September 30, 2012

Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot (1959) remains a smart gender-bending comedy, and while modern movie-goers may or may not agree with the American Film Institute that it deserves the title of the #1 funniest American movie, most will likely agree that it's still an amusing and surprisingly with-it comic gem.

Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis play down-on-their-luck jazz musicians who inadvertently become targets of the Mob when they witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. In order to escape both the Mob and the bitter cold of the Windy City, they don some cheap wigs and women's clothes and join an all-female jazz band bound for Miami. Once there, Curtis creates an alter-ego (a rich oil tycoon with a bad New England accent) and goes after addle-headed lead singer Sugar Kane (played with a fizzy, aloof charm by Marilyn Monroe, in her prime), while Lemon becomes the target of an amorous millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Tony Curtis's high-pitched inflection is uncannily drag queenish, and Jack Lemon continually employs a mockish giggle that starts and ends in his throat. He actually starts to seem like an old woman, while Tony always seems like a guy in girl's clothes.

The script, by director Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (based on a 1935 French film called Fanfare d'Amour), is full of juicy bits of innuendo, uttered with just the right mixture of innocence and playfulness. Watching Some Like It Hot, you're reminded that those studio days weren't as naive as we'd like to think they were. Apparently the censors weren't clever enough to catch a double entendre, or maybe they didn't care about risque subject matter being addressed, so long as it was done in a subtle--or at least somewhat masked--way.

Is it the funniest movie ever made? That's impossible to say. But if you go and watch Some Like It Hot expecting it to live up to that kind of praise, you're likely to be a little disappointed. And forget whether or not it's an "important" comedy. (Obviously, it was a gutsy movie, and it's surprisingly still relevant.) What's worth focusing on is the film's loony comic inventiveness. All the little cliches are worked up and pushed into new directions: the mob angle, which was a sort of tried-and-true Hollywood formula, is spoofed (some of the mobsters make passes at their intended targets, thinking them to be bona fide ladies); the sham that is the art of seduction is displayed with clever honesty: Even though Tony Curtis turns over a new leaf at the end, we're not really fooled by such an incredulous last-minute character redemption. He's a hood with one thing on his mind: seducing Marilyn Monroe. And as much as I find Monroe and all her fanfare annoying, I found myself enjoying her sometimes feeble performance. In Some Like It Hot, she's vulnerable and dippy but also intuitive. You wonder how many takes it took them to get to the intuitive part, but we'll leave that to the actor autobiographies. And Curtis and Lemon make a wonderful comedy team. They later co-starred in The Great Race

With Joan Shawlee, Pat O'Brien, George Raft, and Dave Barry. 122 minutes. b & w

September 29, 2012

Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) features what is generally considered a career-making performance by Tony Curtis. He plays Sidney Falco, a ruthlessly self-motivated press agent whose sheer drive for success in the newspaper world motivates all kinds of shrewd, slimy behavior. Perpetually trying to ingratiate himself with a powerful columnist named J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), Sidney agrees to try and bust up the impending marriage between J.J.'s timid kid-sister Susie (Susan Harrison) and a clean-cut jazz musician named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).

The lines between the good and the bad people are excruciatingly obvious: Lancaster is manipulative, cunning, and arrogant. (To criticize him, he believes, is to criticize the American reading public, and therefore, America itself.) Lancaster never looked more like a serial killer than in Sweet Smell of Success: with his big glasses and his blond crew cut and his large frame, he resembles a more fit version of the murderous salesman played by Raymond Burr in Hitchcock's Rear Window.  Lancaster's acting feels stiff and clunky: he doesn't seem able to convey much with his inflection or his facial expressions. It's his overall appearance that saves his performance: he looks domineering and powerful and therefore dangerous. And his sister Susie is so pathetically mealy-mouthed that you almost wish he'd squash her, if only to give her a reason to fight back. (I suppose it's a form of anachronism to want to see a stronger female lead in a 1950's movie. On the other hand, another female character--J.J.'s tough, no-nonsense secretary, played by Edith Atwater--is refreshingly strong and, even with her relatively short time on the screen, interesting, even if she's just a stock character.)

