William Wyler: autopsy and appreciation

Superb cast, superb composition

Superb cast, superb composition

Skillfully written and directed under circumstances that amounted to censorship, Detective Story is a superb ensemble piece. Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker, playing Detective Jim McLeod and his wife, Mary, are pictured at left with Horace McMahon, a character actor with more than 90 movies to his credit. Though Parker turns in one of her finest performances as a woman with a secret, and Kirk Douglas is a commanding presence, McMahon quietly and authoritatively steals every scene he’s in, and it’s a rather rare role for him in film— a good guy, the seasoned police captain (a cop role he continued on television for five years in Naked City). It’s also the first movie  for Lee Grant, whose engaging and understated performance won her the best actress award at Cannes (also nominations for an Oscar and Golden Globe for supporting work). Grant had her own share of troubled circumstances during the filming, and after: her husband, Alan Manoff (Dinah‘s father), was blacklisted and she refused to testify against him before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. She wouldn’t get another film role for five years, and her career suffered for twelve.

Strong-arming both witness (Gladys George) and perp (George McReady)

Strong-arming both witness (Gladys George) and perp (George Macready)

Other actors in this ensemble stand out– indeed, nearly all of them deliver memorable performances. In only one scene, Gladys George, one of America’s most shamefully neglected actresses, is a brassy witness whose refusal to coöperate may have to do with her expensive fur coat, or her principles. She makes it impossible to tell.  George Macready has a bit more screen time as the principal villain, and in his few scenes he manages to simultaneously create sympathy and disgust for Dr. Karl Schneider, whose crimes are equivocal, to say the very least. More about the plot below, but for a fuller analysis of the movie, I recommend this fine article by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. Here, I’m writing mainly about the director, William Wyler, whose talents often escape me. Though I can’t resist a few more remarks about the superb ensemble cast he assembled here:

Joseph Wiseman

Joseph Wiseman

More substantial roles go to two actors in fine form. William Bendix, appearing a decade after his Oscar nomination for Wake Island. A cop with conscience enough for two men, he ultimately redeems his partner, McLeod. The other scene-stealer, Joseph Wiseman, was a stage actor in only his second movie. His performance as a low-level wise guy sent me straight to the internet, to learn more about him, and find more works of his. In the process, I found this fabulous quote: “Acting may begin out of vanity but you hope that it’s taken over by something else. I hope I’ve climbed over the vanity hurdle.” Continue reading

An instant classic in a fertile (and subversive) genre

Your army against mine

Clarity between opposing forces rules a chess board, not a war

X-Men: Days of Future Past is close to flawless, which is high praise indeed for a movie with as much background and complexity as it has. The seventh feature in a popular but uneven action series, it is packed with freakish characters, extensive back-stories, two distinct time frames, and an ambitious sci-fi plot that centers on the sticky wicket that is time-travel. But nothing is disappointing here, or damned little. This X-Men has substance as well as virtuoso technique.

Heartless industrialism in Iron Man

Heartless industrialism in Iron Man

Best of all, in my view from planet Chomsky, it respects sedition. Rebellion against governments (including actual governments, particularly Russia’s and our own) is not unusual in modern movie plots, though it is by no means the norm. In the flourishing and lucrative superhero genre, however, nakedly subversive ideas are finding plenty of fertile ground. Consider one of the best: the original 2008 Iron Man, in which Tony Stark fights his way free of his own iron weapons (ironically), which were made for the U.S. to deploy in Afghanistan. He survives only to turn against his own company’s purpose, its financial interests, and its mogul (Obadiah Stane, played by a sinister Jeff Bridges, who makes a fine foil for Robert Downey Jr.). Now a part-time Iron Man, he retools Stark Industries, transforming it into a force for good. In the 2012 The Avengers, Stark says, “Stark Tower is about to become a beacon of self-sustaining clean energy.”

