Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My 2009

My taste in cinema runs toward movies made from the early thirties to the early sixties. This isn't to say that great movies weren't made prior to 1930, nor is it to say that great movies haven't been made after 1964. Every decade has produced great films, and though I haven't researched this next claim I dare say every single year has produced some great films. I do hold the belief, however, that more good movies were made under the old studio system than have been made since it fell apart in the fifties. I'm lucky enough to live in a city that provides monthly access to classic cinema. The AFI in Silver Spring is the kind of movie palace a geek dreams about at night. In the coming months, they'll be having a Jean Arthur Retrospective, a retrospective of British Noir, and an Orson Welles tribute. I'm lucky that I can see these films as they were meant to be seen, as light flickering in the darkness.

So, yes, I'm an old movie partisan, but in an average year I still manage to see about one new film a month at the movie theater. The end of the year seems a good time to look back. This isn't a ranking of 'the best films of 2009' because I have neither the time, money nor inclination to see enough new films to make that call. This is merely a collection of thoughts on the new films I saw this year:

(500) Days of Summer- As a dependable genre, the romantic comedy has nearly been destroyed by hackneyed, marketing-driven interpretation (banality thy name is McConaughey). What makes this a tragedy is that a) we all fall in love, and b) we all like to laugh. The great romantic comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Manhattan, The Princess Bride) are films that endure. Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer might be the best movie about thinking you've found the one, when in fact you haven't, since Woody Allen's Annie Hall. There are big laughs here, and there was more than one moment when I nodded my head as if to say--been there. The whole theater was laughing and nodding their heads been there, and what more can you want out of a movie than the confirmation that we all brave the same emotional waters from time to time? Joshua Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel were my favorite screen couple of the year.

Watchmen- Let me admit up front that I'm not the audience for this movie. A lot of fanboys were predetermined to like this adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel, but it was overlong, gratingly directed, and (for the most part) shoddily acted. Still, I enjoyed the guy with the blue dick and the film noir guy with a shifting mask. Otherwise...

Star Trek- This was more my cup of big budget tea. It wasn't quite the Star Trek I've always had a fondness for (Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley had the precision of a seasoned comedy troupe), but this reboot was a lot of fun. In placing Uhura up front and relegating McCoy to the background, JJ Abrams has reconfigured the emotional center of the myth. It'll be interesting to see where this series goes from here.

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces)- In this neo-noir from Pedro Almodavar, an old man courts a beautiful young woman who wants to be an actress. He bankrolls a film for her, only to watch as she falls in love her director. The film is a collection of lovingly composed images--and it's a meditation on seeing, being seen, and blindness. Penelope Cruz is positively entrancing as the visual and emotional center of the movie.

Up-I loved this Pixar cartoon about an old man and a kid who float to South America in a house tied to a bunch of balloons. File this one under Sheer Delight. Pixar has changed the landscape of animation, but I think it's a change for the better.

Whatever Works- After the lamentable Scoop, I was convinced Woody Allen shouldn't make any more comedies, but this teaming with Larry David hit me in the funny bone. Not his greatest movie, but it's a fun little second-tier Woody flick. I need to do an Allen piece soon. He's been hit or miss for a while now, but he's one of the most interesting directors we've ever produced in the country.

Public Enemies- This Michael Mann crime caper starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger was probably my biggest disappointment at the movies this year. It's not a terrible movie by any means, but it's curiously lifeless. I hate to speculate on this out loud, but we might (just maybe) have passed the point where Johnny Depp can play plausible human beings.

District 9- This gritty, fascinating sci-fi flick convinced me that special effects have jumped to a level where they could function as more than spectacle. I'm not sure this movie was quite the political metaphor it thought it was, but I'm glad I saw it at the theater. Seeing it on the big screen, I was struck by the recognition that photorealistic special effects, in the service of a real story, could do amazing things. I'm not sure this story was the watershed, but I suspect the watershed is coming. (Note: I haven't seen Avatar. Everything in me is rebelling against the advertising onslaught, and the previews look awful, but I am somewhat interested in seeing how the effects have progressed. Is Avatar the watershed? I may have to bite the bullet and go find out for myself. Maybe.)

