Hey, if the weather isn’t going to cooperate at least this flick might give you a good chill.
Hey, if the weather isn’t going to cooperate at least this flick might give you a good chill.
You guys know me as a P. Kael freak so you can imagine how honored I am to be able to reprint one of her reviews–of a fun movie too (Damn, I miss Raul Julia):
The movie is a confluence of fantasies, with a crime plot that often seems to be stalled, as if a projector had broken down. A good melodramatic structure should rhyme: we should hold our breath at the pacing as the pieces come together, and maybe smile at how neat the fit is. Here the pieces straggle, and by the end you’re probably ignoring the plot points. Raul Julia, who turns up as the Mexican Comandante Escalante, has a big, likable, rumbling presence; his role recalls the Leo Carrillo parts in movies like The Gay Desperado, with a new aplomb. And for a few seconds here and there Raul Julia takes over; he’s funny, and he detonates. (The character’s lack of moral conflicts gives his scenes a giddy high.) Then the film’s languor settles in again. An elaborate government sting operation waits while Mac and Escalante play Ping-Pong, and waits again while they sit in a boat and Mac talks drivel about bullfighting. (It’s the worst dialogue in the film; for sheer inappropriateness it’s matched only by Dave Grusin’s aggressive, out-to-slay-you score.)
Most of the dialogue is sprightly—it’s easy, everyday talk that actors can breathe to. But Towne’s directing is, surprisingly, better than his construction—maybe because when he plans to direct he leaves things loose. He says, “I make the character fit the actor, I don’t try to make the actor fit the character.” That sounds as if he’s highly variable, a modernist. But he isn’t. He likes bits from old movies, such as having the cops who are planning to surprise Mac be so dumb that they leave peanut shells wherever they’ve been posted. The difference between the way Towne handles the peanut shells and the way a director of the thirties would have (and did) is that he doesn’t sock the joke home; he glides over it. He wants the effect, yet he doesn’t want to be crude about it, so he half does it. Almost everything in the action scenes of the last three-quarters of an hour is half done. Often he gives you the preparation for action and no follow-through; sometimes the reverse.
Huge thanks to Kael’s daughter, Gina James, for giving me permission to share this with you.
This one goes to eleven.
Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the airplane is plummeting to the earth and we see the numbers on the speedometer getting higher and higher, faster and faster and finally it says: “Silly, isn’t it?”
I kept waiting for a cutaway to that line as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road. There were moments that I laughed out loud because there’s a Looney Tunes quality to the movies’ craziness–I don’t know what other response you can have. I didn’t find the movie thrilling or suspenseful or even tense. There are some scary moments, but nothing that freaked me out. I felt excited in an over-caffeinated way, but it’s so over-the-top, so fantastic, I almost immediately felt detached and after about 15, 20 minutes, bored. It’s magnificent but not for me.
I was talking to a friend recently about appetites and he called himself a pathological maximalist. Forgive the pun, but I kept thinking about that as I watched Fury Road.
The ads boast that the movie was made by “Mastermind” George Miller and that’s no stretch. This isn’t the work of a director. This is a finely tuned, well-realized orchestration from a mastermind. It’s not pure chaos. There is a keen sense of pacing, there are quiet scenes, with breaks in the action, but really I thought the whole thing was akin to watching two-plus hours of slam dunk highlights. It’s an extended guitar solo, an orgy of technical virtuosity, one stunt more improbable than the next. The technique is formidable and some of the images are captivating–though I dare you to recall any specific images after being bombarded by so many. But the story–which at times suggests Thunderdome as much as The Road Warrior–is corny despite its admirable political sensibility. The dialogue is so sparse that it is easy to laugh at–B-movie fromage. The early movies had that quality too but they also had more of a low budget vibe, a punk vibe. This is Cirque du Soliel, this is Vegas, Grand Theft Auto. Miller’s left punk behind. This is rock opera video game for the hyper modern age.
I’ve read Tom Hardy, who plays Max, say that he had no idea what Miller wanted him to do during filming and I think that comes across. Not that it matters–Max is just an action figure who is playing the role of second banana (the lead is played by Charlize Theron). But it’s too bad because I liked Mel Gibson’s tortured hero of the early movies. (And I liked his dog.) There is nothing of the immediacy and realism of the first two movies here. Even if they were cartoons, there was a semblance of credibility, too Here, Max is captured, chained, and when he breaks free, instead of collapsing from fatigue, he springs to life like the Hulk.
