January 19, 2013

Broken City

In Broken City (2013) Mark Wahlberg plays an ex-cop named Billy Taggart, who became a private investigator after being let go from the force. He shot and killed a young man, allegedly in self-defense, and the incident aroused a considerable amount of media attention and public indignation. Seven years later, Billy is hired by Nick Hostetler, the mayor of New York (Russell Crowe), to spy on the mayor's philandering wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But Billy soon discovers that he's embroiled in something much deeper and more dangerous than mere adultery.

The elements of Broken City could almost have been fashioned into a film noir thriller from the 1940s. It has all kinds of bad, corrupt people and some light scandalous touches. But that's where the similarities between that genre and this crime mishmash end. The film never comes together, never becomes exciting, must-see-this-to-the-end movie-watching. Mark Wahlberg is a capable actor, but in Broken City his Billy Taggart has very little credibility. He's not compelling enough to be the kind of character who's inexplicably driven, the way Philip Marlowe was in The Long Goodbye, to figure out the mystery, despite his increasing irrelevance to the investigation.

Billy Taggart keeps showing up where he seems totally out of place: at crime scene investigations in which he shouldn't be allowed, at expensive political cocktail parties where his presence gives him away. The movie doesn't make much use of these incredulous moments. Billy's just there, conveniently invited into important scenes for the sake of the plot. There's also a scene where Billy discovers some important documents--freshly hurled into a dumpster--that help reveal the mayor's political maneuverings. Why, you ask, wasn't this shredded? Especially when, seconds later, Billy peers into a window only to see more compromising documents being destroyed the way you'd expect them to.

The supporting cast is a good cast, but is given very little to do, with the exception of Russell Crowe. He's always been very good at being very bad, and in Broken City he captures the essence of the charming, corrupt political animal, talking his way out of trouble and into the people's hearts. As his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones looks like a strong, civically involved first lady of NYC, but the script doesn't give her much to do. It's a problem I keep noticing for actresses. They seem to exist in movies to serve a function, rather than to interpret and illuminate a character or entertain us with their own considerable acting talents. It's the men who get to have all the fun. Zeta-Jones has a few little quips here and there, but she's really just eye candy for the sympathetic observer. And Kyle Chandler, as the man she's supposedly sleeping with, who just happens to be the campaign adviser to the mayor's opponent, doesn't have much chance to shine either.

The subplot, involving Billy's actress-wife Natalie (Natalie Martinez), nearly sinks the movie. She's premiering in an "indie film" (the phrase is uttered with such limited understanding that it's difficult to believe she's an actor, or that the screenwriter knows much about movies), and the tacit tension between Billy and Natalie becomes palpable at the premiere, during the movie's explicit love scene, between Natalie and her male co-star. Billy's rage turns to boozing, and their relationship goes on the rocks with the drinks. It's bad. Natalie's movie is called Kiss of Life, and the opening credits are featured over an ocean shore on a hazy day. The conversation leading up to the sex scene is laughable: shallow twaddle about the meaning of life, or something pseudo-deep, as I remember it. It's such a preposterous and uninteresting subplot that even the writer abandons it after a while. Natalie leaves and she isn't mentioned again.

One redeeming quality: the chummy relationship between Billy and his assistant, Katy (Alona Tal), is amusing and the only fun aspect of this movie. (Except, their comic banter starts to remind you of crime shows like NCIS, which is never a good sign for a movie.) With Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper (playing the mayor's opponent), Michael Beach, and James Ransone. Directed by Allan Hughes. 109 min. Watch The Big Sleep instead. Or The Long Goodbye. ½

January 17, 2013

Rosemary's Baby

Who would have thought that schlock-master William Castle would be involved in such an elegant horror movie? Castle produced Rosemary's Baby (1968), which is, likely, the prototype for all the modern diabolical conspiracy horror movies. It's about a Manhattan couple who moves into an apartment complex inhabited by witches. These witches make a pact with the husband (John Cassevetes), who's a struggling actor, to bolster his career if they can impregnate his wife (Mia Farrow) as part of a ritual. Writer-director Roman Polanski can't resist turning this paranoid B-movie thriller into something artier, and the result is a successfully freaky classic. Farrow's vulnerability makes her truly sympathetic (she's reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, perhaps a gaucher, more naive Audrey Hepburn). The film is based on a novel by Ira Levin. With Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Charles Grodin, and Patsy Kelly. The memorable score was composed by Krzysztof Komeda. 136 min.

