Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Brighton Rock (2010)

BRIGHTON ROCK                B                     
Great Britain  (111 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Rowan Joffé

Of course there’s a hell.                      —Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley)

A tense and brooding murder mystery that is drenched in the sordid business of the bleak British underworld, adapted from the Graham Greene novel, also a remake of John Boulting’s 1947 film by the same name which starred Richard Attenborough as the sociopathic killer Pinkie Brown.  Updated to 1964, where in Brighton interestingly enough there are constant street riots breaking out between the Mods and the Rockers, motorcycles versus mopeds, where teenage fisticuffs provide a superficial layer of cover for the darker inferno festering below.  From the outset, the film is dripping in moody atmosphere, where the turbulent ocean waters swirl below the high cliffs of town offering a darkly menacing indifference. In this foggy gloom, a lone man is surrounded by men carrying switchblades who mean to do business, leaving him heaped on the sidewalk in a pool of his own blood.  The entire story is something of an aftermath to this opening event, a Pandora's Box release of original sin where consequences ensue.  Sam Riley from CONTROL (2007) plays Pinkie Brown, a moody, young, pale faced hood from the Brighton slums dressed in a dark trench coat tucked around his neck who vows revenge, convincing his fellow gang members who are itching to make somebody pay, where the bewildered killer is left alone to fend for himself frantically trying to hide among the crowds strolling along the Brighton Pier, which is a Coney Island style amusement park.  In this sea of humanity Pinkie’s men close in on him, where he grabs the first girl he sees for protection, a young local waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough), where a photographer’s random snapshot of the happy couple, and a few significant onlookers, provides the needed diversion to make his escape, where underneath the pier he soon meets a bloody end.

Targeting the girl, as she has the photographer’s ticket, Pinkie decides to seduce Rose, steal the ticket, and obtain her silence, where her naiveté is reminiscent of the Sissy Spacek character in BADLANDS (1973), where the innocence associated with boredom, a life where nothing ever happens, is drawn to the allure of the quick decisiveness of a brutal murderer, especially when it’s presented as a form of therapeutic liberation for her.  In her mind, wherever he goes, she will follow.  This kind of near hypnotic hold over the girl may seem strange, especially as Pinkie has no apparent attributes and is simply a brute that mistreats her from the outset, but to her, he’s a man of action and authority.  What she doesn’t see is his sinister side, as that expressionless look on his face matches his empty and heartless soul.  What’s particularly interesting is that there are very few police in this film, as the film’s not about them.  Instead it’s a dense portrait inside the mind of a remorseless psychopath as he attempts to build a name for himself in vicious gangland circles, boldly taking on the neighborhood boss (Andy Serkis).  As his own gang’s doubt creeps in, as he’s really just a small-time hood up against more powerful forces, he develops a near maniacal death wish, where his lifestyle is at odds against his Catholic upbringing, where there appears to be no road to redemption, just a pathway to hell.  Driven by the law where a wife cannot be made to testify against her husband, Pinkie convinces Rose to marry him, stealing her away from the protection of the church, leaving her in a moral quandary, where Pinkie is the dark protector of her lost soul.  

Making matters more interesting is the smoldering presence of Helen Mirren as Ida, looking very much her age but given a hard edge and a certain earthy swagger, called “the tart who owns Snow’s cafeteria” by Pinkie, the café where Rose works, where the guy Pinkie killed under the pier was a friend of hers.  Very much like an aging Grande Dame in a brothel protecting one of her girls, Ida attempts to protect Rose from falling under the influence of Pinkie, who she suspects is a murderer, playing on his own dubiously amoral turf, doing what she calls “women’s work,” which may as well be a knock down battle in hell for Rose’s soul.  Unfortunately, Riley’s continually morose scowl never veers into psychopathic territory, where he could have had a gas playing to the character’s eccentricities, including a guilt-tinged Catholic soul still fighting for salvation, but instead Riley underplays the role as damaged goods, offering Rose little more than continual scorn and contempt, falling into a sinkhole of worthlessness and depravity that all but envelops him.  Accentuating the state of unease is the offbeat music of Martin Phipps which adds an underlying Hitchcockian imbalance.  Much of the film was actually shot on the seafront beaches of Eastbourne, where the nearby White Cliffs of Eastbourne resemble the White Cliffs of Dover.  Gorgeously shot by John Mathieson, though unfortunately with the same Digital stock blown up on 35 mm film used by Michael Mann in PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009), which doesn’t capture the depth of the dark and seedy atmosphere where much of the noirish action takes place, and oversaturates close ups on faces, where viewers can see every pore and crevice, giving the screen a much more artificial texture.  With a penetrating film examining the near absence of the human soul while utilizing real locations as impressively as this one does, the Digital cinema look can only be considered a major disappointment, as this film should be luminous.  

Monday, August 29, 2011

One Day

ONE DAY                   C-                   
USA  (107 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Lone Scherfig 

This is a case of an actress not being compelling enough to carry a movie, where she’s unfortunately in over her head, where poor casting ultimately brings down the entire production.  Danish director Lone Scherfig is known for intelligent writing and directing great ensemble casts of relatively unknown actors, all of whom give terrific performances, such as the two excellent Danish films, ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (2000) and WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF (2002), both introducing a wry wit and quirky performances, veering between romanticism and dark comedy.  AN EDUCATION (2009) was shot in England, saved by an outstanding performance by Carey Mulligan, while this is an American film also shot in England.  Both of the later films seem to suffer from culture shock, using someone else’s material for the first time, which lacks the personal charm and intimacy of her earlier works, but one really has to scratch their head about the choice of actress Anne Hathaway who is annoying and unlikeable in every sense of the word—not good in a romantic drama.  Instead of the quietly repressed yet somewhat Bohemian creature she pretends to be, she seems hopelessly lost, supposedly caught up in a whirlwind of romance, yet whose every last nerve seems to grate on the audience.  While the syrupy music by Rachel Portman may be appropriate for an epic of some kind, along with the sweeping, panoramic ‘Scope cinematography by Benoît Delhomme, but this grandiose style falls flat when the central characters can’t hold the audience’s attention.  One problem, no doubt, is they are sloshed throughout the entire film until the final reel.  In literally every scene together it is accompanied by excessive drinking, the kind many will find simply obnoxious and boring—hardly memorable. 

