Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Spider is a fascinating movie, although not an easy one to watch. Ralph Fiennes is astounding as Dennis Cleg/Spider, a schizophrenic man trying to get back into society after being institutionalized for many years. He is surprised to find that the boarding house he's staying in is right in the neighborhood where he grew up. Wandering around the neighborhood, he happens to look inside a window, and is compelled to watch a little boy interacting with his mother. We discover that he is in fact watching himself as a boy. We see his mother telling young Dennis about Spiders, Dennis takes to making webs out of string, thus she gives him the nickname, Spider.

I'm being careful not to give too much away here, as the film depends on a slow unveiling of details to work, but I can say that Dennis/Spider revisits his past many times. The effect of having Spider watching his memories as they occur again in front of him is nothing but remarkable, enabling us to have flashbacks while at the same time continuing in the present. It's like an extended version of those scenes in "It's a Wonderful Life" except with no angel, and no happy ending on the way(we already know where Spider ends up in the future.)

Fiennes' Spider is a badly broken man. He constructs routines to try and stay cohesive, coffee at the same time in the same seat, solves puzzles, smokes obsessively and scribbles strange symbols in a notebook. His desperation is riveting and unsettling. We watch his routines change (and his reactions to changes)as he becomes more immersed in visiting the past. Spider rarely says a word but we watch him clawing to express some mystery that he can't quite reach.

Miranda Richardson also does an amazing job here as Spider's loving mother as well as another part which I'll recommend you don't even think about until after you've watched it. But I will say the performance is brilliant and you'll see why. Gabriel Byrne is Spider's father, a pretty affable guy (at first) who likes to hang out at the bar. His character has a lot of ground to cover with not a lot of screen time, but he covers it all and drives home a heartbreaking scene. (Which again I won't talk much about)

Director Cronenberg knows how movies work, and he knows what we expect. We can't help but feel for Spider as he tries to navigate his own mind to fix what's broken. Watching his sincere urgency as he tries to step into the past is almost physically affecting. We so badly want him to solve the puzzle and the mind to fix itself. Puzzles and webs are central to this movie, and tellingly, in one scene, they are both the same. Every detail in this movie feels intricately planned to lead us somewhere. Just keep in mind that we are being led by Spider, who may not be the most reliable guide. It all makes sense, but not the way you want it to.

Be forewarned that again, this is a challenging movie to watch. If you're uncomfortable with watching serious mental illness, do not watch this film. This movie is not any relation of "A Beautiful Mind" There are no monsters, and not much really happens but I think of Spider as one of the smartest horror movies ever made, intricate and intense in its measured unfolding.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

First Snow

First Snow feautures Guy Pearce as Jimmy Starks, an ambitious and confident salesman. He's the kind of salesman that bases everything on a firm handshake and critiques everyone's salesmanship whether bartender or fortuneteller. As a salesman, and a big fan of Guy Pearce, I may be a bit biased but I found all these traits helped round out a likeable character. Starks doesn't wish anybody ill, but his fault is that he's only out for himself. His surface is pleasant but shallow. He's a good flooring salesman, with an ambitious plan to sell jukeboxes, which he needs to raise money for.

Starks' car breaks down in a desert in the middle of nowhere and in order to pass the time, he visits a local fortune teller with a cardboard sign propped outside his trailer. The fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) predicts a windfall from Dallas, and an impossible outcome for a basketball game. Starks ask him to dig a little deeper, offering to pay more than the normal fee, all the while, commenting on the act. The fortune teller takes his hand and then appears to go into a seizure. He refuses to answer any questions and even refunds Starks money, insisting that the session is over. Spooked but also skeptical, Starks writes it off, until the unlikely predictions both come true.

