Saturday, December 6, 2014

Movies after Midnight

I probably drink too much caffeine. There are advantages, though. When midnight rolls around and eyes refuse to close, there are DVDs to spin. Mini-reviews of ten follow. They were viewed as five double-features: a lately acquired habit has been pairing a newly viewed film with an older one which the first brought to mind.

****     ****     ****     ****

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) – It has been 9 years since Sin City (2005). The sequel was a long time coming, but it doesn’t disappoint. Like the original, this surreal noir tribute film is based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller. Perhaps taking a page not only from the comics but from Kill Bill!, the director appears never to have uttered the words “too much” with regard to violence. This is seldom the right decision, but in this case it was. Several plots intertwine. Jessica Alba returns as Nancy, but jaded and damaged by her thirst for revenge. Senator Roark is as evil as ever. Joseph Gordon-Levitt learns that luck carries you only so far. Mickey Rourke still enjoys busting up scumbags, even when the fight isn’t really his. There are solid supporting roles for Juno Temple and Christopher Lloyd. Eva Green is impressively sociopathic as a dame to kill for. If you liked the first film, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Side note: while the location of (Ba)sin City is as unspecific  as that of Clark Kent’s Metropolis, the I-287 sign indicates it can’t be much more than an hour from my house.

Out of the Past (1947) – Whenever I try to hook someone on classic noir, Out of the Past is my go-to movie. It’s got it all: a hard-bitten detective who is a secret romantic underneath the cynical persona, an unsavory client as likely to pay off with bullets as with money, and femmes fatales wielding gats and gams.  Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hires Jeff (Robert Mitchum) to find Kathie (Jane Greer), the gorgeous dame who shot him and stole his money. He just wants her back. He tells a puzzled Jeff that he’ll understand when he meets her. He understands all right when he meets her, and so do we. The betrayals come thick and fast. The final betrayal deserves a thumbs up. Superb.

****     ****     ****     ****

Hunger Games: The Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) – Who would see this movie without first seeing the previous two Hunger Games? I suppose some folks would, but if you’re among them, stop. Go back and see the other two first. Or, at the very least, see the first one.  If you do that you will know what to expect here, and the film delivers on expectations more than adequately. Katniss is now in District 13 where the rebels survive in their underground bases. She joins their fight against the Capital. However, we get the sense that the rebels and their president (Julianne Moore) might not be such an improvement over President Snow were they to gain power. Peeta certainly thinks so, but he has been brainwashed so his conclusions are suspect.  There is plenty of action and a plot that is satisfyingly more than a simplistic “good guys vs bad guys.” My one big complaint is right in the title: “Part 1.” The decision to split the adaptation of the final book of the trilogy into two parts was a business decision, not a directorial one, and it shows.

Sleeper (1973) – Awakened from cryogenic preservation into an authoritarian future, Miles (Woody Allen) in order to save his brain (“my second favorite organ”) flees to find the Resistance in this scifi comedy.  Along the way he falls for Luna (Diane Keaton). Luna doesn’t fail to notice the handsome Erno who heads the Resistance. Discovering that only the nose of the state’s dictator has survived an assassination attempt, Miles and Luna try to steal the Leader’s nose to prevent it from being cloned. This will leave the state Leaderless and give the Resistance the opportunity it needs. Nonetheless, Miles makes clear that he does it to please Luna, not because he believes in any political system or in political solutions: “In six months, we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose,” he says.

This early Woody Allen comedy holds up remarkably well, and is still funny on several levels.

****     ****     ****     ****

Venus in Fur (2013) – I’m not the biggest Roman Polanski fan, but this little film, which he wrote and directed, is a gem. Thomas is a playwright who has adapted for stage the 1870 Austrian novel Venus in Fur by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the fellow who lent his name to “masochism”). He can’t find the right actress to play Vanda, the dominatrix to whom Masoch’s hero Severin submits supposedly as an act of love. An unscheduled actress enters the theater, which is empty except for the two of them. She says her name just happens to be Vanda. She and Thomas read lines. She proves perfect in the part even though Thomas is convinced she doesn’t understand the material. Thomas sees the play at bottom as a love story while Vanda says it’s about a decent girl corrupted by a pervert. They read lines, argue, and exchange thoughts; it is not always clear where the dialogue of the play ends and their own discussions begin. Vanda is intrigued by his play but hates it, telling him (in reference to the title) that’s it’s a good thing there are no goddesses or “you would be fucked.” Vanda knows too much, however, and one begins to wonder if Thomas actually does have Venus on his hands. While that question isn’t answered in the film, and while nothing occurs that is indisputably supernatural, it is the most straightforward explanation for numerous very odd circumstances and for what happens to Thomas.

It can’t be a pure coincidence that Mathieu Amalric (cast as Thomas) looks very much like Polanski. He nails the part. Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) also hits the right notes. Recommended.

Gilda (1946) – One is hard pressed to find a more perversely sadomasochistic couple than Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946). Johnny Farrell (Ford) goes to work in Buenos Aires for a casino owner named Mundson only to discover that Mundson’s wife is Johnny’s old flame Gilda (Hayworth). Part of Johnny’s job is to be her bodyguard. They don’t tell Mundson about their history but that is the only point on which they agree. They relentlessly taunt each other for past wrongs. The wrongs are unspecified though there is a hint of a prior infidelity by Gilda and more than a hint of Johnny’s excessively stubborn refusal to forgive. Yet, they continue the mutual clawing precisely because the spark between them is still there. The hurt they have done each other (and continue to do to each other) is so much a part of their identities that they are almost fond of it. Mundson, meanwhile, is involved in a criminal scheme which will test where the loyalties of Johnny and Gilda lie.