There’s little evidence of Scherfig’s tight and compact structure, instead everything is enlarged, sentimentalized, and greatly exaggerated, losing whatever wit and appeal this film was going for, as few, if any characters stand out.  Hathaway plays Emma, who feels like an American overseas but she’s supposedly British, while Jim Sturgess, sensational in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007), plays Dexter.  Both celebrate their graduation from Edinburgh University in an all night, drunken evening, where they end up in bed while barely knowing each other, yet become best friends for the rest of their lives, where the story returns to the anniversary date of their first night together for the next 20 years.  This is not BEFORE SUNSET (2004), and despite the continuing lifelong conversations together, the dialogue, oftentimes uncomfortably overlapping, lacks all attempts at romanticism, as there is never a sense of urgency in either character, desperation maybe, but never love.  Instead we witness the two of them throw away their lives on missed opportunities, each following a different direction, constantly missing what they ultimately need in life while pretending they are happy, growing farther and farther apart even as they continue their lifelong friendship.  Dexter is something of a spoiled, self-indulgent ladies man, a child of privilege whose recklessness seems to know no bounds, while Emma is a closeted writer, a woman who keeps her thoughts to herself, never managing to get her life on track, settling for small change jobs that offer no satisfaction whatsoever.  Her dreamy idealization of Dexter seems largely an infantile fantasy, as the real thing is incapable of commitment or taking responsibility, but is largely a lush. 

Sturgess does indeed look terrific throughout the movie, but the way he continually drowns in his own personal sorrows never once becomes brooding (Danish melancholic style) or interesting.  Patricia Clarkson plays his more stoically reserved mother, perhaps the only honest character in the entire film, voicing her disappointment in him to his face, but unfortunately she has too little screen time.  Despite the numerical countdown of the years, there is very little evidence of the passing of time except through the changing hairstyles and fashion, with the exception of the exquisite use of the song:  Corona - Rhythm of the Night - YouTube (3:49), also used in the Claire Denis film BEAU TRAVAIL (1999), which reflects Dexter’s colorful immersion into the Me Generation, complete with rhapsodic indulgences into women, drugs and alcohol.  Emma, on the other hand, has friendships, but little romance, finding the wrong guy in Ian (Rafe Spall), a nice enough guy, but not the brightest bulb in the box, a guy who wants to be so much more than he really is, becoming one of her biggest disappointments.  In this way, both characters feel like they’re attempting to fight their way out of a paper bag, each an expression of failure and futility, where the audience simply doesn’t have the patience to put up with their meandering mediocrity.  There’s simply nothing about either one of them that compels us to watch the screen, instead we are treated to splendid views of Edinburgh, London, and Paris, each given the travelogue style tourist’s view.  When the settings are the most remarkable element of the picture, something is obviously lacking.  In this case it’s chemistry, as there’s never any onscreen combustion.

By the way, one thing must be said for this picture, as evidenced from one of the opening shots, the motion picture industry should remember the standard cyclist’s credo:  In today’s world anyone who rides a bike should be responsible enough to wear a helmet. They should be as commonplace as seat belts in motor vehicles, as they save lives.  

Friday, August 26, 2011

One Lucky Elephant

ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT                 C                    
USA  (84 mi)  2010  d:  Lisa Leeman               Official site             Ahali Elephants

Perhaps we can blame it all on BORN FREE (1966), an adaptation of Joy Adamson's 1960 non-fictional book about raising orphaned lion cubs in Kenya, which may be the first time viewers saw, National Geographic style, wild animals being raised as pets by humans, literally hugging and petting them well into adulthood, getting closer than humans should to wild animals that in a single swipe are capable of mutilating people, including their trainers.  Or more appropriately, what about Jack London and his popular adventure stories Call of the Wild, or White Fang, providing romantic images idealizing animals in the wild?  More recently, in 2003, who can forget the horrible tragedy of Siegfried & Roy, renowned tiger trainers who took their act to Vegas, billing themselves as “Masters of the Impossible,” so sure of themselves that these animals would do them no harm until one of them, an animal trained since he was a cub who had been performing together for six years, suddenly turned on Roy, going for his neck, causing critical neck, head, and brain damage, suffering a stroke and partial paralysis, but fortunately he survived.  Then of course there was FREE WILLY (1993), earning over $150 million dollars, followed by several sequels, an idealized children’s story about returning a performing Sea World Orca whale named Willy back into the ocean.  Compare that to Dawn Brancheau, the Florida Sea World trainer a year ago that was drowned as she was pulled underwater by an Orca killer whale named Tillikum, who has now been involved in the deaths of three persons, but is still performing.  Lest we forget these are wild animals, even when they act tame. 

You won’t find any of that in this film, or the beguiling face of Reese Witherspoon in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (2011) for that matter, which instead introduces us to David Balding, a likeable enough portly gentleman running a circus in St. Louis, where the star of the show is Flora, a 10,000 pound African elephant that he has raised since she was an infant, developing a personal bond that he believes is much like raising his own daughter.  We see him walking the animal back to his living quarters afterwards, where the police literally stop traffic so Balding can walk him down the middle of the street which certainly invites gawkers and staring onlookers.  He talks to her, pets her, has her do tricks for him, and rewards her with treats when she obeys.  Kids find this kind of thing astonishing at the circus, but after more than a decade performing together, Balding notices the animal has lost its love for performing, leaving him in a quandary—what to do about his animal?  While elephants live for half a century or more, Balding is nearing retirement age, feeling the animal will likely outlive him, so he starts searching for an environment with other elephants, which are largely social animals, hoping to find an elephant sanctuary in Africa.  But despite his best intentions, it’s difficult to find a good home for such a massive animal, where she ends up in a Miami Zoo temporarily until he can find a better alternative, where the intrigue is how Flora will get along with the other elephants, or even if she’ll remember how to be an elephant.  The footage of elephants that we see is quite appealing, where they seem to connect, but we hear later that she acts out and misbehaves, becoming quite aggressive.  Eventually Balding finds an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee which has 2 other African elephants, a jungle like tree canopy and plenty of room to roam, which sounds ideal, but she misbehaves there as well, mangling a steel fortified fence, leading to involuntary isolation. 

But the story soon turns away from Flora, the star of the show, taking an intimate view of the aging Balding instead, who suffers from declining health and now sits in a wheelchair and has difficulty walking, but becomes quite miffed when the sanctuary changes the rules of the game and won’t let him visit his elephant anymore, as they had initially promised, claiming she’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, most likely from witnessing the slaughter of her own mother and her herd by poachers when she was initially captured in Africa, leaving her an orphan, developing separation and abandonment issues which they feel is exacerbated by his human presence, thinking instead that she needs to bond with the other elephants.  This does seem like an unsubstantiated and rather pat diagnosis, not shared by the one person in the film who is seen in the most positive and objective light, the elephant trainer at the Pittsburgh Zoo, a man who refused to utilize the harsh and traditionally barbaric methods of inflicting pain to insure dominance during training, where the tagline for the movie turns into:  Will Balding be able to see his elephant again before he dies?— turning this into a rather maudlin subject. 

While the tendency to humanize these animals may be laudable in some circles, making them cute and cuddly, where they resemble children’s stories or fairy tale worlds where humans and wild animals readily mix in a peaceful coexistence, it also calls into question the issue of animal rights, as unless they are injured or harmed, which is how so many animals end up in zoos, aren’t they better off remaining in the wild?  This reminds us how poorly animals in the zoos and the circus are treated, as so many seem to be locked up in cages, hardly the freedom they would otherwise be accustomed to.  The same can be said for performing dolphins, one of the highlights at Sea World, as their synchronized swimming takes one’s breath away, but Richard O'Barry, from the excellent documentary THE COVE (2009), who actually captured and trained the animals used for the Flipper TV Show (1964 – 67), calls into question his own culpability, claiming the show actually turned the dolphins into friendly “aquatic Lassies.”  Going further, he indicates these captive animals perform only because they are terrified, as they are rewarded with food only if they do, becoming one of the leading advocates “against” capturing dolphins.  By the end of this film, however, without really developing the arguments raised, there is too little known about Flora and the Pittsburgh Zoo, too much about Balding, where the word unlucky feels much more appropriate for the film’s title.