Unpleasant things start happening (hang up calls, death threats in the mail) and Starks can't shake the experience with the fortune teller, assuming rightly that the fortune teller's seizure means he saw the end of the road for him. He visits the fortune teller again and forces the information out of him at gunpoint. Simmons is terrific in this role, by the way. He exudes a gentle cheerfulness and quiet knowledge that make his character completely believable. Even faced down at gunpoint he is graceful and only wants to help. He tells Starks that he's safe until the First Snow. "think of it as a gift. most people don't know." he says, but Starks, of course doesn't agree.

Starks sets out to find out what will supposedly kill him. He rules out his heart murmur after a check up. He then confronts a fellow salesman that he had to fire recently, (Rick Gonzalez)and learns that an old friend and business partner who has good reason to despise Starks, was released from jail early on parole.

His paranoia grows as he tries to track down the cause of his upcoming demise. However this is certainly a case of the observer affecting the observed as his efforts to stop his fate only seem to create more danger. Whether or not he can escape his fate, he does manage to set some things right on the way. His bad side and good side are both magnified and you can't help but to hope he figures it out. I enjoyed the character study more than the thriller aspects of the film as Pearce gives Starks a complexity that makes his journey riveting to watch.

Solid acting all around, even the minor characters were great,including William Fitchner as Starks' fellow salesman who unsuccessfully tries to talk down his paranoia, and Piper Perabo as Starks' girlfriend Deirdre, who doesn't know how to deal with him falling apart. Writer/Director Mark Fergus delivers a solid, engrossing film.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Last Life in the Universe

The Last Life in the Universe is easily one of the most textured movies I've ever seen. This film is deeply sad, vulgar and beautiful all at once. While many drastic things happen in the movie, they all seem to happen quietly as if in a dream or meditation. While there are questions of what happened or didn't happen, it ultimately didn't matter to me as I believed the emotional world the characters lived in. Visually there are so many stunning scenes in this movie that I think it would almost work as a picture book. The lighting and soft but full colors work together brilliantly to accentuate the dreamlike quality.

It's the characters that really make it connect though. Kenji(Tadanobu Asano),the main character, is an introverted librarian who constantly plans different suicides and has some connection to the Yakuza. When an act of violence compels him to leave his home, he heads for a nearby bridge to consider jumping off, only to witness two sisters having an argument which ends with one sister getting out of the car and run over by passing traffic. Kenji wants to leave town and Noi(Sinitta Boonyasak), the surviving sister, has a place to go and doesn't want to be alone. Of course Kenji, a compulsive neat freak, soon finds that Noi has no concern for neatness at all and he soon cleans the towers of used dishes and other filth until the place is spotless. (the clean up scene is amazing) From there, we learn that Kenji and Noi are complete opposites. She's as reckless as he is careful. They don't even speak the same language and can only communicate verbally because each knows a little English.

The real triumph of this movie is that these two characters find a connection in each other's loneliness. While many movies would have pushed the romantic angle, this is not that movie. Their bond is much deeper than romance, language or philosophy, so much so that it seems they form their own world inside their shared grief and loneliness. It's a temporary world, and neither intends to fix the other. But I find it a wonderful idea that the two could make this space where the outside world is irrelevant, and they can exist together with their pain suspended, even if only for awhile. This world is so complete that Noi even changes places with Nid (Laila Boonyasak) the dead sister, and it doesn't feel out of place.

While the characters are not repaired, they are changed by their meeting. THe sense of warmth that develops between the two is impossible to convey. Both actors do an amazing job bringing so much emotion to understated performances. Although their relationship is physically nothing more than sitting on the couch together, in this film that is a remarkably beautiful thing. Even the small details seem perfectly planned, like the book Kenji carries around called "The Last Lizard" which is a children's book, that as the name suggests, is about a lizard who wakes up and realizes he's the last one. the orange Kenji drops into the water while planning to jump, the palm trees around the house, and I'll stop there. This movie touches a particular feeling so deeply that it's overwhelming, especially since I can't recall another movie touching it at all. Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has created a unique masterpiece.

