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Inglourious Basterds (2009)
A Tainted Triumph
Look, by now nobody needs one more plot synopsis of INGLOURIOUS - you all know the drill. Ditto on Christoph Waltz, who's very good (though I have a sneaking suspicion the level of hosannas he's receiving from critics are due to their never having heard of the guy before). For Tarantino and the Weinsteins, this represents a desperately-needed critical/b.o. rebound from the debacle that was DEATH PROOF, which is why it got a late-August release after all the other big summer movies have already come & gone. Add in the now-obligatory Tarantino-fanboy choir drowning out the relatively few naysayers and the result is QT's biggest-ever hit. But will you respect INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS in the morning?
Pros? Well, let's start with "hurray for Steadicam!" Finally, a movie that doesn't require taking two Dramamine in the lobby beforehand - hallelujah. Next, I'm happy to report that Waltz isn't the only heretofore-unknown (to Yanks, at least) European find the movie offers: Daniel Bruhl, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender and Denis Menochet all turn in first-rate work. Fassbender's entire performance is a film-geek inside joke (he's Trevor Howard in THE THIRD MAN brought out of retirement, kinda), but it's a satisfying inside joke; Laurent and Bruhl provide the film with both heart and moral complexity; and Menochet - who resembles a younger, handsomer Jean Reno - is the unheralded component in that celebrated first scene, whose superb straight-man work sets up/off Waltz beautifully. The Bowie song works exactly as Tarantino intended it to (though he needs to lay off the Morricone swipes for a while - once is an homage; twice, a ripoff). The pacing, which has drawn criticism, is leisurely throughout, but that's okay: Tarantino is a storyteller who's as much about the asides as the plot - probably more so. He takes his time, sure, but we want him to linger in this world. (If your beef with IB is the glacial rhythm of the setpieces, wait a few weeks/months and watch it again - you'll probably discover you've changed your mind about the 'pacing' issue.) As for his long suit - the dialogue - he's mostly on form. And at least for once we get to listen to 40s hipsters, instead of the more tiresome contemporary kind (and I do mean tiresome: David Carradine's KILL BILL 2 monologue pretty much took the air out of that movie's tires, while DEATH PROOF clattered along, riding on its rims, interminably.)
Now for the cons. The marketing campaign for the film is just that, a con, and a huge one, right down to the "kosher porn" and "as a Jew, I thank you" quotes attached to the production; primarily designed to separate suckers from their scratch. (Somehow, I doubt Lawrence Bender and Harvey Weinstein would be very enthusiastic at the number of likable and even heroic Nazis in the movie had IB tanked that all-important First Weekend of Release.) This might be the first commando picture with hardly any commandoes in it! Secondly, there are so many logical and historical gaffes in the film they turn, inevitably, into potholes - you're willing to endure the first few w/o complaint, growing more and more ticked off as they just keep coming. (And please, no cries of "duh! - it's a MOVIE, Einstein!" We're not talking about a few holes here, but a block of Swiss cheese.) Third, the casting of Hitler and Goebbels is disastrous - a little levity is one thing, but this is CARRY ON FUEHRER!
And last (though hardly least) is the most troubling of all: at some deeper level, Tarantino movies are always about the cruelly kinetic joy of sadism and murder....and IB proudly continues this odious 'tradition'. The 'feminist' - and now, 'anti-fascist' - subtext of his films are just cynical window dressing, there to provide convenient but utterly bogus moral cover for the atrocities that make QT's wee-wee twitch to attention. Which isn't to say they're not effective: the image of Laurent's face superimposed on smoke in the film's gotterdammerung finale is real nightmare material, with a phantasmagoric eerieness that's hard to shake. But the crux of this sequence is watching screaming people trapped by design in a fiery inferno, and it's presented as popcorn-munching entertainment for the masses (we're meant to applaud in delight); given the hideous parallels to everything from the Triangle Factory to the Station nightclub (and to the poor souls who tossed themselves from the top of the WTC on 9/11 rather than burn to cinders), it's an evil scene. Depicting such a horror is one thing - CELEBRATING it as catharsis is something else entirely...... entirely too much, in my view. (The legion of Tarantino fanboys will no doubt insist that it's meant not to feed an audience's bloodlust, but instead to provoke thought and discussion. Well in that case, I'll be waiting for the Museum of Modern Art to book a HOSTEL II/MAN BEHIND THE SUN double-feature any day now.)
So there you have it. A well-made, fairly riveting Tootsie Pop, with a cancerous center lying in wait under the candy coating. I liked it for what it did well, though obviously with some deep misgivings; your own mileage may vary.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
No, not the movie...the comments! My favorite was the guy who chided naysayers by pointing out that MULHOLLAND requires a modicum of intelligence to figure out - then added it took him 12 viewings to make sense of this! (ONLY twelve?)
Lynch made THE ELEPHANT MAN & the spare, lovely STRAIGHT STORY, so it's not as if he's a fraud, without any talent. But these Rorschach puzzle nonsense-films he's known for are the equivalent of monkeys throwing fruit at a canvas, complete with the subsequent onrush of posturing phonies who ooh and ahh over the results. "Exegesis" my ass. If not for a memorable performance clip of "Llorando", this mess would be every bit as snoozeworthy as - as - as practically every other Lynch movie!
LOST HIGHWAY fans (yes, both of you) will be pleased to note that Lynch continues his questionable tradition of bamboozling an out-of-circulation ex-star into embarrassing themselves with a supporting role (here, it's Ann Miller). Otherwise, the 'mystery' here is the eternal David Lynch mystery: how does he talk people into financing these things?
This is unlike any other Anderson movie; really, it's unlike any other MOVIE out there, period, and a necessary antidote for those of us who feel more and more alienated by modern movies, modern culture, modern life. Since there are already a kazillion reviews of this I won't rehash the plot except to say that it's about one "ordinary" day when all the buried/masked/diverted/denied pain of the world comes welling up, like a dam bursting, refusing to remain unacknowledged any longer. The apocalyptic finale may not make a lick of "sense", but it feels inevitable and right and it plays perfectly. The ensemble cast is so uniformly inspired that it only underscores the stupidity of Oscars and Golden Globes....singling out an outstanding performance here is akin to taking apart a perfectly-calibrated Swiss watch to praise one particular gear.