Post Script:  In perhaps the ultimate irony, Carol Buckley, the owner and founder of the non for profit Tennessee elephant sanctuary, the one who barred David Balding from ever seeing Flora again due to her belief that it places too much potential trauma on the elephant, as it forces her to relive her original trauma when she does, has been barred from seeing her own elephants, except by appointment, asked to move off the grounds of the sanctuary, and kicked off the sanctuary board by the Board of Directors (Buckley was fired by the organization’s board in March 2010), largely due to her dictatorial management style.  Buckley is suing the Board to have her own rights reinstated (Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary in Custody Fight).  Balding’s response, now 73, “She created this place.  But talk about karma.” 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Interrupters

THE INTERRUPTERS                        A                    
USA  (125 mi)  2011  d:  Steve James              Trailer              Official site

We got over 500 years of prison time at this table.  That’s a lot of fuckin’ wisdom.       
— Zale Hoddenbach, former gang member, now a CeaseFire interrupter

First of all, gang violence is not something most people understand or have any insight into, considered a cultural phenomenon unique to neighborhoods infested with gangs, and largely ignored, out of sight, out of mind, by people living in safer neighborhoods.  It’s like prison reform, as you never stop to consider the ramifications of undermanned and overcrowded prisons until the day you find yourself incarcerated.  But in large urban areas across the country, this is the story that usually leads off the evening news, another senseless death, a child accidentally shot down in a gang shooting crossfire, where it’s rarely the intended victim that’s harmed.  The stories are relentless, with few, if any solutions offered, because the perpetrators are outside the reach of the police, family, or church influence, and therefore usually end up dead or in prison at an early age, supposedly immune to the powers of persuasion, or so we thought. 

In the aftermath of this 2008 New York Times piece, a thoroughly engaging essay by Alex Kotlowitz that scientifically examines the root causes of Chicago gang violence, offering treatment along the lines of neutralizing a medical epidemic, actually offering a bit of insight into the seemingly impenetrable gang culture for a change, documentary filmmaker Steve James, the heralded director of HOOP DREAMS (1994), enlisted the assistance of Kotlowitz in following on camera some of the individuals mentioned in his article who were providing gang intervention, known as “violence interrupters,” as they hope to stop the neverending cycle of revenge and prevent future shootings before they happen.  With the experience of having been in gangs and prison and survived, some for committing murder when they were teenagers, these interrupters already understand the mindset of the upcoming gang youth who shoot before they think, never for a second thinking about their own lives they are throwing away, instead it’s all about getting immediate retribution in a moment of anger, thinking that in some way killing makes things right, at least in their eyes—Death before dishonor.  This kind of thinking is what fills the prisons.

This is one of the most heartbreaking and excruciatingly painful subjects of any film you'll ever see, as the camera searches out families of recently shot teenagers, including their younger brothers and sisters or their grieving parents, focusing on their immediate reaction, oftentimes on their front steps, in their living rooms, or at the funeral and burial services.  Unlike the news media that exploit these situations, the violence interrupters routinely put their own lives on the line, trying to diffuse anger by placing themselves in harm’s way, where they have unique insight into just what these kids are feeling and how they intend to resolve the conflict.  But violence isn’t inherited at birth, it’s a learned behavior that reflects the world around them, where kids are just following the examples of people they know.  The interrupters have an obligation to re-educate them on the spot, using as examples those around them who are dead or imprisoned, where they could become just another statistic or they could have a second chance at life.  The interrupters are placed in the precarious position where they are not cops and do not inform on illegal activity, and while they don’t condone gang activity, they’re not in a position to change or even alter that culture, only the hair-trigger response of certain individuals to shoot whoever shot one of them.  

The film documents a year in the life of an inner city organization called CeaseFire, founded by an infectious disease physician Gary Slutkin who spent a decade in Africa with the World Health Organization attempting to halt the spread of infectious diseases, returning home to Chicago where he viewed the spread of youth violence as similar to an infectious outbreak.  Tio Hardiman, a neighborhood social activist with a prior history of drug and alcohol abuse, invented the interrupters program, attempting to stop the violent outbreaks using individuals who had street credibility not just with gangs, but in the eyes of youth who have few positive role models.  Especially because they are so familiar with the effects of violence in their own lives, having somehow survived, now returning back to the streets offering an alternative, this is an extremely volatile and highly personalized approach to mediation, getting in the faces of gangbangers and angry kids who just lost a brother or an innocent nephew, attempting to redirect their hostility, which usually means staying with them, continuing a lengthy dialogue much like negotiating with a hostage taker or a downbeat individual considering suicide, until the inflammatory anger passes, and then following up afterwards, continuing to offer crisis intervention services.   

While the city’s interrupters meet weekly with Hardiman to discuss their works in progress, James chooses three to follow, all extremely charismatic individuals with tortured pasts whose impressive turnabout makes them uniquely qualified.  Ameena Matthews gives what is perhaps the most wrenching performance of the year, whose no nonsense authenticity, directness under pressure, and personal charm gives her an overwhelming onscreen presence.  The daughter of Jeff Fort, iconic founder of the Black P. Stone Nation and imprisoned-for-life leader of the notorious El Rukn street gang, she was a drug using party girl (seen in vintage El Rukn home video) and former gang lieutenant now converted to the Muslim faith.  When Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student at Fenger High School was beaten to death walking home from school, all caught on YouTube by a camera phone (Beating Death Of Derrion Albert, 16, Caught On Video), her family asked for Ameena to speak at the funeral service, which is an awe inspiring and unforgettable moment, attempting to publicly hold those responsible accountable for their actions.  But her easy, down-to-earth manner and accessibility in the lives of wayward teens is exemplary, if not heroic.   

Ricardo “Cobe” Williams is a big man with a similar purpose, a kid who went haywire when his father was beaten to death by a baseball bat, spending his youth in and out of prison until he also found religion, where he seems determined to offer a path of redemption for others that he never experienced himself.  Another easy going guy, whose wife says is really “nerdy,” where according to Hardiman, among his many talents is knowing when to walk away in dicey situations.  This is a guy so dedicated that he continued going to work even after the funds dried up and he was laid off for a period, because like a CIA undercover operative in the field, once you make a promise to be there in saving people’s lives, people in high risk situations where their lives may be in danger, you have a commitment to be there.  One of the most riveting scenes in the film is Cobe bringing a young 19-year old armed offender known as Li'l Mikey, a youth who spent nearly 3 years in prison, back to the scene of the crime where he held up a barber shop.  This kind of theater you can’t invent, as it’s among the most dramatically powerful and intensely personal moments of the film.  Mikey is so committed to finding that redemptive path that Hardiman actually considers him as their first teen interrupter.         

