Saturday, May 26, 2012

Trading Places

All right, it's time to review one of my absolute favorites.  It has a great cast, led by two successful SNL alumni, and a still-in-his-prime John Landis directed.  It's hard to comprehend almost thirty years after its release, but Trading Places could have been pretty terrible.  Even though it was released in 1983, back when Eddie Murphy could do no wrong, he was far from a star; this film was released only six months after his film debut in 48 Hours, and Murphy was still known more for playing Buckwheat than for being a theatrical draw.  Dan Aykroyd was a bigger name than Murphy at the time, but he had only made one good movie (The Blues Brothers) since leaving Saturday Night Live; most of his efforts had actually been pretty terrible --- I'm pretty sure that the only living and mostly sane fan of Doctor Detroit is my own father, and even he admits that it's crap.  Sure, they got John Landis to direct, but his post-Twilight Zone career (that movie was released the same month as Trading Places) was a steep slide down in quality.  This was also Jamie Lee Curtis' first non-horror role.  Trading Places was blessed with having the right actors at the right time in their careers with a director that was still on his A-game; if this had been made a few years earlier or later, we might have had something like Nothing But Trouble.
Laugh while you can, boys.  Comedy is a fickle mistress

Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) Duke are the owners of Duke & Duke, a commodities brokering firm; alike in so many ways --- style, pride, greed, etc. --- the two seem to have only one major difference in opinion: nature vs. nurture.  Randolph is a proponent for nurture; he believes that anyone can succeed in society, if they are given many socioeconomic advantages.  Mortimer believes in breeding; essentially, the cream will always rise up to the top.  But what can they really do to solve this argument? 
I should mention that they had a knife fight to settle bow vs. regular tie
Well, they can test their theories out.  When the company's heir apparent, Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd), had a (moderately) innocent street urchin, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), jailed over a misunderstanding, the Dukes had their two extremes --- Winthorpe was born with a silver spoon in his various orifices, while Valentine was a poor minority from a broken home ---  and the Dukes finally had some suitable test subjects.  Together, the Dukes manage to disgrace Winthorpe, put him in the poor house, and get his friends to forsake him.  They also bring in Billy Ray to manage their company, offering him wealth and self-respect in exchange.
Their explanation for pork bellies cracks me up every time
And nurture wins!  Well, kind of.  Valentine naturally enjoys the high life and Winthorpe doesn't take his fall from grace well.
Best.  Santa.  Ever.
However, just because Billy Ray is good at is new position doesn't mean that the Dukes have any intention of keeping him around; they still see him as gutter trash.  So when Billy Ray overhears the Dukes congratulating themselves on their experiment, he decides to team up with Winthorpe so they can turn the tables on the Dukes.
Above: the scene where that happens.  Not pictured: the table

I absolutely love this cast.  Dan Aykroyd was nearly perfect as a high-born weenie, and his drunken Santa bit makes me smile every time I think about it.  Eddie Murphy was also very good as the street-smart Billy Ray; he doesn't get enough credit for how sympathetic he made his character.  Jamie Lee Curtis was fine as a hooker with an accountant's mind and sliding scale for impropriety.
"Exposition while I undress because boobs"
This is also my favorite Denholm Elliot role --- anyone can play a smart-mouthed manservant (well, any man can), but Elliot walked the line between faithful butler and annoyed house servant beautifully.  Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy were also perfect as the villains; only Michael Douglas plays a money-grubbing bastard better than these two, only he's not funny.  Paul Gleason was also perfectly mean as the Dukes' hired hand; Gleason has always done a great job playing jerks, but this is the only time I can recall where he was a jerk that was not an authority figure.  Those are really the only performances worth noting, although this film is packed with recognizable actors in bit parts.  Giancarlo Esposito was an easily-impressed con, blues legend Bo Diddley didn't care about the time in Gstaad, Bill Cobbs was owed $17 and change by Billy Ray, Frank Oz was a corrupt cop, Al Franken was a stoner, James Belushi was "a gorilla, you fucking clown," James Eckhouse was lucky to get a speaking line, and Stephen Stucker made his only non-Airplane! appearance I am aware of.