January 16, 2013


An ingenious little thriller, adapted by Hume Cronyn from the play by Patrick Hamilton, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and inspired by the famous Leopold and Loeb murder trial. John Dall plays Brandon, an arrogant intellectual, who with the help of his friend Phillip (Farley Granger), tries to commit the perfect murder. They strangle an old chum from prep school, and then hide his body in a cedar chest in the living room of their swanky New York City apartment. In order to add a little novelty to their crime, Brandon and Philip host a party (just hours after the murder), the guests of which include the murdered victim's girlfriend and father, another school friend, and their old teacher, played by James Stewart, who turns into a pseudo-detective, unraveling their perfect little murder. Rope (1948) is surprisingly involving and exciting, as stagey as it is. Hitchcock used an interesting, much-talked about technique: unbroken shots (most lasting about ten minutes each), which make the film feel more like reality. It may be a bit of a gimmick, but it doesn't feel particularly gimmicky here. Rope is a wonderfully perverse pleasure. With Douglas Dick, Joan Chandler, Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, and Edith Evanson. 80 min.

January 13, 2013

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, longtime foes in real life, finally crossed paths onscreen in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). This bizarre psychological thriller about the hostile, combative relationship between to sisters--both has-been actresses--was a big hit, and ushered in a strange new subgenre of macabre thrillers that revitalized the careers of a number of Hollywood's golden-era leading ladies (including Davis, Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyk).

There's something horribly undignified about seeing Bette Davis doing self-parody. The thing I most admire about Davis as an actress is her fiery strength. She always had the upper-hand (I'm thinking particularly of Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes or Margo Channing in All About Eve). In Baby Jane, she plays the titular character: a former child star whose career faded into the past about the same time her sister, Blanche, became a popular film actress. Now they're both retired and living together in an old house that allegedly belonged to Rudolph Valentino. It's sort of Sunset Boulevard meets Cinderella, and Baby Jane is the wicked warden who keeps her invalid sister under lock and key, playing all kinds of sick mind games on her (and cackling with unhinged glee at the idea of Blanche's finding her dead bird in the lunch dish).

Bette Davis is made to look grotesque and insane, and this certainly rekindled the embers of her career. Throughout the 1960s, she appeared in one demented-old-broad picture after another. In fact, the first Bette Davis film I ever saw was the 1964 Dead Ringer, about twin sisters, one of whom murders the other. (Sound familiar?) When you start at the end of a great actress's career and work your way backwards, it puts you at some kind of chronological disadvantage, but I'm grateful that Dead Ringer gave way to All About Eve and Now, Voyager and all the other inferior but still grandly entertaining vehicles. Baby Jane is sort of the kookoo icing on the cake, except I think I prefer Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, the one where Davis played yet another crazy old lady, this time opposite Olivia de Havilland.

Joan Crawford shows a fair amount of restraint in Baby Jane. She had spent so much time with over-the-top performances, that it's sort of ironic to find her being collected, almost subtle, in perhaps the most nuttiest of all her movies. (All her mainstream ones, that is.) Crawford, who was a few years older than Bette, looks a lot nicer than her counterpart in this (partly because of all that make-up that turns Bette into the harridan she was always capable of playing.) And she balances out the histrionics for the most part.

But still, Baby Jane is an uneven, overlong affair that's been overly praised by some as a great horror-thriller. It's too perversely obsessed with bringing out old relics from Hollywood's glory days and exposing their wrinkles. It takes pleasure in that masochistic manipulation of two of our most iconic screen actresses. I won't be so naive as to defend their work on the grounds that it's pure art--most of it is camp, or schlock even--and it's because of this that we still remember, and love, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. They're not made to be very endearing in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. (Although I still laughed out loud when Bette called Joan a "bitch" and they muted the sound. And there are a number of funny--some intentional, some not--moments.) Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Victor Buono, Maidie Norman, Anna Lee, and B.D. Merrill (Bette's real-life daughter). 138 min. ½