The movie falters under the dead weight of its hokey love story: an evil man trying to stop two kids who fell in love with each other? It's too easy. The script, credited to Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, brims with bad metaphors. It's the kind of writing that was very popular in Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. In The Big Sleep (1946), which was another kind of film noir altogether, the lines were equally unrealistic, but so clever you enjoyed their campiness. And those lines were uttered with far more flair and mock-conviction by Bogart and Bacall than in Sweet Smell of Success. Everyone's too deadly serious to make the lines work, except Tony Curtis: He really saves the picture. He's so sleazy, so uninhibited about his selfishness, that you have to admire him, if for no other reason then the fact that he doesn't try very hard to conceal his ambitions. And even when he does, he's bad at it: he can't fool anyone that he's a nice guy.

James Wong Howe's cinematography has a vitality to it that makes the film's unappealing characters emerge as almost real human beings, wandering through their bawdy, restless city as though it were perpetually midnight. It looks like Touch of Evil, but in New York City instead of Mexico. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Music by Elmer Bernstein (which reminded me of Alex North's score in A Streetcar Named Desire). With Sam Levene, Chico Hamilton, Emile Meyer, and Barbara Nichols. 

September 21, 2012

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's darkly funny film not based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. You see, his name has been changed to Lancaster Dodd, so it's clearly not about L. Ron Hubbard, I repeat, not about L. Ron Hubbard. Indeed, Anderson has denied that The Master is a roman a clef for Hubbard and his kooky celebrity cult, but it's pretty obvious who was the inspiration for this bizarre little movie, which features two powerful performances: from Joaquin Phoenix as an alcoholic, severely emotionally troubled WW2 veteran, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the magnetic personality and self-appointed religious leader who's trying to redirect people to their past selves, which he claims have been imprisoned by the negative thinking of culture. Or something like that.

The movie itself is beautifully crafted but aloof, in a way that There Will Be Blood, Anderson's last film, was not. You're frequently feeling like you don't know who to trust, and perhaps that's what was intended here. It's certainly trying to look cinematic, and Anderson takes much time to plot his narrative visually. At times, The Master feels like a Modernist novel on the big screen: Time doesn't always move in a chronological order, and characters don't always do things that make perfect logical sense. Plus there are moments when it's pretty clear we're seeing things from the skewed perspective of Phoenix's character, who in one scene, which takes place at the Philadelphia home of one of Dodd's most devoted followers (played by Laura Dern), imagines that all the women in the room are stark naked.

Anderson is not giving us the traditional "biopic," (such a detestable word, and a sub-genre that frequently produces detestable movies), for which we can all be more than a little grateful. Instead of giving us the sweeping account of L. Ron Hubbard's rise to prominence, Anderson zooms in on a few years in Hubbard's/Dodd's life (the film is set mostly in 1950), and more particularly, on the relationship between Dodd and Freddie Quell, Phoenix's character, which resembles both master and servant and psychiatrist and patient.

Because Anderson picks a particular moment in his character Dodd's career as a cult figure, he eschews much of the criticism he might have acquired for doing a full-fledged biographical tale. As obvious as the allusion to L. Ron Hubbard is, we're not getting a bunch of historical facts and most importantly the big dramatic ending that climaxes with Hubbard's death after years in exile. Instead we're watching the tension of the overly devoted relationships between Dodd and his family and between Dodd and Quell. The Master seems perfectly content to be suggestive, and resists making too many judgments either way when it comes to its main character's pop psych-religion. This resistance of Anderson's becomes a fun gimmick: we can relax and enjoy a weird movie that we know has to be based on this bizarre religion, and yet the movie doesn't really take sides. It's not offering a pronouncement about Scientology, but a window into the unusual relationship between the two main characters.

There are things in The Master that don't quite click, however. The movie is so carefully calculated to be and look cinematic that at times it ceases to be entertainment. And you can only be impressed with the art of the cinema for so long before you become bored. The strength of the performances bolsters the movie, even if the characters themselves seem to further the alienation between film and audience. It's worth seeing, though.

