Saturday, September 10, 2016

Suspense and/or the Lack Thereof

The Usual Suspects (1995): written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by Bryan Singer; starring Stephen Baldwin (McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Keaton), Benicio Del Toro (Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Verbal), Chazz Palmintieri (Dave Kujan), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), and Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer): Still the best thing writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer have ever done, 21 years later. 

And that's OK because among the peaks and troughs of the Tarantino Wave of the early-to-mid-1990's, The Usual Suspects is a very high peak indeed. A delightful, violent romp that also serves as a meditation on the telling and receiving of stories, The Usual Suspects never lags and gets the best out of both able actors (Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey) and otherwise undistinguished actors whose best work appears here (Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak). Benicio del Toro is nearly unrecognizable physically and, thanks to some extremely odd speech patterns, aurally. Highly recommended.

Don't Breathe (2016): written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; directed by Fede Alvarez; starring Stephen Lang (The Blind Man), Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), and Daniel Zovatto (Money): Admirably tense, terse thriller set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of present-day Detroit. The creative minds behind the solid remake of Evil Dead go with a bit less gore and grue here, though more than one scene is Not For The Squeamish

The young actors are good as three sympathetic burglars who pick the wrong house, while Stephen Lang (Avatar's nutty Colonel) is extraordinarily menacing as the blind, buff homeowner whose house our unfortunate trio break into in search of a hidden cache of Get Out of Detroit cash. The movie may invert the central premise of classic 1960's thriller Wait Until Dark, but it's also a horrifying reimagining of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Brutal but never exploitative. Highly recommended.

Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura) (1963): adapted from works by Ivan Chekhov, F.G. Snyder, and Aleksei Tolstoy by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, and Marcello Fondato; starring Boris Karloff (Gorca/Narrator) and others: Something of a stinker of an Italian anthology horror film from the early 1960's, redubbed for English-speaking audiences. Boris Karloff is fine as both frame narrator and Vourdalak in the third segment. 

The first segment actually goes pretty well until the film-makers unwisely over-use their initially effective Dead Witch Dummy (TM). The second sequence sucks. The third sequence, in which a vampire-like Vourdalak terrorizes a travelling nobleman and a family of peasants, is utterly ridiculous in its plot. It's like a training film on what not to do when menaced by the Undead. Or a cautionary tale about the plague of narcolepsy that ravaged Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Not recommended.

Spectre (2015): written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Blofeld), Lea Seydoux (Madeleine), Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Moneypenny), and Andrew Scott (C): Spectre is a lot like the Roger Moore Bond movies, except for the fact that it's grim rather than light-hearted. And perhaps even more improbable than even the last couple of lousy Moore Bonds. Daniel Craig looks ready to quit the role, and the film-makers don't seem to have written a movie so much as hastily assembled a series of flawed action sequences. 

This lumpy, careless James Bond moves through a world which is either intensely over-crowded or populated by no one but himself, his unlikely love interest, and whoever's trying to kill him. Christoph Waltz does his best to menace in a non-menacing role as an unconvincingly retconned Blofeld, while Andrew Scott, so great as Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, is mostly wasted as a nefarious British bureaucrat/technocrat. If I never see another climax to an action movie that involves doing something with a computer, it will probably be too soon. Though I did like an earlier action sequence that terminates with the fiery revelation that the bad guys have built their secret HQ out of gas pipelines and exploding wood. Not recommended.

Hitchcock/ Truffaut (2015): written by Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana; directed by Kent Jones; narrated by Bob Balaban: It's too short and it doesn't name the directors who discuss Hitchcock throughout the documentary until the end credits. But it's still great to revisit the monumental Hitchcock/Truffaut book, initially compiled and published in 1966 from a series of interviews Francois Truffaut conducted via translator with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. Young (Wes Anderson) and old (Martin Scorsese) alike hold both the book and Hitch himself in monumental regard. 

The movie introduces the viewer to several key moments in the text, with special attention paid to Notorious, The Birds, Psycho, and Vertigo. It might help to read the book either immediately before or after seeing the documentary. It's impossible to imagine any contemporary, commercial film-maker being as visually and thematically complex as Hitchcock turned out to be over his 50-year film-making career. He's the Great White Whale of movies, the immensely popular and complex artist. Highly recommended.

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