I normally don't praise John Landis for the pace of his films, but Trading Places is a rare example of a two hour comedy that doesn't have a portion that drags.  At least some of that credit goes to the screenplay from writing collaborators Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod; the pair seemed to specialize in goofy-ass concept stories (Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Space Jam, etc.), but they managed to make this Prince and the Pauper update seem only highly unlikely instead of batshit crazy.  It is also worth pointing out how much of the humor in Trading Places comes from reactions and not punchlines; that means they wrote this to be an ensemble piece, not a showcase for Murphy and Aykroyd to ham it up, and it actually worked.  While the script was pretty good, it is Landis' ability to edit the film to capture all the comedic beats that makes this movie great.  Without his eye and ear for timing, this script would have been wasted.
The lawyer joke following this is so simple, but so effective

As good as Trading Places is, it isn't exactly a work of art.  I love this script, but the entire scheme to steal the crop reports was incredibly stupid.  Even if you ignore the Halloween-quality costumes the group wears to travel incognito, there is a bigger problem. 
And I'm not talking about the black-face.  This time.
Okay, so the good guys need to trick Clarence Beaks and steal his briefcase, right?  So far, he has personally hired Ophelia and has personally planted evidence on Winthorpe.  Logic would dictate that those two would not be involved in the plan, because he knows what they look like.  The script, however, dictates that Winthorpe --- the pansy-ass white boy --- pose as a Jamaican and Ophelia is dressed like a stereotypical German girl...with a Swedish accent.  Sure, having Coleman pose as a priest and Billy Ray as an African exchange student and having them all sit in the same train car was not exactly a stroke of genius, but there's stupid, and then there's functionally handicapped thinking.
Although I see how they thought she could be useful

That scene is one of the few that treads the line between stupid funny and obnoxiously dumb --- the other is arguably the whole "one gorilla, two gorilla" issue --- but I will commend it for not being dull, at least.  Hell, I actually kind of like it, even though it is SOOOO dumb!  What makes Trading Places a classic for me, though, are the little touches that I notice more and more with every viewing.  Have you ever noticed that Winthorpe's prison numbers are the same as John Belushi's in The Blues Brothers?  How about the other tribute to himself that Landis inserted, his customary "See You Next Wednesday" reference? 
Hint: it's above and left of the nipples
What is that referencing?  I have no idea, but it pops up in most Landis works, for whatever reason.  If you know the story behind it, please leave a comment.  It's not just the Easter eggs in the movie that I enjoy, though.  I have come to love the punchline-free jokes and sayings.  No matter what day of the year it is, if you say "Looking good, Brian," I will inevitably respond with "Feeling good, [whoever you are]."  It's not exactly a gag, but I adore that exchange between characters in the beginning and end of this film.  How about Billy Ray imitating the deep-voiced tough guy?  "Yeah" isn't normally enough to make an impact on me, but this is a wonderful movie for contextual jokes.  This is also one of the few movies that manages to get racist humor exactly right; the racists are so obviously the bad guys, and the things they presume are so inoffensive that I have to laugh at their racist stupidity.  I mean, seriously --- who wouldn't get into a limo with two elderly white dudes offering "whiskey --- all you want"?!?  That's not a racial tendency, that's how you pick up any man between the ages of 18-35.  It blows my mind how funny I find this movie, even though it is relatively light on jokes.  I don't know if it is thanks to the excellent characterization from the script, the spot-on acting from the cast, the excellent editing from the director, or the fantastic orchestral soundtrack (how many comedies can boast that?), but Trading Places is a rare comedy that is clever and stupid and still makes you care about the characters.  This easily makes my top three comedies of all time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Woman in Black

