Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: 99 River Street (1953)

There is a shot in Phil Karlson’s “99 River Street” in which Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), a one-time pugilist of some renown forced into a hardscrabble life as a cab-driver with pitiful dreams of owning a gas station and a wife, Pauline, who looks at him like the loser he’s knows he’s become, re-enters his old boxing gym. He looks in the mirror. The Poignant Looking Yourself In The Mirror Scene is over-used, to be sure, but this is one of its finest renderings in cinematic history. In that moment, Ernie sees the man he used to be and the man he wishes he still was even though he knows that he won’t be that man ever again. It’s a shot that could work to explicate the post-athletic days of any sports star, frankly, but works just as well in the context of this tough little noir, one that boils over with raucous characterization and a superb rendering of the desperation that can drive anyone – men and women – to craziness.

John Payne gives a tenacious performance as Ernie, down and out and disgusted with himself, putting on a happy face behind the wheel of his taxi even as he simultaneously grits his teeth. The film opens, in fact, with a purposeful sleight of hand, showing him in the boxing ring in the midst of his fighting days, slugging it out for a championship. But then...the camera pulls back. It’s merely a TV show that replays The Great Fights of Yesterday. Now he’s a has-been, if not a never-was, considering he didn't win that fight on TV and lost his one chance at the title, pretty much a given if he’s starring in a noir film. “I could’ve been champion,” he tells his wife and Peggie Castle’s retort is dripping with so much venom it practically drips off her lips and poisons the screen. TKO.

If Ernie can barely hide his rage, Pauline flaunts hers, openly deriding her husband as a ninny, a loser. She married him to be there when he went big, but when he didn’t, she lost interest, and now she’s two-timing him with a thief, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter, his smile so ill-omened it'll put a chill down your spine), who plans to sell off a smattering of jewels for a hefty price to fund their escape to paradise. Ernie seethes when he learns of this betrayal which leads him directly into hot water when Linda (a magnetically screwy Evelyn Keyes), a woman at the coffee shop he haunts, less his femme fatale than his slippery accomplice, enlists him to help dispose of the dead body of the Broadway producer she’s unintentionally murdered, the one who wouldn’t recognize her dreams.

Linda’s plea for help is a show-stopping sequence, relayed intensely in close-up, a monologue filmed like an actress making her reel, which is precisely what it is, revealed as an audition of which unwitting Ernie has no idea he’s part. When he realizes he’s been made a chump, that Linda killed no one, that he was just an involuntary scene partner, he blows his stack and tosses haymakers at everyone in his way, roughing up an entire theater production. He’s angry in this moment, sure, but also...content. He’s back in the ring even if he’s still in public and it’s where he always wants to be, his craving finally filled.

But this unleashing of the sweet science in the sourest terms gets the cops on his case and Linda, feeling pangs of guilt if not also attraction, agrees to help him even as Ernie’s wife’s dead body winds up in the trunk of his taxi and all sorts of nefarious characters in league with Rawlins come calling. And as the situation spirals, Ernie is paradoxically renewed with a sense of purpose, taking out years of frustration on the goons closing in on him and climbing back into the metaphorical ring for one last slugfest.

Noirs typically aren’t supposed to end happy, of course, and so the happy ending of “99 River Street”, with Ernie grinning cheek to cheek as the proprietor of the gas station of his dreams and Linda as his girl, feels all wrong, like it’s pretend, a scene they’re playing, as if getting to that place where we really want to be, to quote poet laureate Bruce Springsteen, is no different than precisely how it looks in the context of this conclusion - that is, too good to be true.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Giving Thanks For...

A little over a month after making that social media prayer, film student & dubsmash expert Chucklemuffin heard my plea. Thankful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkey Day Travel Companion: Matineecast

Over the weekend I recorded a podcast with Ryan McNeil of the exemplary Matinee in which we broke down "Spotlight." And even though we pretty much agreed on everything, I still think it's a fun conversation, and one that includes tangents on "The Insider", "The Hunt", my eternal adoration of "Elizabethtown", my sworn hatred of "Lord of the Rings Trilogy", and even a brief discussion of my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers.

