Movie Project #27 and #28: Blade Runner [1982] and The Night of the Hunter [1955]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Blade Runner [1982, Scott]
Blade Runner [1982, Scott]
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young.

I was already somewhat familiar with Blade Runner thanks to the countless samples that have been used in the worlds of industrial and electronic music. The film’s gritty cyberpunk setting is simply awesome, and the intricately detailed environments are what impressed me most. This is one of the first “neo-noir” films that I have seen, and I really enjoyed it. It’s clear that this has been VERY influential to media of all types, and one of the first examples to come to mind recently is the much-loved video game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That simply would not have been possible without Blade Runner.

I loved the replicants, especially Rutger Hauer’s character. It was a lot of fun seeing him play someone so deranged and unbalanced, and his final battle with Ford’s Rick Deckard was of epic proportions. I also developed a fond likeness for Darryl Hannah’s character and her odd-yet-sexy fashion selections. One minor issue I had was with the occasionally slow pacing, but I remained enamored with the stunning dystopian city of 2019 Los Angeles regardless.

I watched the theatrical cut, and didn’t mind Ford’s voice-over narration, though I can see how that would annoy some. I am pretty curious to check out the alternate versions now, and I get the feeling that this movie is one that will get better with each viewing. 8/10

The Night of the Hunter [1955, Laughton]
The Night of the Hunter [1955, Laughton]
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish.

Three words: Robert freakin’ Mitchum. His role as the “Preacher” Harry Powell is the stuff of legends, and he is easily one of the most memorable villains in cinematic history. This is a guy who has “H-A-T-E” and “L-O-V-E” tattooed on his knuckles, and doesn’t bat an eye when it comes to murdering women and children. He is a sadistic man masquerading as a reverend, and he is played to perfection by the charismatic Mitchum.

Equal parts horror and thriller with a touch of Film Noir, The Night of the Hunter is very tense. Watching the two children run away in terror from their new stepfather is frightening, and there were several moments that modern horror films have clearly copied over the years. It’s a shame that Charles Laughton didn’t direct another film because this one is truly remarkable. This is one of my favorite selections so far from this project, and it is unlike anything else I have seen from this time period. Magnificent. 10/10

Movie Project #24 and #25: Night of the Living Dead [1968] and Double Indemnity [1944]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Night of the Living Dead [1968]
Night of the Living Dead [1968, Romero]
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman

Ah yes, the godfather of zombie films. Romero’s low budget black-and-white horror classic can be found EVERYWHERE thanks to its public domain status, yet I didn’t actually sit down to watch it until recently. This movie’s influence is massive, as the popularity of zombies has went through the roof in recent years. And to think, none of this would be possible without this 1968 film. The premise is simple: a group of survivors are holed up in a farmhouse and are trying to survive the attacking hordes of zombies (of the slow moving type). During this, the humans fight amongst each other (as expected) and struggle with their collective intelligence. The women, in particular, are a waste of bodies as they mostly just act comatose and offer little value to the group. You would think that if your house is being swarmed by zombies that you would actually make an effort to fight for your life! The men in the group suffer from testosterone issues (“I’m right!” “No, I’m right!”), but at least they try to survive.

While I was annoyed with the general ineptitude of some of the characters, I still really enjoyed the movie. Perhaps aided by the low budget, the film feels more authentic and is still genuinely frightening today. It was also refreshing to see a black lead character (Duane Jones), which was not a common occurrence during the time period. Night of the Living Dead holds up rather well, and is a fun watch some 40+ years later. 8/10

Double Indemnity [1944]
Double Indemnity [1944, Wilder]
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

Double Indemnity is a film that I have been looking forward to seeing for a while now, as it seems to get brought up often when discussing Film Noir. I was especially excited to watch this because I had never seen a Billy Wilder film before (a travesty, I know). This classic tale seems to be the quintessential example of Film Noir. Fred MacMurray stars as an insurance salesman who gets caught up in a dangerous murder plot. He becomes deeply enamored with a lonely housewife (Barbara Stanwyck, the fantastic femme fatale), who comes up with the idea of having her husband murdered while making it appear as an accidental death. The duo concoct a plan that would evoke the double indemnity clause in the insurance contract, meaning that the payout would be double the normal amount. While the murder plan is meticulously carried out, other unexpected issues come up, particularly from the insurance company who have their suspicions about the incident.

