Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Quick Takes: The Facts of Life (1960)

Bob Hope started his film career in a dumb, intermittently funny short called Going Spanish (1934), whose loose 20-minute 'plot' sketched out the beginning and end of an engagement in small Mexican tourist town. Four years later, his film career began in earnest when he and Shirley Ross sang "Thanks for the Memory," the sole moment of charm amidst the painfully frantic series of comedy sketches Mitchell Leisen offered in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). He and Ross would repeat the tune that same year in Thanks for the Memory, an almost forgotten but very good dramedy about a young couple whose marriage is strained by the economic pressures of the 1930s. Nineteen years later, in the hit-and-miss Beau James (1957), Hope's portrayal of '20s New York mayor Jimmy Walker would detail the foibles of a man whose ego and charm are perpetually self-destructive to his marriage, his career, and his mistress (it's a deeply flawed film, but Hope's not the problem-- he understands the need to balance comedy and drama better than the script and direction do). And even in his dizzying '40s comedies with Paulette Goddard--particularly the very funny Nothing But The Truth (1941)-- there's an underlying sweetness to Hope that rarely got tapped by his scripts, but is very appealing; he's a guy whose scheming and verbal dexterity become shields against a crazy world desperate to corrupt him.

All of this is to say that The Facts of Life (1960), his deeply felt pas de deux with an excellent Lucille Ball, doesn't seem as much of an anomaly now, looking over the arc of Hope's career, as it might have to critics of its day, who seemed puzzled by the by-then-increasingly-rare attempt by Hope to something outside of one-liners and slapstick. Telling the story of two distant friends who fall in love by accident on a couples trip to Acapulco-- despite the fact that they are each part of a different couple--The Facts of Life is at once very funny and very melancholy, picking up those earlier threads of love and marriage that were often played for laughs in Hope's movies, and inverting them to find the pain underneath. Life looks less like the surreal comedies of Hope's years at Paramount, and more like the darker dramas of 1960: Charles Lang's hard-edged, wide-screened, shadow-dotted black-and-white camera-work and Saul Bass's titles feel reminiscent of Otto Preminger's films, while Ball's sad and dreamy narration also calls to mind '50s melodramas from Douglas Sirk (in fact, this TCM article on the movie says it started as a script written for Olivia de Havilland and William Holden in 1951, "as an American variation on Brief Encounter"). And into this visual space of drama and tension are dropped two very skillful comedians whose gifts as actors were often very underrated, and whose more mature ages (Ball was 49, Hope 57) give an added resonance to this tale of a middle-aged affair. Hope and Ball are very well-matched. In her movies of the 1930s and 40s--the best work she ever did--Ball was brilliant at portraying women who were inevitably smarter than anyone gave them credit for; Hope's whole persona is the man who is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.  Her darting eyes register everything (she's one of the great responsive actresses of all time--her face often conveys three emotions and two objections at once); his down-turned lip makes his face a cynical mask that hides his insecurity, even as the rhythm of his radio-trained voice betrays anger, love, and disappointment (it matters less what he says than the tempo at which he says it, like the very good dancer Hope also was). 

Given the opportunity to play something outside of their increasingly comfortable zones, both performers leap at the chance. The film even foregrounds this movement away from actorly personae by making the tired, strained qualities of Hope's stand-up schtick a plot point: Kitty (Ball)'s narration often refers to Larry (Hope) as the "Master of Ceremonies," and in their first scene together (at a country club Halloween party where Larry is telling terrible jokes), Kitty finishes his lines for him, because she knows the routines so well. Later, on a fishing boat in Mexico, Kitty suggests a deal: "You don't tell your dumb jokes, and I won't have to pretend they're funny." All of this meta playfulness is fun, but the payoff is how game Hope is throughout: he is often quite funny, but the humor arises out of (and stays within) his character, a sad ad man whose one-liners become a means of connecting with others, something Larry desperately wants (and finds, briefly, with Kitty).  There is slapstick, there are one-liners, there are some laugh-out-loud moments (particularly during a scene at a drive-in), but the control Hope displays throughout--making sure those moments of physical or verbal comedy seem realistic for the character he's playing, instead of just playing "Bob Hope"--gives the laughs greater resonance, and justifies the shift toward seriousness in the movie's second half. The actors and the script (by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama) do such a good job of getting us caught up in the Mexican romance of the film's first section that it's not until Kitty and Larry come home that we remember the families their affair affects, and the tensions begin to mount in both sad and funny ways (Ruth Hussey, in her final film role, is very good as Larry's wife). We know how the film will probably end (especially given the Production Code of the period), but how it gets there, and how we're supposed to ultimately feel about its resolution, remain surprisingly open-ended questions.