Inglourious Basterds- Tarantino roared back after the financial bellyflop of Grindhouse with this World War II Jewish-revenge fantasy. Catharsis? Fascism masquerading as righteousness? Just plain sick? Most of all, it was fun. Featuring great performances and knockout set pieces, it shows that after Kill Bill, Tarantino's mind is on making epics. I have some misgivings about this movie's ultimate message (sadism is sadism no matter how you try to dress it up), but what I don't doubt is the sheer audacity of the director's talent.

The Informant!-Matt Damon and Steven Soderburg teamed up for this dramedy about a corporate whistle blower in Iowa. Not anyone's best film, but Damon continues to show that he's one of our indispensable movie stars, an actor of talent and intellectual curiosity.

The Men Who Stare at Goats- What I said up there about Damon goes double for George Clooney. This was the first of three quirky, interesting projects he made this year. To be honest, it was the least successful of the three. I expected an offbeat comedy. It was offbeat, I guess, but I didn't laugh that much.

Fantastic Mr. Fox- Clooney Part Two. This delightful stop-motion animation movie based on the book by Roald Dahl was a return to form for director Wes Anderson. After The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, I was starting to wonder if Anderson had lost his way, but Mr. Fox is funny and touching in a way Anderson hasn't approached since The Royal Tenenbaums. Clooney's Mr. Fox is a repentant sinner right out of Anderson's gallery of flawed heroes.

Up In the Air-Clooney Part Three. A man flies around the country firing people at big corporations. He meets two women--one as a coworker, one as a love interest--who challenge him to connect more fully with other people. This film is the kind of smart comedy/drama that Hollywood makes less and less of these days. This past weekend, it debuted at number six at the box office, behind The Blind Side holding firm at number five. So it probably won't make a bunch of money. But it is a hell of an entertaining movie. In the last fifteen years, Clooney has become our most interesting movie star. He's handsome and charming, but he's got a quirky sense of humor and since 1998's Out of Sight he's demonstrated pretty consistent good taste in material. Look over his films: Out of Sight, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Three Kings, Solaris, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading, and now Up In The Air. That is more than a good run of movies, it's a legend-making run of movies. If he quit tomorrow, Clooney has a pretty good chance of emerging as his generation's greatest movie star. Sure, he made the silly Ocean's movies, and the big wave movie, and he was spectacularly bad as Batman. But those exceptions prove the rule. He's amassing a terrific body of work.

Me & Orson Welles- Richard Linklater directed this airy little romp about an aspiring young actor who spends a week in the shadow of Orson Welles. It's a tribute to the talent and magnetism of Welles in the form of Christian McKay's fine performance.

A Serious Man- This was probably the best movie I saw this year. Joel and Ethan Coen, who have had a tremendous decade, top it off with one of their best films yet, a retelling of the story of Job set in the Jewish suburbs of Minnesota. A black-as-sackcloth comedy, it stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a man beset on all sides by misfortune. He looks to his religion for some solace and comfort but finds only God's silence. The Coens are the best directors working today, and the fact that they followed up the commercial successes of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading with this darkly hilarious look at suffering is a testament to their continuing cinematic value.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mug Shots #11: John Payne AKA The Ass-Kicker

Payne is maybe the most underrated noir leading man, a gruff everyman with disappointed eyes and a choked voice. He was never anguished, though. He was too busy busting heads. He trained for the hard stuff in Larceny and The Crooked Way, but the real pugilism began when he started making movies with director Phil Karlson. Their terrific Kansas City Confidential features a centerpiece brawl with Payne facing down Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. That film's brutality is topped only by the blistering, brilliant 99 River Street, a cornucopia of ass-kicking excitement. Payne's best performance was probably in Byron Haskin's underrated political drama The Boss, a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Missouri political boss Tom Pendergast.

Essential John Payne:

Kansas City Confidential
99 River Street
The Boss

Best of the Rest:
The Crooked Way
Slightly Scarlet

Payne features prominently in my ranking of noir's best brawls.

Ironically enough for noir's preeminent pugilist, Payne got his start as a pretty boy song-and-dance man. Even more ironic: he's best known as the father in Miracle on 34th Street. Read more about him here.

