In an interview about 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen was asked what mattered most when making a great movie. He replied, "Story, story, story." Writer and Director Bong Joon Ho could teach a master class on that subject.
Parasite has twists and turns, but it's never smarter than the audience. You see each one coming, or suspect something is coming, or know you could have seen it coming. Every event, every character, every prop, almost every line of dialogue has an echo later in the film. The craftsmanship is amazing.
A family of four---mom, dad, adult son, and adult daughter---live in a tiny apartment in a slum. They all work at whatever they can to get by. The son seizes an opportunity to get hired as a tutor in the home of a wealthy family. He fudges his university degree to get the work, but he's fully up to the job. As scams go, it's pretty benign.
This sets the two families on a collision course. I won't reveal anything beyond the opening minutes of the movie, because you should enjoy each delicious revelation for yourself.
Let's just say the movie is completely satisfying for its suspense, its social satire, and its profound questions. Usually we're satisfied if a movie does one of those things well. How rare it is to get all three in one movie.
When their regular babysitter is not available, a couple hires a friend of a friend to watch their three kids so they can have their anniversary dinner out. They should have checked references.
When the dad brings the new sitter to the house, he swaggers a bit too much. The mom is a bit too needy about her concern for the children. The eleven-year-old brother is a bully. They will suffer for their flaws.
The new sitter arrives with an eerie detachment. When the parents leave, and we find out what she's up to, the fates of the little brother and sister hang in the balance.
This is a psychological thriller, not a horror movie. Violence and gore are minimal. The sound editors do not resort to startling us with loud noises. The chills come from revealing the characters' intentions.
The movie has its flaws. Some minor characters are forgotten in the second half. There are some continuity errors in the run up to the climax. But the writing is better than average, and the performances, even from the little ones, are compelling.
Story guru Matt Bird says your story is not about your hero's life; it's about your hero's problem. The first half of Three Peaks comes close to breaking this rule.
A mother, her son, and her new boyfriend vacation at a cabin in the mountains. We watch them live their lives for several days---cooking, sleeping, playing music---all made awkward by the son's unresolved resentment over his father's absence. The film seems to be showing us what life is like in a new family.
The boyfriend does his best to include the son in manly activities such as cutting firewood and hiking to the peaks. The son starts to threaten the boyfriend. This is where the film starts being a story. The boyfriend (hero) now has a problem. Still, what can a boy do against a grown man?
Quite a bit, it turns out, when that man feels protective toward the boy for the sake of his girlfriend, the mother, and when they hike to the top of a mountain and the fog rolls in. Trapped in a dangerous situation, the boy now has all the advantages.
The final third of the movie plays like a Jack London story directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
This low-budget film was made in the year World War II ended, the threshold of film noir. Only 67 minutes long, it is not one of the great films in that genre, but it was favorably reviewed when it was released and each time it was rediscovered. In 1992 it was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Most of the critical raves focus on the director, Edgar G. Ulmer. In his review, Roger Ebert said Ulmer "was an assistant to the great Murnau on 'The Last Laugh' and 'Sunrise,' and provided one of the links between German Expressionism, with its exaggerated lighting, camera angles and dramaturgy, and the American film noir, which added jazz and guilt."
This film could be a textbook on making a low-budget film without disappointing the audience. Street scenes in New York show two characters standing under a street sign surrounded by fog. Stock footage of a switchboard operator tells us the hero is making a long-distance call. Visually it's minimal, but enough.
I must say the acting was the least enjoyable part of the movie. For whatever reason, the two main characters were reduced to a single attitude and every line is delivered in the same tone.
The story is perhaps the most interesting and most noirish part of the movie. A singer decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood. Her boyfriend, a fine pianist, decides to follow her. His luck goes from bad to worse as he hitchhikes across the country. As he says at the end, fate can destroy anyone at any time.
The film is based on Martin Goldsmith's 1939 novel, Detour, adapted by him and Martin Mooney.
The film is in the public domain and is freely available from online sources. Be sure to look for the restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2018. available from the Criterion Collection.
Hitchcock/Truffaut, the 2015 documentary film about the book of the same title, includes interviews with ten present-day directors. Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorcese, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and others testify to the enduring influence of Alfred Hitchcock on their work and film-making in general.
