Monday, December 5, 2016

Looking For Mr. Goodbar

SPOILERS!
 
One of the most quietly electrifying performances I can recall is that of Diane Keaton in 1977's LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR.  You can call it brave, fearless, go-for-broke, a tour de force.  All true. But never desperate or over baked, as such a role could've easily become.  She plays Theresa Dunn, a thirty-ish single woman attempting to navigate a promiscuous lifestyle in the big city in tandem with her job as a teacher of deaf children.  A double life that will have the inevitable overlap, and dire consequences.  Keaton seems to understand Judith Rossner's (author of the novel upon which this film is based) character with an insight that almost seems to be a peer into the author's head, but also distinguished by her own wise choices.

Guiding her is director Richard Brooks, overseer of such classics as ELMER GANTRY and IN COLD BLOOD.  I was surprised by how sensitive his methods are.  He too seems to have a real handle on Theresa, a woman who is repelled and enticed by the sexual inhibition she observes in sleazy bars and night clubs.  Such an attitude is foreign to her psyche, one deeply forged by a Catholic upbringing.  Rossner more than suggests that the fundamentalism still fervently practiced by her parents (mom even slips a Bible into Theresa's purse) has given her a warped, unhealthy view of sexuality, especially her own.  Theresa is also  branded with a physical scar on her back, a constant source of embarrassment, the result of surgery for scoliosis when she was a child.  A mark of shame.

Women are often simplistically assigned the role of "Madonna" or "whore".  Does Theresa transform from one to the other? Was she always just one, trying to break out of the other? The roles of some of the men in Theresa's life are fairly clear.  Tony (Richard Gere) is the stud, the "you don't bring home to momma", unreliable party boy who excites and terrifies Theresa, particularly when he jumps around her apartment wielding a glow in the dark switchblade. James (William Atherton) is the nice, responsible welfare caseworker who helps one of Theresa's students get a much needed hearing aid.  He bonds with Theresa's parents.  He wants monogamy, but a liberated gal like Theresa will have none of it, feeling restricted by such traditions.

But in an interesting scene, James tells a sad story that moves Theresa to tears as she invites him into bed.  She mocks him for wearing a condom (this was pre-AIDS).  He then jumps up and laughs, revealing he made up the story as he stumbles out.

Theresa's low self esteem and confusion is furthered by the behavior of her sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld), a flighty young woman whose relationships/marriages reflect the swinging times - orgies are commonplace and affairs are almost written in the contracts.  Katherine was always clearly dad's (Richard Kiley) favorite, a "perfect" little girl without any flaw in his narrowed eyes. Our glimpses of Katherine make Theresa seem angelic by comparison. 

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is a reminder of what films aimed at grown ups used to look like.  Brooks achieves a deep grittiness that, despite some backlot shooting and use of rear screen, feels palpably real.  The director's often maligned use of fantasy sequences throughout the movie worked fine for me, for the most part. There is much humor in them but always with the undercurrent of portent. And death imagery is everywhere in this movie, which bears quite a bit of similarity with the same year's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  Not just in tone.

GOODBAR might be viewed as a conservative tract against a hedonistic existence.  Or perhaps even worse, a hypocritical "double life".  A cautionary tale of what can happen to a sinner who rejects not only faith, but traditional goals like getting married and having children.  The movie can also be viewed as a feminist diatribe against the Establishment, against the double standard of prizing males for the hunter/gatherer/stud role and damning women who seek the same.

You might conclude that her fate may have in part been due to a lack of role models.  She does reach a moment where she realizes her life is nowhere.  But then she meets a guy named Gary (Tom Berenger).  Curiously, the film's point of view shifts from Theresa's to his.

I won't reveal the ending, but it is a shocking, brutally effective piece of film that is guaranteed to haunt your thoughts.  And honestly, it should.  Whether you feel Theresa has paid a price for her sins or became a martyr for feminism will depend on you, invisible audience.

P.S. No, this film is still not available on DVD.  I keep reading this is due to music rights.  The film does have a very effective medley of disco tunes.  TCM has shown it recently.  There are a few uncut YouTube uploads as well.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Bridge of Spies

2015's BRIDGE OF SPIES is one of the more satisfying efforts of director Steven Spielberg's recent career.  A good old fashioned Hollywood entertainment that boasts nifty direction, fine production design, and a very workable pace.  I was expecting this movie, a legal drama, to be far more dense and arid.  Though, it being based on attorney James Donovan's (Tom Hanks) defense of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and his subsequent efforts of an exchange of the latter with two Americans (downed American pilot in the U.S.S.R and a student in East Berlin) was good source material.  The film does lend itself to an inspiring story, which Spielberg pulls off with great polish.

