How could I not be excited about this? First, Denis Villeneuve’s absolutely brilliant Arrival, then Gosling’s pitch-perfect performance in La La Land, followed by this trailer. Yeah, I’ll be there in October. Get my seat ready Alamo Brooklyn.
If you were curious about Leviathan Wakes (and The Expanse series in general) when I wrote about it back in September, but you aren’t into the whole reading thing, you can soon take it all in via a new SyFy show.
Technically the show begins in December, but they’ve released the pilot online a bit early.
You can watch the entire episode here on YouTube.
The show could still go either way, there are things I’m not entirely sure about yet. Yet, the scope is huge, the source material is solid, and the pilot has enough going for it that this could be really good.
I’m assuming they’ll take the Game of Thrones route and that each season will be a book in the series.
Here’s the trailer.
We all need a good space opera from time to time.
Space opera is an interesting subgenre. The name originally comes from the now virtually unknown term ‘horse opera,’ (itself a reference to soap operas) which refers to a formulaic and unimaginative western that could be pumped out by radio and movie studios and book publishers at low cost. Thus, originally calling something a space opera was a way to deride it as clichéd, hack science fiction. Before long, space operas were a large group of lazy space stories that used plots taken from naval adventure novels and cowboy stories.
Eventually, some decent writers started taking the things they enjoyed about space operas, like the huge scope, advanced future/alien societies, high stakes, adventure, and relatable heroes, and writing stories that didn’t suck. They still called them space operas.
The most famous example of a space opera is Star Wars. The film is literally a sci-fi interpretation of the westerns and swashbuckling naval films George Lucas loved as a kid.
Despite its dubious coinage, ‘space opera’ isn’t shorthand for ‘terrible.’ They can be a whole lot of fun.
Leviathan’s Wake is an entertaining blend of genres set against the backdrop of potential human annihilation, like a smart summer action blockbuster in space.
The story moves forward following two protagonists:
As much as I love making lists, I hate to make straightforward top ten lists and whatnot. That’s why most years I won’t do a Ten Best Movies of the Year list, but instead will do a list of my favorite heroes, then a list of my favorite villains, along with a bunch of other superlatives. It is why most years Brian and I make a bunch of music lists in different categories instead of simply picking our five or ten favorite albums. Part of the reason for this is because it’s more fun, but it is also because I hate leavings things I love off of the list as I whittle it down. It also results in the comparison of apples and oranges.
Alas, sometimes that’s all a guy can do when he wants to share his favorite stuff with people. The only thing that separates this from a straightforward top ten list is that there are twelve books included, and that i avoided redundancy by leaving off books I’ve already written about. This is the best of the rest, as it were. The books I haven’t written about yet came down to time and energy, and wasn’t because the books I neglected were inferior to the books I raved about. I don’t love the books on this list more or less than the books I’ve already mentioned.
As is always the case with books, these are NOT necessarily books released this year, but instead are books I read this year for the first time. Some are brand new, some are decades old.
Here are six more I loved, out of the twelve I will inevitably get to, in the order I read them:
1. Dodger – Terry Pratchett
Set in a slightly alternate version of Victorian London, a teenaged tosher (a street urchin who makes his living collecting valuables that have washed into the sewer) named Dodger saves a young woman trying to escape from would-be kidnappers. The result is an adventure that brings him into contact with historical figures like Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, and fictional characters like Sweeney Todd.
It’s a light, fun read, but not without some satisfying engagement with questions of coming of age, finding our place, and decisions about what it means to live well in a morally ambiguous and complicated world.
The eponymous main character is easy to root for. Personally, I’ve always been a bit predisposed to love sneaky, clever characters who are moral in the big areas but grey in the smaller ones. Those underdog characters using wits and street smarts to consistently get one over on the cruel and powerful have always been a favorite of mine, and Dodger is a top notch example.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
Another installment on my quest to read every novel that has won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and yet another reason to be in awe of Le Guin’s body of work. Le Guin’s science fiction/fantasy functions at a higher level than most. Often, science fiction that wrestles with ideas like this sacrifices prose, but hers is always beautifully written, never a missing or wasted word.
The Left Hand of Darkness finds a human character sent alone to a planet of sexually androgynous humanoids to be a representative for the Ekumen, a galactic coalition or empire. Never wanting a new planet to join the coalition due to fear or intimidation, and never wanting unnecessary bloodshed, the Ekumen always sends a single envoy to reveal the existence of other intelligent live in the universe, and establish first contact and an invitation to join the Ekumen.