Alternate title: Clingy Bitch
Now that the Harry Potter series is over, it will be interesting to see how the acting careers of the wizarding kids will progress.  The first of the Big Three to star in a movie with widespread theatrical release in America is, unsurprisingly, Daniel Awesomeledge Radcliffe with The Woman in Black.  Aside from wanting to see if Harry Potter can play a muggle, is there any other reason to see this film?  Well, it is one of the releases from the recently resurrected Hammer Films, the same studio that released the Lee/Cushing Dracula films of the 60s and 70s.  In these times of crappy remakes and Saw sequels, it's surprising that a British Gothic horror story can be successful (and this was pretty profitable), but if anyone is going to make an entertaining British horror flick, it would be Hammer.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) has been a widower ever since his wife died giving birth to their son, about three or four years ago.  You'd think he would have the hang of it by now, but no.  Kipps has been moping around literally for years --- even his son always draws Kipps with a frowny face --- and his law firm has had enough.  If he can't pull his own weight, he will be fired.  His last chance is to settle the estate of the late Alice Drablow in Creepytown, UK.  Alice lived in a house that was isolated 3/4 of the day by the tides of the local marsh, and apparently left a ton of official documents lying around there. 
Yep.  That looks like Gothic horror to me
Even if the house wasn't isolated, Kipps would have felt ill at ease; the locals are not very subtle with their wish to have him leave town immediately and without visiting the Drablow house.  Kipps eventually makes his way to the house and it turns out to be gross and unsettling.  How unsettling?  Rooms full of porcelain dolls unsettling.
Porcelain dolls are creepy and they want your soul.  Fact.
After a few hours on the property, Kipps catches a glimpse of a woman wearing black; at first, she is in the graveyard (always nice to have one in your front lawn), but when he goes out to investigate, he notices that she is watching him from inside the house.  When Kipps heads back to town that afternoon --- and, for the record, he didn't seem to do a whole lot of lawyering that day --- he is immediately greeted by a young girl who has drank some lye.  It...didn't agree with her.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident; it seems that dozens of local kids have committed suicide in this town over the past several years.  But why do the townspeople blame Kipps for the girl's death?  And what does this have to do with the woman in black?

Gothic horror is certainly not for everyone.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of the sub-genre, and The Woman in Black generally adheres to the traits common to the style.  If you sit down to watch this, be prepared for a fairly slow-paced plot, period piece costumes, an emphasis on suspense and atmosphere over gore, and a healthy respect for the paranormal.  As far as the style goes, The Woman in Black is a pretty solid example of how to do it right in the modern era; if they had traded some of the anticlimactic "gotcha" scares for some more disturbing images, I would call this an excellent exercise in Gothic horror.
If that face in the window gives you the heebie jeebies, you might be a Gothic horror fan

Daniel Radcliffe was solid in his first post-Potter starring role.  He doesn't erase your memory of his childhood work (perhaps a different haircut or a beard would have helped), but darn few things will.  Brain Bleach would be a catchy name for one.  The lead in atmospheric horror movies is typically supposed to slowly react to the rising eeriness, hopefully in a manner similar to how the audience would react.  Radcliffe doesn't "wow" you with his skills, but his reactions felt genuine enough.
A hatchet to face possible ghosts?  Stupid, but I'd grab one if I could
CiarĂ¡n Hinds has the biggest supporting role, but it's a pretty huge step down in screen time from co-headliners Radcliffe and Dread to Hinds.  He was adequate, but nothing more; aside from having to look embarrassed a few times, Hinds was just there to act as a personification of rational thought.  British character actor Roger Allam had a small, weenie-ish part, and Liz White made faces at the camera as the dreaded titular woman.

The Woman in Black is only the second film directed by James Watkins, but it was a pretty good effort.  He made a successful film with Daniel Radcliffe looking worried in every scene; it is tough to make a decent horror movie in general, but one that focuses almost exclusively on a single character is a lot harder.  The pacing could feel dreadfully slow in the first half of the film, but Watkins was wise enough to show several deaths to spice things up.  I will say, though, that The Woman in Black has more child suicides in it than any other movie I have seen.
They can't fly
One of the trademarks of the Gothic horror movie is the reserved nature of the characters, and I thought Watkins succeeded in using those subtle degrees of visible emotion to emphasize the slow build of the story.

