Saturday, August 08, 2009

John Hughes R.I.P.

The scene that convinced me John Hughes was a genius. Look for the mighty William Windom as Elizabeth McGovern's father.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review- The Lady From Shanghai

"When I start out to make a fool of myself there's very little can stop me."- Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) speaking the first line of "The Lady From Shanghai".

"Loverrrr..."- Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) drunkenly yells at his wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) as his equally odious-but less talented- partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) looks on.

We think we know where we are when the film starts... the soaring orchestral score (which the director despised1) under the credits bringing us into a romantic crime melodrama... a bitter, glib narrator filled with cute lines about how much of a fool he is, or how stupid... there's a dangerous woman who is a powerful man's wife... some sort of a plot about murder and money which no one (not even the director) can figure out. A film noir, in other words.

And we've seen those before.

But this is different...

Elsa (Hayworth) confronts several truths about herself.

"...Shanghai" is less a film and more some sort of fever dream posing as a film noir. As much as the movies are dream versions of real life, this movie is like a dream version of a movie. Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara (Orson Welles) and Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth)2 speaking in hushed or dreamy tones, while Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) and George Grisby (Glenn Anders) bray in harsh, strident, intense voices. When Elsa's musicality becomes much more strained in the later scenes, it is Welles the director having Elsa reveal her true colors at last.

"...I'm pretty tired of both of us"- Arthur Bannister has his Bergman Persona moment with his wife.

Welles used every trick in the book to make this story transcend it's pulpy beginnings to a story of romantic nightmare, not just with sound manipulation, although his extensive reworking of vocal soundtracks in the post-production process is one of his trademarks3. The camera work actually builds to the bravura funhouse sequence, beginning with the sped-up/under-cranked fight sequence in the park (which is called back in the judges chambers later- Apparently when Michael fights, his opponents become the Keystone Cops) leading to when he says goodbye to Elsa at the parking garage and suddenly Broome (Ted DeCorsia) and Grisby appear out of nowhere. Two characters we will be seeing a lot more of, commenting without introduction on what we've just seen, with a background character we never see again. This mise en scene is seemingly without precedent in the film and yet sets up a feeling that will occur again and again in the story... that we're never on steady ground, nothing is real or permanent, an attorney can put himself on the stand and begin questioning his own involvement in the case, a trapdoor can open at any point... this is the world we (and Michael O'Hara) find ourselves in.

Orson Welles as Michael O'Hara looking dazed, an expression that marks him as audience surrogate for most of "The Lady From Shanghai".

I've talked a little about the vocal performances from the actors, and I think it's important to mention it again. Welles, Sloane, and DeCorsia were all radio veterans with Anders, Erskine Sandford and Gus Schilling having had mostly stage experience. All of these actors were used to utilizing their voices as much as their visual appearance to portray their characters and serve the story. Anders usually gets the praise for the insinuating purr of his Grisby character, but I want to call your attention to Everett Sloane as Arthur Bannister, "The World's Greatest Criminal Defense Attorney" as it is repeated throughout the film.
"Killing you is killing myself... it's the same thing..." Arthur Bannister gets the drop on his own reflection.
We first see Sloane waddling in on two canes his character has to use to get around. His voice and manner are appropriate, but timid. We can tell Bannister is out of his element here in a sailor's hiring hall- he's looking for Michael O'Hara to hire him as the bequest of his wife Elsa- his voice is quieter, almost timid as he is intimidated by his surroundings to the point of allowing O'Hara to get him to buy himself and his two friends drinks "while I entertain myself by refusin' to go to work for'im". But once Bannister is drunk, he begins to reveal one of his motivating characteristics- the way Sloane enunciates "tough guy" and passes out on the line "Well... bare it in mind..."- Bannister, ashamed of his deformity, worships power and wields his own mental power over those he knows could best him physically. Sloane is constantly warping his character's voice from the gazillion different ways he has of calling his wife "Lover" to the intense, minor key tones he uses for the conversation he and Elsa have over Michael's fate toward the end of the trial sequence tones that he alternates with jovial hail-fellow-well-met greetings to various members of the court passing by. To watch just Sloane in this film is to see how much Welles loved the actor's vocal instrument.

