Film Studies

Quick Takes: Cutter’s Way

One of several noir-ish thrillers Jeff Bridges made in the early ’80s, Cutter’s Way is a bit confounding in the way it keeps refusing to be quite what you expect it to be. It’s not the murder mystery it initially appears, because the protagonists reach their conclusion quickly and that conclusion is never questioned. It’s not the Hitchcockian case of mistaken identity it has the potential to become, because Bridges never gets accused of the killing that sets everything off, and the maybe-villain never denies he did it (nor does the audience ever find out for sure if he did). It’s not even a satisfying revenge flick because the vengeance, when it comes, is perfunctory and open-ended. It’s a film noir that’s not especially interested in the usual trappings of noir. What keeps the film interesting is the characters.

Jeff Bridges is Richard Bone, a feckless young man going nowhere fast, who might in fact be a gigolo based on the first scene where we encounter him. Bridges’ youthful good looks and rangy build, so different from the grizzled “Dude” persona we’re so familiar with now, were perfect for this role. He even sports a ’70s porn-stache to complete the look. But he also uses his considerable skill to create a character whose main attribute is indecision.

On the other hand, Bone’s buddy Alex Cutter is reckless and impulsive, making decisions in the blink of an eye and then refusing to back down from them. Played by John Heard, Cutter is a Vietnam vet who was badly injured in the war. Heard is simply mesmerizing, a ball of barely contained rage and self-pity that dominates the screen whenever he appears, swaggering, drunk, hateful, and yet also magnetic and in a weird sense, heroic. Heard’s performance is fearless, and all the more remarkable in that he convincingly plays a man with only one arm and an artificial leg long before CGI was available to create those illusions.

Finally, there is Mo, played by Lisa Eichhorn, Cutter’s long-suffering wife who’s been thoroughly drained by the constant stress of putting up with Alex and his tantrums.

All three of these characters are drifters of one sort or another, moving through their lives like ghosts as they nurse their various hurts. They’re the last people who should be trying to solve a mystery… but then, like I said, this movie isn’t much interested in that mystery. I kept watching to see what happened to Cutter, Bone, and Mo, and what they said along the way.

 

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Welcome to the Future

(Remember, Blade Runner takes place in the year 2019… I can’t tell you how weird it feels to be arriving in the landmark years in which the fantasies of my youth were set. The next big one that comes to mind is 2029, the “Year of Darkness,” according to the original Terminator. That sounds fun.)

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Debunking Hollywood Babylon

If you’re at all interested in Hollywood history — by which I don’t mean the nuts-and-bolts of how any given classic film was made, or the ups and downs of the business, but rather the stories of the people behind the films and the business, the ones we revere, sometimes the ones we deplore, and especially those we’ve forgotten — then you owe it yourself to check out a podcast called You Must Remember This. I’ve been following it for about a year and a half now after first learning about it from Wil Wheaton, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

The podcast’s host, film journalist Karina Longworth, does two cycles or “seasons” per year, and each season is themed around a single topic that reveals “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” to borrow from the show’s prologue. These histories can range from a comparison of the lives and careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, to the evolution of Jane Fonda from a sex kitten to a political lightning rod, to the McCarthy-era blacklist. (Personally, I started listening during a season called “Dead Blondes,” about all the blonde sex symbols who’ve met untimely and sometimes horrific endings.) The show is very well researched and documented, with source notes and photographs available for each episode on a related blog. It truly is a treasure trove for dedicated movie buffs, or even just people who enjoy a good story.

The current season is of particular interest because I have a personal connection to the topic.

Way back in my teens, I stumbled across a tattered paperback book called Hollywood Babylon in a thrift store. Its author is a guy named Kenneth Anger, which is an apt name considering the book turned out to be 200-some pages of someone grinding a very large ax. Babylon is one of those works that seeks to destroy plaster idols and press hot buttons, and it does that very effectively as it recounts some of the saddest and most sordid tales of Hollywood lore in the cruelest manner possible. It was in the pages of Hollywood Babylon that I first heard the tale of washed-up Peg Entwhistle hurling herself off the “H” of the Hollywood sign… of Lupe Valez’ ignominious suicide (according to Anger, the Latina star had wanted to die in a beautiful, carefully staged scene on her bed, but became sick to her stomach and ended up drowning in her toilet after vomiting)… of va-va-voom girl Jayne Mansfield being decapitated in a car accident and permanently traumatizing the policeman who found her head… of Errol Flynn’s trial for statutory rape and the rumors that he was a Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton’s character in The Rocketeer is based on this version of Flynn, if you didn’t know)… and most shockingly to me, at that time anyhow, of silent-era comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for raping a woman with a Coke bottle, causing so much internal damage that she subsequently died. (I don’t know why the Coke bottle thing troubled me more than the gory mental images of Valez or Jayne Mansfield, but I remember that it did.)

