June 2009

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guarantee: all reviews contain spoilers

            Film noir is my favorite genre, with its low budgets, black and white film, ugly but charismatic character actors, and especially the light slanting through venetian blinds. It adds to the interest that almost every film noir, by definition, is a moral fable, about how to do the right thing, or the consequences of doing the wrong thing, in a conflicted, ambiguous world.

            “The Frightened City” (1961), directed by John Lemont, is an energetic and unusually humorous British entry in which, despite the shadows and incipient violence, the characters all seem to be thoroughly amused by their situation. It is rare to see a portrayal of gangsters who so  enjoy their work. In a genre known for snappy dialog, this film stands out; the bad guys’ nemesis is even a laughing policeman, whose repartee is so finely-tooled its amazing he has time to do investigative work. Sean Connery, pre-James Bond, is an enforcer who preserves a fragile peace between formerly competing extortion gangs. The film arrives at the usual final act, when people start selling each other out, and the characters possibly turn on one another a little too easily with too little at stake. Also, by today’s standards, the movie seems almost naïve; when one of the bosses breaks from the coalition, another shoots him in front of a dozen witnesses, with one small caliber shot to the belly, and then gloats about it as if there has never been a mob hit before. I know from watching the fifty years of movies which followed, that every shot to the body is followed up by a second one to the head; how come he didn’t? One other interesting feature of the movie: before the opening credits, a frightened man is pursued and run down by a car. This scene is never explained or even mentioned again in the movie; it could almost have been some excess footage which didn’t get used in something else.

            “The Big Clock” (1948), directed by John Farrow, is an almost-noir; it has the right title, set up, and villain, but the hero and outcome are a little too sunny to qualify.  Ray Milland is a magazine editor who unwisely spends an evening drinking with his boss’ mistress, who gets murdered, by the boss, Charles Laughton, later in the night.  He then spends the next 36 hours or so racing around trying to prove his boss did it, and trying to protect himself against the inevitable frame-up which will ensue when the boss discovers he was the mystery man who spent her last evening with the victim. It’s a good noir premise, populated with great supporting characters: a washed up, alcoholic radio actor; a ditsy painter who saw Ray Milland and is asked to supply a sketch (a great walk on by Elsa Lanchester). Milland’s character, however, is happily married and has no real darkness to him; the fact that he foolishly spent an evening drinking with another woman makes him interesting, but the effect dissipates because he’s just Too Nice a Guy. More disturbingly, the big clock which supplies the title is tangential to the movie. It is the boss’ toy and hobby, a large clock which tells world time set in the lobby of their building, and the hero spends some time inside it—but, very surprisingly, the denouement takes place elsewhere. The ending of Orson Welles’ “The Stranger” should have been the conclusion of this movie: there the final confrontation is inside a large clock, and the villain is impaled on its moving parts.

            “X-men Origins: Wolverine” (2009), directed by Gavin Hood, is a reasonably satisfying comic based movie. I am not a comics fan and can’t get involved in debates about authenticity or fidelity.  As an action movie, with science fiction elements, and without higher aspirations, it works fairly well. I found it much more tolerable than the movies about much more “iconic” superheroes like Superman and Batman, as those tend to be fairly pretentious. This one proves that if you start with a good actor (Hugh Jackman), add some decent fantasy elements and plot twists (human girlfriend turns out to be a mutant), and compelling action sequences (leap shown in the trailer from a motorcycle to a helicopter), you can make the modern equivalent of a B movie which doesn’t feel like an empty waste of time.

            I am slogging through Jeff Noon’s “Vurt” (1993), which strikes me so far as an incoherent “Neuromancer” retread with characters who are simultaneously cardboard and unlikeable: there is a general air of dirtiness, masochism and incest which makes me not want to spend time with these people. Noon has some enjoyable concepts, none of which so far is entirely original, like meta-virtual realities (worlds you must already be inside another virtual reality to enter).

            William Gibson was a porcupine, in Isaiah Berlin’s language: he knew how to do only one thing, but he did it really well. His wounded men and women, navigating wearily through real and unreal noir worlds, were believable and sympathetic. After “Neuromancer” came the flattery of hundreds of lesser imitations. I am not sure why “Vurt” won awards or was thought in any way to be a revelation.