Eddie Bocanegra shot a killed another kid when he was 17.  Now, like the other two, he’s on a spiritual mission to make up for it, talking to disaffected youth, offering an art class for those kids who have been affected by violence, where one 11-year old girl describes the experience of her brother getting shot in the head and dying in her arms.  Because of the tender age of many of these kids, he’s more like a big brother offering them positive alternatives or a shoulder to cry on, where their heartfelt comments are remarkably unfiltered.  One of the more poignant moments is joining the family at the cemetery site, where they gather every single day, offering a silent communion for their loss.  While Eddie is able to console the young girl, the figure of her father sitting there in silence every day is a haunting and tragic sight.      

For 25 years murder has been the leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 34, while more than 11% of black males age 25 to 34 are incarcerated, while black women are incarcerated at nearly 4 times the rate of white women and more than twice the rate of Hispanic women.  Nothing seems to put a dent in these numbers despite neighborhood marches, media speeches, church activism, a Mayor’s attempt to ban handguns (which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court), and the police continually asking for crime witnesses to step forward.  While it’s impossible to measure the results, CeaseFire claims they show a 40 – 60% reduction in shootings in six targeted neighborhoods, which would include West Garfield Park, Englewood, Maywood, Logan Square, Roseland, and Rogers Park, with as much as a 67% reduction in others.  Despite these claims, the interventionist program has continued to face budget cuts, where 50 or 60 interrupters were reduced to less than 20, where the elected politicians seem as far removed from this problem as those living in the isolation of the rural plain states.  As profoundly relevant as any documentary seen in the past 5 years, there’s a soulful, organ drenched rendition of “Don’t Give Up on Me” by Solomon Burke that plays over the end credits, an ominous reminder of just how hard it is to remain committed to a lifelong project fraught with this degree of intense tragedy and pain. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Battle of Algiers

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS                       A                    
Italy Algeria  (123 mi)  1965  d:  Gillo Pontecorvo

God be with you.                     
 —Jaffar (Saadi Yacef ), FLN military chief as he sends women with explosives in their baskets to bomb French targets

It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it’s only afterwards, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin.         
—Si Ben M’hidi, FLN leader

Legality can be inconvenient.            
—French reporter at a news conference, commenting on the methods of torture used by Colonel Mathieu

Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.       
—Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) in 1957, followed by a montage of graphically horrific methods of torture, shown to the music of a Bach organ Prelude 

Often imitated, but never equaled, as bold and raw a film as one is ever likely to see, a thrilling, in-your-face examination of the last bloody vestiges of the French colonial occupation in Algeria in the 1950’s, street by street, house by house, shown with such realism that it resembles a documentary.  This strikingly original Black & White film proves you don’t need a big budget, great actors, or beautiful photography to produce a masterpiece, instead this film relies on precise and meticulous direction which relies on suspenseful storytelling which never lags, using real people and locations and what resembles a hand-held, cinema vérité camera style to lend an extraordinary authenticity to the people inhabiting the streets of the Arab Casbah region of Algiers.  Also noteworthy is the objective balance in getting both sides right, where neither side's conscience survives unscathed, from the exhilaration of the Arab resistance fighters, who rely on terrorist measures in their battle for liberation, including moments of horror when the bombers themselves realize that, by their actions, Arabs would be killed alongside the French, to the French, who express an admiration for the determination of the opposition, yet they rely on their much greater military firepower, turning the region into a police state, but are reduced to using methods of terrorism and torture themselves to counter a largely invisible enemy whose ability to stay united with what seemed like so little was shocking to an established European power that inhabited Algeria for 130 years.  This is Frantz Fanon style filmmaking, as never has there been a more Wretched of the Earth style exposé of the devastating effects of Colonialism, where the Motherland pretends to be paternalistically friendly and helpful while draining the nation’s wealth and resources, continually undermining the colonized citizens with humiliating and demeaning racist depictions, where the colonizer continues to exploit the colonized as second class citizens.  The similarities to Iraq and the Gaza Strip remain powerfully unsettling.  The film was banned in France at the time of its release while winning the Golden Lion as the Best Film of the Venice Film Festival in 1966. 
The film remains the seminal work on documenting revolutionary tactics, which includes targeted assassinations of police and bombings in heavily populated European areas, including a truck driver showing early signs of the inclination to become a suicide bomber, while also depicting the anti-terrorist police methods as well, which also include bombings, mass arrests, guarded security check points, and the routine use of torture in interrogation methods.  Wasting no time, the film gets into the heart of the action with an opening segment of torture that could just as easily be from Rossellini's OPEN CITY (1945), leading the French to the hiding place of the last head of the Algerian Resistance movement in 1957 before telling the rest of the story in flashback motif, going backwards in time and showing the earlier meetings of organizing the structure of various militant cells which were designed specifically so that information was spread to as few people as possible, limiting the knowledge that each individual may know while still allowing the entire organization to make strategic strikes.  My guess is that this technique is still used today, which shows how relevant the film really is, offering what amounts to a timeless perspective while actually documenting a specific historical event.  Structurally, the film plays out much like Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), which shows the mutiny on a Russian battleship and the rallying of the sympathetic masses in 1905 only to lead to their crushing defeat, documenting the preliminary events that led to such outrage that it sparked the Russian Revolution in 1917.  Similarly, Pontecorvo, an Italian Marxist director who commanded the anti-Fascist Milan Resistance in 1943, painstakingly reconstructs actual events that visualizes the birth of Algerian independence, which began as an idea, requiring education of the masses, mobilization of contacts, acts of resistance, and eventually a call to arms.  But the French response was swift and demonstrably harsh, turning Algiers into an occupied police state where citizens could be rousted out of their beds at any time and subject to brutal interrogations, with their leaders targeted for arrest, assassination, or extinction.  The irony, of course, is that some of the heavy handed French police were former Resistance fighters themselves against the Nazi occupation or survivors of the Holocaust.       