Despite generally liking most of the ingredients in The Woman in Black, I didn't like it all that much.  Part of that is because I generally dislike Gothic horror --- give me a machete-wielding maniac any day --- but there were just too many small things that bugged me in this movie.  From a directional standpoint, I thought the off-screen wailing of the mothers who lost their kids was a bit melodramatic; I get it, grief isn't pretty, but couldn't they have lines less cliche than "My bay-bees!  Waaaugh!"  From a story standpoint, I don't see why all of this had to happen.  SPOILER ALERT: The townspeople believe that going to the house will inevitably lead to meeting the woman in black, who will inevitably then kill an apparently random child for some reason; okay, fine, I can follow that logic.  So why would anyone in the town agree to drive Kipps there?  And why doesn't he just grab all the papers from the house and take them back to London, so he can go through them in an honest-to-God office, instead of a dusty haunted house? 
Probably not for the helpful notes on the walls
And how does the woman in black operate?  If you see her once, she kills a kid, if you see her twice she kills another kid?  If so, then this movie ended about six child deaths shy of the supposedly inevitable total.  And let's say that Kipps has come to terms with the possibility that he is facing some evil spirits --- why does he keep locking doors, despite frequent evidence that locks mean nothing to ghosts?
A: Because he hasn't figured out windows yet, either
And, perhaps the biggest plot hole of all, if the townspeople are convinced that something is killing their children, why don't they movie away?  Despite all of that, The Woman in Black is a nice little suspense/horror flick.  It's not for all tastes, but it is a nice atmospheric supernatural tale.  I would specifically recommend this to people who fall for "boo" scares, don't like gore, and are creeped out by ghost children and/or child deaths.  If you're looking for excitement in your horror fix, I would look elsewhere.  Still, this is a solid effort from a film with a small budget.

If found it interesting that much of the promo work for The Woman in Black featured old timey photographs with the eyes scratched out, some with the caption "What did they see?" 
Okay, pretty creepy.  However, that isn't fully addressed in the film.  Now, you might argue that the answer to that question is ni the title of the movie; I can buy that argument up to a point.  But what about the kids?  The logic in the film states that the adults are the ones responsible for the seeing-thing.  Interestingly, the kids' eyes are left unscratched in the actual film.  In fact, the scratched photos look more like the faces are being attacked than just the eyes.  Weird, huh?  What an odd choice for the film's advertising team.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Endless Night

I have no idea what scene this is from
Watching The Mirror Crack'd this Fall stirred a long-dormant movie appetite for me.  While that movie wasn't great, it reminded me how much I enjoy a good mystery.  It also reminded me how few Agatha Christie film adaptations I've watched.  While scanning through Netflix's instant queue, I stumbled across Endless Night, a movie I've never heard of based on a Christie book I have never read.  I figured that a story I was unfamiliar with would keep the mystery intact longer ---and I was right --- but that does not necessarily mean that you should go into this film with the same amount of foreknowledge I had.

Michael (Hywel Bennett) is a bit of a loser.  He holds random jobs for a few weeks at a time, but inevitably walks out or gets fired.  He's a bit of a dreamer, and he dreams of life as a very wealthy man.  While working as a chauffeur, Michael befriends a world-class architect, the peculiar-looking Santonix (Per Oscarsson), and the two idly come up with some grand plans for a fabulous home (which Michael could never afford) on Michael 's favorite piece of real estate (which Michael will never own).
Architect or cubist Picasso inspiration?  You decide
One day, as Michael visits the plot of land he loves so much, called Gypsy's Acre by the locals, he accidentally meets a very sweet girl, Ellie (Haley Mills).  The two quickly fall in love, but it turns out that Ellie is one of the wealthiest people in England.  Amazingly, that inconvenience does not prevent Michael from marrying her.
Michael, having the tough news broken to him
The two marry, despite disapproval from Ellie's family, and have Santonix build them a modern home on Gypsy's Acre.  Then the real problems begin.  One of the locals, whose family once owned Gypsy's Acre, appears to be trying to creep the new couple off the land; she doesn't do much except stare at their house, but according to a reliable source, you shouldn't trust gypsies to do no harm.  On top of that, Michael has to deal with Ellie's overbearing family, who are all too aware that he is now heir to a fortune that was once theirs.  To make matters even more awkward, Ellie invites her best friend/hired companion, the gorgeous Greta (Britt Ekland), to live in their new home. 
Yeah, I'd hate to have her live with me
To recap, Michael has gone from a poor schlub with no prospects to a happily married man that is ridiculously wealthy, living his dream and his biggest problems are bitter old women giving him a hard time.  Life is tough sometimes.  However, the story is told in flashback by Michael and parts of it have nightmarish undertones.  What could have happened that made Michael dream of this image in this odd hue?
Please please please let Beetlejuice be responsible

