Monday, November 28, 2011

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Mesrine: Killer Instinct, or L'instinct de mort in its native French, is a film with many names.  Sometimes, it is called Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One (Part One), sometimes it is Mesrine: Part One - Killer Instinct.  Whatever you call it, this is the first entry in a two-part biopic about France's most famous criminal, Jacques Mesrine.  He was a murderer, a bank robber, a kidnapper, a celebrity and a best-selling author.  Not surprisingly, the story of man with so many proverbial hats doesn't fit into only one film.  Killer Instinct was originally released in theaters just four weeks before Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, which struck me as strange.  Then again, I probably would have gone with the above movie poster to promote the film, instead of this French one:
Why would you put two actors on the poster for a two-film story of one man?
I guess it just goes to show how little I know about French films.

Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) was not a normal person.  He came from an average French family, with a timid but hard-working father and an overbearing mother.  He fought for France in Algeria.  And yet, he somehow became an international criminal celebrity.  Mesrine: Killer Instinct doesn't try to answer exactly why that happened, but it does put throw out some possible explanations for how it came about.  I don't really like describing the plots for biopics, so here's a quick list of Jacques Mesrine's highlights in Killer Instinct:
  • He got his first taste of violence in Algeria
  • He quickly graduated to criminal thug after the war
  • He chose his criminal buddies over a life of peace and love with family
  • He robbed banks
  • He kidnapped a millionaire
  • He went to prison
  • He broke out of prison
  • He broke back into prison
The film opens with an arty introduction scene, with several shots being shown in different parts of the screen, all slightly out of sync, a la The Thomas Crown Affair.  Obviously, something is being planned.  We don't have to wait long for it to come to fruition; soon enough, Mesrine (and his girlfriend and her dog) are caught in a hail of gunfire.  Does Mesrine die?  If I was French, I'm sure I would know the answer to that.  But, since there is a second movie, I'll hazard a guess that he survives.  With that as the audience's introduction to the story, there is certainly a feeling of finiteness to Mesrine's tale.  The only question is whether Killer Instinct can suitably lead up to that moment of gunfire while still being the opening chapter in this story.

What makes Mesrine: Killer Instinct worth watching is Vincent Cassel's performance.  He is playing an obviously bad man, but he doesn't fill this character with remorse or some sort of psychosis.  Instead, Cassel treats Mesrine as a man who cannot abide any boundaries, even imagined ones.  When his wife implores him to choose a family life instead of a criminal career, he damn near executes her for trying to fence him in; that scene sheds light on most of Mesrine's important choices --- he will react violently and defiantly whenever he is told not to do something.  This is definitely the best performance I have seen from Cassel to date.
He's winking to acknowledge your jealousy over his awesome 'stache
His supporting cast is stuck with fairly boring characters, but they all do pretty well.  Gilles Lellouche and Gérard Depardieu have some fun as Mesrine's small-time criminal buddies, although I thought Depardieu was surprisingly intimidating for such a jolly-looking fellow. 
I couldn't find a shot of Depardieu laughing at racist jokes, so I went with his second-funniest scene
Roy Dupuis was a little more sinister as Mesrine's more hard-core criminal partner.  Does he deserve to share the movie poster with Cassel?  Definitely not.  Mesrine's anti-establishment attitude obviously made him a dangerous guy to be around, so naturally women found him irresistible.  I liked Elena Anaya as his wife, the one women who isn't portrayed as a pushover or whore in this film.  Cécile De France played a crazy woman just fine, but I wish she would have had more to work with toward the end of the movie.

With the opening scene of the film showing deliberate directorial intent, I assumed that Jean-François Richet's fingerprints would be all over this movie.  They actually aren't.  The film doesn't have a traditional dramatic arc, which is pretty common (sadly) in biopics, but it also feels disjointed, especially as the film jumps forward in time.  I really liked the attitude Richet seemed to take with Mesrine --- there are no rose-colored glasses here, but he isn't portrayed as a monster, either --- but I'm not exactly sure what point he is trying to make.  The action and violent scenes look pretty good, which is not a surprise, coming from the director of the sweet Assault on Precinct 13 remake, but I was surprised at how frequently Mesrine got hurt.  Violent men lead violent lives, but you usually don't see them suffer minor wounds in movies, so that was a nice touch.