Much of the accuracy and rich detail comes from Saadi Yacef, playing Jaffar, who was the actual FLN military chief in 1956 and ‘57, the brains behind the resistance operation until he was captured and sentenced to death, writing his memoirs in prison, Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger, published in 1962, the year Algeria obtained their independence, which were used in the making of this movie, where he is also one of the film’s producers.   Yacef was eventually pardoned when Charles De Gaulle returned to power and currently serves as a Senator in the Algerian National Assembly.  One can’t say enough about the sheer artistry in making this film, where the construction of the story and the use of editing is simply outstanding, while the cinematography by Marcello Gatti shooting without a tripod captures the seedy authenticity in a manner that is unrivalled, taking Italian realism to new heights, displaying the vibrancy of the impoverished Arab quarters like its rarely been seen, using all non-professional actors (except for the French Colonel played by Jean Martin, himself a fierce critic of the French occupation), who comprise a multitude of human faces, showing narrow streets that are always crowded and overpopulated, like a labyrinth where the density is unimaginable, with women dressed from head to toe in long, flowing robes, where the French police in their uniforms couldn’t appear more out of place.  Particularly compelling is the integration of sound and music, using the bold percussive sounds of Ennio Morricone to move the action along contrasted against the soft, spiritual sounds of a Bach Passion or an organ Prelude while prisoners are being tortured, also the opening movement of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, which was written to commemorate the eerie calm outside the Palace Square in 1905 before unarmed protestors were massacred by the Tsar, mournful music which is heard as the French are conducting raids to round up Resistance fighters who would later be tortured or killed.  The film retains an impassioned honesty and a no-nonsense sense of outrage using a staggering, newsreel-like authenticity, providing us with a time capsule view of history in the making.  Really, nothing this riveting has ever been made—either before or since.  

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Princess Tam Tam

PRINCESS TAM TAM                  B-                   
France  (77 mi)  1935  d:  Edmond T. Gréville

Let’s go among the savages. The real savages! Yes, to Africa!
—Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean)

One thing’s for certain, and that is that Josephine Baker was a major star, a genuine star, but that the movie industry in the 1930’s simply didn’t understand how to utilize her talents without decreasing her stature onscreen, usually by making her an exotic creature (in the eyes of whites) instead of a human being.  Most likely because there were few black writers in that era, the breadth and scope of her roles were minimized, determined by white writers who turned her into one of their fantasies instead of incorporating her into anything resembling a real life character, where she could do more than just perform, but also act.  Unfortunately, this is something we never get to see her do, be her genuine self onscreen, instead she’s always required to perform.  As a direct expression of Colonialist mentality, it’s no accident that the demeaning and humiliating role she’s asked to play here is an uneducated native girl from Tunisia that a wealthy white French writer, Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) attempts to civilize in the European manners.  The first image we have of Baker is running across the desert sands (yes, a desert) with a lamb on her shoulders.  The director has a nice feel for a moving camera, especially effective in the Tunisian street scenes, where the North African architecture, hats, flowing robes, children playing, and street café’s are on full display.  When Max has an argument with his wife in Paris, he decides he needs some inspiration, so he and a friend Coton (Robert Arnoux) decide to go live among the “savages” in Tunisia, but stays in the most elegant and aristocratic estate that reflects the luxury and extravagance he’s accustomed to, with a room larger than most people’s apartments, where he and his friend are waited on hand and foot by African servants.  In contrast, we see Baker, identifying herelf as Alwina, stealing oranges from the tourists and then having to fend off the other street beggars.  

In the “love among the ruins” segment, Alwina joins a group of street urchins begging the tourists on the steps of some ancient Roman ruins before leaping up and performing a dance for them, while they show their enthusiasm with music and wild clapping.  The natural sexuality she exudes is simply effortless.  However, when she sees a line of camels carrying tourists to the ruins, she immediately asks to be their guide, accepted without question by Max, but the whites in his company derisively call her a savage.  Max finds it amusing that after his friends insultingly call her a wild animal, she secretly empties the salt from their salt shaker and replaces it with sand, where the tourists find themselves grating their teeth during their afternoon picnic.  The photography of the ruins in the distance juxtaposed with close ups of camels create a cinema vérité sense that you are there.  Afterwards, more accustomed to her own habitat, Alwina is seen climbing the trees and playing with the monkeys, but even the black servants are seen whipping her for trespassing on the grounds where the whites are staying, at which point the writer gets the bright idea to educate and Europeanize her.  While Max reads the tabloids about his wife’s flirtations in Paris with a rich Maharajah, he takes Alwina on a boatride, where she breaks into song, singing “Dreams (Reves)” to the lapping of the waves.   

Europeans are constantly portrayed like grown up children, continually throwing out demands for the most trifling of matters, pampered and spoiled, used to getting what they want instantly and subject to tantrums when they don’t.  In contrast, Baker has a gorgeous elegance and free flowing rhythm that is continually misunderstood and all but ignored, where the Europeans attempt to place their stamp of approval on her, basically making her look and act white, introducing her as an African princess to the high society of Paris, where together with Max in a top hat they’re seen at the opera, race track, and art galleries, all the places Max’s wife is also seen with the Maharajah, becoming the gossip scandal of the day.  However, tired of playing the pretentions of the upper class, Alwina decides to go out on her own and have some fun for a change, discovering a little joint where some blacks are customers and playing African music which reminds her of home, where she breaks out into song singing “Sous Le Ciel D’Afrique (Under the African Skies),” also performing a rhythmic dance.  It all comes to a head when Max’s wife sees the Princess dancing in a sailor’s club and asks the Marahajah to throw a gala affair, with fireworks, Busby Berkeley dancers, and Chinese plate spinners.  But when she hears the sounds of African drums, having already been slipped a micky from one of Max’s wife’s friends, Alwina leaps to the stage, whips off her silk lamé dress and performs a stirring, uninhibited dance, where guys come out to accompany her, as if it’s all part of the act.  Max couldn’t be more ashamed, incapable of appreciating her for who she is. 

There’s no question that all eyes are on Josephine Baker in this film, who carries every scene, as none of the other characters ever matter, as they’re simply selfish and ill-mannered socialites, of no use to anyone.  So in the end, despite France’s historical presence in North African colonies, particularly during the time this film was made, the depiction of the French couldn’t be more negative, and from a French filmmaker, while the Africans are always displayed with an air of dignity and grace, led by an American star (playing an African) who was more appreciated in France than in America.  The cinematography by Georges Benoît is excellent, on occasion expressing a startling and refreshing realism, continually balancing close ups with medium shots, doing a stunning job with the choreography in the party sequence, which is mostly a delight to watch.  But what’s most unique, besides Baker, is the fact that even in a tepid little story which would never be seen except for the presence of a star, the subject of race can make it a much more emotionally compelling and complex film.  America’s response, of course, was to limit and restrict where the film played, due to its depiction of an interracial love story, meaning Baker, a bona fide black American star, was never seen in the South and never found the appreciation she deserved in America, spending the remainder of her life in France, where she lived here:  Les Milandes- Josephine Baker's castle in France.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Seven Keys to Baldpate

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE                     C-                   
USA  (80 mi)  1935  d:  William Hamilton and Edward Killy

I’m not a reasonable person. I’m a woman and I’m tired and I’m nervous, and I want to cry.  —Mary Norton (Margaret Callahan)  

A fairly routine whodunit story about a writer seeking the quiet refuge of a hotel that is closed for the winter, urged on by a bet with the hotel owner that he can’t write a novel in 24 hours, that is interesting only because this is the origin of the real Baldpate Inn in Estes Park, Colorado (, which opened in 1917, an old-fashioned inn at the foot of the Rocky Mountains that is now home of the world’s largest key collection, the website claims over 20,000, where customers are urged to donate some of their own keys to add to the collection, which now takes up an entire room.  The mystery novel The Seven Keys to Baldpate was among the most popular novels of its day, written by Earl Derr Biggers in 1913 long before he invented his most famous character, Chinese detective Charlie Chan, which led subsequently to seven movies, and interestingly enough seven years before women were given the right to vote.  Almost the entire film takes place inside a 2-story hotel, with a centrally located staircase off the main lobby, but also a secret staircase as well, along with hidden rooms.  While supposedly given the “only key” to the hotel, mystery writer Billy Magee (Gene Raymond) discovers a host of mystery guests that secretly arrive with their own keys, each one adding to the intrigue and allure of an ongoing mystery, as all are interested in the $200,000 hidden in the hotel safe. 