            Terminator: Salvation” (2009), directed by McG, is, like “Wolverine”, a moderately satisfying movie which could have been much better. It’s titling, not any more relevant to this post-Apocalyptic epic than to hundreds of others, raises the question of why science fiction movies are marketed these days with religious overtones (“Alien Resurrection”).

            The movie is a slick, well-edited effort with clever special effects: tall, Transformer-like terminators topple over; the protagonists are attacked by sentient motorcycles; because of the richness of detail, the continual explosions are not as tedious as in more realistic movies.

What makes it potentially more interesting than most—a potential it fails to fulfill—is the theme of the definition of the human, worked out through the metaphor of a resurrected killer who does not realize he is a cyborg. When he finds out, he discovers that he has free will, and can overcome his programming. This is a powerful trope, also intelligently examined in the “Battlestar Galactica” and “Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles” series, in which machines conceive powerful desires to be human, fall in love with humans, fight on their side and are accepted by them. A movie, which must resolve its story line in two hours, cannot compare to a series, which can do so over five or seven years; “Terminator” states its theme, then goes right on with the posturing and explosions. At the end, in a relatively improbable twist, the cyborg offers to donate his human heart to save the hero, John Connor, though he must die to do so; what is worse is that the humans cheerily accept the offer, thus choosing to murder a living thing to save their leader.

            I felt sorry that Sarah Connor was written out of the third movie, and is seen in this one as a tattered photo and an elderly voice on tape. In the second film, and in the television series, her strength and her borderline insanity made her interesting. John Connor, as a character, has multiple disadvantages. He has been played by a different actor in every one of the three movies in which he appeared. And Christian Bale, the new go-to actor for rugged masculinity, does him no service. Bale has reached the stage of icon-hood where, once you have cast him, there is no need to write the movie: just point a camera at him and let him drag his attitude, his exhaustion, his three day growth of beard across the screen. As a result, John Connor is a vacuum at the movie’s center, where Sarah Connor never was.

            The two most powerful themes in science fiction are the desire to be human, and the opposing wish, no longer to be. The first is getting a lot of airtime in a world in which thousands of people, suicide bombers, have essentially functioned as cyborgs, programmed to destroy themselves while killing others, devoid of any compassion or self-preservation. The second meme is neglected, though it received some interesting consideration in “Watchmen”, where Dr. Manhattan, in refuge on Mars, spoke of his desire to forget his humanity and the human race.

            “White Squall” (1996), directed by Ridley Scott, is a movie about responsibility and community, which is finally overwhelmed by sentiment. Jeff Bridges plays a stern captain who runs a sailing ship program for troubled teens (all boys). Against beautiful ocean and island backgrounds, he wields them into a crew, helping each boy to overcome his own phobias and deficits. After an hour and forty minutes of bucolic surroundings, vomiting, and boy bonding, the ship is overturned by a white squall. The captain’s wife drowns—there are disturbing shots of her, drowning or drowned, gazing at her helpless husband through a window as he tries but fails to smash the glass. The camera returns three or four times to her apparently lifeless body, completely immersed; at the end of each such shot, just as we are dissolving to the next, the actress appears to move her head, creating an eerie, horror movie effect.

            The last half hour of the movie is a trial at which the authorities try to take his captain’s license for negligence.  The boys defend him in an “I am Spartacus” moment, and he retains his “ticket”. I had tears in my eyes but was angry; I knew I was being manipulated. I vividly remember a succession of “Wonderful World of Disney” features shown on Sunday nights in my early childhood. There was always someone like a boy in a wheelchair, and he always had something like a pet pigeon. At the end the pigeon was menaced by something like a fox, and the boy rose from his wheelchair and went staggering to rescue it. A well-made and interesting film plunges into kitsch at the end.

            Julian Barnes’ “Staring at the Sun” (1986) is a literary novel which is an almost complete failure. A young woman of mediocre intelligence spends some time with a frightened pilot boarded with her British family during World War Ii, marries the local policeman, leaves him thirty years later, and reminisces about identity, gender and love in a trite near future in which Barnes generically, yet inaccurately, predicts the Internet. There is nothing about the character that grips us or leaps from the page, and mainstream novelists would be well advised to avoid futures in which there are omnipotent computers—unless they have read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and think they can do better.

