—Julian Barnes, The Times Literary Supplement, December 21 & 28, 2012
Happy birthday! (You know who you are.)
The 254th Soundtrack of the Week is Basil Kirchin's music for Primitive London, presented on a CD with his score for The Freelance.
The first track has a really fast jazz feel and an urgency to the rhythm, while an otherworldly melody, somewhat similar both to David Raksin's "Laura" and Bernard Herrmann's theme for Taxi Driver, soars above it. What instrument is it? Sounds like an electronic saw. It has a space-age bachelor-pad feel to it.
The same theme gets an ethereal and bluesy treatment in the next track, with some kind of keyboard and trumpet handling the melody while vibes create a shimmering atmosphere.
A swing version of the same theme comes next, a really nice arrangement with some nice trumpet blowing. It picks up the pace a bit for an Afro-Cuban ending.
The next track departs from the theme to present some haunting textural music, the first half dominated by low organ tones, the second by weird looping electronic sounds. An eerie melody plays over it.
A high-pitched drone and funereal percussion introduce the next track, another textural and atmospheric piece. After this comes another weird piece that sounds like electric bagpipes or something. It's actually probably just electronic keyboard drones and whatever instrument—probably some kind of synthesizer that played the theme in the first track.
The next piece is the first of four tracks for The Freelance. It's a short suite, beginning with a pastoral feel introduced by flute before a burst of drums, bass and trumpet disrupt it. Then there's the main theme, presented in a kind of a loungy funk section, then more percussion, bass and trumpet in a free-jazz section. This in turn is replaced by a jazzy but meditative section again featuring the trumpet.
Cello starts the next section, which reprises the loungy theme. It starts it, stops it almost immediately, then starts it again much faster. Then it goes into a avant-jazz combo bit that's really good before returning finally to the slightly cheesy sound of the theme.
The third track is almost ten minutes long and starts slowly, with a keyboard drone and trumpet emerging with a slow version of the theme. The main theme is restated, as you would expect. Then there's a kind of avantgarde jazz section, that like the bit in the last piece wouldn't have been out of place at the Knitting Factory circa 1990. Then things get meditative and almost ECM-like after that.
The last piece wraps things up with a piece that's almost eight minutes long, and begins with more of the feel that ended the last piece, restates the theme, and then goes into a different groove, almost like a Julius Hemphill sort of thing. The theme returns, as does the flute. Then we're back in the kind of Las Vegas treatment of the theme. Then there's more avant-type stuff, the strongest of the recurring elements here, which bleeds into trumpets soloing against a cloudy percussion background. It's Vegas time once more for the very end.
—Lawrence Durrell, Clea, 1960
Here's another great Bear Family release.
Hank Davis grew up in New York City where, through radio, which was a hell of a lot more interesting in the '50s than it has been for decades, he became obsessed with country, rockabilly and the blues. Sun Records in particular fascinated him and you can hear the influence of Elvis, Charlie Rich, Warren Smith, Carl Perkins, Dale Hawkins, even Roy Orbison, I think, in his music.
The title song is brilliant haunting rockabilly with great guitar sound and eerie tape echo on the voice. The lyrics have a fatalistic quality: "Lovin' you's like riding on a one way track / I can love you now but I can't come back". The rhythm has a driving freight train feel and the guitar solos are simple but succulent.
"There Is No Right Way" ("to do me wrong", the lyric continues), is one of those achingly beautiful pedal steel-driven country songs with a honkytonk swing.
"Lift Up Your Hands" is an uptempo song about a desperado in the Wild West. The use of the title lyric is quite ingenious, being spoken by different people in different contexts.
"I Don't Feel Like Dancing" is a great heartbreak song with wonderful pedal steel playing.
Electric piano—Fender Rhodes?—adds an unusual and funky element to the r&b-inflected "Early in the Morning". Perhaps they were going for a Ray Charles thing and, to cover their bets, decided to include some Duane Eddyish guitar playing also.
"There Goes the Guy" is a pop tune with a surprisingly aggressive pulse. The lyrics make use of "one way track" again and also look ahead to Charlie Rich's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World".
