Unranked: Dogtooth

Leading questions about the many movies not in the top 250


What is it?

It is a Greek film, and one of five 2010 Oscar nominees available on Netflix Instant, which is neat (the others are I Am Love (costume), Alice In Wonderland (art direction, costume, VFX) and documentaries Restrepo and Exit Through The Gift Shop).

Dogtooth made a surprising showing in the Foreign Language category despite being COMPLETELY INSANE.

What do you mean by that?

Let's list some things prominently featured in Dogtooth- incest, self-battery of the Fight Club variety, prostitution, fake pregnancy, cat murder, alternate vocabularies, fake translations of Sinatra songs, and a bizarrely sticker-based acheivement system.

Wait, what?

Okay- it's about two parents that have raised their three children, now younng adults, in complete isolation for reasons that are never explained. They don't let them watch television or go outside of their walled-in property, and they tell them that if they do, stray cats will tear them apart with their claws.

Also they tell them they have a brother that went outside the fence and met a super-violent death. And they give certain words false definitions, seemingly just ones that would imply the existence of a world outside: "telephone," for example, is what they call saltshakers.

For real?

For real. The whole movie is pretty much just about this family's insane home life.

But what happens?

Well, the dad works at some sort of office, and he pays a female security guard there to come home with him and sleep with his lone son, I guess to satisfy the son's natural urges? This has been arranged before the film starts.

Naturally bringing in an outsider causes some minor ripples in the weird stasis they've set up, but the film is not structured in a very linear way.

Is the film's look as insane as the story?

Nope, it's a beautiful, aethestically pleasant film. The family's compound has a rather large yard, and a pool, which makes for some great compositions during what appears to be summertime.

The parents aren't made to be villains, at least not by music cues and camera angles. They clearly have their reasons for everything they do, even if these reasons are never made clear to the audience in the slightest.

The director, Giorgos Lanthimos, has solidly positioned himself as a master of artful, bizarre simplicity much like Lars Von Trier or Michael Haneke. But don't ask me exactly what he was trying to say.

Should it be on the countdown?

Not quite, but it's definitely a intriguing debut feature. You spend the entire film sort of waiting for it to unravel into a nightmare, when the real frightening part might be how normal it seems to everyone involved.

Dave's Top Ten of 2010

Honorable Mention

127 Hours (because of Franco’s performance), Blue Valentine (because of Gosling and Williams’ searing work), How to Train Your Dragon (because it completely surprised me), The Human Centipede (because it delivered on what it promised and the care with which the film was made showed), The Other Guys (because Ferrell and McKay always make me laugh), Piranha 3-D (because it was what it promised it would be and, yet, it still made me laugh), Predators (because it was mindless fun and a decent throwback), and Toy Story 3 (because it nearly made me cry).

10. Paranormal Activity 2

The first Paranormal Activity was an effective, documentary-esqe film that was good because of its minimalism and realism. However, the film was only good – and not more – because there was an air of “been here, seen this” and prolonged periods of watching time-lapse photography where nothing happens. The second film is better because of its ramped up production and better pacing. The film still gives you the chills, while expanding upon the initial storyline. My only complaint: There is going to be a third entry and I feel that the drop-off is going to be severe.

9. The Fighter

Great performances flood the screen in David O. Russell’s boxing drama. I should perhaps call it Mark Wahlberg’s boxing drama, as he stars, produces, and advocated for this film to be made for four years. Wahlberg’s subtle performance is the eye of the acting hurricane as more substantial performances surround him.

Amy Adams and Melissa Leo are constantly vying for a stake in Wahlberg’s psyche. Adams, as Wahlberg’s girlfriend, gives an outstanding performance that is as explosive as it is heartfelt. Leo, playing Wahlberg’s mother/manager, reeks of 1990’s Boston.

However, the real acting triumph belongs to Christian Bale. Bill Simmons wrote a piece about how Justin Timberlake felt like Justin Timberlake playing a famous dude in The Social Network. Ultimately, Simmons argues, you cannot get past the fact that it is Justin Timberlake on screen. While I may not entirely agree with Simmons, I understand the point that he is attempting to make. Bale’s performance easily could have fallen prey to a similar situation, but he takes control of it and makes it feel lived in. Inevitably, Bale should (and will) walk away with an Oscar for his work.

8. A Prophet

Technically, this film came out in 2009, but it did not reach my front door until 2010. Besides, if Entertainment Weekly can put it on their top ten list, then so can I. Anyway, this French-Arabic-Italian crime-drama is outstanding. It is gritty, thoughtful, and contains one of the better shoot outs over the last few years.

7. The Ghost Writer

Was this film a thinly veiled Tony Blair analogy? Does the Sun rise in the East? There is a lot of social commentary and analogies occurring in Polanski’s thriller. Not only is there the Blair analogy, there is also Polanski’s analogy of being subject to living in a foreign nation in order to avoid legal ramifications.

