Friday, October 24, 2014

So Nice, I Watched it Twice

As a kid, we never had cable and therefore had to rely on both my dad’s Friday-post-work trips to the local Blockbuster and VHS recordings from TNT and AMC. My grandmother had cable and my dad would somehow get wise to a movie playing on one of those two stations and convince her to record them. I remember one of the tapes was the 1954 Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin/Norman Taurog movie “Living it Up” along with the 1946 Danny Kaye/Virginia Mayo/Norman Z. McLeod movie “The Kid from Brooklyn.” Both were originally shot in glorious Technicolor, each taking full advantage of the three strip process that eventually went archaic after Eastman essentially cut out the dye absorption process. The final movie to be shot by their three strip camera was made in the same year as the McLeod film, making way for a 1952 invention that allowed a single camera negative. Eastman looked to cut out the expensive middleman and entice Hollywood away from the pricey/long process. Due to its weight and immobility (or the relative pain in the ass to move it around), the slowness of the process itself, and the overall cost, it wasn’t long until the competitors moved in. Technicolor became Eastman in 1975 only to reintroduce the dye transfer process in 1997 for film restorations. I’m not sure why I’m regurgitating this information, other than to say that I’ve always been in love with that loud saturated aesthetic. The more garish or like an oil painting the better, though as I get older I find myself more and more in awe of restraint in that time of discovery. I still wonder what my response to color association would dig up; perhaps I’d better leave that alone.

Both “Living it Up” and “The Kid from Brooklyn” are about playful ruses. Each follows a paltry good-natured man caught up in a scam perpetrated by voracious men. Each film deals with media hysteria, not unlike “Gone Girl” but in a much more lighthearted manner, drawing much of the laughter from the idiocy caused by the mix-up. Each is a remake of a 1930’s film (1937’s Nothing Sacred and 1936’s The Milky Way), and each arguably considered the inferior work by most. “Nothing Sacred” was written by Ben Hecht and directed by William A. Wellman starring Fredric March and Carole Lombard while “The Milky Way” was directed by Leo McCarey and starred none other than Harold Lloyd. “The Kid from Brooklyn” is a startlingly faithful adaptation, McLeod mimicking shots and Kaye taking direct cues from his mentor. There is either an obvious reverence, plagiary, or both at play here, up until some of the final scenes where Kaye’s many gifts of singing, dancing, and tongue twisting made their customary appearance in the form of an impromptu song number. I’ve never really understood why Kaye didn’t join the respective comedy ranks, but after some nice write-ups over at The Movie Morlocks blog as well the illustrious Farran Nehme Smith’s appreciation of “The Court Jester” I’m beginning to see the overdo comeuppance begin to surface. It seems that many dismiss him as toothless, which is probably fair, but also beside the point. I have to admit that I cringed reading Pauline Kael dismiss Kaye’s “violently evident” talents because they remain, according to her, sunk “in the mud of family entertainment.” 

I’m realizing now that I’m spending more time writing about McLeod’s film, when it was McCarey’s that I recently caught up with. It’s very odd seeing the original after seeing the remake, like hearing and loving a song only to realize it’s a cover. Unlike “Living it Up” or “A Song is Born,” “The Kid from Brooklyn” is so faithful that you can’t help but recall most of the scenes in one once you’ve seen the other. It’s a case of déjà vu. And while McCarey and Lloyd, I can’t help but love and maybe even prefer the 1946 version. It’s a new cinematic conundrum for me, though I’ll admit right now that I prefer McCarey’s “An Affair to Remember” from 1957 to his own “Love Affair” from 1939. Looking at the two, years apart, I think I have a softer spot for “The Milky Way” considering what it did with its constraints, jumping ahead ten years all McCleod and company could add was popping color and their star’s abnormal bag of tricks. It should be noted that McCleod directed some scenes in the 1936 film when McCarey was hospitalized, which may explain the decision to film his version so faithfully. So nice they tried it twice. One of the better choices, in my opinion, was to bring Lionel Stander back as Spider, there is just a tinge of nuance in his slightly aged performance. It was considered Lloyd’s best crack at the talkies, probably because so much of Buleigh Sullivan’s screen persona hinges on quick movements, mostly of the ducking kind.
I guess I should now point out that the story here, based on a successful Broadway play from two years before, follows a meek milkman who is falsely accused/extolled for knocking out the middleweight champ in a street fight. Amongst the drunken ruckus, Sullivan ducks just in time to avoid a hard right from Spider, which causes a media frenzy, a scam, a love story not only between the milkman and one of his clients but also the milkman’s sister and the former middleweight champ, some swollen ego, and a calf kicking a man in the face. It’s a screwball, a genre that McCarey just may have perfected amongst other subgenres. And while McCleod isn’t necessarily perched up there with his old friend, he probably should be. He directed many of the Marx Bros classics, the Topper films, “It’s a Gift” from 1934, the 1933 “Alice in Wonderland” often credited to the great William Cameron Menzies, “Pennies from Heaven,” and two underrated films from the late 40s (The Paleface and The Secret Life from Walter Mitty) and that’s just scratching the surface.