So while you're traveling to wherever it is you will be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, feel free to serve it up as an on-the-road companion. Listen Here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

By the Sea

If so much of the movie going experience is about escapism then writer/director Angelina Jolie Pitt shrewdly employs that escapism as a weapon against us in “By the Sea.” Her film, explicit in its refusal to explicate, is too long, yet that length feels just right, gradually transforming its otherwise scenic Maltese landscapes intended as the south of France from dazzling to exhausting. The opulent hotel where our central couple spends so much time turns claustrophobic and they smoke so many cigarettes your lungs will start to hurt. Even the picturesque seaside café eventually leaves you wondering if there are any other places to eat. This exhaustion correlates directly to the horse latitudes marriage of Ms. Jolie Pitt and her husband Brad… Er, make that Vanessa and Roland Bertrand.

Beg your pardon if I’ve confused the two but “By the Sea” readily recognizes that fiction mixes liberally with reality, which is precisely why Roland, an author whose writing process involves drinking and bemoaning how he has nothing to write, borrows from his own screwed up existence to concoct what he no doubt hopes will be a book for people to haul along on their own getaways to the south of France. Content to brood, Roland gets a lot of screen time, often opposite Michel (Niels Aerstrup), proprietor the aforementioned café, who seems so in-tune where Roland is so out of tune. Indeed, Roland, for all this writing frustration, is primarily a spectator to his wife’s seemingly slow withdrawal from society.

Played by Jolie Pitt, so often so formidably charismatic, with a voice of severe timidity, Vanessa opts for isolation at every turn, surrounding herself with Chardonnay and pills. If her husband was once a successful writer now blocked, she was once a dancer of some renown, it is implied, who has essentially been forced off the stage, a la Winona Ryder in “Black Swan”, a nod at the dividing line for female actors when they cross the threshold where studio execs look past them and toward someone youthful. And here you sense Jolie Pitt stricken by that idea, wondering what will happen to her when the know-it-alls find another starlet to glom onto, personified in the film's most loopy yet most consequential storyline in which she and her husband find a conveniently placed hole in the wall of their hotel allowing them to voyeuristically peer through at the young newlyweds on honeymoon next door.

The exceptionally attractive newlyweds are Francois, played by Melvil Poupaud, the original Frenchman In A Jaunty Hat, and Lea, played by Melanie Laurent with, if you'll permit me to say, the most regal tan in movie history. Jolie Pitt – er, Vanessa – is instantly jealous of Laurent – er, Lea – and fearful that Roland will trade in for a younger model. Still, Vanessa can't stop peeping, as if looking at herself from the past, seeing what's coming up behind, knowing her future as a glamorous starlet is in peril. Another director might have been more interested in upping the kinky quotient, and while it gets a little kinky, it’s more content to have our bickering lovers take a time out to sit back and watch, and have us sit back and watch them, two levels of voyeurism happening at once.

Yet by employing the device of a faltering marriage to explore her own rightful insecurities about a woman’s place in Hollywood, Jolie Pitt forces herself to resolve the marital issues, and the resolutions here are less than inspired, coming across like placeholders or less interesting ideas culled from other movies. Rather than exploding into batshit metaphysics, like a latter day Antonioni, it settles for a metaphor in the form of a lonely fisherman glimpsed throughout and a revelation so head-shaking predictable in the wake of an opening hour and change that is so unabashedly content not to give a fuck what you think about it.

It’s as if Jolie Pitt has given these ideas a great deal of consideration but reached no conclusion herself, and so she simply conjured one up out of spare narrative parts. That marks “By the Sea” as a less than successful movie, sure, but there is still something intriguing about it overall. Some have, and more will, discount this as a vanity project, and fair enough, but what is art if not a working through, and Jolie Pitt seems to be working through her own anxieties on screen. And if “By the Sea” does not offer answers to the questions she’s asking, I think it’s because she doesn’t actually have them, which might suggest she shouldn’t have made the movie. But the search is oh so compelling.

Monday, November 23, 2015


Let’s cut to the chase. “Spotlight” is not a visually ambitious film. And while I’m well aware that cinema is a visual medium, it still feels right, and it still feels right because this is a movie about journalists who favor economical language in the form of facts over ornate, opinionated tomes. So director Tom McCarthy follows the template with his camera - set the scene, show the characters and where they are and what they are after and what else do you need to know? I’d like to think of Ben Bradlee Jr., played in “Spotlight” by an effectively grumpy, no nonsense John Slattery, sitting in the editing room of this film, openly questioning why they need anything other than walk & talk sequences and reverse tracking shots. “Well, but…” But nothing. The decision not only highlights the dialogue, of which there is plenty, riveting even when its nuts and bolts, but on the film’s subject matter, the 2001 sexual abuse scandal uncovered in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Taking its title from the special reports team at the Boston Globe, the hard-working quartet, overseen by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) is assigned to the story by their new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), an outsider from Miami who seems surprised the story has garnered next to no coverage. It is explained to him in varying terms that the Church is an Institution in Boston, one as vital as government, perhaps more so, and even more prone to turning a blind eye to its own problems. Baron, however, rendered wonderfully by Schrieber as a quiet man internalizing everything and putting up with nothing, insists, unleashing a kind of holy war, two great institutions pitted against one another.