One by one, Magee politely introduces himself to each of the new arrivals, supposedly seven in all, that range from gangsters, girl friends, ghostly groundskeepers, to women in distress, all seeking something and all suspicious of everyone else’s motives.  While there is never even a hint that this might all be a staged diversion by the publishers to guarantee they’ll win the bet, Magee appears to be the only one capable of maintaining any coherency about what’s going on, as otherwise clues are flying fast and furious.  Adapted from the George M. Cohan play, the dialogue is rapid and oftentimes comic, used mostly to advance the plot which includes shootings and people jumping out windows, while the characters are overly stereotyped, especially the dumb gangsters, and the acting is abhorrent, with Raymond, who seems to speak with a foreign accent, always tilting his head like a puppy dog whenever something important registers.  No one in the entire cast stands out except a brief early appearance by Walter Brennan as a desk clerk at the train station.  There’s absolutely no directional flair exhibited whatsoever in this fairly standard and mediocre rendition of a house detective mystery, as there’s no building of any suspense and no expression of any fear or terror.  It’s all too nonchalant, though one does appreciate the director’s love of characters peeking through ice frosted windows.  By the time the police actually arrive on the scene, more bumbling even than the gangsters, they have a hard time finding the supposed missing corpse, but everything wraps up quickly and cleanly in about two minutes time, showing little more complexity than if this was a Silent era film.    

Sleep Furiously

SLEEP FURIOUSLY                B                   
Great Britain  (94 mi)  2008  d:  Gideon Koppel

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking. Have a care;
The wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.

The Small Window, by R.S. Thomas, from Selected Poems, 1946-1968, published in 1973

It is only when I sense the end of things that I find the courage to speak, the courage, but not the words.    —anonymous

It’s hard to know why a film like this, which is obviously a well-made and seriously thought out documentary, takes 3 years or more to cross the Atlantic, as a British DVD has been available for over a year, yet it is just now finding an American theatrical audience.  While much of the intimate details may escape the initial viewer, as no one is introduced and nothing is ever explained, instead there’s simply a natural flow of events that are caught on camera, all centering around a small farming community in Wales called Trefeurig.  Here we witness the birth of several livestock animals, a woman walking her dog along the winding roads, sheep shearing and a sheep auction, or herder dogs bringing back home the sheep in the early evening, the barking of the dogs heard first before small forms can be seen coming over a faraway hill.  But lest anyone think this is a pastoral reverie, we also have kitchen scenes baking a cake, while there are also scenes requiring subtitles due to the Welsh language they’re speaking, of elderly people discussing their concerns now that the local school has closed, or views of a school bus converted to a traveling library on wheels that makes monthly visits to seniors, where the librarian picks out books he thinks they’d like, or takes notes about their collective interests.  What you don’t see here are computers or cell phones, no one is ever watching television, though there is one house where we see a TV, but it’s not turned on.  No one even listens to the radio.  There is simply no evidence of modernity anywhere to be seen, where what we see resembles the way life was lived going back half a century or more. 

The closest the film comes to a storyline is the recurring on-the-road motif of the library on wheels, as the elderly people he visits continually chatter away in small talk, absorbed in the minutia of their own lives, though it’s hard to say this holds much interest across the ocean, and this film is extremely chatty, where much of it isn’t even subtitled, but is just the sound of voices droning on.  But the film is also beautifully meditative, using a static camera, filling the screen with the green rolling hills, perhaps a solitary tree viewed through various seasons, or a carefully composed single line of sheep forming at the top of the screen, while slowly, another line forms on the bottom, where the viewer waits for them to intersect.  If you are a Kiarostami aficionado and recall the final shots of his Earthquake Trilogy which seemingly last forever, each one telling their own story, Koppel will likely disappoint, as he doesn’t hold his shots long enough.  The outstanding music used in the film is from Aphex Twin, an Irish born musician with two Welsh parents, the creator of extremely atmospheric piano or electronic music, often sounding hypnotizing, but in perfect harmony with the images onscreen.  Again, despite the haunting beauty of the music, this director is prone to making jarring edits, ensuring there are no seamless transitions here.  It’s only afterwards, if we’re curious enough to find out, that we discover these are shots of the director’s mother, though she is never named, but she’s the one walking the dog, and one of the familiar settings is his own family farm, where his parents found refuge escaping the Holocaust half a century ago.  The title of the film, a provocative phrase suggesting words with opposite energy, comes from a nonsensical phrase that also has perfect grammar from Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures:  “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”  Trefeurig apparently is a place where one should not have pre-conceived notions about how people are supposed to live.  They just do.    

The film was initially shot by the director on Super 16 mm without using artificial light, so the idea of darkness creeping in is a prevailing theme in nearly every shot.  Often the natural colors appear washed out from the mist or cloud cover, or even in sunlit shots people may appear to be standing in the shade.  There is simply an exquisite seasonal change when the entire hillside is snow covered, offering a kind of visual poetry in silhouettes, where only the branches can be seen in barren trees.  Not everything filmed is beautiful, where we may examine old rusted out objects sitting in a pile waiting to be auctioned, or a filthy window with old curtains and plenty of dust gathering on the windowsill.  What becomes clear after awhile is that this way of life is seasonal as well, where only four parishioners are seen at one point in a near empty church service, but they are still singing the hymns, where this picture of old world values will live out its course, replaced by something new.  Perhaps the sequence of the film is unlike the rest, a night shot where unseen spectators are shooting off fireworks and holding sparklers and dayglo wands in their hands, where the colors blur in fast speed motion, giving this a dizzyingly experimental feel, perhaps an expression of the unseen next generation.  Everything this film cherishes may be gone by the next generation, the quiet kindness between neighbors, the helpfulness offered in one another's personal struggles, the utter isolation from the rest of the world, where reading books may be the only social contact many of them have for weeks on end.  But there’s also the livestock continually replenishing itself at a much faster rate than humans, where except for a fast speed shot of a baby sleeping at night, few, if any, children are seen except in photos.  Instead it’s a portrait of the elderly living in a world that hasn’t changed at all during their lifetimes, but will likely be far different once they’re gone.  Not only are the people dying, but their community is dying as well.  In the end, families will be forced to sell their farms.  The film is an intensely personal time capsule of the director’s family, expressing a way of life where the ramifications beautifully unfold through mesmerizing music and images.  If viewed only as a travelogue, an essay without words, this beguiling film would still appear haunting.  After the final credits end, which contains perhaps the most sublime music in the entire film, there is a final still shot of the image of a recurring tree, stunning, now, in glorious color.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Among the Living

