CACHE Proves Low-Key Storytelling Can Be as Disturbing as Gore
Writer/director Michael Haneke's matter-of-fact storytelling makes the French drama CACHÉ (HIDDEN) all the more chilling. Fair Warning: those who don't think a suspense thriller is truly thrilling without tons of inventively gory violence and a high body count may start tapping their feet impatiently. Indeed, some might simply use those feet to walk out on the film, like one bored couple did in the theater where I saw CACHÉ during its 2005 theatrical run. However, those who appreciate intelligent psychological thrillers with a slow fuse (like me) will be riveted by the war of nerves between book critic/TV personality Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and whoever is sending him videotapes of his house and his family going through their daily routine, as well as creepy childlike drawings of a young boy bleeding from the mouth. Is it the fallout from some mindless cruelty Georges inflicted on a young Algerian boy during their youth? Is Georges just plain paranoid? Or does the answer lie in something out of the blue? I don't want to give away too much, but I found CACHÉ to be a fascinating study of how past misdeeds and lies -- even lies that were intended to protect the protagonists' loved ones -- can catch up with you no matter how you've turned your life around. Juliette Binoche is sympathetic as Georges' increasingly frightened and angry wife, as is Maurice Bénichou as the now-grown Algerian who may be getting a bum rap (his final scene is as tragic as it is shocking). If this kind of psychological suspense is your cup of hemlock, CACHÉ is well worth seeing! (As of this writing, it's airing on the IFC Channel.)
Satan MET A LADY Plays MALTESE FALCON for Laughs This Time
Perhaps because Dashiell Hammett's movie cachet was enhanced by the success of the THIN MAN comedy/mystery movies in the 1930s and '40s, the folks behind Satan MET A LADY (SMaL) reworked Hammett's MALTESE FALCON (TMF) into the 1936 screwball comedy Satan MET A LADY (SMaL). Directed by William Dieterle and scripted by Brown Holmes, SMaL gave director of photography Arthur Edeson practice for his future stint as D.P. of the now-classic 1941 version. For that matter, it turns out SMaL and the early Ricardo Cortez/Bebe Daniels version of TMF have more in common than being inspired (however loosely) by the same novel. Cortez as Sam Spade is replaced in SMaL by Warren William as Ted Shane (or Shayne—the filmmakers can't seem to decide how to spell it), and Cortez and William each played Perry Mason in the movies! But it's a fresh young Bette Davis who gets top billing here as wily Valerie Purvis, who could be Brigid O'Shaughnessy's witty, bantering sister.
William looks and acts like a fun-loving troublemaker and tomcat who's just had one drink too many no matter what time of day it is. William and Davis play off each other most enjoyably as they seek out, not the Maltese Falcon, but an ancient ram's horn rumored to be stuffed with jewels. They're aided and abetted by a rambunctious supporting cast. Joel Cairo has been turned into Travers, a bumbling English gentleman crook played by Arthur Treacher (yes, the one who brought the world Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, "the meal you cannot make at home"). Casper Gutman has gotten a name change and a sex change in the form of Alison Skipworth as sly Madame Barabbas (love her Biblical name!), who has a friendly adversary relationship with Shane (there's a funny bit where each one proves too clever to let the other one slip them a mickey). Instead of gunsel Wilmer, Mme. Barabbas' sharpshooting right-hand man is her obnoxious, buffoonish, beret-wearing nephew Kenneth (or as Auntie calls him, "Kenny Boy"), played by an unjustly uncredited Maynard Holmes. The ill-fated Miles Archer and his restless wife Iva are now Mr. and Mrs. Ames, played briefly but entertainingly by Porter Hall (best known in our household as Macaulay in THE THIN MAN and Jackson, the "Medford man" from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) and Winifred Shaw. My fave was the pre-MY FRIEND IRMA Marie Wilson redoing trusty secretary/receptionist Effie Perine as cheerful blonde Über-ditz Miss Murgatroyd. Her cute little squeak of surprise/distress cracked me up! Zesty quips abound, like Valerie's "Do you mind very much, Mr. Shane, taking off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun?" When Ames is found murdered in a cemetery, Shane remarks, "It's the first time he ever did anything in an appropriate place." My fave was Shane's dialogue with Murgatroyd when she's about to quit on account of Ames being unable to pay her: Shane (cheerfully): "Have you finished packing all your things?...And all the things that weren't yours, but that you thought you could use?" Murgatroyd (flustered): "Yes—um, I mean, I'm all packed." SMaL is unfairly maligned and misunderstood for not being a serious TMF adaptation. It was clear to me from the start that this one's played purely for laughs. Just approach SMaL as a wacky parody of TMF, and you'll be able to enjoy the flick as a pleasant, if forgettable, piece of fluff for a lazy afternoon.
Great Performances and Dialogue Make IN BRUGES a Modern Classic
I first saw the dark comedy-thriller IN BRUGES (IB) in our local multiplex back in April 2008, and I loved it immediately. No wonder writer/director Martin McDonagh's screenplay went on to be nominated for an Oscar, and co-star Colin Farrell won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical! When McDonagh's short film SIX SHOOTER, starring Brendan Gleeson, won the 2005 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film, I was already familiar with his plays (including the 2005 Broadway hit THE PILLOWMAN with our family's household fave Jeff Goldblum), so I looked forward to seeing Gleeson work with McDonagh again in IB. I wasn't disappointed. McDonagh's quirky, funny, soul-searching dialogue is a joy to hear. It's chock full of profanity, but the delivery renders it more comical than offensive. The filmmakers even spoof the "adult language" in one of the DVD's bonus features, a montage of every time the word "F***" is used in IB.
Gleeson and Farrell make a great seriocomic team as Ken and Ray, two Irish hit men who have suspenseful and surreal adventures hiding out in Belgium in the magnificent city of Bruges after their latest job goes horribly, heartbreakingly wrong. They're the ultimate odd-couple tourists as they await further instructions from their boss, with Ken enjoying the sightseeing and the swans as Ray spews forth befuddled, unfavorable, hilariously un-PC opinions of just about everything and everyone he encounters, except a pretty Flemish production assistant (Clemence Poesy of 127 HOURS), who's as full of surprises as our undercover assassins. Farrell gives one of his very best performances, blending laugh-out-loud comedy and guilt-ridden heartache beautifully. My favorite running gag was Ray's childlike fascination with dwarfs, and his oafish but well-meant concern for cokehead dwarf actor Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), who's in the fairytale-like city to appear in a dream sequence in a local indie art-house flick. As Harry, the boys' crime boss, Ralph Fiennes does a terrific job channeling Sir Ben Kingsley as the terrifying Don in SEXY BEAST (I assure you, that's a compliment!). IB mixes suspense, melancholia, and hilarity very well indeed. Along with THE BANK JOB, IB was my favorite crime film of 2008. The DVD's featurettes and deleted scenes are fun, too, including interviews, a captioned boat tour of Bruges, and a deleted scene involving Matt Smith in his pre-DOCTOR WHO days -- and a machete! The many deleted scenes are all quite entertaining; I'm sure they were only cut so IB wouldn't be a 3-hour epic! :-)
Although Jonathan Demme's 1992 Oscar-winner THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was his first major suspense thriller, it wasn't the first film he'd ever made in that genre. That honor goes to Demme's 1979 thriller LAST EMBRACE (LE), which I first saw and loved during its original theatrical run. At the time, LE was touted as a romantic Hitchcockian thriller. While LE definitely has strong elements of VERTIGO and other Hitchcock classics, I've always considered it to be more of a paranoia thriller with film noir touches, which I guess makes LE what might be called "film shachor." :-) Cool, craggy yet suave Roy Scheider had long been one of our family's favorite tough-guy actors; to many fans. At first glance, he might not seem vulnerable enough to be convincing as a beleaguered paranoia film hero. However, Scheider proved to be perfect casting as Harry Hannan, a government agent with more baggage than Louis Vuitton. Harry is still heartbroken and guilt-ridden about his beloved wife getting killed while she accompanied him as cover on one of his assignments. After he spends time in a Connecticut sanitarium recovering from his nervous breakdown, Harry has barely had a chance to lose his institutional pallor when he's almost shoved in front of an express train. When he returns to his spy agency in New York City, his slippery spymaster Eckart (Christopher Walken) keeps him at arm's length; maybe Eckart thinks Harry's sharp cream-colored suit makes him too conspicuous for undercover work. Worst of all, Harry discovers he's one of several Jewish men getting death threats written in Biblical Hebrew from an unknown "Avenger of Blood" and so far, he's the only one still alive.
Everyone scoffs at poor Harry's jitters. Who can he trust? Certainly not his brother-in-law (Charles Napier), a fellow spook who blames Harry for his sister's violent death ("You're careless with people, Harry"). Our hero eventually joins forces with Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin), a pretty New York graduate student who sublet his apartment while he was in the sanitarium. But the vulnerable Ellie seems to have her own issues and secrets. Will that spell doom for both Ellie and Harry? And how does a turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish brothel figure in the sinister fix Harry has found himself in? Scheider and Margolin had fine chemistry together; their characters' sensitivity and wariness made me feel for them, and they even had playful moments along the way. Ms. Margolin was at her loveliest, too. (Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer in 1993 at the age of 50. Janet, we hardly knew ye.) Scheider, Margolin, and Walken are aided and abetted by a rogues' gallery of stellar New York character actors, including John Glover as Ellie's insecure professor boyfriend; Marcia Rodd as Harry's nervous agency contact; David Margulies as a rabbi with connections; Joe Spinell and Jim McBride as thugs; Captain Arthur Haggerty as a bouncer waiting to use the phone; Mandy Patinkin and Max Wright in bit parts as commuters who may or may not have some 'splainin' to do; scene-stealer Sam Levene as the crotchety but likable head of a secret Jewish society; and director Demme himself cameo-ing as a stranger on a train.