A good lead actor and solid direction doesn't necessarily make for a great film, though.  While I liked Cassel, his performance wasn't magnetic enough to overcome an incomplete story.  When you consider that this film is nearly two hours long, this film should have had something definite to say about Mesrine.  Yes, it chronicled his rise to infamy.  That wasn't enough for me.  This felt like a Part One, like a two-hour setup for the next movie.  That's frustrating; while I understand that the two films are meant to be seen as a pair, I was expecting this to stand on its own more.  Will I watch Public Enemy Number One?  It's very likely, and I might be able to look on this a little more favorably when I have seen the full picture.  As it is, this is an interesting start to a fascinating character's tale, but it fails to provide a sense of resolution or even a sense of urgency to see the second part.  It just ends.  And that's not good enough.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Glass Key (1942)

I like to think of myself as a bit of a film noir fan.  I am no expert (yet), but I'm a big fan of what I've seen so far.  I'm also a big fan of literary noir; my favorite author is Dashiell Hammett, and my favorite work by him is The Glass Key.  One of my favorite movies of all time --- the sublime Miller's Crossing --- is more or less based (the directors say "influenced") on The Glass Key, too.  Needless to say, I was happy to find the second, and more famous, film version of The Glass Key on television this week.  But would it live up to my high expectations?  See what I did there?  That's a cliffhanger, folks.

Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) is the right hand man for the town's head mobster, Paul Madvig (Brian Donleavy).  Ed is smart, mean, and relatively emotion-free.  Paul is a gutsy fighter who worked his way up the mob scene through violence and perseverance.  Paul has become infatuated with Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), the daughter of the reform candidate for governor, Senator Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen, the voice of Disney's magic mirror), so he has given his considerable political support to Mr. Henry's campaign.
Her dad's the head of the Committee for Hot Senatorial Daughters
That's a problem; reform candidates are trying to change the system, but Paul obviously isn't interested in changing the fact that he's pulling the strings in this town's politics.  That's a little dumb, but Paul also combines this folly with the choice to battle an up-and-coming mobster, Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who is strong enough to give Paul some serious trouble.
"Have you ever considered being less stupid?"
Even that wouldn't be a fatal error if it wasn't for the mysterious murder of Senator Henry's son, Taylor (Richard Denning).  Why is all that a problem?  Well, Taylor died in circumstances that implied that Paul was the killer.  When you combine that with a shaky political alliance and a worthy adversary making war, you have more than a small problem on your hands.

That summary doesn't really do the story justice.  While Paul Madvig is definitely the cog that turns the wheels of this plot, the main character is absolutely Ed Beaumont.  Ed is smart, except when he's gambling.  He's tough, especially when being weak would benefit his body.  Most importantly, though, Ed is the eyes through which we see the plot.  He doesn't know who killed Taylor Henry, but he's sticking by Paul until his mind gets changed.  He knows he shouldn't give a fig for the manipulative Janet Henry, but he is more than willing to manipulate her to find the truth.  And, eventually, love her in a sexual fashion.
"Have you heard of sexual healing?"

This is the second film version of this story (the first was made in 1935), but it is definitely the more famous one.  That is primarily due to the on-screen chemistry of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.  The duo had teamed up in This Gun For Hire already, but the film had not been released before The Glass Key began filming; apparently, their chemistry was enough to guarantee a reunion here, as well as in two other films.  Alan Ladd is pretty good in this role, especially for the time.  He's not as tough as Bogart (or, for that matter, Gabriel Byrne, who would reprise the role), but he's somewhat no-nonsense and certainly has more charm than his sourpuss character deserves.  One thing I definitely didn't like about his performance was when he had to play conniving or desperate; Ladd smirked in those scenes, where he definitely should have had anything but a smirk on his face.  Veronica Lake is a pretty lady, but not the femme fatale that I think Janet Henry should be.  She is supposed to be a lying, manipulative bitch, after all.  I will give her credit, though; her scenes with Ladd make his frequent goofy smiles completely understandable. 
Noir heroes should leer, not smile
Brian Donleavy was okay as Paul Madvig, but I thought Donleavy was a tad young for the part.  He certainly played up Madvig's stupidity well enough, but I think his character deserved a little more age to explain how disassociated he was with reality.
Paul Madvig: distrusting of beards and attractive ties
 The rest of the supporting cast was merely okay, with the exception of William Bendix, who played Varna's muscle.  While he was certainly not the most subtle actor in the movie, Bendix was definitely the most intimidating and the best physical presence.  It's hard to find an actor who can convincingly play a thug that loves violence, but Bendix turned in a great performance in a relatively minor role.
Bendix, pondering the effects of violence, in-between beating sessions

The direction in The Glass Key is decent, but nothing more.   Stuart Heisler told a comprehensible tale, despite several twists and turns in the plot, but he didn't do much more.  The lighting is pretty standard, the acting isn't fantastic, and the camera work is nothing special.  While there are better examples of noir villains in this era, I think Heisler did a pretty good job with the actors, especially the charismatic bad guys.
Charismatic and snappy dressers!

