Category Archives: Thriller

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this bold, anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time.

In his breakout performance, Malcolm McDowall plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would reprise his “Travis” persona in Anderson’s (loose) sequels O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis leads a trio of agitators (revolutionaries) who foment insurrection against abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e., the draconian System).

Some reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). Politics aside, Anderson’s film could also be a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, The Chocolate War, and Heathers. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine

I want to believe: The Endless (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)

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Solaris meets Wild Wild Country in The Endless, a new horror-sci fi-thriller from co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Benson and Moorhead cast themselves as (wait for it) “Justin” and “Aaron”, two 30-ish brothers who managed to escape from a UFO death cult in their early 20s. One day they receive an enigmatic message via VHS tape. Something really “big” might be going on back at Crazy Town Ranch; something tangibly intangible. Intrigued (if wary), they decide to hit the open road and head back to the camp, hoping to gain a sense of closure about their experience.

 Yes, of course it’s a dumb decision on their part…but then again, if they laughed off the tape and moved on with their lives, you wouldn’t have much of a film, would you? Predictably, their old “friends” are overjoyed to see them again back at the old enclave (located somewhere in the scrubby wilds of Southern California’s rugged back country). The brothers make it clear this is only a visit. The cult members smile. They understand.

That’s how it always starts, doesn’t it?

I won’t risk spoilers, suffice it to say if Justin and Aaron were hoping to discover there really is “something out there”, they get all that and a large orange soda. For me, the “twist” ending demotes all that precedes it into a glorified Twilight Zone episode, but hardcore genre fans should appreciate the genuine sense of dread, and what the filmmakers lack in budget is effectively compensated by their imaginative workarounds.

Blu-ray reissue: Day of the Jackal ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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The Day of the Jackal – Arrow Video Blu-ray (Region “B”)

“Conspiracy a-go go” films don’t get any better than Fred Zinnemann’s taut political thriller. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s eponymous 1971 bestseller, this 1973 film (set in 1962) takes you on a chilling “ride-along” with a professional assassin (Edward Fox) who is hired by a French right-wing extremist group to kill President Charles de Gaulle. It’s a real nail-biter from start to finish, intelligently written and well-crafted.

While undoubtedly not his intent, Zinnemann’s documentary-style realism regarding the hit man’s meticulous prep work and coolly detached social engineering methodology at times plays like a “how-to” guide (shudder). Arrow’s print is the best I’ve seen of this film. Among the extras: a new interview with a Zinnemann biographer, and Kenneth Ross’ entire original screenplay (CD ROM content).

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 28, 2017)

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 61 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

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 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces.

The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper).  Hopper is frightening as the 100% pure bat shit crazy Frank Booth, one of the all-time great screen heavies

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Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

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Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously notated in long hand over a period of decades; it was literally his life’s work. The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites, whom he dubbed the “Vivian Girls”.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly compelling it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to see). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Liquid Sky– A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman helped compose the compelling electronic music score.

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Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

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The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

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Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha…?!” is more apt.

A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted, then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit that places her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

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Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 Gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren that pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends.

Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

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Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great lost entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night.

“The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the “friendly” town cop (Chips Rafferty) who bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a lost weekend that lasts for days.

The ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.

Who am I this time: Buster’s Mal Heart ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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My favorite bit of dialog from the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns goes thus:

Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

Yes, it is a horrible thing. Drudgery, that is. And unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, work, sleep, eat, reproduce, die is pretty much the plan. Okay, that came off sounding a little grimmer than I intended. Let’s say it’s the human condition. Lives of quiet desperation, and all that entails. Oh, dear. That doesn’t help either, does it?

I’m sure most wage slaves, if asked, still dream of flouting convention (like Murray) and dropping out of the rat race altogether. But it’s usually academic; pragmatism dictates that it’s best to sigh wistfully and leave the daydreaming to Walter Mitty. Just accept your lot, enjoy your 2 or 3 weeks a year of vacation time and remain chained to that desk.

Besides, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, right?

You could say that writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s enigmatic thriller Buster’s Mal Heart takes place in the devil’s playground of an idle mind. Or does it? We’re fairly sure we know “who” the protagonist is. Or do we? You see, my dilemma here is that this is one of those films that is very difficult to synopsize at any length without risking spoilers.

I can tell you this much: Rami Malek (star of USA’s Mr. Robot) plays the eponymous character. Buster is one of those wage slaves I was talking about, holding down the midnight shift as a hotel concierge. He appears sleep-deprived, but it’s a living. Besides, he has his loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and toddler daughter to take care of. He seems “happy” enough with his life…in the same way a monkey in a cage seems “happy”, as long as he has a tire to play with and a supply of bananas. But Buster has his dreams, too.