The screenplay, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, is fantastic. The dialogue is fast and witty, with lots of sharp one-liners. The story is well-crafted, with many twists and turns. I was impressed with the two leads, as Stanwyck and MacMurray have a dynamic chemistry. I believe this was the first movie I had seen with either star, though I am sure it will not be the last. I would be remiss not to mention Edward G. Robinson’s role as Walter’s boss, as he was a very likable and intriguing character with exceptional investigative skills. Essentially, Double Indemnity is a perfect example of everything I have loved about Film Noir so far. It’s easy to see why this is so well-regarded. 9/10

Movie Project #12: The Asphalt Jungle [1950]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

The Asphalt Jungle [1950]

The Asphalt Jungle [1950]
Directors: John Huston
Genre: Crime/Film-Noir/Drama
Language: English/German
Country: USA

I was on a big Film Noir kick a few months ago, which coincided with my playthrough of the great LA Noire, so I made sure to add more than a few titles to this project. The Asphalt Jungle, in particular, is one that I have been staring at for a while, as I have heard a lot of great things about it. The movie’s title alone brings to mind a gritty urban landscape with a world of crime at its fingertips.

The Asphalt Jungle is a heist film in which a group of criminal masterminds plan out and execute a major jewel robbery. ‘Doc’ Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), fresh out of prison, is the brains behind the operation, as he has developed an elaborate way to seize millions of dollars of jewelry. In order to pull off the heist, he hires the talents of a professional safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a getaway driver (James Whitmore), a hooligan thug (Sterling Hayden) and a crooked lawyer (Louis Calhern) who will provide financial support. Everything looks to go according to plan until a series of unforeseen events wreaks havoc on all involved, something that seems to be the case for most caper films from this era.

The Asphalt Jungle [1950]

The actual heist scene — 11 minutes in length — is tense and well thought out. In fact, the crime, its buildup and its aftermath are all realistic, and this helps give the movie a more authentic feel than I expected.

The cast is particularly brilliant, as the aforementioned criminals are joined by two lovely ladies: Jean Hagen and Marilyn Monroe. It’s hard to believe that this is the first movie I have seen featuring Miss Monroe, and she is downright stunning here. Both ladies hold their own against the males on screen. My favorite performance comes from Sterling Hayden, who is just terrific as the over-sized redneck thug. I have seen him in a few movies now, and he always seems to stand out above the rest.

As far as noirs go, The Asphalt Jungle stands among the best I have seen so far. It is gritty with sharp dialogue and a stellar cast, and its realism is a good change of pace. I felt the film slowed down a little too much after the heist, but it was still an entertaining movie overall. I am glad I was able to finally watch this.

8/10

Blogathon: Cool Off With The Classics

Another month, another movie blogathon! Marc over at Go, See, Talk came up with another great idea that is sure to start making its rounds in the film blogging community. The idea here is to “Cool Off With The Classics” — that is, to compile a list of black & white classics you would watch to “beat the heat.” Since I have been digging into more classics than usual lately, I thought this would be a fun event to participate in. So here we go… ten of my favorite B&W movies.

12 Angry Men [1957]
1) 12 Angry Men [1957]
Sidney Lumet’s early classic was one of my first experiences with a black & white film. I watched this for the first time in high school and could not believe that an “old movie” set in a courtroom could maintain my interest from beginning to end. An incredible film, and one that I absolutely must see again soon.

The Third Man [1949]
2) The Third Man [1949]
I saw this for the first time earlier this year and fell in love with it. There is so much to like about this movie, and of course it has some of the most memorable moments in cinematic history (such as Orson Welles’ big reveal). The closing shot is one of the best I have ever seen.

Crashout [1955]
3) Crashout [1955]
I caught this earlier this month at the Music Box Theatre’s awesome Noir City Festival. This rarely-seen prison break movie is a lot of fun, and surprisingly brutal for its time period.

Among the Living [1941]
4) Among the Living [1941]
Another rarely-screened movie that I caught at the Noir City Festival. This is a wonderful noir/horror hybrid with great performances from Albert Dekker and Susan Hayward.

Citizen Kane [1941]
5) Citizen Kane [1941]
This is the movie that made me excited to see more classics. We watched the entirety of the film in my university’s Music & Film class, and I was quite frankly amazed. One of the best of all time, obviously, and it felt great to finally understand the lyrics to the Kane-referencing White Stripes song, “The Union Forever“.

