Rob Harmon’s Recommendations 07/23/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picks“‘They’ tried to get her last night.”

“They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?”

The above film dialogue may sound as though it comes from a couple of world-weary, existential characters in some contemporary, character-driven talk-fest of a thriller or drama. It isn’t.

In fact, the source is Robert Aldrich’s fantastic 1955 apocalyptic-film-noir KISS ME DEADLY and the characters voicing it are mega-macho detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) and his slinky secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper), respectively.

Even today Kiss Me Deadly crackles with youthful energy, surviving as a remarkably modern, self-aware exercise in deconstructing the paranoia and deadening conformity which characterized much of the Eisenhower era. Adapted from the novel by Mickey Spillane by A.I. Bezzerides and featuring Hammer—Spillane’s famously ham-fisted, misogynistic detective-hero—Kiss Me Deadly may be the greatest act of sabotage in the history of movies: a delightfully obtuse, impossible-to-pigeonhole exercise in subverting the expectations of an audience… a film which almost seems to undercut the very genre—detective movie/film noir—from which it springs!

Here is a film, for example, with bursts of sadistic violence interspersed between long, ponderous gaps of shambling detective work in around Los Angeles; cryptic, veiled dialogue, like that listed above as well as a lot of discussion about a sonnet by Christina Rossetti; and a brain-melting plot device and conclusion which set new standards for cinematic nihilism in the age of radioactive anxiety.

Unlike a lot of film noir there is no flashback structure here but, instead, the story involves Hammer’s quest to disentangle a dim memory, in this case that of a woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman in her feature film debut!) with a dark secret who he picks up hitchhiking by the side of the road in the opening scene. Hammer’s quest to track down the meaning of her words terminates in a sort of box, or “great whatsit”—a kind of Maltese Falcon gone nuclear—which many dangerous people are anxious to get a hold of but only the terse, strong-headed hero seems capable of retrieving in this world full of goons and nymphomaniac women.

The film’s famous denouement somehow toes the line between horror and poignancy, leaving the viewer with a mightily unique image seared upon the brain. Other memorable performances in the movie are provided by the likes of Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Wesley Addy, Gaby Rodgers, and Juano Hernandez (the African-American star of INTRUDER IN THE DUST, shown last night as part of the current Film Series in the Best Video Performance Space).

Last week I wrote about how we here at Best Video recently recovered the mother of all overdue movies and how my thinking on the role of credit in our economy then led me to Alex Cox’s quintessential 1984 sci-fi comedy REPO MAN. If you are interested in the spiritual source of that great film (as well as the wellspring and guiding force of many another avant-garde exercise in genre pastiche!)—a glowing thingamajig/MacGuffin-plot device, credits that anarchically scroll backwards, and, perhaps more so than these, a kind of overarching cynical, drained-of-all-sentiment viewpoint of the City of Angels during a time of social conformity—then look no further than this effervescent, sun-dappled, post-Atomic Age noir: also, incidentally, recently re-released by the Criterion Collection!

And if you are interested in other works from this remarkably diverse and talented film-maker—from the old-school freak-outs WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) to macho-misfit-extravaganzas like THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and THE LONGEST YARD (1974) to lesser known treats like EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) starring Lee Marvin and Hamden’s own Ernest Borgnine—they may be found in our Robert Aldrich section, located in Best Directors!

New Releases 07/23/13

Top Hits
Trance (drama/thriller, James McAvoy. Rotten Tomatoes: 68%. Metacritic: 61. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Trance, Danny Boyle’s speed-freaky neo-noir, begins in a London auction house, one of those muted, imperial shrines where old masters are bought with nearly imperceptible nods. Starting this way is pretty much akin to a bull locking itself in a china shop. The director of head-rushing entertainments like 28 Days Later and 127 Hours, Mr. Boyle is a flamboyant visual stylist with a punk rocker’s delight in anarchic jolts. His is a cinema of attraction and repulsion. One minute he’s seducing you with bold color and whooshing cameras, the next he’s like a kid with a Taser, zapping you with grotesque images like a macheted head topped off as cleanly as a coconut.” Read more…)

