REVIEW: “Diabolique” (1955)

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Henri-Georges Clouzot is a name rarely mentioned among the great French filmmakers. In a way it’s understandable since Clouzot never had the career of a Truffaut, Bresson, Resnais, or Godard. He has never been considered as prominent or as influential. But his signature movies, most notably “Diabolique”, reveal a shrewd cinematic prowess often reserved for the most gifted of his craft.

Clouzot was known for his iron-fisted approach to filmmaking. He was hard on his cast and crew which often led to frustration and animosity. For Clouzot suffering on screen could best be depicted by a suffering cast. He’s been called a tyrannical director who was always angry and who let everyone know who was in charge of the production. But off the set he was different and revealed a surprisingly gentler side.

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Practically all of Clouzot’s films toyed with the darker sides of human nature. Many of his characters were devious and manipulative. Much of his subject matter was dark and depraved, often drawn from his own troubled life experiences. It’s all personified in “Diabolique”, a twisted tale of abuse and betrayal that would fit perfectly among any of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

The story revolves around a truly messed up situation. Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a boarding school for boys outside of Paris. His wife Christina (played by Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife at the time) actually owns the school but her serious heart ailment and his iron hand keeps her from running the place. To make things weirder, Michel’s mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) also works at the school. What could possibly go wrong?

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But there’s a twist (one of many), Christina and Nicole are aware of each other and the roles they play in Michel’s life. Michel is a detestable man, not just due to his infidelity. He is demeaning and abusive to both women which sparks an unusual friendship between them. Eventually Christina and Nicole get their fill of Michel’s mistreatment and together they concoct the perfect crime to knock him off.

Clouzot co-wrote the screenplay which is based on a 1951 French novel that Alfred Hitchcock had intended to adapt. Clouzot beat Hitch to the screen rights and his film became a huge box office success. Another spike in the movie’s popularity would come a few years later when Véra Clouzot died of a heart ailment at age 46. But unlike the malicious, self-absorbed Michel from “Diabolique”, Clouzot was devastated and fell into a deep depression. He would only make one more film after his wife’s death.

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“Diabolique” reveals so many layers as it maneuvers from a domestic drama to a psychological thriller. There are even distinct horror elements that show up the further the story spins out of control. There are a couple of particularly haunting scenes made more effective by Clouzot’s strong visual emphasis. But just as unsettling is Michel’s cruelty which the film never softens or tones down. Call it a collective ugliness that works really well.

Even with the moral muck of its story, “Diabolique” is a delight – a tense thriller boiling with suspense. It’s driven by three wonderful central performances and an artful approach by a director known for his adamant demands from his cast. For Clouzot projecting mood and emotion were pivotal in developing the darker tones of his subject matter. “Diabolique” shows just how effective his approach could be.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Doctor Strange”

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As their bank accounts have blossomed Marvel Studios has shown a confidence and willingness to explore nearly every corner of their comic book universe. Obviously they have spotlighted their biggest properties – The Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man and so on. But they have also ventured into other areas occupied by lesser known characters (to some). Here you find movies like “Ant-Man”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the latest Marvel installment “Doctor Strange”.

When watching “Doctor Strange” it doesn’t take long to recognize what has become a familiar origin story blueprint for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s particularly similar to what we got with “Iron Man” and “Ant-Man” – a deeply flawed individual becomes the possessor of great power, he uses said power to face a sizable threat, he gets a measure of self-redemption, and then he is connected to the greater MCU through a an end credits scene. The names have changed and the powers are different, but it’s more or less the same formula.

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Something Marvel Studios does exceptionally well is cast their movies. Benedict Cumberbatch is the ideal choice to play Stephen Strange, a renowned neurosurgeon with a big IQ and an even bigger ego. After a violent car crash costs him the full use of his hands, he has several experimental surgeries all of which fail. Unwilling to accept his fate, Strange seeks out eastern medicine in Nepal. He meets with a mystic known only as The Ancient One (played by a shorn Tilda Swinton) who shows him he must put aside his intellect and look inward to his spirit, something that’s a bit difficult for a raving egomaniac.

The main antagonist is a fellow named Kaecilius (played with the appropriate amount of gruff by Mads Mikkelsen). He’s actually one of the more compelling characters – a sorcerer who deeply believes that he is acting for a greater good. Other characters include Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, the Anicient One’s right-hand man, Rachel McAdams as Strange’s (sort of) love interest Christine, and Benedict Wong as a faithful soldier/librarian named…well…Wong.