            “On Beauty” (2005), by Zadie Smith, is a novel about an older male professor committing adultery, with a couple of elements that differentiate it from the boring norm. It is by a young woman and essentially told from the point of view of, with great sympathy for, the wife and children who are the victims of infidelity. So it lacks the obliviousness and self-pity of novels written by male adulterers. It also has a lot to say about race and class in America. The professor, white and English, is married to an African American woman and they have three children together. Two of the kids are comfortable being upper middle class American, and perceive little real difference, cultural, psychological or otherwise, between themselves and the Caucasians around them in the fictional college town of Wellington. The third child, a son, is drawn to the inner city and doesn’t like to tell his new friends where he is really from.

There are a couple of other interesting elements; the professor’s first affair is with a colleague, and old friend, a few years older than his wife, though a little later the usual nubile 19 year old student starts sending him nude cell-phone photos of herself. What is most enjoyable about the novel is not the adultery, but the mildly satiric tone in which it is written, and the complete lack of arrogance or entitlement in the author’s own voice. The details about the academic world are familiar: the professor has been at the institution ten years and is still hoping for tenure, but is too post-modern for the aging historians on the committee. Some of the details about being a student, however, are fresh and enjoyable. The author introduces a young white girl from the Midwest for a single page, to give us a quick view into the fact that the professor’s mindset and teaching vocabulary are frightening to a highly intelligent person with a lack of cultural referents. And there is a memorable riff about a popular student metaphor where each class is described in terms of tomatoes: You can’t define the tomato without referring to the tomato; the tomato cannot be understood without uncovering its suppressed Herstory; etc. Poignantly, the protagonist’s art history class is described as “Do not like the tomato.”

In a perfect world we are supposed to evaluate the work without reference to the identity of the artist, but what I appreciate about Zadie Smith is how completely she is the antithesis of Philip Roth, in gender, race, age and sensibility. And that identity flows through into the work. However, the novel is also a bit shapeless, and doesn’t have a conclusive ending.  Characters of great interest, such as the old friend with whom the professor has the affair, are introduced and then vanish along the way. I found the working class black characters to be the least persuasive in the book. A sad, but realistic element is that they are exploited and then dropped, even by the upper middle class black people in the novel, and at the end, are nowhere to be found, having sunk back into the difficult environment they emerged from at the beginning.

“Unknown Man No. 89” (1978), by Elmore Leonard, is one of many by this author which prove that popular genre novels can be well written, striking and contain believable characters. Leonard’s novels follow a formula but he always finds ways to make the characters sympathetic and situations real. Here you have a semi-alcoholic process server, a woman he wants to save who paints whales, and two gangsters from New Orleans who like to eat southern cuisine and can’t find it anywhere in Michigan. Leonard keeps the prose out of the way, which is much harder than it seems, avoiding the wooden clackiness of most genre writers and the purple pretension of some others. I would rather spend an airplane ride with Elmore Leonard than anyone else I know.

The new “Star Trek” (2009), directed by J.J. Abrams, is a creditable reboot of the unkillable series, which I have been watching avidly, and angrily, since 1966. I have seen every movie and every episode of every TV series except the last one, “Enterprise”, which slipped seriously in credibility below the already uneven standards of its predecessors.  

I enjoyed this film and it disappointed me in about equal measure. To its credit, the young actors stepping into the familiar roles—Kirk, Spock, Bones and Scotty—are charismatic, and bear at least some slight resemblance to the familiar faces (in one case, Zachary Quinto who plays Spock, an uncanny resemblance). The plot is fast moving, with lots of action and humor, and many tips of the hat to what went before (Kirk seducing a green-skinned classmate at the Academy, Bones beginning a sentence “I’m a doctor, not a….”, chit-chat about Uhura’s mysterious first name; even an extended scene of the famed, oft-referred to Kobayashi Maru simulation).

On the other hand, the story is almost completely incoherent. Star Trek through-out was near its worst whenever it dealt with time travel; the later shows also hit their nadir with stories about the Borg and the holodeck. (“First Contact”, one of the “Next Generation” movies, mixed all three elements.) Thankfully, the Borg and holodeck don’t exist yet in this “origins” story, but the plot relies heavily on time travel, even bringing in Leonard Nimoy to play an older version of Spock returned from the future.

