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Crime/Mystery

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I’ve heard this film is essentially Taxi Driver meets a Christopher Nolan Batman, but its roots also lie in Martin Scorsese ‘s King of Comedy and even in Death Wish.  Not bad company and it shows. Todd Phillips’ vision is fully realized, there is a consistent and compelling narrative, and you can’t take your eyes off of Joaquin Phoenix.  The movie also alternates between Joker’s madness and his reality, which keeps you off balance without being gimmicky while expertly recalibrating the Joker-Batman origin story.

But the movie is also dull in stretches, thoroughly depressing, a little more politically elemental than it perhaps knows, and ultimately, chooses shock over sustenance.  Perhaps most problematic, it’s really hard to give a shit about a protagonist who, when all is said and done, is just a loon with a crazy giggle off his meds. How much fun is that?

Implicit in that last criticism is the presumption of an old fogie that even super hero villain stories should have some level of joy or whimsy. But if the future is Lex Luthor kicking a meth habit, Thanos having been molded by the cruelties of urban foster care, or Venom’s molestation at the hands of her uncle, so be it. The film has made over $1 billion globally and it leads all pictures in Oscar nominations.  Who am I to thwart progress?

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Rian Johnson’s (Brick, Looper) modern update to the Deathtrap/Murder on the Orient Express-style whodunnit is clever, tight, witty and consistently engaging. The wealthy family of a famous mystery author (Christopher Plummer) is suspected of having offed him at a get-together in his ornate mansion (a cop observes “Look around. The guy basically lives in a clue board!”) and the investigation centers on his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who is alternatively claimed and condescended to by the clan. The investigation is a wellspring of black humor, biting cynicism and hilarious family drama. Everyone (and everyone seems to be in this) is excellent, particularly Daniel Craig as a Southern drawling Hercule Poirot.

Two nits. First, in a mystery, having a character who is congenitally incapable of lying is an egregious cheat. If it weren’t for Johnson’s ingenious plotting, I’d have been more put off. Second, the politics are for the most part deft but also a little clunky. The family fighting about Trump was funny and authentic, with its hypocritical righty who digs Trump and treats Marta as a maid and his lefty cliche’ amping to 11 and invoking the Nazis. It was also even-handed – a leftie social justice warrior who has befriended Marta ends up being a true Judas . Still, Johnson rhetorically over-dunks on the lot of the Richie Riches at the end, which is the only misstep in what is otherwise a seamless, lively flick.

021D93F8-A0C1-48D7-B998-A5E178118D6AFrenetic, excessive and nerve-wracking, one of those movies where you turn to your son with the “are you fucking kidding me?” look when you’re not crouched in your chair wincing. The recipient of your empathy is Adam Sandler, a New York jeweler in the diamond district, juggling a disaffected wife and three kids, a mistress thirty years his junior, and a gambling addiction.  He is perpetually robbing Peter to pay Paul and thinning the skin of his teeth as the film progresses.  This is one of a handful of serious roles for Sandler and he’s terrific (if you thought Al Pacino was terrific in Scarface – I did).  Kevin Garnett plays himself, turns in a great deal more than you’d expect from a non-actor and is particularly affecting in a scene where Sandler likens his drive to make a financial score with that of a pro athlete.

On the downside, the film is so histrionic, it’s hard to find people you can actually identify with.  You root for Sandler primarily because you want a particularly tense situation to resolve.  And the soundtrack – a blend of Vangelis and the hum of an 80’s video game arcade – is distracting, discordant, and near-unforgivable.

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Awfully slow and occasionally deadly dull. It’s 3.5 hours, 1.5 hours of which is trying to get Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) either to his senses or a meeting.

The length and pace, however, may be the least of the film’s problems.  The movie depicts the rise of mob killer and union boss Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his relationship with his mob sponsor (Joe Pesci) and Hoffa. The novelty is the technological ability Martin Scorsese uses to make his actors younger, but the effect is only so successful. They can only make them so young.  So, you have a 76 year-old man playing a 40 year old man who looks like a 56 year old man who has a six-year-old daughter. Worse, when they are rendered young in the face, they remain old in the body. One scene, where a digitally younger De Niro beats a man, emphasizes the point.  It looks like Bad Grandpa is delivering an ass kicking.