Some critics complained that despite Demme's obvious affection for the Hitchcockian material, LE could have used more of The Master of Suspense's zest and verve. I won't deny that the pace slows down at times, but with Roy Scheider at his peak and Janet Margolin's touching, multifaceted performance, I was willing to be patient. Demme and screenwriter David Shaber (adapting Murray Teigh Bloom's novel The 13th Man) make up for the film's flaws with plenty of appealingly quirky Demme-style characterization. Judaism's key role in LE's plot was fresh and intriguing, as well as making excellent use of an elaborate, well-crafted red herring. The settings contribute to the film's Demme-ness; his ace Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto really makes the New York City and Princeton, NJ locations integral to the plot and its Hitchcockian motifs, especially the bell tower sequence and an exciting climax at Niagara Falls (I can hear you making lewd jokes :-)). The film brims with only-in-New-York characters and situations; for instance, the competition for living space in Manhattan provides amusing undertones to Harry's first awkward encounters with Ellie. Miklos Rozsa's swooningly romantic yet foreboding score pulls together the film's emotional undercurrents beautifully. Between LAST EMBRACE and STILL OF THE NIGHT, if I'd been Roy Scheider, I'd have stayed out of Central Park and environs for fear of elusive assailants! LAST EMBRACE is also available on DVD: http://www.mgm.com/view/movie/1084/Last-Embrace/
A Buoyant, Moving Portrait of 3 Filmmaking Musketeers and Friends
Daniel Raim's moving, exhilarating documentary SOMETHING'S GONNA LIVE (SGL) sets its tone perfectly with this opening line from Haskell Wexler, one of SGL's many legendary Oscar-winners and nominees responsible for countless classic movies: "If you're gonna spend your time doing the best you can doing s**t, then why do it? If you were to spend your time giving to future generations some of the benefits of your knowledge, maybe that's a way of having a legacy. That's a way of having a kind of morality so that Bob Boyle's never gonna die, and I'm not gonna die, and something's gonna live, and I think that's a pretty valuable thing." Amen to that! With the emphasis so many modern filmmakers place on dazzling moviegoers with CGI and pyrotechnics, it's easy to forget the talented people who've always worked behind the scenes, creating movie magic with techniques predating our current digital age. The film is bursting with absorbing, entertaining anecdotes about the golden age of filmmaking, including appearances by Wexler, director of photography Conrad L. Hall, and storyboard artist Harold Michelson. As if these greats didn't already make SGL a must-see for film lovers, Raim focuses most keenly on three longtime friends and colleagues at the twilight of their lives: Robert F. Boyle, production designer, and art directors Henry Bumstead and Albert Nozaki.
Al had the most crosses to bear, what with retinitis pigmentosa slowly stealing his eyesight, and his incarceration at Manzanar with scores of other Japanese-Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor for no other reason but the shape of their eyes — one of the most outrageous and shameful episodes in U.S. history. I was in awe of Al's incredible grace and fortitude under the circumstances.
Bob matter-of-factly muses, "I think everybody's here by accident. At any moment, anybody could get canceled. Then there are all those things that we do to ourselves. In my case, I overindulged in almost everything. I smoked too much, I drank too much, I lived too long." Nevertheless, on screen the trio's increasing physical frailty doesn't slow down their sharp minds. These men are just as witty, smart, and on the ball as any young hotshots. I especially liked Bummy's quips about film sets that don't look lived-in enough, like one that was supposed to be in a house full of kids: "There isn't a mark on anything. They must be well-disciplined children!" No doubt the love that Bob, Al, and Bummy had for their professions kept them young in mind and spirit over the years -- proof of the importance of spending your life doing what you truly love, if you're lucky! The gents were pretty darn dashing, too, wearing suits and ties on the set of such classic films as THE BIRDS and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. As an Alfred Hitchcock fan, I especially enjoyed these particular anecdotes, including Bob's theory that if Hitchcock was alive and making movies today, he'd happily use the current digital technology as long as it truly served the story's purposes. Bob and Harold's return to Bodega Bay after 37 years was one of the film's highlights. Bob, Bummy, and Al joke about being "three old farts," "three old bastards", and "three tottering people," but Bob got it right when he described them all as "three old soldiers." Raim caught the friends on film just in time. Sadly, 91-year-old Bummy died in 2006; Al died at the same age in 2003; and Bob died this past August at the milestone age of 100. Still, I felt like I'd had a chance to be part of their outfit for 80 minutes; it was a pleasure and a privilege to get a look at these men's exciting, meaningful lives being truly lived to the fullest.
SGL is like a fond, wistful, yet buoyant time machine voyage, deserving a place on the must-see list of anyone who loves movies inside and out. It's a thoroughly entertaining yet heartfelt documentary with much to say about the art, heart, and soul of filmmaking, as well as the duration of friendships, the passage of time, the team effort required in such endeavors, and the legacies that all talented people inevitably leave to enrich generations of creative artists to come. I, for one, am pulling for SGL to achieve the widespread success it deserves!
Penultimate Moments of The Golden Age of Film Through Robert Boyle's Eyes
You know someone's special when the "worst" thing anyone can say about him is that "He has no ego." That's what veteran storyboard artist Harold Michelson affectionately says about his friend and colleague, renowned production designer Robert F. Boyle, subject of Daniel Raim's justifiably Oscar-nominated 2000 short film THE MAN ON LINCOLN'S NOSE (TMoLN). This 40-minute documentary is as fond and upbeat as it is riveting. Boyle and his comrades share their stories and techniques for building on screen intrigue, including "the penultimate moment" versus the endless series of rock 'em-sock 'em action climaxes too many films depend on nowadays. We meet Japanese-American art director Albert Nozaki, who was forced into the Manzanar internment camp for six months by the U.S. Government after the attack on Pearl Harbor. On a more upbeat note, Boyle and friends also treat us viewers to sketches, collages, and footage of their decades of work, including the original THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and anecdotes about classic Hitchcock films such as SABOTEUR, MARNIE, and my own favorite, NORTH BY NORTHWEST. (Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, who our family has adored since we saw her in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, is listed as an Executive Producer.) Raim and company use storyboards, sketches, and pictures to bring the production designer's work to life for us viewers. TMoLN is now available on DVD through Adama Films, so if you love filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to add this compact gem to your film collection! (http://www.lincolnsnose.com/)
For Our Italian-American Family, Funny Fond FATSO is a Documentary! :-)
Occasionally, the Fox Movie Channel (FMC) airs a letterboxed version of the 1980 comedy FATSO, Anne Bancroft's only big-screen foray into writing and directing. Having grown up watching the films of leads Bancroft, Dom DeLuise, and Ron Carey, I can hardly believe they're no longer with us. Heck, I still remember the movie poster from FATSO's original theatrical release: a mournful DeLuise standing against a long list of foods under the bold heading "Do Not Eat." DeLuise stars as Dominick DiNapoli, an overweight 40-year-old bachelor living in New York City's Little Italy. His happy life revolves around his family: sister Antoinette (Bancroft) and her husband and kids; "baby" brother Junior (Ron Carey, best known and loved in our household from his roles in HIGH ANXIETY and JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY); countless cousins -- and food, glorious food! Having been doted on and well-meaningly overfed by his worried mom (tragically, her two previous baby boys died in infancy), Dom's life has always revolved around eating, drinking, and being merry, usually with his big-hearted and just plain big cousin Sal. When Sal dies of an obesity-related heart attack, however, Antoinette and Junior frantically beseech Dom to tackle his own weight problem before he follows in Sal's footsteps to the graveyard. Dom's misadventures on the road to weight loss include the support group Chubby Checkers (featuring Estelle Reiner, the "I'll have what she's having" scene-stealer in director son Rob's ...WHEN HARRY MET SALLY), as well as good-intentioned but overzealous family haranguing that only makes Dom feel worse about himself. Then Dom meets Lydia (Candice Azzara), a down-to-earth, zaftig, huggably adorable blonde who seems perfect for Dom if only he could work up the courage to ask her out. (Their eventual romance is warm and wonderful to watch. I love watching appealing character actors get to have lots of hot kissing scenes! Why should the usual movie star types have all the fun? But I digress...) Our family's favorite scene is the attempted intervention of two Chubby Checkers when Dom tries to head off a binge, only to erupt into the most spectacular binge of all time for all concerned. It always cracks us up when Dom and his partners-in-weight-management rhapsodize dreamily about the many ways to enjoy a jelly doughnut, turning the innocent phrase "Get the honey, Junior" into a threat/chant. By turns bittersweet, zany, romantic, and warm-hearted, FATSO may be too shrill and sentimental for some tastes, but my family and I absolutely loved it from beginning to end! Born Anna Maria Italiano, Bancroft's Bronx roots show throughout. The volatile yet endearing characters and the loving details about their lives ring true, like Martin Scorsese on laughing gas. While many of the film's ideas about the best approaches to weight loss are dated now, it was surprisingly ahead of its time in portraying emotional eating and its tragicomic aspects -- making it all the more devious that Bancroft and director of photography Brianne Murphy film the tempting, luscious-looking foodstuffs in an inviting, sensual way that brings to mind WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE? and JULIE & JULIA.
Having grown up in NYC as part of a boisterous, food-loving Italian-American family (on Dad's side; Mom's side was Irish-American. Never a dull moment in our household! :-)) and having waged my own battle of the bulge during much of my adult life, I totally identify with FATSO. It's like a lively Sunday dinner with my Grandma Josie and/or our other food-loving drama queen relatives and Italian-American friends in our old Bronx neighborhood -- and I mean that as a compliment! :-) As of this writing, FATSO will be on HBO Comedy for the next few weeks. It's not the letterboxed version FMC shows, but it's still worth checking your local TV/cable listings!
