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Fall 2023 – Week 7 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Having now gotten fully settled into my new accommodations, I am happy to report that life indeed finds a way, and thus I’m returning to the voluminous and variable film gorging of my pre-fire era. This week featured classics of fantasy and film noir, plentiful action spectacles, and of course, the requisite helping of humble horror fare. We screened enough films that I’m actually building up my backlog again, while still gathering my thoughts on the enjoyable yet somewhat underwhelming Witch From Mercury. That’ll likely be coming next week, but for now, let’s break down a fresh collection of feature films!

First up this week was The Big Sleep, one of the crowning achievements of classic film noir, and also a key feature within Howard Hawks’ preposterously distinguished career. Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, the film was co-written by Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and William goddamn Faulkner, a simultaneously distinguished and convoluted genealogy that seems clear in the film’s whip-smart dialogue and deliriously winding plot.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Philip Marlowe, an LA detective who’s hired by a retired general to investigate an alleged blackmail attempt on his freewheeling daughter Carmen. Before Marlowe can leave the general’s estate, he is confronted by Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who attempts to extract her father’s intentions from the unwilling but nonetheless impressed detective. These meetings set in motion a series of ploys and betrayals that I couldn’t begin to plot out here – in fact, when Raymond Chandler himself was called to clarify a point of dispute regarding one character’s fate, he was forced to admit that he too didn’t know whether the character committed suicide or was murdered.

While it can be difficult to follow the film’s narrative bucking and weaving, that does little to diminish the vivid energy of its script, nor the smoldering chemistry shared by Bogart and Bacall. In the midst of an off-screen affair and at the height of their on-screen powers, the two trade barbs and snatched kisses with sinful intensity, each holding affection in one hand and a keen survival instinct in the other. Marlowe keeps as many secrets from us as he does from his conspirators, only ever revealing so much as he is certain his companions already know, steadily crafting a scaffolding of interlocking iniquity all the while. The characters are larger than life in the best possible way, striding like titans through iconic clashes of wills, their voices roaring out a poetry of distrust and guarded affection. A truly dazzling film, both in its disorienting plotting and its masterfully scripted performances of legends at their best.

We then checked out Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning, the sequel to Tony Jaa’s balletic breakout role. Jaa’s still here and still aiming flying knees at unsuspecting throats, but The Beginning is in every other respect about as different from its predecessor as can be. Gone is the original’s stripped-down modern setting, replaced by an ornately furnished period tableau fit for a quasi-mythological saga. Gone too is Ong-Bak’s tight scope and relatable characters; The Beginning is nothing if not majestic, featuring generational traumas and larger-than-life scions of good and evil. Unfortunately, gone as well are Ong-Bak’s energetic pacing and clarity of purpose, with The Beginning instead offering a rambling, unfocused origin story interspersed with stunning feats of physical agility.

Tony Jaa’s martial arts talents are obviously exceptional, and The Beginning offers a generous variety of both crowd combat spectacles and convincingly frantic duels with similarly remarkable fighters. These undeniable strengths, alongside the visual generosity of this prequel’s sprawling period sets, ensure that The Beginning never feels genuinely dull. Nonetheless, the film’s circuitous narrative never rises to the sort of anthemic myth-making it’s seeking, while robbing the film of its predecessor’s personal touch, ultimately resulting in a disjointed and emotionally unsatisfying experience. Very much less than the sum of its parts, but when your parts include Tony Jaa on center stage, that’s not the worst place to be.

Next up was The New York Ripper, another Lucio Fulci feature about a serial killer who quacks like a goddamn duck. Aside from that novel twist, Ripper is mostly a grimy, violent retread of Peeping Tom, repeating that film’s central trick of placing the camera alongside the killer’s perspective, making the audience feel uniquely complicit in the violence. It’s an uncomfortable and effective play, but when combined with the film’s vacuous treatment of its female characters, the end result is something that feels cruel for cruelty’s sake, not to scare, create tragic beauty, or illuminate anything about the characters involved.

Fulci horror demands a counterbalancing element of fantasy or whimsy to mitigate the brutality of its violence – the cosmic horror ineffability of The Beyond, or the vague spirituality of The House by the Cemetery. Without that, The New York Ripper feels both insubstantial and mean-spirited, interested solely in lurid giallo excess and taking bodies apart. The film’s disinterest in any sort of greater dramatic takeaway is embodied in its reveal of the killer’s motive and psychology, all explained in the last thirty seconds as a sort of begrudging coda. Definitely not Fulci at his best.

Last up for the week was A Matter of Life and Death, a ‘46 fantasy romance by those ever-reliable Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film stars David Niven as Peter Carter, an RAF pilot manning a critically damaged bomber across the English Channel. Knowing he won’t survive, Carter strikes up a brief, endearing rapport with radio operator June (Kim Hunter), before signing off and plunging to his presumed death. However, the thick fog prevents his guide “Conductor 71” from finding and ferrying his soul to the afterlife, leaving Carter with a few precious hours in which he meets and falls desperately in love with June. By the time his conductor catches up to him, Carter believes heaven’s negligence has earned him a fair trial regarding the potential continuation of his life, and thus both Carter and his heavenly overseers begin preparing their cases.

A Matter of Life and Death is whimsical, rambling, and unabashedly sentimental, embracing the eminent charms of its lead actors, and not presenting a single unlikable character across its running time. Niven and Hunter possess an instant chemistry that is only matched by Niven’s chemistry with all the other lead players, such as his fast friendship with his attending doctor (Roger Livesey), or his playful back-and-forth with Conductor 71 (a gleefully camp Marius Goring). Though he is facing a battle for his very life, Niven never comes across as fatalistic or overwhelmed; he remains clever, curious, and compassionate throughout, serving as an ideal champion for love’s battle against bureaucracy.

As you’d expect from The Archers, the script is witty and set design lush, with the film’s literal stairway to heaven serving as a particularly striking setpiece. And though the courtroom arguments regarding the fundamental nature of British versus American culture might not ring quite so urgently these days, it was nonetheless a pleasure to witness a verbal battle between competent, intelligent defenders of art and history. When Niven’s defendant put on an inane pop song as a demonstration of America’s cultural vacuity, I had to stifle a combined laugh-groan, reflecting on how much further popular art would decline in the years following The Archers’ heyday. It is nice to watch movies that assume their audiences are not idiots.

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