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murder_by_numbers

Reasons:
☻ Will watch anything with Michael Pitt in it (Justin)
☻ Directed by Barbet Schroeder, who lived in Venice, California for a while. It has nothing to do with this film, but predisposes me to like his work

In a high school class, spoiled rich kid Richard (Ryan Gosling) heckles dweeby rich kid Justin, but they are secretly friends who hang out together and have a weird relationship. For instance, Richard pretends to be an attacker, etc. Justin says, “Freedom is crime because it thinks first of itself and not the group.”

The girl Lisa tells him, “You really need to get laid, Bonaparte.” It is explained why she calls him that, but I forget. She likes Justin and wants him to help her study, because he’s a genius. But she shuns Richard, and he spies on them together.

Justin and Richard hang out in this great abandoned house at the edge of a cliff, where they burn candles, drink absinthe, smoke cannabis, and plan the perfect murder, which Richard is very eager to get busy and commit. It involves killing a random person and blaming it on the school janitor. It is hard to buy into the fact that high school kids would do anything to take their pot supplier out of business. And later, the cops say there was a “significant stash of marijuana buds” at the janitor’s place – yeah, that proves he’s a killer, all right.

(Just by the way, IMBD notes that this opus has 172 plot keywords. Marijuana is among them, also absinthe. But “drinking”? No. But “alcohol”? No.)

Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) is the tough cop who rocks black leather and demonstrates her efficiency by talking so fast you can’t understand her. She arrives with a “very important crime scene tool,” a box of doughnuts to pass out to the other cops. Her subordinate is a man, who moved over from the vice squad. She calls him “Vice.”

Mayweather goes to see the corpse of girl beautifully posed like a Disney heroine. Of course it gets ugly fast. Then there’s a microscopic camera travel along her skin, seeing the fibers that the boys took from the janitor’s house and carefully placed on the dead female. At her house where she was killed, a broken clock says 9:27. It’s the perfect clue.

Detective Sandra Bullock lives in a houseboat. She seduces a male cop who is below her in rank. She pushes him down, sits next to him, and extends her arm along the back of the couch – the stereotypical male move. It’s a corny way to indicate she’s after him, but a movie needs shorthand. In real life, the chase might last days or weeks, stretched out over time and more subtle. But this is a movie, so you have to show it blatantly.

In another scene she tries again to seduce him – it’s bigtime sexual harrassment – but fails and they have a fight. Again, in real life, this disillusioning process would take days, weeks or months but this is a movie. So far, there are two sexually bold women in this story. Also, proof that a woman can have her asshole moments too, just like a man. Ain’t equality wonderful?

She opens a “notice of hearing” from the parole board, wanting her to testify in regard to a Carl Hudson. At work, the boss tells her, “You’re supposed to be identifying with the killer, not the victim. Remember that.” Words of wisdom for cops everywhere!

At her houseboat home, she has pictures from one case spread all over her table, but then gets out the file from the old, troubling case, and starts shuffling through it and looking at pictures from that – IMHO, creating the likelihood of mixing up the evidence from the two cases, misfiling, etc., certainly not a Best Practice. If she’s supposed to be such a hotshot, this doesn’t prove it. On the other hand, when she steals trash from outside the home of one of the boys, she’s so competent she takes along a fake trash bag to replace it, just in case anyone notices.

She has dinner with the cop she seduced. Just like hippies and teenage serial killers, the cops also like to imbibe psychoactive substances in an atmosphere of candlelight.

Justin vomited near where the boys left the body of the woman they killed, and Richard gets mad at him. But Richard left footprints!

Richard videotapes himself screwing Lisa and shows it to Justin, who confronts Lisa. Richard wants to prove to Justin what a slut she is, and that he’s better off without her. Justin is not grateful for the revelation. Earlier, one of them had created a composite portrait of them blended into one person. To show that he is symbolically separating himself, Justin takes the picture back apart, then blanks the Richard one.

In this film, Gosling mainly plays a kid who is acting – first in the sick games with Justin, then the scene in the bleachers where the cops question him is brilliant. He does sincere so well. He’s an actor playing a kid who is acting, but with an insolent edge that dares the cop to prove that he’s acting. Part of the game is to taunt the cops and let them know he’s bullshitting, but he dares them to prove it because he knows they can’t. He wants the cops to doubt his sincerity just to drive them nuts, because he has an airtight alibi.