"Low Down Moaning" has a menacing guitar sound and a really cool and weird rhythmic feel for the chorus. Art Garfunkel, who was a year ahead of Davis at Columbia University, sings back-up vocal on this! Hank used to play guitar on Art's demos and Art would return the favor by singing on Hank's.
There's even a station break by "Rusty and Doug" for New York City's own WKCR, referred to as "the only country and western music station in New York City"!
"Lonely Road" is another haunting pop song about loneliness and desperate love. The melody and harmonies created by the two singers are very poignant and the guitar solo by New York session musician George Barnes is really nice, with a wonderful tone On rhythm guitar is none other than Kenny Burrell!
There are some great lines in "A Minute To Run". Consider the opening: "This might have been a ballad / The emotions would've been valid". The song is exactly a minute long, too, so there's a concept at work here. It's got a swaying groove and is arranged for voice and one or two steel-string guitars.
Finally there's "Peace and Contentment", the last track on the CD, an uptempo bluesy instrumental featuring the electric piano.
Duke Ellington's Paris Blues is the 253rd Soundtrack of the Week.
The soundtrack album begins with a train whistle and then a sprightly rendition of "Take the 'A' Train" (a subway train, not a railroad train and thus never having a whistle, I believe). There are brief saxophone and trumpet solos.
"Battle Royal" is another uptempo tune with impressive bass playing and more feature spots for the sax and trumpet. (The movie's about a trumpet player, so no surprise there.) This is presumably a "cutting contest" scene. There's an electric guitar solo, which is pretty unusual for Ellington, as far as I know.
Hand percussion and an exotica mood introduce "Bird Jungle", which becomes denser as it goes on. There's something familiar about the horn line but I can't put my finger on it.
After that comes the sublime "Mood Indigo", with guitar on the intro, making it sound different than other Ellington takes of this tune which I've heard.
"Autumnal Suite" starts out with flute and cymbal, soon joined by other winds. It starts out sounding like vintage Chico Hamilton quintet but soon relaxes into a smooth, relaxed swing that's very Ellington.
"Nite" has a similar structure, starting out chamber-like and then swinging. "Wild Man Moore" is rough and ready from the beginning, a raunchy, swinging shouter. This piece is named after the character played by Louis Armstrong on the film.
"Paris Stairs" is a pounding waltz with a swirling energy. Guitar takes center stage for "Guitar Amour", which I seem to remember seeing in an Ellington concert video years ago. It starts off delicate but builds to frantic strumming across all strings.
The CD concludes with the melancholy "Paris Blues", a richly textured cue that, like so much of Ellington, you feel as much as you hear.
The other tracks on the CD are bits of dialogue from the movie, an idea I've never liked. The Joanne Woodward asks trumpet player Paul Newman, "Do you write music too?" He replies, "Honey, I live music: morning, noon, the whole night. Everything else is just icing on the cake. You dig?" "I dig," she says. Well, what would you say?
LIMITED FARM BILL FAVORED (and BILL AIDS OWNER ON FORECLOSURE, U.S. DEBT TALK SEEN AS BASIS FOR NEW PARLEY, BALLOT AWAITED TODAY AFTER AMENDMENTS and AUTO MISHAPS AND DROWNINGS TOP DEATH LIST) in Smashing the Rackets (1938)!
Alas, the newspapers in Charlie Chaplin's brilliant Modern Times do not report that a new tax bill may be needed. Among the items in the news, however, is LIMITED FARM BILL FAVORED, BILL AIDS OWNER ON FORECLOSURE and good ol' 3 NAMED TO FIX LIABILITY COSTS.
Modern Times came out in 1936, which makes it the earliest movie I've seen so far that has these headlines in it.
I'll admit that I'm intrigued by "Two Men Held In Trunk Slaying Mystery After Accused Woman Is Released". I'll be keeping an eye out for that one, too.
The 252nd Soundtrack of the Week is Los Angeles, 1937 by Phillip Lambro: in other words, Chinatown again, as it originally was.
Jerry Goldsmith's score for Chinatown is famous for being a last-minute replacement for rejected score. Now we can hear what it took the place of.