One of the most celebrated SF novels of all time, the territory explored is complex and rich, but the writing is always simple and straightforward. The metaphors of the book play with sexuality, gender, political intrigue, language, religion, and faith.
When folks make claims about liking Battlestar Galactica because “it isn’t like other science fiction, it is about people and ideas and politics,” they are ignorant of the fact this isn’t what separates Battlestar Galactica from science fiction, it is what separates Battlestar Galactica from the shitty, lazy sort of science fiction. Among many other things, all fiction uses metaphors in the telling of a story to say things that can’t be said well enough in mere propositions and arguments, science fiction and fantasy just uses a particular palette of themes in doing that. Sure, there are garbage science fiction books that appeal to people who will read anything with spaceships in it, but writing off all science fiction because of that is like writing off Jane Austen as a hack because Harlequin Romance novels exist.
The Left Hand of Darkness is proof positive that a book should never, ever be judged by its genre, and if you write off an entire style of writing without curiosity you’re lazy, and you’re the one missing out.
3. Forever Peace – Joe Haldeman
And immediately, another installment in my quest to read every book that has ever won both the Hugo and the Nebula. Although the author is the same, and the title sounds like the title of a sequel, this novel is actually entirely separate in narrative from Haldeman’s earlier novel The Forever War. Forever Peace engages war, but in a very different way, and from an entirely different angle. Actually, I think it is far more brilliant and interesting than The Forever War (which I loved, by the way).
Forever Peace is set in a not very distant future where American military personnel jack their brains into computers and remotely control units called “soldierboys” to fight around the world. That premise could easily set up a straightforward action story, where narrative loosely connects action scenes. Instead, this is a novel that is constantly surprising and engaging, and like The Forever War, pushes the reader to understand the inevitable costs of war on individuals, societies, and beyond. This one spins way out beyond that, too, with all sorts of twists and turns, without ever losing its core of intelligent ideas.
In connection with the argument made in regards to the previous book, I actually think this book is more accessible to the science fiction virgin. Even if you think you don’t like SF, you should still give this book a try.
4. Ironweed – William Kennedy
Ironweed is the Pulitzer winning novel about Francis Phelan, a homeless drunk, once a talented baseball player, who is so haunted by his that he is crippled by it. To a lesser degree, it is also about his lover, who is equally trapped in her life as a drunk.
Francis man wanders around his hometown of Albany, returning after years away, as he comes to terms with whether or not he will finally face his (literal) ghosts and try to live again.
As the Pulitzer suggests, this book is beautifully written, wonderful prose that adds to the wrestling heartbreak and hope on Ironweed’s pages. The characters are never lionized or demonized, Francis feels like a real person, unable to forgive himself for his past mistakes, unable to reconcile his current state to the giant he once believed himself to be. Yet, as he is forgiven by others, the reader hopes he might come to see himself in a new light, neither giant nor monster, but simply a man.
I look forward to eventually reading the rest of Kennedy’s novels, some about other members of the Phelan clan, and almost all part of his Albany Cycle.
5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Such a surprise that the newest book by my favorite author would show up on this list (it’s also not the last time he shows up either).
As said in this review of the book, those of us who love Gaiman love his voice just as much as we love whatever he says with it. I love the things Gaiman writes about, but I also genuinely love the way he writes about them.
My masters thesis was about fiction and its ability to (quoting my own abstract) “create a liminal space which can be a site of growth and transition, in which we can enter into ambiguity and reemerge as changed people, with increased capacity for wonder, mourning, relationship, creativity, and life.” It is no coincidence that it is Gaiman’s work that I used as a central way of discussing fiction’s power to do this. Gaiman is the storyteller who, in my mind, best illustrates the power of fiction (starting with myth as far back as history stretches) to do what I argued it is capable of doing.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman writes a story of a man who returns to the neighborhood of his childhood, and there re-enters a story from his youth he thought imaginary. In his narrative, we are confronted with the reality that as we “grow into ourselves” as adults, we often leave ourselves behind in truth. Part of the reason I love Gaiman’s work so much is because it is often an invitation to risk and life, and his stories lead me down into the dark and terrifying terrain that is my own heart, reminding me always to do the scary work of listening to my desire instead of constantly hiding it from myself.
6. Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Letham
Lionel Essrog is muscle for a sleazy detective agency, he also suffers from the frequently comorbid conditions of Tourette Syndrome and OCD. When his boss is killed, Essrog is compelled to unravel the who and the why.
