Assassins, spies and other movie low-lifes

With a cast of Karen Gillen, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, Angela Basset and Paul Giamatti, GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE (2021) should have been way better than it was. After her hitwoman mother (Headey) goes on the run, Gillen follows in her footsteps as a deadly assassin for the all-powerful Firm. Unfortunately a)her latest mission required whacking the son of a powerful crime boss and b)she sacrificed some of the Firm’s stolen money to rescue the daughter of a man she killed (the kid triggers her own abandonment issue). With her life on the line, can the mysterious librarians (Bassett, Gugino, Yeoh) give her a fighting chance?

The cast is great and the film makes a game try for a kind of anime action feel. Trouble is it comes off very glum which undercuts the fun — not that it has to be a laugh-riot, but it really needed to have some high spirits mixed in. And as Nerds of Color points out, there’s not enough world-building — the Firm gets so little development it’s just a generic crime cartel (and if it’s so powerful, why do they care what the one crime boss wants?). Overall a disappointment.“You have made me a stranger in my own home again.”

Watching the restored SPIONEN (1928) — Spies in English — proved a frustrating experience. While it’s much cleaner than the copy my friend Ross made for me years ago, and probably longer (150 minutes) the German DVD doesn’t put the subtitle button anywhere obvious. Worse, by the time I figured it out I was halfway through the film and it only allows starting them at the beginning. As a result the plot is a complete blank to me, though Fritz Lang’s seminal spy film (showing a lot in common with Dr. Mabuse) is still interesting and eyecatching to watch. However the disability cliche that wheelchair-bound spymaster Rudolf Klein-Rogge can secretly walk is really pointless: he almost never interacts with anyone but his agents so what advantage does it give him? The special feature documentary covers some interesting details (male lead Willy Fritsch appearing as a scruffy bum was a radical departure from his screen image at the time) and the complexities of restoring a complete (maybe) version.

Stephen Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT (1998) has ace bank robber George Clooney (“You’d be amazed what you can get done without a gun.”) and best buddy Ving Rhames plotting to rob former fellow inmate Albert Brooks of his diamond collection only to be derailed by rival hood Don Cheadle, relentless federal agent Jennifer Lopez and the mutual attraction against all odds between her and Clooney (which would make The Thomas Crown Affair a good double bill). Fun, though I don’t entirely buy the leads’ instant attraction (which they lampshade by referencing a similar relationship in Three Days of the Condor). With Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina and Isaiah Washington among the supporting cast. “If I wasn’t stoned, there was no way you’d have talked me into this.”

After reading Basinger’s The Movie Musical, I put MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934) in my Netflix queue, just before viewing things for The Aliens Are Here began demanding all my attention. This is a pre-code backstage musical — the women’s stage costumes are startlingly skimpy compared to just a couple of years later — in which a venomous, backstabbing chorus dancer has given everyone a good reason to do away with her. When a murdered corpse turns up, however, it’s someone nobody in the show has ever seen before. Enjoyable though it’s hard to see how the strange mix of musical numbers could all fit into one show (though as Ethan Mordden points out, a lot of older musicals were just that random).  “365 nights of the year and this dame’s gotta pick this night in building on this night to commit suicide!”

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