Imdb has both
99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential ready for viewing. Watch them here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Linklater, McKay, Danes, Effron on Charlie Rose

Don't miss Charlie Rose's interview with the director and cast of Me and Orson Welles. It's an interesting discussion of Welles's life and career. McKay in particular is impressive, at one point making an inspired defense of Welles's "obstinate integrity." Linklater tells the story of how he found McKay in a one man play about Welles.

Watch the interview at charlierose.com. There's not a direct link to the interview yet, but this link will take you to the search page. Search videos for Orson Welles.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Portrait of Welles as a Young Man: Linklater's Me & Orson Welles (2009)

There is a sense in which the words Orson Welles refer as much to a myth as to a man. Next year will mark the 95th anniversary of his birth and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, and in that time his legend has only grown. If Welles has become a character, well, he was always kind of a character to begin with. The child prodigy, the wunderkind, the showboat, the controversy, the director of the Greatest Movie Of All Time, the world's youngest has been, the expat, the artist, the fat joke, the overrated, the underappreciated...Orson Welles.

We'll never know how much of it is true, I fear. Simon Callow is working on the third volume of his Welles biography, but he won't be the last one to attempt to dig through the rough materials of the man's life looking for the man. There are too many legends swirling about--and Welles himself was a joyful spinner of tales--and he provoked too many responses from too many different people. Some people loved him (John Berry, Marlene Dietrich) and many people hated him (John Houseman, Norman Lloyd). Even more vexing, the responses to his life's work are too varied.

There are many, many people who cling to the notion that Welles was a shooting star who burned out the day he wrapped up shooting on
Citizen Kane. They take a certain glee from recounting the long fall of Welles, the man of irresponsible talent brought low by the excesses of his own personality. He's viewed like Elvis. He was young and talented and beautiful, but then he was fat and washed up, a caricature of his former glory.

That's an interpretation of Welles that won't hold up to inspection. Did he get fat? Yes, indeed. So what?

Did he do commercials for wine and frozen peas? Yes, and Jimmy Stewart did ads for Campbell's soup and Firestone tires. Lauren Bacall did voiceover work selling cat food. What's the goddamn point? When he was in the full bloom of his glory in New York in the 1930s, Welles regularly did radio ads selling all kinds of crap. You gotta pay the bills, and that kind of work has long been a source of revenue for actors. I'm sick of every two-bit hack entertainment writer assigned with doing a Welles piece googling the man's name and then trotting out the same tired bullshit about how Welles started out great and then ended up doing commercials.

He made magnificent movies in his middle-age, years after he was supposedly washed up. Films like
Touch of Evil, The Immortal Story, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, and F for Fake didn't make money and didn't win awards, but they're great works art that have only grown in stature over the years. Yes, things got tough toward the end. The money dried up. Welles was old and broke in a business where only youth and money matter. When he died at his desk, working on a script, the industry which had never, ever, embraced him said, "What a loss. He started out so well." These late years--the years when he couldn't get money and couldn't get projects off the ground--are covered nicely in Joseph McBride's What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? How Welles really dealt with these travails is more telling, and more interesting, than the myth of his fall from grace.

Of course, no matter how well we document or investigate the touching older Welles, or the brilliant middle-aged Welles, the main appeal of the man will probably always be the firecracker who burst onto the stage in his teens and became an international sensation before he was twenty-five. It's just too good a story.

It's the story director Richard Linklater has chosen to dramatize in his new film Me & Orson Welles. Based on the short novel by Robert Kaplow, it tells the story of a young aspiring actor (played by Zac Efron) who talks his way into a job at the Mercury Theater just as Welles is about to open his famous 1937 production of
Julius Caesar. Kaplow's novel is a light little pleasure and Linklater's film follows suit. The cast is uniformly good (Efron is a capable actor with interesting eyes, and Clare Danes, who plays his would-be girlfriend, is as likable as ever), and Linklater directs in a tone that can only be described as winsome. It's a coming of age tale and a love letter to the artistic process.

