September 29, 2013

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sidney Lumet, who died two years ago, directed Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. It's his best movie. Like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, and Lumet's own Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon plays its themes with compelling vigor: crime, crowds, police action, the media, and the enervated realism of a New York afternoon in post-Watergate America.

Watergate hero. Al Pacino
The movie is hugely successful at what it sets out to do: it drops you into a Brooklyn bank right before a robbery, immersing you in the comedic tension of a day on the job. This may be the first movie ever to mine equal amounts of humor and pathos from a couple of bozo bank robbers. Sonny (Al Pacino), the more decent and pragmatic of the two, needs the cash for his lover's sex change operation. Everything goes wrong for him: he's like a Polish Alvy Singer, a bumbler whose good intentions get him kicked around, and the movie makes him a comic hero of the Watergate era. (The character is based on the actual bank robber John Wojtowicz.)

Lumet and his team combine just the right amounts of asphalt realism and expressionist distortion of smoggy sunlight as it sinks into an Edward Hopper evening. As night falls, beads of sweat drench everybody's face: the negotiators, the hostages, Sonny and his friend and accomplice, Sal. The air conditioner in the bank chugs noisily, its condensers and coils rattling with exhaustion. Everyone and everything in the movie grows exhausted and frazzled. It's a comedy of errors as the action moves between the two sets—the bank and the street outside, where the boys in blue spend the day trying to keep the crowds from crossing the crime barricades as they chant "Attica! Attica!" The tone alternates between the frantic, the comic, and the exhaustedly placid, but stays completely lifelike.

Dog Day Afternoon is unusual for 1970s movies because the police (the establishment) are treated sympathetically; the movie's point of view is that the street crowd's response to Sonny's plight—treating him like a celebrity and political hero—is nutzo and obstructionist. How did Lumet know that, decades later, we'd actually be willing to feel ashamed of our own corrupted '60s youth?

September 26, 2013

Fast Food

The Bank Job (2008) is a cheap buzz, neither likable nor memorable. This heist thriller fulfills the most superficial purpose of movies: you get a slight kick out of the twists and folds, and then easily walk away from it. There's practically nothing in the way of humor, let alone wit, and the silly business with the head burglar and his estranged wife comes out of nowhere, trying to evince a smidge of poignancy, but it's a no go. A neurasthenic action film is a bummer for moviegoers.

That subplot wraps up in the lamest scene in the movie—only a child or a dunderhead would fall for it. Not a single performance stands out, either as especially skilled or as notably bad. In fact, nothing stands out at all. The guy who plays the porn mob boss looks like David Suchet, but I didn't even care so I didn't bother to look it up. Everything goes down quickly, without eliciting love or disgust—any strong response whatsoever—for any of it. This movie isn't watched, it's consumed.

September 25, 2013

Poop Deck

Titanic (1997) is, in Shakespeare's phrase, "too much of water." The movie sinks long before the ship does. If the dewily pubescent love story doesn't interest you (in other words, if you're older than 16), there's not much else to do but observe the cold impressiveness of the production. The set design is pretty, but you're not sure what's real and what's CGI, and sooner or later you give up trying to figure it out. An awful lot of people are running around onscreen, but they're just a lot of mice against the gigantism of the movie's megaproduction (although a group of them later drown like rats below deck).

Dewy young love. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
There are good guys and bad guys, bar-room brawls, fiery sunsets, Irish rogues, snooty Brits, a plucky American gal named Molly Brown, and a Hallmark-weepy framing device: the lovely young woman is now a sentimental old woman telling her story to a science team exploring the wreck. She throws her keepsake into the waves and watches it sink. It's all a big blur. Nonetheless, I was able to collect my thoughts during several of the scenes, including the awesome moment of impact, when shards and chunks of the iceberg catapulted onto the ship and skidded along the deck. The two young lovers make love in an automobile in the cargo area, and my memory flashed back to the same scene in Now, Voyager (1942) which, despite that film's exhausting length, was much more to the point. Just too damn much water everywhere: I got queasy when the young lead spit into the wind and it blew back in his face. The passengers who stayed aboard ship after it struck the berg were singing Nearer My God to Thee, in unison, as the vessel slipped beneath the icy waters. I'd have been singing a rousing rendition of Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet in an attempt to keep my body temperature up.