But perhaps the worst part of the film is the fact that there is simply no drama, no tension. Every single character is the exact same person he was from beginning to end. In Goodfellas, De Niro and Pesci were a constant force, but the drama came from watching Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco rise and then try to survive.  In Casino, the entire film centered around the significant changes to the personalities of De Niro, the bookmaker made casino king in fledgling Vegas, and Pesci, the enforcer who gets too big for his britches and in-over-his-head alone in the desert.  The history of those films was compelling, but it did not have to do all of the lifting.

Here, De Niro is the same throughout. Sociopathic, steady, soulless and somnambulant.  It does not make for enthralling viewing.  Your eyes will move to the IPhone more than once.

It looks good, though. Damn good. I’ll give it that.  And there are a few exchanges in Steve Zallian’s (Moneyball, A Civil Action) script that are subtly sharp. But it’s not nearly enough.

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Dirty Harry was a film so conservative, Paul Newman gave it a hard pass. But not without cementing the franchise by recommending Clint Eastwood for the role.  Eastwood plays the iconic Inspector Harry Callahan, and when San Francisco is terrorized by a serial killer (the Scorpio, rather than the Zodiac), it turns to Harry to save its ass. Unfortunately, every time Harry gets near the crazed nut, some liberal judge or pencil-pushing, ass-covering bureaucrat is obstructing his simple moral code and his massive .44 Magnum. Finally, he just has to go rogue and takes matters into his own hands. After he finishes the job, a disgusted Callahan tosses his badge in the bay.

Except, the movie was wildly popular.

So . . . tin star retrieved.

It took the talents of a young John Milius to pull Callahan back from the ranks of the fascist in the follow-up, Magnum Force, where the bad guys are actually cops, an execution squad working at the behest of seeming pencil-pushing, ass-covering bureaucrat Hal Holbrook (in fact, Holbrook is the mastermind of a new form of vigilante justice). In the second film, Callahan is still our cynical, equal opportunity bigot who loathes the politics, regulations and political correctness of the city. But he can’t quite get on board with a Star Chamber. As much as  he detests the system, he figures it’s better than any alternative.

In The Enforcer, Callahan is back to his conservative roots, and stuck with an affirmative action partner, Tyne Daley. In Dirty Harry, his partner was Hispanic and in Magnum Force, African-American, but one never got the impression they hadn’t earned their stripes. Daley, on the other hand, is introduced as someone who has never made a collar (felony or misdemeanor), a quota baby straight out of . . . . grrrrrr . . . . Personnel.

Worse, an officious woman from the mayor’s office – likely, straight out of a precursor to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion – is present at Daley’s interview, one conducted by Callahan.  Daley fails, miserably, but the fix is in and she’s given the gig.

After she importunes Harry to give her a chance, things start off rocky. On her first day, she almost gets her head blown off by a hand-held rocket launcher, almost loses her lunch during an autopsy, and unwittingly runs around half of San Francisco with a bomb. But she’s got moxie. And with a band of the most brutal hippies having just kidnapped the feckless “pay them!” mayor, you’re going to need Tyne Daley’s moxie.

The Enforcer is more of the same but smartly done. You get the satisfying back-and-forth between Harry and the government weasels:

Capt. McKay: That’s it Callahan, you just got yourself a sixty-day suspension.

Harry: Make it ninety!

Capt. McKay: A hundred-and-eighty, and give me your star.

Harry: (Giving Capt. Mckay his badge) Here’s a seven-point suppository, Captain!

Capt. Mckay: What did you say?!

Harry: I said stick it in your ass!

You also get a lot of gunplay, a jazzy Jerry Fielding score, some inspired action sequences, and numerous chases through eclectic, weird and grimy 1970s San Francisco. But it is Daley as the earnest sidekick who just wants to earn her stripes who elevates the picture.  She’s winning, sympathetic and you root for her, the first time a character from the corrupt system makes you say, “C’mon, Harry.  Lighten up.” When she meets Harry’s standards (she blows two of the bad guys away and to one, she says “You laugh at me mister, and I’ll shoot you where you stand”), you cheer.

Because how could you not?  Punk.

 

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My father took me to The Eagle Has Landed in 1976, and I of course loved it.   John Sturges (The Great Escape) can make a solid  war picture and this one was smart, cynical, compelling and the last one he directed.

As I watched it again last weekend, I imagined this script landing on some hotshot Hollywood moguls’ desk today.

First pages, not so bad.  The war is going poorly for the Nazis and they are looking into a plan to kidnap Churchill. 

