Saturday, September 07, 2019

These Weeks in Tickets: 19 August 2019 - 1 September 2019

The end of summer comes to the movies with a whimper every year, but I kind of don't mind this year. I was kind of movied-out and the profile of these last two weeks shows it.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

Both weeks started out with film noir double features at the Brattle. On the 19th, front half The Woman in the Window was clearly the better of the two - even if it's not the best work they could do together, it's still Fritz Land and Edward G. Robinson. I kind of wonder who today's Robinson would be - not leading-man handsome, perhaps at his best as a villain, but able to slip into an everyman lead when given the chance. The back half, The Mask of Dimitrios, wasn't quite so strong; it's got Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet but is no Casablanca or Maltese Falcon.

On Thursday, I did my first bit of Fantasia catch-up with Ready or Not, which I gather was a security-lockdown nuthouse at the festival. It's one of those that is fun enough to watch at the time, with a candy coating that goes down really well, but which kind of reveals itself as not having a whole lot to it as you write and talk about it. Not a bad night out at the theater, but definitely not worth putting on the shelf.

I figured to see more over the weekend, but I kind of got sucked into marathoning the last eight or nine episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, which is still probably not going to please a lot of Trek traditionalists, but which I found myself digging more and more. It's done the same job of quietly building up the background characters into supporting cast that the original series did as opposed to having nine people who needed something to do every week, and it's got what seems like a crazy budget for this show, which means we get a look at what Vulcan looks like as an advanced culture whose planet has many different types of climates because they had more than twenty bucks to spend, with a probe that becomes a crazy tentacle monster in the same episode. In the big two-part finale, they've got one of the franchise's best space battles, noteworthy in part because they seemed to be extrapolating from now, with drones and UAVs and the like rather than just sub-inspired warfare.

It's got some issues - too much of Michelle Yeoh jobbing to get people over, and moments in those finale when they on the one hand have characters saying "yes, I will join you in next year's new status quo" and the long awaited "...and this is why we must never speak of Spock's sister, her ship, or its weird and super-useful spore drive ever again" in awful close proximity. But, heck, it's pretty great modern Trek, and the Picard teaser looks like fun.

So, anyway, the only movie I saw that weekend was 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, which was pretty bad, though that was to be expected in that the first one was also pretty bad and had a better cast than this. Oh well.

The next week, we started again with more noir-ish stuff, and once again the front half - The Uninvited was the stronger movie. Not great, but a solid-as-heck variation on spooky-house movies that can't much be scolded for coloring in the lines. The second half, Curse of the Cat People, was at least fairly short, but boring as heck.

After that, I plugged away at getting Killjoys and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. off my DVR, at least until it was time for NeZha on Thursday. That one was a monster hit in China, which means the circumstances had to be just right to get it the sort of theatrical run it's getting in the USA, where I'm one of the only guys in a high-capacity theater's audience who needs the subtitles. I've got no idea how American kids would go for it, but I was able to talk myself into it being pretty good.

Then on Friday, I was back in the same building for Killerman, which I was pleasantly surprised to see booked here because I skipped it at Fantasia and things don't always line up that conveniently. I wanted to write it up sooner, but my brother got married over the weekend, which means I was in Maine and kind of too drained to write even when I got some moments to myself after my great big terrific family was done for the day.

We'll see how my Letterboxd page (and moviegoing in general) rebounds now that all of that is finished up.

The Woman in the Window

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2019 in The Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

The pairing of Edward G. Robinson and director Fritz Lang feels like it should result in a film noir classic but instead produces a film that's a little bit too self-aware. Every moment where Robinson's Professor Richard Wanley puts his foot in the wrong place becomes a winking joke rather than a moment to twist the screws a little more. It's definitely making Wanley nervous, sure, but it's a goof for the audience, and neither Lang nor screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (working from a novel by J.H. Wallis) seems to realize that by showing more of the perspective of Joan Bennett's Alice Reed - the other person on-hand when her paramour was accidentally shot - they could heighten the tension that way.

Instead, you kind of have to wait for Dan Duryea to show up as the dead man's bodyguard, who may not have done his job very well but is cunning enough to figure out what's going on and put the squeeze on. The whole movie shifts once he shows up - what was an expression of foolish shame before becomes genuinely dangerous - and Duryea is such a thoroughly enjoyable sleaze that he feels like exactly what the film full of good-intentioned but short-sighted people was missing. Robinson and Bennett were enjoyable, with his bookish charm playing nicely against her sexy confidence, but they get twisted up once Duryea's around.

Like the previous week's Ministry of Fear, Lang's movie ends on a joke that undercuts the mood of it even more than it tends to backtrack events, and it's kind of curious. Was Lang trying to please American producers, or too lacking in clout to point out that this sort of thing can make a movie fizzle? The movie had its issues before its epilogue, and was going to have a clear moral anyway, but I don't see why one would rob its climax of the power it has.