The TCM piece linked above notes a 1961 interview with Lucille Ball, where she stated, "Bob just didn't believe in his abilities as a dramatic actor. That was unfortunate because in my humble opinion he could have been a really fine one if he'd believed in himself. He should have branched out, given himself a chance." I think that's essentially correct, even if it underrates how good and ground-breaking his comedic performances between 1938 and 1954 (or so) were. But The Facts of Life also suggests why there was such a drop-off in quality in Hope's later films: as he releases Ball from an embrace on the country club dance floor, and wistfully watches her return to her husband, it's possible Hope knew he wasn't going to ever again say anything as poignant with that down-turned lip.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

War Games: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Fifty-seven years ago, in his review of North by Northwest in The Saturday Review, Hollis Alpert observed, "If, by the way, you like to take your suspense straight, the movie has all that's necessary to keep you on the edge of your seat, as Cary Grant gets himself into a variety of baffling and dangerous corners; it is only when you adopt the basic premise that Cary Grant could not possibly come to fatal harm that the tongue in Hitchcock's cheek becomes plainly visible."

I thought about that quote while watching Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, the sequel to the 2012 cult hit adaptation of Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series that cast Tom Cruise as the ex-military, drifter hero. There are a few good one-liners in the new film, which opened yesterday, but many of the attempted jokes or catch phrases fall short, in part because the movie that surrounds them is intensely earnest in both its action and its character development (as opposed to Hitchcock's spy classic, or the variously arch James Bond films of the '60s and '70s that took North by Northwest as their basic template). However, if we take Alpert's observation as our skeleton key to the film's dry visual humor, then suddenly it becomes easier to see how director and co-writer Edward Zwick is having some subtle fun with the Cruise persona, and the unavoidable goofiness of the genre that Never Go Back works so hard to conceal. For a start, look at that image above, of Cruise running side-by-side with co-star Cobie Smulders: they run in exactly the same way. The film knows this, and gets a lot of witty mileage (to pardon the pun) out of repeating this trope throughout the movie; in fact, a great deal of the movie's fun comes from watching the twinned nature of its two stars in the same frame, with the same intense looks, same fluid action panache, and same sense of closed-off emotions. It's like a re-gendered take on the Lethal Weapon school of buddy cop films, except both actors are playing Riggs. Dropping these thermodynamic kindred spirits into the middle of a movie that is 1/3 conspiracy espionage chase, 2/3 family dramedy gives Never Go Back a pleasing and deadpan instability: we're placed in the emotional position of one of Reacher's targets,  never knowing what direction things are going to move next, or how suddenly it will all just go.

As the movie begins, Reacher (Cruise) has come to visit Major Susan Turner (Smulders), who now heads the Military Police unit in Virginia that was once Reacher's command. They've helped each other on a case, flirted a bit on the phone, and hinted at setting up a date. But when Reacher arrives unexpectedly for a visit, he finds that Turner has been arrested, relieved of her post, and thrown into an Army jail cell. He also finds out that a woman has claimed him as the father in a paternity suit, and that he may have a daughter, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), that he has never met. The two stories dovetail as Turner's Army-appointed lawyer is murdered, Reacher breaks Turner out of jail, they rescue Samantha from the hit-men that seem to be on everyone's trail, and the three take off for a bloody climax in New Orleans.

Based on Child's 2013 novel of the same name, Never Go Back takes that book's plot as its basic blocks, even as it inverts the novel's emphasis and tone, rewriting and rearranging certain narrative points like they were Tetris pieces. Child's book focused on a labyrinthine military conspiracy involving government contractors and corrupt Army officers in Afghanistan: rather than staying primarily in the DC and New Orleans areas like the film, the book literally went cross-country, dropping Reacher and Turner in a stolen Corvette and landing them in California, with stops along the way for violent encounters with meth-heads and related bad guys. The "Daughter Samantha" subplot was more ancillary, an intriguing red herring whose status as a red herring was its point: in the book, Samantha represents a momentary glimpse of a life Reacher's violent restlessness means he can never really have.

That darker kind of story might have fit the Reacher of the 2012 movie a bit better: that movie was more stripped-down in its narrative and characters, more a pure action machine (and a very enjoyable one). Cruise's performance in the first film was primarily silent, or at least that's what remains in my memory of it: lots of stares, sleek movements punctuated by an eerie and effective stillness in his body-at-rest poses. To return to Hitchcock, plot was the purest kind of MacGuffin in Jack Reacher, the hanger on which director Christopher McQuarrie draped dizzying violence and a growling Werner Herzog. Zwick and co-writer Marshall Herskovitz have long gone in for more dialogue-driven, pensive character studies, dating back to their groundbreaking TV series thirtysomething and My So-Called Life (as a solo filmmaker, Zwick has also long been fascinated with the costs and myths of military honor, in Glory (1989), Courage Under Fire (1996) and a previous Cruise collaboration, the misunderstood The Last Samurai (2004). It's not surprising, then, that they flip Child's script, keeping his basic conspiracy plot, but subordinating it to the family-you-make dynamics between Reacher, Samantha and Turner. This is a wise choice that emphasizes both the talents of its writers and the gifts of its cast, who have a lot of fun with the strained dynamics of learning about each other while dodging gunfire (at one point, they drive off in an action-dented Ford minivan, a lovely symbol of the film's suburban parody). It also lets Zwick and Herskovitz overcome one of the book's primary adaptation problems: Child's tendency to devote much of the prose to the endless thoughts and spinning wheels of Reacher as he works out the mystery and observes Turner in action. Absent an intrusive narration, that might have been hard to translate to the screen, although Reacher's pensiveness is well captured by Cruise, who shares with Robert Downey, Jr. the unique ability to convey several thoughts at once through his darting eyes.