There are also shootings, chases, escapes and ugly incidents. Of course the story has to end, but the ending is open enough that even if you don't believe in happy endings (I don't imagine that Kenji or Noi really do) you can have some hope that it isn't all bad.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Out of the Past

Out of the Past is a masterpiece of mood by director Jacques Tourneur. Shot beautifully in Black and White, the shadows are as much a character as any of the cast. The film starts building a sense of foreboding immediately with a hitman finding Robert Mitchum's character, Jeff Markham hiding out in his assumed identiy as gas station owner Jeff Bailey. It's telling that his only employee is a kid who is deaf and mute.

Mitchum is tremendous in this role, world weary, mysterious and haunted. He's seen it all and isn't easily rattled, live or die it's all the same to him, but all the same he won't go out without a fight and a wisecrack. He's tough and smarter than most and he's well aware of both. The starring role was almost taken by Humphrey Bogart, but instead turned out to be Mitchum's first lead role. The performance launched his career from there. Bogart would've been good, but I think Mitchum's more low key fatalist demeanor really made the film.

The inital set up is that Jeff Markham took on a new identity as Jeff Bailey and opened up a gas station in a little town to extricate himself from his messy former life as a hardnosed PI. Joe Stefanos(Paul Valentine), a hitman working for Whit Sterling, (the client Markham doublecrossed before disappearing) finds Markham at the gas station. On greeting Joe and the prospect of a meeting with Whit(Kirk Douglas), Markham is totally unsurprised. He certainly realizes that the fantasy he built for himself is all over, but he only says, totally deadpan,
"I wish I was happier to see you."

Douglas' Whit is the perfect foil for Mitchum's Markham. Cool, collected and powerful, serving up revenge in the most efficient way possible. Before his disappearance, Markham was hired to find Whit's girl Kathie (Jane Greer)and ended up falling for her and planning a get away together (some money was also stolen) When things went really bad, Markham disappeared into his Jeff Bailey life.

On finding Markham, Whit says he'll overlook the doublecross if Markham takes on another job for him. Whit exudes pure malice for Markham, but plays it straight on the surface, presenting Markham a way out which both of them know is designed to get Markham deeper into trouble.

Mitchum and Douglas talk almost entirely in double meanings, neither willing to give up his true hand entirely to the other. It turns out that Kathie returned to Whit after their trouble. Whit makes Markham aware of this by bringing Kathy out and saying
"You remember Kathy dont you?"
"Yeah I remember Kathy." Markham replies, without the slightest change in inflection.

The dialogue is so sharp, that it's hard not to laugh at the audacity of Markham. He knows what page everyone is on but doesn't let on, as if he knows he's too sharp to be beaten, or he just doesn't care and wants to be entertained.

Most of the past doublecross is explained by Markham telling it to his latest girlfriend, Ann Miller(Virginia Huston) Ann is a sweet and wholesome, girl next door, who Markham really cares about. Of course Markham has as much chance at a future with her as he does of running a gas station forever. Markham attracts trouble and sometimes runs right into it. With Kathie back in the picture even fully aware that she can't be trusted, it's no mystery which way Markham will go and all three of them know it. Meeting with Anne after the new job starts to blow up, Ann, speaking of Kathie says
"She can't be all bad, nobody is."
Markham answers.
"She comes the closest."
But even so, he can't walk away.

Markham figures out immediately that the new job is a set up. He discusses leaving his fingerprints on a glass while having a drink with a guy due to be murdered. But he plays along as if knowing he can outsmart and out shoot everybody.

Although Whit comes across as a vicious and dangerous guy, with a foolproof scheme to snare Markham, you have to agree that Markham would beat everyone at their own game if he wasn't on some level agreeable to his own downfall. His smartest trick is manuevering himself into it without playing down to his opponents.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This Gun For Hire

This Gun for Hire was based on a story by Graham Greene and was also the breakout role for ALan Ladd. Ladd's Raven is the big reason to watch this movie. From nearly the start, it's clear that we are not dealing with the popular Hollywood hit man who only kills bad people. Raven has no problem at all shooting an innocent woman for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The character clearly is not comfortable with and/or unable to deal with the intricacies of social interaction. Ladd's cold portrayal of the killer is simply fantastic. He seems to think nothing more of killing than of brushing his teeth.