Queen Bee

For lovers of bad movies, it doesn't get much better than Joan Crawford and her deliriously overwrought vehicle, Queen Bee (1955), a ridiculous, over-the-top piece of twaddle about a Southern household full of miserable people, none of them with enough brass to stand up to Miss Crawford's demands. Her husband is the one with the money, but he's an alcoholic and so she pretty much controls every aspect of the family circle, manipulating, blackmailing, backstabbing, or crying, if necessary, to get what she wants. A drab, goody-goody young relative named Jennifer (Lucy Marlow) comes to live with them, and she gets to witness all the cooked-up hokum unfold. This movie has everything: tawdry affairs, murder, suicide, bad pop psychology, and a thin veneer of Southern countrified histrionics to make everything particularly amusing in its badness. With John Ireland, Betsy Palmer, Barry Sullivan, and Fay Wray. Written and directed, with a straight face, by Ranald McDougall. 95 min.  

Promised Land

Promised Land is the pet project of screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both of whom star in the film, which was directed by Gus Van Sant. Damon plays Steve Butler, who works for a big natural gas conglomerate. His job is to travel to small towns and convince people to sell their land to his company for fracking (extracting natural gas from shale beneath the soil). Steve and his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), encounter a nemesis: a guy from a small, grassroots environmental agency (Krasinski), who's trying to persuade people not to sell, because of the potentially detrimental environmental effects of this process.

In Promised Land, we see that age-old tension between the smug urbanites and the suspicious small-town farmers. In movies and pop culture in general, they appear to exist in altogether separate universes, encountering each other rarely, deliberately standoffish toward one another when they do. But the agenda of Promised Land has less to do with understanding the rift between these two ways of living (and the perceptions each has of the other), and more to do with a moral message about big business swooping in on pristine Mother Earth to usurp all its resources. Here, the writers achieve their intent by showing us the twinkling eyes of people who've been promised millions if they'll only sign away their farms.

Promised Land is a bit too conventional to be a totally convincing movie. The characters operate in fairly predictable ways, filling all the expected slots: there's the wise old science teacher (Hal Holbrook), who warns of the dangers of fracking; the love interest (Rosemary DeWitt), and the opportunistic local politician (Ken Strunk), who is totally fine with the possible destruction of his town as long as the price is right. These characters don't do much outside what we expect them to. It's all part of the formula for a movie like this, which does have important things to say, but tries to avoid saying them outright to avoid sounding too preachy.

We're meant to take our moral medicine vicariously, through the conversion of Matt Damon, whom we expect will go green, marry the single, 30-something teacher (DeWitt) who left the city to maintain the family farm, and raise chickens--and children. It's a little hard to buy. Perhaps this suggested scenario is wish fulfillment on the part of the screenwriters, who obviously want to strike up a national conversation about how we treat the earth on which we, you know, live, but were unable to conjure up anything beyond imitation-Frank Capra.

I think the message of Promised Land is important, but I don't think Promised Land is a great movie. It's not a bad movie, by any means. It's reasonably entertaining, and the cast is enjoyable even if the characters are obvious. (McDormand has some funny quips here and there; I wish she'd had a bigger part in the drama of the story, even though she was present throughout the film in a sort of here-but-not-here way). It's of course very tricky for Hollywood to ever do a serious message movie, because the message it's pitching may very well undermine the values of Hollywood itself. Presumably, Matt Damon's and John Krasinski's values are outside Hollywood's, to a point. They have worthy intentions and perhaps their movie will elevate the discussion of our obsession with money and riches--often to the detriment of our backyards, our water, our animals, and ourselves. It would be nice if movies could be both socially conscious and inventive, but that may be asking too much.

With Scott McNairy, Titus Welliver, and Terry Kinney. 106 min. ½

January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

The long, long hunt for Osama bin Laden. If you saw The Hurt Locker, which is the previous collaborative effort from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, you'll begin to notice a common theme, besides all the obvious commonalities: personal obsession. In The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner got off on the thrill of debugging bombs. In Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA officer, obsessively dedicated to tracking down and killing the man responsible for 9/11. There's an exchange between her and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini), where he asks her what else she's done in her career besides search for a ghost of a man. She replies, "nothing." She's driven by the conviction--with monomaniacal devotion and purpose--that bin Laden alone is worth the entirety of her ambitions and focus.