(Hollywood10.jpg‎  photo taken November 1947). Front row (from left):  Herbert Biberman, attorneys Martin Popper and Robert W. Kenny, Albert Maltz, and Lester Cole. Middle row: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, and Samuel Ornitz. Back row:  Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, and Adrian Scott

AMONG THE LIVING           B                     
USA  (67 mi)  1941  d:  Stuart Heisler

This is a rarely screened, oddball hybrid of a movie that is a mixture of film noir and horror, that seems to have seeds of political subversiveness as well, where what’s especially memorable is the portrayal of mob hysteria, no doubt the influence of screenwriter Lester Cole, a writer who unashamedly joined the American Communist Party in 1934, later blacklisted, writing both the story and the script.  Cole wrote more than 40 screenplays that turned into movies, but after he refused to testify in 1947 about his political affiliations before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, one of the Hollywood Ten, he was sentenced to a year (serving 10 months) in federal prison for contempt of Congress.  After the blacklisting, only 3 screenplays were made into movies, the most successful of which was BORN FREE (1966), written under the pseudonym Gerald L.C. Copley, an adaptation of Joy Adamson's 1960 non-fictional book about raising orphaned lion cubs in Kenya.  This movie also features a scintillating early performance by actress Susan Hayward, something of a vivacious young vixen, eventually known as the Queen of Melodrama in the 1950’s, winning an Academy Award as Best Actress playing a tough, wise-cracking prostitute charged with murder and condemned to the gas chamber in the tearjerker I WANT TO LIVE (1958).  Seeing her so early in her career is a special delight, as she’s a joy to watch, stealing nearly every scene she is in.     

Shot in a Southern gothic setting, the film opens with a memorable shot peeking through an iron gate at the small funeral service for the industrialist owner of the town’s mill, while kept outside the gates are hoardes of striking or unemployed workers who can be seen taunting the deceased.  As a storm approaches, we soon learn the secret identity of a twin brother long thought dead, Paul Raden, the deranged identical twin of the more respectable John Raden (Albert Dekker in both roles), who lost his mind as a child when his father, the recently deceased, threw him against a wall when he tried to stop his father from beating his mother, where the last sounds he heard before going insane was his mother screaming, sounds that he has never gotten out of his head, constantly holding his hands to his ears whenever trouble sets in.  In our initial view of him he’s wearing a straightjacket, living in a secret room locked up in the basement of the old family plantation quarters, where Ernest Whitman as Pompey, a black family servant, has been looking after him for 25 years, assisted by Dr. Saunders (Harry Carey), who fabricated a death certificate for a fake funeral service that kept everyone from asking questions.  Following the camera down the stairs into the bowels of this dilapidated home resembles how we discover FRANKENSTEIN (1931), one of the original monster movies that co-screenwriter Garrett Fort helped script.  In each case, the monster breaks free from their imprisonment before wreaking havoc on the town.

The interesting twist is how Paul arrives in a rooming house in town with a wad of cash and is treated as a “respectable gentleman.”  The landlady’s daughter is Hayward, who is herself imprisoned by her mother, never allowed to escape from the claustrophobic confines of the rooming house.  So she’s a free spirited woman just waiting for someone to sweep her out of this dead end town, where she, and all the rest of the local folk, see no prospects for the future now that the mill has closed.  Hayward’s flashy and flirtatious behavior is the best thing in the film, an exaggerated expression of sexuality in contrast to the rather sexless behavior of the twin brothers, and the completely dull and lifeless appearance of Frances Farmer as John’s wife.  Hayward takes the unsuspecting Paul on a shopping spree, allowing him to buy her a giant bottle of perfume and a slinky new dress before he wanders into a happenin’ dance club where he engages in weird, completely inappropriate conversation with one of the hostesses, discovering an electrifying, foot-stomping jump joint where the swing dancer’s jitterbug energy is so frenetically wild that the world starts spinning out of control, beautifully photographed by Theodor Sparkuhl in what could easily have been a dry run for the sensational teen dances in John Waters’ HAIRSPRAY (1988).

Paul unexpectedly turns into Jack the Ripper, the town’s serial killer, who can only silence the sound of women screaming by strangling them.  In typical noir fashion, the family’s shameful past has been uprooted, like opening Pandora’s Box, producing a secret so vile that it can only be viewed as a monster on the loose who can’t help himself.  The town is in an uproar, where their public frenzy is unleashed with the radio announcement of a $5000 reward for finding the killer, where the hysteria of a mob scene is so overwhelmingly over the top, it’s like the unleashing of panic in every direction, as if the world was invaded by aliens.  The lynch mob mentality is quite a spectacle, shown with a great deal of flair, where they want to string the guy up right then and there, dragging a judge out of his home to perform the public trial.  But the man they have caught is John, mistaken for his evil twin Paul, instantly condemned by the mob, despite John’s desperate pleas which fall on deaf ears.  Hayward herself leads the public condemnation of the man, where all are turned against him.  Fritz Lang’s M (1931) reveals a similar public trial, where the outlaws judge the criminal actions of a sexual pervert who preys on little girls, while FURY (1936) creates the same lynch mob hysteria, not to mention the psychological dread that accumulates throughout Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956).  At just over an hour, the film is brief but surprisingly complicated and far reaching for 1941, touching on the Nazi madness that was marching unchallenged throughout Europe while America sat on its hands in a position of neutrality until Pearl Harbor happened a year later.  This is a film seething with social discontent, public outrage, hysteria, as well as madness, all equally intense, bizarre, delightful, and terrifying at the same time, something rare and quite unique, easily one of the darkest depictions of American society on record.   

The Glass Key (1935)

THE GLASS KEY             C+            
USA  (80 mi)  1935  d:  Frank Tuttle

Not to be confused with the later version of this film, which was remade in 1942 with Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd (as the wrong film was shipped to the theater), this is basically the same story, adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel, considered one of his best, but this rarer, earlier version omits the love interest, which was expanded to make room for a more noirish version, complete with Lake as a femme fatale.  George Raft grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and hung out with professional gangsters, such as Owney Madden and Arnold Rothstein, learning to imitate their mannerisms before breaking into films, initially as a dancer during the Vaudeville era before landing a part in the gangster classic SCARFACE (1932), playing a coin-flipping gunman.  No one wore hats better, or wore better hats, than George Raft.  He was given the lead in this picture, though he plays Ed Beaumont, a man of dubious character who likes to spend his evenings drinking rye whiskey and winning money at rigged roulette wheels, whose relationship to political boss Paul Madvig (Edward Arnold) is never made clear, though he appears to be his protection, the muscle, the right hand man who is always at the boss’s side, showing little distinction between politics and the portrayal of mob bosses.  Raft was actually the first consideration as Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), but he turned it down, opening the doors to a man named Bogart.  Set during or just after the Prohibition Era, when saloons appear to be nothing more than all-male speakeasy’s, Madvig tries to clean up the city and shuts down some illicit gambling joints, where the owner, Shad O’Rory (Robert Gleckler), along with his muscle, Jeff (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams), don’t take kindly to the action and swear to get even.  This sets the wheels in motion for a blood feud.