In Still of the Night (1982), director Robert Benton borrowed many techniques from Hitchcock and also created a pastiche of Hitchcock's films. It's fun to watch this movie and pair up its scenes with the scenes from master's catalogue: the auction-house scene, the dream sequence, peeping in the windows across the across the way, etc.
There are also scenes that are genuinely suspenseful, ironic, and scary. Even if you never seen a Hitchcock film, you can be well entertained for 90 mins by this thriller.
Vincent Canby spotted the movie's chief shortcoming when he said the magnetism between the stars, Roy Scheider and Meryl Streep, is too weak to drive the action. Both actors are great, and the director won an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, but the spark is not there.
Still there are chills in this movie about a psychiatrist and an expert in antiques and their obsessions.
This ticking-clock thriller has a lot to recommend it. Reviewers complained it strains credibility, but they always do with mysteries and thrillers. That's like complaining that there's no such thing as a light saber. Get with the program, critics! If you want to talk about plot holes and coincidences, let's talk about Oedipus the King.
I liked the low stakes in this movie. One decent but flawed guy (Denzel Washington) gets in over his head by devising a scheme that is partly noble, partly selfish. If it all goes wrong, the worst that can happen is a small town in Florida has to get a new police chief. Leave global domination to the James Bond franchise. Give me one relatable character to root for.
Whether or not you like the basic noir plot involving a guy putting it all on the line to save a damsel in distress (and getting some ugly surprises), you have to admire the performances in this movie. I vaguely recall seeing it in a theater sixteen years ago, and I vividly recall walking out and asking, "Who is she?"
"She" is Eva Mendes. She plays the no-nonsense cop who follows the evidence even when it threatens to lead to her almost-ex-husband. She matches Denzel's intensity and credibility without breaking a sweat (and this is in Florida!).
The same can be said for Sanaa Lathan, who plays the damsel in distress. In fact the performances are uniformly good in this movie with Chris Harrison playing the heavy, John Billingsley as the comic sidekick, and so on down the line.
If you go looking for it, watch out for other films with the same title. Several were released at around the same time as this one. One was released last year. There's also a TV series called Out of Time.
This is an entertaining thriller that reveals the power of at least one underappreciated artist. I'll admit I thought of Don Johnson as the pretty boy from Miami Vice, but in this film he shows range. As the character demands, he goes from boyish charm without empathy to narcissistic rage when anyone tries to deny his whims. Scary.
Rebecca De Mornay has been greatly appreciated for the films of the 1980s and 1990s in which she played roles both heroic and villainous, and she continues to work, most recently in the TV series, Jessica Jones. She has star power here, playing a character more given to fight than flight.
Director Sidney Lumet is in full Hitchcock mode, which is generally a good thing. He photographs De Mornay as Hitchcock famously photographed the blondes in his thrillers. There is more than one back-of-the-head shot and several moments when De Mornay is frozen in terror while we hear Johnson off-screen threatening her. Unlike Hitchcock's blondes, De Mornay's character is in full attack mode from start to finish.
Although screenwriters are generally underappreciated, one aspect of this film made me look up the name Larry Cohen. The moments I found most chilling often come from a line of dialogue, delivered simply, in keeping with the scene. These lines reveal the next twist in the villain's scheme. No underscoring, no camera work, no "action," just story. Perhaps this is not surprising from a writer quoted as saying, "Many of the A-movies are long forgotten. They're boring, slow, and tedious. The B-movies are fast-moving, exciting, and energetic."
This movie has the plot of a thriller, but it doesn't feel like a thriller.
The opening sequences build a familiar situation. The hero is ready to make a better life for herself but is pulled back into her old life for one last score. The middle of the film tightens the screws. Every time she takes two steps forward she must take one step back . . . and sometimes two steps back. The climax and conclusion are full of breathless suspense and terrifying threats.
And yet, it doesn't feel like a thriller. There is no escapism for the audience. The circumstances are not exotic. The hero has no superpowers, The stakes are personal, not global. It's a movie about a working woman and her sister. They've had some hard knocks, they've made some mistakes, but mostly they've done their best.
In other words it's a movie about real people in real trouble doing what real people do. It is carried by a luminous performance from Tessa Thompson. And, as many critics have said, the fact that this is a debut for Nia DaCosta as both writer and director is astonishing.
Both for its craftsmanship and its realism, it feels more like mid-Twentieth-Century realism from dramatists such as Cliff Odets, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller even as its subject matter seems ripped from the headlines. That is indeed high praise.