One further point: you hear a lot about Anderson's "audacity" and "ambition" in discussions of MAGNOLIA. It's true but that ambition has less to do with juggling interlocking subplots, and everything to do with the core of this movie: that forgiveness is hard but living without it is impossible, and that even pain has beauty in it because it is authentically FELT. The final image - Claudia's uncertain, frazzled, vulnerable but hopeful smile - is one of the most haunting in movie history, one I hope to carry with me forever. God willing.
Cheez & Crackers!
A must for fans of mondo movies...they oughta retitle this MONDO MORONIC. Dork after dork after dork is paraded before your eyes; the uninitiated will walk away from this having no clue that there is any musical validity to metal whatsoever. (And it's the 80s, so there isn't!) Too bad, as heavy music of the 70s, the 90s and the NWOBHM era of 79-82 has a lot to offer. Tellingly, the first rocker you see in DECLINE PART 2 is metal's very own AntiChrist Gene Simmons, who can't disguise his contempt for the fans or the music no matter how hard he tries. (He doesn't try very hard....you can almost hear the cash register in his head going ka-CHING!) The other names on display (Ozzy, Tyler & Perry, Alice, Lemmy, etc) at least have genuine affection for the scene and the music - you can tell there's still a fan's heart beating in their chests.
Let's hope the Odins and Jaded Ladys on view here didn't end up doing time later on, as these boys are jailhouse date-bait to the nth power. Besides, being captured on film for all time in those ridiculous poodle-mullets is surely punishment enough.
Why are people so very, very stupid?
Not even going to discuss the movie at length - it's brilliantly funny; see it. I'll admit I DID have an additional comment or two to make, but then I read these IMDb reviews and sank into depression.
Do the people who "critique" 30, 40, 50-year-old movies by pointing out that "duhh, it's DATED!" imagine they're applying some kind of rigorous critical standard? Why not simply save valuable time, and pixels, by submitting a "review" stating, "This film cannot overcome the handicap of not taking place in 2003. Where are the SUVs? Where are the cell phones? And why wasn't it shot on the street where I live?"
And I'm fairly sure the guy who complained of the "snotty English accents" that ruined his BEDAZZLED viewing experience is the same fellow who lives in the White House and coined "strategery".
Yeah, that's a reference to the one narrative device that everyone who's seen WIZARDS retains. Saw this on its original release, well-toasted (as was the entire audience, come to think of it), but it's that years-later second viewing that really hammers home how awful WIZARDS truly is. A long narrated still-frame introduction prepares you for one sort of movie - as soon as the animation begins, we get another one entirely. It appears to be a crude retelling of WW2 recast in a ridiculous standoff of "magic vs technology" - of course the good guys, led by a lame wizard who might've resulted had Robert Crumb storyboarded the COLUMBO series, represent "magic". The Secret Weapon of the bad guys which provides all the dramatic conflict (by paralyzing the forces of Niceness into immobility during battle) turns out to be Super-8 movies of Hitler; these mixed-media segments play more like mixed-up media. By the time the ridiculously overdramatic narrator returns to wrap it up with, "At last, Hitler was dead, again...", only the very very dim could fail to Get It (and a note here to all elf-lovin' fantasy nerds: I know you hate having to face up to this, bu-u-ut....Hitler's "technology" was defeated not by "magic" and "nature" but by our own "technology": mellow-harshing buzz-killers like bullets, tanks, planes, incendiaries, the splitting of the atom, etc. Weren't very many giggling lapdancers in dental-floss lingerie at Normandy Beach, to say nothing of stogie-chewing elves, Churchill notwithstanding.) This puerility of vision - ZAP Comics trying but never actually meeting Tolkien - is dreary enough, but the animation makes it more painful still. The rotoscoping is inferior to what the Fleischers had achieved a generation earlier, and its willy-nilly insertion into the 'regular' animated segments, which resemble Nelvana on a bad day, is jarringly amateurish. There are a few saving moments of humor here ("They killed Fritz!"), but they too seem out of place. MEAN STREETS fans might want to check it out, though, as two of the voices are provided by that movie's Richard Romanus & David Proval. Too bad y'can't mute the PICTURE in this case, though. All in all, WIZARDS is a landmark in moronic, substandard jiggle animation for dopers.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
A Great Novel Becomes A Good Movie
That's not a knock. Well, not much of one, anyway. Curtis Hanson was handed a near-impossible task: translate the best crime novel in a generation - one that requires a six or seven-hour running time to render faithfully - into a two-hour film. Give him credit for doing a good job of it, but let's not get so dewy-eyed that we ignore what was lost here: not just vital subplots but depth, layering, richness of detail. Gone are not only the Inez Soto/Dieterling-cum-Disney angle (and the piercing social commentary threaded into this sub-narrative) but the entire background/motivating force to the Ed Exley character, now reduced to a by-the-book, son-of-a-dead-patrolman tightass. Further, the concluding half-hour piles the climaxes together, one after another, straining and finally shredding credulity. The decision-making involved (likely forced down Hansen, Ellroy and screenwriter Helgeland's throats by the moneymen holding the pursestrings to the entire project) has also robbed us of any chance of seeing the entire LA Quartet brought to the screen, at least in any recognizable form, now that the Dudley Smith cat's out of the bag & dispensed with.
So, then...what's on the PLUS side of the ledger here? Pacing and performances. While the characters of Bud White, Ed Exley & Jack Vincennes have been pre-softened for your viewing convenience, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce & Kevin Spacey pour everything they have into their roles, and...for the duration of the film...you believe in these characters. Crowe may be the current flavor-of-the-month, but DAMN he's good, smoldering like the burning tip of a Chesterfield. Spacey works vocal inflections and raised eyebrows like a virtuoso musician (he patterned his interpretation after Hanson's suggestion of Dean Martin as the ideal Vincennes, were this film actually made in '53) and Pearce, in the most thankless of the three roles, overcomes both the scenario's short-shrifting of the character's motivations and his own too-youthful appearance, managing to turn both to his advantage. The female lead, Ms Basinger, while overpraised, does fine, heartfelt work; and Danny DeVito is dependably Danny DeVito. All the secondary roles are both beautifully-cast and expertly-played as well, which helps the production immeasurably. James Cromwell is physically wrong for Dudley Smith, yet makes the role his own, emanating a bottomless pool of menace; Tomas Arana makes a wonderfully slimy Bruening, and David Straithairn and John Mahan both seem plucked from the 40s - they are uncanny physical matches to both their characters and the era being evoked. And Curtis Hansen keeps the action hurtling forward, a series of snowballs rolling downhill, picking up speed & force as they coalesce into one single storyline. Anyone not familiar with the novel is going to have damned little to complain about, and even Ellroy fans will grudgingly admit that the film being as good as it is constitutes a minor miracle. Still, those viewers who know only the film should make tracks to Ellroy's novel. Their pleasure will only be intensified by that small sting of regret at What Might Have Been.