The Glass Key is a pretty solid movie, even if it doesn't match up to my admittedly high expectations.  I don't believe in noir heroes who show emotion, and Alan Ladd spends a lot of time smiling at Veronica Lake.  Much of the film feels dated, particularly Brian Donleavy's emotional reactions.  His obviously faked knockout "punch" didn't help, either.  This story has a lot of potential; it could be a story of political intrigue, a mobster story, or just the tale of a smart hood.  The Glass Key decides to use Ladd and Lake's admittedly good chemistry and instead craft a story of star-crossed love.
Or stare-crossed love!  Get it?  Okay, I'm sorry.
I'm not saying that this is a bad movie, by any means.  I was just underwhelmed because I am familiar with the source material and wanted it to live up to the book.  It doesn't.  Luckily, it retains enough of Hammett's characters to make this an entertaining film.  It's not as tough and gritty as I like my noir, but I can't ignore how much I like this story.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Man From Nowhere

I watched the Korean action movie The Man From Nowhere (AKA Ajeossi) on a whim.  I haven't been watching much Asian cinema recently, and this one was streaming on Netflix with pretty decent user ratings.  How bad could it be, right?  The cover has a tough-looking dude protecting a girl, which means that this is an action movie without a love interest.  It's not that I dislike love stories, but I was in the mood for bad-ass action without the hassle of caring who lives and dies.  Surprisingly, my half-assed analysis of the cover turned out to be downright prophetic; if you like Man On Fire and Taken, then The Man From Nowhere is definitely in your wheel house.
...Especially if you love Korean discos

Cha (Bin Won) is gruff and standoffish.  He lives in a dingy apartment behind a crappy pawn shop, which appears to be in the middle floor of a tenement.  That seems like an odd location to have a store, but I certainly am not a Korean real estate expert.  The only person who seeks Cha out is So-Mi (Sae-Ron Kim), the obviously neglected daughter of Cha's drug-addicted stripper neighbor.  So-Mi likes Cha because they are both outsiders; the neighborhood calls Cha "Pawnshop Ghost" and her "Garbage," which So-Mi correctly observes would make a great rock band name. 
Plus, he already has the haircut
Things go on like this for a while, but the druggie mom manages to get involved in a drug murder.  I could explain how, but it's fairly complicated and doesn't really affect the main plot.  The end result is that drug dealers kidnap druggie mom and So-Mi, forcing Cha to act as a drug mule for them.  Cha is willing to do that.  Things start to turn sour when Cha's drug run is actually a set-up by some drug dealing underlings to frame/kill the local big boss.  Worse, these underlings have a habit of using kids to handle dangerous drugs until they die, at which point their organs are sold on the black market. 
Less pleasant implications than Clockwork's scene
So Cha was all like, "Oh, hell no!" and decides (after a quick haircut) to kill the hell out of the drug dealers to avenge/rescue So-Mi.  Spoiler alert: he's good at it.
Cha is a janitor's nightmare

Bin Won was pretty good as the stoic and tortured lead in The Man From Nowhere.  His action scenes, while mostly gun fighting, were pretty impressive when he got physical.  As far as his acting goes, tough guy roles are a dime a dozen, and he doesn't screw up.  I was less impressed with the flashback scenes that explain his tortured soul, but he was at least decent in those.  Sae-Ron Kim was kind of obnoxious as the kidnapped girl; she was just annoying and depressing, with a notable exception at the very end of the film.
Annoying and presumably soulless
What separated The Man From Nowhere from most other Asian crime movies was the villains.  Well, for me, anyway.  I loved the comically evil and anime-styled workings of Seong-oh Kim as one of the twin drug lords, if only because they added some high spirits and campiness to a story that is pretty damn depressing. 
Give him whiskers and he's ready for Naruto
I also enjoyed Hee-won Kim as the other evil twin; he wasn't as ridiculous as Seong-oh, but was still merciless enough to justify the vengeance that was raining down upon his organization.  Thanayong Wongtrakul also makes an interesting appearance as the sadistic enforcer for the drug gang; he was decently tough, but I found it interesting that he spoke English in the movie for no particular reason that I could fathom.  Plus, he had a couple of pretty sweet knife fights with Cha.