I was never a big fan of Haley Mills as a child actress, but she's a little better than I expected in Endless Night.  Her character is very sweet and innocent, but I was surprised to not find her annoying.  Well, not too annoying.  On an amusing note, when Haley sings, her voice was dubbed over by Shirley Jones; so, when you see the scene and think "Gee, her lips and throat don't quite match the operatic voice in this scene," you are absolutely correct.  When I have to start by praising the mediocre talent of a former Disney star, you can tell that the acting is not great.  Specifically, Hywel Bennett was consistently awful.  The script has a few opportunities for Michael to seem sympathetic or likable, but Bennett manages to deadpan his way through every chance he got.  I understand that he needs to be a little mysterious for the mystery at the story's center, but there's a big difference between being bland and reserved.  Britt Ekland was also horrid.  Ekland isn't typically in films for her acting talent, but she really shouldn't be asked to cry on cue; her "acting" made me wince on multiple occasions.  George Sanders was fine, but sorely underused as the only cast member that understood the concept of subtlety.  On the bright side, this was the first time I saw Lois Maxwell outside of a James Bond film; all she does is give Michael the cold shoulder, but it showed more range than I thought her capable of.
Miss Moneypenny disapproves

Endless Night was directed and adapted for the screen by Sidney Gillat.  Gillat had a long career, primarily as a writer (including a few early Hitchcock films, like The Lady Vanishes), but if this is a representative example of his directorial skills, he should have stuck with his typewriter.  I will admit that a decent amount of the problem with Endless Night is Christie's source novel --- it focused on psychology instead of mystery --- but Gillat did absolutely nothing to save the concept.  Michael is the narrator, and it is clear that he is an unreliable narrator; Gillat could have run with that idea, having Michael reconstruct scenes when he is caught narrating a lie, forcing the audience to wonder how much of this story actually happened.  That's not the route Gillat goes.  Instead, Michael just bookends the story in a very loose way.  Even worse, the introductory bookend was wretched; coming across as hilariously melodramatic and just plain goofy.  Of course, as director, you can also blame Gillat for getting such wooden performances from his cast, too. 
"You want us to...act?!?"
There are some technical flaws that I noticed, too, with the most notable being the alleged night scene --- where Ellie wakes from a deep sleep only moments after Michael got up and decides to follow him outside, just like any married couple would ***eye roll***--- that was clearly filmed during the daytime and then artificially darkened.  My least favorite aspect of this film was how dull the reveal is.  Yes, Gillat made sure to not explicitly hint at the secret before the plot twist, but it was neither shocking nor entertaining.  He failed to build an ounce of suspense.
He did, however, build an ugly house for this movie

Even with poor direction and embarrassing acting, Endless Night could have stood out for its twist/reveal/mystery.  Had Gillat fostered the notion of Michael as an unreliable narrator, the reveal toward the end could have been fairly cool.  Instead, it seems less the work of a dastardly genius and more like a sitcom plot.  Bad story, bad acting and a lame twist lead to a bad movie.  On the other hand, there is a certain amount of kitsch value to a film with such a ridiculous house, a scene where Haley Mills has no face, and Britt Ekland has the least convincing crying-changing-into-laughter scene ever.  This is definitely a bad movie that has aged poorly, but you can laugh at it for a small bit of enjoyment.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Resident

I don't often watch Hilary Swank movies.  It's not that I dislike her --- although two Oscars seems a bit much, in my opinion --- it's just that she stars in a lot of crap.  I have similar feelings about Jeffrey Dean Morgan; I like the guy just fine, but he's not in many things I want to watch.  No, what drew me into The Resident was the fact that this was a Hammer Films production featuring Christopher Lee.  Plus, I just reviewed The Apartment, and I found the pairing amusing.  I haven't seen many classic Hammer movies, but I was completely unaware that they had resurrected the brand recently and made a few noteworthy pics (that I haven't seen yet).  Christopher Lee, a two-time Best Actress, a solid character actor, and a classic movie brand --- what could go wrong?
"That much do you love rape?"