The slow-paced Zero Dark Thirty is a thriller for those of us who are exhausted by thrillers that can't cause enough destruction fast enough. The real world is a frightening place, with or without myriad explosions. In a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, those explosiony scenes are not fodder for thrills, but points of turbulence boiling over, punctuated by the time spent before and after them--not so much leading up to them and responding to them, as making sense of them, and turning the mirror on our own inabilities to truly make sense out of anything in the clash of two incredibly different cultures, both hostile toward each other.

As politically "now" as Zero Dark Thirty is, it doesn't have much of an axe to grind. I heard Bigelow say in an interview with NPR that she wanted the past to be portrayed as accurately as possible, not whitewashed. That said, her latest film doesn't seem to be gunning for anyone. It's not an expose of military practices, or a particular political party, or the country, or any belief system. Rather, it's an attempt to dramatize what has been arguably the most compelling--and drawn-out--historical moment of our time. Of course, viewing a movie like Zero is difficult. We're at both an advantage and a disadvantage when we're staring so close to these events, these very real events. From Here To Eternity, which dramatized the Pearl Harbor attack, was released 12 years after the fact. Zero Dark Thirty comes only a year-and-a-half since the discovery of bin Laden. One wonders how this movie will hold up, factually, as history reveals more information, commuting the present into the past, and shedding new light on the complex agendas waging war with each other.

This is a movie that compellingly gins up our emotions. We're rooting for the military, still stinging from a horrifying event. And yet one cannot help but wonder at the deep divides between the West and other parts of the world. Despite the "happy ending," there's not really a happy ending. And Zero Dark Thirty succeeds in pressing this idea into the mind. It's a hollow victory, if anything.

The performances are exceedingly good: Jessica Chastain carries the film impressively. She has good support from Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney, Edgar Ramirez, and Mark Duplass. It's a subtle, frightening, riveting, maddening vision of contemporary American and global politics and conflict. ½

January 07, 2013

The Big Sleep

For my money, The Big Sleep (1946) is the best detective thriller ever made. Let's forget, for the moment, that the plot is at times incomprehensible (more on that later). It's the film's shadowy stylishness and gaudy L.A. decadence--a sort of bowdlerized decadence, emblematic of Hollywood's most conservative era, when everything taboo had to be referred to in code--that makes The Big Sleep an explosive, hugely entertaining movie. Of course, it's the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart--as the hardboiled private eye Philip Marlowe--and Lauren Bacall--as the spoiled socialite whose father hires Marlowe to protect his other daughter from a blackmailer--that turns The Big Sleep into more than a thriller. This was their second film together (after 1944's To Have and Have Not), and by the time it was released, Lauren Bacall was Mrs. Humphrey Bogart.

The plot has so many confused threads that trying to figure it out is a fool's errand. As the famous behind-the-scenes legend goes, nobody (including the film's three scenarists, Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, and William Faulkner) could figure out who was responsible for one of the film's murders, and even Raymond Chandler, on whose novel this film was based, was stumped when consulted about the matter. Nobody minded much, because The Big Sleep was too much fun to concern itself with the dreary demands of a lucid plot. (I'll be the first to carp when a movie is deliberately convoluted, but in this case, the confusion seems to further this film's dreamlike mood: it's the most entrancing of the 1940's film noirs.)

The DVD comes with two versions of the film: the 1946 theatrical release, and the 1945 pre-release, which was shown overseas to American soldiers. The studio heads called for a number of significant changes after the film was initially completed and shown overseas--including the addition of several more scenes with Bogie and Bacall, cashing in on their considerable spark--and these changes, most agree, improved the film.

Directed by the great Howard Hawks. With John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Sonia Darrin (uncredited), Elisha Cook, Louis Jean Heydt, and Dorothy Malone. Remade in 1975 with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. 116 min.

January 06, 2013

Kiss Me Deadly

An overrated film noir that tries to cash in on the politics of the atom bomb. This film's chief asset is the banal hunk Ralph Meeker as private eye Mike Hammer (the film is based on the book and the character created by pulp novelist Mickey Spillane). The violence is certainly more potent than most films of its kind up to that point, but the film is so haphazardly put together that it's hard to follow all the rabbit trails of screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides' plot. Kiss Me Deadly labors on toward a ridiculous ending that reeks of bad B sci-fi, and the innuendos that pepper the film fail to create any lasting sparks. All the femmes fatale in the world can't save the film from its peculiar mediocrity and the coterie of annoying touches of its director, Robert Aldrich: from the stupid backwards opening titles--hemmed in by Cloris Leachman's nonstop heavy breathing (she plays a distraught asylum escapee who Mike Hammer picks up in the middle of the night, setting the plot into motion) to that cartoonish Greek mechanic who howls "Va-va-va-voom!" incessantly. Written by A. I. Bezzerides. With Maxine Cooper, Albert Dekker, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marian Carr, Gaby Rodgers, and Nick Dennis. 1955. 106 min. ½