The Romulans show up, with a laser drill that makes a hole in a planet’s core so they can drop a black hole down it. This is really ridiculous; the black hole itself would make a better drill than the laser. The whole point is to have a platform hanging in the upper atmosphere with a convenient surface for Kirk and other characters to have sword and fistfights on. For that matter,   the laser itself could be fired from the Romulan ship itself, instead of a hanging platform. This is the worst designed technology in science fiction since the Deathstar was built with an external vent leading right to the nuclear core.

Worst of all, rather than adapting “Star Trek” to the 21st century, the writers have chosen to give us a version of the ‘60’s vision with better special effects. This means, most offensively, that female crew members are wearing miniskirts; that there is only one main female character, Uhura, and that, exactly like 40 years ago, she is still a glorified telephone operator. The choice to bring back the original captain, Christopher Pike, from the original television pilot, as Kirk’s first commander, is interesting; but the writers have forgotten that the original Pike had a tough, smart, highly competent female second in command, who is nowhere to be seen in the re-make. Subsequent series such as “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” had women who wore pants, carried phasers and knew how to kick ass; why roll the new movie so far back as to lose those elements?

The major problem I have with this, and all the prior “Star Trek” movies, is that they are mere entertainments, where the shows could take the time, however primitively, to deal with real social and cultural issues such as war, racism, madness, otherness, etc. More recent science fiction shows have decisively used their story-telling as a platform for expression of ideas, without becoming didactic or overwhelming the plot. One of the single best television episodes I ever saw of any show was one of “Babylon Five”,  which introduced five soldiers, male and female, staging at the station for an attack on a nearby planet. The last shot of the show panned across the battlefield, showing us every one of these soldiers lying dead in a heap. It was stunning television, of the kind that more realistic, contemporary shows are frightened to do.  More recently, “Battlestar Galactica” spoke to us about maintaining democracy under extreme pressure, moral compromises, and even the self-righteousness and potential murderousness brought on by monotheism. “Galactica” is “Star Trek” for the 21st century; so there was really no need to reboot the latter, except for the nostalgia.    

            “The Enforcer” (1951), directed by Bretaigne Windust, is a late, lesser-known Humphrey Bogart film, based on the Murder Inc. trials. It is a little bit quaint today to hear a district attorney perplexed by a new vocabulary of “contracts” and “hits”; fifty-eight years later, we have a movie genre of lonely, unfulfilled, poetic, even tango-dancing hit men. But the movie itself is a strong noir contender, told mainly in flashback, with quirky, vivid performances by character actors playing the gangsters (including a young  Zero Mostel). Bogart doesn’t have much to do except look strong-jawed, but the seamy, small time criminal world in  which it is set more than compensates. There is a last act reveal which is very satisfying. Over-all, this is better late Bogart than some of his others, such as the preachy “The Harder They Fall”, his last. 

            “A Far Cry From Kensington” (1988), by Muriel Spark, is a minor gem of a novel which starts off like a barely disguised autobiography but evolves into something very different. In the 1950’s, plump Mrs. Hawkins works in publishing in London. She is a war widow who barely knew her husband, whom she married as a teenager and who was killed in the European war days afterwards. She is sensible, intelligent, organized and highly valued by her employer and friends; but her bulk makes everyone around her see her as an aunt-like, nonsexual being. The book is filled with the usual quirky, endearing portraits of literary people as well as the less elevated but equally interesting people who share the boarding house where she lives.