It also enshrines the young Orson Welles in another layer of myth. He's played here by Christian McKay in a completely winning performance (much the film's charm emanates from him). McKay bears some resemblance to the Great One, and his impersonation is spot-on--he particularly understands how Welles used his eyebrows to register bemusement at the peculiarities of other people. He's too old, of course, but who wouldn't be? Welles was a babyfaced 22 when he directed
Caesar, and no one can match that bizarre 'old soul/young firebrand' quality that marked the young Welles. He was a brat, an insanely brilliant brat, and that combination marked him as something of a beautiful freak. McKay gets at this quality, this sense that Welles has somehow simultaneously absorbed all of western literature and does not seem to feel the least bit intimidated by it (this is a guy who felt no compunction about rewriting Shakespeare, a quality that would serve him well in his film adaptations).

Like most portrayals of The Young Welles,
Me & Orson Welles puts a little too much emphasis on his grandiose nature and tyrannical temper. I'm not saying Welles couldn't be a hard way to go, but there were other aspects to the man. For one thing, he was a serious thinker. A committed leftist, many of his early projects had a distinctly political subtext, including his infamous productions of The Cradle Will Rock and the "Voodoo Macbeth". His production of Caesar, lovingly recreated by Linklater, was overtly political and was received as such (read TIME magazine's rave review). Another fault of film is that it paints a rather saintly picture of John Houseman. I have great respect for Houseman, and I think Welles bears the brunt of the blame for their eventual falling out, but their stormy relationship was somewhat more complicated than the film suggests.

Still, a Wellesian can't help but enjoy the film. It acknowledges the inescapable fact--a fact quite as interesting as any film he made--that Welles was more than a filmmaker. His personality simply shone so brightly that it has reached across the years. He's become the archetypal wunderkind, the young man in a hurry. As great as Hitchcock was, as great as Bergman, Fellini, Ford, Hawks were--they simply don't cut the figure that Welles does. He's truly a character now, and in that way he's more a part of the cinema, more a part of the culture, than ever.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pitfall (1947)

While I can say unequivocally that Andre de Toth’s Pitfall is one of the great film noirs, I cannot say with any certainty whether its final brilliance is by design. Is there such a thing as an accidental masterpiece? I’m not sure, but there is an ambiguity at the center of this film which is either a stroke of genius or a grievous oversight on behalf of the filmmakers.

Pitfall tells the story of John Forbes (Dick Powell) a married insurance agent who is bored at home and tired of being an “average American.” One day Forbes meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) the sexy girlfriend of a convict only days away from being released. Forbes and Mona have a few drinks, share some pointed conversation, and then spend a night together. Unfortunately for both of them, Mona is being stalked by a creepy private eye named MacDonald. He’s a bug-eyed nutjob, obsessed with Mona and none too happy about her new, married boyfriend. As MacDonald grows more violent, what might have been a brief adulterous affair turns into a walking nightmare for Forbes and Mona. This set-up is a perfect illustration of one of my favorite definitions of film noir (from Roger Ebert): an ordinary guy indulges the weaker side of his character, and hell opens up beneath his feet.

I’ve always loved that quote, and it certainly applies here, but what makes Pitfall so interesting is the way it sets up that basic situation but then, underneath, tells another story.

That story belongs to the “other woman” Mona Stevens. The plot prepares us to accept her as a femme fatale, but then an interesting thing happens on the way to the gallows. Mona turns out to be a nice person. Okay, she’s got bad taste in men. Her boyfriend is in jail for embezzling funds to buy her clothes and a boat. She attracts a psychopath like MacDonald on first meeting. Five minutes after meeting Forbes, she has him agreeing to stiff drinks in a darkened bar at three in the afternoon. Clearly, she’s got issues with men.

But she isn’t a femme fatale. Once she learns Forbes is married, she breaks it off with him. She rebuffs MacDonald, and she tries to shield Forbes from his wrath. While she makes some bad decisions, Mona never seems motivated by the greed and selfishness that are motivating just about everyone else. She is, without a doubt, the most interesting, sympathetic person in the movie. It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Lizabeth Scott, one of the great women of noir, whose specialty was being world-weary and fragile at the same time. While she was breathtakingly beautiful, there was an undeniable sadness to Liz Scott. Her eyes, sensuous as they may be, always look as if they’ve been crying, and while she sometimes played the blond ice goddess in film noirs, more often than not what shone through in her performances was a bruised and battered quality, a sense that she was a smart woman forced to make due in a dumb man’s world.

