Deliberate filmmaking

I haven’t much to say about Hickey & Boggs except that it’s got a certain kind of crime-film vibe rare today. Starring Robert Culp (who also directed) and Bill Cosby, from a script by Walter Hill, and populated with a huge range of recognizable character actors, it’s not the “caper” I half-expected from the stars. Instead, the two play rumpled, barely-surviving private eyes who collide in a case with a slew of people trying to get the loot from an old bank robbery.

For the first hour, it’s great fun — exactly the “under-appreciated gem” some Netflix user claims. The dialogue is precise and slangy, the story edited to get some intertwined plots in motion but without expository blathering. Cosby is fantastic, and Culp’s pretty good — both playing their roles low-key, tough. And the film works the slow burn — a sense of plot emerges; the characters are allowed to do human things. What I mean by “deliberate” is the sense of world-building: Hickey & Boggs is as interested in milieu and methods as it is in big reveals, and I enjoyed enormously Culp noodling about an apartment trying to find some meaningful information (and finding, as you would, a lot that is meaningless), or Cosby talking with a new client, his eyes carefully taking in details about this guy but revealing next to nothing in dialogue or action. (Did I say Cosby is great? He’s great.)

Unfortunately, once Culp has to shoot an action scene, that deliberateness goes kablooey. There’s a “big” sequence in the LA Coliseum which is confusing and very, very, very drawn-out. Lots of people watching other people, cutting around as they move in ways that further confuse where exactly they are (or where they’re going). It’s almost incompetent, and it lasts about 5 minutes–culminating in an equally-incoherent gunfight. There are later 2 other similarly crap action sequences.

But if you set your expectations low, stream the film from Netflix some evening — it was in many ways a real joy to see. The kind of film I’d delight in catching on the old cable superstations late at night…


We’ve chattered about this in passing comments in a few places, and I know some folks have been watching. I wanted to give a particular shout to an episode from a couple weeks ago, which I just saw on demand — called “Bully.” As usual, there is some very funny stand-up and some wry, off-center, also-funny stuff about his dad’s “sex talk” and about a blind date. But part way through Louis is challenged by a late-adolescent bully, and it prompts him to follow the guy home, and to confront the parents. This is pretty fucking stunning stuff: there’s a creepy and uncomfortable vibe–an anxiety as Louis follows the guy through mass transit, and the ultimate confrontation is handled with precision, a lack of big punchlines, an amazingly subtle and oblique engagement with visions of masculinity, family dynamics, class, and violence. Seeing this, I want to see LCK given a big budget and room to make longer films, to explore in longer form–’cause this isn’t just great stand-up turned into situations, it’s really strong filmmaking.

The American

The latest entry in the cottage industry of films about aging and tired hit men who just want out of the business, but have to do “one last job” which inevitably becomes more complicated than anticipated is The American, starring George Clooney, and based on the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth. It is hard to know what to say beyond that every twist and turn of the plot, including its ending, is entirely predictable. The movie is freighted down with portentousness and an affectless performance by Clooney, perhaps in the hope that its pretention to seriousness can overcome, and perhaps compensate for, the obvious lack of originality. The Italian scenery is gorgeous — almost the entire movie takes place in the Abruzzo region — but The American wastes the talent of everyone in it.

cartoon network etc.

I have given up cops, lawyers, crime scene technicians and doctors. All I watch now are cartoons. In addition to the happily resurrected Futurama on Comedy Central, I also recommend the CN shows Chowder and Flapjack . But the best of the lot may be Adventure Time . At first I disliked it, but then I submitted fully to its goofy surrealism. It’s totally original and fascinating.

School for Scoundrels (1960)

The original 1960 film, based on the the Stephen Potter novels, and directed by Robert Hamer. It’s quite good. Alastair Sim is terrific. And he has the fuzziest ears in all of movie history. This is the story, which is not exactly like that of the Todd Phillips remake, which came out a few years ago: Henry Palfrey (played by the late Ian Carmichael, of I’m All right Jack and Lucky Jim fame) is the head of a small firm (very small, not very firm). He is a nitwit and everyone knows it but him–that is until Raymond Delauney, with whom he occasionally plays tennis, makes him all-too-aware of this fact. But the film doesn’t begin here, it begins a little later then jumps backwards. Continue reading School for Scoundrels (1960)

Harry Brown

By no means a particularly good movie, this British vigilante flick is better than the first ten minutes promises. There really is only one reason to watch it: Michael Caine (like Terrance Stamp, this is someone I will watch in even the worst movies) playing a role a lot closer to that of the cynical spy, Harry Palmer, that he played in the Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

  • The movie is set on a crumbling public housing estate in London (funding came from Britain’s National Lottery) which is portrayed as terrorized by brutal thugs. This is the worst, least realistic part of the setup and it produces some stupid scenes of hopped up “hoodies” randomly beating up and shooting passers’ by. Enter elderly widower, Harry Brown, who had some dark past in the Royal Marines, working in Northern Ireland, but who has tried to put his own violent past behind him. his wife dies and his best friend is killed by the thugs. Brown takes revenge, slowly at first, but with increasing ferocity.

  • Much of the movie is stupid and overwrought, but Caine does give it moments of real intensity as his face remains impassive but something seems to crumble beneath the surface. He never tries to become Charles Bronson, in fact one scene has him collapsing from his emphysema while pursuing one of the murderers. He simply plays what he is: an elderly man, with some weapons training and a sense of loss, not just of his family and friends but of an earlier, different sort of community. There are a couple of good scenes that were cut and only appear in the special features, including one in which he talks about the character of chess pieces; it has some resonance with the similar scene in the first season of The Wire. Perhaps only worthwhile as an exercise in nostalgia for early Michael Caine, but not a total waste.