            A hack writer named Hector Bartlett appears, and Mrs. Hawkins and the novel become interesting because she has an almost unreasonable dislike of him, hissing the first time he asks for an introduction to her boss that he is a “pisseur de copie” (urinator of copious amounts of worthless prose). Every time his name comes up after that, she utters the same dictum, losing several prized publishing jobs over the next couple of years because he is the protégé of a famed novelist, Emma Loy, who has tired of Hector and wants to get rid of him, but won’t tolerate any mistreatment of him in the meantime. Despite her serial unemployment, Mrs. Hawkins never compromises, and her repeatedly hissing the words “pisseur de copie” at inopportune moments becomes the running gag of the novel. In the meantime, she applies her will power to losing weight, people begin to look at her differently, a medical student who lives in her rooming house falls in love, and she never looks back. The literary figures we meet are believers in astrology or a barely disguised pastiche of Scientology, or are lunatics or criminal frauds. Mrs. Loy, serene,sympathetic and unflappable, keeps getting Mrs. Hawkins fired, then expressing sympathy, offering jobs and even trying to palm Hector off on her, explaining there is a thin line between love and hate. Muriel Spark, whom I had never read before, has an original comic voice, and Mrs. Hawkins, with her serenity, didactic rules of life, and undying hatred for the “pisseur de copie”,  is a very enjoyable personage.

            Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” (2001) is a teenage sexuality story, with long takes and desultory dialog as an Italian college student seduces a French 15 year old in a very ordinary way; using love, promises of commitment, and every imaginable male manipulation to induce her to consent first to anal, then oral sex, and then intercourse. Meanwhile, her fat younger sister looks on, argues, weeps, and moons about. The distant mom fails to connect, allowing her older daughter to float free and invite the boy to her room unnoticed.

            The movie acquires depth in scenes in which we learn that the sisters, one strikingly beautiful and the other plain and fat, not only despise but also love one another. In one extended scene, they lie close to one another in bed, laughing about their day, in a naturalistic scene which communicates the intensity of their bond.

            The vacation ends early, as the sister’s affair is discovered and reprimanded, and mom is left alone to drive the two daughters home in a series of similarly extended, ever more anxiety-provoking takes in which she seems to be on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel, while huge trucks roar past. She stops in a deserted rest area to sleep awhile—and the movie takes an abrupt and bizarre turn as a psychotic looking man breaks the windshield with a sledgehammer, hits the beautiful sister in the head with it, chokes mom to death, and takes the fat girl into the nearby woods. As he rapes her, she gazes steadfastly into his eyes, and puts her arms around him. He finishes and leaves without harming her. As the police forensics team goes to work on the bodies of the rest of the family, two constables lead her out of the woods. “She says she wasn’t raped,” they report. And, in a sense, she wasn’t, because she appeared to consent to it. One is left with the impression that the killer paid her a compliment and did her a favor at once, by wanting only her and killing two more beautiful women to get to her, and by ridding her of her enervating family at the same time. During these awful few minutes, one keeps thinking it’s a wish fulfillment fantasy, and it is probably the director’s, but there is no release: it is the real ending of the film.

            A few years ago, I would have been angered and enraged by this ending. I seem to have been largely desensitized to movie violence more recently. And this movie, a sort of ghastly shaggy dog story, reveals a certain cruel sense of humor on the director’s part, and is funny on her terms. Still, I was glad that I hadn’t watched it with my wife,  misled into thinking it was a somewhat sunny and truthful coming of age story about sisters.  The whole point of advertising, marketing, movie posters and trailers is to let us make choices about what we want to see. This movie sucks you in so it can bushwhack you; many of the reviews analogized the ending to the director hitting the audience in the head with a sledgehammer. Imagine “Dirty Dancing” ending with Baby’s sister and mom being violently murdered.

            An afterthought, written a couple weeks after seeing the movie: The ending of this movie haunted me for a long time after I saw it, which is certainly what Breillat intends. Whenever I have written a play which ends in a surprising murder or suicide, I am told that the violent ending overwhelms the story. The same criticism was leveled at the assisted death at the end of “Million Dollar Baby.” In general, we want our movies and novels to affirm life is meaningful, not that it is nasty, brutish, short and random. Breillat deliberately breaks the “rule” that art should endorse the meaning of life.

            However, I have a problem with “Fat Girl” which is somewhat separate from the proposition that the mother and sister come to a  violent, meaningless end. There are hints, in the movie itself and especially in the ending, that we are in sadomasochistic, “Story of O” territory. These are so subtle that it took a long time after I saw the movie for me to identify them.

            While she is being strangled, the mom never raises a hand to try to push away the attacker or defend herself. This isn’t natural, and the fact that it was an intentional effect is underlined by the fact that Breillat shows us the police bagging the hands of the two murder victims moments later.  This is ironic, because we know neither of them could possibly have any of the killer’s DNA under their fingernails. To compound the problem, the surviving sister hugged the killer as he raped her, but did not defend herself or scratch him. The only DNA will be his semen inside her—but the last we see of her, she is defending the murderer by insisting she was not raped.

