When Happily Ever After Doesn’t Work: A Review of Dark Passage

Happily ever afters have been a hallmark of Hollywood filmmaking since day one. The hero saves the day. The lovers become engaged. We are all very familiar with Hollywood endings. There is nothing wrong with a happy ending. To this day, the happily ever afters draw huge crowds and make a world of moviegoers smile. But what if that happy ending comes at the expense of the film’s mood and power? Sometimes a happy conclusion is not the right conclusion. Sometimes a film can be successful in engaging its audience, in stimulating thought, and in getting under each viewer’s skin, but then mitigate all of its good work with a contrived finale. Just before reeling us in and going for something special, it lets us off the hook. Dark Passage (1947, Delmer Daves), a film noir from the post-World War II era of Hollywood, is one such film. Starring the super pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, its ending is sweet, romantic, false. To be fair, the idea of a Hollywood ending is not necessarily uncharacteristic of the genre. The Big Sleep, Murder, My Sweet, The Blue Dahlia, and Laura all conclude with the guy getting the girl and everything working out okay.  However as sweet and cheery as their endings may be, I do not believe that they undermine the tension built through the first three quarters leading up to them. Film noirs do not have to be accountable to any one kind of plot solution. Like any genre or style, some endings are more effective than others. Some are tragic and sad, some poignant and powerful, others are happy and romantic, but all that really matters is whether or not the film earned its ending. Does the ending feel satisfactory; is it believable? In the case of Dark Passage, the ending is a hard sale because the majority of the film was gritty and bleak.

From the start, this picture moves fast and forces the audience to catch up. Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict Vincent Parry looking for revenge of some sort and Lauren Bacall is Irene Jansen, the woman he trusts. Eventually why he was in jail is revealed (framed for murdering his wife).  Eventually why Irene is helping him is revealed (she has an interest in wrongful convictions, and she thinks Bogey is innocent). Eventually everything is revealed. Unlike another Bogey and Bacall picture, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, this one resolves in a tidy manner in terms of plot and motives; everything makes sense. However until that end, until the orderly finish, this film lives up to the connotation of its title. There is an episode involving plastic surgery (personally I find the idea terrifying enough even without the creepiest doctor ever), a violently possessive woman, dark streets, and mysterious people.  There is murder, complete facial changes thanks to plastic surgery, very few, maybe one or two trustworthy characters, suicide, and how does it end? With a big romantic hug between Parry and Irene in beautiful Peru. I think the filmmakers missed a chance at a truly grim classic.


10 Films of August

August traditionally has been kind of the anti-climax of the summer movie season. Before Guardians of the Galaxy came out, two years ago, studios seemed content to let the month wind down and segue into Oscar season where maybe they’d put out an action film or two. This year, however, August features a a diverse mix of intriguing movies from superhero blockbusters to remakes of classics, Oscar bait, small character driven indie pictures, you name it. Here are ten of this August’s biggest releases:

Suicide Squad-This could potentially be the summer’s biggest movie- superhero genre, Will Smith, a unique perspective. The marketing campaign for it has been interesting and-only time will tell, but I’ll wager-effective. They’ve revealed little to nothing about the plot. Who’s the film’s main antagonist? What role is the Joker playing? Do the baddies have a soft side?  The tone the filmmakers are going for is also still a mystery to me. Will this be campy? Dark? The reviews and buzz it generates will matter, but my feeling is a lot of people will see this movie whether it’s good or not.

Sausage Party-I think you can probably guess what kind of film you are getting with this one just by considering the title. Yeah, it’s a Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg picture, with all the familiar talent. This time it’s animated though, the conceit being that your food has a will of its own. It will probably make me laugh.

The Little Prince-Another attempt to bring Saint-Exupery’s classic fable to the big screen, advanced reviews would indicate that this go round is successful. The plot apparently is mostly original material with Saint-Exupery’s story mixing in. The voice talent is considerable: James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Jeff Bridges, Paul Giamatti, and Benicio Del Toro among others.

Florence Foster Jenkins-Meryl Streep will likely nab her 20th Oscar nomination for her role as the titular Jenkins, an heiress with a horrendous singing voice pursuing a career as an opera singer with the help of her husband, played by Hugh Grant. Light-hearted fare, should be entertaining.

Pete’s Dragon-Remake of a film I doubt many people have seen. Will nostalgia play any role in its viewing? Do kids still want to watch monsters that are friendly and not destructive? With Robert Redford starring, I’m predicting solid entertainment a little too old-fashioned for its core audience.