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
It was easy not to notice this in theaters a decade ago, but time has been exceedingly kind to AFTER DARK & likely will continue to be. Already it stands as one of the 90s best films. Though its Southwestern locations (Indio, California was used) are both a bit too sparse and modern to suit the source material, in every other way this captures the ineffable aura of Jim Thompson's prose (and anyone who's actually READ "The Getaway" knows how utterly impossible a task translating his best effects to film really is). Director Foley has done a splendid job in setting a tone of dreamlike, sunburned melancholy and maintaining it throughout, aided immeasurably by fine performances by Rachel Ward & Bruce Dern and an absolutely riveting one by Jason Patric. I had faint hopes for this film before seeing it, due mostly to Patric in the lead; I was floored watching it, and all DUE to Patric's performance. Though a little young for the part, he captures perfectly the likable ambivalence and roiling inner pathology of the Jim Thompson Hero: you never stop feeling for the guy even as you know he will inevitably be compelled by his inner torments to do monstrous things before the story ends. Patric's complete immersion into "Kid Collins" steals a little thunder from one of Bruce Dern's most chillingly indelible portrayals of slime personified, "Uncle Bud". (Fans of Dennis Hopper's "Frank Booth" from BLUE VELVET would take to Uncle Bud immediately, I think.) More than any other film adaptation of Thompson, AFTER DARK -even more than THE GRIFTERS - embodies that peculiar cowtown existentialism of his that tells us we're each of us alone in a world where things start bad and only get worse, pretending we're sane the way kids pretend there's a Santa Claus. A film without an audience in 1990, but little by little, year by year, a growing and appreciative audience is building. See this movie.
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Western fans will enjoy this more than that year of release might indicate, but justplainmovie enthusiasts will dig DESTRY more than anyone. Throughout the latter 30s, Universal was making tentative steps toward competing with the Big Five's stable of A-pictures by essentially dressing up a series of surefire B-properties (such as SEVEN SINNERS, ARABIAN NIGHTS & THE SPOILERS) with deeper 'name' casts & costlier productions than had been their norm. It worked: late-30s/early-40s Universals were generally briskly paced, flavorfully acted, unpretentious entertainment - DESTRY was the first and one of the best, and it gave the studio the huge hit they'd been desperate for. Though most often cited for his brooding 50s work with Mann & Hitchcock, the young, darkhaired James Stewart - intense, soulful & sans his famous stammer - was already a great instinctive actor whose bone-deep rapport with audiences had catapulted him out of Metro's male-ingenue doghouse the year before. His Tom Destry is not a Boys' Life one-dimensional hero but a nicely shaded performance that communicates both the character's decency and his core of strength perfectly. His presence dominates the film, despite the powerhouse cast surrounding him (Dietrich, Winninger, Donlevy, Allen Jenkins, Mischa Auer & the lovely and underrated Una Merkel). Though the picture's purely moonshine (by '39, the milquetoast-with-a-steel-spine plot was wheezing already), its pleasures lie not in the exposition but the exuberant execution. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN plays like a movie made by people convinced they were going to live forever, and I don't know if you can pay a simple genre entertainment higher praise than that.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
The Summit Of PreCode Cinema
...and Ernst Lubitsch at his zenith. First things first: thank you to TCM for showing this recently. Of course I taped it, and of course I've practically worn the tape out by now, a month later.
Point #2: something is terribly wrong in Paradise if the peak era of his work, 29-33, remains in shadow today. Where are the VHS/DVD releases of these wonderful films? Nowhere that I can find them; hopefully the good folks at Turner will continue reviving the early sound Lubitsches. I waited 25 years to see this one again, and the wait was not in vain. Those 25 years put a bit of snow on my roof, but they also allowed me to drink in the ambrosia that is this film with a bit more appreciation than I had at 16. And what intoxicating ambrosia it is! Script, performances, directorial vision are all exquisite. The leads are inspired (oh, for a night with Kay Francis!); the supporting players, expertly calibrated farceurs. The utilization of music as ironic counterpoint to the visuals rivals Clair; the title song, sung over the opening credits, will make your heart race, and break, at the same time. And the look of the film (Art Deco, lovingly handrubbed to a burnished glow) will linger with you forever.
Again and again, Lubitsch pulls rabbits out of hats: scenes like the deepening of Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis' relationship from business to pleasure 'seen' in a clock face are emblematic of what makes this such a special film. Its story is slight, frothy, very nearly silly; yet Lubitsch's knowing observation of small, telling details makes it magical. TROUBLE is not a timeless film, anchored as it is to a very specific time (Long Ago) and place (Far Away), which only deepens its charm and its seductive tugging on the audience's sleeve. I've watched it three times in a night, and three times more the following night - not behavior I usually exhibit. But the siren call of its lively, civilized wit is such that I'm hitting 'rewind' the moment it ends - I don't want to break the spell and return to reality just yet. As fertile as the preCode era is, as many classics as that golden period continues to yield up to those willing to discover them...TROUBLE IN PARADISE is the most glorious of them all.
Desperate Living (1977)
I Honor You, Queen Carlotta!
It's hard for me to believe that there could be John Waters fans who know only his mainstream films. They're pretty good movies, don't get me wrong; but they walk meekly in the shadow cast by his amazing Trash Trio (this, FEMALE TROUBLE & PINK FLAMINGOS). This one is his all-time best, partly because of Divine's absence. Had he been available, he would not only have nabbed the Queen Carlotta role, but become the focus of every viewer's attention as he usually did. (Well, nobody cites FEMALE TROUBLE for the Donald Dasher character, right?) The way DESPERATE LIVING worked out, you finally get a chance to see how good Waters' other Dreamland divas really were; and they're very, very good. Fact, DESPERATE features some of the most inspired, OTT female acting ever featured in a movie, "trash" or otherwise.