Tied together with some outstanding work by McGregor, Brosnan, and Williams, you get a thriller that may seem conventional, but exceeds my expectations.

6. True Grit

The Coen Brothers cannot do any wrong. Not only did they remake/revision a western that many hold in high regard, they made it better. A truer adaptation of Portis’ novel was pitch-perfect for the Coens, similarly to No Country for Old Men.

Entertaining, straightforward, and wonderfully anchored by Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld makes True Grit really enjoyable. Also, this had to be the year for Roger F. Deakins to win an Oscar for Cinematography (but it wasn’t).

5. The Town

Ben Affleck’s career renaissance continues. The Town is not only a great bank robbery movie; it is also a great drama. Affleck makes the most of his cast and crew to deliver one of the most exciting and brutal films of the year.

4. The Social Network

I tussled with this decision. The Social Network and Inception kept flip-flopping with one another (I will discuss later why Inception got the slight nudge). Fincher’s Facebook creation drama unfolds beautifully through fantastic editing. The young cast show great poise and maturity to deliver one of the finest written scripts ever.

The technical merits of the film, including the overlooked Special Effects, are flawless. These elements are to the highest standard because of Fincher’s drive to create as close to perfection as he can. Paired with a hypnotic score by Ross and Reznor, this film sets itself up perfectly and delivers.

3. Inception

So, how did Inception get the slight edge of The Social Network? For me, both films are technically flawless, both have outstanding scores, both have outstanding direction, and The Social Network has an advantage in acting. The scripts are excellent, but very different in their excellence. The written dialogue for The Social Network is superior to Inception, but the overall story of Inception is more intriguing.

It all came down to rewatchability. While both merit multiple viewings, I know that I will watch Inception over and over for years to come because it was more exciting to me than The Social Network.

2. Mother

Again, a film that is technically from 2009. However, this Hitchcockian story about a mother trying to prove her son’s innocence is taut and moving. Much of the acclaim can reside with Hye-ja Kim’s incredible performance.

1. Black Swan

A lot of articles have pointed out that Darren Aronofsky makes films that focus on the physical extremes for his lead characters. What separates Black Swan from his previous works is the psychological extreme. It reminded me of Repulsion, but was ten times more coherent.

The entire cast is great. Whether it be Kunis’ seductive understudy, Hershey’s overbearing and controlling mother, or Cassel’s sexual and manipulative director. Even Winona Ryder’s five minutes of screen time is unsettling. However, the majority of the praise belongs with Natalie Portman. Her role is innocent, frightening, sexy, and timid all at the same time.

Mansell’s score is pretty terrifying, and all the technical work creates an atmosphere that is compelling and scary as hell. This was one of the few films this year that stuck with me long after I left the theater. I eagerly anticipate its impending release onto Blu-Ray.

Try as I might to find the most humorous part of the film on YouTube (“Would you fuck dis gurl?”), I cannot. So, I leave you with this instead:

IMDB #156 Ben-Hur

Man, I've been trying to work up the energy to write about 1959's epic Ben-Hur for the countdown project, but it hasn't been coming.

What's to say about a film that won 11 Oscars and is somehow all about Jesus while barely featuring Jesus? Stay tuned to find out how I muddle through it!

The Key Players:

Director William Wyler returns for the hat trick, star Charlton Heston makes appearance number two. His jaw remains squarely set.

In support are Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Haya Harareet, and Jack Hawkins.

Click for More...

The Story:

It's been a couple months since I watched it, so it'll be more fun to see what I can remember without leaning on wikipedia:

Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of the Jews (?), who returns home to Jerusalem. He's reunited with his sister, mother, and one faithful servant (who has a hot daughter named Esther).

He's also reunited with childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is a Roman primed to take over governorship of the area. Messala wants Ben-Hur to spy for the romans and turn in Jews who don't like being ruled over and opressed and suchlike- Ben-Hur respects his friend but refuses to turn on his own people. He promises to counsel the Jews to avoid violent revolt, but Messala is not pleased.

The entire plot of the film is then set in motion by a falling roof tile- yeah, a teeny little roof tile. As Ben-Hur and his sister watch some Roman bigwig parade by, she accidentally knocks a tile right onto the guy, and the police come storming in to arrest everybody. Clearly this is all part of some devious, under-handed Jewish roof-tile-based revolution!

Messala, as chief of the guard or what have you, is in position to put a stop to all this, but dramatically refuses. Ben-Hur (after a brief escape attempt) is sent to work row on a slave ship, his family's fate unknown to him.

What follows is an improbable run from shirtless rower to adoptive Roman citizen to charioteer, involving a benevolent Roman luminary, and a hilarious shiek played by a scene-stealing Hugh Griffith. All the while Ben-Hur struggles with his desire for revenge, ignoring the pacifist teachings of some offscreen fellow named "Jebus" or something.