Blood Father-Mel Gibson returns to the action genre. The days of a hit Gibson action movie are long past but reviews are strong and I’m a fan.

War Dogs- From the director of The Hangover trilogy, and starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, this film takes a comedic look at two war profiteers in danger while working in Afghanistan. The trailers weren’t that compelling. It’s looking mediocre at this point.

Kubo and the Two Strings-  Set in ancient Japan with a full roster of gods and monsters, the artists at Studio Laika are clearly striving for something different. As an admirer of gorgeous animation and martial arts films, I’m excited for this movie.

Ben Hur- A fourth adaptation of the famous Lew Wallace novel seems pointless. William Wyler and Charlton Heston’s Best Picture winning 1959 version still looks great, and Cecil B. Demille’s silent version is considered a masterpiece. The producers are calling this a “reimagining” with the character of Jesus playing a much bigger role. Biblical epics are starting to be revived but the last crop (Noah, Exodus) weren’t very good.

Hell or High Water- An indie darling that hit it big at Cannes, this modern day western stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges in an intense game of cops and robbers, cat and mouse. Rave reviews so far.

Suicide Squad?

Anyone with the slightest cultural awareness will tell you that this is the age of the superhero movie. There was a time when cowboys and Indians filled the imaginations of young movie goers. The guy with the quickest draw would stand alone against injustice and walk away with a beautiful woman. Then space exploration took over. Just as Buzz usurped Woody, sci-fi usurped westerns becoming the predominant genre for boy’s adventures and drawing an audience. Now it’s superheroes, and where exactly the shift started is hard to say. Obviously Tim Burton’s Batman was a huge hit in its time, and Spiderman was colossal, but there are huge gaps between those releases and Hollywood culture these days with the amount of masked vigilante pictures we have. Honestly, if I were to assign credit, I would point to Marvel’s Iron Man for really turning the tide.

And with the influx of these films, it was only a matter of time before more creative minds would try and turn the genre on its head. This led to the massive success of Deadpool, and later this season, we’ll have Warner Brothers DC adaptation of Suicide Squad. The buzz for this film is considerable, and I expect it to make a boatload of money, but I have some questions.

  1. Is Will Smith still a blockbuster superstar? It’s been a long time since Will Smith could essentially show up in a film and it make 100 million. It’s been so long inflation has pushed budgets up enough to make 100 million not even relevant or impressive anymore. But Smith is a smart man. Back in the 90s he looked at the films that were topping the box-office and then went to his people and said put me in sci-fi flicks. He’s seen how Super hero movies are doing and has found himself a franchise.
  2. What is Harley Quinn’s function within this group? I have shopped this question around a bit and have gotten a lot of “she’s hot.” I fully understand what her point is in terms of entertainment. She’ll no doubt be very popular amongst this film’s core audience, but what is her skill set that aids this team?
  3. Finally, and this is my biggest question, will they go with an R rating or PG-13? I predict they will go with the latter, but Deadpool and its performance might loom in producers heads. Each rating has its limitations. The perception is that an R represents taking the film to its limits. Going all out. Being bold. But PG-13 has been the standard for this genre and blockbusters in general since its inception in the mid-eighties. The rating of this film and its box-office results could greatly affect the future of superhero movies in the following years. That’s why I’m eager to see what Warner Bros. do.

Ten Films of June (2016)

While in danger of sounding gleefully pessimistic-it is always easier to be negative than positive when writing- in all sincerity, I must say that the release calendar for the upcoming month of June looks truly bleak. I am not the kind of film nerd who denounces Hollywood or who turns my nose up at popular entertainments. On the contrary, I believe that Hollywood produces some of the best films of each and every year, and some of those are summer blockbusters. So when I say the prospect of a month’s worth of sequels nobody asked for bums me out, trust that I do so not for cool points or  hipster cred or that feeling of superiority, but because this year’s crop of June films warrants, nay, demands a sense of indifference. Studios got complacent, and it will be interesting to see if audiences show up and enable this creative laziness.

