Mad Dogs & a Couple of Englishmen

Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (1959) is a smart, good-looking Western, with Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn ringing changes on the Clanton-Earp-Holliday story. The movie opens with two cowpokes talking to a town marshal, and only gradually do we realize that we’re witnessing a humiliation ritual; after that it’s full of complex motives, including Quinn’s unmistakably gay feelings for Fonda, which move to a surprising front and center position as things go on. Fonda is fascinating as a professional town-tamer who knows how fickle his support is: the townspeople who treat him like a hero now are actually repelled by his talent for violence, and they’ll be the first to turn against him once he quiets the troublemakers. Fonda shows so many sides of his character that the decision whether to root for or against him has to be made on an almost minute by minute basis.

Blast of Silence is Allen Baron’s sturdy miniaturist DIY portrait of a contract killer who agrees to “one last hit” in New York during Christmas week of 1959; while waiting for his specialized weapon to be manufactured, he stalks his prey, crashes a bohemian soiree, nearly date-rapes an old flame, and takes long walking tours of Harlem and the Village while burning through his world-weary thoughts like so many cigarettes. Some of this stream-of-consciousness is strictly cornball, but much of it is coldly brilliant, and delivered in Lionel Stander’s raspy voice it sounds like death itself is speaking. The shots of Baron staring down from the top of a brownstone look like the seed for young Vito Corleone stalking Don Fanucci from the rooftops of Little Italy, and the existential loner-hitman theme is more compelling than in Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract, the movie which inspired the scenes of Travis Bickle hanging out in his apartment, waiting for his last synapse to blow. Baron also found a stellar location for the bleak and wintry ending to his story, and put it to perfect use. This movie is a pip.

I realized just lately that I hadn’t shaken off Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie since watching it six months ago, and revisiting it last week convinced me that it needs to be seen twice. Based on Ruth Rendell’s acidic novel A Judgement in Stone, it opens with a strange scene—Jacqueline Bisset interviewing Sandrine Bonnaire for the servant’s position in her country home—in which the women talk past each other without either of them noticing. Bisset’s family is bourgeois to its core, but it’s also cultured, energetic, and friendly; by contrast, Bonnaire’s Sophie is a clenched and private woman so distressed by her illiteracy that she keeps her internal life hidden from the world. A fragile case in the best of times, she befriends the town’s postal clerk—Isabelle Huppert—a woman who skips around in pig-tails and flouncy skirts, but who turns out to be a social tumor intent on pouring her class hatred into the servant girl’s ear. As the movie goes on the family’s bemused, well-meaning gestures subtly mutate into emblems of condescension and entitlement; my second time through the film I was especially irritated by the subtly patronizing lilt Bisset injects into “Sophie” when calling Bonnaire to some grubby chore. Chabrol joked that La Cérémonie was “the last Marxist film”, and the movie shows just how narrow the seam can be between between personal and political motives. It’s reminiscent of Mamet’s Oleanna (not a crowd favorite, I know) in the sense that even though the aggrieved party’s reaction—in this case, a Manson-style slaughter—may color them as unreasonable, or even insane, their basic complaint remains unassailable.

Animal Kingdom is a potent, occasionally mesmerizing crime drama based on the charming Pettingill clan of Melbourne, Australia. It wisely makes the four gangster sons very different from each other, and even more wisely kills off the smart and likable one first, leaving the fresh-faced cousin who moves into the household at the mercy of its most insane elements. But that central role is played by a young actor who photographs like a cinderblock, and when writer/director David Michôd shoves the camera in on Jacki Weaver’s Joan Crawford eyebrows and has her enunciate “You’ve done some bad things, sweetie” in her best Cruella de Vil voice, you can feel him straining to create a classic monstress. (The more-than-motherly smecks on the lips that she gives her sons lead directly to Eleanor Iselin.) Oddly, the movie picks up the family on the brink of its final collapse—it’s like beginning Dillinger’s story with his escape from the Little Bohemian shootout—and thus skimps on the dynamics that might turn an entire family to violent crime. Animal Kingdom is worth seeing, though, for Ben Mendelson as the erratic son whose eyes seesaw between menace and some private pain and Guy Pearce as the detective who’s doggedly running the family to ground. I’ve also been wading through Underbelly, the Aussie TV serial about the insanely tangled Melbourne gang war, in which the Pettingills also played a part. Some critics have tagged the series “another Sopranos”, but those critics would be wrong, wrong, wrong.

1967’s Robbery is a fictionalization of Britain’s Great Mail Train Robbery of 1963. (The robbers scored more than three million pounds, or $65M in today’s money; as a kid I pictured the robbers tearing open envelope after envelope to get at all those $5 birthday checks being mailed to grandchildren.) The opening five-minute car chase, lame by today’s standards, convinced Steve McQueen that Peter Yates was the man to direct Bullitt, but the movie gets going with the actual robbery and (especially) its aftermath, when the large band of robbers, many of whom barely knew each other, had to cool their heels at an abandoned RAF base while coppers swarmed the countryside. Even with this bountiful opportunity for criminal shop-talk there’s scant evidence that Yates had The Friends of Eddie Coyle waiting inside him.