Having said that, The Man From Nowhere is nothing you haven't seen before.  A reluctant tough guy is forced to kill a ton of bad guys to rescue or avenge a young girl.  If you haven't seen Commando, Man On Fire, or Taken, you still probably know what will happen next in this plot.  This predictability is tempered a bit by solid production values and fine direction from Jeong-beom Lee, but that shadow is still hovering over this movie.  Thankfully, the shoot-em-up action scenes --- particularly the climactic scene in the bath house --- are all good and the hand-to-hand scenes are impressive.  The dialogue is pretty stiff, but that could have simply been the translation.  There is one line that I genuinely liked, though: "Those living for tomorrow get fucked by those living for today." 
That's a great justification for killing a few dozen men, right?  The obviousness of the story and an underwhelming post-climax wrap-up keep The Man From Nowhere from being truly awesome, but there is still a lot to like in this revenge flick.

This song was played over the closing credits.  Not bad.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Finally!  Two years after The Hangover surprised the movie industry by being a ridiculous hit, someone from the cast has moved on to starring roles!  Yes, Bradly Cooper has apparently come of age in Hollywood; he has made a successful sequel, co-starred in The A-Team, and is now People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive," which I assume he received after slaying Ryan Reynolds.  This is his first time carrying a major motion picture --- how did the new "it" man do?

Limitless is one of those movies that doesn't trust the audience to stick around for a slow-building plot.  Most of the film is told in a flashback, with some narration from Cooper in the lead role.  Apparently, he made a "miscalculation," which has led to his neighbor being murdered, with Cooper's character up next.  Did that hook you?  Probably not.  It's a pretty generic opening for a thriller.  Did it make sense?  I sure hope so, because that's about as much detail as the teaser bookends of this movie offer.  But I'll clear things up.  Eddie (Bradley Cooper) is a loser who fancies himself a writer.  He has a book deal, but he hasn't written a word in months.  Aside from his writing, Eddie spends his time mooching off his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), whose parents were aviation nuts.  That's just a logical guess on my part; these characters aren't terribly well-developed, so I just wanted to flesh her out a bit.  Anyway, Lindy dumps Eddie because he's a self-centered mooch who makes excuses and looks like he is a member of Blind Melon.
Sexiest Man Alive
Obviously, Eddie is having a bad day.  Immediately after the break-up talk, Eddie randomly bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) who used to be a sleazy drug dealer.  Now, replace "used to" with "still is," and you have his character's history.  Vernon gives Eddie a single pill to cheer him up; Eddie takes it because his life is pretty awful and because he's an idiot who ingests mystery chemicals without asking what they are or what they do.  The next thing Eddie knows, he has seduced a married woman, cleaned his apartment, and written 40 excellent pages of his novel. 
Apparently, some people are productive when tripping balls
Of course, the effects wear off, so Eddie needs a fix from Vernon, who decides to be a jerk and make Eddie his errand boy to pay for the privilege of buying more of the drug, which he calls NZT-48.  This drug supposedly allows people to access 100% of their brain's capabilities, which explains the writing and the philandering, I guess.  After all, brains love sex and words.  Vernon is murdered by an unknown party who were also apparently looking for this rare drug.  They didn't find it.  Eddie did.  Now Eddie can get his life on track with a haircut, a new job, millions of dollars, and all the fancy stuff he could ever want because he is suddenly a genius at everything.  All thanks to drugs!  But living the high life doesn't come cheap, and Eddie finds himself faced with unruly Russian mobsters, a demanding boss, mystery people trying to steal his fix, and a permanently smug expression.
Okay, it's a clever ad campaign.  I still want to slap him.
Thank goodness drugs never have any negative repercussions, especially mystery drugs that are designed to influence they way your brain functions.