It's interesting how much most commentary on "The Lady From Shanghai" is spent on the Hall Of Mirrors shootout. It's a great scene, one of Welles' best in both conception and execution, but when you see this film pay attention to all of it. Even in it's current, truncated form4 it is, to my eyes one of the great Orson Welles films, certainly on par with "Touch Of Evil" or "F For Fake", if not "Citizen Kane"5.

1- Welles supposedly wrote in a memo to Harry Cohn, Columbia's chief re: the score ""The only idea which seems to have occurred to this present composer is the rather weary one of using a popular song -- the "theme" -- in as many arrangements as possible.... Lady From Shanghai is not a musical comedy."
2- Elsa says she's "White Russian" early on in the film, while Welles makes a point of mentioning his character's nickname "Black Irish" a couple of times to bring out the characters' contrasting natures. Elsa is "white" while being one of the darkest characters and Michael is "Black" yet is also the erstwhile hero of the story.
3- Voices seem to come out of nowhere, with characters frequently seen looking frantically about the frame in a scene or montage for the some sort of stable source.
4-Welles made a cut of about 155 minutes which the studio then pared down to 88 minutes.
5-Paid for by The People's Committee To Show That Orson Welles Made More Than One Great Film.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

One of the best films about America and it's love of heroes ever made...

Has there ever been a filmmaker who simultaneously loved people and saw them for the goofballs they could be as well as Preston Sturges? Sharper than Capra, but the humanist that Wilder could never be, Sturges in the 7 or so classics he made held a mirror to both the greatness and the foolishness of humanity.

Watch "Hail The Conquering Hero" this Memorial Day weekend. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book Review- Road Dogs

"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it."- from the John Huston screenplay adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon"

"They put Foley and the Cuban together in the backseat of the van..."-from the first sentence of "Road Dogs", Elmore Leonard's latest novel.

Let's imagine you're at a bar, with a group of people, maybe people you know or have heard stories about, and the conversation you're having with them- or really, you're listening to them describe what they're thinking as they went through this recent event they all shared- is really great. Also, they're all criminals and some are more violent than others. Some are also stupider. But they're all very engaging and interesting as they talk about this moment where there lives intersected.

And that's an Elmore Leonard novel.

"Road Dogs" brings together three characters from other Leonard books: Jack Foley ("Out Of Sight"), Cundo Rey ("La Brava"), and The Reverend Dawn Navarro ("Riding The Rap"). There are also cameo appearances from previous Leonard stories including the maverick judge Maximum Bob ("Maximum Bob") and Foley's one-night stand U.S. Marshall Karen Cisco ("Out Of Sight"). Like most of the background characters in this crime fiction minimalist's (who once claimed the only verb he would allow would be the word "said") work, we learn everything we need to know about what they've been up to in a couple of paragraphs.

What we learn about the main characters are- Foley and Cundo became friends (or the titular "Road Dogs") in prison and Cundo hired a hotshot lawyer for an early release for Foley. Cundo has made a bundle in Southern Californian real estate and has a common-law wife in Reverend Dawn who has become a psychic-to-the-stars while staying in one of Rey's houses.

Got that?

Foley (George Clooney) and Cisco (Jennifer Lopez in her best role) come to an
understanding in Steven Soderbergh's critically acclaimed film adaptation of
"Out Of Sight".

Foley still thinks about Karen, while trying to sort out whether he should go straight or do whatever illegal scheme Cundo, or Dawn (or both) has cooked up. Foley also gets busy with almost every woman he meets in the book. And waits for someone to come up with something to do. Including himself.

"Riding The Rap" is a sequel to the Elmore Leonard
book "Pronto".
One of the things Leonard does really well is show how career criminals are sort of at the mercy of the elements when they get out of prison. Foley, arguably the smartest one of the bunch, still doesn't commit to any action (besides self-preservation) or anyone throughout the entire course of the book. Rey at first, seems to have plans, but they dissipate once he gets out. Dawn is consistently frustrated at the lack of ambition in the men in her life, but the plans she make keep getting sidetracked.

Supposedly, in the mid-eighties, Dustin Hoffman dithered
on making a film version of this book so much that it
never got made- thus inspiring the short, method actor,
movie star of the book "Get Shorty".

In the end, you will have spent maybe a day (Leonard books are always a quick read for me) with some of the more interesting ex-cons, cheats, swindlers, gangbangers and feds you'll ever meet. Like the films "The Anderson Tapes", "The Asphalt Jungle" or "The Killing", a group of shady people get together, try to pull off a job and in the end no one, except maybe Foley is any wiser or richer. Except that Leonard gives the perspective of each character so sharply, it feels like he uses jeweler's tools instead of pen and paper.
"Road Dogs" is the latest jewel in Elmore Leonard's crime thriller crown.