(No fooling -- SPOILERS galore here!) It's hard to believe now, but when I was younger, I used to have a love/hate relationship with Alfred Hitchcock's classic romantic psychological thriller VERTIGO. I loved its suspense, moving performances, haunting love story, dreamlike quality, and poignant yet powerful Bernard Herrmann score -- so why did it take me years to embrace VERTIGO as wholeheartedly as our beleaguered hero John "Scottie" Ferguson embraces his beloved Madeleine Elster? James Stewart plays Scottie, a former police detective who finds out the hard way that he has acrophobia (fear of heights, to us laypeople) when he can't save a patrolman from falling to his death during a rooftop chase. Since VERTIGO is a Hitchcock movie, what better place for our hero to live and wrestle with his phobia than San Francisco? While working on a cantilever bra invented by an engineer (nice work if you can get it!), Scottie's gal pal, designer Midge Wood (wry scene-stealer Barbara Bel Geddes) tries to help him overcome his fear gradually with stepladders ("I look up, I look down..."). Too bad the ladders happen to be next to Midge's high-rise apartment's window. Poor guy, it's always something! Scottie's old college chum Gavin Elster (suave Tom Helmore) offers him a private investigator job tailing his lovely but troubled young wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak in her finest and most challenging performance). Seems that Madeleine -- one of the coolest and most elegant of the director's legendary "Hitchcock blondes" -- thinks she's possessed by the spirit of her late great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes, and is behaving accordingly. Scottie tails Madeleine all over San Francisco to the places where the tragic Carlotta lived, loved, and went mad after her sugar daddy "threw her away" and kept their love child. Our detective finally comes face to face with his quarry after saving her when she jumps into the bay in one of her fugue states.
As the song says, the hunter is captured by the game. Soon Scottie and Madeleine are mad for each other -- but it seems poor troubled Madeleine is also mad in a less romantic way. When she confides in Scottie about her recurring morbid dreams about the Mission at San Juan Bautista, Scottie brings her there in hopes of curing her obsession. Bad move, Scottie -- Madeleine bolts to the bell tower. Scottie gives chase, but his vertigo paralyzes him halfway up the stairs (great spatial F/X here). He hears a woman screaming, sees a body fall past the window...and his beloved Madeleine is no more.
Or is she? After he recovers from a grief-induced nervous breakdown, Scottie spies shopgirl Judy Barton (the versatile Novak again). Except for her red hair and somewhat tacky fashion sense, Judy's a dead ringer for Madeleine! As their relationship grows, so does audience apprehension as Scottie obsessively tries to give Judy the ultimate makeover, recreating his lost love. (Where's the WHAT NOT TO WEAR crew when you need them? :-)) Judy's a quick study -- because she's really Madeleine! See, Judy was Elster's mistress, and he coached her to look and act like the real Madeleine Elster as part of a murder plot. 'Twas the real Mrs. Elster who died at the mission that day, and Elster's real purpose for poor Scottie was to witness the "suicide." Since Judy truly loves Scottie, has all the self-esteem of a squashed grape, and doesn't want to spill the murder plot, she's willing to play Eliza Doolittle to Scottie's macabre Henry Higgins. But the jig is up when, post-makeover, Judy wears a necklace Scottie recognizes as part of Madeleine's Carlotta Valdes collection. Furious at being played for a sucker, he takes Judy to the mission tower and forces her to confess. A black shape looms. Guilt-ridden Judy is so spooked by what turns out to be a curious nun (Judy must've gone to one of those tough parochial schools) that she loses her balance and falls...and a shattered Scottie loses his Madeleine a second, final time, looking like he wants to join her.
When I first saw VERTIGO in my college years during its 1980s re-release, I thought it was well worth seeing, but Scottie's necrophilic mania to recreate Judy as Madeleine really upset me. I found myself rooting for, angry at, and sorry for Scottie and Judy all at once. Stewart's portrayal of a man obsessed is tragic and unnerving; Hitchcock really knew how to tap into his leading man's dark side. As if the ghoulishness of Scottie's romantic obsession and the malleable Judy's heartbreaking lack of self-esteem weren't frustrating enough, even the department store salespeople and salon personnel in the film go along with Scottie's demands ("The gentleman certainly seems to know what he wants.") despite Judy's anguished protests. My husband Vinnie aptly noted that everyone on screen acted like Scottie was having a dog groomed.
On my first time around, it seemed to me that Hitchcock gave away the mystery's solution too soon, making the rest of the film anticlimactic. But my appreciation for VERTIGO grew over the years as I matured and learned more about life, people, and emotions. By the time we saw the beautifully restored version of VERTIGO at NYC's Ziegfeld Theatre in 1996, Judy's revelatory letter touched my heart and added to the suspense of waiting for the other shoe to drop for Scottie. There's no question that VERTIGO has long since become one of my favorite Hitchcock films!
The Riveting True Story of a Weasel in Sheep's Clothing
Between STAR WARS movies, Hayden Christensen played master weasel-in-sheep's-clothing Stephen Glass, the young journalist whose star was rising high at THE NEW REPUBLIC (as well as GEORGE and ROLLING STONE, among others) in the 1990s until it was discovered that he'd made up many of the people and events portrayed in his articles. (As others in the film point out, the fact that THE NEW REPUBLIC didn't use photographs in its articles made it easier for Glass to make up characters from whole cloth.) Christensen often comes across as a whiner in his film roles even when he's playing a good guy, so in my opinion he was perfect casting as Glass, a young man so adept at manipulating, lying, and making people feel sorry for him that I felt like smacking him even before his true colors became clear to his increasingly frustrated, outraged editor Chuck Lane, played by Peter Sarsgaard in a justifiably Golden Globe-nominated performance. Sarsgaard's slow burns in his scenes with Christensen are worth the price of admission by themselves, especially in scenes where Glass (and an accomplice) pester Chuck at home when he's trying to have quality time with his wife and baby. My husband Vinnie hated Glass even more than I did, but then Vin just can't stand Christensen on general principle. :-) Kudos all around to writer/director Billy Ray and a great cast, including memorable turns by Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson as the FORBES ONLINE reporters who initially uncover Glass's fabrications; and Chloe Sevigny, Hank Azaria, and our household fave Melanie Lynskey as the NEW REPUBLIC staffers fooled into trusting and sticking up for Glass. If you have fond memories of the ALIEN NATION TV series, don't blink or you'll miss Michele Scarabelli as the mother of a young hacker who also turns out to be a figment of Glass's journalistic imagination. Ironically, after Glass was finally fired from THE NEW REPUBLIC, he later wrote a novel, THE FABULIST, about a young reporter who fabricated his articles. It was met with disdain; critics found the book self-serving. Grade: A+
DIABOLIQUE is Even Darker Than Hitchcock At His Darkest
Like Stanley Donen's 1963 thriller CHARADE, Henri-Georges Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE is one of the best Hitchcock films that Hitchcock DIDN'T make! The crucial difference is that CHARADE recalls playful, polished, soignée Hitchcock films such as NORTH BY NORTHWEST, while DIABOLIQUE, based on a novel by Boileau & Narcejac of VERTIGO fame, is more like a precursor of Hitch's darker, more sinister PSYCHO. I understand Clouzot snatched up the film rights to the Boileau/Narcejac novel about half an hour before Hitchcock got a crack at it. It would have been fascinating to see Hitch's approach to the material. Darkly magnificent as PSYCHO is, DIABOLIQUE's gloomy, misogynistic take on the story sinks into your gut and haunts your dreams. Even DIABOLIQUE'S opening credit sequence immediately makes us uneasy with its merciless close-up of the run-down DeLassalle Boarding School's murky, mossy swimming pool, accompanied by children shrilly singing Georges Van Parys's music off-key and off-screen. The film starts out at a leisurely pace, but as it goes along, the tension tightens like a noose, helped by skillful use of shadows and light. Without giving away its twists, I'll only say that DIABOLIQUE gives new meaning to the phrase "cruel to be kind." Vera Clouzot (yes, the director's Mrs., or should I say Mme.?) and Simone Signoret are electrifying as, respectively, the long-suffering wife and mistress of manipulative, sadistic headmaster Paul Meurisse. As the women plot to kill the bastard, Clouzot's delicate loveliness and anxious air (her character has a heart condition that contributes to the suspense -- as if the poor gal doesn't have enough problems!) plays beautifully off Signoret's sexy, smoldering intensity. Which is scarier, the water sports in DIABOLIQUE or in PSYCHO? Watch them and decide for yourselves! :-) Grade: A+
The Creepiest Lovecraft Tale that Lovecraft DIDN'T Write!
Writer/producer/director David Prior's short horror thriller AM1200 follows in the great tradition of PSYCHO and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN in both its high quality and its story structure: a taut protagonist-on-the-run thriller that devilishly morphs into an atmospheric, razor-sharp tale of supernatural terror under your very nose.
Eric Lange is solid as Sam Larson, an almost sympathetic white-collar everyman (if that makes sense :-)) whose company is going downhill fast. Going into Dick-Over or Be Dicked-Over mode, Sam makes a bad, no-turning-back decision to embezzle company funds before his slippery boss (Ray Wise, in the kind of role at which he excels) beats him to it. Sam escapes in his Audi on what seems like an endless desert highway, literally scared sick whenever he sees a police cruiser in his rear-view mirror. But his nerve-wracking flight from the law feels like piña coladas and Key West sunsets compared to what happens when, in the dead of night, he hears and responds to a desperate SOS broadcast as he tunes his car radio into the titular evangelical AM radio station.... Refreshingly, unlike so many other protagonists of his ilk, Sam sees the red flags (metaphorically flapping in the breeze), and does his best to avoid the station until he's truly left with no other options.
AM1200 is an original story by Prior, but once Sam enters the all-but-abandoned station and discovers the terrifying truth, the film becomes a brilliant modern-day homage to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu tales. It packs more potent suspense, dread, and eerie atmosphere in its 40-minute running time than many feature-length horror films. It also looks and sounds amazing, thanks to Brian Hoodenpyle's crystal-clear digital cinematography, and the brilliant use of sound and light (and dark) by Prior and his crew. The sparingly-used special effects are so artfully rendered that they seem quite natural, as opposed to the kind of F/X which practically scream, "Hey, look at me! I'm a special effect!" Great use of music, too, ranging from Bela Bartok to Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." Among the rare, fleeting instances of comic relief, my favorite was when the seemingly millions of unseen crickets that have been insistently chirping -- nay, screeching -- away in the background suddenly STOP -- just like that! AM1200 was like having a knife to my throat for forty minutes -- in a good way. It's well worth seeking out and recommending to others. I give it an A+!
VICKI is I WAKE UP SCREAMING Lite - Hold Out for the Original!