The Artistry:

Man, I can't even begin to imagine the scope of Ben-Hur. The extras! Imagine getting that many people together before the AI CGI extras that were developed for Lord Of The Rings. Or even the matte painting stormtroopers in Star Wars.

The chariot race, of course, stands out as an unrivaled piece of action film-making. Actual horses, actual chariots, an actual crowd- it's very authentic, to say the least.

I can't say I maintain any impression of Miklós Rózsa's score, other than that it was loud when the film was loud and quiet when the film was quiet. But I hear it's one of the greatest?

Charlton Heston does an admirable job- he's great at selling Ben-Hur's genuine struggle to reconcile his friendship with Messala with his people's pride at the beginning, and he remains compelling in the fall and rise of the character as the film goes on (and on).

The ending, which we'll get to, is a little more troublesome as he has to be entirely converted into a believer by a Christ figure played by an extra whose face is never seen.

But in many ways that's the best aspect of Ben-Hur (I would assume this is true of Lew Wallace's novel as well). The focus allows the movie to deal with the large theme of vengeance and peace without getting too heavy-handed, because the story of Ben-Hur is personal instead of allegorical.

Which isn't to say it's subtle, at all. Or short. Here's my question- what was the last film to have an actual intermission? One where, like in Ben-Hur, the word "INTERMISSION" actually appears on the screen and people get up to stretch their legs?

It seems like sacriledge to say Ben-Hur could be shorter, but some of the interpersonal drama once Ben-Hur returns and sees what's become of everybody is pretty slow...


So once he finally returns to face down Messala in said badass chariot race, Ben-Hur discovers his former servant and his foxy daughter destitue but still devoted to him, and his mother and sister have supposedly died in prison.

In fact, they've both become lepers, which is apparently so shameful that they demand that Esther lie to him and say they've died.

In the race, Messala drives a chariot with spikes on the wheels and tries to destroy's Ben-Hur's chariot (he also has black horses to Ben-Hur's white horses). But he ends up crashing himself and is mortally trampled.

In a final act of douchery, he reveals to Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are lepers. Dun dun Dunnn! Enraged, he plans violent revolt at last, since Romans are as much responsible for their fate as Messala himself was.

Esther, however, tells him about the sermon on the mount, and convinces Ben-Hur that Jesus could heal his family. They're too late, however, and only arrive in time to see him carrying his own cross.

At this point, Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus as a stranger that once offered him water in his slave days, saving his life. He poignantly returns the favor before guards pull him away.

The crucifixtion brings the film to its climax as Ben-Hur hears Jesus ask for the people's forgiveness even as they kill him and realizes he's been a little revenge-obessed, and then a miracle occurs in which the blood of Christ, seemingly washed down into their cave in the rainwater, heals Ben-Hur's mother and sister completely. Bonus!

So all's well that ends well. Presumably all of the Jews would recognize Jesus as their savior and king on this earth and in the next realm, and these new, so-called "Christians" would never persecute anyone themselves.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

We'll say it should stay right here, even though for all the production value I can't say I need to sit through it again.

The Legacy:

It won a record 11 Oscars, since tied by Titanic and The Return of the King- though it is the only one of the three to have any acting awards included, as Heston won Best Actor and the hilarious Hugh Griffith won Supporting Actor.

As such, it's on lists and in vaults and everything else required of a cultural touchstone- although the only homage to it I can think of is the car race from Grease with the spiked hubcaps.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Chariot time!

Leftover Thoughts:

-The nativity story is briefly acted out as a prologue. Forgot to mention this.

-I feel like this film really gets to have its cake and eat it, because it preaches pacifism but also has Messala get trampled and all. The other Roman villains are mainly offscreen, though I think Pontus Pilate is around for the washing of the hands bit.

Coming Up...

155. The Manchurian Candidate

154. Avatar

153. Scarface

Unranked: Mary and Max

Leading questions about the many movies not in the top 250.

Mary and Max

What is it?

It's claymation, that's what! One of my favorite things ever since Gumby.

If I have a heart, is Gumby a pal for me?

He totally is!

Anyway, what's 'Mary and Max' about?

It's about a lonely little girl from Australia and a man from New York City with Asperger's syndrome that become unlikely pen pals. It claims it's 'based on a true story' at the beginning.

Does it have that song from those pentium commercials in it?

Indeed, the beginning credits and key moments of emotion are set to Penguin Cafe Orchestra's Perpetuum Mobile, which you will recognize as soon as the piano kicks in.

Is it a kids' movie?

Not at all- it wasn't rated by the MPAA for some reason, but I would guess at least PG, if not PG-13. There is some frank discussion of sexuality (which gives Max panic attacks), death, alcoholism, and one near-suicide.

Is it affecting?

It is, kinda. It makes a pretty broad point about the importance of human connection in a life filled with loneliness, and uses a hugely contrived ending to put an exclamation point on it.

But you can't blame it for that, right, because it's a true story?