Mink Stole is unbeLIEVABLE as Peggy Gravel; she seethes with constant neurotic dementia throughout. Her portrayal of misery to the power of ten is less overacting than it is finding the perfect pitch for the role, and making camp on the very spot. The movie-opening running tantrum she spews is one of the funniest things I've ever seen - every third or fourth word is shouted for maniacal emphasis ("The CHILDREN are having SEX!! Beth is PREGNANT!! And I NARROWLY escaped an ASSASSINATION attempt!!") Brilliant. But she's matched, step for weaving step, by Susan Lowe's unforgettable diesel-dyke Mole and the nonpareil Edith Massey as the evil Queen of the criminal shanty-kingdom, Mortville. (If you've never experienced Edith Massey, nothing I can say could possibly prepare you for her....unique...greatness. Let's just leave it at that, okay?) And that's not to discount the typically outre work by Mary Vivian Pearce - who plays her character as if she'd gotten lost on her way to the set of a Julie Andrews musical - or the CGI effect that is Miss Jean Hill. This assembly of female firepower results in one incredible movie that STILL has the power to make you squirt liquid out your nose in helpless laughter, Farrelly Brothers or no Farrelly Brothers. As a matter of fact, the more Waters' early assaults on good taste have become absorbed into mainstream entertainment, the better and more shocking his films look for it. When DESPERATE LIVING stood alone, one hardly knew what to make of it. Now that every lesser talent in show-biz is trying to finance a swimming pool by imitating the Waters touch, it's easy to see, and appreciate, who the innovator and true original is. When Waters made this movie, he was a pariah with nothing to lose...he knew better, but still didn't care. Thus, there's an intoxicating power and thrift-shop integrity to DESPERATE LIVING that none of the Johnny-come-latelies can approach, now that "bad taste" is boxoffice, and safe as milk. If you're gonna wallow in slime, then accept no substitutes, folks: demand DESPERATE LIVING.
Preaching To A Slack-Jawed Choir
A quick comment on this film's (and Smith's) presumption that the Internet is the Haven For Boobs who stand athwart everything this film's heroes stand for: you GOTTA be kiddin' me. READ the online commentary, for Pete's sake! The Internet, home and hearth to the Kevin Smith fan base, seemingly spawns nothing but fawning, uncritical adoration of Smith and his movies. With the all-too-typical hypersensitivity of the Stupid Generation he champions, Smith obviously read one or two discouraging words shoehorned among the millions of worshipful ones generated online, and threw a $20-million hissy fit. Like most small talents, he's far too amused by his own brilliance to tolerate the idea that there might be someone out there not pulling the rope in the mandatory same direction. This is a comedy for people who think what they're told to think, and then pat themselves on the back for their fierce unconventionality.
Lord Love a Duck (1966)
Lord Love A Boom Mike!
First time I saw this I could hardly believe the many, many visible boom mikes throughout the film. Loved the picture regardless, and now I've come to accept those boom mikes as characters as central to LORD LOVE A DUCK's frazzled beauty as Roddy McDowall & Tuesday Weld, its stars.
Most knowledgeable film fans hold 70s films in reverence for their embracing of a deeper, richer reality more inspired by novels than by prior Hollywood films. 60s cinema tends to suffer by comparison: it often seems like a clumsy standoff between the death-throes of the old studios and their formulas, and the insisting beating on the door of a new, artistic, more experimental aesthetic: DUCK is one of those, subverting the soundstage-bound Mickey & Judy cliches by emulating that shot-on-indoor-sets look, with the vital modification of peopling this familiar artifical environment with the hyperAmerican grotesques who routinely populate Geo Axelrod's universe. Thus, like a lot of the best 60s movies, DUCK is part-fish, part-fowl and suffused with an atmosphere of strangeness beyond its subject matter - yet, given how Real Life in that decade similarly swayed on unsteady footing in two seperate realities, it works beautifully. And it definitely doesn't hurt that Tuesday Weld is a goddess of apple-cheeked carnality and conspicuous consumption. She may not be Everywoman exactly, but she IS Everywoman who ever dreamed of marrying Elvis, and that's good enough - like the King, you can't help falling in love with her. As has been noted, the 'cashmere sweater' scene is among the most erotic scenes ever caught on film - unnervingly so, given she's playing the scene with, and for, her father.
The movie is chockfull of scenes that similarly push black humor and social satire past the threshold of good taste or story logic; you're either going to go with it, or reject it altogether. I recommend the former: like a lot of underrated and outright ignored 60s movies that don't comfortably fit into any standard category, LORD LOVE A DUCK rewards the viewer who's willing to suspend disbelief for an hour-and-a-half with a totally absorbing and unique unreality all its own. It's a buzz you can only get from an American film made between JFK and Tricky Dick, and it's a hoot besides.
Le salaire de la peur (1953)
One Of The Great Ones
This movie has two flaws. The first is some of the logic is screwy; the second is the oilman O'Brien is not a character, he's a grotesque anti-American caricature, in sharp contrast to the beautifully limned characterizations of the protagonists. Neither of these flaws make a whit of difference in my reaction to this film. THE WAGES OF FEAR is all the things others have claimed: an action-packed suspense classic with a strong existential flavor. But, first and foremost, it is a masterful MOVIE. When you watch WAGES as an example of storytelling on film, there isn't a wasted second or a wrong step. The 'slow' first half in the hot little village is never less than exhilirating...you can smell the stale, moist air and taste the salt of your own sweat after an hour of Clouzot's detailed, swooning-from-the-humidity immersion of the audience into this hellish purgatory: by the time O'Brien is looking for drivers, you know exactly why these men are so desperate to risk death to get out. (One man, denied the job, commits suicide; another, who did get the job, may have been murdered by one of our 'heroes'.)The long, long journey they must travel to get their $2000 is unforgettable: every emotion, every frayed nerve-end is exposed during the ordeal. We see these men at their most elemental and vicious and cowardly...but we also see their incredible nobility and love later - when they have gone so far beyond turning back that their hope, their dignity and courage are the only things they have left to combat their fear and despair. Even though none of these things matter when a hard bump on the road will immolate saint and sinner alike, they become the only things that matter; it's a beautiful, timeless message for a film to contain. Those moments in WAGES where we see the men at their best (the scene where Luigi is discovered alive after the blast, Montand's comforting the dying Vanel at journey's end) are even more indelible and affecting than the noirish scenes of the men falling apart from stress - and THOSE are considerably powerful. Remade for no earthly reason I can discern, and another example of how superior French films before the Nouvelle Vague were to those that followed. Godard, Truffaut, Resnais: none of them ever made a film approaching the power or beauty of CHILDREN OF PARADISE, FORBIDDEN GAMES, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or this movie. Essential viewing.
