Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Urban realism

Sidney Lumet, who died in 2011, directed Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. It's his most concentrated and emotionally stirring work. Like Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), and Lumet's own Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon plays its themes with compelling vigor, and its story arc (carried along by an expert script) is tuned perfectly to the movie's gathering emotional and comic turmoil. Lumet uses the script and his great cast to balance the elements (crime, crowds, police, and spot-news press corps) against the enervated realism of a Brooklyn afternoon.

The movie is hugely successful at what it sets out to do. It drops you into a neighborhood bank as a heist is being carried out, immersing you in the comically pathetic tension of a botched day on the job. This may be the first movie ever to mine equal amounts of humor and pathos from a couple of numbnuts bank robbers. These guys aren't superficially likable in that phony, audience-pleasing way that characterizes the scam artists in other heist movies, like The Sting (1973), Ocean's Eleven (2001), and The Italian Job (2003). The more decent and pragmatic of the two, Sonny (Al Pacino in a career-making performance), needs the cash for his transgender wife Leon's sex change operation (Chris Sarandon). Everything goes wrong for Sonny; he can't catch a break. He's like a Polish Alvy Singer, a bumbler whose good intentions put him in a nonstop pickle. With his deer-in-the-headlights stare and endless exasperation, he's a comic hero of the Watergate era. (The character is based on the actual bank robber John Wojtowicz.)

Watergate hero. Al Pacino
What happens in the movie illustrates the ambiguity and confusion of the era's urban counterculture, but Lumet doesn't turn the events into a grandstanding metaphor of corruption—he's working in a hyperrealistic vein. The two crooks, Sonny and Sal (John Cazale), are just young saps whose actions get criticized and corrected by the people they're robbing. The joke is in the criticism and suggestions for improvement coming from the hostages in the bank. The movie's everyday realism keeps its inventiveness and jokes believable—that's one of its strengths. Even the relatively few great heist movies of the past—Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1955), for example, or Jules Dassin's Rififi that same year—have a slick shallowness at their core.

Lumet and his team combine just the right amounts of asphalt realism and expressionist distortion: the smoggy afternoon sunlight sinks into an Edward Hopper urban evening. As night falls, beads of sweat drench everybody's face: the law enforcement negotiators, the hostages, the reporters on the scene. The air conditioner in the bank chugs noisily, its condensers and coils rattling with exhaustion. Everyone grows frazzled with the passage of what feels like real time in the movie. As the action moves between the two sets—the bank and the street outside—a mob in a news-feeding frenzy has gathered to cheer on Sonny as an anti-establishment hero and to jeer at police attempts to end the stand-off with bureaucratic efficiency. But in this comedy of errors, the crowd ultimately starts taunting Sonny and Sal for their personal problems. The tone alternates between frantic suspense and exhaustion, but Lumet maintains control of the material, guiding it to its remarkable conclusion at Kennedy Airport without whoring after phony climaxes or pausing for didactic "lessons."

Dog Day Afternoon is unusual for Watergate-era movies because its point of view is that the street crowd's response to Sonny's plight—treating him like a rock star celebrity—is hollowed-out madness. You can see right through their cheering. They're not committed to Sonny's symbolic value as a countercultural hero standing up to the flunky pigs, but to the frenzy he is generating in them. Pumping their fists in the air as Sonny parades up and down the sidewalk outside the bank door shouting "Tell them to put their guns down! Put the fucking guns down!" they're not cheering for anybody or any progressive Sixties principle. In one great scene, Sonny tells FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick), "It's your job, right? The guy who kills me—I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it's his job." How did Lumet know that movie audiences would be willing to see the rot beneath their own corrupted Sixties ideals?

Lunkheads

The thinking—if that's the word—behind The Expendables 2 (2012) seems to be: "We're over-the-hill action stars who can no longer slam our bulging carcasses around a movie set the way we used to, so let's play this for laughs."

