Monday, January 26, 2015

Recommended!: The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

The Noir City festival wrapped in San Francisco last night, and I'm not sure they could have booked a better series-closer than The Honeymoon Killers. The film ended a series of film noirs (and related others) spun around a theme of marriage gone wrong, and in addition to being the latest movie (from 1969, shot well after the classic noir period), its berserk low-budget energy and free-floating amorality made for a hell of a finale.

One of several cinematic treatments of the Fernandez/Beck murders of the late-40s, it's the single directing effort of screenwriter Leonard Kastle, who took over from the young Martin Scorsese (canned from the project for working too slow). The movie's bizarre pacing and carefree camera placement betray its director's inexperience, but the performances wind up carrying it. As oily-smooth, lonely-hearts con man Ray Fernandez and cranky, overweight, lovelorn nurse Martha Beck, Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler aren't given quite a clear, linear path from lonely strangers into mad-loving psychopaths, but they definitely exhibit and feel the chemistry necessary to sell that transition. And the various women they con, romance, and kill along the way could easily have been rendered as one-dimensional stereotypes, but all wind up being very different from one another, and fully-realized characters to boot.  Mary Jane Higby, as a none-too-bright would-be hatmaker, gets the most screen time of her fellow victims, and with some sharply observed details, mainly her use of the word "cute" to describe all she finds agreeable, she makes the strongest impression. But Kip McArdle is at least as solid as Delphine Downing, a curiously patriotic single mom who would turn out to be Ray & Martha's undoing.

In spite of, or hell, maybe even because of the movie's low-budget and attendant energy, The Honeymoon Killers winds up beautifully capturing a certain American grotesquerie and desperation. It's unsurprising that both Francois Truffaut and John Waters named it a favorite American movie (indeed, some of Shirley Stoler's more violent outbursts anticipate Divine's work for Waters - when she tells a victim "You're the hottest bitch I've ever seen!" the viewer can only hang on for dear life). For all of the movie's white trash insanity it does captivate in ways that most low-budget schlock doesn't, and the movie's final title card is an emotional gutpunch. As brutally as it ends the story, it doesn't erase Martha and Ray from memory. Even a day after watching it, I haven't shaken them either.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Recommended!: Nighthawks (1981)

As the blockbuster mentality began to dominate Hollywood studios in the 1980s, auteurs established in the New Hollywood of the 1970s often found their ambitions thwarted, and their artistic control challenged, if not overruled. Potentially gritty movies were saddled with improbable happy endings, powerful ambiguity would give way to unsatisfyingly solid conclusions. The input of other directors, hired to make problematic (read: potentially less-than-profitable) movies more friendly, plus the interference of studios now more mindful of blockbuster profits to be made, would neuter many an otherwise interesting and gutsy movie around this time.

1981's Nighthawks, starring Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer (in his Hollywood debut), and Billy Dee Williams, and directed by Bruce Malmuth (with an uncredited assist by Stallone) is certainly one of these movies. It was wildly cut by Universal, who found the movie's notion of urban terrorism hitting New York City unrealistic. Many character-driven scenes were also cut in favor of a leaner, more action-oriented approach. To this day all involved seem to lament the loss of a novelistic, engrossing thriller that would anticipate the terrorist attacks of September 11.

And yet for all of this interference there's still quite enough to recommend Nighthawks as is. Stallone seems to have taken on the project as his own personal Serpico: his Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a surprisingly liberal policeman, and between his politics and his first appearance in the movie in female drag is the complete opposite the stolid, right-wing muscleman that Stallone often projects today. There's some of Stallone's finest acting on display here too: DaSilva initially clashes with British counter-terror expert Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport), and yet the moment when the two finally do find a common understanding forms a very strong bond between them, and the scene is beautifully played by streetwise Stallone & stage-trained Davenport both.

The action scenes Universal chose to emphasize over such moments do deliver, from a dizzying chase in the New York subway to a tense standoff on the Roosevelt Island tram. Hauer shows enormous presence as Wulfgar, the movie's main villain (a character modeled on Carlos the Jackal, still very much in public consciousness in 1981). Hauer turns 71 today, and revisiting his initial Hollywood bow in this compromised yet still engaging movie seems an ideal way to celebrate. The movie also remains a fascinating portrait of a city often shown as urban hell on earth, yet one that found the notion of terrorism within its limits merely a nightmare.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Recommended!: 99 River Street (1953)

The Noir City festival is in full swing in San Francisco, exhibiting a variety of classic movies and lesser-knowns in the noir genre. The subgenre of crime movies, spotlighting desperate heroes and femmes fatales in shadowy black-and-white urban nightmares, enjoys a strong popularity today (clear in the large and enthusiastic audiences attending Noir City screenings), but like many classics they can be difficult to find on line. Pleased as Jaman is to connect you with whole new worlds of viewing on line, we're going to be the first to tell you that not everything ever made can be streamed. And older movies can be especially hard to find, given that the studios don't see much value in making them available (an oversimplification of a very complex issue, but we're willing to bet you've had a hard time finding that obscure, known-only-to-you classic anywhere on line).