Lumet & Finch Save Paddy's Bacon
My apologies to this movie's many diehard fans, but I've always had a problem with Paddy Chayefsky's work. Nobody...and I mean NOBODY...actually talks like his characters, so the plaudits he routinely receives for his 'realism' are a mystery to me. If NETWORK is a triumph at all, it's due to Sidney Lumet and his cast, who pull off the dramatic equivalent of three innings of hitless relief to preserve a win for Paddy's usual shaky, walk-plagued start. Lumet keeps the heavyhanded black-comedy elements from wrecking the picture, and he's equally skillful at finding ways to keep the genteel bathetics of Holden and Straight's marital death-throes from bringing the movie to a glacial standstill. I assume that by this point in his career, Lumet was savvy enough to have known ahead of time the kind of longwinded, 'meaningful' pontificating a Paddy Chayefsky script was sure to be larded with, and devised his narrative escape hatches and short cuts ahead of time. To his credit, NETWORK is certainly watchable, and there are a number of satirical arrows that hit their mark - Finch's work as Howard Beale has achieved a kind of deserved immortality. But since when has television NOT proven an irresistible target for writers to attack? TV has always been the slowest, fattest, most easily-gored bull in the cultural corrada, and the idea that NETWORK is a work of prophetic genius because it foresees our Jerry Springer-dominated present is crazy, especially when you consider Newton Minow's famous definition of the boob-tube as a 'vast cultural wasteland' was already old news when he coined the term in the early 60s. At the time this was released, most of the talk generated by NETWORK had less to do with its satirical brilliance than with William Holden playing his role as a clearly visible middle-aged man, with all the facial lines and wattles intact and unadorned by cosmetic fakery; that people would find a 58-year-old man refusing to pretend he was still 35 startling and courageous was as scathing a comment on the tv culture as any of Faye Dunaway's 'television incarnate' horrorshow monologues. Where NETWORK - and the great majority of Chayefsky's work - stumbles, and stumbles badly, is his egotistical inability to rein in his characters from speaking the author's mind all the time, and as if they were being paid by the word with a bonus for the multisyllabic ones. These people are no more authentic than the two-dimensional cut-outs populating THE HOSPITAL or THE GODDESS or THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY. They simply never convince me that they actually might exist somewhere: their only purpose is to open their mouths and declaim Chayefsky's meat-cleaver philosophy and prejudices, endlessly and artificially (my favorite is the beautiful, icy career woman who's successful because she's incapable of feeling love. There are plenty of others.) Please don't take my word for it - click the "Memorable Quotes" link and plunge into the thicket of dialogue yourself and see. But bring a machete with you; you may need to do a lot of hacking to get back to daylight.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
An unmitigated disaster - and I speak as someone with great affection for vintage film, comedy in general and these actors specifically. I'm not entirely surprised that THE PHILADELPHIA STORY garners the absurd high praise that it does, though. Every aspect of the play and film is utterly phony, but in that high-minded, self-congratulatory manner that appeals to middlebrow audiences who point to films like this as emblems of their own good taste. I can't think of another 'classic' that's routinely considered an actor's dream in which the actors have been so ill-served by their roles and dialogue. They're all embalmed up there on the screen - not just stagebound but hidebound. The well-known plot revolves around the imminent society wedding of ice princess Tracy Lord to a self-made prig; in attendance are her archly witty family, her archly witty ex-husband (who pines for her still) and a pair of archly witty tabloid-style reporters (who resent her spoiled ways and vast wealth). The proceedings begin in a reasonably lively fashion, but it's not long before the forced mechanics of Philip Barry's conception begin audibly creaking, by which point the high-toned literary bon mots begin to land with little thuds; the ghastly speechifying, the would-be ironic wisdom and poetic drunk-scenes begin to take over the movie and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY becomes an endurance test for anyone who has ever truly enjoyed watching Hepburn, Grant, Stewart et al in anything worthy of their talents. Grant does what he can with his role, which mostly calls for worldly-wise detached bemusement, but Jimmy Stewart is trapped with scenes and dialogue that seem like a deliberate attempt to sabotage his naturalism and tremendous rapport with movie audiences. His famous 'drunk scene' with Hepburn is so horridly bogus and actorish that you wonder if the Academy gave him that Oscar as a form of combat-pay - you can't not wince hearing him swoon, "There's a magnificence in you, Tracy", bathed in Metro's most gossamer lighting. Ruth Hussey is wasted in a completely thankless role, John Howard's stuffy bridegroom is similarly a stock character/cipher, and Roland Young's old roue, meant to be irresistably irascible, sets your teeth on edge throughout the film. Yet all of these performers get off easy compared to what Barry, and Metro, have done to poor Katherine Hepburn here. The Tracy Lord role is written as a harsh and demeaning caricature of Hepburn's own public persona; she garnered raves, and a return ticket to the Hollywood firmament, for sending up her perceived hyper-neurotic brittleness with great good cheer. She must indeed have been desperate to redeem her image by playing a role this insulting: the 'Hepburn' being spoofed never once alludes to her fierce intelligence or dramatic intensity or even her basic decency or humanity. 'Tracy Lord' is a spoiled, smug, self-centered and utterly insufferable stick-figure whose entire dramatic purpose is to be told by every other character how cold and fraudulent and incapable of human emotion she is, over and over, until the audience is fairly salivating for the cleansing humiliation and comeuppance that will render her, at last, a 'real' woman. She gives her lines more feeling and intuition than they deserve (when she's not forced to read dialogue expressly designed to make her look foolish or hateful). The real irony here is, though THE PHILADELPHIA STORY did renew Hepburn's Hollywood career, it reinforced the audience's distrustful perceptions of her, so that generations of moviegoers have come to think of Tracy Lord and Katherine Hepburn as one and the same. But there's a reason THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is rarely, if ever, revived as a stage property: it's horribly false and condescending, and one could single out the phonies in the audience with ease - they'd be the only ones laughing, while the majority of the attendants punctuate their long silences with nervous coughing between impatient glances at their watches. Thank the Lord at least for Virginia Weidler in this movie, as the kid gives the only unaffected performance in the whole show. Lucky for her that Philip Barry didn't think enough of the character to devote the same 'care' he took with the lead roles.