Seeing this movie thirty years ago felt like riding a fast elevator down twenty stories. Seeing it again on DVD, confirmed that impression. The combined talents of director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Daniel Pyne, and lead actors Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, and Michael Keaton produced a durable thriller.
Griffith and Modine are a young couple staking everything on buying a Victorian House and relying on income from two apartments in the house to pay the mortgage. One apartment is rented by ideal tenants, an elderly couple. The other is rented by Michael Keaton, and the nightmare begins.
The husband and the wife respond to their tenant's abuses in different ways. Which one will have the best strategy for saving their investment and their lives?
Pacific Heights is a thriller of that era when the leading woman began to take charge. She was allowed to fight back and often did so effectively. To Die For (1995) with Nicole Kidman is such a film, as is Sleeping with the Enemy with Julia Roberts. They are the forerunners of today's female super-heroes.
Anyone who finds the plot far-fetched would be well advised to consult laws regarding tenants' rights in San Francisco. It is still possible for someone to move into a rental property, never pay one dollar for rent, and avoid eviction for a very long time.
Anyone who finds the setting far-fetched would be right. The house used for the exterior shots is actually in another neighborhood. Nothing unusual in that. More to the point, lovely as it is, I doubt there is a house that small in the neighborhood called Pacific Heights.
We watched The Highwaymen and enjoyed it. Then I read the mainstream reviews. The professional reviewers seem preoccupied with how it compares to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the enduring classic starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway by Arthur Penn.
The Highwaymen is a different movie for a different time, as is Gun Crazy (1950), which also dramatizes the real-life crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. It's different because it tells the story from the point-of-view of law enforcement, but also because of what it says about America.
This film makes clear that in the 1930s people were desperate for work and desperate to put food on the table. Since hard work and playing by the rules wasn't working, the people loved the idea of breaking all the rules and taking whatever they needed and wanted. Bonnie and Clyde became their heroes.
This film makes equally clear that Bonnie and Clyde robbed and killed poor people as well as rich people. They had to be stopped, and conventional law enforcement couldn't do the job. So the governor of Texas, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), hired a couple of former Texas Rangers to work without official authorization.
Thus, this movie is about outlaws chasing outlaws at a time when the people had lost faith in the law. There is no romance about the real-life law men played by Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner. They're smart and they're tough, but they are thugs hired by the state to kill. They know that's what they are. That's made clear in a speech by Harrelson late in the film.
There are neither heroes nor anti-heroes in this film. There is instead a description of America falling apart as it did in the 1930s. There is also a reminder that, bad as income inequality is today, we have seen nothing approaching the Great Depression in my lifetime.
Back in 1995, the reviews for To Die For were full of phrases like "black comedy," "sharp satire," and "witty parody." I was spellbound by this movie, but I didn't find much to laugh about.
The plot is lifted from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. A woman is frustrated by her boring or boorish husband so she seduces some fool and persuades him to kill the husband.
But, in the screenplay by Buck Henry, based on a story by Joyce Maynard, there is a variation. The wife isn't bored as in Cain's iconic novel; she is ambitious. She wants to be a television personality, and she's willing to start her career by doing the weather on a local cable channel.
When the film was released, critics focused on the satire of America's obsession with celebrity, and there is some of that. But, in my humble opinion, they overlooked the film's chilling rendition of the archetypal noir plot.
For one thing, the fool is a teenager played by Joaquin Phoenix with heartbreaking vulnerability. And two other teenagers, brilliantly played by Casey Affleck and Alison Folland also fall under the wife's spell. That makes the noir a bit darker.
But most of all there is Nicole Kidman's performance. She compels belief as her character progresses from cute "little lady," to driven career woman, to ruthless exploiter, to deluded psychopath. This role should be studied and taught as an example of finding the arc of a character.
To be fair, back in 1995, critics recognized the high quality of the acting and writing, and of the direction by Gus Van Sant. Perhaps they came away laughing, because a woman with career ambitions was not taken so seriously then. After #MeToo, we're not laughing any more.
You know something is wrong, right from the beginning.
When Louis meets his bride-to-be, fresh off the boat on a remote island, she doesn't look like the picture she sent. Julie says she sent a picture of her sister in case she changed her mind about getting married.
When he drives her to his stately home, he confesses he lied to her too. He doesn't work in a factory. He owns the factory. He didn't want her to marry him just for his money.