The "Main Titles" are quite effective, beginning with eerie percussion and strings and sliding into a sultry, bluesy, '30s jazz thing with some unusual sounds coming from strings and percussion. It conjures up an atmosphere of decadence and decay, which seems like a likely intention.
"Tailing Hollis" is a miniature masterpiece of strange percussion noises. "The Boy on a Horse" also exploits the possibilities of percussion instruments, this time against a background of droning strings. Both of these cues are wonderful.
Pitched drums and uneasy strings introduce "Noah Cross". The use of wood blocks reminded me of Masaru Sato. "Mariachi Square" is a strangely subdued take on Mexican folk music.
The "Orchard Chase" is effectively driving and exciting, with pounding drums and stabbing piano.
Vibes and piano introduce the gently swinging, romantic and bluesy "One Night with Evely". Strings come in to create a lush setting for the melody, which is a reprise of the main title music.
"Finding the Captive" and "The Last of Ida Sessions" are short, atmospheric pieces that exploit the possibilities of percussion and, like some of the other cues, have some otherworldly, mysterious sounds.
So far Lambro's score has been superb. But "Welcome to Chinatown" suffers from stereotypically "Chinese" sounds and "Evelyn Shot" is too much, too hard a sell of the drama. ( The same "Chinese" music returns for the "End Titles".)
The lovely main theme is reprised in "Forget It, Jake". Also on the CD are the bonus tracks of "Trailer Music", "Structures for String Orchestra I and II" and "Music for Wind, Brass and Percusion I and II". The latter two pieces were Lambro compositions that Polanski used to track Chinatown before there was an original score. Lambro's score was used for the movie's preview even after it was removed from the film itself, and so that is included here as well.
Violent Playground is about a police officer in Liverpool who is taken off a serial arsonist case and transferred to the Juvenile Liaison division. Instead of catching criminals he's now supposed to provide support and guidance to troubled children so as to prevent their becoming criminals.
He's a hard-nosed bachelor who doesn't like kids and it takes him a while to warm up to his job. (In some ways this movie anticipates Kindergarten Cop.)
He soon becomes involved in the case of two young twins who live in a housing estate, what we call a housing project in the United States. The world around them is ruled by their older brother Johnny, an intimidating juvenile delinquent played by a pre-U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum, first seen throwing rocks at a teddy bear.
I don’t suppose anybody will be surprised when the cop's new assignment leads him back to the pyromaniac case, nor when the identity of the firebug—they say firefly—is revealed.
Rock and roll is one of the dangers menacing the young people. There's a song in which a Wanda Jackson imitator sings "I want to be rough, rough, rough / I'm gonna get tough, tough, tough" and David McCallum, looking like a proto-Ziggy Stardust, does a weird dance at a teen freak-out party that seems like some kind of nihilist ritual.
The danger of sex is represented by a couple of appearances of this girl who looks like she stepped right out of a pulp paperback cover painting.
The climax involves McCallum holding an elementary school hostage with a machine gun, threatening to kill them. He makes it clear that he is definitely not bluffing. This foreshadows movies such as If… and Dirty Harry as well as, sadly, some horrible recent real-life events.
Peter Cushing has a small role as a priest and is riveting in his few scenes.
The main reason this movie is worth watching today is for the location photography, of which there is a lot. Want to see what urban Liverpool looked like in 1958? Here it is.
The 251st Soundtrack of the Week is Jerry Goldsmith's classic Chinatown score.
Incredibly, Goldsmith created this masterpiece in about ten days. Chinatown originally had music by Phillip Lambro but, according to Gergely Hubai's Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores, Bronislau Kaper hated Lambro's work and soured producer Robert Evans—who had already given Lambro a thousand dollar bonus for a job well done—on it.
The first track on the CD is the most important one. "Love Theme from Chinatown" is one of Jerry Goldsmith's finest compositions, an achingly beautiful piece with a swirling atmosphere and a beautiful melody played on trumpet. (Naked City used to cover this—it's on their first record—and they would really make the most of the opportunity to create an arresting atmospheric introduction.) It's also the theme of the movie, recurring several times.
Harp and percussion create an equally enchanting mood for "Noah Cross". The love theme is echoed in fragments here and there while dissonant strings and weird noises create a sense of unease.