The problem with the cast (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Randy Couture) is that their self-referential, tongue-in-cheek shenanigans, which are supposed to be amusing, fall totally flat, while their earnest attempts at macho action (shooting and hand-to-hand combat) are pedestrian and embarrassingly tired. These lunkheads are too old and corpulent to be doing what they're doing: they stand with their feet cemented in place and swivel their hips left and right, like plastic action figures. They hit dozens upon dozens of bad guys in the chest and face with a barrage of expensive ammo. The action figures in interactive video games are more believable than these movie "legends."

The two guys who actually are physically fit—the scruffy Statham and a cardboard henchman named Scott Adkins—don't exactly elevate the level of action-movie discourse, either. Adkins remembers every so often to deliver his lines with that phony Slavic accent that movie publicists love. What is it with cornball Russian villains in action movies? Adkins is a carbon copy of previous carbon copies, from Ivan Drago (Rocky IV) to Sergeant Yushin (Rambo) to Mickey Rourke's Whiplash (Iron Man 2), and he doesn't make an impression at all, even when his skull is pulverized by a propeller.

Action savior. Jet Li
The only person who brings any class to this noisy imbecility is the prodigiously gifted Jet Li, who executes his one fight scene with panache, timing, and genuine wit. Li seems to be in a different movie (actually, he was in a different movie at the time, the beautiful Flying Swords of Dragon Gate). He's a deft acrobat, like the great silent movie clowns, as he casually smacks each opponent in turn with a cooking utensil; just as you expect him to punch the one remaining opponent, Li gives him a quick jab with the palm of his hand to send him toppling, and then shrugs and wriggles his nose. Li is a new Chaplin besting Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (1925). Everything about Li is elevated above the surrounding slop, and he gives moviegoers something back for the time they've invested.

The stock actors of Westerns in the 1940s and '50s—John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Ward Bond, Jim Davis, and so on—usually stayed too long in the saddle. They kept churning out witless star turns in Westerns into the 1960s and '70s, trying to maintain their own outsized myths while their faces sagged and their girths widened, hauling themselves up on horseback with the finesse of walruses. The Expendables 2 exemplifies a superannuated genre. Like those Westerns filled with stars who were well past their sell dates, it has all the charisma of a ranchers' convention. I hate to see Jet Li associated with something like this, not because he unbalances the movie with his talent but because, by saving a movie with no other redeeming value, he's used sacrificially.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Isn't it lucky?

Saratoga Trunk has long been at the top of my list of guilty pleasures. This 1945 costume melodrama is stuffed with the emotional and thematic detritus of mid-century romance novels. The plot is a tumbling fiasco of carriages, tight bodices, card sharps, cheroots, and whores—what used to be called "tempestuous." There isn't a single boring moment, or a single sensible one. For overheated ludicrousness, Saratoga Trunk matches its competitors in the field, from Gone With the Wind (1939), Forever Amber (1947), The Strange Woman (1946), and the Gainsborough Studio melodramas of the same period (The Wicked Lady, Madonna of the Seven Moons, The Man in Grey). Very little outpaces it on its own terms—perhaps King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), which is after all in a class of its own.

Ingrid Bergman is Clio Dulaine, a feisty demimondaine prone to occasional bouts of hysteria. She sashays around the marketplace in Old New Orleans, her dwarf servant (Jerry Austin) and mulatto maid (Flora Robson) in tow, flirting with the laconic, mentally slow Texan gambler Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper). Bergman does more than give the role fire: she makes Clio sleazy, sexy, and dangerous. It's one of Bergman's most enjoyable performances; she was never before so outlandish. She's like the girl in Gaslight (1944) a few years down the road.

Southern flirt. Ingrid Bergman
The whole movie is uninhibited and unhinged. Sam Wood, the director, made sure that no one put the brakes on. Maybe he thought he was still working with the Marx Brothers. The ramrod-straight Gary Cooper specializes here (much as he did in Sternberg's great Morocco in 1931) in being a dorky, galumphing target for the randy Clio (he stretches out his boots in front of her while she gazes down at them, excitedly). As the prim maid Angelique, Flora Robson performs in blackface and delivers all her lines in a huff—she's always worried about her charge's reputation. The actress played a similar part (also in face paint) opposite Vivien Leigh's mewling queen in Gabriel Pascal's Caesar and Cleopatra about a year earlier. But this maid, clucking and scuttling after her mistress, with the dwarf bringing up the rear, is a damn sight stranger and funnier than that turgid Shaw adaptation (too tightly constricted by misplaced reverence and leaden bulk).