I suppose this movie is in step with the times. Maybe that’s why the critics have fallen all over themselves writing about it. How can you ignore not admire such technical brilliance? But this is the kind of roller coaster that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s remarkable and if you like your thrills and spills larger than life you’ll dig it.
The rest of you can spare yourself the pounding.
I’m not a Hitchcock fan but I’ve probably seen close to half of his movies. Never saw Rear Window, though, just bits and pieces on TV. Until last week when I was in L.A. and went to see a screening of Rear Window at a revival theater in Santa Monica.
I had a good time; it was fun watching the movie with an audience.
I didn’t realize how erotic it is. I especially like this scene with Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart.
I remember my mother reading Bacall’s autobiography when I was a kid. It won a National Book Award and is one of the finest Hollywood memoirs, not only for her life with Bogart but for her life after him.
The picture on the back cover was something I looked at a lot. Man, she was so glamorous and I imaged that my mother and father were that romantic when they met. My mom was a beautiful young woman but her romance–and marriage–to my father did not last. Still, she pushed on, and was not defeated. I’ve always thought that Bacall’s book helped her out during the painful early days of her divorce.
I saw Boyhood yesterday and it unfolds like a movie version of a family photo album. I’ve never been a particular fan of Richard Linklater’s movies but this one is beautiful in quiet, subtle–but not precious–ways. It has a different sense of pacing from most American movies. It almost feels European in that way. It reminded me of the best parts of Malick, Altman, and, particularly, early Jonathan Demme. There are some unnerving moments but Linklater likes people. He isn’t sunny, exactly–at least not in a phony way–but has a hopeful view of the world.
The movie is long, sometimes talky, even boring at times, but not in a way that breaks the spell. It’s just that the movie is in no hurry. Oh, and it’s also funny in a dry, deadpan way.
The performances were better than convincing. I felt immersed in the characters’ lives. Ellar Coltrane, in the lead role, is special, man. (I’ve never cared for Ethan Hawke and he’s terrific here.)
I was so involved that after the first hour I forgot about how the movie was filmed. I understand why Manohla Dargis has seen it 3 times and wants to go again.
Worth your time.
Why should we watch Johansson with any more attention than we pay to other actors? When did moviegoers come to realize that she was worth the wait, in gold? Well, there was Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), which was loaded with physical gorgeousness, and lit with suitable fervor. There was one scene, at a champagne reception in a Spanish art gallery, where Johansson was, indeed, gilded to behold. She seemed to be made from champagne. But you need to wind back five more years, and to the colder skies of Japan, to find her moment—the exact point at which the public looked at her and discovered, to its consternation, that it could not look away. She may not have found fame with “Lost in Translation” alone, but it was certainly the time at which fame found her; the same year, she played Vermeer’s model, in “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” and was transfigured, by the movie’s final shot, into a work of art.
In “Lost in Translation,” directed by Sofia Coppola, Johansson was an unappreciated young wife who moseyed around Tokyo, surveying the unfamiliar with aplomb. Her deadpan demeanor, here as elsewhere, suggested that we should be summoned, not repelled, by things that we do not understand. If the opening shot was a sly joke, presenting us directly with Johansson’s backside, barely veiled in peach-colored underwear, the rest of the movie was dedicated to the principle that she would no longer be treated as a nice piece of ass. Fifteen minutes in, there was a breathtaking closeup of her face, as she applied lipstick; then, halfway through, came the karaoke scene. Johansson, on yet another sleepless night, wore a pink wig and sang along to “Brass in Pocket,” by the Pretenders. Having assured us—and Bill Murray, laid-back and gazing on—that she would use her arms, legs, style, sidestep, and so forth, she came to the crunch:
Gonna make you see
Nobody else here
No one like me.
Murray shook his head, smiling, in dopey wonderment, as if to say, “You’re not wrong, girl.” He, the lord and master of underreaction, had finally met his match. The fact that he was more than twice her age didn’t feel creepy at all, first because he barely laid a hand on her, and second because she seemed older and calmer, if not wiser, than her years. “You’re the boss,” he said. (Imagine if his role had gone to a young gun—to Josh Hartnett, say, who was her boyfriend at the time. Without Murray and Johansson, the odd couple par excellence, would we still be talking about the film today?) Until “Lost in Translation,” she had been a promising young actress, graduating smoothly from an unknown to a half-known; now she would keep the promise. Stardom would come upon her, and with it the unknowability that both tempts and eludes the public’s craving to know more.
Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck were separated by fifteen years in age, and arrived in Hollywood more than a decade apart. Although both were famous stars, neither ever won a competitive Academy Award. (Gardner was nominated once for Mogambo and Stanwyck four times, for Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. She received an honorary Oscar in 1982 for her “unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”) Both were at the top during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, but one difference between them is fundamental: Ava Gardner was a product of the “star machine” and Barbara Stanwyck was not.
Gardner, from a not very well off but stable North Carolina family, arrived in town with a minimum of security and no acting experience, but was fed into a system that might be expected to take care of her if she behaved. Stanwyck, coming from a hardscrabble background in New York, arrived from Broadway with the security of a contract and solid experience, but took up her career independently and never let anyone own her.
Gardner’s security came with a price. Unable to pick and choose, she was assigned pedestrian films she had to carry (The Great Sinner in 1949, My Forbidden Past in 1951). She wasn’t given many opportunities to grow as an actress. The studio didn’t need that from her, and because of her spectacular looks, she presented something of a casting problem. Who would believe Ava Gardner as a nun, or a rocket scientist, or a neglected working girl in a tuna cannery? She was born to grab the spotlight, and having shaped her image as “a magnificent animal” (her billing for The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Hollywood was content to present her that way.
Gardner became resentful and restless, and began to carouse, have affairs, and create problems. She didn’t care if she caused a scandal, particularly when she took up with the married Frank Sinatra and became the most famous “other woman” of her time. Ironically, it was easy for her studio to fuse this off-screen behavior to her on-screen persona, and the role of “Ava Gardner,” bad-girl-good-time-gal-sex-symbol, became an unbreakable image.
Stanwyck’s independence meant that she could negotiate her films and salaries, but she had to accept that she had no priority in any studio’s plans for casting. She lost significant roles as a result, such as the lead in Dark Victory (1939), which went to Bette Davis. Wilson points out that a studio “would have steadily built her up picture after picture,” as MGM did with Gardner, but Stanwyck didn’t want that: “She found it a constraint.” Stanwyck had to fight to get good films, but she had her own supporters, including her first husband, Frank Fay (an established born-in-a-trunk performer), a shrewd agent, Zeppo Marx (the fifth Marx brother), and particularly director Frank Capra, who saw what she was capable of and who guided her in four of her earliest films. As curator of the Frank Capra Archives, I spent many hours talking to Capra about his career, and Stanwyck was a subject he loved. A great admirer of her talent, discipline, and professionalism, he always stressed that since Stanwyck was never owned by a single studio for any length of time, no specific image was created for her. She had to create her own.
I didn’t buy The Fighter much as a boxing movie and I had a hard time believing some of the characters and scenarios in Silver Lining Playbook but I also enjoyed both movies. Sometimes you aren’t irritated by things that would normally bug the hell out of you. That’s the only way I can figure it–it’s a matter of taste.
Almost everything in first few minutes of American Hustle–a protracted take of Christian Bale gluing fake hair to his head, a slow motion montage set to classic rock music, showy period decor and outfits not to mention everybody’s hair, oh, that hair!–would usually annoy me. But in this case, it didn’t. In these first minutes the mix tape is rolling–from the movie’s signature tune, Duke Ellington’s 1958 recording of “Jeep’s Blues”, to America’s “A Horse with No Name’, to “Dirty Work,” the moody and vibe Steely Dan record. The two rock songs are as obvious (“On the first part of the journey…”) as the hairstyles but they made me happy regardless.
Christian Bale hides underneath an elaborate combover and a big gut. He fidgets with his glasses and at times seems to a pastiche of mannerisms from other actors (Alec Baldwin’s cackle, Robert De Niro’s body language). It’s hard not to be aware of his acting and yet I found this to be the most sympathetic performance. He deadpans his way through many of his scenes and he’s easy to root for. So is Bradley Cooper who plays his nemesis, a slick, ambitious climber, whose sadism in a few scenes suggest Peter Seller’s Claire Quilty. (He’s also funny, like when he does a quick impersonation of his boss–played by an effective Louis C.K.)