This is a fine film about two flawed people with a passionate but cruel relationship. Rita never looked or sounded better.

****     ****     ****     ****

What If (2014) – Daniel Radcliffe has had a varied post-Potter career. Here he is paired with the charming actress Zoe Kazan.  Wallace and Chantry (Daniel and Zoe) are “just friends” despite an obvious chemistry between them. The reason is that Chantry has a committed relationship with a good guy, and doesn’t want to mess it up. Wallace, who knows he wants more, is caught between the options of being a jerk (coming on to her) or being pathetic (hiding his feelings from her). When Chantry’s boyfriend leaves Toronto for an extended stay in Dublin because of a career opportunity, however, the strain on the relationship with him grows. So does the strain on the one with Wallace.

This is a pleasant love story of the sort not seen much in movies made on this side of the border in the past decade or two. It isn’t particularly original (When Harry Met Sally is the obvious comparison), but it works thanks almost entirely to Radcliffe and Kazan. The absence of fashionable cynicism is refreshing.

The April Fools (1969) – Howard (Jack Lemmon) is unhappily married to a woman who cares little for him, but at least he gets a promotion. At a party his playboy boss Ted (Peter Lawford) tells him to play around. Ted gives him tips for picking up women and tells him to try them on someone at the party. Howard does just that with Catherine (Catherine Deneuve). Wow, the tips do work. He and Catherine leave the party together. Uh-oh, Catherine is Ted’s wife. She is unhappily married, though, and announces her plan to leave Ted and fly to Paris. Howard wants to join her. Will they follow their hearts or will they be overwhelmed by practical considerations of money, responsibilities, and commitments?

This film came out when old moral standards were breaking down but while a 60s vibe of “all you need is love” was in the air. It was also a time when happy endings in romantic comedies no longer were de rigueur. This isn’t a particularly profound or insightful film, but it has some charms, asks a still relevant question, and captures a moment in time.

****     ****     ****     ****

Byzantium (2012) – Tired of vampires yet? Most of us are. Nonetheless, this flick is stylish enough to be worth a look. Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse [pronounced SER-sha] Ronan) are a mother-daughter pair of vampires living at the Byzantium, a sea-side hotel that has seen better days. We learn their two hundred year-old backstory in flashbacks when Eleanor writes it in a supposed work of fiction that she lets her boyfriend read. This is indiscreet, but she still is 16 after a fashion – and always will be. Clara and Emma already are on the run from the Brotherhood, a chauvinistic trade association with anticompetitive practices, for violating the code of vampirism. So, indiscretion can be lethal. Sure enough the story gets around, and the Brotherhood shows up to kill them. Who else is tasked by the Brotherhood to behead Clara but Darvell, the fellow ultimately responsible for Clara having become a vampire 200 years earlier? He isn’t keen on the idea though. He still feels bad about his behavior a couple centuries back. Our sympathies are so much with Clara and Eleanor that we tend to forget they, too, are predators.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) – In this official Universal Studios sequel to Dracula (1931), Contessa Marya Zeleska is Dracula's daughter, and, yes, she is a vampire. The story begins just after the death of Dracula at the hands of von Helsing. The Contessa steals Dracula’s body and burns it in the hope of breaking the curse of vampirism, but this doesn’t help. She is still thirsty. Marya then seeks out the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Garth, hoping to break her sanguineous habit through will and therapy. This doesn’t help either. Her thirst continues. Her assaults, like Dracula’s, are more than a little erotic, particularly against the painter’s model Lili. In a case of classic transference, however, she develops a thing for Garth. She eschews therapy but kidnaps the woman Garth loves in order to lure him to Transylvania. She plans to bite Garth so they can live together forever as vampires. He, of course, has other plans.

This movie had pretty good reviews back in the day – at least in comparison to other horror films. If you like the 1930s-40s Universal horror movies (I do), this one shouldn’t be overlooked. Viewers new to the genre, however, should be forewarned that, unlike their modern counterparts, these flicks are about atmospherics, not about action and gore.

****     ****     ****     ****

If I were to recommend only one, the winner this week would be Venus in Fur. Runner-up: Gilda.


  1. I agree on Sin City 2, fun film, Out of the Past, and Sleeper--I'm a Woody Allen fan to some degree. Gilda I have seen, but probably should re-watch. I thought the Glen Ford character was a pretty different role for him than what I was used to seeing or expecting from him. Sometimes I have to see a film several times before I get a good take on it.

    Though I have not heard much about the others. I'll have to check out Venus in Furs as I generally like Polanski. The others I'll have to look out for and add to the NF queue. I saw where this installment of the Hunger Games was a bit of a letdown, though I'll probably still watch it. Sounded like they should have kept it one book, and wrapped it up. But yeah, I like the early Universal monster stuff and Hammer films as well.

    1. The decision to split the final HG into two parts plainly was made by the suits who were reluctant to end such a lucrative franchise. Sometimes though, doing the artistic thing rather than the short term business thing is the better long-term business decision because so much revenue is generated after the theater runs. I could be wrong, but I suspect the future box set dvd/online-rental sales would be higher if the movies were a trilogy.

  2. Oh man "Sleeper". I haven't seen that in years. That was the first Woody Allen flick I ever saw. I remember it being pretty darn funny. And hell, some of the scenes were so well done I remember them vividly to this day after only one viewing. That's gotta tell you something about it.

    Need to see the second Sin City flick. Really enjoyed the first one. And Eva Green as a diabolical killer... yeah sign me up.

    1. Sin City is one of those rare cases in which the sequel is better than the original, and the original is pretty good.

      Truth be told, even Woody's average stuff is OK by the standards of other theater fare generally, but when Woody is good he cuts gems. Sleeper is a gem.