VICKI (guess they thought changing "Vicky" to "Vicki" would look more modern or something) plays like a watered-down version of the original I WAKE UP SCREAMING (IWUS), though it tries real hard to remind you of another classic 20th Century-Fox thriller, 1944's LAURA. A LAURA-like painting of title character Vicki Lynn can be seen behind the opening credits. Listen carefully to the background dialogue during the scene where our protagonists hide in a movie theater (we don't see the film-within-the-film, we just hear it): the dialogue is from LAURA! To be fair, VICKI is watchable, but despite the filmmakers' best efforts to evoke superior Fox mysteries, it's ultimately pedestrian and forgettable, lacking the pizazz of its predecessors. Director Harry Horner, who was also the Oscar-winning art director and production designer of THE HUSTLER and THE HEIRESS (THE HUSTLER AND THE HEIRESS -- now that sounds like a fun picture! :-)), worked from Dwight Taylor's earlier IWUS script, this time given a little uncredited tweaking by Leo Townsend. Perhaps Townsend's the one responsible for the nice touch of having Vicki's face plastered all over almost every frame of the film, on posters, magazine covers, etc., even after her death, until the film's wry final shot.
However, while the actors are capable and easy on the eyes, the principals just don't have the edge, charisma, and screen presence of the original 1941 leads. In the title role, unlike IWUS's luminous Carole Landis, Howard Hughes protégée Jean Peters is just another pretty girl, albeit with ambition and a hard edge. Indeed, as Vicki's nice, sensible sister Jill, Jeanne Crain is more classically beautiful than Peters. If I were a promoter, Jill's the sister I would've been trying to groom for stardom! :-) But maybe that was the point: our promoter hero is trying to manufacture a star out of the raw material that is Vicki, like so many promoters and stars then and now. Film noir historian Foster Hirsch suggests this, too, in the DVD's interesting commentary track.
Speaking of our hero, instead of Victor Mature's beleaguered promoter hero Frankie Christopher, formerly Botticelli, VICKI gives us Elliott Reid as Steve Christopher (a tip of the hat to source author Steve Fisher?). Reid was a light leading man best known for comedy. That didn't necessarily have to be a liability, considering the story has comic moments, but alas, I'm afraid it is. I wanted to root for Reid, but he comes across as a lightweight in every way, pleasant without being memorable. Heck, I'm trying to picture him in my mind right now and I'm having a hard time, that's how little impression he made on me.
The sexual tension of IWUS is virtually nonexistent here. I've enjoyed the attractive Peters in more down-to-earth roles such as the 1953 thriller NIAGARA, but here I didn't find her irresistible in either physical or emotional allure. While you can't help but pick up on IWUS's Frankie, Larry, and Robin being drawn to Vicky, in VICKI, the lure somehow isn't as strong between Vicki and benefactors Steve; Robin, played here by suave Egyptian actor Alex D'Arcy; and Larry, played likably by one of our household's fave character actors, Casey Adams. Fun Facts: Under his real name, Max Showalter, Adams co-wrote VICKI's instrumental theme, and he'd also appeared with Peters in NIAGARA, in which Marilyn Monroe commanded the screen in an atypical bad-girl role. Crain and Reid come across like a nice-enough couple, but they simply don't have the sizzle and sparkle that Victor Mature and Betty Grable had between them in the original. At least Carl Betz of THE DONNA REED SHOW is a likable presence as Steve's cop pal.
Frankly, the antagonists are far more memorable than the protagonists. Richard Boone stands out most as obsessed cop Ed Cornell. True, Boone is no Laird Cregar; he's nowhere near as physically imposing or silver-tongued as Cregar was. Still, Boone's rough, harsh quality gives VICKI much-needed energy as he snarlingly invades people's space with wild abandon. Seeing vicious Boone zero in on bland Reid is like watching a feral dog attack a pampered puppy; it's not a fair fight, whereas IWUS's Mature and Cregar are more exciting to watch, being more evenly matched physically and temperamentally as well as in the charisma and screen presence departments. (Even Hirsch agrees in his commentary. Sharp guy, that Hirsch! :-)) Aaron Spelling's no slouch, either, as he takes over Elisha Cook Jr.'s role. Yes, you read that right: before he became one of the most successful TV producers of all time, Aaron Spelling was a quirky young actor, and he makes a great weirdo here. Occasionally, Spelling chews the scenery, but at least he's not insipid like most of the rest of the cast.
Even the film's lighting and staging is flat and bland, except for the expressionistic lighting of the interrogation and the night scenes. There aren't even any little fun quirks, like the use of "Over the Rainbow" in the original. My verdict: I WAKE UP SCREAMING is the clear winner here, with VICKI worth a look primarily for completists.
INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS Was Scarier Than Neil LaBute's Misbegotten Remake
When the 2006 remake of THE WICKER MAN (TWMv2) was released, the newspaper ads ballyhooed the "shocking ending." Well, the ending wasn't the least bit shocking to those of us who've seen and loved the original film; for us, what's shocking is the waste of celluloid and great acting talent in LaBute's ham-fisted, wrongheaded remake. I wouldn't mind the changes if they'd resulted in an intriguing story, but LaBute and company only succeed in replacing intelligent dialogue and suspenseful situations with laughable dialogue and plot "improvements" that the gang at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 would have had a field day with.
True to LaBute's usual story lines full of hysterical (in more ways than one) hostility to women, he turns the pagan society of Summersisle (the extra "s" in the middle is never explained. My husband quipped that obviously Lord Summerisle refused to give LaBute permission to use his name :-)) into a society of beekeepers on a Puget Sound island, with Summersisle's big export being honey instead of fruit. In this version, the islanders are all women, except for a few males who seem to exist only for the occasional bit of heavy lifting. Get this: when they want to create new little Summersislers -- and get themselves a new batch of potential sacrifices in case the bees fall down on the job -- they send the younger, prettier girls to the mainland to pick up guys and get themselves knocked up. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have minded the concept of a society of women up to no good if it had been done with anything even remotely resembling intelligence, wit, or suspense, but the way it's done here, it's just plain dopey! Summersisle is described as a pagan society, but the only remotely pagan elements besides the sacrifice are the costumes worn during the climactic festival, and even those become ridiculous thanks to the bee motif. The playful yet unsettling pagan costumes from the original WICKER MAN become unintentionally hilarious when adapted to LaBute's beehive gimmick for TWMv2! If the sight of kiddies wearing bee costumes a la The Not Ready For Prime Time Players in Saturday NIGHT LIVE's first season doesn't make you double over laughing, the sight of Nicolas Cage overpowering the Amazonian Diane Delano (best known in our household as "Mountain Girl" in the Coen Brothers' hilarious 2004 remake of THE LADYKILLERS) so he can go undercover in her bear costume will. And don't get me started on the face-painting that's supposed to make the women look fierce during that "shocking ending," but instead makes them look like they wandered in from some sporting event.
The stiff-necked but capable Sgt. Howie of the original is now American motorcycle cop Edward Malus (pronounced "may-liss," although all I felt was mal-us towards all concerned), played by Cage in the scenery-chomping mode he all too often resorts to in dramas. He's better in comedies, particularly intentional comedies like RAISING ARIZONA and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, as opposed to unintentional comedies like, well, TWMv2! Anyway, Edward becomes a haunted, nervous wreck after failing to rescue a mother and daughter from a violent car crash that's never explained, not to mention poorly acted by the actresses playing the mother and child. Now it's Willow Woodward (OK, so at least LaBute tried to throw a bone to fans of the original by clumsily invoking Edward Woodward's name in two different characters) who summons the cop protagonist to the island to look for Rowan, who's now a tiny tyke instead of a 12-year-old. Willow is Edward's former flame (apparently they were really in love and Edward wasn't just another pickup), and Rowan turns out to be the daughter Edward didn't know he had. Willow's character has been changed from a saucy, wall-banging temptress to a frightened, one-note damsel-in-distress type, played by pretty Aussie actress Kate Beahan (doing a convincing American accent) as if she's about to burst into tears any minute.
The rest of the cast, including, among others, Ellen Burstyn as Mistress Summersisle, Molly Parker as Miss Rose, and Frances Conroy as Dr. Moss, do the best they can to lend conviction to their ill-conceived characters. They've got their work cut out for them, though, with accidentally funny bits like Edward holding a gun on Miss Rose, screaming, "Step away from the bicycle!" and such lame plot points as Edward being allergic to bees. Don't get me wrong; as the mother of a child with a severe peanut allergy, I know all too well how terrifying and deadly an allergic reaction can be, but somehow it's hard to portray it in a scary way in a movie, especially when it's rendered as ineptly as it is here. It doesn't help that LaBute apparently figured all he had to do to shock the audience was to occasionally show women covered in live, squirming bees, a tactic which gets surprisingly old surprisingly fast. Ugh! Save the 2006 version for a DIY MST3K party with your friends, and watch the 1973 cult classic if you want to see an intelligent, thought-provoking suspense film.
THE INFORMANT! It's (Darkly) Funny Because It's True!
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive, and how easily drama can turn into comedy when your story's protagonist turns out to be an attention-craving doofus! That's what happens in THE INFORMANT! (TI!), Steven Soderbergh's maddening yet delightful fact-based deadpan comedy. At its best, it's rather like MICHAEL CLAYTON on laughing gas. Matt Damon shows how deftly he can handle comedy and drama as biochemist and rising young executive Mark Whitacre. His firm, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), was known as the world's supermarket, manufacturers of lecithin, lysine, sorbitol, xanthan gum (the latter being a boon to us gluten-free cooks, as it gives baked goods the springy texture that helps make cakes and cookies so yummy...but I digress...) and many other polysyllabic ingredients we usually see in itty-bitty print on food labels. Starting in the early 1990s, Mark supplied the FBI with hundreds of tapes implicating ADM in a complex price-fixing scheme. He soon finds he likes his new role of corporate whistle-blower—maybe too much. In his naiveté, Mark's willing to go to ridiculous lengths to cling to his new sense of self-importance and keep himself in the spotlight—never mind that the whole point of his mole role is to keep what he's doing on the down-low! It doesn't help that Mark has the attention span of a gnat; his hilarious stream-of-consciousness voice-overs natter on about everything from corn to neckties to polar bears, even while FBI agents are in the middle of briefing him. Scott Bakula and THE SOUP'S Joel McHale make a fine team as FBI Special Agents Shepard and Herndon, who evolve from concern and compassion (I was touched by the fact that they even carry around a holiday photo of the Whitacre family) to slow burns and outraged disillusionment as they realize Mark's not playing with a full deck. And what thanks do they get? Mark eventually tries to blame and frame the agents when he starts embezzling from ADM, even as his endless series of increasingly outrageous stories and excuses finally unravel. Those with short attention spans may find that TI!'s plot takes some keeping up with, but the emotional aspects always ring true, thanks to superb performances from the entire stellar cast, which also includes Patton Oswalt, Clancy Brown, Eddie Jemison, the Smothers Brothers (not as a team; Tom plays an ADM executive, Dick plays the judge at Mark's trial), and the ever-endearing Melanie Lynskey as Ginger, Mark's sweet, loyal, increasingly befuddled wife. Marvin Hamlisch's bright, zany score is the perfect accompaniment to Mark's increasingly nutzoid antics; in fact, it reminded me pleasantly of his score for Woody Allen's 1971 farce BANANAS. (As of this writing, it seems like everything's coming up Hamlisch at the movies; his song "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows" turns up in CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS.)