That was never truer than in this movie. Forbes lies to her to get her in bed, MacDonald stalks her, and her convict boyfriend is a whiskey-swilling imbecile. Pitfall may have the set-up of a femme fatale story, but by the end it seems to be more about Mona Stevens and three L’Homme fatales. The thing is, though, I’m not sure if the movie knows this. On the surface, it is still telling the story of Forbes, the ordinary man indulging the weaker side of his character.

And that’s a story the movie tells well. Dick Powell is excellent as Forbes. As a dramatic actor, Powell’s specialty was inferiority masked as smugness. Even when he played Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet, you got the sense that the smugness was just a way to cover up the fact the character was in over his head. Powell’s character is in way over his head here. His chief adversary, the psycho private eye MacDonald, is played by Raymond Burr at his villainous best. You do not want to find yourself staring down Raymond Burr in a film noir, especially if you are Dick Powell. The movie generates a lot of suspense as it tightens the vise on this weak, normal, believable man.

And yet…

Notice what happens at the end. What happens to Mona? Is she being punished by the Production Code for sleeping with a married man? Does the District Attorney’s angry words to Forbes (“I think we have the wrong person upstairs”) reflect the feelings of the filmmakers? Look at the last shot of her. Notice that we see her from Forbes’ perspective. Is this robbing Mona of her final moment? Or is it a commentary on the real tragedy of the story? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but ask yourself: when hell opened up beneath Forbes’ feet, whom did it swallow?


Director Andre De Toth also directed the wonderful Crime Wave. For an interesting interview with this underrated artist, click here.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Too Late For Tears Poster Gallery

Here's a look at some of the posters rolled out for Lizabeth Scott's classic noir Too Late For Tears. It's interesting to see how different people--in different places at different times--have tried to market this low budget crime flick. Liz herself is presented as fresh-faced and innocent, as a victim, as a woman terrified by what she has done, and as a cold blooded killer. (Note: the film was re-released as Killer Bait.)

Above: at first glance, you might think this was a light romantic movie. The central picture of Liz is actually quite lovely. It's only when you look closer that you begin to realize this is a darker kind of movie.

Above: in the forties Dan Duryea was famous for slapping around his female costars (and had a weirdly devoted female fan base--remember that fact the next time someone tells you that things were simpler in the old days). This poster clearly features Duryea at work. What's interesting here is that the misogyny of the poster stands in contrast to the film. In the movie, Duryea does indeed slap Liz, but it's Liz who is the truly cold one. Duryea finds that out the hard way.
Above: more of Duryea's handiwork. Notice that this image was repeated for no fewer than three posters. Misogyny sells.

Above: this poster recasts the movie along conventional noir lines. Here Liz seems like a normal woman who inadvertently does something horrible. Notice too, that she's wearing a somewhat dowdy high collared blouse here, very middle-class housewifey. I believe this is the UK poster for the film.

Above: The movie was retitled Killer Bait, presumably to make it sound more like a gritty crime flick. Notice that the poster reflects this new approach, featuring two guns, Liz screaming in horror, ect.
Above: Spanish language poster. That gun has gotten big. Also, notice that Liz's name and image are featured more prominently here. This is the only poster I've found where her name was significantly larger than that of her co-stars.

Above: Danish language poster, loosely translated as No Way Back. I love this one. Liz looks like a sexy zombie.
Above: the Swedish language poster which translates as In Cold Blood. Looks a bit like Vertigo here, I think.
Above: a DVD package from Image. The picture of Liz is lifted from her publicity stills from Dead Reckoning (maybe because that was an A-list Bogart picture and more money was spent on them, or because Liz simply looked good in them). Here, though, she is pure sexy, ice-blooded she-devil.

Above: a cheapo DVD package. Thrown together. This is the only packaging of this film I've ever seen that rearranges the star billing. Not sure why they did that. Note, also, that Don DeFore's name has disappeared.