Movies reviewed this week: The Long Goodbye, The Grand Budapest Hotel, La Chinoise, Night Ride, An Irish Goodbye, The Red Suitcase, Le Pupille, Ivalu, Heroes of the East, and The Hitch-Hiker.
2/14/2023: The Long Goodbye (1973): ****
I liked this better than I did the first time I saw it. I’m pretty sure I’m more attuned to Altman’s rhythms right now, since I just saw McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Altman was in the middle of his fervent deconstruction of American myths, from the cowboy to the soldier to the movie star. This time out, he wanted to talk about the private investigator.
There’s a pattern here if you look for it. McCabe is the outlaw, however flawed, who can’t really exist in the tail end of the Old West. The soldiers of the 4077th might have been happier in World War 2. And Marlowe is perhaps the most obvious example of this — Rip Van Marlowe, as Altman called him, the man who went to sleep in the 50s and woke up in the 70s.
Even more than Bogart’s Marlowe, he’s the only clean man in a sea of corruption. Bogart at least had allies. Gould has nothing except his cat, who he loses almost immediately. It’s not his era and he can’t really function any more, so he slouches through and does the best he can and ultimately fails. There’s no justice at the end of the movie, because nobody really cares about Terry. It’s just a bunch of things that happen.
Altman finds his inner thriller director in the most interesting places. The movie as a whole is lazy and languorous, to match Marlowe’s life. But by my count, Altman interjects sudden violence four times — Augustine with the Coke bottle, Wade’s drowning scene, Marlowe getting hit by the car, and of course the final execution. It’s out of the blue each time. Each one raises the stakes and reminds us that we’re not living in the world of Hollywood.
“It was supposed to get the attention of the audience and remind them that, in spite of Marlowe, there is a real world out there, and it is a violent world.”
Man, and Hollywood! There’s a topic, because this movie is of course as much about the faded glory of movie stars as it is about private detectives. The guard doing bad impersonations is the most obvious example, but how about Augustine misquoting Cool Hand Luke? How about Marlowe’s line in the hospital: “You’re gonna be okay. I’ve seen all your pictures too.” Altman would come back to this ground with Come Back to the Five and Dime, but it’s just as strong a theme here.
I loved the sly equivalence of Marlowe and his cat. Neither of them are really interested in taking the easy way out. The cat rejects unsatisfactory food; Marlowe rejects unsatisfactory answers. And of course Marlowe is rummaging for answers in a world almost completely without cats — it’s just dogs, dogs, dogs. Beware of Dog. As a cherry on top, he’s mistaken for Mr. Katz? Almost too cute, but I’ll allow it.
I loved the way Altman framed Marlowe’s loneliness throughout. That scene of Wade drowning, with Wade bobbing far out of reach while Marlow and Eileen are tiny against the waves: that’s a perfectly framed shot. I loved how Marlowe walks down the road in Mexico alone, but when he comes back it’s crowded with people.
Hm, and perhaps I’ve misjudged the ending. Perhaps that’s Marlowe making the decision to create justice on the terms the 1970s can offer, and perhaps he’s shedding his isolation as he plays the harmonica. I like the ambiguity, though.
2/16/2023: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): ****1/2
The sole question that separates a good Wes Anderson movie from a great Wes Anderson movie is this: does he make it clear that his characters are living in a fragile mythic soap bubble?
It doesn’t need to be a constant awareness. The satire can be slight and subtle. It can be, for example, a short black and white sequence towards the very end. The rest of the movie can nearly completely give way to the intricately constructed myth. But at the end of the movie you’ve got to know that Wes Anderson knows that it’s all artifice.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is among the greats, and very close to being his best. I think The French Dispatch is better constructed and a more impressive work; on the other hand, it can’t build the kind of emotional engagement that we see here, with all two hours devoted to one story. It’s deep and rich and at the end of the film, the sadness comes from our shared awareness that nothing like the Grand Budapest could ever last forever.