Hollywood Babylon outraged me when I read it. Not because its stories were taboo or breaking down the glamorous facade of the movies’ golden age, but because it was just so damn mean-spirited. Something about the tone of the writing suggested that Anger was having a good laugh at the thought of all those pretty people being cut down to size, and he wanted the reader to have one too. And if you were shocked instead of amused, well… Anger struck me as the sort of smirking asshole who would just laugh harder and louder. I’ve never had much use for the provocateur types who get off on riling people up just to see if they can.

Moreover, I had a hunch that a lot of what I was reading in that book was horseshit. Even in my teen years, when I was admittedly naive about, well, everything, Babylon smelled off to me. And yet I knew that many of the stories Anger told were out there in the culture, accepted by people who either didn’t know better or wanted to believe the worst about all those immoral movie folk. And that made me angry, too.

The whole experience of reading that book was highly unpleasant, and I very quickly got rid of the damn thing, after which I took a long shower.

Now, getting back to You Must Remember This, the latest season of the podcast, titled “Fake News,” is dedicated to refuting Hollywood Babylon, or at least pointing out the places where Anger exaggerated or insinuated things that aren’t supported by facts, and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s weirdly vindicating to hear this stuff, as if some great injustice is finally being corrected, even though the urban legends promulgated by Anger have been debunked before in various places. Besides, like I said earlier, these stories, the real stories, are just plain interesting.

You can listen to You Must Remember This yourself through the official website or iTunes, or I imagine any place else you go to hear podcasts, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s a great show.

And no, Fatty Arbuckle did not rape Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The autopsy showed no evidence of a sexual assault, and Arbuckle was acquitted. Not that that saved his career, sadly…

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Tarantino on Hitchcock

From a two-year-old interview with Quentin Tarantino:

“People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies. I love Richard Franklin’s and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock meditations. I prefer those to actual Hitchcock.” And Tarantino also prefers—passionately defends—Gus Van Sant’s meta art-manque shot-by-shot remake of Psycho over the original Hitchcock film.

I always knew my sensibilities were incompatible with this guy’s, even if he does know how to compose a nice shot.

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Movie Meme 2.0

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I’ve discovered that that meme I did earlier was actually truncated from a longer one, so I’m… doing it again. Because I’m like that. Oh, and I’m also changing a few of my answers. Because I’m also like that.

  • Most Hated Movie: Star Trek (2009)
  • Movie I Think Is Overrated: Interstellar
  • Movie I Think Is Underrated: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  • Movie I Love: American Graffiti
  • Movie I Secretly Love: Young Guns 2
  • Favorite Action Movie: Die Hard
  • Favorite Drama Movie: Casablanca
  • Favorite Western Movie: Dances with Wolves
  • Favorite Horror Movie: The Fog (1980 version)
  • Favorite Comedy Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Favorite Romance: Pretty Woman
  • Favorite Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Yes, I am fussy enough to differentiate between the LOTR films! For me, the first is the most, well, magical… )
  • Favorite Disney Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner
  • Favorite Book-to-Movie Adaptation: The Shawshank Redemption
  • Favorite Animated Movie: The Incredibles
  • Favorite Superhero Movie: Superman: The Movie
  • Favorite War Movie: The Guns of Navarone
  • Favorite Thriller: Rear Window
  • Favorite Cop Movie: Dirty Harry
  • Favorite Musical: Rock of Ages
  • Favorite Chop-Socky: Rumble in the Bronx
  • Favorite Documentary: Man on Wire
  • Favorite Bad Movie: Flash Gordon (1980 version)
  • Childhood Favorite: Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version)
  • Favorite Franchise: Star Wars
  • Best Trilogy: Back to the Future
  • Guilty Pleasure: Bring It On
  • Favorite Director: Steven Spielberg (although he’s been pretty hit-and-miss ever since Schindler’s List)
  • Favorite Actor: Patrick Stewart
  • Favorite Actress: (tie): Scarlet Johansson / Dame Judi Dench
  • Favorite Movie This Year So Far: Logan
  • Movie I Have Recently Seen: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • What I Thought of It: Enjoyable, but it doesn’t develop Cedric Diggory enough to care when he dies.
  • Favorite Movie of All Time: Star Wars (a.k.a., “Episode IV: A New Hope,” pre-Special Edition version)

 

For the record, this is harder than you might think. I had the devil’s own time with the romance category, for instance, because it’s not a genre that usually appeals to me, and movies I find very romantic — Blaze, for example — usually don’t fit other people’s definitions of romance. And honestly, I don’t really have a favorite director, actor, or actress; the ones I listed are just the ones I thought of whose work I generally (but not always) enjoy. Truth is, there are many directors, actors, and actresses I like.