He is not totally emotionless however, having a soft spot for cats, and at a pivotal scene in the character's development, he considers killing a crippled girl who could be a loose end later. Although he opts not to, there is no question that he was capable of going the other way.

He does have emotions, they're just a long way down the moral scale. As you might expect, because we do need some conflict, Raven is doublecrossed by his employer,Gates (Laird Cregar) who pays him in counterfeit bills so he'll be picked up by the cops and out of the picture. Gates is the middleman and clearly a coward. He also owns a nightclub, which is how Veronica Lake's character Ellen becomes mixed up in the mess.

Raven learns of the doublecross just before the cops close in and of course heads out to get his revenge. On the train out of town, he runs into Ellen, a special agent on an undercover assignment to work at Gate's nightclub looking for information on the anti-american organization Gates works for. While Lake certainly carries the role competently, there isn't much to the role. She develops some sympathy for Raven, ending up as his willing hostage, she digs into his psyche and learn something about why he's not a people person.

Ellen's boyfriend Michael Crane (Robert Preston)is, coincidentally, a police detective who's out looking for Raven. He and Ellen were about to get married, when Ellen's secret nightclub assignment came up. Of course, it is so top secret she can't even tell Michael about it.

The plot revolves around a secret formula which Raven procured from his victims in the beginning and handed over to Gates. While convoluted, it's fast paced enough to keep your attention. In short, Ellen needs to get the formula from the communists to help the USA, Raven needs revenge, and Michael needs to get Raven. It all comes through in the end. If you don't worry about plot devices and just watch Raven's journey to the end of the picture, you'll find it a very worthwhile experience.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity, with good reason, is often used as a perfect example of film noir. While it certainly succeeds there, this classification marginalizes the fact that it is simply a great film. Billy Wilder creates a bleak landscape where tenderness exists only to ensure the tragedy of its reach falling short.

Fred MacMurray is an inspired choice as Walter Neff. A competent insurance salesman who is used to being the smartest man in the room, a quality which he uses on charm and creating likeability, rather than proving his own worth to anyone else. It is Neff's knowledge of his own competence that dooms him. Neff is capable of anything, provided he has the motivation. That's where Phyliss Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) comes in. The innuendo laced patter between the two of them when first getting acquainted is worth the price of admission. The dialogue is great, (Thanks to Raymond Chandler) but it's the delivery that makes it perfect:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren't you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.

Neither of them bats an eye in this exchange.It becomes clear very quickly that they are both master manipulators playing off each other. Once lust comes into play, Neff is at a disadvantage. By regarding women as emotionally handicapped creatures, he underestimates the calculation that is second nature to Phyliss. I think it's the challenge that engages Neff, the idea that he can accomplish this impossible task (first the conquest of Phyliss, later getting away with Mr. Dietrich's murder.) that most men wouldn't even consider. His desire for Phyliss while certainly real physically, is mostly a device, he uses to sell himself the illegal and immoral elements of the action.

It's no accident that Neff is a salesman (and a good one.) He is well versed in reading people and playing the part that gets results. His only authentic interactions with anyone are those with Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson)the insurance company's investigator. The two have a deep mutual respect and even affection for each other, perhaps based on each other's marked difference from the "average" surrounding them.

The Neff and Keyes relationship is the real heart of the movie. The warmth between them a great contrast to the cold scheming between Neff and Phyliss. Their moment at the end is simply beautiful in it's futility. Keyes finds Neff bleeding with the cops on the way and they have this exchange:
Walter Neff: Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Barton Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Walter Neff: I love you, too.
It would be tough to get this across in a modern movie, the idea of this deep and real non-sexual affection between two men, with buzzwords like "bromance" floating around to diminish the idea. It doesn't need a name it just exists, and while it won't do either character any good, it does provide the only moment of real connection.