Adding to the mystery is Madvig’s support of Senator John T. Henry (Charles Richman), whose daughter Janet (Claire Dodd) he’d like to marry (the role expanded for Veronica Lake), and whose son, Taylor Henry (Ray Milland), is something of a family embarrassment, as he owes plenty of money to loan sharks like O’Rory, putting his father in a precarious predicament.  When Madvig’s daughter Opal (Rosalind Keith) expresses a romantic interest in Taylor, who happens to be standing in the way of Madvig’s desires for Janet, Madvig in a rage decides to set matters straight.  When Taylor Henry ends up dead, Madvig is immediately implicated, as he was the last one seen with Taylor in an angry public dispute on the street.  With the election coming up, the newspapers have a field day at Madvig’s expense, where much of the story is advanced through developing headlines, with O’Rory continuing to feed the paper anonymous tips.  Only when it appears the tide has turned against Madvig, who has been publicly convicted by the press, does Beaumont spring into action masterminding a crafty, behind-the-scenes operation to uncover what evidence O’Rory actually has, which isn’t much except a witness to the arguing.  But that’s plenty with just a few days before the election.  O’Rory, however, is not satisfied, and when he can’t pay off Beaumont to rat on his friend, he sicks his dog and his muscle on him, repeatedly beating him to a pulp, trying to manufacture a witness to the murder.  When he somehow manages to slip away and is treated in the hospital, Ann Sheridan shows some sass with some terrific lines as his nurse.  After rounding up all the available suspects and witnesses having any knowledge in the murder, it all comes together in an Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot style interrogation with Beaumont inventively taking the lead. 

This particular version has little inventiveness or star power, but Raft is convincing as a guy who would feel right at home in Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990), while major elements of this film can be detected in the Coen Brothers highly stylized gangster flick MILLERS CROSSING (1990), also set in the Prohibition era, where one guy lays it all on the line, switching loyalties to the other side, attempting to bring peace to a long standing blood feud between warring gangs, also sounding like the blueprint to Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Angel Face

ANGEL FACE                   C+                   
USA  (91 mi)  1952  d:  Otto Preminger

Otto Preminger is a heralded director, known as much for his bald, Austro-Hungarian profile, where he specialized in playing brutal Nazi SS officers in various WWII movies, like Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953), as for his dictatorial reputation of being rude and bullying on the set, where he was also renowned for his efficiency and work ethic.  He is one of the last of the studio directors, where in this feature he was on loan from 20th Century Fox to do one picture for Howard Hughes and RKO Pictures.  British actress Jean Simmons was unhappy with the direction of her career, which never took off in America, and was looking for a way to get out of her contract with Hughes, still fuming from his earlier romantic gestures in persuading her to sign a long term contract even while she was married to Stewart Granger.  Taking desperate measures to the extreme, in one argument she grabbed a pair of scissors and cut her hair short, knowing his predilection for women onscreen with long, flowing hair.  With only 18 days left in her RKO contract, Hughes convinced Preminger, who initially hated the script, that he could get one more picture out of her and forced Simmons to wear a wig while giving Preminger complete control of the script, allegedly telling him: “I'm going to get even with that little bitch and you're going to help me.”  The picture turned out to be ANGEL FACE, which was never a critical or box office success, seen as a kind of noir B-movie, but ironically contains one of Jean Simmons’s better performances, perhaps channeling her inner anger and fragile instability.  Paired with Robert Mitchum, the two make unlikely lovers, especially considering he’s a blue collar ambulance driver with a penchant for bowling and race cars while she’s a rich, pampered, and spoiled heiress, not exactly traveling in the same social circles.          

They meet when an ambulance is called to the scene of a palatial estate in Beverly Hills where Mrs. Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) nearly dies under mysterious circumstances from gas asphyxiation, eventually determined to be an accident, where Frank (Mitchum) is intrigued by the lovely step-daughter Diane (Simmons) sitting alone playing the piano, usually a cue in noir films for interior psychological distress.  When she follows him secretly afterwards in her convertible race car, the wheels are set in motion where she can accidentally re-introduce herself and make the most of coincidence.  The odd woman out is Frank’s girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman), who is stood up so Frank could paint the town with Diane.  What’s worse, he’s caught lying about it the next day when in one of the more unusual scenes of the film, Diane is seen brazenly having lunch with Mary, basically spreading the dirt about her boyfriend, but then masking her real intentions by offering her a sizeable sum of money to help realize Frank’s dream to own a garage that specializes in fixing racing cars.  Mitchum is excellent as the casual swine who’s caught lying but pretends it’s nothing, where the audience knows he’s a repeat offender and it won’t be the last time.  When Diane suggests Frank come live in the mansion and become the family chauffeur, taking care of their fleet of cars, most would think twice, but Mitchum drops everything like a chump and jumps at the chance, which is simply not in character with the Robert Mitchum the audience is familiar with, a guy who flies solo whenever he gets the chance.  When Diane reveals the utter contempt she feels for her step-mother, Frank has sense enough to tell her:  “You hate that woman and someday you're gonna hate her enough to kill her.” 

This is known as foreshadowing.  And therein lies one of the major problems in this film, as the over-explanative dialogue continually reveals too much, always making sure the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen before it happens, which actually takes some of the pleasure away from this film.  Some directors simply try to do too much, as if the audience is incapable of figuring anything out themselves.  Unfortunately in this film, where the less you know ahead of time the better, none of the so-called surprises come as a surprise, as all the evil deeds are telegraphed ahead of time.  Frank sees through Diane instantly, but she continues to use her feminine charms to lure him off his game, where eventually the two get mixed up in a bit of foul play, where the story turns on a dime into a lengthy courtroom sequence that slows the film down and adds little to the drama.  See ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) for Preminger’s take on an excellent courtroom drama.  But if truth be told, this film works best when she is charming the pants off of him and he continually resists, but then becomes intoxicated with her hare-brained schemes, as if the thought of their dreams together can somehow weaken ordinary human beings into committing unethical acts.  When Diane is continually pulling Frank into the dark mysteries of her delusional soul, everyone in the audience has enough sense to know better, everyone except Frank.  So while they are an improbable couple, they have a way of flirting with disaster, tempting fate, continually going against better judgment, but unlike Hitchcock, for instance, there’s not a hint of suspense, in fact most of this is told in a very matter of fact manner.  This couple could be deliciously malicious, but instead they’re portrayed as bland and empty, both devious opportunists who are in over their heads, each trying to use the other, a sleight of hand on the Beauty and the Beast story, where no one is willing to see the beast in such a beauty, as everyone continually looks away from the truth that’s staring them straight in the face.