Or does he? Because that’s only one “version” of Buster. I could tell you more, but…

Suffice it to say that what ensues is sort of a hybrid of The Shining and Lost Highway, with a dash of Fight Club and a smidgen of Dark City (i.e., file under ‘mind fuck’). This is the sophomore effort from Smith; and while her film is (obviously) not 100% original in conception, it is impressively stylish and atmospheric in execution. Malek and Sheil give good performances, with a quirky supporting turn by DJ Qualls as ‘The Last Free Man’ (don’t ask, don’t tell). If you’re in a mood to expect the unexpected, give this one a peek.

Freudian nightmare: Tunnel ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

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Herbie Cook: The old man sure looked bad. Did you see his face?

Charles Tatum [thoughtfully]: Yeah.

Herbie Cook: Like the faces of those folks you see outside a coal mine with maybe 84 men trapped inside.

Charles Tatum: One man’s better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?

Herbie Cook: Teach me what?

Charles Tatum: Human interest. You pick up the paper. You read about 84 men, or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest.

-from Ace in the Hole (1951), screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman.

There’s a lot of that “human interest” in Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel, a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks that are typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ.

Said to be “based on true events” (which puzzlingly stumps Mr. Google) the story centers on harried Everyman Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo). Commuting home from his car salesman gig one fine sunny day, Jung-soo pulls into a service station. He asks for $30 worth of gas, but the elderly, hearing-impaired attendant gives him a nearly $100 fill-up instead. Jung-soo is a bit chagrined, but pays his bill and starts to pull away. The attendant runs after him and, by way of apology, insists that he accept two bottles of water. Jung-soo rolls his eyes, but acknowledges the gesture, tossing the bottles on the seat next to the boxed birthday cake he’s bringing home to his daughter.

And yes, it is the director’s intent that we make a special note of the bottled water, and the cake. As I am sure he wishes us to note the irony of the signage over the tunnel Jung-soo is headed for:

Hado Tunnel: Happy and Safe National Construction

As you may surmise (considering you know the premise of the film), Jung-soo’s passage through the Hado Tunnel on this particular fine sunny day will prove to be neither “happy”…nor “safe”.

To be honest, once the inevitable occurred (a harrowing sequence), I began to have doubts whether I could commit to the remaining 2 hours of the film; because I’m claustrophobic, and any story that involves physical entrapment freaks me out (as much as I admire Danny Boyle, I’ve yet to screw up the courage to sit through his 2010 thriller 127 Hours). And since that fear also precipitates white-knuckled parking in garages with low ceilings, driving across lower decks of double-decker bridges, and (wait for it) driving through tunnels…I was all set to just call it a day.

But thanks to Seong-hun’s substantive writing and direction and Jung-woo’s seriocomic performance (recalling Matt Damon’s turn in The Martian), I was absorbed enough by the story to allay my visceral concerns. And, akin to Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.

Shell-shocker: Disorder **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

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In my 2009 review of the war drama Waltz With Bashir, I referred to an observation by the late great George Carlin, wherein he analyzes the etymology of the phrase “post-traumatic stress syndrome” and traces it back to WWI (when it was called “shell shock”). To which I appended:

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it ‘shell-shock’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘operational exhaustion’ or ‘PTSD’, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

True that. And while Carlin was referring to America’s war veterans through the decades, PTSD knows no borders. Consider Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) a French Special Forces Afghan War vet. He is the central character in Disorder, a new psychological thriller from director Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote with Jean-Stephane Bron, Robin Campillo, and Vincent Poymiro).

Insular, taciturn, and more than a little twitchy, Vincent can’t quite get a handle on things since getting back to the world. So much so, in fact, that he actually looks forward to being re-deployed for another tour of combat duty. Due to his condition, perhaps he can only find a sense of order in the chaos of war. His friend and fellow vet Denis (Paul Hami) is also his co-worker at a private security firm; Denis always keeps one concerned eye on him whenever they’re on an assignment.

Indeed, there does seem to be something a bit “off” about Vincent’s behavior one night when he and Denis are providing security for a large soiree taking place at the estate of a wealthy Lebanese businessman. Vincent seems more bent on running surveillance on the client’s activities; his interest is particularly piqued by an apparent heated exchange between the businessman and a couple of his shadier-looking guests, sequestered in a private office well out of earshot from the festivities.

When Vincent is tasked to provide security for the client’s wife (Diane Kruger) and young son while he is out of town on a business trip, Vincent’s inherent paranoia really comes to the fore (while wariness and diligence is something you look for in a bodyguard, any behavior bordering on delusional should raise a red flag). Another red flag: Vincent takes a sudden, uncharacteristic interest in the wife, but it’s hard to read whether his intentions are devious or protective in nature.