            For much of the movie, the other sister gives in, step by step, to the manipulations of a boy at least five years older than her, making her body, her mouth and her vagina available against her better instincts. Add to this the symbolism of the killer who smashes the windshield of the car with a sledgehammer (after mom has locked the door); Breillat’s worldview is that women are forced to make their bodies available, or even to die, when any passing male wants them to.  This is the world of “Story of O”; in one of the alternate endings to the novel, O asks the man who “owns” her for permission to kill herself, and it is granted. In the world I live in, people fight ferociously for their own survival, no matter how overpowered or outnumbered they are. Breillat’s world makes me feel sick.

“Warlock” (1967), directed by Edward Dmytryk, is an interesting western with noir elements and a great cast. Henry Fonda is a famed gunfighter, hired as marshal to clean up the titular town.  Anthony Quinn is his disreputable gambler partner, who protects him against “backshooters” and seems to bear him an unexpressed love which is expressed in obsession and jealousy. Richard Widmark is the bad kid gone good who becomes the new sheriff. After that, Widmark, Quinn and Fonda do a stately dance around one another. Fonda recognizes that it is incumbent on him to take his legend and leave, permitting Widmark to carry on. Quinn doesn’t want him to, because Fonda will diminish himself by doing so.  Widmark wants Fonda to depart the town, but recognizes that trying to force him to do so will probably lead to his own death. The movie concludes in a series of confrontations: Fonda-Widmark; Fonda-Quinn; Fonda-Widmark again. The canvass is made even more complex by the presence of women who love Fonda and Widmark. Widmark gets his woman, and stays; Fonda leaves his and the town.

            There is a wonderful speech, made by Fonda to Widmark, in which he speaks of following the rules of one’s life, the peculiar morality of the Western gunslinger that is at the core of all these movies, that dictates that you walk calmly through the long shadows of the main street to your own death when the moment comes.

            What I love about westerns is that they are all moral fables, more so than other genres. They are always about stability and chaos, courage and compromise, diversity and racism, community and violence. “Warlock” is one of the better ones, with an ending which is at once sad and hopeful.

            Not quite as elemental, but fully as enjoyable, is “The Far Country” (1955), directed by Anthony Mann. James Stewart, an actor of cheerful charisma but not very great range, had a remarkable opportunity to expand in his westerns of the 1950’s. Having always played dapper, madcap, lovable protagonists in mostly comic movies of the 30’s and 40’s—“It’s a Wonderful Life” was the classic Stewart role—he now had the opportunity to be greedy, rageful, and violent, a loner forced by circumstances to recognize the value of community. Mann (along with Budd Boetticher) was largely responsible for the creation of the noir western, a development which transformed the genre. Before, the character s played by John Wayne and Randolph Scott were all nobility and light, no matter how brusque; early westerns all portrayed the battle of white-hatted men against black. In his movies with Anthony Mann, Stewart played men with a dark, violent past, men whose eyes glowed with cupidity and rage when pushed too far. A third of the way through these films, there is always a set piece where Stewart declares that he doesn’t need anyone, doesn’t need the town or the woman who loves him. A little later the universe slaps him down violently and he discovers that no man is an island.

            “The Far Country” follows the formula precisely. Stewart, wanted for killing cattle rustlers, embarks his herd aboard a ship to Alaska, where he can sell them for an unheard of price. When he reaches the town of Skagway, he is defrauded of his cattle by the mayor, a laughing, sympathetic, top-hatted rogue who has the town in an amused death-grip. He winds up even further north, in the Yukon, where the mayor eventually follows, extorting the citizens’ gold claims. Stewart declines an offer to be marshal, and attempts to slip away with his gold, to be shot down and robbed by the mayor’s men. Eventually, recovering, he will heed the call of community, and walk through the shadows for a final confrontation with the mayor.

            Stewart’s alone-ness is highlighted by the people around him who love him: Walter Brennan in “old coot” mode as his partner, the one person Stewart is willing to take care of; and two women, the bar-owner and madam who, according to the rules, must expiate her immorality by dying to save him, and the local good girl, who will take him home and marry him after the action is over (“I am not a freckle face!”).