The love theme returns in "Jake and Evelyn", but it's more romantic here, given a lusher sound by a more orchestral arrangement.
"The Last of Ida" has the same melody first on strings and then on trumpet, but with an urgent , driving rhythm underneath. This leads to a weird section with lots of space, anxious strings and piano. It's reminiscent of Goldsmith's music for Planet of the Apes and Alien.
The piano and percussion return in "The Captive", but the theme has a setting that is both sweeter and more suspenseful. The use of harp, percussion and the inside of the piano is especially good. There are also some remarkably subtle effects created by voice and/or electronic instruments.
"The Boy on a Horse" is similar to the previous cue. "The Wrong Clue" is the love theme again but strikingly sad this time. "J.J. Gittes" is similar to "The Wrong Clue" but with the atmosphere up front and the love theme in a supporting role.
The first arrangement of the love theme is reprised for the end titles.
And then there are a few popular songs of the era: new solo piano interpretations of "Easy Living" and "The Way You Look Tonight" and a recording of Bunny Berigan doing "I Can't Get Started".
The other day I went to the movies and saw a preview for a new movie based on Parker, the thief at the center of a number of books written by Donald Westlake using the pseudonym Richard Stark.
The first series of these books, written in the 1960s and early '70s, is really great. After a gap of more than twenty years, Westlake returned to the Stark name and the Parker character in the late '90s, with results that I found to be disappointing. This second series presented a Parker who didn't think anything of putting on a costume and playing a part, who made dumb mistakes and who even had to be rescued at least once. These are characteristics more fitting to Parker's occasional accomplice Grofield, himself the star of a handful of Richard Stark novels.
One example of the problem with the later group of books is that Stark/Westlake at one point tells us that Parker always kept a quarter in his pocket in case he had to make a phone call. This is almost breathtakingly unimpressive. The Parker I remembered would have had a fake or stolen but clean calling card so he could call anywhere in the world from any phone—and he would have had the card number memorized so he didn't need the actual card. (And of course many pay phones cost more than a quarter, especially outside of New York.)
One Parker film adaptation, Godard's Made in USA, was never shown in the United States in Westlake's lifetime, as far as I know. As I recall, Westlake owned the North American distribution rights (in exchange for their adapting his book without having the rights to do so) and, apparently, thought little enough of the movie that he didn't allow it to be screened. It showed up at New York's Film Forum shockingly soon after Westlake's death (about a week!) and is now available on DVD from Criterion. Had Westlake changed his mind about this before he passed away?
It's not important to me. I thought Made in USA was a pretty bad movie, almost unwatchable. I like a lot of Godard but found that one to be something of an endurance test.
But one thing that Made in USA has in common with all other film adaptations of Richard Stark books is that Parker isn't called Parker. This was something Westlake insisted on. I thnk he knew that a movie Parker wouldn't be the real Parker, who would exist only in the books. You could call him anything you want in the movies except Parker. Lee Marvin did him as Walker, Mel Gibson as Porter and so on.
Guess what his name is in the new movie?
Westlake must be rolling in his grave.
Jason Statham isn't a bad choice for Parker. He's not big enough but most actors haven't been. (Jim Brown was the right size but his performance didn't fit the character.) The preview shows him making wisecracks and doing a bunch of goofy things that Parker would never do—except, perhaps, in the second series of Stark/Parker novels—but it looks like it might just possibly be an entertaining movie—if it weren't for the matter of the character's name. This is not Parker. They should have called him something else.
Here are the Movies of the Year 2012, in a list that is shorter than usual. I didn't watch as many movies this year and failed to write notes about many of them soon after I saw them. I would have liked Haywire (2011) and The Wonderful Country (1959), for example, to be on this list, but by the time I sat down to write about them I'd forgotten whatever it was I wanted to say, other than that they're really good.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010): Tucker and Dale are a couple of overall-clad good ol' boys looking forward to a relaxing stay at their "vacation home", a dilapidated shack in the Appalachian mountains which used to be home to a serial killer. On the way they run into a group of preppy college kids who assess Tucker and Dale as creepy hillbilly psychos. Tucker and Dale are rough around the edges but actually really nice, gentle guys. It's their bad luck—well, everyone's bad luck—that things keep going awry with chainsaws and ditch-digging and such and Tucker and Dale keep ending up in situations that, innocent as they are, look really bad for them. And these college kids just keep meeting violent deaths around our two heroes, making things look much, much worse. I laughed out loud several times during this unpretentious and gory escapade. It's that rare comedy of errors where everything could be cleared up by an explanation and the part where the characters explain what's going on isn't tediously forestalled over and over again but actually happens exactly when it should but makes no difference. As far as slasher movie tributes and parodies go, I liked this better than Cabin in the Woods (2011).