In this wonderfully written private detective novel, Letham explores the difficulty of unraveling the mystery of ourselves. And in that sense, instead of truly offering answers, what Letham actually does is better reveal the mystery and the questions.
Motherless Brooklyn offers the excitement, enjoyably dark characters, and pacing of a detective novel, but with brilliant prose, and a far more profound and engaging story.
As I mentioned the other day, I have nearly 1000 movies in my combined Netflix queue. Lots and lots and lots of movies. Some movies queued up are films I’ve already seen and want to watch again eventually, but the vast majority are films I’ve never seen before. There are just so many movies from throughout history, and while I’ve seen more than your average jane or joe, I still haven’t even made it through a small percentage of the great stuff that’s out there.
That’s one reason why I love iCheckMovies, which I’ve written about before (you should join and be my friend if you haven’t already!). Thanks to my desire to make progress on various lists accumulated on iCheckMovies, I watch films that normally wouldn’t have been on my radar. For example, I recently watch Body Heat for the first time because I am getting close to completing the AFI list, ‘100 Years, 100 Thrills!‘ I wouldn’t have just added Body Heat to my queue normally, because the title just makes me think of a made for Cinemax soft-porn film. However, thanks to AFI and iCheckMovies, I got to enjoy a really great film that would have otherwise gone unappreciated by me.
Body Heat is a neo-noir homage to Double Indemnity and Out of the Past. I love that Noir is one of those genres where people have consistently made homages without tipping into parody. Too often, the only way people know how to reference something at a feature length level is with straight remake/reboot or comedic reinterpretation. With Noir, filmmakers have consistently made films that capture the spirit, the themes, and the visual flair of the genre, without merely remaking the same film over and over. Chinatown, Brick, even Blade Runner are all examples of this. Well, add Body Heat to that list for me (and lots of other people, I’m not discovering anything new here outside of my own little movie-watching world).
The story follows a small-time Florida defense lawyer, a serial womanizer, who meets a rich, beautiful, married woman one night during an oppressive heat wave (Kathleen Turner in her first film role, catapulting her the height of ‘sex symbol’ status). As one would expect in a Noir film, the two begin sleeping together. The affair and the heat wave are equally torrid. The weather is hot, the sex is hotter, husbands are in the way, schemes are hatched, people are betrayed… in the words of George Michael Bluth, “What a fun, sexy time for you.”
The film is taut, well-acted, sexy, and really smart. Many times, when I watch a crime thriller of any kind, I get frustrated that the characters involved are so stupid for the sake of the plot. It’s that classic movie trope, most famous in horror films, in which the characters do some inexplicably stupid thing that no one would ever do, but they do it anyway because it is necessary for the story to make sense (or at least pretend to make sense). It makes me wonder if most writers are just really, really lazy. If I’m watching a movie and I have a better idea of how to get out of trouble in a certain moment, then I know it probably occurred to the writer, too. They just ignore that impulse for the sake of narrative convenience. Watching Body Heat, there were several moments where I thought, “Oh, he should do this right now, that would be smart.” Then, whaddya know, he does exactly that! For a crime thriller to be truly satisfying, the characters need to get away with it because they were just that smart, or they need to get caught even though they were smart enough to get away with it, but something goes wrong because of a fatal flaw, or betrayal, or bad luck. Body Heat is like one of those options, but I won’t tell you which because that would be spoiling it for you.
William Hurt and Kathleen Turner are both great, and there are also awesome supporting performances by Ted Danson (playing the uncharacteristically normal guy who isn’t super sexy) and Mickey Rourke (playing the hot young criminal, because that was his ‘thing’ back then).
If you’re ever in the mood for a well-crafted, sexy, neo-noir thriller, you should check this out.
Even though most of you will read this after the fact, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I have no thematic post prepared for the festivities. I actually have nothing prepared. Having no idea what to write about today, I decided it was time to resurrect ‘Five Things.’ I’m pretty sure that ‘Five Things’ was the very first thematic post series I started way back when, but then it was called ‘Props Thursdays’ or something along those lines. Since I couldn’t come up with what I wanted to write about today, I decided to just share the last five movies I watched, and a brief snippet of my reaction to each. Here they are:
This 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman (and featuring Joseph Cotten) begins right after an unsolved murder, and from there goes on to tell a twisted story of psychological abuse and obsession. Bergman won the Oscar for Best Actress, and it’s easy to see why. Her performance is really amazing, especially toward the end as her character devolves into madness.
The film is tense and interesting, but it is Bergman’s performance that really stays with you.