I wasn't terribly impressed with Bradley Cooper in this, his first big starring role.  He was okay, given the story, but being a mediocre actor with a stupid story is nothing special.  I will say that his character's long hair was the least believable handsome-actor-obviously-wearing-an-ugly-wig I've seen since John Cusack in Being John Malkovich.  Aside from that, Cooper alternates smugness with wimpy panicky moments.  Abbie Cornish is decent as Eddie's responsible, sane, and pretty love interest. 
She is essentially designed to be Eddie's moral sounding board, letting him know that doing drugs and lying isn't cool, which is as thankless a task as it sounds.  Robert DeNiro is okay as a super-duper international businessman, but the threat that his character promises is never followed through with.  Anna Friel has a bit part as Eddie's ex-wife, and she is far less attractive when make-up artists don't want her to be pretty.  Andrew Howard plays the Russian thug with more joy than anybody else in this cast, but it's a pretty standard role that has little new to offer.  Rounding out the cast, Tomas Arana is once again "that guy you don't trust to do the right thing."

Director Neil Burger handled Limitless with some spurts of imagination that seemed inspired by the title; the rest of the time, he was fairly awful.  First, the good: Burger used some pretty cool visuals to show how Eddie was using his brain more (the ceiling tiles turning into stock quotes, letters falling in his room, etc.), and I liked the recurring use of having a character literally step outside themselves to see their situation with new, drug-fueled, eyes.  Now, the bad: this was a predictable, cliche-ridden plot with shallow characters and no one to root for. 
Hero: lying, manipulative druggie.  Villain: hard-working immigrant
Oh, and the "zoom forward" effect that is used throughout the movie looks like the work of an uninspired music video director, circa-1995.  The plot is certainly to blame for a lot of the problems with Limitless, but it is ultimately up to the director to make a script into a good film.  Burger doesn't quite do that.

Immediately after finishing Limitless, I thought to myself that it wasn't great, but wasn't bad, either.  Hardly a recommendation, but not a head on a pike to warn others, either.  Then I started to think about it.  This is a movie that advocates ingesting mind-altering chemicals, despite horrible and fatal repercussions.  This is a film where the hero has a true love, but still bangs every other woman he encounters in the movie.  This is a story where a huge problem for Eddie is his limited supply of Limitless pills and he shows a remarkable ability to master any craft he pays any attention to.  Even more remarkably, Eddie apparently chooses not to learn anything about science and instead hires a random science dude to make more; even stranger, Eddie doesn't feed science guy any drugs to make him suddenly brilliant.  That is a pretty stupid plot hole for a movie that is supposed to be about being smart.  I think DeNiro was used poorly, and I would have really liked to see him (or anyone, really) out-think Eddie.
DeNiro, reacting to someone saying how much they loved Showtime
Aside from the gaping plot hole, Limitless isn't a bad thriller.  No, I never liked Eddie or any of the other characters, but I thought the premise was an interesting one.  There is a moral dilemma that arises when people significantly alter themselves, and I liked that notion, even if this film clearly wasn't going to delve into the subject.  Hell, this story does its best to avoid morality or guilt whenever possible; Eddie shows no emotion for anyone that has suffered because of him, even his innocent (and murdered) neighbor in the beginning of the film.  I also found it interesting to see drugs shown in such a positive light, even a fictional one with lethal side effects.  Sadly, taking a questionable stance on pharmaceuticals isn't enough to overcome the plot holes or the soulless characters.  The idea has some legs, but on the whole, this is a little underwhelming.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Big Clock

With the prevalence of television, movies, video games and trolling the interweb, it is easier than ever for me to waste my free time away with little or nothing to show for it.  As such, I have made it a habit to read a little bit every day, oftentimes from my excellent collection of noir.  I have read The Big Clock a few times, and it is one of the more interesting twists on the cat-and-mouse game in the genre.  Naturally, the suspense of the chase and its unique twist makes this an obvious choice for a film adaptation.
Ray Milland, keeping his eyes open for cats and mice