Mr. Smith in the Senate

Smith in the Senate

Subversive politics are not unique to superhero pictures, of course, because defiance in the face of oppression isn’t a new theme to any art form. Far from it. Like Washington’s political cartoonists, Hollywood’s writers have always toyed with sedition, and gone for the throat of the government, especially Congress. In 1939,  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was written by Sidney Buchman, who was blacklisted by HUAC in 1953. Under the direction of Frank Capra, it is powerhouse propaganda in which one man, James Stewart as freshman Senator Jefferson Smith, faces down a thoroughly corrupt Senate in a shamelessly dramatic filibuster. Even earlier, in the bizarre Gabriel Over the White House (1933), a corrupt president survives a car accident and wakes up enlightened. Corrupt politics are a given in most countries, including ours, and they make for a lot of tough political movies, though few moviegoers consider action pictures in that light. We should. One of the best-ever action pictures, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), has one of my favorite-ever seditious lines, which is actually only one word. When confronted with the accusation, “You speak treason!” Robin replies, “Fluently.”

Oldman creates Robocop

Scientist Oldman creating Robocop

The evil entity in a lot of the 21st century’s super-hero movies is our own U.S. Government, or its contractors in the military-industrial complex. The Avengers, individually and together, often battle some partner of our Defense Department. Captain America, Hulk, and Iron Man all qualify. In Watchmen, destructive Dr. Manhattan is a government-sanctioned agent.  In José Padilha’s under-rated Robo-Cop, a scientist (Gary Oldman) is instructed to turn Alex Murphy into an amoral killing machine by Omnicorp, or else lose funding for his otherwise worthy research.

Sentinels summoned to the White House

Citizen-targeting Sentinels assemble at the White House

In one way or another, those films reflect the realities of the military industrial complex, sugar-coated though it is in adult fantasy (read: powerful, sexy, violent). X-men may be the most overtly seditious of all, because in it, the U.S. government is relentlessly waging war against its own citizens, a minority population of mutants. America is the bad guy– the ruthless and powerful entity that destroy what it cannot understand or control. Continue reading

Godzilla deserves better

The original.

The original.

The original 1953 Gojira by Ishirō Honda has had 27 remakes or sequels, which makes it impossible to say which is the worst, even if someone were barmy enough  to sit through them all and calibrate the results. But do you remember the 1998 Godzilla? The one nominated for six Golden Raspberry awards, and won for the female lead? The one with the planned sequels that never happened because it was such a bomb? It was better than the latest one, the $160 million 3-D version from 2014. In fact, I wondered if the 2014 director, a Brit named Gareth Edwards, was influenced by  ’98 director, a German called Roland Emmerich, who is reigning king of big & cheesy cinema (though 2012 had merits, not the least of which was Chiwetel Ejiofor). If Edwards did choose to emulate Emmerich, then we know all we need to about his motives ($) and his integrity as an artist ($$$).

A good boy, really.

A good boy, really.

Yet this Godzilla has one redeeming quality, however dubious: It could be taught in film school: Film 101: How NOT to Make a Movie. The screenplay is almost a tour de force of corny dialog. It is so relentless that I wondered if it was the result of writer Max Borenstein meticulously collecting all the trite dialog in horror films since The Monster Walks (1932, with an IMDb rating of 3.9). If so, it was a Herculean task, and the result stinks like the Augean Stables.

Banal babes

Predictably pretty

The writing is the worst flaw, of course, because it’s the basic element of any form of literature. But the story stinks, too. On exiting the theater, one of my companions said, “I’d ask someone to explain that plot to me, but I don’t care.” Fans may (and do) forgive action pictures for flawed story and writing, but they expect a lot from the production values, especially sound,which the action genre has perfected. Disappointment awaits. Both the sound and sound editing, by veteran Erik Aadahl, are amateurish. To be fair, that’s largely the part of the director and his editor, Bob Ducsay, whose career got off to a gangbusters start with Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can. Edwards left no room for small moments. The punishing noise reminded me of Spinal Tap: turned up to 11. Ditto the pounding, theme-less score, which was written by the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat, who earlier this year provided the only reason to see Grand Budapest Hotel. I wasn’t the only person sitting in the theater with 3-D glasses on my face and my fingers in my ears.