Saratoga Trunk is like a MAD magazine sendup of Edna Ferber (who wrote the novel and screenplay) or one of Georgette Heyer's insipid romances. Everything comes vibrantly alive on the screen—the dialogue, the steamy moss-hung sets, the deserted gothic mansion haunted by ghosts real or imagined, the satiny cinematography, and the music (the main theme is just about Max Steiner's best work). The movie pulsates as adult fun, as artifice. Up through the 1950s, Hollywood melodramas were consistently Brechtian. Saratoga Trunk intentionally quashes any semblance of authenticity in narrative or emotional landscape, except in one scene: Clio sings a sexily moist song to Clint in Creole French, and for the first time you get the feeling that art is imitating life. It's a put-on, but an earnest one.

Poop deck

Titanic (1997) is, in Shakespeare's phrase, "too much of water." The movie sinks long before the ship does. If the dewily pubescent love story doesn't interest you (in other words, if you're older than sixteen), there's not much else to do but observe the cold impressiveness of the production. CGI has become unnaturally realistic—you're not sure what's actually being filmed and what's being inserted digitally after filming, although you can sense that certain elements in the mise en scène have unnatural distortions or undulations, like the flags billowing and clanging against the flagpoles in the departure scene. The filmmakers don't use real flags because they're not real enough. The gigantism of the movie's megaproduction works against it; in your CGI-induced stupor, you don't much care whether the thousands of extras drown or not, and the tragic dimensions of the narrative are largely lost under the onslaught of the "dazzling" production design.

Dewy young love. Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
But the director (James Cameron) has a plan (he's thought of everything, it seems). He wraps up all the noise and bar-room brawls and fiery sunsets and Irish rogues and snooty upper-crust travelers with a Hallmark-weepy framing device—the lovely young woman (Kate Winslet) is now a sentimental old woman (Gloria Stuart) telling her story to a science team exploring the wreck off the Newfoundland coast. She throws her keepsake from the young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) into the waves and watches it sink, the way she watched the young man sink beneath the icy surface as she vainly tried to cling to him. This sentimental banality is what moves audiences and convinces them they're watching a great romantic movie. My dissenting view is that Titanic is three and a quarter hours of humorless portentousness. I was able to collect my thoughts during a few of the scenes, including the awesome moment of impact, when shards and chunks of the iceberg catapulted onto the ship and skidded along the deck.

Despite the technology on display, most of the movie just doesn't seem real or fresh. The two young lovers make love in an automobile in the cargo area, and my mind flashed back to the same scene in Now, Voyager (1942). It's Hollywood epic-prestige moviemaking without a pumping heart. The thing about movies like Titanic is that they're so conventional-minded in their thinking and so calculating. There's nothing playful or extemporaneous in the entire picture—every element is worked out precisely and mechanically beforehand. It's an entire universe that exists digitally. How can a story about large-scale human tragedy be so machine-tooled and impersonal? That's what I mean when I say a movie doesn't breathe; its pores are clogged with contrivance. What's wrong with a little surprise, a little idiosyncrasy in the telling, especially in such a long film? The camera work, the dialogue, the acting, the lighting, the directing have all had the life squeezed out of them. When the poor ship sinks, it's like a symbol of the entire movie sinking under the weight of its own production.

Bear food

Nobody connected with True Heart (1997) appears to be even casually inclined to make a decent movie: not the people behind the camera, not the people in front of the camera, not even the bears.

Jawdroppers. Zachery Ty Bryan and Kirsten Dunst
Apart from all its other failures, this limp adventure for children foists on us two of the most unappealing people on screen: Kirsten Dunst and Michael Gross, whose survivalist in the Tremors franchise always seemed unable to modulate his particular brand of energy to the wry in-jokes in those movies—he's never found the right rhythm for any character I've ever seen him play. He's always too angry or too boisterous or too cloddish or even too liberal (in his first sitcom, he was creepily touchy-feely). He's too too. And he's usually not enough whatever. (Has anybody ever said, "I'd like to see the new Michael Gross movie"?)