Here's the thing- it's not. Not even in the slightest. The director, Adam Elliott, has said in interviews that he wishes they had gone with "Inspired by a true story," instead of 'based on,' because only the barest facts are true: as an Australian youth (17), he himself began a two-decades long pen pal correspondence with a Jewish man with Asperger's from NYC. That is it.

It bothered me, probably too much. It's one thing for something like Unstoppable to throw that line out there, because 'there was a runaway train that some people had to stop' is a pretty generic premise. But for a story that was seemingly intensely personal, it was a huge misdirect that probably should have been removed altogether.

But you enjoyed it, right?

I guess I did? I felt for them, I cared at the time. But now, especially now that I know it was it was 95% made up, it strikes me that it was just an unending parade of miserable things happening to miserable people, capped by a bittersweet ending. And that's one of my least favorite types of film. It also relies heavily on a narrator to tell us obvious things about how Mary and Max are affecting one another.

It's not holding up well, let's put it that way.

Should it be on the countdown?

It actually is, it just wasn't when I did the 200's before. But it wouldn't make my top 250, personally. I do admire the craftsmanship, though, and especially enjoyed the opening credits, which focused on the small details around Mary's neighborhood.

For the record, the fact that Fargo is mostly not true (but explicitly claims to be up front) was spoiled for me before I saw it, and it's great anyway. But I wonder now how I would have felt if I was duped.

The Top 20 Movies of 2010, part 2

This took forever to order correctly, just so you're aware. Let's get to it!

10. TRON: Legacy

I will fully admit I have too much of a soft-spot for TRON. I saw it when I was in grade school, and then I wrote a story for English class that was more or less a bald-faced ripoff.

So there's that, plus Jeff Bridges basically playing The Dude in TRON-land, the incredibly kickass Daft Punk score, and Olivia Wilde in skintight leather (see the blog header). It just had to be in the top ten.

Every criticism you may level at it is completely valid, but it's just not enough to countermeasure those other things for me. The 3D was even decently handled, too.

9. The Ghost Writer

Another great ending on this one. You think Tony Blair and his wife have seen it yet?

8. The Way Back

Another movie that might be right up my alley, because I love epic, Lord of the Rings style journeys on foot. But the look and feel and general Peter-Weirness of it more than made up for the hammy ending and the lack of character development. It helps that other than shuffling a few characters around, the extreme nature of the journey is close to the memoir on which it's based.

7. Please Give

If Woody Allen's not going to make Woody Allen movies anymore, then I vote for Nicole Holocefner to take up the mantle.

Credit Please Give for dodging complaints of stuffy New York intellectualism by moving swiftly, being funny, and not taking itself too seriously. Also this movie gets extra credit for passing the Bechdel test so hard you guys.

6. Inception

Once you see Inception enough times, the (admittedly necessary) exposition starts to drag quite a bit. But the most memorable, exciting action of the year makes it one of the best heist films ever- not, as it's frequently misunderstood to be, one of the best films about dreams ever.

It would be higher, though, if there were chemistry between any two of the actors beyond Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's awesome bickering. The central DiCaprio-Cotillard relationship fell flat for me, and Ellen Page's character may as well have been literally named "Audience Surrogate" instead of "Arachne" (which was this year's "Unobtainium" in terms of making me groan out loud).

But if I were to rank my top 40 minute stretches of the year, there's no way the last 40 of Inception doesn't top that list.

5. True Grit

Fitting that the Coens would make a stark, chilling neo-Western (No Country For Old Men) before they make a traditional one. But the genre is a perfect fit for them, with arcane, memorable language and a literally wandering storyline.

Matt Damon and Jeff Brigdes make up a powerfully dynamin triumvirate with young Hailee Steinfeld- every scene between them is a study in shifting authority and social perception in an unusual situation. With Roger F-ing Deakins and Carter Burwell bringing their standard greatness to the look and score, True Grit is right up there with Gangs of New York in the "I Can't Believe it went 0 for 10 at the Oscars" Club.

4. Winter's Bone

The perfect bleak winter movie, chilling and desolate. Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes deliver great performances in a movie that's engrossingly propulsive and quietly artful at the same time.

3. The Social Network

Previously reviewed here. I think noteworthy Best Picture snubs are just as good as wins in the larger scheme of things, as Stephen Spielberg helpfully pointed out right before giving it to The King's Speech.

2. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

How did I not do several posts about how great Scott Pilgrim was? As seen in my preferred Oscar nominations, it was a winner in every department for me.

Edgar Wright was clearly a fan of the graphic novels, and set about dutifully brining them to the screen with the spastic, nostalgic spirit intact- working closely with Bryan Lee O'Malley even as he was finishing the sixth and final volume.

As unique as the video-game style fight sequences are, the rest of the film is more enjoyable to me: wright's trademark whip-cuts are perfect for the pace of the film, and I enjoyed the way the dialogue was countered with odd bits of sound effects.