For the record.

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Movie Meme

Because I need the pointless distraction this morning:

Most Hated Movie: Star Trek (2009)
Movie I Think Is Overrated: Interstellar
Movie I Think Is Underrated: The Black Hole
Movie I Love: American Graffiti
Movie I Secretly Love: Young Guns 2
Favorite Action Movie: Die Hard
Favorite Drama Movie: The Big Chill
Favorite Western Movie: Dances with Wolves
Favorite Horror Movie: The Fog (1980 version)
Favorite Comedy Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Favorite Disney Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner
Favorite Animated Movie: The Incredibles
Favorite Superhero Movie: Superman: The Movie
Favorite Musical: Rock of Ages
Favorite Bad Movie: Darkman
Childhood Favorite: Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version)
Favorite Franchise: Star Wars
Best Trilogy: Back to the Future
Guilty Pleasure: Bring It On
Favorite Movie This Year So Far: Logan
Movie I Have Recently Seen: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
What I Thought of It: Enjoyable, but doesn’t develop Cedric Diggory enough to care when he dies.
Favorite Movie of All Time: Star Wars (pre-Special Edition)

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Giving Letterboxd a Try

I need another social-networking site eating up my already limited free time like I need a hole in the head. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to give Letterboxd a go after learning about it on Michael May’s Adventureblog. It appears to be along the lines of Goodreads, only for movies. So, if you have some voyeuristic need to explore my dubious tastes in cinema, hop on over to my profile and take a look around…

 

 

 

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The Evolution of The Face

I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the face of Michael Myers, the unstoppable boogeyman of the Halloween films, is actually William Shatner’s.

According to lore, the makers of the original Halloween bought a Captain Kirk mask at the local drugstore for a couple bucks, modified it a bit, and spray-painted it white. The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history, as that film went on to become one of the most successful horror flicks ever made (it was the most successful for several decades), spawning a slew of sequels, imitators, and outright rip-offs, while the Michael Myers character became an icon. Personally, I think part of the reason why Michael is so unsettling is because that blank, expressionless visage is so weirdly… familiar. But even knowing why he looks familiar, I’ve had trouble actually seeing my boyhood hero in that face of evil.

Not any more:

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It’s even more unsettling now.

Just something to ponder as Halloween 2016 winds down…

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Quick Take: Sing Street

sing-street_cast-hero-walkI feel like I’m late for the party on Sing Street, as it’s been making its way around the U.S. since April, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, take my word for it: you will. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

An Irish import filmed in Dublin, Sing Street is a rare cinematic treasure: a movie that is both joyous and poignant, fanciful and authentic, with an ending that is exactly what you need it to be without it feeling predictable. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who forms a band to impress a girl and escape from the grim realities of his daily existence, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the mid 1980s and the synth-pop music videos that dominated MTV at the time. It’s also a slice-of-life picture about a gritty urban school milieu that is no more. It’s a comedy-drama about brothers and brothers in arms, as well as the struggle to find yourself in spite of the petty bullies who want to squash your spirit. And it’s a clear-eyed depiction of young romance. Mostly it’s about that time in everyone’s life when you feel both hope and disappointment more keenly than you ever have before and ever will again.

This is the kind of movie I sometimes see and think “I wish I’d written this,” while secretly fearing that I don’t have enough talent to pull it off, at least not this well. The music is great and the evocation of 1985 is spot-on, as is the casting. It’s refreshing to see a movie about teenagers in which the actors actually look like teenagers. And I’ve got to say that Lucy Boynton, who plays the mysterious older girl who claims to be a model and catalyzes the entire plot, is some kind of amazing. When I was a teenager, I’d have become a musician for her myself.

Sing Street is charming on every level. Don’t miss it.

Oh, one final note: the makers of this movie must’ve cleaned out every vintage clothing store in the UK to find all that acid-wash. Wow…

 

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