally in love with each other, and hearing about a semi-private lake where a young couple drowned the previous summer, George begins to think of a plan to eliminate Alice from his life so that he and Angela can be together. George rents a boat (under a false name) and takes Angela out to a part of the lake where the two of them are totally alone. George contemplates killing Alice, but then seems to change his mind. Alice stands up which causes the boat to tip. George is able to swim to safety, but Alice drowns. He walks through the woods to try and find the road and comes across some boy scouts that later identify him in court.

George returns to Angela trying to pretend the whole thing never happened. Unfortunately, the district attorney’s office decides to investigate the death of Alice and eventually arrest George for murder. A trial ensues which, if George is found guilty, would have him sent to the electric chair.

The very best scenes in the movie occur after the trial is over, where George believes that he is innocent, but then is forced to look at the reality that his one time desire to kill Alice did in fact lead to her death. I can’t recall any other courtroom drama where someone’s guilt is so unclear to everyone, even the accused himself. Angela abandons George so as not to appear in the paper. I really started hating Angela towards the end of the film, and then she visits George and that scene made me see her and George in a new light.

A Place in the Sun is a sad and grim look at a selfish individual who makes a huge mistake which he must pay for. The performances are wonderful, the direction is top notch, often intermingling fantasy and reality in a single frame, and the conclusion is truly haunting. A Place in the Sun gets to the core of the complexities of a murder case in which the accused isn’t a monster nor a victim—just a flawed human being, as we all are, who must pay for his fatal mistakes.


June 1, 2008

Detour (1945) ****

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmar

I realize that many of the films that I review on my blog most likely aren’t familiar to today’s average moviegoer. Hell, I bet more than ninety-five percent of teenagers today have never heard of the film Sunset Blvd. Yet, just about all of the films on my film blog would be familiar to a film buff or someone that has a good memory for movies. My father may not have heard of a film like Gone Baby Gone that was released in 2007, but I absolutely guarantee you that he’s heard of Adam’s Rib and The Bicycle Thief since they were made before 1975. Detour may be the first film that my dad, or just about anyone else that may come across my blog, has no familiarity with at all

The only reason I watched and am now reviewing Detour is because it was included in the first volume of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books. Netflix has it listed as part of a collection of minor film noir films called Killer Movies. It’s on the volume 2 DVD. When I looked at the envelope that it came in, I saw that it had a running time of 67 minutes, the shortest feature length running time of any film I’ve ever seen (to my recollection). Since all of the other films in Ebert’s book that I’ve watched so far have been either famous or revered, I opened up his book to the Detour page just to make sure I was about to watch the right movie. Yep, I got the right movie, but in glancing at the page, I couldn’t help but read Ebert’s first sentence about Detour. “Detour is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” Oh, great, I thought. I’m about to watch a dud.

Well, why then did Ebert include it? I adore Ebert’s writing and often I respect his taste in film. Without a doubt I respect his brilliance in understanding film as a whole. Yet, sometimes I just have no idea where he’s coming from. He gave Silent Running, a film I despised, four stars. He included A Christmas Story in his second volume of great movies. He co-wrote the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which I’ve never seen, but from everything I’ve heard about the film, is pretty terrible in the eyes of everyone except maybe Ebert himself. So, was he including a tacky film to go along with his sometimes tacky judgment?

Once I’m done writing and posting this review, I’m going to go back and find out what he sees in Detour which makes him include it among ninety-nine other great film choices. Detour is simply not great. It’s a low budget crime noir with horrible editing and not much to look at on screen. While the film does not deserve a place in Ebert’s book, I’ve got to admit that I enjoyed it a lot, despite its flaws. I’m not sure I agree with Ebert that the direction is bad enough to get an F in film school. I’d probably give it a C+.

What I’d give an A to would be Detour’s reliance on pure unadulterated film noir. Here is a film which from beginning to end contains consistently sexy, suspenseful and elevated dialogue spoken by actors that know how to milk each and every single line. This is one of those films that evokes thoughts of thick smoke—either from cigarettes or fog. Tom Neal, when he’s not sitting at a piano with a cigarette ridiculously hanging from his lips, does a truly excellent job getting the internal struggle of Al Roberts just right in his facial expression and especially in his delivery of his lines. Ann Savage evokes a mix of Norma Desmond and the Wicked Witch of the West in her performance as Vera, a hitchhiker so intense that she forgets to blink. While I wouldn’t give Savage any awards, her unbelievably over the top delivery works in this genre. Here is a film that William Hurt and Kathleen Turner should have studied before making Body Heat. Their performances aren’t in the same hemisphere as Savage’s. Perhaps the best noir acting is somewhere between Savage and Turner, yet out of the two I’d rather take Savage’s performance because she knows the truth that noir does not work if any actor holds back.

The plot is convoluted. Al Roberts is a piano player whose girlfriend leaves for Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune. He hitchhikes cross country to be with her and meets Charles Haskell Jr. on the way. When Haskell dies in the car, Roberts decides to steal his car and his identity. He picks up a hitchhiker at a gas station named Vera who coincidentally once rode with the real Charles Haskell in the past. She uses her knowledge to blackmail and hold Al hostage so that they can sell the car and she can get the money. They rent an apartment together as husband and wife, where their relationship almost turns romantic, but not quite. The next day, just as Al is about to sell the car, Vera reads that Charles Haskell Sr. is about to die and is searching for his son to leave him his inheritance. Vera decides she wants to go after the inheritance. Al has had enough and fights back with accidentally tragic results. This brings him to the diner he appears in both at the beginning and the end of the movie. Finally, as it has been doing all throughout, fate has another laugh at Al’s expense—the last laugh.

Detour envelopes itself in the film noir genre, really embracing it. As such, it becomes such a strong example of what so many loved about those sexy old films. I haven’t seen too many film noirs (Double Indemnity and the Maltese Falcon are the two that come to mind), but I have yet to see a noir that isn’t absolutely absorbing. Detour is a technical mess, but it is a cinematic success because it wants only to be sleek, smoky and sexy.

Note: My dad was floored that I thought he might not have heard of Detour. He told me that he's been watching Detour over and over again since he was a kid. My father then showed me a book a classic B-movies, which mentioned Detour. So, sorry Dad! Didn't mean to insult your movie knowledge!