Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Year 6, Day 109 - 4/19/14 - Movie #1,706

BEFORE: I suppose some people see me as a negative sort of person - I know people at work do, because I'm always the one to speak up and say something's not being done right, this invoice is wrong, we need to get a permit, etc.  But by thinking of all the things that can go wrong, I feel that's half of the battle towards getting things to be done properly.  And when it comes to movies, I sit here night after night and point out all of their faults and plotholes, so I think I can understand if people perceive of me as the "screen door in the submarine".  But from my point of view, I'm just keeping it real.  What am I supposed to do, not say something if I perceive a mistake or a bad storyline? 

I recently discovered that nearly every record album is posted on YouTube, which is even more convenient than downloading songs.  I have boxes of cassettes that I keep meaning to replace with MP3 files, but I never seem to get around to that.  And now I don't have to - I can just call up a YouTube video any time I want to hear an album from my youth.  On one hand, I'm reliving some great music memories - but on the other, I can pinpoint exactly when my favorite bands from the 80's started to suck. 

Linking from "The Public Enemy", James Cagney was also in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" with Frank Mayo.

THE PLOT:  A married woman and a drifter fall in love, then plot to murder her husband... but even once the deed is done, they must live with the consequences of their actions.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Double Indemnity" (Movie #1,393)

AFTER: With a story by James M. Cain, his original novel was like the "50 Shades of Grey" of the 1930's. Everyone was reading it despite (or perhaps because of) its salacious nature, and it was considered unfilmable due to the production code, but then after a decade or so, somebody found a way to do it. 

Cain's story in thie film was referenced by Bill Plympton in his production notes on "Cheatin'", both films have couples in love/hate relationships, they're tied together and can't break away from each other.   But while this film took over an hour to get them at each other's throats, Plympton did it much quicker - he used a contrivance as a shortcut, but that also proved more elegant than this twisty plot.

However, I like a good twisty plot.  I was looking for some fault here in the logic that gets the couple from point A to point B to the eventual conclusion, and I can't find one.  Even all the manipulations of the slick lawyer (possibly the best character) make a crazy sort of sense.  It seems like a bit of a set-up to get this man and this woman to this weird balance of love and hate - where they can't come together and they can't split up, they can't kill each other even though they want to.  But still it has a very real feel to it. 

I'm left wondering, what does the title mean?  Is the postman a metaphor for God, Death, or what?  All the while I kept expecting an actual postman ringing the bell, I guess I was being too literal.

But it's like Yoda said, "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny...consume you it will."

Also starring Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn (last seen in "The World According to Garp"), Leon Ames.

RATING: 7 out of 10 hamburgers

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Public Enemy

Year 6, Day 108 - 4/18/14 - Movie #1,705

BEFORE: James Cagney carries over from "White Heat" - and I go further back into Cagney's career, and crime films in general. 

THE PLOT:  A young hoodlum rises up through the ranks of the Chicago underworld, even as a gangster's accidental death threatens to spark a bloody mob war.

AFTER:  This film had a lot to do with cultivating Cagney's image as a bad-ass.  We see him as Tom Powers, enjoying success as a lower-level delivery boy in a bootlegging operation during Prohibition, after an attempt at robbery goes wrong, and he gets double-crossed by another criminal (go figure...)

Meanwhile, his brother enlists in the Marines and fights in World War I, and when he returns, there's an interesting contrast drawn between the two - Tom points out that they both kill for a living, the only difference being that a soldier's killings are sanctioned by the government for the greater good, and the mobster's killings are for profit.  But doesn't a soldier get paid too?  We tend to not consider that as some kind of "blood money", but isn't the end result the same?  What makes one brother's actions legal and the other one's criminal?

More evidence tonight that old films just aren't as well-made - a lot of the major plot points in this story take place off-screen.  A major character dies in an accident, it's sort of the turning point of the film, and we don't see it happen - instead another character rushes into the room to tell Tom (and us) about it. General rule: Show, don't tell.  And when a gang war breaks out, the news comes to us in one of those spinning newspaper headlines.  While that's not the only way that this film chooses to tell a story (an exploding store gives us the same information visually that the headline did verbally), a shortcut is still a shortcut.