Kill List (2011): Disturbing and brutally violent occult thriller about two mercenaries who accept a contract to kill three people. One of them is unstable and unhappy about the job, as he's still recovering from a horribly botched operation in Kiev, but feels compelled to take it for the sake of his wife and child. As the two partners work their way down the list, they're shaken by the targets' apparent pleasure in being killed. The reluctant killer finds himself to be an important figure to his victims for some reason and becomes more violent and unhinged. The whole thing turns out to be part of the machinations of a death- and violence-obsessed cult and the movie a worthy follow-up to paranoid occult classics like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). It's filmed in a loose, almost neo-realist style and appears to have benefitted from improvisation by the talented cast. It also has an excellent score which supplies a lot of the dread and creepiness. Absolutely not recommended for those with a low tolerance for on-screen violence and dark and disturbing material.
Yorokobi mo kanashimi mo ikutoshitsuki (Times of Joy and Sorrow, 1957): There isn't much of a plot to this movie and the story is not especially complex. It's about thirty years in the life of a married couple who work as lighthouse keepers. The story begins in the early 1930s and ends in the mid-1950s. Their work requires them to move around to different lighthouses and they're stationed all over Japan, sometimes in very remote and rugged places. The movie chronicles their struggles and celebrations as they raise children, survive the war and the deprivation that followed and live to see their daughter leave Japan with her new husband, in a beautifully restrained yet extremely touching final scene. It's sort of like a combination of Ozu, Hollywood Golden Age drama and what mid-century romance comics made for adults might have been like. The color photography is stunning and Hideko Takamine is brilliant as always.
Les liens du sang (Rivals, 2008): This was an absorbing mixture of crime drama and family drama, with echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville's classic gangster dramas. (The ending in particular reminded me of Le Cercle Rouge.) François and Gabriel are brothers. François, the younger one, is the good kid who has become a cop, while Gabriel is the prodigal, a career criminal who has just been released from jail. The rest of the family, a father and sister, indulge the older sibling, who is clearly the father's favorite child. Gabriel is a hero in his own milieu as well and, to make things worse, actually modest, protesting when his friends regale people with Gabriel stories. François isn't enjoying this, as you can imagine. Despite being a hard-working police officer with numerous accomplishments, his association with Gabriel makes him suspect to his colleagues and superiors. What's compelling about the story is that the brothers love each other but can't help but come into conflict every time they meet. Gabriel really tries to go straight but is first foiled by corrupt bureaucrats and then put under pressure to come up with support payments for his ex-wife and children. After he establishes a lucrative prostitution racket, a professional conflict with his younger brother seems inevitable. Meanwhile François is heading for his own trouble, having fallen in love and started a relationship with the wife of a violent criminal. Excellent acting and story and an impressive recreation of 1970s France.
Kyuketsu dokuro sen (a.k.a. The Living Skeleton or Ship of the Vampire Skeletons, 1968): There's no shortage of Japanese vengeful spirit movies, but they're rarely as strange and dreamlike as this one. Filmed in beautiful black-and-white widescreen and with excellent music that exploits electric guitar and tape delay, this is a twisted fairy tale of twin sisters, stolen gold, underwater skeletons, dissolving acid, sex, ghosts and a massacre. Saeko's twin sister went with her doctor husband on a honeymoon that involved, for unexplained reasons, a trip on a freighter carrying a fortune in gold. The ship is hijacked and everybody on board slaughtered. Years later Saeko is living with a Catholic priest who has taken her in. She doesn't know what happened to her sister but feels that her sister must still be alive. Out scuba diving with her boyfriend one day Saeko comes across a bunch of skeletons. Then she sees a haunted freighter, goes on board, sees her sister and faints. Then the men who killed everybody and stole the gold start to be murdered by either Saeko or the ghost of Saeko’s sister. But what of the ringleader, the sinister man with the hideously burned face? Where is he? You'll find out!