The Mask of Dimitrios

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

There haven't been many actors like Peter Lorre, guys who have such a distinctive, exaggerated style that it seems like they would only be useful for comic relief, but who can sneak edge or pathos into that role. He doesn't really do that here, but it's kind of a ball to watch him ooze around the screen as a Norwegian mystery writer, kind of lazily amoral but claiming to be fascinated by the assassin who turned up dead while he was at a party. There are large chunks of the movie that don't really need him at all, but any other way of relating Dimitrios's story doesn't have Peter Lorre in it, so you put up with it.

The obvious twist seems to be that Lorre's Cornelius Leyden is actually Dimitrios, but at a certain point it becomes clear that this would take too much work and I'm not sure how often filmmakers were willing to lie that completely to the audience, so instead we get a lurking Sydney Greenstreet who eventually steps forward, apparently wanting something from Leyden although, honestly, he probably could just do this himself. Greenstreet is, as usual, just a delightful rock to build a movie around, lending gravitas to even the silliest scenes and imbue the ending with far more weight and tragedy than it deserves. The work by Zachary Scott as Dimitrios is neat, too - there's a baseline, but also a bit of an adjustment to whoever is telling the story at a given time.

For all that the filmmakers tell a story about Leyden searching Europe for information about Dimitrios, there's something about the scale that never quite adds up. Dimitrios never seems brilliant enough to make the jump from pickpocket to international fugitive, not quite so interesting that you could try to build Citizen Kane around him. Maybe there's something just off about Lorre's performance or the script he's given, so that the audience mostly told he's fascinated by this figure but not convincingly enough that we are too.

Ready or Not

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2019 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

Ready or Not is such a tremendously polished version of a decent idea that it can take a little effort to realize that, really, there's not much here. It's not completely hollow - for example, I believe the demon-worshippers of this movie about five times as much as, say, the cult in Hereditary, especially when they seem absolutely miserable about the deal that their ancestor made, and that's a huge deal. It makes the whole thing real in a way that this sort of thing often doesn't, even if it's otherwise a wiseass horror-comedy. It's the sort of nice detail that makes one impressed at the detail work, but making the villains sympathetic undercuts the way it talks big about how the rich are a scourge, testing one's worthiness to join them/sacrificing others for their wealth, or how people are seduced by this lifestyle

It's good enough to skate on other things, like how it mostly lets the audience assume that Grace is a Good Person rather than showing much indication that she's more than fun - Samara Weaving is a firecracker who is always game for this sort of role, but one may get more sense of who she is and what she's going through from how her wedding dress gets soiled and shredded over the course of the film. It's also worth noting that, for a film built around a chase and meant to thrill, it doesn't have any memorable action at all; even the impressively bloody finale seems to happen without anyone actually doing anything..

It still earns a lot of credit for what it does well, though, from the members of the family that kind of hate the pact they're in to some decent pitch-black comedy and a neat score by Brien Tyler. It's good enough to make good on some of its ambitions, but the filmmakers don't always nail the fundamentals of a good B movie and it becomes fairly hollow once one makes it to the subway and starts thinking about it.

The Uninvited (1944)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

The Uninvited is a bit of a by-the-numbers ghost story, but one that has a fairly charming cast, including Alan Napier as a silver-fox doctor to bring the best out of Ruth Hussey playing what could be a boring spinster sister. They never quite steal the film from Ray Milland (as her brother) and Gail Russell (as the daughter of the man who sold them the haunted house), but they make a fun group. Their chemistry lets the movie start playful but introduce real malice as things go on, with a final resolution that must have seemed somewhat scandalous during the years of the Hays Code.

Even in 1944, it must have fallen into a fairly familiar pattern, but it's got a few impressively creepy moments that counter how so much seems to come out of spoken exposition, and uses its big empty spaces well. It does exactly what you'd expect a 75-year-old ghost story to do, but does it with some casual assurance.

Curse of the Cat People

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, digital)

70 minutes can be an awful long movie when you're waiting for something resembling anything to happen, and that's how it is with Curse of the Cat People. It's apparently very personal for producer Val Lewton, and getting the ship righted after production problems was Robert Wise's first job as a credited director, so it's got an interesting place in film history. But it's also a bunch of stories that don't connect very well, having the germs of interesting ideas but not giving the characters much interesting to do.

There's also something to be said for how one's most frequent company during this movie is not anybody from the original film, but Ann Carter, a child actress who had the right sweet but ethereal air didn't quite have the natural charisma or the right direction to make a character out of it. She's got a great far-away look in her eyes and sounds like a very polite little girl, but it doesn't add up to a personality for her Amy Reed; she never feels even naturally weird. Perhaps that can be put down to changing standards - a kid like Amy would have been seen as more peculiar in 1944 than today - but everyone seems oddly muted, with the parents seemingly outsourcing care of their daughter to the help despite often working from home but the film not being about how this girl lacks an anchor in reality.

The Woman in the Window & The Mask of Dimitrios
Ready or Not
47 Meters Down: Uncaged

The Uninvited & Curse of the Cat People

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