Big Food and Big Fun in Animated Adaptation of Beloved Book
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (CWACOM), based on the beloved 1978 children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett, is almost Pixar-level good! My family and I saw this animated treat in 2D rather than 3D because we wanted to take advantage of a local theater's morning matinée. However, we didn't miss the 3D effects in this vivid, playful, rollicking adaptation; we were having too much fun! Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, CWACOM deftly combines the warmth of a Pixar film with the zany sight gags of a Looney Tunes cartoon. The movie also expands entertainingly on the book's premise about the little town of Chewandswallow (in the film, the town is part of an economically-depressed island, Swallow Falls), where food drops from the sky like rain, with surreally madcap results. The film gives the townspeople more personality, including an endearingly awkward protagonist, young scientist wannabe Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader). When Flint hits on a way to convert water into all manner of foodstuffs, saving his town from poverty and an all-sardine diet, he finally becomes a town hero after years of having his inventions laughed at. To our hero's frustration, his laconic but well-meaning dad isn't quite on board with his son's success yet, fearing he hasn't thought through the possible consequences. (This being an animated film, of course Flint's mom is the only person who believes in him, and of course she dies young.) Flint teams up with aspiring weather-gal Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), who's as ambitious and eager for acceptance as Flint is; merciless childhood teasing led Sam to hide her smarts behind her pretty face and perky personality. The film makes some good points about the pros and cons of craving other people's approval and over-sized food portions. Happily, Lord and Miller put all of this across with a light touch, a refreshing lack of sap and snark, and a super-size helping of hilarity and wit. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the majority of the laugh-out-loud funny gags aren't so ridiculously topical that they'll feel dated by the time the DVD comes out. :-) There are tips of the hat to classic science fiction movies, but those scenes will still be fun even if you've never seen the films in question. The gags aren't just funny, they're plentiful. In fact, our family would love to see CWACOM again to look for all the uproarious background sight gags we missed the first time around! Even Flint's posters of his scientist heroes are funny and clever, drawn to look like rock star pin-ups. There's a side-splitting payoff to every little running gag -- sometimes literally, like with the walking TV Flint invented. As chaos reigns late in the film, a looter carries off a TV -- and Flint's walking TV carries off the guy! (THE TWONKY, anyone? :-)) Spaghetti tornadoes with meatball meteors, feral Gummi bears on the attack, schools closed on account of falling giant pancakes -- what's not to like? The voice cast is terrific, too; in addition to Hader and Faris, we loved James Caan's imitation of James Gandolfini as Flint's dad; Bruce Campbell as the self-serving mayor; Andy Samberg as former sardine factory icon Baby Brent; Mr. T. as gung-ho cop and loving dad Earl; and my favorite, Benjamin Bratt, who's deadpan funny (yes, both Bratt's voice and his animated character's face are deadpan, smarty :-)) as an unassuming bystander who turns out to be a doctor, saving Earl's young son from his food coma: "I came from Guatemala for a better life. Good thing, huh?" As a side note, one plot element that particularly hit home for our family was Sam's peanut allergy; during a climactic action scene, she's scratched by knife-like shards of peanut brittle, resulting in a race against time to get her back to their ride so she can use her Epi-Pen before anaphylactic shock sets in. Our daughter could relate because of her own peanut/tree nut/sesame allergies. Of course, she carries her Epi-Pen everywhere (good girl)!
Refreshingly Realistic Portrayal of Aspie Life in Winning Romantic Dramedy
As the mother of a bright, beautiful, winsome young lady who has been living with ADHD and Asperger's Syndrome all her life, constantly astounding skeptics with her continuing scholastic and social success, I can assure you that ADAM really captures what life is like for adult Aspies living on their own, and the people who love them. Written and directed with humor and clear-eyed compassion by Max Mayer, and engagingly acted by a wonderful cast, this low-key romantic dramedy made me laugh and cry for all the right, non-manipulative reasons. Actors playing people with Asperger's or other developmental or physical issues all too often come across as showy and "actor-y," but Hugh Dancy's sensitive performance in the title role avoids all that; watching him, I felt like I knew him as well as I know my daughter.
I could also identify with Rose Byrne as Beth, the neighbor who comes to know, love, and understand Adam -- which is not to say it's all hearts and flowers from then on, especially since Beth has her own unrelated issues. Mayer clearly did his homework, keeping it real by avoiding Hollywood-type nonsense. For example, I found it refreshing that while Adam made progress over the course of the film, his love for Beth didn't magically cure him of Asperger's, or any such clichéd foolishness. The way things turn out in their relationship is bittersweet yet uplifting, satisfying, and believable. Having said that about Hollywood nonsense, as a native New Yorker, I must say that in the scenes showing the couple's nighttime star-gazing trips to Central Park (Adam is an engineer with a passion for astronomy), I half-expected them to be mugged any minute! :-) (Fun Fact: Although Dancy and Byrne both play native New Yorkers, Dancy is British and Byrne is Australian. I thought they shed their accents quite convincingly.) I loved ADAM, and I highly recommend that everyone see it, but I think Aspies and their loved ones will especially appreciate this fine little film's ring of truth.
Well-Cast Seventies Neo-Noir Has Its Moments, But Not Enough
"That's Chandler, C-H-A-N-D-L-E-R, as in Raymond," Warren Oates snaps in the title role, as if to make sure less detective-fiction-savvy viewers don't miss the literary connection. Since MGM released CHANDLER in 1971 when youth-oriented films were raking in big bucks at the box office, I guess they wanted to make sure the kids could dig it. :-)
However, the ever-capable Oates isn't playing hard-boiled mystery writer Raymond Chandler in this brooding neo-noir. This Chandler's the laconic type, likely to reply with a terse "Sure" or, in a tender moment, "You'll do." When we meet him, he's a department store security guard with a surly puss and another guard dressing him down a la ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (which featured CHANDLER'S Mitchell Ryan among the cast, BTW). You don't have to be Philip Marlowe to figure out our protagonist can't be square-pegged into a rent-a-cop gig. I cheered when he walked out in the middle of his dreary shift and drove away in his 1940s landboat.
At first, CHANDLER shows promise with our back-in-business hero hobnobbing with fine character actors and stars from the golden age of film noir. Gravel-voiced Charles McGraw, so memorable in tough-guy roles in THE NARROW MARGIN and others, has an assignment for Chandler (with my fave bit of CHANDLER dialogue: "Chandler! You're alive! I got a job for ya."). As the main villain, Alex Dreier does a creditable Sydney Greenstreet update. Leslie Caron, still gorgeous at 40 (and why shouldn't she be?), plays Katherine Creighton, the wary, mysterious witness Chandler's been assigned to protect. (During a car chase, Caron shows off her fabulous legs as she launches herself out of a bad guy's speeding cab.) In an early scene, Gloria Grahame, still gorgeous at 48 (and why shouldn't she be?), only has maybe five minutes of screen time but, to borrow a line from Spencer Tracy, what's there is "cherce."
Directed by first-timer Paul Magwood and written by Magwood and John Sacret Young, CHANDLER was clearly conceived with its world-weary heart in the right place. Between the movie's dull bits, it shows glimmers of neo-noir promise as Chandler refuses to let Katherine become a victim or himself become the villains' fall guy, struggling against a world that's passing him by. There are several nice scenes and brushstrokes along the way where the filmmakers' true gritty yet noble ambitions shine through. The juxtaposition of then-modern surroundings and 1940s cars gives CHANDLER -- both the film and the character -- an intriguing unstuck-in-time feel and a bittersweet air. L.A.'s more retro-looking locations set the tone well, especially coastal Monterey, Olvera Street, and Union Station, including a train with an observation car so lovely it made my mouth water.
I loved one scene near the end in which Chandler and Katherine find themselves lost at night in the fog after ditching the bad guys. They allow themselves to enjoy this quiet moment, and it almost gives Katherine the air of a storybook heroine, with Chandler as her devoted hero. As a screen couple, Oates and Caron may not make viewers forget Bogart and Bacall, but as CHANDLER goes along, they develop a poignant kind of chemistry, as if they've realized -- maybe too late -- that for all their differences, somehow they're kindred spirits.
The film has the occasional bit of wry humor, like when the case brings Chandler face to face with a prim administrative assistant (Marianne McAndrew). "What can I do for you, angel?" Chandler says, like any good classic private eye. She looks surprised. "How did you know my name is Angel? Angel Carter." I also liked the bit where a jittery Katherine pulls a gun on Chandler, thinking he's the assassin after her. Unfazed, he responds, "Oh. Guns," faking a big yawn and getting a laugh out of Katherine in spite of herself.