1957.  Donovan is an insurance lawyer who finds himself defending an accused traitor, a Soviet spy who intercepts secret messages under park benches and operates radio equipment out of a hotel room in NYC.  Donovan is reluctant but soon is immersed in the case, always looking to the Constitution while the F.B.I., C.I.A. and seemingly everyone else just wants to send the spy to the gas chamber.  Donovan himself played prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials, but cites that his client is entitled to civil liberties, something many in the name of nationalism are too willing to forgo.

Donovan repeatedly notes that Abel was acting as a patriot for his country, and that Americans do the same in the name of theirs as they go about the business of espionage overseas.  The lawyer's crusades are unpopular with the public, even his own family.  Abel is expectedly convicted, but Donovan successfully lobbies the judge to hand down a jail sentence rather than the death penalty.  His reasoning - what if one of our own finds himself in the same predicament in Russia?  An insurance policy, if you will.

Sure enough, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is facing charges in a Soviet court after his U-2 is shot down some time later.  A swap of sorts is considered by the U.S.S.R for Abel.  Donovan travels to East Berlin for a series of frustrating meetings with Embassy officials and even KGB to broker the deal, which the lawyer further insists includes the release of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).  The attorney will find himself subjected to "spy stuff", somewhat dangerous.

Quite encouragingly, the screenplay credits the participation of Joel and Ethan Coen along with Matt Charman.  The Coens apparently added quite a bit to the negotiation scenes, and some of their quirky humor is visible during moments with East German Attorney General Harald Ott (Burghart Klaubner).  But the screenplay suffers a fair amount of predictability, even if most or all of the events are true (with altered timelines).  When Donovan loses his overcoat to street toughs, you just know someone is going to tell him how crazy he is to be without one in Germany's punishing winter.   I also found the train scenes in NYC to be too "Hollywood" as when the disapproving eyes of passengers stare at Donovan over newspapers.  And then at the end, as Donovan is vindicated, those eyes soften. Bah.  BRIDGE OF SPIES didn't need such "movie moments".  It's the sort of thing of which Ron Howard is often guilty.   Some of Thomas Newman's scoring cues are also a bit too obvious.

But BRIDGE OF SPIES is an engrossing, entertaining bit of history that does in fact make you happy to know that men like Donovan do exist.  Who are tirelessly advocating for the forgotten and dispossessed even when they perhaps just want to fall into their own beds.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cool World

It's astonishing how bad 1992's COOL WORLD, the first effort in several years from Ralph Bakshi, really is.  I somehow sat through the film twice in theaters during its original run.  I realize I was less discerning in those years but, gee...How deflating it was to see an innovative, rule breaking director, willingly or otherwise, compromise his vision to studio standards.  Though how Paramount deemed this fit fit for release is another mystery.  Bakshi intended for this to be a patently adult, R-rated feature, but had his script hijacked by the studio and rewritten.  The resulting PG-13 movie exists in some nether world.  Not a kid's picture but too silly to be mistaken for a companion piece to Bakshi's earlier work.  A sleazy, low rent live action/animation hybrid that plays like WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT's degenerate cousin.

This is some strange movie. So many random moments, ostensibly intended to display the eccentricities of the citizens or "doodles" of a place called Cool World, created by cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne, likely wondering what the hell he's doing in this movie) for a comic book series.  Lots of characters off in the margins and sometimes in the foreground doing odd things.  I read that Bakshi instructed his animation team to draw whatever they wanted and try to make it funny; they had no script from which to work, or even draw inspiration.  This sort of anarchy could've been successful, but here just feels like a mad pastiche that exists only to be flashy and vulgar. A good example: a chase scene that climaxes with a doodle urinating on the vehicle for no discernable reason.  Anyone?

Deebs, about to conclude a stretch in prison,  is enticed by his sexpot creation Hollie Wood, a trouble making blonde siren, to join him in Cool World.  A human already travels in this violent cartoon landscape - Frank (Brad Pitt), a police officer who was accidentally summoned there decades earlier by a daffy scientist called Dr. Whiskers. Never mind the details.  Hollie has an agenda: to become human and join the real world, where "noids" live.  For this to happen, Deebs and Hollie must have intercourse in Cool World.

Soon after, the three main characters are shuffling between the lands of the doodles and noids, their presence threatening to destroy both.  Kim Basinger plays the human Hollie and voices her drawn namesake, neither very effectively.  She does look great.  I also read that the actress wanted COOL WORLD to be the sort of film she could screen "for sick children in hospitals".  Evidently, Kim was not familiar with the Bakshi filmography.  All of this behind the scenes disagreement resulted in a very confused, disjointed movie. I liked the idea that Cool World actually existed long before Deebs dreamed it up.  There's plenty of food for thought with that idea alone, though here any development of it is stymied.   The director has mined the themes behind COOL WORLD before, namely in 1973's HEAVY TRAFFIC, a crude but potent film.  You're far better off watching that one.