Juliet (Hilary Swank) is a New York City emergency room doctor in need of a new home.  She receives a call from someone, telling her that there is an apartment for rent.  When she arrives, she finds an enormous place in an older building that is nearly perfect: great wood floors, about three acres of floorspace, and a ridiculous view of the city.  The downside is that the train passes pretty close to the building and things have a tendency to vibrate off of shelves.  The price is shockingly cheap (by NYC standards), so Juliet takes the place.
"I like the plastic on the walls.  It makes it easier to clean blood off!"
Her landlord is Max (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose only job appears to be renovating the building; Max and his grandfather, August (Christopher Lee), are the building's only other tenants.  Juliet loves her new place, but the creaks and moans of the building play tricks on her, making her think that she is not alone.  Nevertheless, things appear to be getting better for her.  She even randomly encounters Max socially and the two hit it off; in other words, the pair quickly start getting naked together.

Now stop.  Rewind.  The film backs up to give the viewer an alternate point of view on the story thus far.  It turns out that the friendly Max has been stalking Juliet for some time and she played right into his hands.  Remember those moments Juliet thought she wasn't alone?  That's because she wasn't.  Two-way mirrors, peepholes and secret passages abound in her apartment, and you can be sure that behind every creepy noise in the place, Max is hiding and breathing heavily.
Aww!  Look at that puppy dog face!  You are forgiven for everything, Max!
At this point, the film can take a few directions.  The first would be for the pair to start dating and either become a lovely couple, or his creepy nature would turn this into a taut thriller, where Juliet only gradually realizes how dangerous Max is --- and he's sleeping right next to her!  Alternately, Juliet could put a stop to their naked time before the grinding starts and Max could go into full-on horror movie villain mode.  The Resident opts for the second, easier, route.

How's the acting in The Resident?  I suppose that depends on how forgiving you are.  I wouldn't say that Hilary Swank was good, but she played her role capably.  Is it her fault that her character is almost fatally stupid?  I don't think so, but it would have been nice for her paranoid character to call the police, even once.  I will say, however, that I was surprised that she had some brief getting-out-of-the-tub nudity; that's just about the cheapest excuse for nudity you will come across in a film, and I wasn't expecting it from her in a horror flick.  I'm not complaining, I'm just saying.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan was certainly creepy for a good portion of this film, so I guess he was somewhat successful.  Toward the end of the movie, he exchanged creepiness for sub-par horror slasher villainy, and he wasn't very good at that.  I would say that he was solid for the first half of the film, but when the plot returned from its flashback, his performance went downhill quickly.  Christopher Lee felt out of place in this movie, somehow; I like seeing him act, but hearing his strong voice coming out of his frail body made me a little sad.
Little known fact: Christopher Lee is Noah
Lee Pace didn't have much do do.  He played Juliet's unfaithful ex, and his part was fairly unremarkable.  He got beat up like a chump twice and went grocery shopping.
Not necessarily in that order
Aunjanue Ellis is the only supporting character that isn't terribly important in the overall plot.  She urges Juliet to date Max and talks trash about Lee Pace.  On the one hand, I guess her character can be seen as someone encouraging Juliet, but everything she supports (take the apartment, date Max, etc.) is really, really bad advice.