There is little in the way of traditional drama, aside from occasional moments of Church representatives acting kindly when they are really acting sinister and saying things like “You don’t know what you’re dealing with.” After all, we know how the story ends. The Globe wins the Pulitzer. The Catholic Church is found guilty in the Court of Public Opinion. So it’s not so much about suspense as a kind of satisfaction in watching these reporters hustle, which McCarthy renders with crisp editing, the film always moving forward, never bogging down amidst so much mundane busy work and so many expository conversations. And those conversations are rendered with all that jazz by a uniformly stellar cast impeccably singing both individually and in harmony.

Keaton conveys an immaculate taciturn loyalty for his troops and McAdams’ natural luminescence is perfect for Sacha, someone who excels at making others comfortable to draw out the truth, and Brian d’Arcy James, his sleeves rumpled, his mustache unimpeachable, looks like a Bostonian who hits Dunkin’ Donuts every morning, and hey, who doesn’t love Stanley Tucci? It’s Ruffalo, however, as Mike Rezendes who earns Best in Show going away even as he resolutely remains part of a genuine ensemble. He clips his hair and his speech, talking in quick-mounted patter, honed by someone used to needing a few quotes before deadline. His posture is all forward and to the side, a lifetime hunched over a keyboard and with a ballpoint pen taking notes. He effuses a simultaneous kindness and curtness; he wants to hear what you have to say and he also wants you to just go ahead and say it. He has no outside life, really, save for one scene when another character wonders if he’s reconciling with his wife and he says, with a smile piled with so much backstory you’d need a whole other movie to tell it, “Working on it.” He’s married, in other words, to his work, like they all are, though McCarthy deserves credit for simply letting their cramped office look like the family room and never making them say “You know, I’m married to my work.”

“Spotlight’s” jam-packed script, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is devoid of grandstanding, soul-searching monologues, save for one, delivered by Mike near the end, in which he takes council with Sacha who once again plays the shoulder on which someone can cry. All his thoughts and feelings about this horrid investigation surface and he bursts. It’s crucial because the movie skillfully builds to this moment with mounds and mounds of evidence.

The Catholic Church’s grave sins hum in the background of this film, like their cathedral spires tower in the background of so many shots, like the Church really is inescapable in the small town of Beantown, but for all the horrors uncovered they never quite take center stage. This isn’t so much an indictment of the Church as an argument in the name of the good journalism. It’s a job, not a crusade, and, as Baron preaches, they are determined to build this story from the top down rather than simply sensationalizing with place-holding pieces. They wait until the hull is built with no cracks and no leaks.

“Spotlight” will invite comparisons to “All The President’s Men”, certainly, yet Alan J. Paukla’s film was of the moment while “Spotlight” recounts a story some fourteen years old. That’s not accidental. There is a shot in “Spotlight” that puts an “AOL Everywhere” billboard in the same frame as the Globe offices. It’s as close as the film gets to a condemnation of our in-a-rush-to-judge-before-all-the-facts-are-in culture. McCarthy never feels the need to take it further. Like the intrepid, exhaustive reporters they were, "Spotlight" itself marshals all the facts and roundly presents its argument, leaving the audience to watch and take away what they will. And in an American climate where those in positions of most power are more willing than ever to ascribe media blame for their own aptitudinal and moral flaws, it’s entirely possible that in another fifteen years, this film will come across as even more of a wistful relic.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Late in “Elevator to the Gallows”, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is being interrogated by a pair of detectives about a crime he didn’t commit, even though he did commit a different crime, futilely protesting his innocence. He offers an alibi. He was trapped inside an elevator, having just committed the other crime, when the crime he didn’t commit but is accused of committing went down and so how could he have done it? The detectives laugh. Trapped in an elevator?! What a tall tale! They reassure Julien that any jury would find such an alibi comical and Julien, frankly, does not disagree. Sometimes truth is as strange as fiction.