Plus, it featured the first film soundtrack (not score) that I had to have in a long time, with original songs by Beck and Metric.

1. How To Train Your Dragon

Pretty sure I covered this one already.

I would only add that if this list was titled- "The Best 20 Films of 2010 to watch on DVD," then Dragon might not be #1, but the 3D, in-theater experience (which I experienced an embarassing number of times) makes it the clear winner for the year.

(Coming as soon as he sends it to me: Dave's top ten!)

The Top 20 Movies of 2010, part 1

It bugs me when people say things like "this was a pretty weak year for movies."

First of all, that's not something we can judge until AT LEAST five years afterward. Secondly, you just have to know where to look.

Despite the internet seemingly concurring that this was a down year, I found myself wanting to do a top 20 instead of a top 10. So here's the first half of the best 2010 had to offer.

20. Solitary Man

Thoroughly overshadowed by the misguided Wall Street sequel, Brian Koppelman and David Levien's quiet, thoughtful rumination on the Michael Douglas archetype came and went quickly at the end of the summer.

Playing a literal used-car-salesman, Douglas explores the fallout that the womanizing and swindling Gordon-Gekko-types would eventually face in real life.

The early plot hinges on the character's extreme reaction to not-that-extreme medical news, but stays low-key and believable the rest of the way. Douglas does some fine work, and supporting turns from Jesse Eisenberg, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, and even Danny DeVito make it a memorable film.

19. The American

Beautiful, beautiful film from photographer and music-video-director Anton Corbijn. Very sparse and very quiet, so I can see why it didn't catch on in a big way. George Clooney is also pretty good, even if the script is too spare to make the ending as heartbreaking as it wanted to be.

18. 127 Hours

My initial response to the film was just north of ambivalent, but it's grown on me since. By the time I ended up writing about it at length for the movie-blog association, I found myself arguing for its relative subtlety, as loud and Danny-Boyle-y as it is.

17. The Town

(reviewed already here)

Question: film-setting-wise, is Boston the new New York? Discuss.

16. I Am Love

A little soapy, to be sure, but worth it for the cinematography and Tilda Swinton- who can switch from unsettlingly androgynous mode to fabulous just like that, it turns out.

15. Shutter Island

Shutter Island was top ten for me until the end. A full five minutes of Ben Kinglsey explaining every little damn thing, straight down to a full-on, facepalm-inducing anagram.

I've said this before, but can we most past names that are anagrams in movies as a society? That's something that the lame twin in Adaptation would think was awesome.

So as well-made as Shutter Island is in every other respect, the hand-holding makes it vastly inferior to something like Spider. But no Oscar nominations?

14. Tangled

Tangled, too, was in the running for the top half until the big finale sidelined the heroine and turned on a deus ex machina. But it was witty, well-CGIed, and swiftly paced.

13. Mother

On the other hand, Mother has an ending that just amplifies everything that's come before, even if you were to guess it beforehand- which I didn't, I was too enthralled by Hye-ja Kim's performance.

12. Never Let Me Go

Still not sure how much of my goodwill comes from just having read Ishiguro's beautiful novel just beforehand, but credit to the movie that I could do so and not immediately find flaws in the adaptation of it. Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield all acquit themselves well.

My only complaint would be that the casting for the younger version of Mulligan was so spot-on that it made the other two younger characters less believable.

11. Toy Story 3

You cried too. Admit it.

Tomorrow, the top ten!

Unranked: My Man Godfrey

Welcome to a new feature, featuring quick, much breezier reviews of movies that either are not on imdb's top 250 (and a few from 160-250 that weren't on it before).

In short, just random stuff. A chief motivation for this is that I recently signed up for Netflix instant, which is probably the reason the internet was invented in the first place. And it's only eight bucks a month, which is less than the cost of one movie ticket.

Now, I know that the top 250 entries can get kind of silly, but these will be even sillier, mostly because the majority of what I find to watch is screwball comedies. Let's get started!

My Man Godfrey

What is it?

A classic screwball, one that falls squarely into the 'Rich People Be Crazy' sub-genre. I would guess that people liked to mock the wealthy during the Great Depression, and this was right in the middle of it (1936).

Who's Godfrey, then?

He's a forgotten man, played by the super-suave William Powell, that two daffy rich sisters try to recruit as part of a scavenger hunt. He pushes the arrogant sister into an ash pile, and accompanies the nicer (but considerably wackier) one to help her win the hunt. She hires him as the new family butler, which leads to both sisters and the family maid falling in love with him.

How creepy is the age difference?

As we'll soon see, this is an essential question of pretty much every old movie that features romance of any kind, even silly romance like My Man Godfrey. In this case we have Powell, 44, eventually ending up with Carole Lombard, 28. So... just a little creepy.

Though for a good portion of the movie I thought Godfrey was headed toward the other sister, played by the 25-year-old Gail Patrick. The actress playing the maid (Jean Dixon) was 40, incidentally.