So is Vincent the possible threat to the safety and well-being of the clients’ wife and child? Or was he actually on to something the night of the party, with his suspicions that his client’s luxurious lifestyle hinges on potentially dangerous partnerships? Since we know going in that Vincent isn’t quite all there, due to his PTSD condition, the conundrum is all the more unnerving.

Unfortunately, after building up this considerable tension and intrigue (the first act hints at something brewing in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Someone To Watch Over Me), the director doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it; the narrative fizzles, and by the crucial third act (a tepid knockoff of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs), the film hits the ground with a resounding thud.

Schoenaerts and Kruger are both fine actors (and easy on the eye), but they can only do so much with the uninspired script they’re working with. The film does sport some nice atmospheric work by cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and a unique (and appropriately unsettling) soundtrack by Mark Levy, but alas, it still can’t make up for a thriller that is curiously devoid of any…thrills.

Hitch by ten best

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2016)

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Today is Alfred Hitchcock’s 117th birthday (well, would have been). It’s a good enough excuse for me to share my picks for the top 10 from the Master’s catalogue of 50+ films:

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The Lady Vanishes – This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description. The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out. Full of great twists and turns, and the Master keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may be creaky, but it’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

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Lifeboat – This taut, suspenseful 1944 Hitchcock classic (adapted from a John Steinbeck story by screenwriter Jo Swerling) is essentially a chamber piece at sea, centering on a small group of passengers who survive the sinking of their vessel by a German U-boat, which also goes down in the skirmish. A floundering survivor who is later pulled aboard the already overcrowded lifeboat turns out to be a member of the U-boat crew, which profoundly shifts the dynamics of the group. A sharply observed microcosm of the human condition, with superb direction, great cinematography (by Glen MacWilliams), imaginative staging (especially considering the claustrophobic setting) and outstanding performances by the entire ensemble, which includes Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson,  Canada Lee, and Hume Cronyn.

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The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility he’s “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but for my money, none of them can touch this 1927 Hitchcock silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

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Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout the (perennially overpraised) Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underappreciated 1964 entry, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time precursor to dark, psycho-sexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park.

Tippi Hedren stars as the eponymous character, an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania. Sean Connery is a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she’s a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study, due to her bizarre behavioral tics. His own behaviors slip as he tries to play Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

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North by Northwest – I’m hard-pressed to name a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual artifice than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes).

Although I never tire of the exciting crop dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging chase up Mt. Rushmore, for me the most memorable segment is the dining car seduction scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed (and keep their hands where we can see them!).  Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s music score is one of his finest.

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Notorious – It’s a tough call to name my “favorite” Hitchcock movie (it’s like being forced to pick your favorite child). I would narrow it down to three: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and this superb 1946 espionage thriller (no, I don’t have a man-crush on Cary Grant…not that there would be anything wrong with that). Grant does make for a suave American agent, and Claude Rains a villain you love to hate, but it’s Ingrid Bergman who holds my interest in this story of love, betrayal and international intrigue, set in exotic Rio. Bergman plays her character with a worldly cynicism and sexy vulnerability that to this day, few actors would be able to sell so well.

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Psycho – Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s unsettling taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant thriller from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. While tame by today’s standards, several key scenes still have the power to shock. Twitchy Tony Perkins sets the bar for future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

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Strangers on a Train – There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train.

Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage. As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The  silver-tongued sociopath Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime! Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

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The 39 Steps – Many of the tropes that would come to be so identifiably “Hitchcockian” are fomenting in this 1935 entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality.

He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.

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To Catch a Thief – This is one of the Hitchcock films that are more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, a love interest enters the picture to further complicate his situation (an achingly beautiful Grace Kelly).

To be sure, it’s lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming (courtesy of Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography), and the delightful supporting performances (particularly Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (he also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and the director’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much).

SIFF 2016: The Night Stalker ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths’ speculative chiller is based on serial killer Richard Ramirez. A lawyer (Bellamy Young) is hired to exonerate a Texas death row inmate by extracting a confession from California death row inmate Ramirez (Lou Diamond Phillips), whom the interested parties believe to be the real perp. One complication: When she was a teenager, the lawyer was unhealthily obsessed with the “Night Stalker” murders. A psychological cat-and-mouse game ensues (think Starling vs. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs). Philips delivers an intense, truly unnerving performance.

SIFF 2016: Alone **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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This extremely weird Korean thriller (is that redundant?) from director Park Hong-min centers on a young photographer who inadvertently documents a woman’s rooftop murder while taking pictures from his balcony, setting off a chain of nightmarish events. What ensues is kind of like Groundhog Day meets Carnival of Souls…in Seoul. Good use of that city’s back alley labyrinths to create a claustrophobic mood (recalling Duvivier’s use of Algiers’ Casbah quarter locales in his 1937 crime drama Pepe le Moko). It gets less involving (and more gruesome) as it chugs along; genre fans may like it more.