Unfortunately, you may find yourself yawning for real as the film's pace drags. Its weaknesses all too often overpower its strengths, not unlike Chandler himself. The actors' attempts to sound hard-boiled sometimes make them sound simply cranky or weary (and I don't mean world-weary). In some scenes, the dialogue is nearly drowned out by background noise. The plot makes increasingly less sense as the flick goes along. I couldn't even tell for sure whether or not Chandler had survived the climactic beach showdown! Perhaps because of sloppy post-production editing, CHANDLER stops making sense as the continuity goes nuts, like in a forest scene where our hero and heroine find themselves in a rainstorm that stops as mysteriously as it started; in fact, at one point it actually seems to be raining on one side of the screen but not the other!
I kept getting the feeling the movie had been tampered with, and I was right; MGM senior executive James Aubrey, Jr. sensed trouble and had the film recut, leaving scenes with Royal Dano and James Sikking on the cutting room floor (their names still appear in the credits, though). The film's score was going to have a 1940s sound, but was changed at the last minute to a score by George Romanis that wouldn't have been out of place in a TV crime drama. (As if to make up for it, every so often the recurring theme sounds pleasantly bluesy.) For more details, check out the CHANDLER article on the TCM Web site. Fun Fact: According to the IMDb, Caron had been married at various times to Magwood and to the film's producer Michael S. Laughlin -- such a vixen! :-) Also, a pre-STAR WARS Gary Kurtz is credited as the film's associate producer. Anyway, if you're interested in checking out CHANDLER for yourself and deciding whether or not it's really an underrated gem, it'll be on TCM again on Monday, October 26th, 2009 at 9:30 P.M. during their month-long tribute to Leslie Caron. I'd say it's worth at least one look for neo-noir completists.
Moving Memoir With Hard-Won Triumphs & Great Cast of Present & Future Stars
Based on A.E. Hotchner's memoirs, writer/director Steven Soderbergh's 1993 adaptation of KING OF THE HILL (KofH) is the poignant, often dark, but ultimately uplifting story of 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford, who comes across as sensitive and resilient at the same time), whose family struggles to get by in St. Louis, Missouri during The Great Depression. Like many of their neighbors, the Kurlanders can barely hold onto their cheap, shabby hotel room, though they do their best to find work and keep up a facade of doing well. Aaron contributes to the charade by telling his classmates wild yet convincingly-told stories of the glamor of his parents' lives as spies and archaeologists hobnobbing with the likes of Charles Lindbergh. Despite the Kurlanders' best efforts, they're slowly pulled apart when Aaron's traveling salesman dad (Jeroen Krabbe) can't make enough money to feed everyone. Soon Aaron's little brother Sullivan (the appealing Cameron Boyd, who looks strikingly like a little-boy version of the Olsen twins back in their FULL HOUSE days) is sent to live with relatives for the time being; Mom (Lisa Eichhorn) has TB, eventually going to a sanitarium; and finally Dad finds a job as a traveling watch salesman in Oklahoma, leaving Aaron to fend for himself and dodge the mean hotel porter to keep from being locked out of the family's apartment.
Aaron tries all kinds of money-making schemes so he can bring his family back home, but it seems like God or Fate or whoever is in charge of KotH's universe insists on bitch-slapping the kid every step of the way. A rich, sympathetic classmate (who doesn't know Aaron's broke because our hero is too proud to admit it) gives Aaron canaries to breed in order to sell them to the pet shop, but when the canaries are born, they're all female, and female canaries don't sing, so all Aaron can get is 50¢ for the lot of them. A pre-PIANIST Adrien Brody, about 19 or 20 during filming, is a raffish presence as Lester, the juvenile delinquent down the hall with a heart of gold and a brotherly attitude towards Aaron. Lester tries to include the kid in jobs such as caddying for rich golfers, but Aaron tees them off by losing the ball in the ball-washing doohickey. Aaron tries to be kind to their neighbor Ella (Amber Benson), a sickly but sweet young girl, but that backfires when she gets so nervous dancing with him that she has an epileptic fit. When Aaron gets a medal during his graduation ceremony (nice bit with Lester there to cheer as Aaron's name is called, what with the Kurlanders being scattered all over the country), even that bit of joy is snatched from him as he overhears jealous classmates whispering that he only got the medal because the school authorities know he's poor and feel sorry for him (yeah, it couldn't possibly be because Aaron gets the best grades and writes imaginative stories and essays that blow those over-privileged brats out of the water).
Over the course of KotH, just about everyone Aaron cares about is either sent away, moves away, dies, or gets arrested. Jeez, if it wasn't one thing, it was another! Interestingly, it seems like every time Aaron has an emotional upheaval, the film becomes more beautiful to look at, thanks to Elliot Davis' golden-hued photography, and yet the film's beauty doesn't cheapen or sentimentalize the painful events our young hero must live through. Aaron and the film's other good guys are kind-hearted, unself-pitying, and earnest enough that I was rooting for them even as I groaned to myself, "Good grief, isn't this poor kid ever gonna catch a break?" Much like the final reel of THE PIANIST, when the resourceful Aaron's plans to reunite his family finally succeed and life becomes good again, it's as much of a relief to us viewers as it is to the Kurlanders. Soderbergh's adaptation of Hotchner's life story often slathers the misery on so thick, I was still afraid something else might go horribly wrong for our beleaguered hero at the last minute. (For instance, as little brother Sullivan jumps up and down on his new bed, I half-expected him to accidentally bounce off the bed and break his neck. Don't worry, he doesn't. :-)). I came away with the feeling that Aaron would never again take the good things in his life for granted. The delicate balance of drama and humor in Soderbergh's fine writing and direction, as well as superb acting from an ensemble that also includes Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Karen Allen, and Lauryn Hill -- yup, that Lauryn Hill (who later appeared with Brody in the 1998 indie drama RESTAURANT) -- makes KotH a little gem well worth seeking out on TV, especially since it's still not on DVD but has been on the HBO and Cinemax lineups lately as of this writing. If you like fact-based stories about young people overcoming obstacles, or if you want to catch folks like Brody, Bradford, or a very young Katherine Heigl in memorable early roles, check out KotH.
Part Con-Man Caper, Part Romantic Comedy, Part Family Dramedy, All Entertainment!
Rian Johnson, the writer/director of the Dashiell Hammett-inspired 2005 high school noir BRICK, proves he's not a flash in the pan with his new action-comedy-adventure, THE BROTHERS BLOOM (TBB) It's hard for me to sing this movie's praises without giving away its many twists and fun surprises, so let me just say it's a deft blend of quirky, globe-trotting con-man caper, daffy romantic comedy, and surprisingly poignant family dramedy about brothers at a crossroads, not to mention gorgeous to look at with its colorful surroundings and a fashion sense that's hip and sharp without being obnoxious.
The whole cast is wonderful, but I was particularly taken by Rachel Weisz and Adrien Brody. Weisz blossoms like a flower filmed in time-lapse photography as Penelope, the lonely heiress who's thrilled to throw herself into the Bloom brothers' shenanigans using the skills she's gleaned from other people's hobbies. I particularly enjoyed her goofy/passionate reactions when she's kissed by Adrien Brody's character, Bloom (that's the only name he's addressed by in the film; it's one of the few things that's never explained), and we realize this is the very first time Penelope has EVER been kissed by ANY man! As Bloom, Brody is a fine match for Weisz, doing a gentle comedic take on the soulful characters he does so well as he finds himself falling in love with Penelope, longing for an "unscripted life" instead of living just to populate the elaborate, "Russian-novel"-like con games created by older, craftier brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo, an endearingly scruffy rogue). Rinko Kikuchi steals every scene as walking sight gag Bang Bang, so-called because she's a whiz with explosives, practicing on toys cobbled together from old Barbie dolls and other playthings.
Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell round out the cast quite nicely indeed, particularly Schell's colorful turn as the dangerous Diamond Dog, the Fagin type who taught the brothers everything they know. Admittedly, it would have been nice to know exactly how Penelope talked her way out of the trouble she got into with the Prague police -- another of the aforementioned few things that's never explained. I was left assuming Penelope simply bought her way out of it; she IS rich, after all. :-) Still, the film was so entertaining otherwise, it seems churlish to nit-pick.
For those of you who loved BRICK, keep an eye out for some of its cast members, including its femme fatale Nora Zehetner in an early scene. TBB is not only a thoroughly enjoyable con-man movie, but I'd go so far as to say it's the most purely entertaining film Adrien Brody has been in so far (yes, even more so than Peter Jackson's lollapalooza KING KONG remake). It's a miracle TBB actually showed up here in our little burg at all, so look for it in your area. You'll be glad you did!
I usually love THIN MAN-style husband-and-wife detective stories and the great Gracie Allen's scatterbrain schtick, so I looked forward to seeing Gracie play Pam North in MR. AND MRS. NORTH (M&MN), adapted from Frances and Richard Lockridge's novels as well as Owen Davis's Broadway play. Great cast, too, with Gracie being supported by such solid players as Paul Kelly, Jerome Cowan, Virginia Grey, Tom Conway, Fortunio Bonanova, Keye Luke, and THIN MAN alumnus Porter Hall. But I'm not sure this fast-paced, witty mystery quite fits in with Gracie's style. She's always fun to watch and listen to as she rambles on in her hilarious, almost surreal stream-of-consciousness style. However, her ditz routine works much better when her husband and comedic partner George Burns plays her foil in his cool, wry way. As Gerry North, William Post Jr. seems an affable romantic lead who can do the occasional funny slow burn or nigh-girlish frightened screech when necessary. When Gracie is in the spotlight, though, she steamrolls over everyone in her persistent yet endearing way. I must confess there were times when M&MN got on my nerves as certain recurring gags recurred well past the point of being funny, becoming grating instead. Take Felix Bressart as the long-suffering door-to-door salesman who keeps trying to give his statement at the police station, only to keep making the mistake of introducing himself as the "Fowler Brush Man" and getting himself kicked out. After he got kicked out 3 times, I found myself growling, "All right already, stop telling them you're a Fowler Brush Man!" Then there's dear Gracie, always talking too much about the wrong things in her charming yet maddening blatherings. Fond as I am of her, even I eventually wanted her to shut up and let somebody coherent get a word in edgewise. If you adore Gracie Allen and have a high tolerance for aggressively zany misunderstandings, however, M&MN is worth a look next time it pops up on TCM.