The Straight Story (1999)
Small Moments And Grace Notes
I'm not sure how well this movie would play on repeat viewings, but I've got a feeling it's best viewed by an audience caught off-guard, without any expectations as to subject matter or its director's prior excesses. THE STRAIGHT STORY is a slight one, its characters unassuming and its tone decidedly muted. If you can de-accelerate down to the film's slow tempo, you'll be rewarded with moments of quiet profundity. Though generally derided even by those who like the film, Farnsworth's scenes with the pregnant runaway are deeply touching: his analogy of a lone individual as a twig easily snapped, a family as a bundle of sticks tied tightly together and near-unbreakable, is a lovely moment that embodies the film's understated virtues. A beautiful Badalamenti score aids director Lynch immeasurably in achieving these grace notes, as does the sweeping imagery captured by cinematographer Francis. Farnsworth's face - a tintype of a vanished America - almost makes appraisals of his performance superfluous. While it's hard to say if THE STRAIGHT STORY would work the same magic on the second or third viewing, seeing it once in the properly attentive frame of mind should be enough to leave you with an indelible memory of it.
The Lady Eve (1941)
A Tonic For The Senses
As a lifelong Preston Sturges fan, I find the problem with submitting 'user comments' on his films to be twofold. The first is where to begin, the second how to stop. A third problem (growing out of the first two) manifests itself immediately upon watching a flawless jewel like THE LADY EVE: why even bother to praise it? No matter how accurate or elegant a rave you write, they'd still be merely words, and words can't do Sturges justice...not after hearing and seeing his own words spinning like a thousand plates over the 90-odd minutes it takes for this film to utterly captivate you. Unlike many black-and-white products of the studio era, which generate condescension or apathy among the Gen X'ers of today (when do we get to Gen Z - or are we there already?), the Sturges cult grows with every passing year, as younger fans fall under his spell, drawn initially to his work for the still-startling energy of the stream of raspberries he blew at the Production Code. (In this sense, EVE marks a high point; it's all about sexual gamesmanship, and its tone is both matter-of-fact and dizzyingly playful at the same time.) But hopefully, they're coming for the sizzle and staying for the steak. Like all Sturges' Paramount films, EVE is an embarrassment of riches - a boudoir farce, a slapstick clinic, a cynical dialogue comedy AND a love story of great, soulful heart. It's especially recommended to anyone beset by misery and tribulation as a guaranteed restorative and cure-all. When a movie from any era can so completely take you out of yourself and lift the blackest of clouds without resorting to any cheapjack plot-gimmicks or trite manipulation of an audience's emotions, all you can do is be grateful. Though the unfailingly superb Sturges Players are on hand, in fine form (including of course his human rabbit's foot, Wm Demarest) EVE features a number of actors making their first and only appearances in a Sturges-directed film: Stanwyck, Fonda, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper and perennial Fonda cohort Eugene Pallette. All of them take to the material like catnip, making one long for an alternate reality in which Preston Sturges could have remained unmolested at Paramount for 20 years and a dozen more films than he actually made, not only to see this cast reunited, but to see what might have resulted from any number of quality actors being exposed to the hothouse atmosphere of his screenplays. That it never worked out that way is one more reason to treasure THE LADY EVE.
Road to Utopia (1945)
Who'd Be Selling Fish At THIS Hour?
This is hardly an original insight, but anyone who dismisses Bob Hope as the tiresome, unfunny comic from those dreadful '60s 'comedies' he appeared in is missing out on a real national treasure - his films up to around 1952 are hysterically funny, and his ROAD entries with cohorts Crosby and Lamour are among the best of 'em. Hope, along with the brilliant Preston Sturges, had restored Paramount to the comedy throne they'd occupied in the early 30s; from the lavish budget and attention to period detail throughout UTOPIA, it's obvious that the studio was not ungrateful. For my money, ROAD TO UTOPIA is the funniest film he ever made (though there are half-a-dozen others close on its heels). As in all ROAD movies, the engine powering the vehicle was the lightning-quick banter between the two leads; Crosby smooth as snake-oil , Hope perpetually suspicious and cowardly. And with excellent reason, as no straight man ever victimized a foil the way Bing routinely does to Bob. ROAD movies always threaded their satires of B-movie plots (this one spoofing Robert W Service-style frozen-North melodrama) with plenty of topical humor, much of it capitalizing on the fans' awareness of the stars' personal foibles (Crosby's rivalry with Sinatra, his investments in thoroughbreds, Hope's disastrous box-office returns in LET'S FACE IT), and there's a goodly amount of what later generations referred to as 'breaking the fourth wall' ( they talk directly to the audience at varying points). What elevates UTOPIA over the others is the sky-high breezy confidence of everyone involved this go-around. The cast and crew, coming off ROAD TO MOROCCO, were on a roll and knew it and they ride that momentum for all it's worth, Hope's constant kibitzing particularly hilarious from start to finish. Der Bingle gets to groan a couple of subpar songs (as opposed to MOROCCO's highlights - 'Ho Hum' and 'Moonlight Becomes You' - this outing's 'It's Anybody's Spring' and 'Welcome To My Dream' are instantly forgettable) but the team's 'Put It There, Pal' is infectious fun and Miss Lamour's 'Personality' is sexy and sprightly. A further note on Lamour - she's luxuriously beautiful here, an ice-cream sundae with curves (why she's never ranked with the decade's top screen sirens is unfathomable: she's every bit the looker that Lake, Grable, Hayworth & Sheridan were, and a better singer besides). My apologies for not quoting any of the zingers from the script, but there are just too many of them to play favorites with. ROAD TO UTOPIA is well worth the effort it'll take you to track down; get cracking.