  1. Independence Day: Resurgence-No Will Smith. I could stop there, because my feeling is that this will deter most filmgoers from turning out for this belated sequel. Twenty years after the original, more aliens show up to once again attack the world on Independence Day. Liam Hemsworth is not a star and cannot replace the void left by Smith.
  2. Now You See Me 2-“It was kind of silly and ridiculous but I really liked it.” It seems like I’ve heard this take on the first one from a dozen different people. The cast was pretty dang good, and they’re all back for this one joined by Daniel Radcliffe.
  3. Warcraft-World of Warcraft is one of the biggest video game franchises in history and it was probably inevitable that they would try to capitalize on its devoted fan base with a big budget film. Unfortunately it has a cloud of two dozen horrible video game adaptations hanging over it. Street Fighter anyone?
  4. Central Intelligence-The pairing of the imposing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the diminutive Kevin Hart follows in the grand comic tradition of foils. They team up to save the day not unlike Hart did with Ice Cube in the woeful Ride Along series. Hart hasn’t figured out how to be funny in films yet. This one’s at least directed by the guy who gave us Dodgeball, so I’ll give it a shot.
  5. The Conjuring 2-The husband and wife team Lorraine and Ed Warren, played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, return to take on a new house of evil in this sequel to a solid horror film. It will be tough to surprise and thrill people a second time.
  6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows-Maybe I am just not the demographic for this anymore because I did not enjoy the first one at all, and yet it was a pretty big success. Kids love these characters still just as I did when I was a kid, and it is hard for me to accept that Michelangelo, Donatello, Rafael, and Leonardo are no longer the coolest things in the world anymore.
  7. Finding Dory- This is one sequel I might be excited about. I don’t think Finding Nemo needed a sequel, but I will always look for Pixar’s next film no matter how uninspired it seems. They simply have too much talent and resources to dismiss one of their films, and they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Just recall that feeling you had when you first saw Finding Nemo.
  8. Free State of Jones- Matthew McConaughey stars as a southern farmer who leads a militia against the Confederates. Another entry in the ever burgeoning slave film subgenre, the topic is still under represented enough for this to seem fresh.
  9. The Neon Demon-A headliner at Cannes this year, the newest film from the director of Drive received mixed reviews but so does most of his work.
  10. Swiss Army Man- If you need a detour from Hollywood sequels, sometimes it’s nice to watch a unique (in this case weird) independent film like this one. Daniel Radcliffe stars as a dead body and Paul Dano stars as a stranded man who needs that body to get home.

Ten Films to Watch From Cannes 2016

Over the course of its seventy-plus year history the Cannes film festival has become synonymous with quality, class, and preeminence. Countries all over the world send their best films and filmmakers to compete for the honor of screening at the international film world’s greatest annual event. This year, the festival began on May 11th kicked off by Woody Allen’s latest, Café Society, with Australian director George Miller as president of the jury for the main competition,  French actor Laurent Lafitte hosting, and Japanese director Naomi Kawase serving as the as the Cinéfondation and Short Film Jury president. Here are the ten films (some out of competition) that I am most looking forward to seeing.

  1. Julieta- Pedro Almodovar is one of the best directors of the past thirty years. However, his last couple of efforts have been, while not boring, mostly inconsequential. His newest centers around a fractured mother-daughter relationship while also exploring the younger version of the eponymous protagonist. Early reviews are mixed, but a serious Almodovar picture is always a must see.
  2. Blood Father- Mel Gibson returns to the action foray looking old and haggard and still seriously awesome. He fights to protect his teenage daughter from vicious drug dealers trying to kill her.
  3. Loving-This one boasts a young, up-and-coming filmmaker who has received considerable acclaim to start his career. That being said, I’ve been fairly indifferent to his previous work (Mud, Midnight Special, Take Shelter). This, his second film of the year, and his second starring Joel Edgerton portrays Richard and Mildred Loving, the real life interracial couple that took on the Supreme Court to fight for their marriage in what became a landmark civil rights decision. I can’t see myself being indifferent to this one.
  4. The Neon Demon-Ultra stylish, with a premise that promises to be another assault on the senses from director, Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), I like what I saw from the previews. Elle Fanning plays a young aspiring starlet who moves to L.A to make it big, only to find herself being consumed be the vain lusts of her older peers.
  5. Captain Fantastic- Starring Viggo Mortensen, this eccentric family road trip movie already has enough strong reviews from its premier at Sundance to warrant a viewing. Mortensen plays a single father of six kids who must navigate the gang through the terrifying real world after he’s kept them all in seclusion all their lives.
  6. The BFG- Spielberg reteams with the late Melissa Mathison, his E.T scribe, and I’m sure many are hoping they recreate that same magic here. I personally think Spielberg, working with cast and crew he has worked with time and time again, has caused him to get way too comfortable. Comfort while able to create technically strong films, never seems to breed magic, and magic is what makes films like this special.
  7. The Salesman- From the director of A Separation and The Past (both masterpieces), this film apparently snuck into competition at the last minute. Not much is available about its plot or production, but a great filmmaker in his prime is enough to recommend any movie.
  8. The Handmaiden- Park Chan-Wook has been at the forefront of the international film scene over the past fifteen years, and, after his mediocre Hollywood outing in Stoker, he has returned to South Korea for The Handmaiden about a con-man, a pickpocket, an heiress, and the odd love triangle/power struggle that ensues.
  9. Endless Poetry- Jodorowsky is considered by some a genius, and by others a lunatic. You’ll recall he sees himself as a prophet and hopes to one day have dinner with Jesus, Gandhi, and Mohammed.  With his newest film, he explores his youth in his usual incongruous way.
  10. Café Society- Finally, as previously mentioned, this is the ceremony’s opening film directed by Woody Allen. Starring Steve Carrell, Jesse Eisenberg, and Kristin Stewart, set during Hollywood’s golden age, this should be, if not prime Allen, highly entertaining Allen.