The Big Clock is the story of George Stroud (Ray Milland), the editor-in-chief of Crimeways magazine, which is just a small part of Earl Janoth's (Charles Laughton) publishing empire.  Janoth is a demanding boss, seemingly devoid of human emotion, save his fondness for words that end in "-ways;" his other magazine all have that in their title to brand them, like Fashionways, Futureways, and probably Sideways.  Cue rimshot. 
Earl Janoth: charming
Thanks to the conflicts between his home life (where he spends too little time) and his professional life (where he gets fired for insisting on taking the vacation he has postponed for four years), George finds himself in the doghouse with his wife, Georgette (Maureen O'Sullivan) and fired by Janoth.  What's a newsman to do?  If you answered "drink to oblivion with the wrong crowd," you're only partly right.  The "crowd" George finds himself getting blotto with is actually Janoth's mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson), who is interested in blackmailing Janoth.  After a crazy night on the town where nothing naughty happens, George bids Pauline goodnight, right as Janoth is coming to visit.  George recognizes Janoth, but Janoth cannot identify George thanks to the lighting in the apartment complex.  In a fit of jealous rage, Janoth murders Pauline.  But a man of his stature need not turn himself in to the authorities over the death of such a trivial person, right?  Janoth re-hires George to head a Crimeways investigation into Pauline's murder, with explicit instructions to find the mysterious man Pauline was seen around town with that night; this needs to be a Janoth Publishing exclusive, so the police cannot be involved either.  Obviously, George is in a tough spot.  He has been hired to track himself down, doubtlessly to have a murder he didn't commit pinned on him.  Obviously, George has to figure out who did the killing and prove it, but without sacrificing himself before a powerful and apparently lawless man.  The chase is on!
News magazines: as glamorous as you imagined

The acting in The Big Clock is solid, but a little dated.  While I liked Ray Milland's character at the start of the film --- it's hard to dislike charming, intelligent and quip-friendly characters --- I didn't particularly care for his portrayal of a man on the run.  He went from fairly suave to obviously shifty-eyed in a matter of minutes.  Granted, I would feel off if I realized I was being hunted by a murderer, but Milland's anxiety was conveyed in a heavy-handed manner.  The most frequent example of this is whenever someone around George makes an observation about their unidentified suspect that accurately depicts George or his actions on the night before, Milland's eyes dart from side to side, a la Pong. 
Does this look like a guilty man?
Charles Laughton was more enjoyable as the detestable Janoth.  Paunchy, ugly men do not necessarily convey strength or power on the big screen by default, but Laughton was quite impressive and believable in his role.  I thought Marueen O'Sullivan was fine as George's wife, although I find it hard to believe that any two people sharing the same basic name would ever agree to kiss each other, much less marry.  Sometimes, in films like this, the estranged wife seems ridiculously ignorant of context, but I liked that her Georgette was portrayed as an intelligent and strong woman.  You should also recognize Harry Morgan (of M.A.S.H. and Dragnet fame) as Janoth's merciless thug.  You might snicker at that, too.  Elsa Lanchester added some comic relief as a professional painter, although I would argue that the last thing this film needed was comic relief. 
"It's my artistic interpretation of your colon health"

I wasn't terribly impressed with John Farrow's direction, but he had some inspired moments.   I especially liked the first scene with Janoth, as the camera subtly moved around the room, like the eyes of an anxious Janoth underling.  Unfortunately, there were many more choices I was less impressed with.  The Big Clock is another classic film noir that is told in an extended flashback; I understand the desire to get the audience immediately interested in what happens with the plot, but I hate hate hate the presumption that quality storytelling isn't enough to compel an audience to sit tight and see what unfolds.  I can understand the extended flashback if it gives a character the excuse to narrate (as in Double Indemnity), but the opportunity is wasted in The Big Clock.  With George scheming to save his own neck, this could have been a great opportunity for clever narration --- I would have loved to hear his reasons for assigning certain people to certain tasks in the Janoth manhunt --- but instead, we are stuck with some lackluster bookend narration.  I also felt that the additional humor was uneven and distracting from any suspense the main plot was trying to build.  I also didn't care for the ending, but it was in the novel that way; I would have preferred some deviation from the source text, but I've seen stupider mindless devotion to the source.
I wonder who is supposed to be evil?

While not the strongest film noir entry I have reviewed to date, the acting talents of Ray Milland and Charles Laughton are more than enough to make this watchable.  Sadly, there are too many missed opportunities to make The Big Clock film as good as the book.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Mirror Crack'd

I've always been a heavy reader, and I tend to go through phases.  I went through a dinosaur book phase, a true crime phase, a biographies phase, a noir phase, and a scientific jargon phase, but the one genre that I have never truly had enough of is the murder mystery.  I'm not sure why that is; some are good, others obviously less so, but I think they serve as a palette cleanser for my reading habits.  Not surprisingly, I return to the works of Agatha Christie on occasion.  As much as I have liked her books --- and I read the crap out of them when I was ten --- I have never thought of them as being terribly cinematic.  The stuff of public television movies?  Sure, why not?  But actual cinema...that just never struck me as a great idea.  I found The Mirror Crack'd on Netflix and decided to give it a shot for a few reasons.  First, I wanted to see how accurate my instincts on Christie movies is.  Second, the cast looked pretty solid.  Most importantly, I have never read the book (or completely forgot about it if I have), so I could theoretically enjoy the mystery.
Like she can theoretically respect the privacy of others