Joan Crawford plays a schizophrenic in Possessed (1947), which some have called her best performance. It's bad Freudian psychoanalytic nonsense at its most dramatic, and there's nobody more up to the challenge, or more appropriate for the role, than Joan Crawford, with her wide eyes and her arched, black eyebrows and severe, intense expressiveness. Ever the social climber (she had won an Oscar two years prior for being a self-made woman in Mildred Pierce), Crawford's character in Possessed is that of a nurse whose obsession with an ex-lover (Van Heflin) slowly unravels her. The film has some inventive touches, like a haunting opening sequence where a distraught Crawford wanders the streets of L.A. in the early morning hours, sans make-up, looking like a lost lamb. And there are some wonderfully campy hallucination sequences that further the paranoia that madness is a looming specter rather than a curable disorder. Even though the doctor in the movie tries to counter this age-old suspicion of mental illness, all of the movie's energy comes from our fear and morbid fascination with insanity. And thus, Possessed was a hit. With Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks, and Stanley Ridges. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. ½

January 04, 2013

The Palm Beach Story

In order to help husband out financially, a determined wife (Claudette Colbert) leaves him and heads to Palm Beach so she can find a rich man to marry. A clever idea, from writer-director Preston Sturges, The Palm Beach Story (1942) is considered one of the great screwball comedies. It has the fast-paced delivery so emblematic of those films, and some good, amusing performances, including Colbert's as Geradline, Joel McCrea's as her husband, Rudy Vallee's as the generous, naive zillionaire Colbert meets on a train, and Mary Astor's, as the zillionaire's man-leech of a sister, who turns talking fast into an art (at times an irritating art, but she's funny nevertheless). The story isn't all that far off from The Lady Eve, another Sturges comedy, which is sharper and funnier than this fizzy, somewhat dated, but likable, inoffensive comedy. ½

January 03, 2013

An Unmarried Woman

An Unmarried Woman (1978) is a portrait of middle-aged Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh), recently divorced from her husband of sixteen years (he fell in love with another woman), and discovering what it means to be single again after identifying herself by her marital status for so long. It's an interesting, in-depth movie, and a sort of serious, cinematic version of what was being done in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in that same decade.

There's a scene where Erica and her three girlfriends are talking about famous movie actresses, wondering what ever happened to Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, and lamenting the loss of such great female stars, replaced--this is the late 70's--by such actresses as Jane Fonda and Barbra Streissand, both fine actresses, playing liberated women, but somehow not as memorable or as powerful as the role models these girls grew up with.

It's ironic that Bette Davis and company dominated the screen in the 1930s and 40s more so than their male counterparts, while the post-feminist 1970s witnessed a drying up of good roles for women. Clayburgh's performance in this film is a high point of the decade: she approaches her character with wit and charm and realism. The writer-director, Paul Mazursky, manages to be sympathetic to Erica without wallowing in her misery, and the film, which of course looks very 70s now, is still surprisingly relevant, and charming too. The second half loses a bit of the humorous bite of the first, but in the trade-off we get to see Erica develop a relationship with a gruff, passionate British artist, played by Alan Bates, in an attempt to restart her life.

Mazursky's direction mostly avoids the sentimental made-for-television-esque tropes that marked a lot of these 1970s dramas (although there's a scene where Erica is ice skating that feels a bit too A Woman Renewed: The Erica Benton Story). He's got a lot of clever ideas, but more importantly, he lets his characters develop in what seems a natural way. There's also an eye for visuals that makes the film interesting, even as simple as an angled shot of the four girlfriends sitting next to each other at a bar. They almost look like they're sitting together on stairsteps. For some reason, it works much better than if the camera had been staring at them directly, evenly.

With Michael Murphy (as Martin, Erica's husband), Cliff Gorman, Patricia Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Lisa Lucas (as Patti, Erica's daughter), Linda Miller, Penelope Russianoff, and Novella Nelson.