One interesting bit of trivia is that because of the play the film was based on, as well as the two film adaptations of which this version is the second, the sort of psychological abuse depicted in the film is still know as ‘gaslighting.’
Another installment in my quest to keep checking off all the classic films I’ve never seen. Based on a novel and headlined by Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds, the story follows four guys from Atlanta who go deep into the backwoods to canoe down a river before it is damned and becomes a lake. Way out of their element, they run afoul of some sexually sadistic hillbillies, and things don’t go well for anybody.
The film is responsible for a number of pop culture mainstays. It is the reason we are all familiar with the song ‘Dueling Banjos,’ and it features the disturbing and oft-referenced lines: “He got a real pretty mouth ain’t he?” and “I bet you can squeal like a pig.”
It’s a good film, but it’s also flawed in a number of ways concerning general logic and character motivations. I’m definitely glad to have finally checked it off my list of movies waiting to be watched.
This uber-indie film from 1990 is set in the world of high-society trust fund kids in Manhattan. An outsider is randomly drawn into an elite clique and makes more of an impact than anyone anticipated. The film is painfully acted, but the screenplay is sharp and clever. I would often flip back and forth between despising all of these characters, and then loving them in spite of myself. They are sweet and naive and flawed, and yet they try so hard to seem erudite and grownup and put-together. It’s the inherent sweetness that comes through by the end that left a winning taste in my mouth, when it could easily have just been bitter and nauseating.
4. Blue Velvet
Speaking of classics I’d never seen before, this was my very first time seeing Blue Velvet. The film nerd in me is appropriately ashamed, so fear not. This isn’t my first rodeo with David Lynch, so I was prepared for the surreality of the whole thing. I really enjoyed it! Part film-noir, part surreal dream/nightmare, part psychological metaphor, part parable of love conquering evil, it is unique and from what I understand, completely changed the landscape of arthouse films.
The performances are amazing. Most notably, Dennis Hopper’s maniacal villain is perfect, and by perfect I mean bat-shit crazy and disturbing. The direction is bizarre, and yet carefully crafted so that while you never know where the hell lynch is going, there is never a doubt that he certainly knows and will take you there skillfully, even if it is a place you never want to reach.
Not to be confused with what I assume is an unwatchable remake starring Sylvester Stallone, this movie was good, and also mostly awful. It was good because it’s fun to see a younger Michael Caine be a total fricking badass, and because the film was smarter than most lone bad-ass revenge films. You can easily see how all the British gangster films since take a great number of their cues from Get Carter. From the tone, to the dialogue, right through to the ending, you can see it in ‘Snatch’, ‘Lock, Stock…’, ‘Layer Cake,’ etc.
It was bad because it was overwhelmingly sexist. I think it may have been a self-aware sort of sexism, that understood the ugliness of Jack Carter’s character, but for me they should have gone just a bit farther by creating some better female characters who didn’t get abused, exploited, or drowned in a car trunk (or boot, I guess in England it was a car boot) without anyone giving much of a shit one way or the other. At one point, a moral of the film seems to be: Folks getting naive young girls to appear in illegal porn films is fine… unless you find out it happened to a relative of yours, that’s crossing the fucking line! Eh, I really wanted to like it because of the various strengths, but the sexism was just too nauseating.
Here is my year in film. I’m hoping this isn’t the only list this year, but there is a good chance it will be. Boo.
Just like last year, I broke it down by month to make it easier to read, and to see illustrate just how much this year was a feast or famine affair, perhaps more than ever.
The key is mostly the same as always:
(#) Movie I saw in the theater.
[#] Movie I saw for the first time.
E# Movies I watched with Emily.
Favorites (These underlined films cannot be movies I saw this year for the first time, or movies I have only seen once, they have to be movies that have been able to stand up viewing after viewing, and still keep me coming back for more.)
*Best movies I’d never seen before. (It doesn’t matter when these movies came out, I saw them for the first time this year, and they were awesome. I was probably too liberal with my asterisks, I just couldn’t help myself.)
Noir Movie Fest.
Halloween Movie Fest.