Ralph Fiennes! He gives us a sympathetic, charming character who is clearly an openly bigoted shit. When Dmitri accuses M. Gustave of preying on elderly women out of greed — I am terribly sorry to say that he’s right. Gustave says as much in the train with a merry twinkle in his eye: “With any luck, she’s left a few Klubecks for your old friend.” Five seconds after he blithely writes off her kids as, uh, greedy Gypsies. And then there’s that painfully familiar bit where he reverses his anti-immigrant screed when he finds out young Zero is the kind of Eastern European he should feel sorry for.
Which is not to say he doesn’t genuinely feel sorry, and it’s not to say he didn’t love all of those women. But he’s a frivolous inconsistent prick, and he’s also completely adorable and genuinely fun to be around. Brilliant performance, brilliant writing, no notes. This is part of that key self-awareness of artifice. Anderson knows his construction doesn’t exist, and he’s not trying to convince us otherwise. He just wants us to wish it did as much as he does.
I don’t know that I would have used Nazis. I think if you’re going to use Nazis (and look, they’re Nazis, even if they’re never called that) you should probably not have a sympathetic Nazi who wants to do the right thing. The myth works perfectly well without that. It’s Europe, it’s World War 2, it’s an arguable point — but I think in the end if you’re making up countries and secret societies and hotels, you can probably gloss over the nature of the invaders a bit more. I mean, Edward Norton’s wearing a wolf’s head brooch at his throat.
Oh, and I nearly forgot the action sequences. At one point I was thinking “wow, this sequence makes me wish Wes Anderson would direct an action movie.” Imagine my surprise when an actual Bond film broke out a while later! I now want that Wes Anderson action movie more than ever, and I understand the animated car chase in The French Dispatch much better. Please continue on this path, sir.
What an amazing movie.
2/17/2023: La Chinoise (1967): ****1/2
There’s like 25% of the movie that only works if you’re actually steeped in the culture of the day, but that’s the peril of pop art. If you’re going to shock the viewer out of complacency with raw imagery, you’ve got to accept that the impact will decay over time. Film stock has a half life and so does this film. That’s kind of cool.
Also there’s no way to subtitle all the textual subtext.
I think it’s still clear that the students are depicted as a) fervently incapable of achieving revolution and b) encouraging representatives of the future. “The first timid step in a long march,” after all. From a purely humanist standpoint I adored the forgiveness of flaws.
Now, the Maoism… well, I understand why it was attractive at the time given the timidity of the French Communist Party’s stance on Algeria. Ironic, really, to realize that Godard himself was in the end just as subject to error as his cinematic subjects.
Anyhow, it’s just a brilliant work. The interjections of pop culture are sharp and well staged, the use of color is great, and the impudent destruction of the fourth wall is right up my alley.
2/18/2023: Night Ride (2020): **1/2
Tonally messy, to say the least. I think I liked the movie that the beginning and ending were from, and I might have liked the movie the middle was from if I’d seen the whole thing, but they didn’t mesh well. Relevant: Ebba wasn’t written as a little person.
2/18/2023: An Irish Goodbye (2022): 1/2
Aw, it’s a magical brother with Down’s Syndrome who helps his brother overcome sorrow by being difficult and spunky! Pity the filmmakers didn’t give him a personality.
2/18/2023: The Red Suitcase (2022): ****
This is an excellent, taut 17 minute thriller. The use of the airport as a liminal space is excellent. It’s a place of transition for both of the main characters, but they’re also tied together by the invisible chains of the cellular network, which puts Iran right next to Luxembourg.
I don’t know that I’d want a longer version of this because I don’t think you could maintain that liminal tension for 90 minutes, but I do hope the director gets a chance to stretch his legs.
2/18/2023: Le Pupille (2022): ***
Funny, charming as anything, not terribly coherent. There wasn’t an individual scene I didn’t like but I wanted a narrative line to connect the evil eye and the cake and everything in-between. I can’t get too annoyed at a shaggy dog story, especially one that ends with a wink and some self-awareness, but…
Also: fascist nuns?