That doesn't mean the film skimps on action, though, as it stages a great set-piece amidst a Mardi Gras parade, and climaxes with a slow, brutal, drawn-out slug-fest at the end whose graphic exhaustion does a nice spin on the sometimes glossy nature of action movie violence. It also captures the novel's admiration for Major Turner in the great performance of Smulders, whose textured work here moves with three-dimensional ease from the physicality of the action scenes, to the comedy of the trio work with Cruise and Danika Yarosh, to the character's earned authority as an Army officer (and the resentments that have built up due to the misogyny she faces in that position). A recent Vulture piece observed how often Tom Cruise's action films have strong women at or near their centers, and that's especially true of Never Go Back; Cruise is great, but I left the film longing for a Cobie Smulders spin-off: Susan Turner: Never Stop Turning.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Curtis Hanson, R.I.P.

I just read about the death of writer/director Curtis Hanson today at the age of 71.  Hanson's gifts with actors carried him from guilty B-pleasures like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) (where Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay face off like '50s-era vipers) to 8 Mile (2003) (whose texture and grace frame Eminem with more sympathy than he deserves, and find a empathetic heart at the center of his rage and misogyny). In between those films, he co-adapted (with Brian Hegeland) and directed James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential (1997), an ensemble prestige picture whose effortless genre play allows Hanson to explore post-war economics, gender roles, and McCarthyism without ever making the proceedings feel like white elephant awards bait (maybe that's why it received so many awards).

And then there's his adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (2000), as deft and funny an exploration of academia, creativity, and writer's block (and all the passive-aggressive behavior those modes often entail), as has been seen in American films in the last 30 years (it feels like the spiritual sequel to Breaking Away, where everyone is at once foolish and lovable). Michael Douglas is the star, and he's great, but everyone is great, from Frances McDormand's long-suffering chancellor/mistress, to Tobey Maguire's calculatedly nihilistic creative writing major, to Katie Holmes' wise undergraduate, to Robert Downey, Jr.'s sly editor (it's one of Downey's best performances, which is really saying something). As Jean Renoir's Octave famously said, "The terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons," and Wonder Boys is full of tiny grace notes that illuminate both parts of that statement, from Rip Torn's bullshit artist at a campus cocktail party who grins unctuously and tells Douglas' character that "I put your novel on my syllabus every semester"; to Downey's shamelessness at using his editorial position to score with young writers; to Katie Holmes' observation that "You always tell us writers make choices, and it feels like you...didn't"; to the way Douglas chases the pages of his manuscript as they're thrown-- in both doom and a kind of sad liberation-- into a gray Pittsburgh sky. Wonder Boys is the kind of film everyone moans they don't make anymore, and then no one goes to see (despite strong reviews, it died at the box office, and found cult life on video). But it's Hanson's best film, the place where his generous eye and love of performance found its best resting place. R.I.P.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Quick Takes: The Lobster (2016)

Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
   --Flannery O'Connor

Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/flanneryo102166.html
Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/flanneryo102166.html

Friday, August 19, 2016

Quick Take: Tumbledown (2015)

There's a sadness, an ache both acknowledged and unacknowledged, in Tumbledown (2015), the story of the pained interactions between Hannah (Rebecca Hall), a widow whose husband Hunter Miles was a punk-turned-folkie cult icon, and Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a pop culture academic who turns up in her Maine hometown to work on a book about the late musician.  This sadness isn't readily apparent in Tumbledown's first 30 minutes, which veer uncomfortably between melancholy and a kind of forced quirk, as if the movie can't decide whether it wants to follow the path of an painfully observant family dramedy like Rachel Getting Married, or the ain't-small-town-folk-wacky (but oh so wise) tone of...well, take your pick of the many, many rom-coms that have used that template in the last 20 years. If we think of the movie as a pop song, that quirk is its production sheen, layered on with all the subtlety of Phil Spector going through the Let It Be tapes. This grates, because we can hear the delicate relationship between melody and harmony underneath that sheen-- or rather, we can see it.