1. Kung Fu Panda 2  E1
2. Battle Royale 
*3. The Secret of Kells  E2
4. Bellflower 
*5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes 
*6. The Guard  E3
7. Moneyball  E4
8. Labyrinth – E5
*9. Midnight in Paris  E6
10. The Hangover: Part II  E7
*11. 50/50  E8
*12. Take Shelter 
*22. 21 Jump Street  (2) E15
23. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 
24. The Promotion  E16
*25. The Hunger Games  (3) E17
26. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop  E18
*27. The Trip  E19
28. London Boulevard  E20
*29. Certified Copy 
*30. Martha Marcy May Marlene 
37. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil 
38. Hesher 
39. Ocean’s Eleven
40. Shaolin Soccer 
*41. Sukiyaki Western Django 
*42. The Descendants  E21
43. The Five-Year Engagement  (5) E22
44.Down By Law 
45. Cold Weather 
46. Blow-Up 
47. Haywire  E23
*48. The Avengers  (6) E24
60. Cul-de-Sac 
61. The Woman in Black 
62. Ultimate Avengers: The Movie 
63. The Thin Red Line 
64. Harold and Maude 
65. Sherlock Jr. 
66. Heathers 
67. Prometheus  (8)
68. Laura 
69. The Pianist  E28
70. Carnage  E29
*71. Moonrise Kingdom  (9)
73. Adam’s Rib  E30
74. Le Samourai 
75. My Week with Marilyn  E31
76. Witness for the Prosecution 
77. The Battleship Potemkin 
*78. Paths of Glory 
79. Brave  (10) E32
80. High Sierra 
*81. Notorious 
82. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 
83. Night and the City 
84. Sunset Boulevard
85. The Big Sleep
*86. The Amazing Spider-Man  (11) E33
87. Pickup on South Street 
*88. Ace in the Hole 
*89. The Big Heat 
90. Kiss Me Deadly 
*91. Gilda 
92. Leave Her To Heaven 
93. Gun Crazy 
94. Shadow of a Doubt  E34
*95. The Killers (1946) 
96. The Maltese Falcon
97. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) 
*98. In a Lonely Place 
*99. The Lost Weekend 
100. Double Indemnity
101. The Dark Knight Rises  (12)
102. White Heat 
*103. The Sweet Smell of Success 
104. Scarlet Street 
*105. Touch of Evil 
*106. Mildred Pierce 
107. The Asphalt Jungle 
*108. Out of the Past 
*109. The Lady from Shanghai 
110. The Naked City 
111. The Night of the Hunter 
112. Strangers on a Train 
113. The Killing 
*114. Batman: Year One 
115. The Shop Around the Corner  E35
*116. The Long Goodbye 
117. Lilo & Stitch  E36
118. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm 
*119. Beasts of the Southern Wild  (13) E37
*126. Rififi 
127. Sleeper 
128. The Campaign  (14) E39
129. John Carter 
130. Blackthorn 
131. All-Star Superman 
132. Spy Game – E40
133. The Raid: Redemption 
134. Jiro Dreams of Sushi  E41
135. The Man from Earth 
136. Badlands 
137. Sucker Punch 
138. Our Hospitality 
139. A Hard Day’s Night 
140. Goon 
141. Witness 
*142. Looper (15)  E42
*143. 2046 
144. Shaun of the Dead – E43
145. Frankenstein 
146. From Russia with Love
147. Bride of Frankenstein 
*148. Cabin in the Woods
149. Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) 
150. Bubba Ho-Tep 
151. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
152. Halloween 
153. A Nightmare on Elm St. 
154. The Innkeepers 
155. Friday the 13th 
157. The Invisible Man 
158. Ringu 
*159. The Exorcist 
160. Arthur 
*161. Indie Game 
170. Roxanne 
171. Wreck-It Ralph  (17) E47
*172. In the Heat of the Night 
173. Being There 
174. Amores Perros 
175. The Promise: The Making of The Darkness on the Edge of Town 
176. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) 
177. Mansome 
*178. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One 
179. The Dirty Dozen 
180. Marathon Man 
*181. Seven Psychopaths  (18)
189. Young Adult 
190. Sexy Beast 
191. Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap 
*192. Magic Mike  E48
193. The Nightmare Before Christmas
194. Christmas Vacation
195. Love Actually – E49
196. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 
197. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey  (19) E50
198. Medicine for Melancholy 
*199. ParaNorman  E51
I wasn’t sure if I was coming back after this recent hiatus. I’m still not entirely sure, but here I am writing a ‘five things’ anyway. I’ll need several ‘five things’ posts to catch up on sharing all the things I’ve been enjoying lately with the friends who read this blog.
I apologize in advance for typos, I haven’t slept in a very long time.
1. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
This book is really wonderful. A time capsule of one small-town summer in 1928, told in a style that is basically a connected series of short stories. Primarily, it tells the story of one boy truly coming into the knowledge of what it is to be alive, and then coming to inevitably fear death, and the loss of the remarkable life he’d discovered. More subtle and real to me than other coming of age tales I’ve read. Bradbury certainly was a master.
2. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
The story of a boy named Todd, who lives on a planet where men’s thoughts are audible to anyone nearby. Todd is counting the days until he becomes a man, until an unexpected discovery leads to a thrilling and heartbreaking adventure that has me excited for book two… that is, once I whittle down my ‘To Read’ shelf a bit first.
The book was smart and well-written, and should be added to the list of good books you should read even though it has what I believe to be an ugly cover.
3. Batman: Year One
When it comes to the two primary comic book players, Marvel is far and away more successful than DC with making films from their brand. Marvel Studios has taken characters that common logic said would have trouble making money in film franchises, and then proceeded to make enormous amounts of money off of them, while also churning out some great films along the way. However, in the last decade, DC can only make a profit off of a hero if that hero’s name is Batman.
What DC/Warner Bros. does do well is animation. Much of my love for Batman is rooted in watching Batman: The Animated Series every weekday at 4:30 throughout my formative years. These days, I don’t catch much in the way of animated television series, but I have recently gotten into something called DC Universe Animated Original Movies. DC is bringing some of their most beloved and celebrated comic storylines to life via animation, and my first experience was Batman: Year One. It’s a really great adaptation of one of the best graphic novels ever, and it has gotten me into the rest of the new original animated movies DC has been producing.
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
4. The Long Goodbye
Way back when Noir Month ended several weeks ago, I decided to watch an updated private detective film in the form of Robert Altman’s 70’s rendition of Philip Marlowe (the guy from The Big Sleep, as well as a large number of novels).
It was awesome. Just as I wanted to keep watching Bogart play Marlowe in the film from the 40’s, I wanted to watch Gould keep delivering his smart-ass, deadpan lines for all eternity… well, maybe not eternity, but for much longer than the all too brief 112 minutes of the film.
It’s a great movie that was underappreciated upon release, only to garner the respect and accolades it deserves in the decades to follow.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
It’s been a few weeks since I saw this, and I still don’t really have words to describe my feelings about it. I could come up with some, but I think it would cheapen my experience some, in a mystical sort of way. Suffice it to say I thought it was an uncommonly beautiful film that has stayed with me long after viewing it.
Also, Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis gave genuinely stunning performances. Wallis was especially awe-inspiring, showing talent far, far beyond her years as our fierce young heroine, Hushpuppy.
This movie honestly moved me to silence afterward.
In the introduction filmed for the beginning of The Asphalt Jungle, director John Huston made a comment along the lines of “you may not admire these characters, but I think you’ll find them fascinating.” That sums up so much of the experience of noir. Aside from the remarkable visual flair that often marks the genre, there is more importantly a vein of pessimism, cynicism, and moral darkness that runs through these films. Even when our main characters are on the straight and narrow (a rare occurrence), the action still revolved around the misdeeds of another. When the films were working, it was rarely because there was a character on screen we could admire, but more often because there was a fascinating character study into the darkness common to our souls. The sorts of murder and thievery these characters engaged in were most often an ordinary sort, the sort anyone could find themselves tempted toward if things got desperate enough.
Often, these were ordinary people, who through a series of bad decisions found themselves in a dark world that threatens to destroy them. Even with the censors hovering, making it hard to have characters get too evil or unsavory, especially women, these storytellers still managed to share a window into the parts of ourselves we pretend don’t exist, the evil we pretend we aren’t capable of, and this genre more than any other paved the way for the brilliant transformation of cinematic storytelling that would follow in the 1970’s.
The common assumptions about film noir are often true. Lots of femme fatales, although often in a subversive way that isn’t nearly as sexist as most descriptions make the trope sound; lots of fast talking characters who may just be too clever for their own good; lots of shadows and darkness to tell the story visually; a great many lead characters or ensembles who illustrate that a descent into destruction can hinge on a single bad decision. These things I expected, and found. It was a really great month, and many of the films far exceeded my expectations. I’m not sure why I’ve gone so long without doing something like this.
26. Out of the Past
“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that forty grand.”
One of the most common tropes of film noir that I was unfamiliar with heading into the month was how often stories are told in flashback form. At least 1/5 of the time (off the top of my head), we start at the end or near-end, and then work back to see what led our characters to their current state of events. Out of the Past is another flashback story.
Similarly to The Killers, this story’s action begins because a guy recognizes a man from his past while getting gas. You’d think that perhaps people trying to keep a low-profile because they are hiding from past events wouldn’t take a job that requires them to see every person who passes through town, but alas, that is exactly what two characters figuring into noir month did, contributing to their downfalls.