City Lights
6) City Lights [1931]
My 50 Movies Project is already reaping dividends, as it provided the means for me to catch this Chaplin silent classic. Words are not needed for Chaplin’s dynamic Tramp character, and his endless pursuit of love is inspiring (with hilarious results).

The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951]
7) The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951]
I am not a big sci-fi fan, so I was a little skeptical about this movie. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it. Intelligent, entertaining and backed by Bernard Herrmann’s incredible therimin-driven score, this is one of the better sci-fi films I have seen, regardless of age.

The Killing [1956]
8 ) The Killing [1956]
One of Kubrick’s earliest films is one of my favorites from him, and it has been heavily influential over the years (most notably for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). An exciting, well-crafted heist noir.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. [1928]
9) Steamboat Bill, Jr. [1928]
I have only seen two, maybe three, Buster Keaton movies, but this is the one I have enjoyed the most. Lots of laughs and some ridiculous physical stunts make this one of the more memorable silent films I have seen.

Seven Samurai [1954]
10) Seven Samurai [1954]
It is a testament to the film’s brilliance that I am able to sit through the full three hours without ever once growing bored or impatient. I saw it for the first time last year and it just blew me away. The quintessential samurai film.

Be sure to check out the rest of the participants in this blogathon, and feel free to join in on the fun as well.

Music Box Theatre’s Noir City: Chicago 3: Among the Living [1941] and The Glass Key [1935]

I had such a great time on Tuesday night with the “Men and Women of Conviction” double feature that I had to go back the next evening for another pairing of Film Noir. Wednesday’s selections were to be a double bill of Stuart Heisler films: Among the Living and The Glass Key. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up with the film company and the Music Box received the original 1935 version of The Glass Key instead. I was looking forward to seeing the 1942 remake, which is said to be the better of the two, but it was still a fun evening all the same.
Among the Living [1941, Stuart Heisler]
Among the Living [1941, Stuart Heisler]
A rarely screened noir/horror hybrid about twin brothers — one insane, one not. After their father passes away, the mentally ill brother escapes from the mansion where he was secretly locked up and leaves to start a new life. Problem is that this man is not properly suited for reality and ends up becoming a serial killer on the loose.

Albert Dekker plays the twins, the main difference being one is clean shaven and one is not. He is quite excellent in the lead role(s), especially when he is acting peculiar as the evil brother. Some of his interactions with his newfound gold-digging lady friend (played by Susan Hayward, who just oozes sex appeal) are hilarious. In fact, this movie was a hell of a lot funnier than I expected it to be, and it was a blast throughout. Definitely look it up if you get a chance. 8/10

The Glass Key [1935, Frank Tuttle]
The Glass Key [1935, Frank Tuttle]
This early adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel was noticeably different from the other three films I had seen at the festival. A heavier emphasis was placed on dialogue, and the movie was lacking in some of the more traditional noir elements. Still, it proved to be a capable replacement.

I enjoyed George Raft’s lead performance as the slick-talking “fixer” who is trying to clear his politician employer’s name from a possible murder charge. I didn’t feel that this movie was as memorable as the others, and it took me a while to get a feel for what exactly was going on in the first 1/4 of the film. However, the ending moments were brilliant, and the major plot twist was an unexpected surprise. Now I’m curious to see the 1942 remake. 6.5/10

Music Box Theatre’s Noir City: Chicago 3: Crashout [1955] and The Story of Molly X [1949]

For the third year in a row, Chicago’s legendary Music Box Theatre is hosting a Film Noir festival. A grab bag of cinematic classics and rarities, Noir City began last Friday and will conclude tomorrow evening. I was out of town for the first few days of the festival, so I missed out on some choice titles such as New York Confidential and The Blue Dahlia. I was able to go on Tuesday, however, and caught the “Men and Women of Conviction” double feature. Both movies are not available on DVD, so I was pleased to catch both of them on the big screen.

Crashout [1955, Lewis R. Foster]
Crashout [1955, Lewis R. Foster]
Six survivors of a prison break meet up in a hidden cave and agree to work together to escape the area. One convict, Van Morgan Duff (William Bendix), leads them along with the promise of sharing his bank loot that is buried deep in the mountains.