When the writing stumbles, and the direction occasionally makes regrettable choices, what Tumbledown has is its cast, singing and playing and finding changes on chords familiar and unfamiliar. They are the movie's timbre, the place where the magic really exists, beyond the banality of the lyrics and repetitive choruses. We hear the notes when Hall twists her waist and shrugs a shoulder while simultaneously turning her head in the opposite direction, her body expressing the jumble in Hannah's head as much as the musicality of her tossed-off mumbles. We hear them in Sudeikis, whose confident snarkiness as Andrew feels so movie-familiar early on (Sudeikis uses a cocked head like a weapon), but ultimately acts (in Hannah's words) as an "exo-skeleton" he sheds to reveal wounded anger. We can hear it in the interplay between Hannah's parents (Blythe Danner and Richard Masur): Danner feels like she's chewing the scenery, until the narrative reminds us of how much that over-doing covers up, while Masur does just the opposite, his underplaying and dry wit drawing us in, only to bite like a cobra. It's there in Griffin Dunne's warm bookshop owner, with his anxiety-ridden sighs, and it's there in the underused Dianna Agron, as Andrew's music industry girlfriend, Finley. Agron's not in in the film nearly enough, but when Andrew interrupts a dinner party conversation to play a Hunter Miles song (on vinyl, of course), Agron's face becomes a frozen smile, her eyes get a faraway look, and her hand subtly-but-impatiently shakes her wine glass, as if she's experienced this kind of Hunter seance many times, and just wants to get through it again with her patience intact. It's a brilliant little moment, and it makes you want to know more about Finley, and why she's put up with this for so long.

"Putting up with" is the problem/curse/balm that all of the characters are grappling with in their own ways. "I'm just here for everyone to work through their issues on," Andrew exclaims, with a by-then familiar form of charming passive-aggression, but he's not wrong. Underneath its unresolved romanticism about pop music martyrs and the Curse of Elliot Smith (who, along with David Foster Wallace and Jeff Buckley, the film incorporates into a litany of too-young dead artists, as if longing to diffuse potential criticism), Tumbledown is actually about the unresolved rage of family dynamics, and all the guilt, resentment, love, and longing that fuels them. No one knows exactly how or why Miles-- found dead from a presumed fall at the bottom of a mountain--died at the moment and in the way he did, and even questioning its accidental status is taboo. Everyone in Tumbledown is using everyone else-- for catharsis, for career advancement, for the "next stage" in their presumed personal arcs (in one rather remarkable scene, Danner's Linda sweetly-but-bluntly informs Hall's Hannah that she expects a grandchild from her because she's experienced "all the other juicy stuff in life" and doesn't want to be denied this final thing).  They often use unknowingly, but it's no less devastating for that, and often so quick and casual that its impact only occurs to you later, as you turn the movie over in your head. Every character has their turn at truth-telling, even as they simultaneously use their declarations to lie to themselves. Homilies about life and energy carry with them a heavy dose of irony, like they're shibboleths repeated in desperation. Some of the lying is intentional, and some is not, and the film is wise to leave much of its impact hanging in the end (even the kiss that closes the movie is beautifully tentative, a literal pause between lean-in and lips undercutting the genre's normal sense of triumph). But it's in those moments of quiet exchange, as the film slows down to let the everyday in, that Tumbledown really sings.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Notes on the Auteur Theorizing in 2016 (or, The Return of the Quizzical Sergio Leone)

It can't be the end of summer already, can it? Even as the temperature's been spiking into the mid-90s here in sultry Ohio, the threat opportunity of the classroom beckons in just a few short weeks, bringing with it students, syllabi, papers, and (of course) movies. So what better time to peak into that cathedral of cinephilic higher learning, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, whose kindly proprietor, Dennis Cozzalio, has turned over the student union to a fearless vampire killer? That's right-- it's time for some last-minute summer reading, with  PROFESSOR ABRONSIUS'S ROBUSTLY RANDOM, ECCENTRICALLY INQUISITIVE, GARLIC-INFUSED MID-SUMMER BACK-TO-SCHOOL QUIZ. As always with a SLIFR quiz, the questions look like challenging fun (even if it's clear I should have done a bit more studying beforehand), and I extend Dennis's invitation to play along at home, via my comments section.  So, raise your stakes, grab your garlic, and let's hit the hills, kids!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Watch The Skies: Empire of the Sun

When I was fourteen, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun opened at the new UA theater in my hometown of Kalamazoo. It would be a key moment in my budding, teenaged cinephilia, and I explore the film, and trace out my shifting responses to it over the last (nearly) 30 years in a new piece up at Bright Wall/Dark Room. Thanks again to the editors there for all their great work, and to Google Doodle artist Sophia Foster-Dimino for her beautiful accompanying illustration!