But there are a few reasons to see COOL WORLD, if you can suffer the odious elements:

1. The animation looks great.
2. The early parts of the film, including the live action opening, are not bad.
3. The soundtrack, with wickedly danceable tracks by Ministry, Future Sound of London, Thompson Twins, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and many others.  I still have the compact disc.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Can't. Wait.

"See you in twenty-five years" Laura Palmer said to Agent Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge during the series finale of David Lynch's Twin Peaks back in 1991.  And so it will come to pass.  We'll learn if Cooper is still Cooper/Bob.  What happened when Nadine got her memory back.  What happened to Audrey after the explosion in the bank.  And how in the heck Trent Reznor and Eddie Vedder fit into this universe.

To say that that anticipation and expectations are high for Showtime's reboot (due in 2017), well...

See you soon, Dale.

Monday, November 21, 2016

All About Eve

If the dialogue's the thing, 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE is easily one of the best films in the history of the medium. We can all quote great lines from films of every era, from the dawn of the talkies through the latest knucklehead comedy du jour, but few are as acidicly witty as director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's near nonstop gems as spoken by his divine cast:

1. Bette Davis as aging Broadway star Margo Channing.  At age forty Davis herself was at a career crossroads after a series of not so well received films. ALL ABOUT EVE gave her a role she was perhaps born to play - a worldy, cynical, downright bitchy celebrated leading lady who harbors deep seated insecurities despite a teflon veneer.  Much of the Davis persona is embodied in Margo, from the husky voice used to spout off those great lines to the near micro facial expressions and confident body language.  Watch her motions in a living room scene with....

2. Gary Merrill as Bill Sampson, Margo's stage director and younger love interest.  Merrill holds his own/plays off nicely against his costar.  Their heated debates are as electric in execution as they are erudite.

3. Hugh Marlowe as writer Lloyd Richards, a volatile personality with a (fragile?) ego to match.  There's plenty of quiet smoldering in some scenes, fire in others. Marlowe is a perfect vehicle through which Mankiewicz  makes points about writing vs. acting, as to which is ultimately what makes a play (or movie) great.  The writer may often be considered a mere carpenter in Hollywood, but in the theater world he is a god among mere mortals.  This would not include many actors.

4. Celeste Holm plays Lloyd's wife, Karen, not among the temperamental thespians in their creative yet vital in manners beyond mere matrimony and friendship.  Margo, Gary, Hugh, and Karen are a close knit group of caustics who make sport of those less sophisticated than themselves.  One night Karen happens upon such an individual....

5. Anne Baxter as the titular Eve.  A soft spoken, humble young woman found outside in the shadows of the theater where Margo performs nightly.  Eve claims she's seen every single performance.  Soon she's chatting with the inner circle, then playing her assistant.  Eve is smart and thorough, but also quite obsequieous and sycophantic.  Is she plotting to dethrone Queen Margo as darling of the Great White Way?

6. Thelma Ritter is Birdie, Margo's sharp tongued maid, who sees right through Eve's faux nicieties from the start.

and..

7. George Sanders as critic Addison DeWitt, whose every word reveals a steel trap brain and frozen core.  His opening narration is positively stellar.  Your inner snob (should you indeed house one) will positively rejoice.

How Eve slithers her way to the top is classic backbiting, seized opportunities, attempted seductions. Baxter is a revelation.... But Eve's past and her torrent of lies may catch up with her, leading to a rather tricky alliance with DeWitt.

But don't let me spoil it.  Find your own way to that lengthy finale, a revealing "passing of the baton" that perfectly caps the scheming ways of Ms. Eve Harrington.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Manhunter

Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will?  It appears quite black.
 
1986's MANHUNTER is a curiously obscure movie, despite it being an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel The Red Dragon and being directed by Michael Mann.  If you are familiar with either talent's work you might find this collaboration a bit unlikely, and indeed Mann's Miami Vice like handling of the story that would launch more films (including SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) and a television series often comes off as a hyper stylized relic of the 1980s, but nonetheless an involving and fascinating few hours.

William Petersen, currently well known to audiences of CSI, plays Will Graham, a Federal agent forced into retirement after a mental breakdown.  Graham was brutally attacked by one Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) before apprehending him. When his old FBI boss Jack (Dennis Farina) shows up seeking his help to catch another serial murderer - a sickie known as "The Tooth Fairy" as he leaves bite marks on his victims - he's far from interested or tempted.  But a man who delves into the minds of his adversaries isn't so easily out of the game.  Once a profiler....