The janitor supposedly commits suicide.

I slept through a lot of this and didn’t see the end. Mayweather the cop ends up in the hospital but won’t stay, and shows how tough she is by ripping out her IV line. She knows the boys did the murder, and gets in trouble for cowboying the investigation.

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David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

No disrespect to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, whose filming stretched over many years as the boy grew up. But when some Slate people said it’s “completely unique” and “Nobody else would undertake this project,” I was like, “Just a minute, please.”

David Carradine wrote and directed a movie about Mata Hari, starring his daughter Calista Carradine. It was meant to follow from her teen years to age 41, when the famous spy was executed by a firing squad. The first installment was filmed in 1977, with a couple weeks more of shooting added every year or so, as money was available. Some scenes were shot in Europe and India. It was a monumental passion project, and David Carradine talked about it in his book Endless Highway.

Various journalists have said it was meant to span 30 years. Somebody else reported that it would cover Mata Hari’s life from 15 to 30, and would thus be a 15-year project. There seems to have been confusion. In a 1981 interview, D. Carradine mentioned that even though the subject had been dead for more than 60 years, new facts about her life were still being discovered. He said, “It may be three movies.”

Just before that he said, “The film will probably not exist at a single level or reality.” Which it makes sense to interpret as, it’s a mystery AND a biography AND a war story, or some similar trio of genres. But another writer took that literally and spoke as if the work would actually be three separate movies, and someone else called it a trilogy. And there’s a Carradine quotation about being almost done with the first film, with maybe one more scene to do.

Movie star crush

I fondly remember the TV series Kung Fu, and I’m sure David Carradine’s character Kwai Chang Caine had something to do with the formation of my preferences in men. Later on when the movie Boxcar Bertha came out, it was my favorite for a long time. The picture on this page is from a Playboy photo session commemorating the movie, extra hot because Carradine and Barbara Hershey were deep in love in real life.

What follows is from a 1979 chapter of my book Call Someplace Paradise:

On the way to work night shift, at the Lincoln Boulevard onramp to the Santa Monica Freeway, I saw a family group looking for a ride. They were headed for Hollywood but decided Westwood would do just as well. My front door on the passenger side is still crunched in so they piled in the back with a guitar case and backpack and various other paraphernalia. The man was Bill Sunshine, a filmmaker who documents births, mostly home births, for people who want to relive the moment on video. This is what people get now instead of bronzed baby shoes.

He introduced his wife as Calista Carradine, who plays Mata Hari in her father’s film, which they have been working on since she was a child. The concept is to have the same actress fill all the different age roles by the simple method of shooting the film as she grows up. I read about David Carradine’s ambitious project a couple weeks ago, and said so. Bill Sunshine talked some about the movie and, since I work at the hospital, a little about the advancing age and medical problems of John Carradine. The couple have been married for six weeks and are reduced to hitchhiking because of a drunk driving incident during their honeymoon. The boy, about 9, was introduced as Jason Sunshine. The guitar case contained picnic supplies. They’d spent the day at the beach.

A few months later I was at a screening that David Carradine attended. Though I had watched Kung Fu religiously, I figured half the world probably told him that. So I told him I’d picked up his daughter hitchhiking. In another of his books, The Kill Bill Diary, a page says…

…a promo reel for Mata Hari which I made to show at Cannes in 1980, made up of scenes from the first three years, ’77. ’78 and ’79, starring my daughter, from fourteen years old in India to her execution at the age of seventeen in a forest in Holland….

How did that get published? Mata Hari wasn’t executed at 17. WTF? Anyway, at the international film festival, D. Carradine was given a special award for writing the score of the fragmentary film. Over time, Mata Hari grew its own legend. A lot of people heard of it, few saw any of it. There were disturbing rumors and reports, a mild example being someone’s comment about watching D. Carradine directing a scene where his daughter and a male actor were naked and going at it.