The thing about movies like Titanic is that they're so conventional-minded in their aesthetics & so calculating. There's nothing playful in the entire picture—nothing that isn't worked out precisely and mechanically beforehand. It's an entire universe that exists digitally. How can a story about large-scale human tragedy be so machine-tooled and impersonal? That's what I mean when I say a movie doesn't breathe—the pores are clogged with contrivance. What's wrong with a little surprise, a little idiosyncrasy in the telling, especially in such a long film? Every last element—camera work, dialog, acting, lighting, directing—has had the life squeezed out of it. When the poor ship sinks, it's like a symbol of the entire movie sinking under the weight of its own production.

A Passage From India

Indian summer. Riz Ahmed (left) and Freida Pinto
Trishna (2011) is the most intelligent sort of literary adaptation—a luminous resetting of Hardy's Tess of the D'urbervilles that transforms externals into inspired new forms and retains the sweeping sexual power of its source. I have no end of admiration for Michael Winterbottom, the director, who paints vividly in short takes. He builds momentum using the techniques of classical montage (one scene, of an auto accident on a dusty road, builds until the portentous edits feel like something out of October), and pays homage to movie antecedents ranging from De Sica to David Lean. Winterbottom knows where to put actors in the frame and how to structure cuts to give the excellent dialog its due.

Winterbottom's palette is as mature and varied as that of any other big director working today in English-speaking movies, including Mike Leigh and Wes Anderson. A Cock and Bull Story (2006) is one of the freshest and most innovative comedies of the new century, and Genova (2007) dabbles in mystical sentiment. Like both of those movies, Trishna gathers power in the telling and casts an uncanny glow over the memory.


Hip depravity. Juliette Lewis and Benicio Del Toro
The Way of the Gun (2000) is worse than aggressively sick—it's diseased. Take all the really foul stretches from the Quentin Tarantino bloodfests and the insipid humor in the Richard Donner Lethal Weapon movies and string everything together—that's The Way of the Gun. But in terms of craftsmanship, it's marvelous: the lighting, the color, and the sound are expert, and the soundtrack comes truly alive. The actors do some excellent work and elicit the audience's admiration: Dylan Kussman as the doctor is an amazing little performer who effortlessly rises above his surroundings (as he did in Dead Poets' Society). Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe are two of Hollywood's more talented actors at generating a steady sizzle. The two bodyguards, Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt, give clever, rousing performances, but Diggs really comes alive only when Katt is killed.

On the debit side, Juliette Lewis is a repellent presence with unfortunate physiognomy and style, and her constant screaming makes you want to force feed her glass. James Caan shows up and I thought, "What a drag to see that mannerism-infected old fart talking and moving as if he were revisiting scenes from The Killer Elite." Caan always wears Eddie Bauer windbreakers in his movies, and sure enough he's wearing one again here. The cutting during the final shootout is astounding—technical mastery of the medium—and the montage is the work of a film master. But the movie's vision is awash in moral crud. The Way of the Gun is a repugnant work of art.

September 24, 2013


I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1969) is largely a bummer because every one of its classic scenes—the blocked car, the Mexican family with whiplash, the brownies, the funeral—occurs in the first 30 minutes. Once Peter Sellers (Harold) turns hippie-beads, the funny bits dry up and so do the themes (the discrepancy between, first, Harold's establishment boringness and his brother's counter-culture idiocy, and secondly between his mother's caricaturish L.A. Jewishness and both her children's apostasy).

