My Week in Movies: Sept. 2-8

Greed (1924) Greed is a darn good movie and a captivating tale of the crushing power of desire and envy. However, for this, my first encounter with the film, I picked the 1999 restoration, which uses still photographs to add nearly two hours to the run time in hopes of recreating the story as von Stroheim intended, before Metro took control of the film and delivered one of Hollywood’s most infamous hatchet jobs. The experience left me unexpectedly taking the studio’s side: four hours is just too much for Greed. The restoration reveals most of the cut scenes were cut with good reason, as too many unnecessary subplots and scene extensions bog down the tale. A movie doesn’t have the same room to breathe as a novel when it comes to such asides. I’m all for directors having final cut, but legends of Greed‘s overblown production paints a portrait of a man out of control; anyone who delivers a nine-hour workprint (even if he never intended the final cut to be nearly as long) simply isn’t clearheaded when it comes time to edit (or, for that matter, to shoot). It’s interesting to note the film’s best sequence – its finale – was the one least tampered with by the studio and least in need of restoration, suggesting Metro may have known what they were doing all along. (A bitchy prologue opening this version calls Metro’s handling of the film “the greatest tragedy in motion picture history,” but that doesn’t help its cause. I mean, it’s unfortunate, but nobody died or anything.) Granted, the restoration is only an approximation, and von Stroheim’s own material might have had better pacing, with performances seen in full adding to the impact, so it’s tough to know for sure if his final cut was or wasn’t as excessive as it appears here. But in this form, it’s way too much. Bring on the scissors.

The Stranger (1946) Arguably Orson Welles’ least liked (and, not coincidentally, most work-for-hire) directorial gig, The Stranger still delivers visual flourish and dramatic oomph. There’s too little depth to the goings-on – pretty much everything here is on the surface, then underlined and highlighted – but the film relishes in its ideals, making a bold post-war case against fascism and warning about how easy it is for evil to hide in plain sight. What the film oversells in its preachiness, it makes up for in its thrills. Wedged between Journey Into Fear* and The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger is a fine exercise in tension and paranoia.

Premium Rush (2012) and Hit and Run (2012) An unplanned two-fer at the multiplex resulted in a three hour course in the dos and don’ts of making a chase movie. Premium Rush, directed and co-written by David Koepp, is miles above Hit and Run, written and co-directed by Dax Shepard. Both feature basic character “types,” but where Koepp adds colorful details (the bad guy is a wise-cracking gambling addict with a short temper and penchant for a humorous fake identity), Shepard stumbles when attempting to add a second dimension (the bad guy is a white dude in dreadlocks who likes dogs and talks about his prison rape experience, because comedy?). Koepp creates multiple small-scale obstacles, objectives, and side dangers that collectively build to the ultimate goal, while Shepard repeatedly loses track of the ultimate goal as he tosses us stunts and throwaway plot hurdles that make no sense and seem to be included for their own sake. (One mini-chase ends literally by going around in circles, with four cars doing doughnuts in a parking lot for no reason I could discern other than “man, them doughnuts look cool!”) Koepp’s use of editing gimmickry (the timeline repeatedly folds back on itself; the hero imagines multiple outcomes to his choices; MapQuest-like visuals offer lightning-fast shorthand to understanding the locations involved) comes across as a part of the movie’s overall rapid-fire tone, but Shepard’s attempt at Tarantinoing up the joint by using 70s music (most memorably – or regrettably, depending on your point of view – Lou Rawls slow jamming “Pure Imagination”) to underscore action shots never really fits and plays entirely as gimmicky and shallow. Both movies feature dialogue that calls attention to itself, but only Koepp knows how to pull it off; the playful lines he gives to his villain make us grin (thanks also to a killer performance from Michael Shannon, who goes Full Walken here, with glorious results), while Shepard’s chatty asides (long pieces in which the characters debate, say, the multiple connotations of gay slurs as if they’re discussing a Royale with Cheese) feel forced, the sort of conversations added for their own sake. Koepp plays with plotting and structure with the certainty of a pro; Shepard trips over himself in aiming for all the predictable story beats (oh, the main couple breaks up at the end of the second act? how novel). Premium Rush is snappy, surprising, and just plain fun; Hit and Run is sluggish, predictable, and flat-out dull.

*(No, I’m not saying Welles did or didn’t direct Journey Into Fear. I’ll leave that debate to the experts. I’m just saying as a series of thrillers featuring Welles in his post-Ambersons days, the three make a darn solid trilogy.)

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