Bryan Cranston with director Edwards and Aaron T-J

Bryan Cranston with director Edwards and Aaron T-J

The characters are− well, there aren’t any, really. The two leads, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, are ciphers. As it happens, however, they’ll be together again in 2015 in Avengers: Age of Ultron, so let’s hope that the phenomenally gifted and skilled Joss Whedon can elicit lifelike performances from them. Genuine talents that are wasted include Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, David Straithairn, Richard T. Jones, Juliette Binoche, and Bryan Cranston, who here proves that even an actor at the top of his game can stink up the joint.

Serkis at work on "Rise of Planet of the Apes"

Serkis at work on “Rise of Planet of the Apes”

Gareth Edwards appears to know nothing about how to structure a story, control action, direct actors, or even manage continuity. The news that he will be directing one part of the final Star Wars trilogy was not welcome. Based on Godzilla, Edwards should have stuck to his original career in visual effects. He knows what he’s doing with CGI. Godzilla itself (himself? herself?) is a fun creation to watch, as are the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs), perhaps because Andy Serkis consulted behind the scenes on the emotional range of all three radiation-guzzling creatures. Too bad Mr. Edwards didn’t realize that he also needed a consultant on human emotions, or perhaps just a slap upside the head from one of his talented leads.

Armed and ready

“I put the bastards of the world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart.”

Rum Diary was, as far as I can tell, a poorly received film because it was poorly understood. Too many people seemed to expect psychedelia, like the chaotic, celebrity-strewn Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp’s first outing as Hunter S. Thompson, from 1998. But that unwatchable mess was directed by a creative incontinent, Terry Gilliam. Rum Diary was written and directed byBruce Robinson, the author of Withnail and I, an artist capable of delivering both coherent images and coherent thoughts. It isn’t a blurry valentine to mind- and mood-altering substances; it’s a tribute to Thompson as a fearless, articulate, and principled journalist who was as hell-raising with his body as he was hell-bent in his mission.

Hunter S. and Johnny D.

Hunter S. and Johnny D.

To be sure, being based on a Thompson novel and brought to the screen by Robinson, Rum Diary does not lack for authoritative text on substance use. But the real subject is journalism— investigative journalism—and the drunk and druggy scenes serve symbolic as well as realistic purpose: the men working at Puerto Rico’s San Juan Star are as dissipated in life as the newspaper is dissipated as a voice of and for the people.

“How does anyone drink 161 miniatures?”

Richard Jenkins is masterful as Lotterman, the editor-in-chief, whose first concern about hiring Kemp (Depp) is that he’s not “creative,” i.e., gay. Jenkins is so good that he almost steals scenes from Depp, a feat previously achieved only by Al Pacino as a mobster and Bill Nighy as a lobster. Lotterman’s rambling muskrat toupée isn’t even needed to add comedy to his character. His every glance, every sneered remark reveals his contempt for his job, his newspaper, and his subordinates.

Rispoli, Depp, Ribisi

And no wonder. His staff journalists all drink like Anthony Haden-Guest and Peter Fallow combined, and are played by actors in Jenkins’ league:

Giovanni Ribisi as Moberg, a bearded,  Hitler-obsessed has-been so close to the edge that he distills “470 proof” alcohol, which proves useful for self-destruction as well as self-defense. Moberg is a voice for Hunter S., as they all are: “This country was built on genocide and slavery. We killed all the black guys over here and then we shipped in new black guys of our own. And then we brought in Jesus like a bar of soap.”

"Do you smell it? It's the smell of bastards. It's also the smell of truth."

Depp, Rispoli

The exceptionally gifted and versatile Michael Rispoli plays Sala, a composite character extracted from the novel. A staff photographer, and a cockfight aficionado who knows San Juan inside out, he is assigned to show Kemp the ropes. “Do not confuse love with lust, nor drunkenness with judgment.”

But it is Depp, with his respect for Thompson, who keeps this movie on the rails…

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Andersonville trials: Wes

Would you buy a movie from these guys?

Would you buy a movie from these guys?