No Time To Be Young (1957): Buddy, Bob and Stu are three friends, about twenty years old, who are all having a sort of crisis. Stu and his girlfriend Tina have secretly gotten married and Tina doesn't think that her strict father will have a problem with it since Stu is going to be a rich and famous writer. Hasn't a big publishing company already accepted his first, brilliant novel? When he gets that big advance from them, they can tell her parents. The problem there is that Stu lied to Tina: nobody wants to publish his novel and he's broke with no prospects. Bob is working hard at the supermarket and saving his money but he's obsessed with a woman who works at the local greasy spoon. She goes out with him but with other guys, too, older men experienced in things other than making displays of stacked tin cans. Buddy, played by a pre-U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughan, is the most restless and the one in the most trouble. He's been kicked out of school and, as a result, drafted into the army. His father left the family a long time ago and Buddy has a complicated relationship with his mother, which partly explains why he's intimate with one of his college professors, a woman old enough to be his mother. Buddy figures out that what he and his friends need to do is buy a boat and take off, head for South America and just ride the waves. But they'll need money for that, a lot of it. So Buddy has another idea, and it involves a gun. No Time To Be Young is sort of like what might happen if Roger Corman and Douglas Sirk collaborated on a juvenile delinquent movie that was based on a fatalistic romance comic.
Quartier lointain (2010): This is an intelligent and understated movie, an adaptation of a Japanese comic book about a man named Thomas, a middle-aged husband and father who finds himself unexpectedly back in his fifteen-year-old body, reliving his childhood with all of his future, adult memories and knowledge. The story is similar to Back to the Future (1985) or He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (1993), but the tone and action of Quartier Lontain are entirely different. Thomas has returned to his family just before a tragic event that destroyed his mother and haunted him ever since: the desertion of the family by Thomas’s father, who went out to buy bread one evening and never came back. This time around, Thomas is determined to stop his father from running away. His chances seem good. Giving adolescence a second try he ends up going out with a girl he had, the first time around, worshipped from afar and never been brave enough even to speak to. But it’s complicated being an adult in a child’s body. When she kisses him, Thomas draws away and protests that she’s only fifteen. "So are you," she replies. But that's only half true. And Thomas is of course still married with children. Sort of. His children haven’t been born yet and when he calls his future wife on the phone she has no idea who he is. These threads and others are explored quietly and sensitively, building up to a satisfying yet ambiguous conclusion.
Mientras duermes (Sleep Tight, 2011): It doesn’t seem like many horror movies go really deeply into true horror. So-called “torture porn” films have explored pain, gore and sadism but don’t offer much more than shock value, a currency that is quickly depreciated as jaded viewers require more and more of it to pay attention. Sleep Tight is a truly horrific study in sadism with almost no blood shed at all; yet its terror and evil are likely to leave you unsettled for days—and worried that there really might be monsters under your bed. César is the concierge of an apartment building. He has his duties to perform but he has a more urgent calling, to keep everybody in his life unhappy. Since he controls the environment in which these people live, having access to their homes and their mail, being able to spread lies and rumor, this is remarkably easy. He has everybody, even his own mother, in a state of fear, anxiety or depression—everybody except for Clara. Nothing he does seems to dim her light, not infesting her apartment with thousands of roaches overnight, not infecting her make-up with dangerous chemicals that do horrible things to her complexion, nothing. Clara is a real problem. What will César do? Not only is this a real horror movie, and a mostly psychological horror movie, it’s also a story of a clash between good and evil, presented as a twisted urban fairy tale. It’s definitely not for the easily freaked out.