While dodging cops and watchmen, the convicts push forward by taking innocent people hostage and escaping increasingly tricky situations. It’s a suspenseful affair that includes some surprisingly brutal moments (such as the off-screen moment where someone is bludgeoned to death with a rock). The cast is great, although I did find Luther Adler’s performance to be a little too over-the-top. Bit roles from two lovely women (Beverly Michaels and Gloria Talbot) are welcome additions as well.

Crashout has a fun, quick pace, and it is wildly entertaining throughout. I thought the last scene was a little weak, but it still wrapped things up nicely. One of the better prison escape films I have seen. 8.5/10

The Story of Molly X [1949, Crane Wilbur]
The Story of Molly X [1949, Crane Wilbur]
This one was quite a bit different than what I was expecting. June Havoc stars as Molly X, a “brass-knuckled dame” who takes over her boyfriend’s gang after he is murdered. After finding out who killed her lover, Molly shoots down the assailant in cold blood and subsequently finds herself in a women’s prison. As the title indicates, the movie tells her story…

I have to say that it was refreshing to see a woman leading in this type of film. In the early stages, Molly X is gruff and doesn’t take shit from anyone. When she is locked up, she starts to break down and this is when the film starts to suffer. The entire middle section of the movie follows the introspective battles that Molly is dealing with, and it loses the grittiness that made the beginning (and later, the end) so intriguing. It’s an interesting character study, no doubt, but it kind of drags along before picking back up near the end.

I enjoyed The Story of Molly X, but it was a little underwhelming coming after the exciting Crashout. Still, June Havoc’s wonderful lead performance makes the movie worth watching. 6.5/10

Video Game Review: L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

L.A. Noire
System: Playstation 3 [also on Xbox 360]
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Team Bondi
Release Date: May 17, 2011

The first thing you should know about L.A. Noire is that this is not a traditional Rockstar game. If you come in expecting a Grand Theft Auto-style adventure, you will be sorely disappointed.

Having said that, L.A. Noire is pretty damn brilliant in its own right.

Set in 1947 Los Angeles, the game places you in the role of Cole Phelps, an LAPD Officer who is trying to work his way through the ranks after just coming home from World War II. In a world filled with crime and shady characters (as in the classic film noirs that this borrows heavily from), Phelps is one of the rare few who seems interested in doing the right thing. Phelps doesn’t believe in covering up evidence or tampering with crime scenes; he does his job strictly by the book. This is a refreshing change of pace from previous Rockstar titles in which the lead character basically has free reign to wreak havoc in the game environment.

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

Cole’s job is to investigate crime scenes and to figure out exactly what the hell happened at them. This involves inspecting areas for clues, examining dead bodies, chatting up witnesses and interrogating suspects. While maintaining the open-world environments found in other Rockstar games, L.A. Noire is much more linear overall. You are given case after case to solve, and outside of some side missions that usually involve shootouts or chasing after suspects, there isn’t as much to do in the game world. This is not a problem at all, however, because the cases are long and extremely engrossing. It’s hard not to get caught up in the particulars of certain cases, especially while working in the homicide department. Many of these crimes are based on true stories, which adds even more to the game’s authenticity. In terms of creating 1940s Los Angeles, this is pretty f’n incredible.

The gameplay plays out as something like a hybrid of Heavy Rain’s detailed theatrics and the old point-and-click PC adventure titles prominent in the 1990s, with bits of action sequences sprinkled in. But really, L.A. Noire has developed its own unique style that sets it apart from other titles.

While the action sequences are fun — ramming suspects off the road or chasing them on foot over rooftops never gets old — the most intriguing part of the game is when you interview potential suspects. L.A. Noire’s big developmental feature is the use of a new MotionScan technology that uses astounding facial accuracy to make the characters truly come to life. Seriously, L.A. Noire has the best facial expressions ever seen in a video game. This is absolutely crucial to the gameplay as well since you are required to study the faces of suspects, witnesses and anyone else you talk to. When someone answers one of your questions, you are given three choices: “truth,” “doubt,” or “lie.” It’s up to you if you believe the person of interest or not, but if you believe they are lying then you have to show some kind of proof. If you are unable to accurately determine if they are telling the truth or not, you will be penalized and this can change the outcome of the case. It is possible to send the wrong person to jail in some cases, so it is extremely important to study character reactions.