NINOTCHKA Still Defies Her Critics
An expertly-played and presented comedy that continues to be dogged by detractors for the oddest reasons. Some feel NINOTCHKA suffers compared to Lubitsch's earlier work, finding it formulaic alongside 1933's TROUBLE IN PARADISE. (I hadn't known Lubitsch had been given 'do-what-thou-wilt' privileges from the Hays Office - I'd labored under the delusion he faced the same restrictions in content and tone every other moviemaker did in 1939.) Other nay-sayers decry the film's jabs at Soviet collectivism as 'dated' if not 'unenlightened'. (Huh? You mean show trials and forced starvation of kulaks were GOOD things that a truly witty screenplay would celebrate?) Still other kibitzers squawk over the casting, of all things! (While it IS fun to picture William Powell or Robert Montgomery in the role of Leon, the boulevardier, Melvyn Douglas was never better than he is here. If he has his spotty moments, it's in those scenes where he must swoon with ardor, reciting dialogue that rings a tad purple to the ear; it's quite possible Powell or Montgomery would have fared even worse reading those lines.) Okay, enough defense - now let's go to NINOTCHKA's numerous strengths. Garbo is magnificent; she has a real knack for comedy (her deadpan entrance is hilarious) yet, as always, is able to break your heart with a look, a word, a gesture. Her three 'stooges' (Sig Rumann, Alexander Granach & Felix Bressart) are broadly funny and genuinely endearing. Ina Claire is everything her legend always claimed she was - though her character is icily calculating, you can't hate any woman who can make dialogue bristle like this. Lubitsch is in complete command throughout; his staging and pacing of the proceedings, masterful in its seeming effortlessness. Even the storied Metro glitz shines in NINOTCHKA, right down to the brilliant artifice of Cedric Gibbons' art direction (the Eiffel Tower sets especially). Last but not least is the superb screenplay by (among other hands) the team of Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder. Wisely, their satiric darts are dipped in a curare leavened by wit and sentiment, and while they are thrown with accuracy, their sting is never such that the satire sinks into the mire of political ideology. NINOTCHKA, after all, is about the triumph of love over politics, and to those who feel trapped in the prevailing toilet-ethic of the Farrelly Brothers' blood-poisoning of modern comedy, represents a much-needed antidote. Inoculate yourself at your earliest opportunity.
Great movies are movies you can't bear to see end, no matter how many times you've seen 'em. They play new the second, third, tenth time around; catching the light at angles you'd never seen them in before, gaining richness and profundity in familiar details while throwing never-noticed subtleties into sudden high relief. They awaken you to reserves of emotion inside yourself that are plumbed so rarely, you'd almost forgotten you had them in you all along. They are one-to-one experiences - even if you see a film like Preston Sturges' MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK in a packed revival house laughing uproariously en masse, you can only share a surface pleasure with those strangers: the deeper joys of this movie are yours and yours alone, shocking you into an awareness of how potent the alchemy of a great film can be, no matter how often you've felt that seismic shift with other great films. Even when you encounter an idiotic review that completely, callously, misses the whole point, you can't even get angry - how could you? A STAR WARS or Tarantino fan clucking terms like 'dated' or 'foolish' at a Preston Sturges movie is too pitiable a wretch to deserve actual scorn: maybe one day they'll figure it out, if they're lucky. MIRACLE turns out to be aptly titled, as this heady, unduplicable blend of slapstick, sitcom, surrealism and sharply observed slice-of-life manages to embody WW2-era popular entertainment while standing as far apart and above all its contemporaries as is humanly possible. The genius of Sturges was not that he ran end-runs around the censors but that he subverted them from the safest place to do so, deep within the fortress of the Production Code. The story of a small-town girl who finds herself both married and unmarried at the same time - but DEFINITELY pregnant in either case - is deliriously funny and brimming with great heart and honest sentiment, yet it's never less than a devastating indictment of the kind of mean-spirited provincialism that brought the Code into being in the first place. Rather than single out exemplary performances, I direct you instead to the complete cast-list (for the mark of a Preston Sturges movie is a wealth of expert actors, each blessed with scenes and dialogue devised to play to their respective strengths). Thus, the Esther Howards and Porter Halls shine as indelibly in small roles as the leads do - here, Bracken, Hutton, Lynn & Demarest, all inspired. If you haven't yet seen this unforgettable jewel, beat a path to wherever it is you have to beat a path to, and rectify the situation immediately: you should be ready for your second viewing about three minutes after the end credits run.