The Mirror Crack'd is a Miss Marple mystery.  That means that the crime (murder) will occur in the small British village of St. Mary Mead (thus, limiting the suspect pool dramatically) and will be solved by an elderly spinster, Miss Marple (Angela Lansbury), thanks to her remarkable insight into human nature.  For this plot, a movie company has decided to film a period piece in St. Mary Mead.  The star of the picture is Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor), but her Hollywood rival, Lola Brewster (Kim Novak), was cast in a supporting role, seemingly just to spite Marina.  A party is thrown to appease the townsfolk and allow them to mingle with the filmmakers, and that is when tragedy strikes.  A local, Heather Babcock, dies after drinking a cocktail intended for Marina.  It is unquestionably murder, since the drink was mostly poison, but who would want to murder the star of the picture?  Many people, apparently.  Once again, it looks like it is up to a spinster to bring justice to the lawless streets of St. Mary Mead.
No, Rock.  She was poisoned, not karate-chopped to death.

When watching The Mirror Crack'd, the first thing you will notice is the high-profile cast.  Angela Lansbury is pretty decent as the all-knowing Miss Marple, even though she has obviously been artificially aged to play the part.  Miss Marple is a tough role to play, because she doesn't actually do much except explain the mystery at the end; Lansbury did a fine job, but it is hard to overcome the inertia of the character.  Interesting side note: this Miss Marple smokes.  You don't often see movies where sweet, elderly women smoke cigarettes any more.  Elizabeth Taylor was surprisingly good as a major actress, past her prime.  I thought she played her delicate moments quite well, but I absolutely loved it when her character was only acting upset.
I also enjoyed her fake smiles
Kim Novak was fun to watch as a foil to Taylor; the two traded quips and barbs throughout the film, and Novak's over-dramatic performance matched her character perfectly.  The supporting cast is pretty high-profile, too.  Rock Hudson played the movie director/husband to Marina Rudd; Hudson was suitably stoic, but nothing remarkable here.  Similarly, Tony Curtis played a slimy producer, but didn't seem to put much effort into it. 
Geraldine Chaplin has a supporting role, as well, although she managed to add some depth to her otherwise bland character.  You can spot a young Pierce Brosnan with a non-speaking role in one of the film-within-a-film scenes; he's little more than a prop with silly hair, but it's still fun to point him out.

The film was directed by Guy Hamilton, who is best known for his contributions to the James Bond 007 franchise.  I haven't seen a whole lot of his work outside of Bond, but I think it can be agreed that a cerebral spinster mystery is a change of pace from his more famous works.  Personally, I wasn't crazy for Hamilton's direction.  Sure, it was competent enough, but a lot of the film just felt too stagey to me; I felt like I was watching a teleplay or a theatrical reenactment.
Because a real Hollywood actress wouldn't look like a Chia pet
On the other hand, I was definitely impressed by the performances he got from Taylor and Novak --- maybe I was just underwhelmed by the non-Hollywood supporting cast members.

My biggest gripe with this movie is with Agatha Christie.  I recently did a little research on Gene Tierney after I reviewed Laura, which naturally led me to learn of her highly publicized tragedyThe Mirror Crack'd took obvious inspiration from Tierney's life, to the point where I figured out the mystery immediately.  And that is saying something, since Christie mysteries always wait until the last few pages to reveal crucial plot elements.  This felt more like a ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order episode than a proper movie because it was so obviously based on such a famous mishap.  If you don't have a mild obsession with Tierney, then the mystery will undoubtedly baffle you in the traditional Christie fashion.  Unfortunately for me, I seem to have inherited my grandfather's affection for her, which is admittedly a little unsettling.
Not "death threat" unsettling, but still creepy

I am willing to credit the two leading ladies for their performances and solid storytelling mechanics from the director and the principal supporting cast of The Mirror Crack'd.  Had I not been familiar with the true-life story the plot is based on, I am sure I would have appreciated it more.  As it stands, though, I saw the twist coming from a million miles away, and that ruins the fun in any mystery.