Like "The Big Heat" and "White Heat", this film is on that list of "1,001 Films To See Before You Die", but honestly, I'm having trouble figuring out why.  I had trouble even finishing this one last night before falling asleep, forcing me to stay late at the office this afternoon to finish it.  There just wasn't much here to interest me, the story just seemed very average.  It perked up a little bit during the gang war, but having to wade through a man's entire criminal career just to get there seemed like a lot of effort for very little payout.

There's also a lot of violence toward women - I realize this was made during a different time, but slapping women around after sleeping with them is not OK.  Nor is shoving a grapefruit into a woman's face just because she asks if you're getting tired of her.  I realize that this could be filed under character exposition, but I still don't have to approve of it.

Also starring Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke

RATING: 3 out of 10 kegs

Thursday, April 17, 2014

White Heat

Year 6, Day 107 - 4/17/14 - Movie #1,704

BEFORE: I was e-mailing someone at the Kansas City Film Festival yesterday, and I asked about BBQ.  If you want to talk about BBQ, talk to someone from KC.  Or Texas.  And of course that got me hungry for BBQ today, but we just went out for BBQ last Wednesday, and I had some BBQ chicken for lunch Tuesday.  So I was going to pass, but then my boss had a lunch meeting at a midtown BBQ place, and I needed to drop something off there for him, so I figured it was fate. 

However, when I looked at their menu, there were no good combo platters!  What kind of self-respecting BBQ restaurant doesn't offer me the opportunity to order three meats together, along with 2 sides and cornbread!  Perhaps I've become a BBQ snob, but I just couldn't resign myself to ordering just one type of meat from a BBQ restaurant.  All of the places I frequent - Hill Country and Virgil's in Manhattan, Mabel's Smokehouse in Brooklyn, and Smokin' Al's and Famous Dave's on Long Island - all offer similar combo deals.  They're all so good, I can't go backwards on this, so I bailed on BBQ today, I believe in taking a stand and making a point with my purchasing power.

Jeez, even the Kansas City BBQ in San Diego and the Dallas BBQ chain here in NYC let me order combos.  Get with the program already!  I won't say the name of the offending restaurant, but until they can offer me an appropriate combination of meats and sides, they're out of the rotation.  One must have standards, after all.

Linking from "The Big Heat", Glenn Ford was also in "The Redhead and the Cowboy" with Edmond O'Brien. 

THE PLOT:  A psychopathic criminal with a mother complex makes a daring break from prison and leads his old gang in a chemical plant payroll heist.

AFTER:  I haven't seen many (OK, any) James Cagney movies, so I didn't really know what to expect with this one.  He seems to have this big mythology built up around him, and since he's a relatively small guy, his character here comes off like a Napoleon of crime.  Adding in the "mama's boy" dynamic, I just sort of feel like he's always over-compensating or something.  When you toss in these mysterious headaches, however, things got more confusing - they said something about how they were a cry for attention when he was a small boy, but then they later became real?  Is that even a thing?  An ironic twist of fate, or a medical anomaly?

The story was relatively straightforward, the mail train robbery reminded me of a similar sequence in "The Newton Boys", perhaps it was more groundbreaking back in the 1940's.  What interested me more was the depiction of police techniques used to track the gang down.  We tend to take our GPS devices and cell phones for granted these days, it was a little disconcerting to see cops back then using a crude homing device and triangulating its location again and again to track it down.  And they way they talked about fingerprint evidence made me feel like this technology was very new to people at the time. 

That being said, I wonder how accurately this was depicted.  Some directors (then and now) have a bad habit of making tech devices work the way they want them to, or the way the plot needs them to, as opposed to the way they really work.

Also starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer.

RATING:  5 out of 10 vaccinations

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Big Heat

Year 6, Day 106 - 4/16/14 - Movie #1,703

BEFORE:  We got some snow last night, which is not only rare for mid-April but also apparently my fault because I finally put the snow shovels away over the weekend.  My wife warned me that as soon as I put the shovels away, we'd get hit one more time, and she was sort of right.  Dammit. 

Still 2 weeks to go before the Hitchcock chain, but the path there is getting clearer and clearer.  You can sort of see how some noir crime films works as a lead-in, right?  Then just a few more twists and turns and we'll be there before you know it.  Linking from "The Newton Boys", Bo Hopkins was also in a film titled "Monte Walsh" with Lee Marvin (last seen in "Cat Ballou").