Marilyn Monroe as Fab Femme Fatale in Tense Hitchcockian Thriller
Directed by Henry Hathaway from a script by Billy Wilder's frequent collaborator Charles Brackett (who produced, too), Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen, NIAGARA is a dark thriller, except in appearance. Director of Photography Joe McDonald, best known for his films noir, shot the gorgeous Niagara Falls locations in dazzling Technicolor, while still making atmospheric, suspenseful use of shadows and light. Even more dazzling is Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest star vehicles, sultry and slippery in one of her last femme fatale roles before GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES showed the world Monroe's funny side.
Despite the happy cliché of Niagara Falls being a honeymooners' paradise, NIAGARA The Movie is moody from the start as edgy George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) wanders around the Canadian side of the falls at dawn, feeling insignificant. He's a war veteran freshly released from an Army hospital, where he was treated for PTSD, or as they called it back then, "battle fatigue." He's also got a sexpot wife, Rose (Monroe), so you'd think George's life isn't that bad. :-) Ah, but Rose has thorns: a secret lover and a plot to kill George and make it look like suicide. Fate brings the Loomises together with Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Casey Adams). Polly and Ray are at the falls for their late honeymoon, long delayed by eager-beaver Ray's demanding job as a cereal executive. Despite bringing books, Ray promises, "It'll be as good as a regular honeymoon." "It should be better," Polly replies teasingly. "I've got my union card now." They laugh and snuggle, and that's one of the few happy moments Polly and Ray have together before the Loomises make their honeymoon into a living hell.
Things get creepy, starting with small inconveniences, like our lovebirds settling for a cabin with a so-so view because Rose and the unwell George are still in the cabin Polly and Ray were supposed to have. While the Cutlers enjoy their tour of the falls, Polly spies Rose making out with her hunky hottie (Richard Allan, who serves mostly as tasty eye candy). At an outdoor party that evening, Polly all but misses a romantic moment watching the falls' light show with Ray because she's bandaging George's hand after he cuts himself breaking Rose's favorite romantic record in a rage. Rose just sits there and smirks. (Reminded me of the toga party scene in ANIMAL HOUSE when, out of nowhere, John Belushi busts up folkie Stephen Bishop's guitar, then gives it back to him with a deadpan "Sorry." :-)) Our sympathetic honeymooners get fed up as they're reluctantly pulled deeper into the Loomises' problems, not realizing Rose is setting them up as witnesses to George's increasingly shaky mental state, all the better to make his eventual death look like suicide. Like that's not enough, Ray's ridiculously jolly boss, Mr. Kettering (Don Wilson, from Jack Benny's various shows) and his wife (Lurene Tuttle) show up, eager to sightsee with the Cutlers and schmooze with Ray about giving him a raise because of his prize-winning shredded wheat promotion idea, turning the honeymoon into a busman's holiday. Oy! By now, Polly and Ray have been through the wringer because of those loony Loomises, so I had to smile and sympathize with Ray being, to quote the HIGH NOON theme song, "torn 'twixt love and duty," sincerely wanting to take care of his distraught bride, yet reluctant to nix an opportunity to score a raise that would improve their life together in myriad ways. If the 1953 economy was anything like today's economy, I can't blame Polly for agreeing to include face time with the boss as part of their honeymoon itinerary! Peters and Adams make an appealing couple, sweet with a touch of insouciant playfulness. The peripatetic Ray clearly means well and loves Polly. Heck, he doesn't even show any serious lust for the luscious Rose; he just makes good-natured wisecracks about her to Polly, and vice-versa. FTM, I liked how Polly never acted catty or jealous around Rose. Now that's self-confidence! :-) As the calculating, manipulative Rose, Monroe smolders like nobody's business, driving men mad with her careless come-hither air and her curves in, as George grouses, a dress "cut down so low in front, you can see her kneecaps." La Monroe even gets to sing "Kiss" (no, not the Prince song), that love song Rose and her secret sweetie like so much. It'll come back to haunt her later, but I don't want to give away the nifty twists! I'll only say that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to call the bell tower scene his own (though with his taste in women, I imagine Hitch would have picked a cooler, more subtle blonde than Monroe :-)). After that, the film drifts into PERILS OF PAULINE territory, but by then I cared enough about the characters to see how it all worked out.
Cotten is at once terrifying and heartbreaking as Rose's emotionally scarred fool for love/lust, a hard-luck guy who can't seem to get out of his own way. We learn a lot about Rose and George's relationship in little scenes and throwaway lines, like George admitting he re-enlisted in the Army to show Rose he was still just as able as any young stud. Then there's the couple's short-lived jubilance the day after that literally record-breaking fight. The Loomises laugh and kiss, Rose under the covers in bed, George on top of her with the blanket between them (this was the '50s, after all :-)), talking about all the fun they'll have when they hit Chicago. "Georgie, this is quite a change," Rose purrs. "What brought this on?" George smiles. "You know what." He gives her a long kiss. "When we have a fight and make up that way, I never want to leave your side." Ooh, hot make-up sex -- a bit daring for a studio film of that era, no? :-) All told, NIAGARA is good, dark, tawdry fun.
Condensed Cream of Crop (Not Crap!) in Well-Cast Musical Biopic
Anyone remember those old K-Tel compilation albums with the hits slightly sped up so the K-Tel folks could pack in more songs? CADILLAC RECORDS (CR) gives a similar treatment to the story of Chess Records, nicknamed "Cadillac Records" because the Polish-American Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil (Adrien Brody and Norman Reedus, reunited from the film SIX WAYS TO Sunday), would give the artists Caddies as rewards -- out of the artists' own royalties! Chess Records got the music of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry, and other seminal R&B performers out to the general public, climbing the charts as what were then called "race records." Perhaps because of time and/or money constraints, writer/director Darnell Martin seems to rush through the Chess stars' highs (sometimes literally, with scenes of drug and/or alcohol abuse) and lows, forcing her to condense her subjects' dramatic life stories to the point where they don't even seem to age (other than a few perfunctory silver streaks visible in Brody's hair late in the film) despite the indication that years have passed. Even the Chess brothers' own story is only half-told, with the focus being on Leonard as Phil is rendered all but invisible. Heck, for half the film, I thought Phil was just another sound engineer, since we in the audience only ever see him during recording sessions! That said, I still found a lot to like about CR. I was riveted and moved by the events and the performances, and the musical numbers kick butt; I want the soundtrack (maybe even the original versions of the songs :-))! Jeffrey Wright commands the screen as Muddy Waters, who becomes Chess Records' first star, complete with groupies. He comes home one night to find wife Geneva (sympathetically played by Gabrielle Union) with a baby in her arms -- left there by a fan who says Muddy's the father. Mos Def adds sly humor as Chuck Berry. Eamonn Walker is downright scary as Muddy's rival, Howlin' Wolf. Columbus Short breaks your heart and drives you crazy all at once as Little Walter, whose lack of a mother or self-discipline proves to be his tragic flaw. Beyoncé Knowles shows she has range as both an actress and a singer in her fiery, heartrending portrayal of the talented but troubled Etta James. Leonard tries to help Etta to learn to "sing the blues, not live it," but with Etta's emotional baggage, that's easier said than done. Things only get more complicated when she and Leonard become attracted to each other despite his having a sweet, pretty wife, Revetta (Emmanuelle Chriqui). I'm not surprised that in real life, Etta herself gave her blessing to Beyoncé's soulful rendition of "At Last," the ultimate make-out song and Presidential inauguration anthem! :-) Although Leonard Chess is almost more like a host here than a well-drawn character, Brody nevertheless works well with the cast and has great chemistry with Beyoncé. In fact, he gets a good amount of on screen love action, including a nude scene with the fetching Chriqui! :-)
Beware The Boss From Hell in this Sharp, Twisty Manhunt Thriller!
Based on poet Kenneth Fearing's suspense novel, THE BIG CLOCK (TBC) is not only a riveting hunted-man story with a fresh twist, but also a cautionary tale about what can happen if you let your job dictate your life: you'll miss your honeymoon and every family vacation; your marriage will suffer as your loving, understanding wife starts to lose faith in you and your endless excuses; your family life will be all but nonexistent; and worst of all, when your controlling, obsessive Boss From Hell kills someone in a fit of rage, you just might find yourself suspected of the crime! TBC is a family affair, with director John Farrow working with wife Maureen O'Sullivan, and real-life husband and wife Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester again sharing the silver screen. It's even a reunion of sorts for Ray Milland and composer Victor Young, the star and scorer of the 1944 chiller THE UNINVITED. Veteran mystery writer Jonathan Latimer ably adapts Fearing's novel for the big screen, its blend of suspense, urban cynicism, and smart, snappy dialogue intact. Some names and plot elements were changed, and the lovers' quarrel ending in murder, in which each accuses the other of being a closeted gay, now involves plain old straight infidelity. Nevertheless, the film's as gripping as the book, sometimes more so. In Fearing's novel, our hero George Stroud talks about the "big clock" which inevitably runs our lives no matter what: "Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all. But that made no difference to the big clock...all other watches have to be set by the big one, which is even more powerful than the calendar, and to which one automatically adjusts his entire life..." Film being a visual medium, the "big clock" metaphor becomes literal, with a huge clock/globe that tells you the time anywhere in the world, and lots of little clocks sprinkled all over the headquarters of Janoth Publications, a Henry Luce/Time-Warner-style magazine empire whose periodicals include ace editor George's magazine CRIMEWAYS, as well as AIRWAYS, NEWSWAYS, SPORTWAYS, STYLEWAYS, etc.