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

The aforementioned MotionScan technology is made of even greater use by employing real actors to play out the in-game characters. The game borrows heavily from the cast of Mad Men, as more than a handful of the popular TV show’s actors have been used for various roles (including Aaron Staton aka “Ken Cosgrove” as Cole Phelps). The combination of outstanding facial animations, authentic acting and an immaculately-detailed LA game environment makes this one of the better looking games on the market today. Throw in some phenomenal voice acting and 1940s radio and you have a fantastic work of art.

For all of its brilliance, however, L.A. Noire is not perfect. The game offers 21 cases in total to solve, but they start to grow repetitive around the final third of the campaign. This happens after the homicide chapter, which is so good that it would have been really hard to top. Considering the way the story goes, it makes sense to have it in the middle, but it’s almost like Team Bondi gave away its main event too early. Outside of this, there are some occasional annoyances that hinder the gameplay such as idiotic pedestrians who have a habit of running like maniacs directly into your car’s driving path, as well as some occasional glitches and slowdown. Late in the game, I stumbled across one of the most bizarre glitches I have ever seen: I was driving to a crime scene and cut through someone’s backyard. Not a big deal, but apparently the game randomly decided that their yard was made of quicksand and my car slowly started to sink into the ground, tail-end first. The game jolted Phelps and his partner out of the car while the vehicle proceeded to tilt straight up, with just the front half of the car remaining above ground. It was definitely a strange sight to behold. I got a kick out of it, and this will probably not happen for too many people, but I couldn’t help but to share this weird little story.

In essence, L.A. Noire is pretty damn incredible despite its flaws. This is a game unlike any other, and it is one that will surely spawn its own copycats in the future. There is room for growth, which I am sure the inevitable sequel will expand upon, but this is still an engaging experience for anyone interested in detective fiction and film noir. As long as you don’t expect a wild action ride like GTA, chances are you will enjoy L.A. Noire as much as I have.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Heavy Rain [PS3, 2010]

Heavy Rain [PS3, 2010]

Heavy Rain
System: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Quantic Dream
Release Date: February 23, 2010

Heavy Rain is a story driven adventure title that feels like equal parts video game, film noir and crime novel. This effort from Quantic Dream is unique, an experiment that does not come often enough in the gaming world these days. The developers themselves call this an “interactive drama”, which is a pretty good way of describing the experience.

This is a game that relies heavily on its story, and thankfully it delivers in that aspect. The plot revolves around the Origami Killer, an unidentified male who has been murdering children by slowly allowing them to drown via extended periods of rainfall. There are four playable characters, each of whom is trying to determine the killer’s identity. One is a father who believes his missing son is the next potential victim. Another is a photojournalist who is trying to write the next big story. The other two are a private investigator and an FBI profiler, both of whom have the same agenda. As we play through the game, the characters are thoroughly developed, and it is easy to get caught into their worlds. The game starts off a little slow, but once the story picks up it can get very, very difficult to stop playing. I burned through the game in less than a week, simply because I had to find out what would happen next.

Much of the gameplay relies on exploring areas and talking to characters, and then participating in quick-time events (pressing a button or performing a function quickly when it appears on screen). What helps set Heavy Rain apart from other titles is that everything you do is permanent. If you slip up and let one of the main characters die, they are gone forever. This dynamic makes certain moments even more intense because you are literally fighting for your character’s life — there are no do-overs here. I love this style of gameplay, as it makes everything you do, no matter how trivial, feel important.

The game’s entire presentation is fantastic. The graphics are amazing, and they feature some of the best human character models ever found in a video game. The well-written story, strong character development and high quality voice acting are all part of what makes Heavy Rain so great.

There is one fault that I feel compelled to mention — the game’s occasionally clunky controls. I’m not sure who’s bright idea it was to make us hold down R2 and use the analog stick at the same time in order to move around on screen, but this method never feels natural. Even as I approached the game’s ending, I still found myself accidentally moving a character in the wrong direction. An annoying problem, yes, but one I am mostly willing to forgive considering how brilliant the rest of the game is.

To be short, Heavy Rain is a fresh and unique experience that cannot be found elsewhere on the Playstation 3 system. This is by far one of the most immersive video game experiences I have ever played through, and it is something that every serious gamer should play at some point. This is a dark and occasionally disturbing game, but it is one hell of an adventure.

9.5/10