As much as I loathe Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (see below), his analog Wes Anderson is just as bad. (That’s him with the wine →  alongside preening Brody and ability-free Schwartzman.) One of his earliest films, Rushmore, left me so stupefied that I actually felt disoriented. The ending— that is, the point at which it stopped— was a relief, but also a surprise. What—? Was it over? Why had it gone on that long? Why had it even started? “What the hell was that?” I asked my companion, an Englishman with film chops. “All I know is, it was frightening,” he said. “Empty, and frightening.” And not comic, though it rather desperately seemed to want to be.

This, for 99 minutes.

This, for 99 minutes, in varying colors.

As it was with Rushmore, so it was with Darjeeling Limited, Royal Tenenbaums,  Moonrise Kingdom, and the absolutely execrable Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  But Grand Budapest Hotel is the coup de grâceHenceforth, Andersonville is a no-go zone. I’ll never again pony up the $ or the time to see anything by either Wes or by Paul Thomas, whose career has not gone downhill only because there was no way down from Boogie Nights

Filming in Germany

Filming in Görlitz, Germany

Wes A’s eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel had been scheduled for release in December for Oscar consideration, but was held until the new-year dead zone, where it was entombed. Or so I predict. By a very specialized measure, it actually opened big, but after 10 days in domestic theatres, the gross was <$5 million. [Update: In release in the U.S. for 11 weeks, it earned $55.9M, about $12M less than Will Ferrell’s bomb, Land of the Lost.] Starting the roll-out with only four theatres was wise marketing, allowing the publicity machine to manufacture good press and capitalize on generally favorable reviews (I am a minority critical voice, no question). But I don’t know how it can build viewers. It is all technique, and even that seems to rely more on television sketch comedy than on the full vocabulary of cinema. It’s all style, zero substance. Zero. To borrow from Macbeth— a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Empty calories

Empty calories

The word “zero” came up a lot as I watched the film in the theater, fidgeting in my seat but at no point inclined to awaken the gentleman who was snoring behind me. One of the main characters is actually called Zero, another of WesA’s attempts to amuse. Or so I assume. In lieu of any other conceivable purpose, such self-consciously quirky choices must be intended as a comedy, however mirthless, no? It’s hard to say with Wes A. He also delivers one of his rare female characters as Zero’s love interest. Played by the engaging young Irish-American actress Saorise Ronan, Agatha is a pastry chef whose airy, sugary concoctions signal her relative slightness, and also serve as a handy metaphor for the film itself: these are empty calories.

Norton as Nazi

Norton as Nazi

The movie clearly had a big budget (23 million euros, or about $30M), it has a very big cast, and one would think that it developed from a big idea, given that it is set in Central Europe during the rise of the Third Reich… ish. It’s all fictionalized and bowdlerized and generally caponized. Instead of the swastika, we get two stylized Z’s, like lightning. But while the visuals are painstakingly created, and even occasionally say something, as when a greedy son smashes a valuable painting, evidently because he doesn’t know it’s an Egon Schiele (faked for the film), the screenplay has zero fresh ideas, or serious ones, or even comic ones. It’s a kaleidoscope, with no more change of pace or tone than that toy has.

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Andersonville trials: Paul Thomas

Dangerously dull

Dangerously dull

About ten minutes into There Will Be Blood– that’s only one scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s world– somebody in the audience said, aloud, “We get it. Digging oil wells is dangerous.” The scene, unfortunately, was not yet over. Anderson never directed a crisp, concise film in his life. Boogie Nights (155 minutes), Magnolia (188m), There Will be Blood (158m)– that’s 8.5 hours for three movies. And before someone points out that Punch Drunk Love was only 95 minutes, I would counter that it felt twice that. At least.

Paul Dano No. 1

Paul Dano No. 1

Pascal is among those credited with this paradoxical axiom, “I am sorry for the length of my letter, but I had not the time to write a short one.” Amen. It does take time– and talent and discipline– to sculpt and winnow an idea down to its most purposeful and powerful elements. But Anderson doesn’t winnow, he wallows. In his world, if a four-minute scene is good, then it’ll be twice as good at eight minutes, and three times as good at twelve. It’s a wonder his movies aren’t six hours long, especially considering  his remarks about his work, which are the dead opposite of Pascal, e.g.: “Oh, how I hate it when directors are supposed to explain their films. I only say this much: If I had had more cash, I would have let it rain cats and dogs.”