Set in 1948 NYC, TBC introduces us to George (Milland) via our anxious hero's innermost thoughts as he hides in the giant clock in the Janoth Publications lobby at night (DP John Seitz's "docu-noir" style works beautifully). In flashbacks, we see that despite being married for seven years, George and wife Georgette (O'Sullivan) have never had a honeymoon. Seems that Janoth (Laughton) hired George for CRIMEWAYS after he cracked a major murder case on his old newspaper in Wheeling, WV, and the control freak hasn't given George a day off since, always snatching the Stroud family's vacations from under them at the very last minute. (George and Georgette have a little boy, George Jr. -- how cutesy can you get? :-)). With the prestige and great salary CRIMEWAYS affords him, George has always been reluctant to say "No" to Janoth, especially since the publisher doesn't take kindly to being turned down, but our hero is getting fed up. So is Georgette, who sadly notes, "Sometimes I think you married that magazine instead of me...We're like two strangers sharing an apartment..." Janoth's mistress, Pauline York (played with soigné insouciance by Rita Johnson), overhears George bellyaching to Janoth's right-hand man, Steve Hagen (George Macready) about his treatment at Janoth's hands. At the Van Barth bar, Pauline tries to involve George in a blackmail scheme targeting Janoth, but George isn't interested until he finally stands up to Janoth, gets himself fired and blackballed, and drowns his sorrows at the bar with Pauline, only to realize too late that he missed his train and his disappointed family left for West Virginia without him. It's LOST WEEKEND time as the tipsy George and Pauline go on a bar crawl, including Burt's Place, where they pick up a metal sundial from the barkeep's collection of bric-a-brac, and an antique shop where they outbid an eccentric woman (the scene-stealing Lanchester) for a painting.
Unlike their affair in the book, in the film George and Pauline's relationship ends abruptly, with him waking up fully-clothed on her couch. Seeing Janoth's car on the street, Pauline hustles the dazed George out the door. Alas, Janoth is outside waiting for his turn with her. Though he doesn't see George's face as he slips out of sight, Janoth still suspects the worst. He lets Pauline have it, bludgeoning her with the heavy sundial, killing her instantly. The tight close-ups on the quarreling lovers' angry faces, especially Janoth's (nobody's jowls quiver like Charles Laughton's!), add enough intensity to make up for the bowdlerized argument. The desperate Janoth gets a brainwave: he'll have Steve rig the clues to misdirect suspicion, and he'll recruit the crack staff of CRIMEWAYS to track down the culprit, catching a killer and boosting magazine sales at the same time, led by none other than George Stroud! George can't turn Janoth down now; by leading the investigation, he can do a little misdirecting himself, buying time to find the real killer as the tension mounts and the bar crawl comes back to haunt him he's doing double duty as both cat and mouse! Milland's performance balances suavity, sympathy, and desperation. He and O'Sullivan ring true as a loving couple whose relationship is being sorely tested. Laughton is marvelously odious and sadistic with a pathetic undercurrent. Macready makes a stylishly devious right-hand man. The supporting cast includes a silent, sinister young Harry Morgan as a masseur-cum-henchman, Douglas Spencer of THE THING... fame as CRIMEWAYS reporter Bert Finch (not to be confused with Burt from Burt's Place, played by Frank Orth :-), and the ever-jolly Lloyd Corrigan as a radio actor who can play just about any character, including the bogus suspect known only as "Jefferson Randolph." TBC has been reworked twice, as 1987's NO WAY OUT and 2003's OUT OF TIME. They're both entertaining, but TBC is still my favorite version of the story.
Riveting Craig, Great Action Make Up for Uneven Plotting & Characterization
In his second James Bond film, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (QoS), the riveting Daniel Craig again proves he's the most ruthless 007 since Sean Connery, blasting the Bond formula with a breath of fresh air -- that is, when he and the cast can catch their breath between great rock'em-sock'em action scenes that wouldn't be out of place in the BOURNE movies (no surprise, since some of the BOURNE personnel were on board)! Although director Marc Forster effectively films all of QoS's running, jumping, and doing, I would have liked the movie even more if the plotting and characterization had gotten as much screen time as the frenzied action sequences, like the excellent CASINO ROYALE. (I know I'm dating myself here, but it's still hard for me to invoke the title "CASINO ROYALE" without thinking of the 1967 comedy version. :-) But I digress...) I do hope the next Bond film has a better balance of action, plot, characterization and emotion, otherwise we might as well be watching a video game. I liked the stern yet warm-beneath-the-surface, almost mother-son relationship that Craig's Bond and Dame Judi Dench's M are developing (Bond wryly acknowledges this in a throwaway line). I also liked Olga Kurylenko as Bond's revenge-minded main love interest, Camille; she's one of the few good-guy Bond girls who can take care of herself instead of "Oh, James!"-ing all over the place. I wish they'd made better use of the winsome Gemma Arterton, though; she deserved to do more than just invoke GOLDFINGER. Heck, with all the running around the characters did on screen, I didn't even realize Ms. Fields' first name was Strawberry until I saw it in the closing credits! I wish they'd done more with Arterton's character, but at least she got endearingly naked with Bond. Giancarlo Giannini and Jeffrey Wright return and are most welcome, although Wright still doesn't get as much to do in the role of Felix Leiter as he should. Ah, well, now that Bond has avenged his beloved Vesper's death and gotten the dying-of-thirst Dominic Greene (reminiscent of his MUNICH character) to drink oil, maybe the next Bond film can concentrate on new plots and scenarios with a better balance of all the elements that make 007 fun to watch, and they'll let Daniel Craig crack a smile -- or at least a cool, knowing smirk -- more often. :-)
It's Like All the Best Private Eye Movies Rolled into One, With Great Dramatic Role For Lucy
At times, THE DARK CORNER (TDC) plays like a greatest-hits collection of classic '40s suspense films, but to me, that's part of its charm. The talents involved include LAURA'S co-writer Jay Dratler and co-star Clifton Webb, the latter again playing a witty, urbane, snobbish Manhattanite fascinated by a beautiful brunette and her portrait; and THE GLASS KEY'S co-star William Bendix, always fun to watch whether he's playing a lovable mug or a hissable thug; he's the latter in TDC. The engaging cast, sharp dialogue, and compelling plot elements work wonderfully under Henry Hathaway's direction. Lucille Ball shines in an early dramatic role, long before I LOVE LUCY. According to the informative, entertaining commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, Hathaway was such a tough taskmaster that Ball had a nervous breakdown during the filming. It doesn't show in Ball's assured, appealing portrayal of smart, loyal secretary Kathleen Stewart ("Kathleen Conley" in the original GOOD HOUSEKEEPING serial, hence Kathleen being I.D.'d as "Conley" on the DVD's package copy). She's falling in love with her private eye boss, Bradford Galt, and the feeling is mutual. As Brad, Mark Stevens makes a fine Dick Powell-like transition from musicals to tough-guy parts. Brad's starting out fresh in New York City after being framed for manslaughter and nearly killed in California by his former business partner, corrupt lawyer Tony Jardine. As a favor to his Cali colleagues, local cop Lt. Reeves is keeping tabs on Brad to make sure the "impulsive youth" stays out of trouble. With his air of authority and his commanding speaking voice, Reed Hadley has great screen presence as Reeves. Nevertheless, it seems Brad's past is coming back to haunt him. When a big lug in a white suit (Bendix) follows Brad, he's shocked when the guy claims Tony Jardine hired him. The plot thickens as vulnerable but determined Brad sets out to see if Tony's aiming to finish what he started out west. Meanwhile, in the swankier side of the city, art collector Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) is drumming up business for his art gallery and celebrating his third wedding anniversary at an elegant party for about a hundred of his closest friends and loved ones, including his beautiful young wife, Mari (Cathy Downs). A close friend of the Cathcarts joins the celebration -- none other than Tony Jardine himself (Kurt Kreuger, always good at playing smooth-talking Nazis and other shady Continental types), who apparently moved his law practice to The Big Apple. Tony himself, however, is still a bad apple, seducing and blackmailing vulnerable women of means. We also find that Hardy's burning love for Mari is like his passion for his paintings; he sees her and everything in his lavish home as treasured possessions. Hardy proudly unveils his newest acquisition, a painting he's been obsessed with for years: a 19th-century portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Mari. Although Hardy keeps Mari in the lap of luxury, the novelty of this marriage-cum-ownership is wearing off for his restless young wife. She and Hardy even have separate bedrooms (what did she expect with Clifton Webb and the Production Code? :-)). No wonder Mari has the hots for Tony, unaware he's a blackmailing gigolo. These worlds of high society and low crime collide, as Hardy uses trickery and White Suit's strong-arm tactics to fit Brad for a frame and Tony for a pine box.
To complicate matters further, Brad's his own worst enemy at times, especially since Tony's near-fatal double-cross shook his confidence in himself, leaving him prone to drinking and despair. Good thing Kathleen always thinks on her feet when trouble rears its nasty head. She has a knack for dragging Brad out of his periodic pity parties and helping him focus on clearing himself. I'm beginning to think Kathleen is underpaid! :-) The chemistry between Ball and Stevens deliciously blends banter, tenderness, and sexual smolder. Though Kathleen deftly keeps Brad from going all the way because she "plays for keeps," the lovebirds still get into some pretty hot kissing, especially in a great scene showing the couple reflected in a mirror as they embrace.
I like the whole "haves" vs. "have-nots" element running through TDC, and little details like the running gag about Brad scoring nylon stockings for Kathleen, and the little tenement kid with the annoying slide whistle who gives Brad a crucial clue. Speaking of clues, I love that something as prosaic as dry cleaning helps our heroes crack the case! Nice bit: Brad is dropping Kathleen off at the movies near his apartment, where he's going to face off with White Suit. Worried, Kathleen pouts, "I never thought I'd have to beg you to take me up to your apartment." Brad replies, with a grin, "You've been there..." The look on Box Office Gal's face is priceless as she strains to hear the rest of the conversation! There's a bracing street feeling to TDC's periodic outbursts of brutal-for-the-era violence. None of this Marquis of Queensbury rules stuff — the combatants really clobber each other! Even Webb commits a murder so sudden and shocking that I gasped in spite of myself. White Suit's ambush in Brad's apartment even has a touch of (unintentional?) humor; watch William Bendix's head, and you'll see what appears to be a toupee coming loose, hanging onto his scalp by a thread! The film was shot in both NYC and L.A., but it all looks convincingly like Manhattan. The NYC second-unit work is especially good, including shots of the Third Avenue El and an exciting car chase. Director of Photography Joe MacDonald amps up the moody film noir feel with his beautifully stark use of shadows and darkness, including showing off Cathy Downs's luscious figure as light shines elegantly yet provocatively through her sheer negligee. The DVD has swell vintage trailers for TDC and other Fox crime dramas, too.