The bizarre twists taken by Louis Malle’s exquisite 1958 noir are magnified by the pristine manner in which the narrative begins as Julien, ex Foreign Legion, murders his boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall), an industrialist whose real business is war. It’s a firmly composed sequence, every last detail, from a pencil sharpener to an over-eager elevator operator, designed to fit just so, for now and for later, the work of a man who has thought though everything. Ah, but there has to be a slip-up, there always is with a crime of passion, and that’s what this is, the film’s pre-title sequence involving Julien and Florence (Jeanne Moreau) exchanging sweet sexy everythings by telephone. Their passion, in fact, is so palpable it can only be adultery and it is – Florence is Carala’s wife and with Carala dead the two lovers can flee. Of course, this infatuation is bound to yield heartbreak and it will, like fatalistic clockwork. When Julien coolly gets in his car post-murder, he realizes the rope he used to rappel undetected into Carala’s office still clings to the building’s side. He hustles back into the closed office to retrieve it, hops aboard the elevator and bam! It’s turned off for the night. He’s stuck.

At this point, a tightly plotted thriller broadens into three separate stories. Another movie might have merely kept its focus on Julien’s plight and the pragmatic details of how he might attempt to get out and what he might do to make it through the night. None of that matters much to Malle. He sees the dark humor in the circumstances and in the events taking place outside the elevator and how they absolve Julien and put the nail in his coffin nonetheless. As he flounders in the dark, smoking cigarettes and poking around the elevator shaft, it essentially underlines how so much remains out of our control. Julien makes the initial choice, sure, but then has no choice other than sitting back and letting the crazy old world runs its course.

Thinking he’ll be back in mere minutes after attending to the rope, Julien leaves his sports car running along the sidewalk, where a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin), ogle it. She is a flower girl, sorta in love with Julien, dreaming of living his fancy-pants lifestyle. Well she’s about to do just that, yes she is, because her wannabe badass beau, who sees Julien as some sort of vaguely defined slave to, like, you know, The Man, steals Julien’s ride as she and Veronique employ it to find some joy. What transpires is more or less a lampooning of a French gangster film, two dopey kids masquerading as romantic hoodlums. This is emblemized in their encounter with a genial German tourist (Ivan Petrovich) who consistently sees right through every single angle of their ruse and calls them on it, laughing all the while, like they’re playing a parlor game. The whole episode builds to the most absurd suicide sequence I’ve seen a movie, one that’s less Romeo & Juliet and more Will & Grace, built on an awe-inspiring jejune misunderstanding and misplaced hearts & flowers.

Florence, meanwhile, waiting for Julien, sees the car, unaware that it’s stolen, drive right by her and mistakes Louis and for her accomplice, thinking he’s lit out with some other girl. Devastated, she wanders the streets in a positively spectacular side story, one worthy of its own movie, so bewitching is Moreau, so atmospheric its rendering. Opposite the by-the-book elevator scenes and the kids gone crazy it’s like a French impressionistic painting hung up between an Ansel Adams and McDonaldland Playground art.

If Louis and Veronique are in a fantasy gone wrong then Florence is flitting about in a dream. Wrecked by the apparent abandonment of her lover, she wanders the streets, at one point rambling into traffic, narrowly missing car after car, protected, apparently, by the fog of her own thoughts, relayed in voiceovers, the kind filled with such over-the-top yearning that you simultaneously swoon and laugh. She sidles into cafes and bars, hoping that someone has seen Julien, but no one has, and nameless men leer at her, transforming her into a Parisian version of Claudia in “L’Avventura.” But then, if Monica Vitti’s Claudia was consumed more my life’s desolation, the pointlessness of existence, well, I dare say Florence gets off on this kind of desolate existentialism as any clad-in-black French woman might. At certain moments you might even think Malle is sending this up, this idea of French poetic realism, and maybe he is, but, glory to the movie gods in the highest, does Jeanne Moreau sell this with all her soul. If she’s intended as caricature, Moreau gives her breath, gives her life, infuses her with an exultation of gloom. It’s a performance worth all the overwrought metaphors and when she strikes a sudden pose, if for no other reason than to strike a pose, perhaps momentarily willing to offer herself as a sacrifice to the movie gods, well, suffice to say the only reason I was happy to be watching it on my LED TV rather than the Big Screen because I fear her posture would have melted the projector.