This one was solid, Mitchum was great, Jane Greer made me really want to believe she could change her evil ways, and Kirk Douglas in his second film role showed a subtle hint of the greatness he would find in his career.
27. The Lady from Shanghai
“There’s a fair face to the land, surely, but you can’t hide the hunger and guilt. It’s a bright, guilty world.”
More Orson Welles, more great filmmaking. I could have done without Welles’ fake Irish accent, but that’s probably my only complaint. This film is the story of a man, a sailor by trade, who saves a beautiful woman one night in a park from a group of hoods, after which she invites him to join her and her husband as part of their yacht’s crew. As is the case in noir, not all is as it seems, and things take a sinister turn before you can bat an eye. Well, actually they were sinister to begin with.
The movie is filmed much more brightly than most other noir films, which is really fitting when you place that quote above in that context. Yachts, swimming, sunshine, wealth, song, parties… but all in the context of a bright, guilty world.
The film also features a really great, trippy ending in a funhouse. Thumbs up.
Also, Rita Hayworth is much prettier as a brunette, but I still wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers. Remember that phrase?
28. The Naked City
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”
The film features an iconic closing line, but in the context of narration that just felt lazy. Your high school English teacher, the one who told you to show instead of tell, that teacher would have hated it. It made for awkward transitions and strange moments that would have been stronger as pure visuals.
The film certainly had its charms, especially the primary detective on the case, Muldoon. It felt to me like the sort of movie that had impressive parts that were influential in cinema, while failing to engage me on the whole. However, perhaps that’s just noir fatigue. Who knows.
29. Night of the Hunter
“Not that you mind the killings. There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord.”
This movie is really good, but not as good as I expected it to be with how celebrated it is. There are some moments that are just so over the top and silly that it took me out of the tension of the moment.
Still, Mitchum’s preacher is mostly effective. A terrifying monster terrorizing two children who know where there father left the loot from a robbery. He’s a serial killer who preys on rich widows, baptizing the whole thing in a crazy religion. We all know that’s farfetched, right? People using religion to excuse otherwise deplorable behavior… wait… that’s not farfetched at all!
It’s pretty fucked up when the murderer on your trail continually fills the darkness with his solid rendition of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.’
30. Strangers on a Train
“I have a theory that you should do everything before you die.”
Certainly not perfect, but still pretty wonderful Hitchcock goodness.
Two men meet on a train, and one steers the conversation toward murder. What follows leaves a man trapped in a nightmare. The film’s villain is the worst sociopath ever. I don’t mean most extreme sociopath, I mean he is really bad at being a criminal mastermind. He’s less than 1/3 as clever as he likes to think he is. Still, the film’s tension is real and enjoyable, even if the payoff is underwhelming and a bit too tidy in the end. From what I understand, the book ends more believably, but then the book is hugely different than the movie, in large part because censors wouldn’t have allowed the movie to film as it was in the book. Ugh. What a ridiculous era in American history.
As is often the case with Hitchcock films, there are four or five shots that will stick with me for a while, just thinking either about how perfect the shot was, or thinking about how much it has been emulated since.
31. The Killing
“It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.”
A Kubrick film from early in his reign. It’s a really influential movie, with really heavy influences on Tarantino. It has an off-kilter, non-chronological timeline that I can only imagine was pretty groundbreaking at the time. It doesn’t work quite as well as it did in later films, since the broken chronology didn’t seem to carry much weight in shifting the meaning of the story as it did in Pulp Fiction, and it only had one easily connected narrative as opposed to unconnected, intertwining stories. Still, it’s fun to see someone play with a new idea in a medium.
An important movie, both in the formation of the heist genre, and in the formation of indie filmmaking in general. Thumbs up.
This post was getting a bit long for one post, so here is 20-25, which will be followed by one more concluding the month with the final six movies. I only have four more movies to watch, which is crazy. I can’t believe it went by so fast.
#20 – White Heat
White Heat brings James Cagney in on the noir month fun. I actually expected Cagney to be a bit of a John Wayne type situation, where I watch a particular sort of megastar from the past and can’t get into it at all. Yet, that wasn’t the case. He was actually pretty fun most of the time. White Heat is a great crime film, and far more violent than most movies from the time. There is violence in all these films, but it is more casual in this film. Four people are dead in the early moments just to show how bad the gang of thieves is.