Written by the director. With Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty, Kevin J. O'Connor, Joshua Close, and Patty McCormack. 137 minutes.

September 14, 2012


Whenever I see the caption, "based on a true story," I groan inwardly. Why must we be sold this BS over and over again? I don't care if Lawless is a documentary "as reliable as the world almanac" (to quote Bette Davis in All About Eve). That "based on a true story" line feels like exactly what it is: promotional gimmickry. It's insulting. Why must a movie be based on fact to be important? Doesn't setting a movie during the time of Prohibition qualify as interesting enough? But, I digress.

Lawless rehashes Prohibition with fetishistic brutality. It fails to achieve the things it wants to: the lionization of its main character, the showcasing of a riveting battle between good and evil, the depiction of the South in the 1930s. These are gimmicks designed to half-heartedly pin down a movie that appears to be made by and for people who get off on meaningless acts of violence. (Granted, the film's violent moments do give it a little kick, which it desperately needs at times, to keep it moving if nothing else.) At least when the mob is drilling holes into Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, you feel a sense of loss. And rooting for the bad guys to get their due isn't such a terrible thing, but in this film, it somehow feels pointless to try and distinguish the bad from the good. Despite the fact that everyone's a criminal in some way, the lines are pretty starkly drawn: the villains are utterly unlikable, the heroes are good enough to be heroes (and just as unlikable). Their main flaws are stubborness, stupidity, and excessive enthusiasm for getting even. These flaws help the movie lurch toward its conclusion, but they're hard to accept and often times maddening to watch.

Because these characters fail to engender much sympathy, you don't feel invested in their plight when Guy Pearce, who gives a mindless performance as a thuggish Chicago detective, arrives in rural Franklin County, Virginia. Pearce looks like a prissy comic book villain, sporting a slicked-back hairdo and a fancy suit and gloves. He doesn't seem to fit in this movie, nor does his emergence from the big city feel credible in the least. He's the epic villain of director John Hillcoat's dreams, and he's in this movie for sheer convenience: the script may as well read: "Charlie Rakes, who's pure evil, enters." Pearce's character wants to take control of all the local moonshiners so he can rule the town with an iron fist.

There's one holdout operation, though: the Bondurant brothers, headed by Forest Bondurant (Tom Hardy). Hardy's taciturn performance reminded me of faded black-and-white family pictures of long-dead relatives who made their livings on farms in Western Kentucky. Hardy's certainly got the tough-as-nails side of his performance down. He's a good actor, but his performance in Lawless doesn't exhibit nearly the range he's capable of. Forest is joined by his two brothers: perpetually drunk Howard (Jason Clarke) and cowardly Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Jack is the runt of the litter who wants to rise in his brothers' estimation. Thus, he's constantly trying to prove himself and generally unsuccessful in his attempts. Jack's stupid mistakes account for much of the plot's predictable progression toward what we expect will be a bloody showdown between the Bondurant boys and Guy Pearce. But if you go back far enough, you'll see plenty of movies about Prohibition, and most of them are at least more interesting than this one, which is only mildly entertaining at best and creepily violent at worst.

The film's overly deterministic, trigger-happy progression becomes more than irritating and tiresome: it makes you resent the writing (the script is by Nick Cave) and the directing. The story is too carefully constructed--it maximizes the shock value but still has the nerve, or maybe the foolishness, to try and tug at your heartstrings: Jack develops a little light romance with a preacher's daughter, and at the end, the film tries to wrap things up with a nice domestic ending. Hardy falls for Amanda Chastain, a Chicago dancer who's tired of the big city and is hired to tend the bar at his restaurant. Neither of the female leads is given much to do. (One more unpleasant reminder that women still have a rough time getting good parts in movies. They're always having to settle for this kind of banality, it seems.) If you can get a thrill out of the endless slayings with knives and other sharp instruments, and if you can buy all the syrupy stuff that's thrown in between to make the movie seem more layered, you'll surely find Lawless to be some great piece of entertainment, rather than what it is, which is a waste of time.

Directed by John Hillcoat. The supporting cast includes Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, and Lew Temple. 110 minutes.