A Loopy Delight
For a guy who scaled the twin peaks of animation and feature films - a rare accomplishment in the 1950s - director/gagman Frank Tashlin has, surprisingly, few real standouts on his resume. Too often ill-served by either his material, his stars, or both at once, Tashlin's reputation rests on his cartoons (of course) and flashes of brilliance in otherwise so-so live-action movies. After all, in most civilized nations, being the director of both CINDERFELLA and THE PRIVATE NAVY OF SGT O'FARRELL constitutes a demerit if not an outright crime against humanity. Even Tashlin's better pictures, like SON OF PALEFACE and THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT, tend to be mediocrities occasionally enlivened by his outlandish visual slapstick. WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? is the glorious summit of what had to have been a frustrating career, the one time he was matched with a writer (Geo Axelrod) and cast (led by Tony Randall & Jayne Mansfield) perfectly in sync with his playfully outre satiric sensibility. The end result will make you wish lightning had struck more often like this for Tashlin; ROCK HUNTER may be the most beautifully 'opened-up' stage property in film history. It's visually clever and sumptuous, engagingly witty and breathlessly paced all at the same time. Best of all, its satiric barbs (aimed at both television and the gray-flanneled Organization Man) hit their targets consistently while never superceding the character-driven heart of the story: Randall is simply terrific here, and his wobbly tightwalk between schnook and lothario is hilarious. Add a few bonus points for the casting of the severely-underappreciated Henry Jones as Randall's fellow ad-exec, who oozes authentic 50s smuttiness and desperation from his pores in every scene he steals. Jayne's at her very best to boot, doing her trademark sex-kitten squeal with one arched, knowing eyebrow, and displaying plenty of resourceful smarts in her wised-up line readings throughout. As satisfying a comedy as emerged from the American 50s. Make sure you see the widescreen version, though: you won't want to miss a thing here. Tashlin's masterpiece, and his penance for Jerry Lewis and Phyllis Diller.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Comeuppance See Me Sometime
The Official Story has it that Orson Welles saw, in Tarkington's novel, his own story. The 'completed' film, such as it was, and the mess that led up to it, really IS Welles' own story - though not in any way he could've foreseen, or relished the irony of afterwards. The simplified version of events has philistine Hollywood & RKO cutting the genius Welles' legs out from under him on the AMBERSONS film, while he was off in Brazil shooting IT'S ALL TRUE. The actual chain of events is a lot more complicated than that, and has as much to do with the star-crossed history of RKO as with the movie colony's dislike of Orson Welles, enfant terrible. Put bluntly, the saga of Welles-in-Hollywood could not have ended any other way, given that his deal was with RKO - the most ineptly run studio in Hollywood, beset with warring factions and Borgia-like intrigues among its braintrust. For Pete's sake, at one point the head of production was JOE BREEN! The miracle is that Orson Welles managed to finish one picture on his own terms, and parts of two others. All that said, I hope anyone who hasn't yet seen AMBERSONS will make plans to do so. The first 70 minutes or so IS Welles' picture, and as beautifully thought-out and detailed a film as he ever made. There's a burnished glow to the production that heightens the viewer's emotional connection to the events onscreen - the script, performances, photography and art direction are flawless. Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and Tim Holt were never better than they are here. Those last 20 minutes, unfortunately, are hackwork - a porridge of flat and flavorless new scenes spliced into mutilated existing Welles-shot footage, julienne-sliced at the studio's behest by then-film editor Robert Wise (who remained on Welles' s**t-list for the rest of his life because of it). Enough greatness remains - even in this compromised botch - to captivate and carry an audience back to turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. But you should feel a slight sting at every mention in the narration of George Minafer's long-awaited 'comeuppance', since it was Welles himself who took the full brunt of that comeuppance.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
Sorry, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals alike: this review will not include terms like 'auteur', 'mise en scene' or 'decontextualized'. And thank goodness: HERE COMES MR JORDAN's tale of a goodnatured boxer killed 'before his time' and hastily compensated with another body by heavenly emissaries, is too airy a souffle to hold up under such heavy analysis. It's pure moonshine, a near-perfect example of the kind of breezy, warm-hearted entertainment that the Hollywood studio system (here at its apex) produced on its best days. There isn't a facet of JORDAN that's not wholly artificial; plot, characters, sets - all of them are imported direct from Never-Neverland. Call it DEATH MAKES A LEFT TURN ON A RED LIGHT - but see it. Star Robert Montgomery continues to be unfairly forgotten, at ease before a camera regardless of genre, and he does fine work here in a role that's trickier than it seems; he's ably abetted by the always-watchable pair of Claude Rains and James Gleason. The mix of fantasy, comedy and sentiment could never gel this beautifully had a more harshly realistic tone been adopted. (For proof, see the leadfooted Beatty remake - its aloof, smirky hipness is far more archaic now than the eerie timelessness of JORDAN's unashamed tall corn, still standing 60 years on.) Not that HEAVEN CAN WAIT is the only remake, unofficial or otherwise; JORDAN's premise has been worked harder than a pack mule by now, but every new variation is a progressive diminution from the original. But that's what happens when you try to bottle moonshine twice by design, instead of catching it by chance the first time.
The Cowboys (1972)
Lead Performers Outshine The Material
I'm sadly amused by the IMDbers who admire this film after noting that they dislike Wayne's earlier work for being too jingoistic and bloodthirsty. Not that THE COWBOYS is a terrible movie; it has some real merit. Wayne & Roscoe Lee Browne both turn in fine, mellow performances, and the leisurely pace of the story complements their work nicely. But the final 20 minutes is as cynically hand-tooled as a Dirty Harry movie, particularly the death of villain Bruce Dern, sadistically designed to turn on the audience and play to their well-stoked bloodlust. Dern's role embodied a new kind of hack writer's cliche -ironically emerging in the peace-and-love era of the late 60s/early 70s- the villain so repellently subhuman that no death, no matter how degrading or inhuman, seems degrading or inhuman ENOUGH. And Dern is alarmingly well-suited to these roles; with his rodent features and demeanor, all he's missing is a snout and tiny paws to clutch cheese with. I suppose he's the reason why so many see the climax of THE COWBOYS as a passage-into-manhood rather than the descent into the maelstrom that it is. Too bad, as the early going here has its moments, most of them the Duke's. And that sneakily brings up another point, the oft-stated foolishness that Wayne had, here in his twilight years, finally learned to act. (It's not just the fans, this was stupidly parroted by many critics at the time.) Yeah, thank God Wayne finally escaped the confining clutches of career-killing hacks like John Ford & Howard Hawks, huh? God knows what he might've accomplished had he not been hampered by drivel like THE QUIET MAN or RED RIVER or THE SEARCHERS or RIO GRANDE. What people respond to in his 70s work is that Wayne had finally begun getting parts that made constant reference to his being a old man and a dying-breed, fifth-face-on-Mt-Rushmore type living legend, and that sometimes the writing allowed him some dignity, as here. Many times these roles were damn-near offensive, the equivalent of winking nonstop at the audience, as in RIO LOBO and ROOSTER COGBURN. But the Duke, who'd made something like 70 movies BEFORE getting his big break on 1939's STAGECOACH, always, ALWAYS knew more about acting, and displayed it, than critics and audiences ever gave him credit for. It's as if he was being punished for knowing what he could and couldn't get away with and honing his craft between those two borders. That he didn't win an Oscar for his Nathan Brittles in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is just one more reason nobody should take the Academy Awards seriously; and those people who hold their nose at his war films ought to look at THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, as restrained and lyrical a 'flagwaver' as any nation at war could hope to produce. Even in pure-entertainment films like SEVEN SINNERS and REAP THE WILD WIND the Duke casts a mighty big shadow: this was an unselfish actor who knew and understood the craft well enough to let the other guy get the notices while taking care of the dirty work of selling the tickets. Sorry to momentarily diverge off the film at hand, but you too might be tempted, while watching THE COWBOYS, to believe John Wayne had suddenly 'discovered' how to act because the whole production is built around his acknowledgment of old age; don't you buy it. He'd mastered that particular trick a generation earlier.