Samuel Goldwyn nearly made it impossible for us to ever see “The Milky Way” by buying the rights to the original and destroying all of the prints that he knew existed. The problem is the doofus didn’t know that Lloyd preserved a nitrate print and kept it in good condition, some spit in Goldwyn’s greedy eye. While this type of assholery could be considered fair reason to consider McCleod’s film < or downright contemptuous, you should never blame a film for its producer’s sliminess lest you learn to hate most of the films you currently hold dear to your heart. And I guess I’ll wind this down by saying that I think you should all see both films, though in fairness you should start with the original and then catch up with the remake and let me know how things work out on the flipside.    

Monday, October 13, 2014

1968 Favorites

1968 in roughly preferential order:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)

Shame (Ingmar Bergman)

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)

Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo)

Night of the Living Dead (George Romero)

Faces (John Cassavetes)

The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov)

The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci)

The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer)

Mandabi (Ousmane Sembene)

Targets (Peter Bogdanovich)

Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman)

The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan)

Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut)

Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea)

Death by Hanging (Nagisa Oshima)

Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves)

If…… (Lindsay Anderson)

Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton)

The Producers (Mel Brooks)

Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

David Fincher’s latest bestseller adaptation begins with the aftermath of a break-in, which leads to the suspicion of a disappearance, and then the process of solving a crime that appears to be murder. It revolves around a married couple, Nick and Amy, following the collapse of their marriage through flashbacks set to diary entries narrated by the vanished. The first half of the movie revolves around Nick; every character is solitarily formed in relation to him, which isn’t to say that those who come in contact with him are shallow or underdeveloped but that we don’t get to know them much outside of their relationship to him. The diary functions as a glimpse backwards, but it’s written to carefully call events into question in order to piece the puzzle together. It’s carefully designed and treacherous, but not without kernels of truth.
A crime IS committed, though I doubt many who have avoided spoilers will guess just what it is. I sure didn’t. The twist functions like most twists, it calls most of what we have seen and heard into question. The more unbury, the less connected we feel as the film wisely decides to shift its atmosphere from thick and ominous to thin and comical. The twist also jarringly swaps our perspective from the dopey but sporadically charming philanderer to the entitled psychopathic aggrieved. Though one particular event seems to spark the crime itself, the roots, regardless of the twist, are the disintegration of a marriage through bitterness, selfishness, and surrender. Though unreliable narration is an essential element to the plot, we are led to believe that this cursed union begins much like any other while wearing itself out through time and human blunder. The majority of the collapse falls squarely onto the broad shoulders of the selfish man, as is often the case, but I’m guessing most will consider the castigation unworthy of crimes themselves. This is to say that when you sort out the misdeeds and weigh the repercussions, you can deduce that though the “man” sucks the “woman” is ultimately what we might consider the “villain.” But the film is full of villains, so she fits right in.

I guess I put these two gender identifications in italics because many seem to feel as though the couple represents not only “marriage” as a whole but also males and females too. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you believe this was the intention then you have genuine cause for the concern of misogyny. Of course, you would have to disregard Carrie Coon’s Margo Dunne or Kim Dickens’ Detective Boney, or at least write them off as minor exceptions to the overall conceit. I personally don’t think the film is sensitive to anyone in particular, and if it has contempt I’m not so sure the majority of characters and whatever respective theme they supposedly represent are spared. But the truth is this; “Gone Girl” features one of the iciest and most vindictive characters in recent memory, and she happens to be a woman. The femme fatale she reminded me of the most was Gene Tierney’s Ellen Berent Harland from “Leave Her to Heaven,” only less hysterically committed to mission. Amy’s want for revenge is completely comprehensible and not limited to women, though her petrifying qualities are certainly the stuff of hand-me-down male projections. Her actions are not only spurred on by Nick’s disloyalty, abuse, and neglect but also her relocation and quarantine. Not only does he cheat, shove, lie, and mock, but he also her dragged her from New York to Missouri without much consideration for how this move would uproot and affect her.