Speaking of grand larceny, Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job is a Rage Generating Machine about the 2008 “financial crisis” that saw millions of helpless people screwed out of their jobs and savings by a few advantageously positioned individuals; taken in concert with more recent news—say, the State of Wisconsin’s castration of the public employees’ union—it brings to mind Leo Tolstoy’s immortal question: “What is to be done?” It’s a hard question to answer, what with half the population viewing the mildest class analysis as totalitarian overreach and even sensible people allowing themselves to be mentally waylaid by the latest Charlie Sheen tweet. The last 15 minutes of the film make it clear that we shouldn’t expect help from Barack Obama (Democrats don’t fare any better than Republicans in Ferguson’s hands), but while Inside Job ends with a metaphorical call to arms, it suggests no practical courses of action for the very good reason that there aren’t any—not now, anyway. (Having seen The Baader-Meinhof Complex not so long ago, I can vouchsafe that route won’t pan out so hot.) Inside Job does do a good job of naming names and the amounts of the annual bonuses they earn, and it rips the mask of civility off one running dog in particular: Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia’s business school and a major player in supply-side economics theory since the Reagan era. Unlike most of the guilty parties Hubbard agreed to sit down for an interview, and when the tack of Ferguson’s questioning keys him in on his mistake, this mild-mannered academic looks suddenly ready to drink the filmmaker’s blood. It’s a shock—our monsters rarely give us such unguarded views of themselves.

If you’ve ever—even for a second—been a Mickey Rourke fan, you should hie thee to the closest available copy of Animal Factory, Steve Buscemi’s terrific prison picture from 2000. Like A Prophet it focuses on the cross-currents between a hardened con and a kid who’s adrift in the system, but Willem Dafoe and Edward Furlong’s complicated relationship has both paternal and sexually tinged components. Though it’s inconceivable that the unspoiled-looking Furlong could escape being turned out in a maximum security facility, the script by Eddie Bunker (the ex-bank robber and ex-con turned novelist and occasional actor) is otherwise so funny and knowing I could put that aside. Animal Factory just drips with great acting—Danny Trejo and Seymour Cassel both stand out, and a seedy little guy named Victor Pagan has a scorching turn as the weasel called “Psycho Mike”—but it’s Mickey Rourke, in about 10 minutes of screen time, who turns in a stunning cameo that’s capped by one of the most touching close-ups I’ve ever seen.

I Am Filthy Rich Love – Few things in the world photograph more beautifully than the trappings of Italian aristocracy but director Luca Guadagnino’s immodest rendering of his Milanese characters’ moneyed lifestyle is enough to stun Robin Leach. Tilda Swinton, married to a modern Medici, is living a 24-karat wallow until she falls in love with her son’s earthy little chef friend, Mayonardo G. Krebsio. The affair winds up queering an ultra-modern multinational business deal, but Guadagnino’s attitude towards sex is ancient Lawrentian hogwash: in best Open Male fashion the twerp shears off Tilda’s hair and swaps her high-end designer dresses for sweaty old gardening togs. We never understand the source of Swinton’s discontent because the camera is too busy panning across palatial living rooms or dishes topped with haute cuisine, to the point where the act of wrecking her own family verges on caprice. In addition to adultery the movie boasts an unwed mother, shaved pudenda, young lesbians, and deaths both natural and premature, yet we don’t react to any of these things because Guadagnino doesn’t even try to land any of his punches—he just wants us to swoon before the gaucheries. You can tell me that’s amore, but I don’t have to believe it.

And finally, I haven’t been able to figure out whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is real or a hoax because I’m still using those brain-cells to ponder other fascinating, not remotely tedious subjects, such as whether the replicants in Blade Runner are “human”, the dark parallels between Batman and The Joker, and what a paradox it is that Clint Eastwood’s shooting up the town is actually a plea for non-violence. I’ll get on it as soon as I can, though.

And going back a while:

Righteous Stuff: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder), Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee), Head-On (Akin), and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Schlöndorff)

Recommended: Please Give and Friends with Money (both by Nicole Holofcener), Let Me In, Red Road (the feature debut of Andrea Arnold, who made that other movie I like so much but which I promised myself I’m not going to mention here Fish Tank there I said it anyway, nyah), Sweetie (Campion), Police, Adjective (though I gotta say my penchant for realism hits the wall with these Romanian directors; what the hell is going on over there?), Poor Cow (Loach), and Two in the Wave, Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about Godard and Truffaut. More on this one soon.

Mixed Bags: A Perfect Getaway, The Italian Job (1969), The Last Valley (Clavell), Next Stop Wonderland (Anderson), 28 Weeks Later, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, 2 Weeks in Another Town, The Entity (Furie), Burnt by the Sun (Mikhalkov), and The Dogs of War (Irvin)

Hopeless: Unstoppable—even for Tony Scott it’s a nadir.

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