The Resident was Antti Jokinen's first (and so far, only) feature film director credit.  That's probably for the best.  I will give Jokinen some credit; I thought the first thirty minutes were surprisingly solid, although the story felt familiar.  I also like that the "surprise" of Max being a creep was not held back as a major plot twist, because...well, it was pretty damn obvious.  His fancier camera work was handled clumsily, making scenes that should have been ambiguous (is she alone, or isn't she?) pretty cut-and-dried.  I didn't like the choice to rewind the plot to show us how awful Max is, but I suppose it was better than him having a shrine to Juliet in his closet.  My main problem with how Jokinen directed this movie was that he was inconsistent.  I would have been fine with this film if he had maintained the suspense from the first act.  The second act, during the rewind, took all the mystery from the story.  The third act just sucked, as Max went from creepy to evil with less buildup than the 12th kill in a Jason movie.  I don't think Jokinen did a terrible job directing this film, but he certainly didn't make this story better with his direction.
Example: he frequently told his actors to look perturbed, not scared

Unfortunately, Jokinen was also responsible for the major weakness of The Resident: the writing.  He co-wrote this screenplay with a guy who was involved in the third Underworld movie, so the talent pool for this screenplay was not particularly deep.  Still, this story is pure crap.  Ignoring the cliche of the nice guy who is secretly disturbed, there really isn't any other logical suspect when Juliet gets paranoid that she is being watched.  So, that means Juliet is either paranoid or her landlord is spying on her; given the title, that seems like a poorly constructed mystery.  What really pushed this movie over the edge from drudgery to utter crap was how the writers showed that Max was disturbed.  Max's primary way to get close to Juliet was by drugging her and touching her while she was asleep.  Licking her hands was creepy enough, but raping her while she was unconscious was more gross than shocking.
That's so...erotic?
If you're going to make rape a plot point, that should not be the effect.  I also did not need to see multiple scenes where Max masturbated while in Juliet's apartment.  They throw in some stuff where Christopher Lee implies that Max's parents were disturbed, too, but it doesn't go anywhere.  I think they overplayed their hand with Max, making his transition from peeper to murderer/rapist too abrupt.
It's surprisingly well-lit when Max chooses to creep
I would have been much happier if Max was just creepy and maybe building up toward rape, when he panics and kills someone and, from there, we see him get more desperate and his actions more drastic.  There's just no build to this plot whatsoever.  Instead of being suspenseful or scary, it is boring, over-familiar and uncomfortable.  I should be rooting for either the killer or the heroine here, but neither is particularly likable.  I had difficulty understanding why I wasn't sympathetic toward Juliet for a little while.  Then, I realized that she was an idiot.  She oversleeps after her evening wine bottle was drugged; instead of drinking less, she blames it on her apartment.  Yes, that makes perfect sense.  On the bright side, the movie did end with a nail gun-related death, so there's that.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Apartment

When I finished watching  Double Indemnity a few months ago, I came to a startling realization: that was the only Billy Wilder movie I had ever seen!  That fact still boggles my mind; with such a prolific director who made so many noteworthy films, how could I have accidentally avoided his body of work?  Well, it's high time I changed that.  I wasn't sure which film I should choose next --- he covered a lot of ground, genre-wise --- so I just went with the film that earned him the most Oscar nominations: The Apartment.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is one of the many faceless worker bees in a New York insurance company.  Baxter is a nice guy, but he's also the type of guy who doesn't stand up for himself or really separate himself from the pack.
Insurance agencies: where unique snowflakes go to melt
The only way Baxter has found to differentiate himself from the masses of other qualified workers has been to offer his apartment as a love nest for his manager.  Well, actually, it's not his manager, it's a manager.  Well, it's not a manager singular, it's three managers.  So Baxter spends his days buried in paperwork, trying to do his job, while balancing the scheduling demands of three men unaccustomed to patience.  A typical day would have Baxter sending his apartment key to a manager (using the company's interdepartmental mail, of course), working late, and then coming home...only to wait some more, because boss man is running behind schedule.  Of course, the managers --- who seem to think his name is "buddy boy" --- aren't going to clean up after themselves or even apologize for their messes; Baxter takes it all in stride, hoping to get glowing references when a promotion opens up.
Above: Baxter and the managers of Total Bastards, Inc.
While the constant activity in his apartment makes his neighbors think Baxter is a Lothario, he actually only has eyes for Ms. Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), one of the elevator operators in his building.  Promotion day finally arrives for Baxter, but having his own office doesn't mean that he is free of lending his apartment key to his superiors.  And when he begins to lend his home to the director of personnel, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), these "favors" really begin to cause complications for Baxter.