They Came To Rob Las Vegas (1968): Gary Lockwood stars in this excellent crime drama about an armored car heist in the Nevada desert. It also turns out to be a story of revenge and changing times. It begins with a middle-aged gangster getting out of jail and finding 1968 America to be a bizarrely changed place. He wants to pull off a job but Lockwood won’t go in with him, protesting that security measures have intensified as much as music, fashion and dancing have changed. This guy goes ahead with the job regardless, with spectacularly bad results. Lockwood is then compelled to do the job himself, for reasons which become clear only at the end of the movie. Great flick with terrific location photography, a solid script, excellent performances and a cool score. Lee J. Cobb, as the boss of the armored car company, is excellent as always.
The Big Caper (1957): This heist drama is based on a book by Lionel White, who is probably best known for The Killing, the novel that was adapted for the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. The Big Caper is a story of a bank job, but it turns on one of my favorite plot developments, the transformation of character by environment. In order to pull off the heist, two of the criminals move into the bank’ sleepy suburban town and establish a cover identity as two regular citizens. They buy a local business, act like they’re happily married, talk about their plans to raise a family there and become friends with the locals. After a few months of this, though, they kind of like the way they’re living and don’t want to trade it for the big score. And when the rogues' gallery of their violent, perverse and drunk confederates show up, they’re appalled to be in the company they used to keep. James Gregory is especially good as the evil boss.
Tenisu no ojisama (The Prince of Tennis, 2006): It’s been a hit manga, anime, radio show and even a series of stage musicals, so it’s no surprise that it's a live-action film also. It’s basically a kung fu film with tennis as the martial art. The hero is a tennis prodigy whose father is a legend of the tennis court. The boy struggles to live up to his father’s reputation and, as part of his school team, joins an elimination tournament to see which team will go to the Nationals. Fancy special effects bring the crazy tennis skills to life as drop shots don’t bounce but instead roll backwards, balls magically switch directions and one really scary opponent summons a solar eclipse and a rain storm! I watched it with a friend of mine who is a serious tennis player and he was impressed that the actors all had good form on the court, were apparently holding the racket and swinging it right. They did their homework, then, unlike, my friend tells me, the actors who played tennis in Woody Allen's Match Point.
Cape Spin (2012): My friend John co-directed this great documentary about the battle over Cape Wind, a proposed wind farm off the shores of Cape Cod. Some people want the green energy, others say it’s an eyesore that could be easily relocated and won’t even benefit the community. The point of the movie, as the title suggests, is to show how complicated these differences can become when the stakes are high. I came out of the movie thinking that the “third way” proposed by the filmmakers, a decentralized approach to alternative energy in which municipalities, private individuals and private institutions get their own personal wind turbines and solar panels. Those who have done it, either democratically within their community or on private property, have been producing more energy than they use. The centralized approach is handy for putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of developers (who in turn will no doubt use some of that cash to thank the politicians who facilitated their project) and is likely to empower the few, not the many. But, you ask, who can afford the "third way"? Cape Cod can, apparently. The battle over Cape Wind isn’t over but by the end of the decade or so covered by the movie, the pro-Cape Wind and anti-Cape Wind people had spent a combined $70 million on getting their message out.
Che sau (Motorway, 2012): The basics are pretty familiar: the hot-headed rookie cop and the seasoned veteran who just wants to make it to retirement. But Hong Kong filmmakers have always been good at stripping a story down to its essentials and the essentials of Motorway are driving scenes, lots of them, elegantly photographed and crisply edited. A crime gang needs to get a crook out of prison for a jewel heist and brings a notorious wheelman out of retirement to do the job. This guy tunes up his old car and then executes a dazzlingly competent escape. He promises that in his car, you will be safe. The older cop, played by Anthony Wong, was neary killed trying to out-drive this guy years ago, and when he's forced to confront him again it feels almost like a scene from Jaws. Perhaps inspired by the success of Drive, this movie combines the fatalism of French crime movies with the stylish but brisk and no-nonsense approach to action sequences that put Hong Kong crime movies on the map.
The Flying Scot (1957): The first twelve minutes have no dialogue at all. We watch as three men and a woman execute the daring robbery of a huge amount of cash from a moving train. Everything is timed to perfection and goes off without a hitch. This turns out not to be really happening, though. It’s the visualization of the plan, being explained by one member of the gang to the others. His audience is skeptical but he insists that there’s practically no risk at all. In heist movies, I love it when a plan comes apart. When the crooks get on the real train, filled with real people in all their infuriating, unpredictable humanity, nothing at all goes the way it's supposed to. Ralph Smart, creator of Danger Man, co-wrote the story of this efficient and enjoyable crime drama. It shares with Danger Man a light touch, a brisk pace and an understated sense of irony.