It was tense, had an enjoyably intelligent cop as the hero, and Cagney was a wonderfully deranged villain. This is also a film with an iconic movie moment from film history, with Cagney’s final line, “”Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” It was a pretty great moment for our insane bad guy. It’s also pretty early on in heist film history, influencing those which came after. The heist film is something near and dear to my heart (even though it is so rarely done well).
Thumbs up all around!
#21 – The Sweet Smell of Success
This movie is damned near perfect. The dark story of a press agent trying to get back in the good graces of a powerfully influential, maniacally egotistical columnist. It works on every level: it’s a small, realistic, perfectly acted noir film; it’s an engaging time capsule of 1950’s New York; the jazzy score is far and away the best soundtrack so far this month; and it is a gripping and tense look at the interaction between corruption and innocence, power and weakness.
After a week or so of underwhelming films earlier in the month, the recent string of great movies has noir month back in a big way.
#22 – Scarlet Street
It was hard to watch this film much of the time, because I wanted to punch all of the characters in their faces regularly, especially the young paramour of the film’s leading lady. The plot developments didn’t feel particularly believable to me, and much of the time there wasn’t much basis for how characters were getting away with their stupid and immoral decisions.
I enjoy immoral characters who are complex, complicated, interesting. These characters just felt like stupid people to me.
However, the last fifteen minutes were much better than the rest of the film.
#23 – Touch of Evil
Ramon Miguel Vargas is a Mexican drug cop on a honeymoon with his American bride. A car bomb explodes, killing two people, just across the border into America. Worried about what this could mean for Mexico and border relations, Vargas uses his status (he’s kind of a big deal) to become involved with the case as an observer, but finds both his own life and that of his wife in danger as events continue taking one sinister turn after another.
To get the negative out of the way first: Right off the bat, the primary problem is that this movie was made in a time where a studio wouldn’t cast an actual Mexican-American actor to play the Mexican hero, so Charlton Heston painted brown did it instead. This is odd, because the movie actually has a pretty solid stance against racism, with the truly noble, heroic, honest, brave character being a Mexican police officer who spends most of this working hours trying to take down a major drug ring in Mexico, as well as a villain who was casually racist throughout. Also, the inclusion of an interracial marriage was no small matter at the time. It’s just disappointing this was the route they took. Charlton Heston playing a Mexican will always be absurd, and an embarrassing mark on American history, regardless of how strong his performance was.
However, beyond that, Welles takes over. He reworked the screenplay, directed the film, and costarred as the film’s villain. Right away, with the film’s three minute and twenty second single shot to open the film, you know this is turning into something special. It’s truly an amazing bit of filmmaking, with so many moving parts.
Welles was so remarkable. Even shots I didn’t like were impressive, they were all so bold and decisive. Also, Welles is a master of the noir style, so it was fun to watch him play in it for the duration of Touch of Evil. This film is a visual delight throughout.
The narrative was compelling, albeit with a few weak links here and there. I was genuinely worried for characters several times.
Another great example of what noir could be as a film style. As is the case with many of these movies, I haven’t seen Touch of Evil for the last time.
I’ve embedded the opening crane shot, because it’s worth just over three minutes of your time to see one of the greatest shots in film history.
#24 – The Asphalt Jungle
For the most part, The Asphalt Jungle is a solid, ordinary film noir. The story centers on a group of men who plan and carry out a jewel heist. Watching it from the lens of 2012, everything in it is pretty boilerplate, but this film was influential in the 50’s, thus it is largely responsible for what stands as boilerplate these days, especially in heist films.
Each character had their eye on something that the payday of this massive jewel take would provide. A way out, a way home, or a way to Mexico for retirement, each had a reason to undertake the venture, while each also had a vice that handicapped them from realizing their dream. At times, it goes a bit too far in hammering home a point. I also think more could have been done to increase the tension and desperation we felt in the characters, but this film really stands out for its cinematography anyway. Huston fit right in with that noir tradition that no shot should be ordinary. He would throw off an angle, or change the framing, or alter things just a bit to add noticeable style to each shot. I’d say it’s worth watching just for that, and the engaging story adds an extra bonus.
#25 – Mildred Pierce
Another great film, this one was recently remade as a miniseries for HBO starring Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, and Guy Pearce.
It begins with a murder, then the story unfolds from there as we learn what led up to the murder. It features a woman who is quite possibly the most hate-worthy character in the history of film. She is awful! Effectively so, of course, the character is supposed to be awful.
Great acting all around, as well as a compelling story which offers an enjoyable slant on noir tropes, make for a really great noir film.