"Clean up in aisle one!"

“Clean up in aisle one!”

The best way to deal with this endlessly over-rated film is with adjectives, starting with endless and over-rated. Then, of course, bloated. Slow. Fatuous. Loud. Unfaithful (to Upton Sinclair’s satire, Oil!). Sentimental. Confusing (Paul Dano’s twin characters). Abrupt (the ending). And, finally and crucially, pointless. I didn’t care about a single character, and the film introduced no new ideas or even flavors to the oil industry, family loyalties, ruthless ambition, misanthropy, religion, or bowling.

A sexagenarian romp

Champagne at the Plaza Athénée

Champagne at the Plaza Athénée

The genre, if it can be called that, is geriatric screwball comedy. Not enticing, though the premise of Le Week-End held some promise: a trip to Paris to revitalize a tired 30-year-old marriage. Unfortunately for all concerned, including the audience, once Mr. and Mrs. Burrows get off the Eurostar train from London, everything goes wrong, for them and for the film.

Cardiac climb to Sacre Coeur

Cardiac climb to Sacre Coeur

Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are at no point sympathetic characters, nor is their marriage believable. The simplest way to relay the movie’s failure is to catalog its many flaws, which is a list of implausibilities.

"Entre nous, I show up midway, and I'm not worth the wait."

“Entre nous, I show up midway, and I’m not worth the wait.”

Start with their home life, which is spoken of but not seen, as all the action takes place in Paris: (1) Nick is dismissed as a professor of philosophy in Birmingham because he suggested one of his students spend more time on her studies than her hair. He was fired? Really? Even academia is not that petty. Anyway, as result, they are all but penniless in Paris. (2) Their marriage is so sexless that at one point he crawls toward her begging to smell her crotch. Now, maybe men that feeble exist. Maybe they even stay in marriages. And maybe there are women who indulge such caponized behavior, or who are the cause of it. But if any of those pathologies exist, they need to be explored a bit when the storytellers aim the camera at her lifted skirt and his kneel-crawl. In this movie, that scene adds nothing but campy vulgarity. (3) They refer to their children in the plural (“Once the kids have gone, what’s left of us?”), but the only one offspring emerges in the plot, a derelict married son who phones for money. Why “kids” if the plot only calls for one? Answer: lazy writing. (4) Nick had an affair years ago, and Meg is still punishing him for it— sometimes. At other times, she buys him art books they can’t afford. She is the very definition of fickle, while he’s a grizzled Lloyd Dobler—smitten to the point of emasculation.

Splurging on books

Splurging on books

Then there’s Paris itself. (5) Meg hates the inexpensive Montmartre hotel room he booked— her entire objection: “It’s beige”— and so flees for a taxi, with him rushing after shouting “Don’t do this, Meg!” They drive around, meter ticking, until she sees the Plaza Athénée, one of Paris’s most luxurious hotels—say, $700 per night. (6) In the course of their stay, he vandalizes their room by pasting mementos to a wall, including snippets from the generous pile of coffee-table art books she bought. (7) On the street one night, they encounter an old friend of his (Jeff Goldblum, displaying his full range of signature quirks) who of course happens to be a wildly successful author with a pregnant young wife and, for that touch of the imperfect, a pot-smoking son secluded in a bedroom. No movie these days can be without someone filthy rich, or someone dysfunctional: Goldblum provides both. Finally (8), perhaps the worst flaw of all, the one that makes it impossible to like these people: they are presented as petty criminals. Superannuated delinquents. They run from paying their bills at a restaurant, and at the Plaza Athénée. They are caught at the latter, and called to account, and Jeff Goldblum comes to their rescue. The end.

The Goldblum handout

The Goldblum handout

I could go on, but recalling the flaws is as tedious as watching them in the first place. Broadbent and Duncan are fine in their roles, but Nick and Meg are inconsistent and often embarrassing to watch. Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell (whose first film, Persuasion, was marvelous) seem to want to have it both ways— a comedy with a broken heart— but there is little humor, and no heart.