Thursday, January 19, 2017

Con Artistry: Angels Over Broadway (1940)

Charles Engle (John Qualen)'s employer looms over him, enveloped in Expressionist shadow, dominating the screen via his eerily opaque glasses and large body, even if he's ostensibly in the background of the frame. He accuses Charles of embezzling $3000 from the company and talks of Charles' failed marriage, his tone a mix of anger and mournfulness, at a friendship betrayed, at a cuckolding of Charles that the embezzlement gives an air of schadenfreude. Charles denies nothing-- all the accusations are true--and stumbles out into a rainy New York night, to complete the suicide he's announced in a note in his overcoat pocket.

But he doesn't jump in the river; instead, a bit dazed, he stumbles into something far deadlier-- a ritzy nightspot with the slightly on-the-nose name of the Pigeon Club. His ennui and fatalism cause him to overtip everyone, drawing the eye of con man Bill (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), who sees him as his next mark. Meanwhile, failed playwright Gene (Thomas Mitchell) and aspiring actress Nina Barona (Rita Hayworth) join Bill and Charles at one of the club's tables, the mise-en-scene full of odd, constructivist art of cityscapes, that look like hills the characters could slide down. And that's when it all gets really interesting.

Angels Over Broadway (1940), written, produced, and directed by Ben Hecht (with a separate "co-direction" card for the film's cinematographer, the great Lee Garmes) is marked as a noir, and in many ways it is-- the fedoras, trench coats, rain and jazz clubs give it the proper atmosphere, and its blend of crime and existentialism certainly looks ahead to the narratives and tones of the late 40s. But it feels less like a genre piece than a space for Hecht to explore poetic flights of fancy, letting his characters overtake the narrative with lush, jazzy digressions on life, art, love, and fate-- before the story snaps them back into the kind of cynical patter that Hecht was also the master of (my favorite moment in this regard is his meta-playful introduction of Hayworth's character, referencing and reversing the actress's real-life background in a conversation about acting and deception: "I'm Russian, but this year Latin is in"). This push-pull between hard-boiled realism and a dream logic both verbal and visual (the film is full of gorgeous black-and-white patterns and busy backgrounds) makes Angels Over Broadway seem less indebted to Hammett than to Rene Clair, and to the poetics of '30s French cinema (I half-expected Fairbanks-- who's brilliant here as a tough guy who's not as nihilistic as he hopes--to turn to Hayworth and tell her that she reminded him of the Metro).

There's a beautiful moment when Hayworth-- touching throughout--dances playfully on an abandoned Broadway stage, imagining herself the star of a show that no longer exists. It's the kind of lovely, character-driven punctuation the film is full of, and in many ways it acts as the movie's signature-- she knows it's fake, that her life is harder and differently shaped than that. But for that moment, the dream is real.

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.

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:
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:

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.

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!