These are not just three disparate stories but three disparate tones, which Malle still manages to merge even if the pieces would not seem to fit. As each story presses on, the further the movie seems to be getting away from what really happened, as if determined to fashion an alternate truth from the actual truth. I won’t go into any kind of detail about how the film eventually impresses genuine culpability upon everyone involved because if you haven’t seen the film you deserve to find out for yourself unspoiled. Much as I did, watching this film for the first time only a week ago, leaving me to wonder how I missed it, except to as quickly realized I was intended to see it when I was intended to see it, not unlike how the all-female dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were always intended to breed.

Yes, I just dropped a “Jurassic Park” reference in a review of “Elevator to the Gallows” because “Elevator to the Gallows” brings to mind a minimal variation of Dr. Ian Malcolm’s incredibly wise, insanely stylized words: the truth…ah…ah…finds a way.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Drop

Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) is thinking about taking in a stray pit bull. He runs this idea past the owner of the bar he tends, his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), noting that that adopting this dog would amount to an awful lot of responsibility. Marv looks at him like he’s just announced his intention to enroll in astronaut’s school. It’s not a long lost relative who’s just shown up with a colonoscopy bag, Marv explains, it’s a dog. It’s just…a dog. And Bob gets this faraway look in his eye, like his brain is waiting to process what his ears just took in. Finally, he mumbles “Yeah.” And in that “yeah” lays the entire subdued, even sluggish, yet no less commanding lead performance of Tom Hardy. It’s a performance in which he seems to be playing the perfect hand of acting poker, leading us to believe his character is this way for ninety minutes before laying down a flush by way of saying no, he’s actually this way. And yet, and this is the most amazing thing, even when he’s laying that flush, you’re not entirely sure if the character as he plays it was bluffing everyone or just being who he is the whole time.

Hardy is noted for his devotion to voice acrobatics, shifting and re-shaping how his voice sounds for reach role, and it’s fairly incredible to see the same man who gave birth to the discordant oft-unintelligible terror of Bane could manage such an impressive turn and yield the rambling, confused, spacy Boston accent of Bob Saginowski. Whether or not it’s an “accurate” Boston accent I am in no position to say, but it’s not ineffective, a mouth full of purposeful marbles. Hardy seems to physically shrink to match that voice, a man who blends into the bar he tends, head tilted a little low, a little embarrassment hung around his neck at all times, maybe because he’s a little slow on the uptake aside from taking in drink orders. He is tinged with a bit of Sly Stallone’s polite reticence as Freddy Heflin in “Cop Land”, but with so many more tricks up its sleeve.

Bob is on the other side of the law, after all. Marv’s bar is mixed up with some Chechen mobsters who actually own the place, laundering money through this working class dive, and when the joint gets robbed, the mobsters pay a coolly menacing visit. Marv is on edge, and the late Gandolfini outfits the character with that sort of aw-shucks desperation to their face and I’ll-Show-You fronting behind their back. Hardy in these scenes, however, is something else, playing it like an oblivious idiot who cannot comprehend the gravity of the situation, talking through things out loud. You’d expect him to get shot if you couldn’t tell that everyone didn’t feel sorry for him.

Nadia (Noomi Rapace) seems to feel sorry for him. She’s Bob’s obligatory love interest, their Meet Cute happening around the trash can where Bob first finds the stray pit bull. And when he tells her he’s never taken care of a puppy and doesn’t know what he’s doing…well, Hardy encapsulates the term “wounded puppy dog look” as well as any actor ever. How could Nadia not help him out? How could she not sort of fall in love when she sees him get all twisted up in the dog’s leash, like using a leash is some sort of unsolvable geometric equation? She seems more resilient than him.

That’s just the thing, though; this performance, this character, has hidden layers, waiting to be excavated, and the real Reveal here has nothing to do with revelations of Marv being in on the robbery of his own bar and the psychotic ex (Matthias Schoenaerts) of Nadia’s who comes calling for Bob and for the pit bull; no, it has everything to do with Bob’s true nature. When Marv backs over a guy to keep him quiet about what’s really going down you hardly bat an eye because the whole sequence is cut and pasted from a thousand other movies. But when Bob rises to the occasion at the most delicate of moments, it’s jarring because you weren’t entirely sure he had that in him. And you weren’t entirely sure because of the way Hardy has played him throughout. The way in which Nadia looks at him in the aftermath, is how you’re looking at him. It’s like “The Sixth Sense” and you want to re-wind and go back and check to see if anyone else did acknowledge Bruce Willis’s presence. For real? For real.

At “The Drop’s” conclusion you’re convinced Bob could pass even the CIA’s most rigorous lie detector test; Hardy too.