Is there a wacky foreign dude?

Of course there is! Seemingly a staple of lampooning high society, here we get Carlo, a piano 'prodigy' that the mother of the family is 'mentoring,' who only seems to know one song (and is constantly stuffing his face with food, or acting like a monkey to amuse his benefactor).

Should it be on the countdown?

I say yes, but just barely. Here's the thing: it's wonderfully funny, with plenty of great quips from Powell (and Eugene Pallette, who played a lot of rich fathers back in the day), but Carole Lombard rubbed me the wrong way. She just seemed shrill and nuts and stalkery.

This could be just me- after all, Katherine Hepburn does mostly the same thing in Bringing Up Baby and it worked for me then. But Powell seems to have a lot more chemistry with the other, haughtier daughter, Gail Patrick. There's even a movement to their relationship during the story, wherein she tries to frame him for theivery and eventually realizes how shallow she's been.

Lombard just doggedly clings to Powell until, dazed, she arranges to marry him at the film's end. What?

Also in favor of the film is the inventive title sequence, which is a long pan over marquee lights (as in the still above).

IMDB #157 The Big Sleep

It's easy to think of classic films as unimpeachable works of art- chiseled from stone, woven in tapestry. The vision, perhaps, of a black and white auteur, or the product of the finely-tuned studio system of yore. But the greatest films often have the most slipshod, haphazard tales of development: take 1946's The Big Sleep, for example.

After the best-picture triumph of Casablanca, it probably seemed like a no-brainer to cast Humphrey Bogart as another ambivalent wiseguy trying to live under Vichy rules with a piano-playing sidekick. So Howard Hawks enlisted a broke William Faulkner to transpose Hemingway's To Have and Have Not to WWII France. Despite the extensive pedigrees of those four men, the show was stolen by a nineteen-year-old Harper's Bazaar cover model named Lauren Bacall- her rapport with the middle-aged Bogart resulted in her part enlarging considerably.

And so it would be for Hawks/Bogart/Bacall volume two: give the people what they want. It turns out they want star power, sexual chemistry, long horse-racing double entendres, and classic noir.

The Key Players

Howard Hawks comes back to the countdown after two screwball comedies, Bogart we saw once, later in his all-too-brief careeer.

It was actually Hawks' wife Nancy that spotted Betty Joan Peske, soon to be rechristened Lauren Bacall, on a magazine and urged Howard to give her a screen test. The legend has it that both Hawks and Bogart (also married) fell in love with the young starlet during filming of To Have and Have Not, with bitterness resulting when she chose Bogart. Nevertheless, after imitating life in art with four successful thrillers together (Dark Passage and Key Largo being the other two), Bacall would also prove adept at comedy (How To Marry A Millionaire, Designing Woman) drama (Written on the Wind), and stage-work, winning two Tonys before an obligatory "It's Lauren Bacall!" Oscar nomination in 1996 (The Mirror Has Two Faces) and honorary statuette in 2009.

Martha Vickers takes the only other substantial role, in her biggest career success- though that might not be the case if she hadn't died in early middle age from esophogeal cancer, just like Bogart. Elisha Cook from The Killing also pops up- I think he was mostly cast to make the 5'8" Bogart look taller.


The Story:

Raymond Chandler's classic gumshoe novel is rightly famous, not just for having a whole lot of twists and turns, but just the right amount of them: not so many as to be ludicrous, not so few as to be easy to guess the end.

We start with Bogart, aka most famous shamus ever Phillip Marlowe, arriving at the house of his latest client, Old Rich Father (General Sternwood). First he meets Carmen Sternwood (Vickers), whom we'll refer to as Crazed Sexpot Daughter. This is established in a wonderful scene featuring a metajoke about Bogart's height and possibly the shortest shorts available in 1946- also she tries to sit in his lap while he's standing.

Anyway, Crazed Sexpot Daughter has some gambling debts with a Fake Book Dealer, and Old Rich Father wants Marlowe to get her off the hook. Simple enough.

But wait- Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), the other daughter (and presumably a widow? This is never explained) thinks Marlowe's really been called in to look into the dissapearance of her father's Ex-Right Hand Man, who ran off with the wife of a Scary Casino Owner some months before.

Got all that? Marlowe does some simple recon, following the Fake Book Dealer from his Fake Bookshop to his house, only to hear a gunshot and a scream. He storms in to find a drug-addled Crazed Sexpot Daughter, a dead Fake Book Dealer, and a hidden camera with missing film.

Marlowe takes the girl home, but soon Vivian is blackmailed with the compromising picture of Crazed Sexpot Daughter from the camera (the contents of the photo are never explained), and goes to our man for help. But is Vivian in cahoots with the Scary Casino Owner, who was coincidentally the Fake Book Dealer's landlord, and incidentally doesn't seem to care at all about his wife running off with the Ex-Right-Hand-Man?