Dunst plays one of two siblings lost in the Alaskan wilderness. She and the other kid (Zachery Ty Bryan) let their lower jaw drop in moments of dramatic suspense. Now that I think about it, they both use that trick to express a broad array of emotions, from happiness to frustration to befuddlement to surprise at falling backward over a cliff.

As actors, they give their jaws a pretty good workout.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A passage from India

Indian summer. Riz Ahmed (left) and Freida Pinto
Trishna (2011) is the most intelligent sort of literary adaptation—a luminous resetting of Hardy's Tess of the D'urbervilles that transforms externals into inspired new forms and retains the sweeping sexual power of its source. I have no end of admiration for Michael Winterbottom, the director, who paints vividly in short takes. He builds momentum using the techniques of classical montage (one scene, of an auto accident on a dusty road, builds until the portentous edits feel like something out of October), and pays homage to movie antecedents ranging from Vittorio De Sica to David Lean. Winterbottom knows where to put actors in the frame and how to structure cuts to give the excellent dialogue its due.

Winterbottom's palette is as mature and varied as that of any other big director working today in English-speaking movies, including Mike Leigh and Wes Anderson. A Cock and Bull Story (2006) is one of the freshest and most innovative comedies of the new century, and Genova (2007) dabbles in mystical sentiment. Like both of those movies, Trishna gathers power in the telling and casts an uncanny glow over the memory.

Gunmen

The Way of the Gun (2000) is worse than sick—it's aggressively diseased. Take all the really foul stretches from the Quentin Tarantino bloodfests and the insipid humor in the Richard Donner Lethal Weapon movies and string everything together—that's The Way of the Gun. In terms of craftsmanship, it's marvelous: the lighting, the color, and the sound are expert, and the soundtrack shapes the emotional contours of the scenes.

Hip depravity. Juliette Lewis and Benicio del Toro
Several of the actors do excellent work. Dylan Kussman as the doctor is an amazing little performer who effortlessly rises above his colleagues (as he did in Dead Poets' Society). Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillippe are talented actors whose idiosyncrasies season their performances. (They have both grown as actors since The Way of the Gun, in Crash [2004], The Bang-Bang Club [2010], Snatch [2000], and Sin City [2005], particularly.) The two bodyguards, Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt, give clever, rousing performances, and Diggs really comes alive when Katt's character is killed.

On the debit side, Juliette Lewis is a naggingly trendy, unconvincing presence with a repellent style—she's a Method amateur doing an update on Ann Savage in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945). Lewis seems to find herself continually dragged into self-important garbage intended to épater le bourgeois, like Natural Born Killers (1994) and From Dusk till Dawn (1996). Lewis screams her way through this one until you're ready to force feed her broken glass—a scene that would, not uncoincidentally, fit perfectly in this movie. James Caan shows up, too, and I thought, "What a drag to see that mannerism-infected old fart delivering lines as if he were revisiting scenes from The Killer Elite." Caan often wears Eddie Bauer windbreakers in his movies, and sure enough he's wearing one again here. The cutting during the final shootout is astounding—Christopher McQuarrie exhibits technical mastery of the medium—and the montage is brilliant directorial formalism. But the movie's vision is awash in moral crud. The Way of the Gun is a morally repugnant work of art.

Brownies

Unfortunately, the groovy classic scenes in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1969)—the blocked car, the Mexican family with whiplash, the brownie party with Mom and Dad (where everyone's oblivious to the ingredients), the funeral—occur in the first hour. The movie fizzles out. Even so, the comedy is just about enough to carry the remainder of the picture; audiences are already on its side when the laughs start drying up.

Culture clash. Peter Sellers and Leigh Taylor-Young
The shtick fizzles when Peter Sellers (Harold) puts on hippie beads and a psychedelic bandana. Why turn Harold into a hippie, anyway? The point is that Harold is a boring establishment lawyer who rejects his idiot brother's counter-culture life because that life is so vacuously childish; he has no direction and no sense of urgency, which Harold considers not just inane but self-destructive. Harold is his mother's archetypal Jewish son—the successful lawyer—but Harold's brother gives her shpilkes. The first hour of the movie is a mishpucha comedy; it makes fun of Jewish parental expectations.