This book was made into a very short-lived ABC
summer replacement show in the late nineties,
starring Beau Bridges in the title role. It was
produced by Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed
"Get Shorty".

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Review- The Prestige

first line from "The Prestige".

There's a story about the sleight-of-hand/con game/arcane performance expert, writer and actor (he appears in "The Prestige") Ricky Jay. From 1985 to 1990, he was the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, an extensive collection of items that pertained to magic and anything else that today one could call "non-traditional" showbiz. It was a dream gig for Jay. Unfortunately, in 1990, the owner of the collection was a banker and this banker was shut down by California banking regulators with it's assets (mainly the collection which was the only thing- thanks to Jay- that had increased in value over the years) liquidated.

And that is how, in a California bankruptcy court, the entire collection came to be owned by David Copperfield, a ritzy super-showman-as-magician. In other words the complete anathema to the intellectual, magic-for-magic's sake Ricky Jay.

One could make a decent comparison between that story and the plot of "The Prestige", a puzzle film about competing 18th century magicians, that is as much about art vs entertainment, obsession and the folly of revenge as anything else.

The film begins with a murder trial, as one of the two competing magicians ("The Professor" and "The Great Danton") has been accused of doing away with other. You have to pardon me as I am trying to not reveal more than is necessary here. The Professor, or Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a working class conjurer who approaches magic as an art, one to be fiercely guarded from others (including his own wife), especially his former friend The Great Danton, aka Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Danton is someone who takes the grubby Professor's tricks, steals them and flashes them up for an ever-increasing audience. Sounds familiar?

The casting of this film, from just the art vs commerce aspect couldn't be more perfect if they has put Karen Finley (one of the four performance artists the NEA denied grant money to in the early nineties) in Bale's part and an animated dollar sign in Jackman's.

Christian Bale, of course, is known for his impassioned devotion to every part he plays, from losing a gazillion pounds for "The Machinist" to even nailing musical theatre in "Newsies".

Also, he tends to throw temper tantrums when cinematographers get in his way.

Jackman, meanwhile is a favorite of the showbiz community, thanks to his genial, nice guy-ness and his winning enthusiasm for everything from "Wolverine" to, well, fun, upbeat musical theatre.

It's a good match up. Batman Vs. Wolverine. Crazy Method Actor vs. Straight Musical Theatre Guy.

But there's more to the film than just art vs. commerce. There is also the theme of magic (which arguably uses science as a tool for the trick) vs. science (which to the primitive eye can seem like sorcery).

We see The Professor's trick "The Transported Man" amaze Danton who then uses his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to steal Borden's diary. Which is encrypted. And the key is the name "TESLA". As in Nikola Tesla (David Bowie- genius) Thomas Edison's arch-rival, who brought about Alternating Current and is a good catch-all for conspiracy theorists as his theories and inventions included a death ray (perversely called a "peace ray") the plans of which mysteriously disappeared after Tesla's death.

Hmm, you know Edison was more of businessman than Tesla (Tesla somewhat valuing the purity of his science above the financial possibility). So, maybe we are back to art vs. commerce?

Speaking of the cast, it includes America's favorite indie hottie Scarlett Johannson, America's favorite old Cockney Michael Caine and sitcom actors including some brits who have moved to America including Daniel (not British, but often plays one on TV, including "The Nanny"'s butler) Davis, Jim (Brit expatriate writer/actor/Christopher Guest movie regular cast member) Piddock, Roger (Professional arrogant Brit/Rebecca's boyfriend on "Cheers") Rees, and Edward (Professional British Fop/"Gil" on "Fraiser") Hibbert. This last bit of casting makes sense as the entire production was filmed in Southern California locations, doubling for Victorian England.
The entire film is one misdirection after another.

We can see this in so many parts, the way the film is constructed as flashback within diary entry, within flashback, within a different diary. The casting with American actors playing British. The two lead characters and their aliases. And a very successful film made by a commercial filmmaker who has brought an independent filmmaker's sensibility to the dollars and cents world of Hollywood film.