Okay, so far so good.

The plan is dropped on an armless  Nazi with an eye patch.  No, not Tom, Cruise as Von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie.  That film is 30 years and a Bryan Singer sex scandal away.

This armless, eyeless Nazi is played by Robert Duvall.  And whoa!  In what he thought was a moment of whim on the part of Hitler, it turns out that the plan is feasible and the game is afoot.

So feasible that Duvall scours the records for the perfect German unit to take on the task of posing as a Polish outfit in a northern English town until Churchill arrives, when he can be snatched.  Who does he find?

Michael Caine, and his close-knit commandos, who have been kicking ass and becoming more and more embittered on the Eastern front.

But Duvall needs more; he needs two boots on the ground in the little town before the “Polish” troops arrive.  Enter . . . Donald Sutherland, an Irishman who hates the English so much he’s in league with the Nazis.

Okay.  It seems like a lot of money to be throwing at the bad guys. 

Who is the hero?

Larry Hagman?  J.R EWING?

Well, no, but Hagman does play the American commander on the ground in the quaint English town.  He’s no hero.  He’s more like John Larroquette in Stripes, a martinet wannabe who craves combat badly.  Hagman is incompetent, Caine’s men repel his frontal assault with ease, and he dies in such an ignominious manner, it’s almost comic.

Oh good.  There’s a young Treat Williams and Jeff Conaway.  Good looking American GIs who . . . . hmmmmmm, these guys have no lines!  They barely even register!!

Wait, are you telling me . . . . the leads are all Nazis!!???

Yup.

In 1976, this is how Hollywood got past this inconvenient cast.  First, they made Duvall erudite and resigned, as well as armless and eyeless, and they had him present the opportunity to grab Churchill as an opportunity to sue for peace.

As for Caine, as he and his men are shipped back from the Eastern Front, they meet an SS unit rounding  up Jews at a railroad junction.  Out of sheer frustration, Caine assaults the SS commander, assists in the escape attempt of a Jewish woman, and for his troubles his men are all cashiered and consigned to tasks that will eventually result in all their deaths.  Did Caine revolt because he was torn over the Holocaust?  Well, no.  In his own words, “I have nothing for or against Jews, personally. But I’ve seen too many men die for cause, to watch a young girl be killed for sport!”

Okay.  Good enough for the Bicentennial.

And Sutherland?  Well, he’s humanized because his beef is about Ireland, not that icky master race stuff, and he’s quick with a drink and the brogue and he’s so charming, Jenny Agutter falls in love with him instantly (really, the weakest part of the picture because he’s too old for her, it’s too immediate, and what she does for her “love” is so extreme it just doesn’t pass the smell test).

Solid flick, clearly of its time.  Triggerocity at about an 8 out of 10. On Amazon.

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Alan Pakula’s sexual thriller is still a little jarring in its frankness, even today.  In the age of “sex tape as career move”, very little can astound or shock, but Jane Fonda’s electric and vulnerable turn as a call girl hunted by a killer gives the viewer entrée not only into the precariousness of her world, but in her own vulnerability.  She plays Bree Daniels, a struggling actress who considers her sexual exchanges mini-dramas, where she gets control, something she clearly needs desperately, even if it is self-destructive.  When we see her in action, she’s powerful and pitiable, all the while exhibiting how effective and alluring a good call girl can be.

Daniels is saved on more than one occasion by a laconic John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a police officer turned p.i. who is investigating the disappearance of a businessman who may or may not be her stalker.  Naturally, they develop a relationship.

Pakula (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) has a keen eye for the shadows and menace in otherwise humdrum, pedestrian environs.  He also has great patience, which results in very understated, moving scenes, such as when Fonda flips through the catalogue of homicide photos of dead prostitutes, and her character and the viewer see her face in all of them.  The scenes where Fonda attempts to seduce Sutherland in order to establish control are similarly subtle, and Pakula places you directly in the dilemma of not wanting to be played but being enticed all the same.

There are problems.  Fonda is so good (she won Best Actress) I thought the scenes of her in therapy were unnecessary.  She’s strong in them, but she’s better expressing her foibles and fears in the context of the story.   As the detective, Sutherland runs into the opposite problem.  He is fully unexplored, a quiet mechanism for Fonda’s growth and nothing more.  I  wanted to know more about him.  Not tons, but something.

Still, this a very strong picture that holds up well, especially given the subject matter.