Bullet to the Head (action, Sylvester Stallone. Rotten Tomatoes: 47%. Metacritic: 48. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The multiple bullets that pierce multiple brains in Bullet to the Head — boring holes into people as disposable as paper gun targets — suggest that the title refers to an ideal rather than being merely descriptive. It implies, in other words, an appreciation and awareness of the principles of contemporary action cinema, and perhaps even a sense of play in respect to the genre. And while the veteran action director Walter Hill hasn’t done much to enliven this dull, unmemorable material, with its mechanically moving parts and popping gunfire, its dull-red splatter and spray, he has brought a spark of wit to the proceedings, starting with the figure of Sylvester Stallone.” Read more…)

Ginger & Rosa (drama, Elle Fanning. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 69. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Ginger and Rosa are best friends. Vanguard baby boomers born in adjacent London hospital beds in 1945, they are teenagers in 1962, when most of Sally Potter’s ardent and intelligent film about the girls takes place. The air around them is charged with anxiety — about the threat of nuclear war, mostly — intellectual restlessness and sexual curiosity. Perhaps it always is that way for 17-year-olds, but every generation acts out its own particular pageant of rage, revolt and disillusionment.” Read more…)

Steel Magnolias (drama, TV remake with African-American cast, Queen Latifah. Metacritic: 75. From Mike Hale’s New York Times television review: “When that thick slice of Southern ham called Steel Magnolias was released in 1989, not much was said about the fact that in a nearly two-hour film, set in a Louisiana town, only two black actors got to speak. Both played nurses, and between them they had about four lines. There were other black faces on screen — maids, banquet servers, token wedding guests — but they just smiled and kept their mouths shut. It’s satisfying, then, to see how the new race-reversed Lifetime remake of Steel Magnolias on Sunday night turns the tables. White actors hover in the background, and few of them speak: a nurse, a couple of doctors and an ex-boyfriend. It’s hard to see why the doctors needed to be white, but let’s not quibble.” Read more…)

Twixt (horror/thriller, Val Kilmer. Rotten Tomatoes: 38%. Metacritic: 38.)

New Blu-Ray
Bullet to the Head

New Foreign
Graceland (Phillipines, thriller, Arnold Reyes. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 75. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “The sins of the fathers are visited upon their daughters in Graceland, a tense and tough-minded family drama in which young girls are as likely to be victimized by plenty as by poverty. Set in the teeming streets and dank alleys of Metro Manila, as the capital region is known, this bleak sophomore feature from the young writer and director Ron Morales centers on Marlon [a riveting Arnold Reyes], the loyal driver — and part-time procurer — for a corrupt Filipino politician named Chango [Menggie Cobarrubias]. Though disgusted by his enabling of Chango’s taste for underage company, Marlon has few options; with a wife in the hospital and a daughter beginning to crave the electronic toys of her wealthier classmates, he can ill afford unemployment.” Read more…)

Pieta (Republic of Korea, drama, Min-soo Jo. Rotten Tomatoes: 81%. Metacritic: 72. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “Morally cunning and with a tone as black as pitch, Pieta, the 18th film from the South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, is a deeply unnerving revenge movie in which redemption is dangled like a cat toy before a cougar. The beast in question is Kang-do [Lee Jung-jin], a merciless bag man for a powerful moneylender who cripples slum-dwelling debtors to collect on their insurance claims. As cold to himself as to his clients, he lives in a comfortless flat where the entrails from the previous night’s chicken dinner still decorate the bathroom floor. So when a strange woman [Cho Min-soo] begins to stalk him, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him long ago, Kang-do barely hesitates: he rapes her.” Read more…)

New British
Ginger & Rosa (drama, Elle Fanning, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 69. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Ginger and Rosa are best friends. Vanguard baby boomers born in adjacent London hospital beds in 1945, they are teenagers in 1962, when most of Sally Potter’s ardent and intelligent film about the girls takes place. The air around them is charged with anxiety — about the threat of nuclear war, mostly — intellectual restlessness and sexual curiosity. Perhaps it always is that way for 17-year-olds, but every generation acts out its own particular pageant of rage, revolt and disillusionment.” Read more…)

New TV
Hell on Wheels: Seasons 1 & 2

New Documentaries
Favela Rising (Brazilian society, poverty, music, activism. Rotten Tomatoes: 60%. Metacritic: 65.)
Hecho en Mexico (Mexican music, culture)

New Music DVDs
Hecho en Mexico (Mexican music, culture, in Hot Docs)

New Children’s DVDs
Super Friends! A Dangerous Fate