I'm pretty sure the suspense is gripping!

The Artistry

It's not proper film-nerd behavior to watch The Big Lebowski two dozen times before ever seeing actual noir staples like The Big Sleep, but that's what I ended up doing. I actually even saw The Maltese Falcon last month in the theater!

I even saw the random Smallville episode where Jimmy Olsen gets knocked out and has an elaborate noir fantasy after watching The Big Sleep before I saw The Big Sleep! But better late than never.

And even with too many shady thugs, offscreen murders and double crosses to really keep track of the first time through, there's a familiar rhythm and atmosphere that makes it a pleasure to watch. Marlowe falls in love with Vivian Rutledge because he always does, because she's a woman with a troubled past who needs his help. He gets roughed up by some thugs because he's ignored multiple warnings to stop looking, even after his client says to stop (technically his actual case ends when the Fake Book Dealer is shot).

My favorite character is not Marlowe, however, it's a character never seen onscreen named Owen Taylor. The Sternwood family driver, he is at one point in possession of the scandalous photo- a dumb thug named Joe Brody admits later that he knocked Taylor out and took them, to blackmail Vivian with.

But Owen Taylor still ends up dead, his car twelve feet under the ocean. But who killed him? Brody had no reason to (and no reason to hide it, if he had). The legend is that when Hawks and co. found this plothole, production halted for two days while the screenwriters combed over the book to figure it out. When they couldn't, they telegrammed Chandler himself... who admitted that he didn't know, either.

How awesome is that? Owen Taylor, killed by the plot itself! The very mood of The Big Sleep killed him, because it needed a second body to raise the stakes, and there he was: alone, unconcious, on the side of the road. Absorbed by the shadowy fog and washed out to sea. Owen Taylor is my new go-to reference for plot holes in great films- films great enough that the plot holes hardly matter.

It makes The Big Sleep even better, because there's no way a plot that messy could tie up entirely neatly, is there?

Anyway, the cast is of course excellent, even if the Bogie/Bacall phenomenon threatens to hijack the entire film (more on this later). Vickers shines in her few scenes (according to Chandler, her role was diminished because she was acting circles around Bacall), and all the character-actors as minor stooges acquit themselves just as well. Elisha Cook plays a doomed go-between with such frank earnestness that even Marlowe takes a shine to the guy.

The score I found a pretty typical "OH NO! SOMETHING BAD OR DRAMATIC IS HAPPENING" big band warble, and the noir shadows were familiarly non-descript. The crackling dialogue was filled with some wonderful lines- all my favorites I'll throw in Leftover Thoughts.

The only knock against The Big Sleep is really against the goddamned Hayes Code, anyway- racy and lewd things are left in the film but just obliquely hinted at, like the photo, or a key homosexual relationship. And the ending is softened a bit, as we'll see.

So studio pressure, a mystery killing, and the Hayes Code all mucked The Big Sleep about, and the result was still great. Just goes to show.


Let me preface this by saying this is uneccesarily long and largely so I can keep it all straight for myself:

So...Marlowe tracks down the blackmailers and, despite interference from both sisters, reclaims the photo from Joe Brody, who got it from Owen Taylor (who killed the Fake Book Dealer and took the film because he's in love with Crazed Sexpot Daughter, or was) and a woman named Agnes, who was the Fake Book Dealer's assistant.

Then some random dude (that the film never bothers to mention was the dead guy's gay lover) mistakenly kills Brody in revenge.

Vivian, assuming the case is now over since her sister's debts are gone, and the murder of the Fake Book Dealer is solved (WHAT ABOUT YOUR DRIVER, OWEN TAYLOR, HUH!?), flirts with Marlowe until she realizes that he's not done with the case.

Even though she and the Scary Casino owner stage an elaborate show to throw him off the trail, Marlowe doggedly follows the right people at the right moments until Agnes tips him off to the location of the Casino Owner's wife (after a poor stooge in love with her gets killed delivering the message, which means Marlowe is really Not Letting It Go).

He goes to a secluded cabin to find said Wife, but also Vivian and some henchman that knocks him over the head and ties him up. But Vivian sets him free, long enough to shoot the henchman and drive her back to the house that the Scary Casino Owner owns.

And here's the finale, ready? Marlowe calls the Casino Owner, tells he'll meet him at the house in 40 minutes (even though he's already there- ha! landlines.). Casino Owner arrives, leaves his henchman outside, so Marlowe gets the drop on him.

And here's the rub: turns out Scary Casino Owner convinced Vivian that her sister killed the missing Right Hand Man, and has been blackmailing her ever since. In the book this is ACTUALLY WHAT HAPPENED, but in the film Marlowe sees that he has no proof, and is just taking advantage of Crazed Sexpot Daughter's frequent blackouts to be a jerk. In both versions, he just fires his gun into the ceiling and scares the Casino Owner out of the door, where he's shot by his own men (who heard the shots and figured out Marlowe was in there, and naturally got jumpy).