Amy Adams is terrific as Bale’s partner and Jennifer Lawrence continues to brighten any movie in which she appears even though her role is small and underwritten (she can’t quite seem to decide on an accent but otherwise gives her part great credibility). The showdown scene between Adams and Lawrence is not something I’ll soon forget. Russell likes women and he takes care to treat them with respect. In one crucial scene, Adams gives an pointed speech and leaves Bale with something to think about. The scene ends with her walking out of the room. As she walks away her full body comes into frame. I waited for Russell to show her ass–the wiggle, to punctuate things–but he cuts just before the wiggle. A subtle choice.
Jeremy Renner ( more good hair) is strong in a supporting role and Robert De Niro is frightening in a cameo. It’s been a long time since I recall being moved by De Niro but I thought he was really good.
American Hustle is a feast of over-the-top moviemaking (anxious, luxuriant). You can’t get away from the movieness of it. The comparisons to Good Fellas might be superficial but they aren’t far-fetched. This isn’t just a 70’s nostalgia movie like Carlito’s Way, or The People vs. Larry Flynt or Candelabra, it belongs to a specific sub-genre that began with Good Fellas and continued with Boogie Nights and Blow. The technique is familiar. Russell’s camera is constantly moving, pushing in, tracking, panning. I’ve read that Russell likes to be in close proximity to his actors, often calling out lines to them as they improvise a scene. The camera is never far away from them, either. You can almost feel Russell in the scene with them. I like how they recorded the voice overs, especially here–there is a breathiness to it that heightens the sense of intimacy.
Much of Russell’s style comes from Scorsese. But if Russell grew up on Casavettes and Altman and Scorsese he’s closer to Preston Struges. His for screwball comedy, especially between men and women, is his most winning trait. For all the yelling and screaming that goes on in his movies, things turn out okay for everyone in Russell’s world. There isn’t one sequence that has the kind of nervy tension of the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights. Russell never makes you that uneasy. For some people, this is where he falls down. I’ve talked to a lot of people who think American Hustle is phony. And I can see that. But I respond to the pleasures he offers up. They win out.
Start with the voice, which seems to have been around since the world began: lush, weary, tender, worldly, skeptical, ranging nimbly between hard and soft. It could be metallic, mannish and brittle or gentle as a down pillow, sometimes within the same film, as befits an actress who was at ease in every genre, from woman’s melodrama to the western, with noir and screwball comedy in between. Though film buffs have treasured her for years, Barbara Stanwyck has burned less brightly among general moviegoers for whom a higher voltage is synonymous with stardom.
She was neither a great beauty nor a glamour puss, and the importance of this — her refusal or inability to be simplified into a single image — has to be seen as a major factor in her longevity. More iconoclast than icon, more a character star on the order of Bogie or Cagney, she was often the second or third choice after Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Bette Davis and Irene Dunne. Yet she has worn especially well. And if she was underappreciated in her time, her minimalist gifts — the fluid movement, the stillness in repose, the sense of interiority — have come to seem ultramodern.
If ever there was an actress who was ready for prime time, it is Stanwyck, and this enormously informative tribute — juicy yet dignified, admiring yet detached — is the book to bring her to center stage. Or books, I should say, for this full-dress treatment is not for the fainthearted: “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940,” at 860 pages of text (notes, index and appendices bring it to 1,044), is only the first volume, beginning with Stanwyck’s birth and ending with the films preceding World War II. Wilson stays resolutely and sometimes frustratingly within this time frame, resisting even an anticipatory peek at those glorious ’40s films. I confess to having felt a certain alarm when I heard that Wilson, a vice president and longtime editor at Knopf whose first book this is, was writing two volumes on Stanwyck. In general, only someone of global consequence merits such exhaustive and demanding length. It seemed — and still seems — especially disproportionate in the case of Stanwyck, whose talent for passing under the radar was one of her charms. But Wilson’s aims are far more ambitious than documenting the minutiae of a movie star’s life.
What she does is provide context of extraordinary breadth, taking in not only Stanwyck’s life, her beginnings in poverty and tragedy and her emergence as an emblem of self-sufficiency, but also the world through which she moved: the cultural and political forces that shaped her years in show business as she went from burlesque and theater in New York to the turbulent Hollywood of the 1930s. Each film from this period is recounted in detail — indeed not just the films she made, but the ones she almost made and the parts she didn’t get. These descriptions are interspersed with mini-biographies of the various participants, forays into Stanwyck’s social life (or antisocial life, as the case often was), along with politics, both local and national.