September 09, 2012


David Cronenberg finds new ways to punish his long-suffering audience with Cosmopolis, based on the book by Don DeLillo. It's about a young New York corporate billionaire (named Eric Packer) who journeys across town (for a haircut) in his fancy, high-tech limousine. This is supposed to be an anti-capitalist odyssey, where Eric discusses life and politics and money and culture with various people, including his cold, distant wife and several sexual partners. He's made a bad business calculation that's costing him millions, and has decided, in a sense, to go down with the ship.

While Cosmopolis throws some interesting ideas at you, the total effect is deadly dull. The ideas are approached in a cerebral, academic way that feels antithetical to movies and the reason we go to them. They may be apropos, especially in today's economic climate, but just being relevant intellectually doesn't make a movie. A movie needs to be experienced on more than a solely intellectual level. Cronenberg may be aiming for some kind of transcendent experience, in which the intellectual becomes visceral. (Many of his films are incredibly visceral, and smart too, so it's more than a little disappointing that he couldn't pull this off with more finesse.) But Cosmopolis doesn't succeed in making that leap. It stagnates within the first 10 minutes: the cars that creep along past the limo, as though in slow motion, might serve as a symbol for this film's sluggish immobility. It's all symbolic of course, but are we supposed to congratulate movies for how literary they can be? 

Robert Pattinson is too bland an actor to give the film much life, but then that's the real problem with this movie: his blandness is perfect for it. It's a movie about the lifelessness of the Super Rich, whose charmed existences aren't overshadowed by the problems of normal people. I kept waiting for something more interesting to happen, for these ideas to develop into a movie rather than a series of hokey dialogues, but that something never came. The big scene at the end between Pattinson and Paul Giamatti, who plays one of his disgruntled former employees (who wants to kill him) is just another drawn-out conversation about philosophy and capitalism, like the many that come before it. The script, by Cronenberg, often feels like the work of a lazy, pretentious creative writing major.

I kept wanting to like this movie, in all honesty, but I was so bored it was hard to see past the flaws mentioned above. So, to end on a semi-positive note, I will say that this may be the kind of film you like more the second time around, once your expectations aren't so high. Cosmopolis clocks in 109 minutes, but feels much longer. With Jay Baruchel, Kevin Durand, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and Sarah Gadon. 

September 08, 2012

City of God

City of God (2002) shows us the other side of tourist cities that present themselves as Paradise. Rio de Janeiro, one of those enchanting places that people go to on their honeymoons, is revealed as the seat of horrifying crimes and widespread poverty. It's a mesmerizingly sad, almost documentary account of the waste and violence that accompany a broken system of extreme rich and extreme poor.  The Rio in City of God is a world of children aspiring to be drug dealers, families holding up gasoline truck drivers out of desperation, gang warfare escalating to the point of all-out bloodbaths, police corruption, and the indifference of the upper-class. Hell and Paradise are never more than arm's length apart from each other in the world of City of God. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund have created a rich tapestry of crime: we see it from the point-of-view of "Rocket" (Alexandre Rodrigues), an aspiring photographer who's trying to navigate the slums without being changed by them.

This may be the first movie in recent memory that doesn't get even the slightest kick out of the violence it portrays. It feels like a coming-of-age story, and there's a certain innocent charm that wafts through every scene, an innocence that persists even when it's violated by what's happening on screen. Granted, much of the killing isn't as graphic as it could have been. The camera mercifully doesn't show it when a boy is forced to shoot another boy by the grand thug of Rio, Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino). But the effect is there: There's no glory in brutality here. Only horror. It's sobering, but also fascinating. City of God isn't trying to give us a morality play: something for which we can congratulate ourselves for sitting through. It's not that pretentious. The filmmakers care too much about crafting a compelling story to worry about shoving morals down the throats of the audience. The immorality of the situation gets through just fine without the film being preachy, and while I wouldn't say City of God is a good time--even though it is more entertaining that you might expect--it's certainly a rich experience: it leaves a far deeper impression, and the image of the glistening tourist districts, which eludes the film, pops up in your mind by virtue of its absence on the screen. Which is the real fiction? It's pretty clear.