Happily (and maybe surprisingly), one of our favorite noir classics can be found on Netflix & Amazon. 99 River Street is the story of washed-up boxer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) whose wife becomes involved with a murderous jewel thief (Brad Dexter). When Driscoll is accused of his wife's murder at the thief's hands, he tracks the thief down aided only by a desperate but resourceful stage actress (Evelyn Keyes).

On paper a fairly straight-ahead yarn, 99 River Street is delivered with both knowing grace and high impact by Phil Karlson, a tough-guy but left-leaning auteur who churned out a number of tough, gritty crime movies during this time. There's something genuinely unsettling about the night-time settings of this movie. You share each character's desperation, and when violence does break out, as is usual with Karlson, it's sweaty, genuinely dangerous. Karlson's as good with actors as he is with noir atmosphere; John Payne (who enjoyed a second wind post-Miracle on 34th Street in a number of 50s thrillers) is a believable and rootable antagonist. Dexter played a number of heavies in this period, but no other movie took as much advantage of his soft-spoken menace or his moray eel teeth as this one. And Keyes is just dynamite throughout a number of challenges to the actress, including a gorgeous monologue that Karlson lights as starkly as Bergman.

The whole thing is well worth your time, whether you're an afficionado of classic films or a movie modernist ready to be surprised by just how tough a mid-50s movie can be. 99 River Street is a prime example of the film noir celebrated by Noir City (who've shown it at least once in their 13-year history), and as entertaining a picture as you'll find from any year, in any genre.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jaman's 2014 Top Ten List

Let's just do it.

BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: Boyhood (review here)

THE TOP TEN (in order seen):

Under the Skin
Jodorowsky's Dune/The Dance of Reality (review here)
The Rover (review here)

Goodbye to Language
Inherent Vice (review here)
The Babadook
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night


Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow (review here)
The Purge: Anarchy (review here)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Recommended! (sorta): Batman & Robin (1997)

And what a qualified recommendation this is. Batman & Robin is an absolutely execrable piece of moviemaking, killing the 80s/90s Batman franchise with ghastly color schemes, wooden action, stale villains, and director Joel Schumacher's addled camp excesses. (You could even argue that it wrecked the Batman franchise twice, as it paved the way for Christopher Nolan to reinvigorate the character with a pompous, overcompensatingly serious and self-aggrandizing trilogy.)

But goddammit, Michael Gough is fantastic in Batman & Robin. This incredibly accomplished actor racked up many credits in his nine-plus decades on Earth, working with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Powell & Pressburger in his early years. He made a strong impression in a number of British horror movies of the 50s and 60s, and then in his late career diversified wildly, working for such disparate directors as Wes Craven, Derek Jarman, and Tim Burton (becoming a company regular for those latter two). Always bringing solid characterization, a mellifluous voice, and a steady but never overbearing presence to everything he did. And that includes the four Batman movies by Burton and Schumacher.

As Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler and Batman's closest ally, Gough is exceptionally fine, and across all four movies is a supportive presence in the Wayne/Batman corner, the quintessential right-hand. Gough's Alfred is a man who knows when and where to step in when assistance is needed, but also when and where to address his employer man to man. Look at his scenes with Michael Keaton in Burton's Batman; addressing Master Bruce regarding the new woman in his life, Gough effortlessly balances the employee, the close friend, and the knowledgeable elder.

In the otherwise perfectly wretched Batman & Robin, Gough retains and even builds upon Alfred's previously established gravitas, his own debilitating illness juicing a personal stake in the threats facing Batman and Gotham City. It's a profound and unearned contrast to the otherwise gaudy action of the rest of the movie, but Gough makes it work. If he thinks that the whole thing is otherwise a mess but is at least tending to his own corner of that mess, it doesn't show. He remains the human heart of the franchise here. His humanity even accounts for a certain impishness that manages to account for the implication in Barbara's line "Suit me up, Uncle Alfred" that he's responsible for the pervy latex Batsuits affected by Wayne & associates.

One of the indelible and reliable pleasures of cinema is watching classically trained actors giving their all in lower-brow, even trashy, genre material. Gough developed a preference for supporting roles, playing all of them solidly, and if his work as Alfred in these movies, even Batman & Robin, is what he's best remembered for, then no shame. Gough's presence grounds and lends dignity to even the wildest, most overbaked trash he appeared in, and if his presence isn't quite enough to solidly recommend Batman & Robin, at least it's a lifeline that sustains us as even as the movie's gaudy atrocities threaten to overwhelm.

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