THE PLOT:  Tough cop Dave Bannion takes on a politically powerful crime syndicate.

AFTER: It's tough to review a film like this today, because my first impulse is to compare it to a modern-day crime film, such as the ones I've been watching this past week, and if I do that, there's just no way it's going to hold up.  Movies were just made differently back in the 1950's, everything was done on sets, and it was (apparently) much more expensive to shoot on location.  That permeates nearly every shot of this film - it's not just the black and white film stock that makes every interior set look the same, it's the fact that they were probably all built by the same crew in the same place. 

You just couldn't get away with this in a modern film - these days if you want a house to look like a house, you just go out and find a house you can rent.  That's not to say that modern films don't shoot on sets, they may still do that - in some cases it might be cheaper to build a kitchen (or half a kitchen) instead of finding one that has room for a big camera and a crew of 10-15 people.  But even then, it's got to look like a real kitchen, there can't be a hint of it looking like a set piece.  

But when I see a film like "The Big Heat" from the 1950's, or, say, "The Maltese Falcon", eventually I notice that none of the characters ever seem to go outside.  We never see them driving, or mowing the lawn, or standing out in the rain.  Wherever they go, that camera's always already waiting for them on the inside, just as they walk into the house or apartment.  Watch too many of these films in a row, like I have, and you can't NOT notice it.

Compared to a more modern film like, for example, "Dirty Harry", which was mostly shot on location in police squad rooms and the streets of San Francisco, and a crime film from the 1950's that was clearly shot on a Hollywood backlot suffers by comparison.  Someone couldn't be bothered to find a REAL bar, a REAL police station?  Is this movie magic or just plain laziness? 

Let's take another example - without giving away any plot point, I can say that at one point in this film, a car explodes.   It's a conscious choice (or perhaps a cost-cutting measure) to have that event take place off-screen.  You hear it, you see a flash of light, but not the explosion itself.  Compare that to a famous scene in "Casino" with a similar event - but in the more modern film, you see the person in the car, you see the ignition key being turned, you see the spark behind the dashboard that tells you that something bad's about to happen.  You see the entire explosion itself, rendered in gorgeous slow-motion, and the impact (no pun intended) is remarkably greater.  The audience feels like they're right there in the car, getting blowed up, while a similar occurence in this film just left me cold, mainly because of the distance created by not filming that event directly.

In defense of this film, however, you can just FEEL how influential a film like this was.  We might not even have "The Untouchables" or "Gangster Squad" or even "Payback" if we didn't have "The Big Heat".  There's just so much here that relates directly to modern crime films - there's the cop's endangered wife/family, I just saw that in "Gangster Squad".  There's the sadistic/masochistic bad guy, I just saw someone like that in "Payback".  The city where nearly every cop is corrupt except for one guy - God, that's like every film including "The Dark Knight Rises", isn't it?   There's even the police captain telling our hero to hand in his badge and gun, which is just a staple of almost every cop movie.

I wish I could take the influence of a film into account when I set my score - but I have to try and judge the film by itself, based on one factor alone: enjoyment.  That's why I'm doing this, that's why people watch movies, right?  To enjoy them? 

Also starring Glenn Ford (last seen in "The Man From the Alamo"), Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Jeannette Nolan, Alexander Scourby, Willis Bouchey, with a cameo from Carolyn Jones.

RATING: 4 out of 10 cigarette burns

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Newton Boys

Year 6, Day 105 - 4/15/14 - Movie #1,702

BEFORE: Since my attempts to have a sandwich named for me have not been successful (yet...), I've decided I may have better luck with a cocktail.  This is what I often pour for myself on a Monday evening - most of the time I'm a beer guy, but if I make a mixed drink, it's as easy as this:  fill a glass with ice cubes, then pour in some Bacardi Razz until 1/4 full.  Then add some Diet Mountain Dew until 3/4 full, and top off with some cranberry/grape juice.  Let's call it the "Honky's Hard Day". 