The film was included in a couple of “greatest movies never made” webpages. One of them said the action spanned 20 years, and noted that it was supposed to have been released in the summer of 1998. The reviewer called it “an incredible concept that would have made a groundbreaking film that would have served as a fine legacy to Carradine.” It must have been money that stood in the way of completing and releasing the movie, because the filmmaker lived until 2009. According to IMBD, Mata Hari now seems to be one movie, scheduled for release in December of 2014.

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The Women

Of course many of the characters are trivial, ridiculous ladies. The people who made the movie thought so too, that’s why they showed us the characters. They knew and deep in our hearts we know that there were (and are even today!) women whose interests do not extend much beyond clothes and gossip. Why should we hide from the fact? Of course the monkeys dressed up in miniature copies of high-fashion designs are silly – but no sillier than the women for whom this sort of status symbol is important

Taking this film on its own merits, without resorting to specious comparisons with some ideal of indescribable loftiness, it’s pretty darn good. After all, it’s a comedy, and comedy is exaggeration. And props, as they say, to screenwriter Anita Loos. Credit must be given to any woman who survives in a male-dominated field for umpteen years. She worked with D. W. Griffith! And of course Loos didn’t start writing this one from scratch, but adapted it from a play by Clare Booth Luce.

It was really a clever decision, to have not one single male in the whole picture. Yet, how to include the decisive argument between Mary and Stephen – a dialogue which includes every line ever spoken between husbands and wives in similar situations since the beginning of time – while preserving the artistic decision of the all-female cast? I can just imagine the author and/or screenwriters brainstorming this problem… Aha! Play the scene with the two women domestics, one reporting the argument and the other providing appropriate cynical comments – what a solution!

The dialogue between Mary and her mother is right on, and it can’t be denied that even in this age of openness and therapy for all, a person whose loved one strays is still faced with the same choices – confrontation or feigned ignorance – and making the choice still needs to be thought over carefully.

Technical comment: After a bad-news phone call from her husband, Mary reflectively fondles the bottle of Summer Rain perfume – cut to the department store counter with lots of bottles of Summer Rain perfume.

Crystal is such a baddie – treating the black woman as if slavery were still in effect, making her break a date, to cook a dinner which Crystal will pass off as her own handiwork. When Stephen breaks their date she brings in the big guns – it’s her birthday and her neuralgia is acting up and her sister is sick etc. Power plays between women in a struggle to hold a man are a phenomenon we can witness today. Those who clamor for verisimilitude have got it.

The fashion show of course is pure satire, and I bet the clothes looked ridiculous even to 1939 eyes, as overwrought as Fellini’s bishop robes in Roma. The woman who announces the styles promises models engaging in the “activities of everyday life” – like going on a picnic in big antebellum dresses.

Symbolic touch – Crystal snaps up the sexy nightgown that Mary planned to buy – as if to say, “You won’t be needing it, dearie.”

Technical comment – Sylvia the troublemaker reflected in a 4-way mirror, assaulting Mary from all sides with her wicked advice. What she’s saying is the most awful thing of all. Stephen has introduced the interloper to Mary’s child, they were seen having lunch in the park. When kids are dragged into an affair, mothers freak out. This is a psychological truth which there is no sense in denying. Now totally off her head, Mary rushes to the confrontation her friends are urging. Naturally Crystal is as slimy and mean as Cruella deVille.

What about the extreme demonstrativeness of Mary’s relationships with her daughter and mother? They’re forever embracing and petting and putting heads in laps. Veterans of group therapy of course are unfazed to view this, but I’m curious to know how 1939 eyes looked at the very physical style of relating in this affectionate family. Why did the director choose it? Was this sort of thing more common back then? Or is the demonstrativeness a conventional exaggeration meant to portray Familial Love, in the same way that Crystal’s gimlet eyes portray Bitchiness?

In Joan Fontaine’s autobiography No Bed of Roses she describes the making of The Women. The story of how Rosalind Russell played sick to coerce the management into giving her equal billing with Shearer and Crawford, also found in Russell’s book, is recounted here. Fontaine says working with George Cukor was a refreshingly pleasant experience.

Directed by: George Cukor
Actors: Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Hedda Hopper, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer

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