Director Scott Derrickson, most known for his horror movies, was given $160 million which he mostly put to good use. Locations are a highlight with filming taking place from New York City to Hong Kong to Kathmandu. But the film’s bread and butter lies in the special effects which range from merely okay to absolutely astounding. So often Marvel movies focus their effects on blowing up buildings or crashing large objects. “Doctor Strange” offers a new look that deals more with magic and the otherworldly. The visuals look their best when characters distort the dimensions of a cityscape. Think “Inception” but on mystical HGH. Whenever it plays around with the Dark Dimension stuff it doesn’t look nearly as impressive.

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Also in line with other Marvel movies is the humor. The MCU has wisely refused to take itself too seriously and the same applies here. The humor comes from a number of sources but most prominently from an inanimate object. The Cloak of Levitation is easily the most recognizable piece of Doctor Strange attire. Here it functions semi-autonomously and some of the movies funniest scenes involve the cloak running around with a mystical mind of its own. There are also a few clever lines where the film understands its absurdity and winks at the audience. It’s a much-needed ingredient.

“Doctor Strange” seemed like another wild stretch by the MCU, but if early box office numbers are an indicator they have another success on their hands. There are definitely some new things being done here most notably in the visual effects. The ending is also a nice diversion from the routine MCU formula. On the other hand, this is a Marvel origin story through-and-through which is getting a little tiresome even for a bonafide comic book fan like me.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Dumb and Dumber To”

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I happily admit that I’m one of those guys who thought “Dumb and Dumber”, the goofball comedy from 1994, was absolutely hysterical. The film introduced us to Harry and Lloyd, two of the most good-natured and well-meaning morons ever to appear on screen. Your appreciation for these two characters and their story hinged on your tolerance for absurd and idiotic humor. When done well I love that type of comedy and “Dumb and Dumber” did it really well.

Twenty years (and one awful unclaimed prequel) later the boys are back in “Dumb and Dumber To”. The writing and directing duo of the Farrelly brothers return and, after wading through a difficult production process, the true sequel finally hit the screens. But I have to say I had mixed feelings about bringing these characters back. As much as I adored the first film I wasn’t convinced that the Farrelly brothers could recapture that same moronic magic.

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About a third of the way through “Dumb and Dumber To” I was thinking they had recaptured that spark. The characters were twenty years older, but they felt exactly the same as when we left them. For twenty years Lloyd (Jim Carrey) has been in a mental institution as a result of his breakup with Mary Swanson. His best friend Harry (Jeff Daniels) has been faithful to visit him every week, at least until Lloyd reveals that he has been faking in order to pull the ultimate gag on his buddy. The two are reunited and Lloyd learns that Harry is sick and needs a kidney transplant. Harry finds out that years prior he had fathered a child so with Lloyd’s help he sets out to reveal himself to his daughter and possibly get her to give him a kidney as well.

Of course all of that sounds completely insane, but it starts off in perfect harmony with the stupidity of the two lead characters (and I do mean that in a very positive way). The film quickly lobs one funny gag after another, some are incredibly over-the-top, others subtle and equally funny. I was laughing a lot. Everything was clicking for me early on and I was reminded of why I loved the original movie.

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But then this film runs into a wall. The humor, which energized the first part of the movie, flatlines and my laughter all but stopped. It seemed as if the Farrelly’s ran out of good gags and were straining to fill out their running time. It loses its cleverness, its charm, and its overall likability. Carrey and Daniels still go for it, but the material devolves into a desperate and dull mess. It becomes cruder and ruder and the laughs become more and more scarce. Then there is the end which is more or less nonsense.

I had high hopes for this film, but they were laced with an understandable hesitation. Sometimes movies like the first film should just be left alone. Today’s comedies seem locked into a single, repeated formula that I normally don’t find funny or entertaining. I loved the thought of a film bringing back that idiotic humor that we haven’t seen in a while. For a bit “Dumb and Dumber To” gives us that. But sadly it never maintains it and the unfunny toilet humor and gross out gags take over. It ends up being yet another Hollywood sequel that didn’t really need to happen.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Dark Passage”

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Bogart and Bacall. Those three words always bring a smile to my face. They point to an enchanting onscreen chemistry than spanned four movies and eventually into their offscreen lives. Bacall’s beauty and saucy smarts was always the perfect match for Bogie’s cool tough guy. “Dark Passage” was the third movie that the headline-grabbing couple made together and at the time Bogart was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. The great Delmer Daves directed and wrote the screenplay for this clever film noir that had several unique tricks up its sleeve.

This film opens with a tense and brilliantly crafted jailbreak. Actually we never see the inside of San Quentin but we spot a man hiding in a barrel being driven off in a truck. Just down the road from the prison the barrel rolls off and the man is loose. Through a number of cool bits of camera trickery we never see the face of the escaped convict although we do hear his voice. Instead everything in this opening sequence is shown to us in first person. This treats the audience to a number of tricky perspectives that Daves pulls off beautifully. We learn from a radio alert than the convict’s name is Vincent Parry (Bogart) and he’s wanted for the murder of his wife.