            It just occurred to me that movies fall into two basic categories, those in which the characters have a plan or expectation, and those in which they don’t. In the former category are all heist movies, most war movies, almost all westerns and other genre films. In the latter, much smaller category, are most road movies and other itinerant films in which the rather passive characters just wander from encounter to encounter. You could also define these films as being plotted and plotless; which leads to a quip I’ve been trying to formulate, that plots and plans are as closely associated as pots and pans.

            Movies about plans break down into two further categories, those in which the plan is successfully accomplished, and the ones in which it goes wrong. Almost all film noirs begin with a plan, usually for a heist, and end with something like a shoot-out in a deserted warehouse in which the former partners kill one another, or are killed by the cops or a rival gang. In general, in movies as in Shakespearean tragedy, the idea “we had a plan but it didn’t work out” is a massive field containing great poignancy and interest. Human greed and stupidity, chance and the Second Law of Thermodynamics are the forces which most commonly prevent the plan from being achieved. Movies where the characters happily accomplish their goals tend to be more trivial; many of these are “cheer-leading” movies such as those about sports or the very small genre of films about labor unions.

            In stories about failures, the characters sometimes miss their goals by a mile, sometimes by an inch. In the former category are some quite interesting stories about self-deluded losers who never had a chance of accomplishing their dreams. The near miss movies are closer to my heart. These are the ones in which people just like us conceive goals which are eminently possible, and which just barely fail, with great heartbreak for all. 

            Disney-Pixar’s animated “Up” is half unusual, but the rest is kitsch. The presence of an elderly man as the protagonist is refreshing, and his attempt to compensate himself, and re-connect with his late wife, by pursuing the adventure they could never afford in their lifetime, is enjoyable. The scenes of his house, hoisted by hundred of helium balloons, breaking free from its foundations, are liberating. But at the far end of the trip, is a fairly standard villain with mildly enjoyable talking dog minions. Worse, a bird, simultaneously the macguffin of the weak story and the comic relief, appears to have invaded from a different type of cartoon: with its long legs and tuft of feathers on top, it is a kitschy Saturday morning creation (like the ridiculous space monkey alien in the movie “Lost in Space”). 

            “Friday Foster” (1975), directed by Arthur Marks,   is a fairly amateurish entry in the blaxploitation genre, which stands out only for Pam Grier’s remarkable poise and beauty. She wasn’t even much of an actress back then (or perhaps wasn’t permitted to be), but I could watch her all day long, in anything.

            “Drag Me to Hell” (2009), directed by Sam Raimi, is a chilling, funny horror flick in which a young bank officer, whose ambition overcomes her compassion, turns an elderly Romany witch down for an extension on her mortgage, and is cursed by her. The movie is full of energetic, funny set pieces, and is extremely well-constructed. The protagonist, played by Alison Lohman, is surrounded by people who want to save her from the lamia (goat spirit) which will drag her to hell in three days, and possible solutions are doled out to her by an Indian-American seer she encounters: sacrifice a small animal; placate the lamia; seek the protection of a powerful medium; and finally, to pass the button the witch cursed to someone else, who will be taken by the lamia in her place. The bank officer sits in a diner for a long evening, looking at the humanity around her,  and concludes to her credit she cannot damn anyone else, not the nasty waitress or even her worst enemy at the bank. Instead, she and the seer find a clever solution, to return the cursed button to the witch, who has since died. In an extended graveyard scene, she digs up the witch, places the button  in her mouth, says the correct words, and escapes flood waters and falling crosses. We are left vaguely troubled, as we didn’t see the lamia take the corpse. In a cleverly set up ending—lots of buried clues but you never see it coming—we find out, in the sunlight, in a train station, that the object our heroine placed in the corpse’s mouth was not the cursed button, but an irrelevant coin; two envelopes got switched. And, startlingly and disturbingly, after all that work, she gets snatched to hell, and the movie ends. Why don’t we feel more heartbroken for her? Because the small animal she sacrificed to the lamia early in the movie was her adorable pet kitten, a crime she has never expiated even as she feels remorse for other mistakes.