The thing that surprised me most about The Apartment was its subject matter.  For the first half of the film, the idea of serial adulterers is played for laughs; the only consequence shown was Baxter catching cold because he had to wait in the rain while his place was being used as a hanky-panky den.  This was widely released in America in 1960, so I imagined that a Leave it to Beaver nation would get offended by a theme like this; apparently not.  The second half marks an abrupt shift in tone, as one of the consequences of adultery is shown to be suicide, and that also seems like something that wouldn't have played in Peoria, at least not back in the day.
Nowadays, though, we're all like, "Kung fu that bee-yatch"
Of course, that shouldn't impact my opinion of the movie, since I don't live in 1960s Middle America, but the tone of The Apartment definitely caught me off guard.  Honestly, with a movie poster like the one at the top of this post, I didn't expect any significant dramatic content at all.  But, you know what they say about expecting: you make an "ex" out of "pec" and "ting."  Side note: "They" are idiots.

I haven't seen very much of Jack Lemmon as a young actor, so it feels strange to admit this, but...I don't think I care for Lemmon as a comic actor in his youth.  I'm not exactly sure why, either.  Sure, he hams it up a bit, but I don't think he's any more guilty than other contemporary actors.  Maybe I just dislike his put-upon everyman character that seems to be a common theme in his early work.  Whatever the case, I didn't like Lemmon in the first half of this movie. 
Hold that thought; I'm not done with you yet
As soon as the suicide attempt happens, though, I thought he was excellent; Lemmon is extremely capable --- great, even --- at balancing humor and drama within the same scene, but when he's left to just comedy, it felt flat to me.  Shirley MacLaine was more consistent and played her character in an interesting way.  How easy would it have been for MacLaine to portray a dumb broad too innocent to know when she is being lied to?  She carried an unusual weariness in her performance that was absolutely perfect for the role. 
"I'm tired of this movie.  If I settle for you, can we cut to the credits?"
Fred MacMurray was good as the selfish boss; MacMurray really was at his best when he played against type like this.  Ray Walston was memorable as one of the many bosses who took advantage of "buddy boy," although it had more to do with his dialogue than his actual performance.  Along the same lines, Joan Shawlee sticks out in my memory as the first illicit girlfriend we see in Baxter's apartment, if only because she wouldn't stop cha-cha-ing.  Jack Kruschen was good as Baxter's doctor neighbor, even if he was a bit of an ethnic stereotype, but what I remember most about his performance was how he repeatedly called Baxter a "good time Charlie" for all the noisy romancing that he hears coming from Baxter's apartment.  I get the gist of that comment, but as far as insults go, I've heard better.
Really, he's more of a Bjorn Boring than anything else

Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote The Apartment, which surprised me.  Maybe I just haven't experienced enough Wilder, but I think it's pretty interesting that he would intentionally set himself up with such a shift in tone.  Does he pull it off?  Well, I didn't enjoy the first half of the movie very much.  It felt like the sort of fluff that Jerry Lewis would star in, and I think that it has aged poorly.  However, I really enjoyed the rest of the film.  Wilder isn't the most dramatic director in regards to his cinematography, but I really liked some of the frame compositions in this film.  I also thought it was an interesting choice to make this a black-and-white film; thanks to the almost bleak hues, it is easy to forget that this movie takes place mostly during the time between Christmas and New Year's Day.  Keeping the film in shades of grey makes the character's loneliness and desperation stand out more, but very subtly. 
Not always subtly, but most of the time
I also liked that, in many ways, the two main characters are so similar --- both are used to being lied to and treated as doormats; the only difference is that Baxter eventually gets the promotion promised him and Ms. Kubelik never becomes Mrs. Sheldrake.

As much as I enjoy the second half of the film --- I won't say it's great, but it is pretty darn good --- I just can't get over how disinterested I was in the first half.  I liked what Wilder was able to do when he mixed the serious and the humorous, and I loved the second-half performances, but when I think of The Apartment, I think of Jack Lemmon whining.  Maybe one day I will come back to this movie and, knowing what's in store, be pleasantly surprised with how the film has grown on me.  For now, though, I have to give it a fairly mediocre rating.