The last hour is dead on arrival: inchoate scenes of Sellers and Leigh Taylor-Young making love in an old car when the police show up and kick them out (the scene just crumbles before your eyes); the law-firm partner, an unfunny letch, propositioning Harold's ex-fiancée; a middle-aged cross-dresser sauntering into the dress shop where Taylor-Young (a sexy Pocahontas) works and trying on a mini-skirt, and so on.

The Jewish jokes grow stale and humorless, and the gimmicks get careless. Why are there flowers at the Jewish butcher's funeral, and why is his casket so ornate? Why is the Lohengrin march played at Harold's wedding? Elmer Bernstein may as well have not even bothered, either. He repeats the theme song with practically no variation for two hours. Peter Sellers droops with the dearth of good gags, Mrs. Fine (the scene chewer Jo Van Fleet) turns sour, and the butcher's widow wails hysterically. Were the writers smoking too much dope?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Reanimating the dead

Up and at 'em. Darby Jones
The scenes in I Walked with a Zombie (1943) with that warm, moist wind wafting through the plantation garden seem almost an antidote to the cliché of the howling storms and deformed murderers of other horror movies. This Jacques Tourneur "B" favorite turns the gothic Romanticism of studio classics like Frankenstein and Island of Lost Souls into an island pastorale. It's a memorable Hollywood voodoo movie because of its transformed vision.


Sunrise in the West Indies
TV zombie drama reached its high point in the horror-comedy hit series The Night Stalker in the 1970s. One of the best episodes was "The Zombie," which combines a scruffy, crusading reporter, a gangland turf war, and a frightening Haitian corpse that won't stay put in the cemetery.

Kolchak: "I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing here."

Crime Boss: "Hmm."

Kolchak: "Well, I-I-I think, Mr. Possati ..."

Crime Boss: (deliberately, calmly) "Sposatti."

Kolchak: "Sp-sp-sposatti, of course."

Crime Boss: "I remember you. Vittorio, this is the guy that crashed my daughter's wedding, remember? He took all those pictures!"

Thug: (looks at Kolchak) "Yeah, he's right."

Kolchak: (wide-eyed) "No, no! Horrible mistake. No, you see, you're thinking of my brother ... uhh, SIDNEY Kolchak. He writes for a society column."

Crime Boss: (laughs) "I remember the two-dollar hat, Kolchak. I got a memory like a steel trap. I never forget anything. Ask Victor."

Thug: "That's right. Photographic."

Crime Boss: "Mr. Kolchak, ever been to Mercy General Hospital?"

Kolchak: (wide-eyed) "No, I ... uhh ... never have."

Crime Boss: "They got a great gastrointestinal man—one of the best in the Midwest."

Thug: "Vincenze?"

Crime Boss: "Toto Rosetti ... Vittorio, why don't you make an appointment for Mr. Kolchak with Toto Rosetti, eh?"

Kolchak: "NO!! No-no-no!! Wait, wait!! I can tell you ... I can tell you who's been knocking your men off! I know! I can give you a NAME."

Crime Boss: (sotto voce) "What."

Kolchak: "He's a Haitian numbers runner by the name of Francois Edmunds."

Thug: "Why?"

Kolchak: (nervously) "Why? I-I-I don't know why. How do I know why? Maybe he ... uhhh ... got in Willy Pike's hair? And Willy Pike sent him through the system and he got knocked off by the Musso brothers? I don't know ... maybe?"

Crime Boss: "Well, Mr. Kolchak, you're partially correct. But you see, that guy now lies in St. Lucy's Cemetery. But it was a very nice try" (rolls up the car window on Kolchak's nose).

Kolchak: (pushing the window back down) "No-no! See ... that's where they keep putting him. But ... I'll bet my life—and I'm not saying that loosely, gentlemen (laughs nervously)—I will bet my life that he is not—there—now!"