He calls the cops to get them out safely, and Bogie and Bacall manage to own this cheesy ending exchange:

Vivian: "You've forgotten one thing - me."
Marlowe: "What's wrong with you?"
Vivian: "Nothing you can't fix."


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher, for sure. It's definitely my favorite in the genre so far (take that, Out Of The Past). They actually made another version of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, but it was in 1978 and he was sixty! Come on, now.

The Legacy:

As popular as it was, no awards or nominations. It is in the NFR, and I did see a "Who was the best Phillip Marlowe?" poll somewhere where Bogart was absoluely crushing everyone else (Elliott Gould? Be serious.).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

The Big Sleep was actually finished and shown to servicemen before the studio decided the sexual tension between the two leads needed to be amped up. So they shot the night club scene where they talk for a super long time about horse racing and made countless double entendres (many of which I only got the naughty-side of, knowing squat about horses). Embedding is sadly disabled, so follow this link. The clip is from a colorized version, so brace yourself for that.

BONUS: My favorite part was when they prank call the police!

Leftover Thoughts:

-FYI, by "Fake Book Dealer" I mean a lowlife pornographer that masqerades as a book dealer, not a dealer of false books (or "fake books" like jazz musicians use).

-I kind of want to write my own version of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," called Who Killed Owen Taylor? Too bad he never actually appears in The Big Sleep.

-Theorists argue that either Brody killed Owen Taylor and didn't admit it for no real reason, or that Taylor, waking up alone, now a murderer, and without the damning photo of his beloved Carmen, then killed himself- but I don't buy it.

-And now, all quotes all the time:

Carmen: "You're not very tall, are you?"
Marlowe: "Well, I try to be."

after Vivian has trouble opening his office door to get out
Marlowe: "Well it wasn't intentional."
Vivian: "Try it sometime."

Mars: "That any of your business?"
Marlowe: "I could make it my business."
Mars: "I could make your business mine."
Marlowe: "Oh, you wouldn't like it, the pay's too small."

Vivian: "The only trouble is we could've had a lot of fun if you weren't a detective."

Marlowe: "You came in by the keyhole like Peter Pan."
Carmen: "Who's he?"
Marlowe: "Guy I used to know ran a pool room."

Carmen: "Is he as cute as you are?"
Marlowe: "Nobody is." (it's impossible to describe the perfect deadpan with which Bogart delivers this reply. It destroyed me.).

Coming Up...

156. Ben-Hur

155. The Manchurian Candidate

154. Avatar

The Oscar Hangover

An unfocused, lazy wrap-up of the show to follow- for in depth coverage, see the entirety of the rest of the internet/entertainment media.

How did I do?

For the third straight year, I got 16 out of 24 categories correct. So.... at least I'm consistent? I missed two out of the three shorts (which is a win, for me), documentary (picked with my heart on the Banksy thing, not my brain), Art Direction and Costumes (Alice in Wonderland? Seriously?), Score, Song, and Cinematography.

I did beat Dave, though! After beating me 18-16 for the last two years, he finished either at 13 (on the posted predictions from Sunday) or 15 due to some off-the-cuff changes to his paper ballot. Either way, boo yah. This puts us even at 2-2 in four years of blog-prognosticating, including my not-super-impressive 13-11 victory during the No Country For Old Men year.

I get to hold on to the bragging rights for a year, or I would if we were the type of dudes that brag about stuff.

How was the telecast?

I don't care. I really don't. I watch to see the Oscars. The actual statues, handed to people, people that made films. I might have off-hand, armchair opinions about stuff, but I will watch the Oscars no matter what. Next Year they could have Justin Bieber host and use a T-Pain app to auto-tune everyone's acceptance speech.

So from my perspective, they were a success. 24 Oscars were presented. Nobody accidentally choked on one of them. I can intellectually appreciate all of the things people are saying about how Franco and Hathaway did, but I just don't care. Since The Oscars are my superbowl, in my mind they are a thing that happens, that I enjoy even when aesthetically they may be pereceived as unpleasant- I don't complain about when the Superbowl is a blowout, similarly.

How do I feel about the awards themselves?

I'm okay with them. Like anyone pulling for The Social Network and Inception, I had steeled myself emotionally for The King's Speech to win nearly everything, but it lost every single tech award it was up for.

Yes, it lost costumes and art direction to Alice in Wonderland, which seems like it was co-directed by Tim Burton and Spencer's gifts, but score went very deservedly to The Social Network, and Cinematography to Inception.

I'm sure David Fincher will have another day in the sun, possibly with his Dragon Tattoo movie. Nolan I'm less sure will ever jibe with the Academy, but a longstanding, Scorsese-like streak of snubbing is just as fun, really.

The King's Speech is better than Slumdog Millionaire and Crash, anyway, so it isn't a burning injustice.

Now it's time for the post-Oscar doldrums. Sigh.

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