Christopher Nolan was someone who made a successful dent in the indy world with "Following" and the critical and commercial success of "Memento". After a smaller success with the Hollywood remake of "Insomnia", he was given the keys to the kingdom by Warner's to make "Batman Begins", which was a big hit for them. Maybe you remember that?

So we come back to art vs. commerce. The success of Nolan's career shows what the film story cannot- the way either art or commerce can win is they work together organically.

Like a man who makes a superhero film, but says "why not tell a story that's more than a bunch of illustrated panels of action strung together. One that moves on a deeper level than what a punch to the jaw brings."

Because there is a special kind of magic in the story that is well-told.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review- F For Fake

- the opening line of "F For Fake" intoned by Orson Welles in darkness.

In 2005, I wrote a review of the Criterion dvd of the movie here, but this is a film that has become my favorite Welles film and I thought I would try a lengthier ("Is such a thing possible?" you say) essay on what makes "F For Fake" so unforgettable.

For most of us who grew up in the seventies, when we think of Orson Welles, we think of him as he looks in this, his last completed film. A corpulent older man, full-flowing gray beard wearing black with a voice that has the resonance of the theatre-trained radio actor that he was (when he wasn't being a boy genius, a maverick, a has-been or any other perception of him in the biz). Rambling on about wine or peas or how it was in the forties when John Ford was still making Westerns, Welles would give you the idea of all of his former greatness having been diluted into the commercial pitchman and perennial talk show guest he became by the early seventies.

But, then, you were probably not aware of "F For Fake".

A film he made out of scraps of other's (including his own) uncompleted films, united by his narrated essay on how much fakery and art need each other, this film begins with a magic trick with children in a French train station. He makes a key turn into a coin, has dialogue with his film crew (including his cinematographer François Reichenbach, who directed an unfinished documentary that Welles uses as the basis for "F") and a mysterious woman (Oja Kodar, Welles' mistress/collaborator/muse at the time) who plays a larger part in the later section of the film. All of this chicanery is part of the larger magic trick of Welles drawing you into a film that is not a documentary, but, instead, the cinematic equivalent of having him over to your house for a dinner party.

As I said before, this film's central theme is Welles' assertion that art and fakery are symbiotic and it is hard to tell where one ends and one begins. Indeed, he makes the case that perhaps the fakery is as authentic as the original. Using François Reichenbach's original footage we take a look at Elmyr de Hory's work as a forger of Picasso paintings. With Reichenbach's interviewer, author Clifford Irving (who wrote a book on de Hory), we see the charming little forger explain his work and host parties as the toast of the seventies European jet set. Does Irving sound familiar to you? Do you remember a Richard Gere film called "The Hoax"? It was based on Irving having, not much longer after Reichenbach's project, but before Welles', faked an autobiography of Howard Hughes. This book was protested by Hughes himself and eventually Irving was found out and sent to prison.

And so Welles incorporates that as well, into the film.

Then Welles brings up his own hoax, the panic that came from a broadcast of his radio version of H.G. Wells' "The War Of The Worlds". Although Welles didn't intentionally create a panic, his dramatization was so real, it made a number of listeners across the country listening to it believe America was being invaded by Martians. During this section he has his old friends Joseph Cotton and Paul Stewart comment on the phenomenon.

And then he brings up his lady friend Kodar's relation to Picasso and some forgeries associated with that association.

The film begins with a magic trick and ends with a mild piece of flim-flammery, that to be fair, Welles told you was going to happen in his introduction in the film. Along the way we get several dinner parties, Oja Kodar running around in next to nothing (or nothing) at all (making one feel the letter "F" is not merely for "Fake), Laurence Harvey (and excerpts from a film Welles was trying to finish with Harvey in it), some more magic, beautiful architecture, and a film that ends as pleasantly mysterious as it began.

And as I think about the film, I find that it's not the ideas presented in it, but the atmosphere itself filled with fast cuts, Welles' soothing baritone, eccentric characters, Michel Legrand's ("The Shadow Of Your Smile", "Summer Of '42") great score and each section as sublime as the one that precedes it.

Like a great dinner party that you don't remember the specifics of, only how terrific an evening it was.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blossom Dearie, The Jazz Singer Who Sang The "Figure Eight" Song, Died This Past Weekend

This song always made me sad when I was a kid and to this day, when I look her up on ITunes, I envitably think of this first, before any of the other numbers I've heard her do over the years.