This is the opening of Waltz Into Darkness, the 1947 novel by Cornell Woolrich, published under his pseudonym, William Irish. It plays beautifully in Francois Truffaut's 1969 film adaptation, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.
With minimal changes to the novel's plot, the movie tells this classic noir tale of two people, doomed by their personal histories to play out a downward spiral of crime. The many lessons Truffaut learned from Alfred Hitchcock are on full display here.
The movie falls short of Woolrich's dark vision in only one way. Belmondo and Deneuve are just too attractive. In the novel, Louis is an aging bachelor, which helps justify his obsession with holding onto Julie. It's hard to imagine Belmondo being desperate to meet women.
In the novel, Julie falls in love with Louis, but cannot stop being the psychopath her circumstances in life have made her. It's hard to imagine Deneuve as anything but an angel.
No Man of Her Own (1950), directed by William Leisen, starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a rare instance of a movie that is as good as the book its based on.
I enjoyed the book, I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich. The opening chapters set up a tall tale: a pregnant woman meets another pregnant woman on a train; the train crashes and one of them dies; the one who lives is mistaken for the one who died.
The rest of the book plays out this premise. The survivor reluctantly accepts the new identity thrust upon her because her own prospects as an unmarried mother are grim, whereas the other woman was a newlywed mother on her way to meet her husband's wealthy family.
Once past this unlikely premise, the suspense mounts steadily as the mother lives a lie for the sake of providing a better life for her child. It's a classic noir dilemma: doing a bad thing for a good reason.
The film makes the premise easier to believe thanks to Leisen's efficient visual style. The director's craft is evident throughout the rest of the film as well. He frequently lets Stanwyck's face tell the story in long close-ups.
If you go looking for this film, don't confuse it with another film of the same title made in 1932, starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Also, don't be mislead by the film's credits, which say it is based on the book by William Irish. Woolrich originally published I Married a Dead Man under a pseudonym.
Underworld U. S. A., (1961), written and directed by Samuel Fuller, treats the subject of organized crime with a complexity and sophistication that rivals Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972).
As a teenager, Tolly Devlin sees his father beaten to death in an alley by four men. Grown to manhood, he vows to find them and take revenge.
I’ll admit I expected the movie from here on to be repetitive: find one, gun him down, move on to the next. But Fuller accomplishes much more.
The process of finding each man becomes a psychological chess-game as he trades information to get the names of the murderers who are only shadowy figures in his memory.
Finding them exposes a criminal organization disguised as a legitimate business that supports benevolent social programs.
The process of killing each man involves uneasy partnerships with law enforcement
There is no romance about extended Italian families in this movie. Fuller’s take-down of organized crime is unsentimental. This movie reminds readers of Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, that he spent his early years as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper in New York.
It was a special pleasure to see Underworld U. S. A. in the Castro Theater, as part of the Noir City festival.
Having recently read Samuel Fuller’s autobiography, I jumped at the chance to see one of his best films on the big screen at the Castro Theater.
Pickup on South Street (1953) starts with a scene worthy of Hitchcock. On a crowded subway train in New York City, a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) lifts a wallet from a woman’s (Jean Peters) purse.
Two men watch the theft unfold without interfering. Since they seem to have no interest in arresting the thief, why are they following his every move?
In the next few scenes, we learn that the wallet contains a formula stolen by a Communist cell bent on compromising America’s security. The men watching the pickpocket on the subway are FBI agents searching for “Commie” sympathizers.
Pickup on South Street was showing as part of Noir City, an annual ten-day festival. It is regularly cited as a classic film noir, as are some of Fuller’s other films.
And yet, I couldn’t see this film as noir.
The pickpocket and the “B-girl” ultimately give up selling the formula and work with law enforcement. Order is restored and all’s right with the world because two unlikely souls look past their own interests to serve their country. And their idealism is rewarded.
How can we reconcile this with Roger Ebert’s definition of film noir as "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending?"
Or with Otto Penzler's description: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Pickup on South Street has all the furnishings of film noir---fedoras, slang, street-wise characters, beautiful black-and-white photography---but it’s really a morality play. Good is rewarded and evil is punished.
As such, I really enjoyed it. Fuller’s storytelling craft is impeccable. And it’s always nice to have an excuse to go to the Castro Theater, San Francisco’s last art-deco movie palace.