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Parry is picked up by a mysterious young woman named Irene Jansen (Bacall). We learn that Irene is sympathetic towards Parry after believing he didn’t get a fair shake during his trial. She sneaks him past roadblocks and into San Francisco where he sets out to find his one and only friend George (Rory Mallinson). He also connects with a back-alley plastic surgeon who attempts to alter his appearance. Now keep in mind, up to this point we still haven’t seen Vincent’s face. Bogart works in the shadows or strictly through voice work from the first person perspective. After the surgery we finally see him only in full facial bandages. It’s not until about an hour in that the bandages are removed and we see Bogie’s mug for the first time.

We see the few central players during the first half of the film but it isn’t until Parry’s new face is revealed (in the image of Bogart) that the story changes direction. It becomes Parry’s quest to clear his name and to find out who really killed his wife. While the unfolding mystery is an interesting shift it is also a weakness. For such a dramatic setup, the revelation itself is pretty lightweight and how things unfold seems a little too on the nose. It’s not that it’s awful, but there was clearly room for a stronger and better conceived mystery.

Despite that, “Dark Passage” is still a wonderful movie because of the cool and stylish camera work, the great San Francisco locations, and the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. There are also some really nice supporting performances from Bruce Bennett, Tom D’Andrea, Agnes Moorehead, and Rory Mallinson. “Dark Passage” sometimes gets lost in the conversations about Bogart and Bacall’s collaborations, but it’s a clever noir that does several things to set itself apart. It may soften up a tad in the third act but it is still a ton of fun.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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While it may have one of the clunkiest movie titles of 2014, that hasn’t stopped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from raking in loads of praise from critics and even more cash at the box office. I have to admit I’m surprised at how this franchise has found life again. I love the original 1968 classic, but frankly this doesn’t seem like the type of series that would appeal to the modern movie sensibilities of many of today’s moviegoers. The 2011 franchise reboot along with its $480 million box office grab proved me wrong. And of course when you make that kind of money you know there is going to be sequel.

I liked the first installment of this reboot but I didn’t see it as the gem that many did. This time around we have a new director and an overhauled cast but the writing team stays intact which you can sense from the first act. In what has become a very familiar way to setup these types of films, the movie opens with snippets from newscasts explaining the state of the world since the events of the first film. Human civilization has collapsed, ravaged by the effects of a deadly simian flu which decimated the population and triggered near apocalyptic after-effects. In other words things on earth are pretty bad, that is unless you are an ape.

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large colony of apes who live in the forests outside of what was San Francisco. These apes share the intelligence of Caesar which we see exhibited in a variety of ways. Many of the apes believe that humans are now extinct, that is until they encounter a small group of them in the forest. The group turns out to be part of a pocket of survivors living in the city. Their energy supply is almost gone and a hydroelectric dam in the forest could supply them for years. But as they learn, the dam is smack dab in the middle of ape territory which presents a very big problem.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film are the political wranglings that take place both between humans and between the apes. Internal debates, distrust, and dissensions plague both camps as each try to figure out how to handle the other. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the small group, recognizes something special about Caesar and tries to form a bond with him. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more skeptical and he prepares the humans for war in case Malcolm fails. Similarly Cesar believes peace is the best option but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has personal animosity towards all humans and he wants to be proactive.

All of that is constructed in a way that shows the similarities between the humans and apes. In fact, that’s a central theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it be tender family relationships or fear-driven warmongering, we see it all in both the humans and the apes. But what may be the most amazing feat accomplished by this film is its incredible way of translating emotion from the apes. Every display of love, hate, disappointment, frustration, anger, or sympathy that we get from them is incredibly…well…human. Much of it is due to the brilliant makeup and special-effects. But the true credit goes to the stunning motion caption mastery. I love hearing from people who are finally recognizing the genius of Andy Serkis. But folks let me just go ahead and say it – this is Oscar-worthy work. And Kebbell isn’t too far behind him.

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Now while the story is entertaining and never boring, it still has a few things that keep it from being truly phenomenal. There are so many familiar plot angles that we get throughout the entire movie. Honestly, I was amazed at how many things I saw that I had seen in other films. I don’t want to spoil anything , but it really stood out and it made many plot lines predictable. I also thought several of the emotional tugs were a bit obvious and gimmicky. What’s amazing about it is that they still worked for me. I knew I was having my heart-strings yanked during these instances yet I still went with them. Effective but still obvious.

