I officially watched 34 movies in the month of January. That’s more than one movie per day. That’s a record for me. Only nine of those were movies I’d previously viewed. Six of those were from Jean-Pierre Melville, my Artist of the Month. I really enjoyed trying to watch a bunch of Melville films in January. I didn’t see all of the movies he directed but that’s a pretty good chunk. I’m not sure what my theme will be in February, but I’ll have to decide by tonight. I also suspect I won’t keep up my pace. There are a bunch of TV shows I want to catch up on and that will likely knock my movie viewing down a few pegs. Whatever I decide, I’m sure I’ll find lots of cool things to discuss.
And now onto what I discovered this week.
Killers of the Flower Moon
Like most Native American tribes, the Osage were pushed around from land to land as white settlers decided the land the natives were using was fertile. In the early 1900s, they settled in what is now Osage County, Oklahoma. It is a hard scrabble piece of land, infertile and seemingly worthless. The Osage figured no white man would want it and would finally leave them alone.
Then they discovered oil on it.
Amazingly, the U.S. government allowed the Osage to keep the oil rights to the land. They split these rights evenly amongst the tribe so that every member would receive a regular check from the oil companies. The checks were based upon how much oil they sucked out of the land. At first, it was a small amount, enough to supplement their incomes but soon it increased tenfold. For a time, the Osage were the richest people per capita in the world.
Then the murders began.
Someone, or several someones, were systematically killing these rich Osage people. The local government was corrupt as can be, being paid off by white men hoping to skim as much as they could off of the Osage. That and systemic racism kept the killers from being found.
At that same time, a young upstart named J. Edgar Hoover had taken over at a recently founded organization called The Bureau of Investigation. Wanting to make a name for himself and this organization, he sent men into investigating these Osage Killings which had been making the national news.
Journalist David Grann wrote this excellent non-fiction account of the killings and the F.B.I.’s investigation into them. It is a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten history. I grew up not that far from Osage County but I’d never heard of these murders. Grann writes it like a murder mystery and it kept me both entertained and utterly appalled and how callous we treated the Osage during this reign of terror.
Martin Scorsese is set to start filming his adaptation of the book later this year with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro. I am beyond excited.
Jean-Pierre Melville's final film is yet another crime drama full of ultra-cool crooks and the cops who catch them. As such, it is easy to dismiss it as one of his lesser films. But while it does bear more than a passing semblance to Le Cercle Rouge, Le Doulos, and others, and I can't say that it does anything new with the material, Melville was such a master of the genre that Un Flic still contains a great many delights.
It involves a group of gangsters who, in an early scene, rob a bank and when one man gets shot, they leave him in the car while they bury the loot, pretend as if they are boarding a train to fool the cops, and then drive back to Paris. It is only then that they drop him at a clinic. So cool are the gangsters in a Mellville film that even the guy dying doesn't complain.
Alain Delon plays the cop trying to catch them. He's sleeping with one of the co-conspirator's girlfriends (the ultimate French beauty Catherine Deneuve, who barely gets any screen time despite getting second billing).
There is a big heist sequence in the middle. The crooks fly a helicopter over a moving train, drop a guy down into the train where he knocks out a big drug courier out, steals the drugs, and gets back on the helicopter. It lasts 20 minutes and contains almost no dialogue. It is a thrilling piece of cinema, though not quite as captivating as similar scenes in other Melville films nor the greatest heist sequence of them all as found in Rififi.
What I love about the scene is how detached it is. Unlike similar scenes in Hollywood films like Mission:Impossible where the music is overbearing and the editing intense, Melville lets his camera sit back as a detached observer. There is no score to deliver the emotion of the scene. The characters go about their duty without overplaying it. They are just men doing a job and if that job means dangling from a helicopter trying to land on a moving train, then so be it.
Melville was the master of cool, detached cinema and while he did it better in other films, he does it really, really well here. This was my last Melville film watched in January. It has been a real pleasure getting to know his films, and while my month of Melville is now over I expect to continue watching his films for a long time.
The Falcon and the Snowman
Two rich kids from the suburbs become Russian spies.
Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) quits the seminary and lands a nice job as a message router for the CIA. He gets the job because his dad was former FBI and now heads up security for a big corporation. It is an easy job and he and his fellow workers seem to spend most of their time playing Risk and mixing drinks in the shredder.
But Boyce is an intelligent kid who pays attention to things. He begins noticing that they sometimes receive messages that weren't meant to go through their center. Top Secret messages that indicate the U.S. government is meddling in the Australian elections. This pisses him off so naturally, he decides to sell those secrets to the Russians. Honestly, there are plot points in this film (which is based on a true story) that make absolutely no sense to me. If your government is involved in nasty stuff, I'm not sure how giving that info to the Russians is helpful. I'm not sure the character really knows either.
Whatever his reasons, he hits up his boyhood pal Dalton Lee (Sean Penn), who happens to be a scuzzy drug dealer (with a scuzzy mustache to go with it) who regularly travels to Mexico to score the good stuff. Boyce gives the secrets to Dalton who shows up at the Russian embassy in Mexico City and tries to sell them for as much as he can get.
It is a dumb plan and pretty quickly they are in over their heads. The Russians gladly pay for whatever Dalton brings them but they immediately understand he is too screwy to be the main guy. They accept his nonsense (at one point, he asks them to use their embassy license to smuggle him drugs) because they feel Boyce is the real deal and sooner or later he'll start giving them better intel. But Boyce never seems to know why he's doing it in the first place. He's angry at his government and seems to think selling to the Russians might somehow shed light on his own government's malfeasance. Or maybe he's just a kid acting out. He's mad so he might as well throw a wrench into things.
John Schlesinger films it more like a documentary than a spy thriller. He's demonstrating how these two kids could get in so deep without knowing what they are doing. It is a movie that's less about spies or plot and more about character. Hutton and Penn are excellent. Penn has the more showy role letting Dalton slowly fall apart but Hutton is more subtle. David Suchet plays the main Russian and it is always great to see him doing something besides Poirot.
Watching films by David Mamet is like no other cinematic experience. He was a writer before he was a film director and his movies are full of really interesting dialogue. His stories and plots often subvert your expectations. With Homicide, on a surface level, it is a typical crime drama in which a detective tries to solve a murder, but really it is a character study, a story of one man trying to find himself. That the man is a homicide detective who is trying to solve a murder is almost inconsequential.
Joe Montagna is the cop. On his way to a high profile drug bust, he happens upon the murder of an elderly woman in a bad neighborhood. He makes sure the rookie officer on the scene doesn't screw it up and in doing so is assigned the case by the upper brass. He doesn't want it. He wants to work the drug case, but he has no choice.
The woman was part of a rather affluent Jewish family who kept her shop in a poor neighborhood out of some sense of duty. In working the case, he finds himself involved with a group of Jews working against antisemitic, extremist groups. He is a Jew himself but doesn't really think of that as his identity. He thinks of himself as a cop. But working this case has given him pause. Has made him reconsider who he is. As he gets deeper and deeper into working with the Jewish group he begins to lose himself. Who is he, really? A cop? A Jew? Mamet doesn't provide any real answers but it is fascinating watching Mantagna's character contemplate the questions.
Mamet's dialogue crackles as usual. Montagna's performance is subdued but excellent. It is slow going, but quite something.
I had forgotten how fun this movie is. Johnny Depp is pitch-perfect as Rango. The plot is mostly stolen from Chinatown but there all so many scenes that rip off so many other movies from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Apocalypse Now to Star Wars. It is all done in a loving way and it all makes me smile from ear to ear. It was the first animated movie produced by ILM and it is gorgeous to look at. Director Gore Verbinski gives it a lightness that radiates joy, even when the characters are in some sticky situations.
A Quiet Place Part II
I was a big fan of A Quiet Place, John Krasinski's 2018 horror film about a family trying to survive amongst an invasion of giant, killer monsters who cannot see but have super hearing. I can't say I was really hoping for a sequel, but we're getting one and the first trailer makes it look really interesting. Krasinski is back in the director's chair and Emily Blunt returns in the lead. New faces include Djimon Hounsou and Cillian Murphy. Consider me interested.