If you don't have Diet Mountain Dew, you can use regular, but this can make it too sweet.  Or you can use Sprite, or ginger ale - ginger ale tastes better, but since it's my drink, and I drink a lot of Diet Dew when I watch movies, that's the main recipe.  If you don't have cran-grape, you can use regular grape juice.  You can also use Bacardi coconut rum, but then that would be a "Honky's Vacation".  Add more rum, and you've got a "Honky's Really Hard Day".  I guarantee, two of these on a Monday evening, plus an episode of "True Detective", and you'll be right in the head again. 

Linking from "Lawless", Gary Oldman was also in the film "Tiptoes" with Matthew McConaughey (last seen in "U-571"), in which they played brothers, and Oldman played a little person.  I saw that on a trip to Sundance, and if you haven't seen that, you should check it out for curiosity's sake.  Wait a second, there was an actor that carried over from "Lawless", his name is Lew Temple.  Never mind.

THE PLOT:  The story of the Newton gang, the most successful bank robbers in history, thanks to their good planning and minimal violence.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (Movie #100)

AFTER:  Like "Lawless", this is a film about a family of brothers, and somehow the fact that they're all looking out for each other while committing criminal acts is supposed to distract the audience, or at least make us feel better about the fact that what they're doing is very very wrong.  It's suggested here that stealing from banks (rather than citizens) is OK, because bankers are just thieves themselves, which seems almost like an idea that was 80 years ahead of its time.  Anyway, that's why people pay for insurance, right? 

The Newton boys are proud of how they rob banks, blowing up safes in the dead of night, which minimizes the civilian casualties - umm, until it doesn't.  And until people start fighting back - I guess if word spreads that a gang won't shoot to kill, that makes it easier to try and disarm them.  Again, they don't necessarily regard themselves as evil, but on some level, they have to know that what they're doing isn't right, right?

The film's credits includes two sequences with the real Newton boys, old men - one being interviewed on "The Tonight Show" and the other speaking directly to the camera, clarifying that their intent was only to get rich.  Oh, well, by all means then, please proceed.  But how can they hold such contempt for bankers, when without their greed and love of square safes, they never could have gotten rich in the first place? 

I'm curious as to when Matthew McConaughey became such a good actor - obviously some time prior to getting an Oscar for "Dallas Buyers Club" and killing it on "True Detective", but as my wife is fond of pointing out, isn't this the same guy who got arrested a few years ago for playing bongos in his underwear, and being quite obviously stoned in public?  Wasn't he like the male Lindsay Lohan for a while there?  How did he turn that reputation around?  Where was the turning point - "Amistad"? "A Time to Kill"? 

Also starring Ethan Hawke (last seen in "Tape"), Skeet Ulrich (last seen in "The Craft"), Vincent D'Onofrio (last seen in "Happy Accidents"), Julianna Margulies (last heard in "Dinosaur"), Dwight Yoakam (last seen in "Wedding Crashers"), Bo Hopkins, Chloe Webb, with archive footage of Johnny Carson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 mailbags

Monday, April 14, 2014


Year 6, Day 104 - 4/14/14 - Movie #1,701

BEFORE:  Heh, I just realized that I programmed a film all about bootleggers and revenuers for the day before the IRS April 15 tax deadline.  And tomorrow's film will be about bank robbers, so...nice job, unconscious mind!  Linking from "Gangster Squad", Sean Penn was also in "The Tree of Life" with Jessica Chastain (last heard in "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted") - or if you prefer, Emma Stone was also in "The Help" with Jessica Chastain.  Whichever.

THE PLOT:  Set in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, a trio of bootlegging brothers are threatened by a new special deputy and other authorities angling for a cut of their profits.

AFTER: This is another film where there are no real heroes, like in "Get Carter" or "Payback".  It's very easy to let the film convince you that the central character (or characters) is the hero.  In this case, it's the illegal bootleggers vs. the corrupt lawmen and revenuers.  But just because some are portrayed as less evil than others, or just because some characters are portrayed with wives and families, it does not make them good people.

However, every character, even the villains, should be portrayed as thinking of themselves as heroes.  Lex Luthor thinks he's doing the right thing by trying to rid the world of the alien menace, Superman.  Dr. Doom thinks that him taking over the world would make sure that it would be run that much more efficiently.  Darth Vader only wants to quash a rebellion and restore the peace and order that only the Empire can bring.