Despite those gripes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a highly entertaining picture. Regardless of its familiar directions the story still kept me engaged. It easily kept me attached to these characters and the film moved at an almost perfect pace. There is some great action, awesome effects, and the performances are strong (none better than the stunning work of Andy Serkis). This is yet another big budget 2014 blockbuster that delivers. I just wish the story itself went out a little more on its own.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

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My initial reaction after first viewing Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was incredibly mixed. So many critics and movie viewers loved the film while I struggled to get a true sense of my feelings towards it. In fact, my confliction was such that I never wrote a review for it. Now I have wrestled with this critical darling and I ask myself if my reservations still feel justified and is the film worthy of the massive amounts of accolades and praise heaped upon it?

One thing you have to give Tarantino is that he is a filmmaker with a definite style. But personally speaking it’s often his style that is both a strength and weakness of his films. I think that’s the case here as well. “Django Unchained” has a smart and instantly engaging blueprint. But there are stylistic choices, all signatures of Tarantino’s filmmaking, that are distracting and do more to promote his brand than actually strengthen the narrative. Many people love that about his pictures. I think it sometimes works against him and takes away his focus.

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The story begins two years prior to the Civil War. A man named Django (Jamie Foxx) along with four male slaves is being driven like cattle by two slave handlers. They run into a German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who ‘acquires’ Django and hires him to help find a group of outlaws known as the Brittle brothers. Django reveals to Schultz that he was married but was separated from his wife by a wicked slave owner. Schultz offers to help him find his wife in exchange for Django working for him through the winter. While together they run into a wild assortment of people, none more heterogeneous that a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“Django Unchained” has been called Tarantino’s spaghetti western but we only occasionally see the similarities between his film and those Italian westerns that became popular in the late 1960s. This is really just a revenge tale with plenty of fancy dressing. The story starts up nicely and the opening 30 minutes or so sets a very interesting table. But then the film slows down a bit which begins drawing attention to its 165 minute running time. It picks back up once Candie appears and then falls into a stew of truly great scenes, uncomfortable but hilarious humor, goofy and outlandish graphic violence, and jarring injections of that Tarantino “style”. It makes the last third of the film range from fascinating and intense to messy and indulgent.

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When Tarantino’s focus is on the right thing he can create some of the most mesmerizing scenes ever put to film. The opening sequence in “Inglourious Basterds” is a prime example. We get several instances of that in “Django Unchained”. There are moments when the dialogue is sharp and flowing which in turn creates scenes that turn out amazing. A long dinner table sequence at Candie’s plantation is one of my favorites. It’s crisp and fluid while also soaked in perfectly developed tension. There are a few other scenes where the humor hits with perfect timing and I found myself laughing out loud. QT is also always impressive with his camera. He can get a tad carried away at times but this film, like many of his others, looks great and there are several unforgettable shots.

But there are flipsides to almost all of these positives. While some scenes are brilliant and the dialogue strong, others drag out too long and some of the dialogue is annoying. For example, Tarantino has a fascination with certain language and we see it here. There are times where certain characters sound like they belong in “Reservoir Dogs” instead of a spaghetti western. Then there are the aforementioned style choices. Take the music. QT has always liked to incorporate unique music into his films which I appreciate. But here he goes from a musical homage to the theme from “Two Mules for Sister Sara” to bass-pounding rap music. For me it did more to take me out of the setting than enhance the film. And then there is the much talked about graphic violence. Tarantino definitely soaks the audience in copious amounts of blood, but it’s hard to take it serious. I was neither turned off by it or impressed with it. It was so ridiculously over the top that it was neither humorous nor did it add any intensity to the action. Any impact it had quickly wore off.

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I do have to give props to the cast. I’ve never been a big fan of Jaime Foxx but he does a nice job here. He does stumble over the occasional bits of poorly written dialogue but as a whole this was an impressive performance. Christoph Waltz is just a tremendous actor and he always seems to fit nicely into Tarantino’s weird worlds. Leo DiCaprio has an absolute blast playing this twisted francophile wannabe slaver with bad teeth and a deceptive charm. He steals several scenes by going all in and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot playing possibly the most despicable character in the movie. He’s also undeniable funny at times and more than once I caught myself in uncomfortable laughter. And Kerry Washington is very convincing in one of the film’s few emotionally steady roles.

So what to make of “Django Unchained”? I understand that many absolutely adore the movie. For me it is another Tarantino project that shows bits of greatness that it never can sustain. The good moments are really good but each of them are bookended by one questionable narrative choice or a blast of QT style that doesn’t always help the film as a whole. To call “Django Unchained” uneven would be an understatement. It has its share of problems. But it also features fabulous performances, a wonderful visual flare, and a handful of purely brilliant sequences. Those things save it from completely drowning in Tarantino’s indulgence.

VERDICT – 3 STARS