Culture clash. Peter Sellers and Leigh Taylor-Young
The rest of the movie is dead on arrival: inchoate scenes of Sellers and Leigh Taylor-Young making love in an old car when the police show up and kick them out (the scene just crumbles before your eyes); the law-firm partner, who's a tiresome letch, propositioning Harold's ex-fiancee; a middle-aged cross-dresser coming into the dress shop and asking for a mini-skirt to try on, etc. There's so much comedy going bust that you start squirming for the actors, because they were all so amusing in the first half hour.

The Jewish jokes fizzle, too, and the shtick gets careless. Why are there flowers at the Jewish butcher's funeral, and why is his casket so fancy? Why is the Lohengrin march played at Harold's wedding? Elmer Bernstein may as well have not even bothered, either. He just repeats the theme song for two hours. Peter Sellers droops and gets confused by the dearth of gags, Mrs. Fine (the skillful Jo Van Fleet) doesn't get any more funny lines, either, and the butcher's widow keeps wailing hysterically. Were the writers smoking too much dope?

September 23, 2013

Reanimating the Dead

The scenes in I Walked With a Zombie with that warm, moist wind wafting through the plantation garden seem almost an antidote to the cliche of the howling storms of other horror movies. This Jacques Tourneur "B" classic turns the gothic Romanticism of studio classics like Frankenstein and Island of Lost Souls into an island pastorale. It's a memorable Hollywood voodoo movie because of its transformed vision.

Sunrise in the West Indies
TV zombie drama reached its high point in the horror-comedy hit series The Night Stalker in the 1970s. One of the best episodes was "The Zombie," which combines a scruffy, crusading reporter, a gangland turf war, and a frightening Haitian corpse that won't stay put in the cemetery.

Kolchak: "I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing here."

Crime Boss: "Hmm."

Kolchak: "Well, I-I-I think, Mr. Possati ..."

Crime Boss: (deliberately, calmly) "Sposatti."

Kolchak: "Sp-sp-sposatti, of course."

Crime Boss: "I remember you. Vittorio, this is the guy that crashed my daughter's wedding, remember? He took all those pictures!"

Thug: (looks at Kolchak) "Yeah, he's right."

Kolchak: (wide-eyed) "No, no! Horrible mistake. No, you see, you're thinking of my brother ... uhh, SIDNEY Kolchak. He writes a society column."

Crime Boss: (laughs) "I remember the two-dollar hat, Kolchak. I got a memory like a steep trap. I never forget anything. Ask Victor."

Thug: "That's right. Photographic."

Crime Boss: "Mr. Kolchak, ever been to Mercy General Hospital?"

Kolchak: (wide-eyed) "No, I ... uhh ... never have."

Crime Boss: "They got a great gastrointestinal man—one of the best in the Midwest."

Thug: "Vincenze?"

Crime Boss: "Toto Rosetti ... Vittorio, why don't you make an appointment for Mr. Kolchak with Toto Rosetti, eh?"

Kolchak: "NO!! No-no-no!! Wait, wait!! I can tell you ... I can tell you who's been knocking your men off! I know! I can give you a NAME."

Crime Boss: (sotto voce) "What."

Kolchak: "He's a Haitian numbers runner by the name of Francois Edmunds."

Thug: "Why?"

Kolchak: (nervously) "Why? I-I-I don't know why. How do I know why? Maybe he ... uhhh ... got in Willy Pike's hair? and Willy Pike sent him through the system and he got knocked off by the Musso brothers? I don't know ... maybe?"

Crime Boss: "Well, Mr. Kolchak, you're partially correct. But you see, that guy now lies in St. Lucy's Cemetery. But it was a very nice try" (rolls up the car window on Kolchak's nose).

Kolchak: (pushing the window back down) "No-no! See ... that's where they keep putting him. But ... I'll bet my life—and I'm not saying that loosely, gentlemen (laughs nervously)—I will bet my life that he is not—there—now!"