Like I said before, the punishment obviously doesn’t fit the crime, though the climax doesn’t exactly beg for Nick’s sympathy. The fact that he’s charming is part of the point; he knows how to deflect the appearance of guilt and distract us from the severity of his actions. This might lead some to believe that audiences who root for his acquittal will suddenly develop a deep seeded hatred for women just as audiences who enjoyed the sly rampant hedonism of “The Wolf of Wall Street” will become suckling insatiable cubs upon exiting the theater. Maybe I’m just making that up, but it seems like every year we have a movie fit sacrifice to what one critic described as moralists awaiting a merit badge. I don’t think Flynn’s novel and screenplay lacks misogyny (it’s part of the nasty joke), but I’m wary of a film/literature world without bloodcurdling villains of all walks of life. Though “Gone Girl” certainly indulges in many dangerous gender stereotypes for the sake of wringing out the latent misogynistic phobias of a womanizer like Nick, most of these women (the neighbor, the mistress, the mother-in-law, the Nancy Grace, and the fans) work well within the film’s revenge fantasy conceit. This is his nightmare, one that he’s created for himself and locked himself in. It’s a film about real fear and paranoia, fanned by our relationships to media. Like Hitchcock’s worst anxieties, it’s also about a humdrum existence suddenly hurled into pandemonium. Though ugly stereotypes abound, they exist within a consciously embellished context (not unlike most noir films), not that this excuses anything, but I think it’s fair to take this into account.

Part of the joy I had watching “Gone Girl” was watching its tonal shifts from genre to genre, creepy to hilarious, heavy to light, and all with Fincher’s assured sense of framing, timing, and detail. Since “Zodiac,” he’s been more taken by the notion of process, specifically the sorting and the accumulation of details, than getting to the next narrative benchmark. The facets in between are more fascinating, the interactions and preparations surpass the events themselves. Take the big television interview where the questioning that happens beforehand, where Tyler Perry the director pitches Gummi Bears at Affleck’s face for being smug or disingenuous, that scene tells us more about media distortion than anything in . Words and appearances fuel public perception, which undoubtedly influences the judicial process. The interview itself is a narrative catalyst, but it’s only seen later on after we know that it’ll succeed in swaying one very important viewer. But the recital itself is trumped by the training, and Fincher knows instinctively that this will work.

I’ve been accused of carrying Fincher’s water before, so I guess I should point out that “Gone Girl” isn’t perfect. Many have complained that his last movie was unworthy of his talent. I thought him and his cast (as well as cinematographer, editor, and composers) overcame many of the structural issues in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but then again I might just be a fan of trash. To avoid auteur partiality, it’s important to note that the cast is universally wonderful here, down to the smallest cameo. The score is probably my favorite of the three collaborations between Reznor/Ross and Fincher. The cinematography is less flashy, and probably could have used some more zing, but it’s better than most of what we’ve seen this year. And while I think the film is excellent, I will admit that it’s ludicrous and sporadically stupid.

For all of Fincher’s notorious/celebrated cold precision, he and Flynn gleefully indulge in a wonderful Grand Guignol sequence towards the end where the wonderful Rosamund Pike gets her Beatrice Dalle on in a scene that I swear is influenced visually by Clair Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” and undoubtedly Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct.” This gloriously excessive scene is set up nicely with a champagne bottle, preparing the squeamish for the griminess to come. I love the way Amy lures the fly into her web. In a weird way it reminded me of “What Lies Beneath,” another film about sins atonement. What possibly could have caused her to make the leap from schemer and deceiver to murderer? I think it’s her love affair with her own self-mythology, helped along by media hysteria. ---- Fincher, Flynn, and Affleck are no strangers to public scrutiny and self-mythology---- She suddenly likes the idea of Amy the survivor more than Amy the victim, though you get the impression that she doesn’t have the gumption to take her own life. This final transformation sparks the final big shift in tone and atmosphere, from the unbearably tense and creepy to the downright hilarious. Though the film shifts significantly in its first big reveal, Amy’s bloody rebirth into “Amazing Amy” incarnate makes way for a jarring, cruel, over-the-top, and cynical climax in which lots of suspension of disbelief may be required. It’s a punch line for those rooting for Nick’s absolution. Instead of freedom, it’s just one nightmare marrying another, where the threat of wrongful incarceration resolves only to become a new captivity.