Ten Films of May (2016)

There are some who feel the summer movie season distinction has become irrelevant. A few years ago some smart studio heads, knowing that the target audience for blockbuster releases are teenagers, decided to take advantage of spring break and released their movies in March. Since then we’ve seen Furious 7 come out in April and make a killing, Kung Fu Panda 3 come out in January,  The Lego Movie and this year’s Deadpool come out in February. Does it really matter when the movie come comes out? I would say no, not if the product is good. Does that make the summer blockbuster season irrelevant, when it’s been extended through spring all the way to winter? I vote yes, but here are some films (from blockbuster goliaths to independent features) to keep an eye out for this month.

  1. Captain America: Winter Soldier- I’ve already seen this film, and, odds are, so have you. I think we’ll agree that this latest installment in the Marvel universe was one of the best. Though the title may suggest a  solo outing for the titular hero, in reality this picture is more like a Wu-Tang solo album, in that it might as well just be a Wu-tang album. Iron Man, Spiderman, Black Widow, Black Panther, Ant Man, and others vie for screen time with Steve Rogers as they feud over the direction of the Avengers. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of giving each character his or her moments to shine.
  2. The Nice Guys- Now for the movies we have not seen, and, to start us off, it’s the latest buddy action comedy from Shane Black, who wrote Lethal Weapon in the eighties and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang more than a decade ago. Starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a hitman and a private detective searching for a missing porn actress, this film promises an abundance of style and humor.
  3. The Angry Birds Movie- Am I being too negative when I say I expect nothing from this movie. It is not so much my expectations so much as my interest that could not be any lower. Total apathy for  a film based on a computer puzzle game created by some guy in Finland. To be fair, I have been surprised before.
  4. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising-Some people liked the first movie. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne played a married couple struggling to live peacefully thanks to an obnoxious/psychotic group of frat boys next door. Some people found it funny. I thought it was pretty forgettable and proceeded to forget about it. Now its sequel’s bringing it all back. Will I give this one a chance? Probably, at matinee.
  5. Last Days in the Desert- Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and the Devil in a personal project from director Rodrigo Garcia, son of Gabriel García Marquez (hard to escape that shadow). The reviews so far have been largely positive, but if we’re being honest, most of us are not seeing this film; at least not in theaters.
  6. Money Monster-Jodie Foster’s last directorial effort, The Beaver, lost over 15 million dollars thanks to its box-office performance. This one has already made more on opening day than The Beaver made in its entire run. That speaks to the complete pariah status of the latter’s star Mel Gibson more than this film’s quality, but most critics have agreed that it is basically worth seeing. I’ll see.
  7. Alice Through the Looking Glass- Back to Blockbuster sequels, the Alice franchise (it is now a franchise thanks to the massive receipt totals of the first film) is in my opinion the reason Disney seems to be producing a live action version for each and every one of their beloved animated features. People really turned out to see Johnny Depp play the Mad Hatter. Let’s see if they’ll do it again.
  8. Love and Friendship- My personal choice for this list, here is a real independent film. Small budget, pure intentions. As a fan of the director’s, Whit Stillman’s, small but impressive oeuvre, I am happy to see this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel getting such spectacular reviews so far.
  9. The Lobster- An English language film from the Greek Maestro behind Dogtooth and Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos. What a strange mind he must have. Colin Farrell lives in a world where people turn into animals if they fail to find true love. Hmm. Word of mouth says give it a shot.
  10. X-Men: Apocalypse- For this installment in one of my favorite superhero franchises, the writers or the directors or whoever decided for a villain to use some guy that belongs in Power Rangers. Pass. Hard pass.