Saturday, August 11, 2018

Movie Reviews: Sunset Boulevard, Bad Samaritan

Sunset Boulevard
directed by Billy Wilder
All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup.
This is a classic film noir which I hadn't seen in its entirety though I knew some popular lines. Sunset Boulevard leaves a cinematographic impression upon the viewer. It's filmed in glorious black and white. It uses shadow, smoke and music to create a setting that is alternately realistic and something that could have come from a dream or nightmare. 

The story and the character motives and fears displayed in this 1950 movie are relevant today. Men and women haven't changed that much. Watching movies like this, that if remade today would have been more graphic, always reminds me of how quality films can tell good stories without relying on blood and nudity. Sunset Boulevard is also an example of non-linear story telling; the film is told in flashback voiceover by a character who explains the events.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a Hollywood screenwriter of dubious morals, questionable talents and light wallet. Joe has tried selling a script to Paramount but Betty (Nancy Olson) a younger quality control script reader, didn't like it. Joe is behind on his car payments and other bills.

Trying to avoid the repo men Joe pulls into the driveway of an apparent abandoned mansion. However, the mansion isn't abandoned. It's the home of aging and near forgotten film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who resides there with her manservant Max (Erich Von Stroheim).
Norma is a holdover from the silent film era (this was art imitating life as Gloria Swanson herself was a huge silent film star during the twenties) who never came to terms with actors needing to talk. 

Modern Hollywood thinks Norma is akin to the woman in the Caddyshack movie of whom Rodney Dangerfield joked" You must've been something before electricity!" The reclusive Norma spends her time watching her old films, boasting about her importance to the film industry, and ridiculing modern actors and directors as fools and charlatans. When Norma discovers that Joe's a screenwriter she insists he read her script for a Salome movie, which she thinks will cement her return to modern Hollywood relevance and royalty. Norma hates the word "comeback".

Joe thinks to himself that Norma's script is dreck. Norma will pay Joe to edit her script. Joe thinks this is easy money. Someone else can tell Norma that her writing skills are subpar and films have changed since the Jurassic Period.

Norma is lonely; she likes Joe for more than his editing skills. Norma has money and sees no reason why Joe shouldn't be responsive. Joe sees that Norma isn't all there. Betty starts to think that Joe's script might have promise after all.

Swanson's Norma dominates this movie, but in a good way. She is alternately pathetic and vicious, needy and controlling. Is she villainous though? That's your call. The film's imagery has more than a few nods to classic horror films/stories such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Near the film's end Swanson could be a dead ringer for Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein while her long nails, grasping nature, and constant evocation of past glories are reminiscent of the filmic and literary Dracula. Joe Gillis is no helpless victim. His eyes are wide open though he doesn't always make the best decisions. This movie is not romantic but in a strange way it is a love story. Love makes every major character do things they shouldn't. There's a lot to unpack about gender roles and male and female desires. If you haven't seen this movie, you may still be familiar with the dialogue and acting, even if only via parody.

Bad Samaritan
directed by Dean Devlin
Filmmakers dealt with the central theme of Bad Samaritan  in the film Don't Breathe and elsewhere. When a minor criminal encounters a major criminal he must balance his sense of self-preservation against his inner moral voice. Bad Samaritan could have been a better movie if it stayed with the cat-and-mouse motif or tit for tat theme of escalating confrontation in a cold war that turns hot. Can you imagine working with someone who has something on you but each of you are pretending otherwise? Or perhaps you remember being a child and knowing that one or both of your parents was going to find out what you did and punish you? Or even worse, imagine your parents already knew what you did and nonchalantly mentioned that they were going to punish you later? Those scenarios can intensify dread.

Bad Samaritan begins with that theme but too quickly degenerates into a list of suspenseful setpieces that are ok individually but don't work as a whole. Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan) is an Irish immigrant who with his best buddy Derek (Carlito Olivero) runs a valet service. Because both men are stupid and greedy they take the opportunity to drive to their customers' homes to burglarize them. Well just because someone is out for dinner doesn't mean their house is empty. Neighbors may notice their neighbor's car being driven by someone else. Depending on traffic and distance it may be a challenge to drive to someone's home, steal from it, and get back to the restaurant in time to drop off the vehicle.

Some people would notice extra mileage on the odometer. Other people give a car key to the valet, but always keep their house keys and garage door openers. Many people lock their doors and set alarms when they leave home. And wouldn't someone who was burgled with no sign of forced entry immediately start to wonder who else had had their keys or garage door opener that day? 

Bad Samaritan asks you to ignore all of that and imagine that Sean and Derek have been successful in their criminal endeavors. When Cale (David Tennant) visits the restaurant he's such a jerk to Sean and Derek that Sean can't wait to rob him. At Cale's home David steals credit cards and other items, but makes a discovery that shows that Cale is really not someone he should have messed with. Rushing back to the restaurant to return the car, Sean decides that he's done breaking the law. Unfortunately for Sean, Cale is not only a suspicious control freak with OCD who notices little things like his phone being out of place but also is a wealthy man and sadistic supervillain. Imagine if Batman went bad. Cale takes a special interest in ruining Sean and Derek's lives. Battle is joined.

This movie ran a little long. Tennant's role was strong but wasted. His character is almost too powerful. I didn't really care about Sean and Derek's lives spiraling out of control as neither of them are likable people.
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