MANHUNTER follows Graham at bloody crime scenes, talking aloud, bit by bit trying to recreate the steps of the crime.  No detail is too small.  There are visits to Lecktor's cell, the expected clever wordplay of the insane criminal who is of course smarter than everyone else.  Cox is arguably the best actor to have played this character, with apologies to Sir Anthony Hopkins.  Cox's entirely natural, confident, and non-hammy performance is all the more menacing because he is so laid back, so cunning without being theatrical. He seems to be unconcerned with notions of good and evil.  When Graham seeks his assistance in tracking the Tooth Fairy, he quickly recalls why he retired.  Having Lecktor in one's head is the blackest of nights, indeed.  A condition that alienated Graham from his young son and wife for a lengthy stretch.

Mann frames the story moodily, often bathing entire rooms (and characters) in in a single color or composing long shots that resemble paintings.   Lots of experimentation with focus and editing.   He is especially fond of two shots from a distance.  It may apt, as we are usually kept at more than arm's length from the characters, even though Mann attempts to make them human and emotional.  Lecktor is given some interesting bits of business, such as his posture during a phone call with Graham; he lies on his back with his feet up on the wall as if he were a teenage girl chatting with a friend about cute guys.  I would've liked more scenes with him. 

MANHUNTER has become something of a cult favorite, with its gritty yet meticulously composed style in a very distinctive '80s sort of way.  Another such film would be TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., also starring Petersen.  MANHUNTER is a mostly impressive motion picture, with good performances, especially by Tom Noonan as the killer and an early role for Joan Allen as a blind photography lab worker with whom he falls in love.  Their scene with a tranquilized tiger is quite interesting and revealing as it invokes William Blake poetry.  Kim Greist, as Graham's wife Molly does not fare nearly as well, given little to do and appearing as if reading her lines off cue cards.

The use of music in MANHUNTER is another debit, not at all a "suture into the diagetic world" as it's been described.  The Reds' songs are prototypical '80s cheese, undermining the film's mood at every turn.  One tune is also awkwardly timed and unintentionally funny during the final minutes.  As for Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" use during the climax - it's a suitably disturbing tune but also just doesn't quite work.  I would also have not had someone jump through a window during that scene, but that's just me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Parallax View

SPOILERS


The Commission, a Congressional special committee, submits its report after months of research and hearings: the latest political assassination was committed by someone who was clearly sociopathic, obsessive.  The sort of individual the Parallax organization will recruit to eliminate senators whose views are deemed too....radical? Is Parallax a right-wing militia of sorts?

1974's THE PARALLAX VIEW does not make that clear, and it suits the cloaked, clandestine nature of the film itself.  It is a movie that exists in shadows and darkness.  You might say that master cinematographer Gordon Willis is the true star of this picture, with his use of long lenses and shallow focus and framing of  events behind curtains and in barely lit spaces. The lighting gives everything, even in broad daylight, a uniquely frightening sheen.  Anamorphic photography at its finest.

Warren Beatty plays Joe Frady, a newspaper reporter who begins to investigate after his former colleague/ lover turns up dead and a series of leads begin to point to said Organization.   Lee (Paula Prentiss) was a T.V. reporter who was there the day the senator was killed by a waiter at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle.  She tries to convince Frady that someone is trying to kill her.  Her paranoia is fueled by the deaths of four (or is it six?) others who had also been there when the Senator got it.  Didn't several of the bystanders at JFK's assassination site mysteriously die, too?

Frady, also previously in attendance at the Space Needle, brushes Lee off, thinks she's delusional.  One scene later, in a superb use of film editing, she's on the slab at the morgue.  Drug overdose, the police report reads.  Frady sniffs around a small town, where the local sheriff tries to plug him. Why? Frady will search the sheriff's house and find documents about Parallax, an agency that is in the business of hiring assassins.

More people turn up dead.  People who knew people.  Not just key people.  There are more attempts on Senators' lives.  Some are successful. Was there a second gunman?  Frady tries to learn more about Parallax by applying under a false identity.  At their headquarters, he will attend a "test", a rapid fire slide show that juxtaposes positive and negative imagery (and sometimes the same image changes connotation), set to patriotic music.  This sequence, by the way, is one of the most effective uses of stills I've ever seen.  Absolutely chilling.

And that's the best word for director Alan J. Paula's film, part two of his "conspiracy" trilogy (along with KLUTE and ALL THE PRESIDENTS' MEN) in the '70s. Everything contributes to an entirely forboding atmosphere, a feeling of hopelessness and distrust.  Perhaps the way many Americans were feeling after the ravages of the previous decade.  The '70s were, for many, like a wicked hangover from the '60s.  While the screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. sometimes detours into silliness (bar fight, car chase) and has some fairly large plot holes (How did Frady escape from that exploding boat? How did he know that he had enough time before that bomb detonated on the airplane?), it is still a solid exercise in fear and loathing.  It may be even more reflective of American society (and beyond) today than ever before.