Last night there were bullets flying everywhere, between the mob and the police in L.A., and the good guys hardly ever seemed to get hit.  Completely unbelievable, but tonight we've got the opposite problem.  The good guys take a lot of bullets, but the shots never seem to be fatal, to the point where it's fairly ridiculous, and in the end just as unbelievable.  Is this just a tricky thing for Hollywood to get right, the bullet to wound to fatality ratio?

This is apparently based on a true story, and again we've got the tie-in to "The Untouchables" since that film was also set during Prohibition.  But this film really left me with a "Ehh, so what?" kind of feeling.  I'm hard pressed to think that there's a larger point being made by any of the proceedings.

Also starring Tom Hardy (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Shia LaBeouf (last seen in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce (last seen in "Iron Man 3"), Dane DeHaan (last seen in "Lincoln"), Mia Wasikowska (last seen in "Jane Eyre"), Gary Oldman (last heard in "A Christmas Carol"), Noah Taylor (last seen in "The New World"), Bill Camp

RATING: 4 out of 10 mason jars

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Gangster Squad

Year 6, Day 103 - 4/13/14 - Movie #1,700

BEFORE:  I bought a bunch of Easter candy yesterday - I need to buy at least one package of Peeps, plus the Reese's peanut butter eggs, Cadbury creme eggs, the Russell Stover marshmallow, maple, coconut, and raspberry eggs, plus a chocolate bunny or two and some Reese-ster Bunnies.  This is an important step in getting my taxes done, namely the reward stage.  For any task, first there's the planning stage, then the procrastination stage, then the "realization that the deadline is approaching" stage, then some more procrastination (the 2nd round is more serious, when I'm much more defiant about it), then the "I absolutely must start it now or I'll never finish it" stage, then there's the actual doing of the task, and then the reward. 

Linking from "Killing Them Softly", Brad Pitt was also in "The Tree of Life" with Sean Penn (last seen in "The Thin Red Line").

THE PLOT:  A secret crew of police officers works together in an effort to take down the ruthless mob king Mickey Cohen who runs Los Angeles.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Mulholland Falls" (Movie #1,392)

AFTER:  More than anything, this film evokes 1987's "The Untouchables", but since it is set in L.A. and not Chicago, that also calls to mind "L.A. Confidential".  But let's deal with the connections to "The Untouchables" first.  An honest cop in a city of corrupt ones decides to take the fight directly to the top of the mob food chain - here represented by Mickey Cohen instead of Al Capone - and drafts an ethnically diverse squad to assist him, including one grizzled veteran, then he finds himself questioning how far outside of the typical police playbook he's willing to go to get results.

See?  It's practically the same film!   There's even a staircase scene in a hotel that mimics the train station climax from De Palma's "Untouchables", which itself was an homage to Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin".   Of course, this could all be coincidence - the director of "Gangster Squad" could have just thought that stairways are cool, and he might have watched "The Untouchables" just once long ago and it affected this story on a subconscious level.  That's not for me to say. 

But the lead cop is a family man, there are minorities on the squad, and then a geeky guy joins the squad to get them the information they need.  However, there's no analog in "The Untouchables" for the Sgt. Wooters character, so that's what leads me to "L.A. Confidential" - the fact that Wooters is dating a beautiful girl who's also dating a mobster leads me to think of Russell Crowe's character dating Kim Basinger's character, who was dating a bunch of them.  Plus it's got Nick Nolte as the chief of police who authorizes the squad, and he led a very similar squad in "Mulholland Falls".

So I enjoyed the film, but points must be taken off for something so derivative.  It's tough to find something new that "Gangster Squad" brought to the genre.  Except maybe thousands of bullets flying from tommy guns without ever striking down one of our heroes...

Also starring Josh Brolin (last seen in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"), Ryan Gosling (last seen in "The Notebook"), Nick Nolte (also last seen in "The Thin Red Line"), Emma Stone (last seen in "The Help"), Robert Patrick (last seen in "Trouble With the Curve"), Anthony Mackie (last seen in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi (last seen in "Ted"), Mireille Enos, Haley Strode, with cameos from Jon Polito, Jack McGee (last seen in "The Out-of-Towners"), Holt McCallany.

RATING: 6 out of 10 fedoras