2/18/2023: Ivalu (2022): **1/2
Gorgeous but almost completely inert. It’s completely tell not show, with portentous flashbacks and a raven serving as a spirit guide to the mystery of a lost sister. Lost Inuit sister. The movie addresses an uncomfortable, difficult topic; maybe better not to use the easy tropes.
The original graphic novel didn’t hide the tragedy behind folklore, either. That’s a better choice.
2/18/2023: Heroes of the East (1978): ***1/2
Absolutely spectacular martial arts scenes, some of the best I’ve ever seen. Lau Kar-leung outdoes himself in a never-ending demonstration of the finer points of Chinese vs. Japanese styles. Even the training sequences stand out: in particular, the drunken master training is lovely. Gordon Liu mimics Lau Kar-leung‘s drunken master (great cameo) perfectly, showing us why drunken master is a useful style by removing the deception from the movements. So cool.
Pity about the disjointed plot. About halfway through we completely lose track of the comedic war of the sexes in favor of the fights. It’s fine, because the fights really are that cool, but Yumiko deserves more than a five second reconciliation.
2/19/2023: The Hitch-Hiker (1953): ****
Ida Lupino takes a true story and carves it down into one of the tautest, most human noirs you’re ever going to see.
Her economy and skill is impressive. It starts at the beginning, where she wastes no time in showing us exactly who the villain is. The only time the action pauses is when she gives us a long look at a dead passenger. It’s a statement about the danger level of the story; we can’t expect any mercy here.
There’s also the choice to make the captives both men. Yeah, that’s how the real story happened, but it wouldn’t have been the first time actual events had been changed for the screen. I think Lupino wanted to avoid allowing her audience to distance themselves; there’s no easy “well, he didn’t want to risk his wife’s life” here. She’s unflinching.
Back to the opening. After the preamble, we get that single perfect shot of William Talman’s Emmett, first in darkness in the back seat of the car, then revealed in all his lumpen glory. It’s effective. So is his terse, clear set of instructions, which keeps the pace of the movie going and informs us audience members that Emmett has done this before and he’s good at it.
There’s a lot of that doubly effective work in here. We see it again in the filling station scene, with the dog howling in the darkness. It’s a way to build tension because we already saw Emmett react badly to noise earlier. He might do anything, and in fact he does — yet another signifier of ruthlessness. But it’s also a distraction to him, and that gives one of his captives time to drop a clue.
It’s fascinating to me how often Lupino pairs Emmett’s reactions with ours like that. You couldn’t make a bad guy the viewpoint character back in 1953, and she doesn’t ask us to empathize with him, but she sure nudges us into his shoes a lot.
Consider the lack of subtitles. Emmett doesn’t speak Spanish. There aren’t any subtitles in the Spanish-speaking scenes of the movie. We’re sharing ignorance with Emmett throughout the movie, and that puts us just a little closer to him.
We also don’t learn that much about Collins and Bowen, the captives. One has kids. One’s a white collar worker, and the other is blue collar. We don’t even learn why they lied to their wives about where they were going, which is an odd little note to add with no payoff. Except that the payoff is a reminder that they’re not the viewpoint characters.
We don’t learn a ton about Emmett, but he’s the one who tells us a bit about his childhood. Lupino, with her typical understanding of the underdog, gives us more insight into him than we get into the other two.
She’s really such a humane filmmaker. It’s 1953, and every Mexican in this movie is as competent as you’d expect from someone in their respective positions. It’s Mexicans finding the clues that lead to the finale. When the American cops suggest a trick to keep Emmett from getting wary, the Mexican commander gets it immediately and does his job well.
All that packed into a B movie that was shot on a low budget in less than a month. We didn’t deserve Ida Lupino but I’m glad she persevered anyhow.