The Steel Trap (1952): Joseph Cotten is an assistant manager at a bank, having worked himself up from assistant teller, the position at which he started eleven years ago. He muses that in another eleven years he might make it to vice president. He’s happily married and has a wonderful young daughter and a nice house in the suburbs. Every morning he leaves home at the same time to catch the same train to go to his same job. But one morning he thinks about how he could walk out of the bank with a million dollars in cash and flee to Brazil, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. And he can’t stop thinking about it. The heist is on. As in the movie Quick Change, (inspired by The Steel Trap?) the robbery is the easy part and the getaway a real problem. In The Steel Trap the obstacles are the usual travel problems: paperwork, officials, errors mechanical and human, bad weather, worse luck. Once Cotten crosses the line into crime, his character is constantly tense and on edge, and the film had the same effect on me. The unrelenting stress and the use of voice-over makes The Steel Trap very much like an episode of the radio program Inner Sanctum or, to a lesser degree, Suspense. (It would be very easy to adapt this for Inner Sanctum.) The movie is a visual treat, though, crisply photographed by the great Ernest Laszlo and making extensive use of locations. If you want to know what Los Angeles and New Orleans looked like in 1952, or a typical luncheonette or office, check out this gripping drama. Robert Aldrich is credited as a production supervisor, so perhaps he deserves some of the credit for this film, which was written and directed by Andrew L. Stone.
Il Divo (2008) Actor Toni Servillo and writer/director Paolo Sorrentino have collaborated before, on at least one other movie, The Consequences of Love, which I admired a great deal. (It was one of the Movies of the Year 2008.) It didn’t prepare me for the intensity and beauty of their work together on Il Divo, a drama and character study of the famous—many would say infamous—Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. I don’t know much about politics in general or Andreotti in particular, but I imagine him as equal parts Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Frankenstein’s monster. (I asked some Italian friends about him and while they appeared to have no sympathy with his politics or actions they couldn’t help but admire the skill and talent he displays in the political arena.) Il Divo is a gorgeous and challenging movie, am operatic work of art that just barely manages to be simultaneously entertaining and almost blindingly powerful. Servillo’s self-effacing performance is quietly daring and verges on a kind of masochism. The acting and cinematography are both exhilarating in their different ways, introverted and extroverted. The writing left me dizzy, grasping at ineffectual analogies such as a hybrid of GoodFellas, The Godfather, Primary Colors, Yes Minister and John Haskell's I Am Not Jackson Pollock. This is one those rare movies that I wanted to watch again right away, to search for additional clues and revelations.
Apan (The Ape, 2009) In the first scene of this intense and harrowing Swedish movie, the main character, Krister, wakes up on a bathroom floor covered in blood. He washes himself, changes his clothes and rushes to his job as a driving instructor. It seems he would like this to be an ordinary day, despite whatever it is that has happened. But that's not possible. In the middle of his first driving lesson he freaks out on his student and gets out of the car, leaving her to fend for herself. From there he goes to a Home Depot-type store to buy some electric saws and heavy-duty plastic bags—not a good sign. Then it's off to the tennis club where the audience will receive almost all the information divulged about Krister's motives for, um, whatever he's done. This movie works by granting information bit by bit, and the pace at which it reveals the layers of the story is deliberate and restrained. I didn't know a single thing about it before watching it—I received the DVD as a gift from a Swedish friend—and that's definitely the way to go with this kind of thing. I won't ruin it for any potential viewers by saying too much about it. It does have one scene in it that was, for me, one of the most emotionally devastating scenes of any movie I've ever watched. It's the kind of thing that will hit viewers with children the hardest. Apan is disturbing, nightmarish and a true horror movie, not a fun horror movie. It recalls Breathless in how it makes a virtue of the necessity of a low budget. And the actor Olle Sarri, who is in almost every shot of the film, delivers a breathtaking performance that seems perfectly real, understated without ever being "acting".