Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Movies: Recent Release Roundup

Toy Story 3. It’s a Pixar movie. What do you think I’m going to say? I don’t know what’s more impressive, introducing a complex philosophical thought about life and death in what is ostensibly a children’s movie without a line of dialogue, or following it with a plot twist that was set up in the first movie fifteen years ago.

The Extra Man. This adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novel was the opening night film at SIFF last month. It’s now available via on demand prior to a limited theatrical release. Paul Dano plays a disgraced prep school teacher, detached from the modern era and his own desires, who moves to New York to find himself. But first he finds Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), asexual academic, justly forgotten playwright, and escort to moneyed women of a certain age. It’s a slight movie but an enjoyable one thanks to the two leads; Kline has his best film role in decades. The directors of American Splendor capture the real Manhattan, where abject squalor is cheek-by-jowl with wild excess and you barely notice either because you’re too focused on what’s in front of you.

Winter’s Bone. Seventeen year old Ree Dolly (the astonishing Jennifer Lawrence) riles up her extended Ozark family in order to save her immediate one when her no-good daddy jumps bail and disappears. You’ll find no thriller more low-key than this one based on Daniel Woodrell’s spare novel, but bet your ass that it thrills. Its every casual act of violence has more impact than an entire summer’s worth of blockbuster explosions and fireballs. A movie packed with formidable women, and no scene of late has rocked me like Ree’s conversation with an Army recruiter.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Movie: The Killer Inside Me (1976)

After seeing the new adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel, I decided to check out the earlier film version. This in spite of its less-than-stellar reputation among the hardboiled cognoscenti. That’s the level of service you can expect around here.

The story, at least in terms of incident, is very much the same. Deputy sheriff Lou Ford seems like a right guy but he ain’t. Things go bad and get steadily worse. Folks die.

But this is an actual adaptation, for better or worse. The action has been shifted from Texas to a Montana mining town. The burg is nicely captured in the film, populated as it is by familiar ‘50s faces like Charles McGraw and Keenan Wynn. The biggest change is in terms of Lou Ford’s backstory, which has been simplified to the crudest Freudian terms.

That puts additional pressure on Stacy Keach, who comes through in spades. His Lou Ford is still deeply nuts, but there’s more of a sense of Lou fighting desperately to keep the lid on his psychosis. His collapse is all the more frightening because his mask of sanity never completely slips off. Susan Tyrrell, so good with Keach in Fat City, gives a great performance as Joyce, the prostitute whose desirability and greed are tinged with and intensified by laziness and anger.

Director Burt Kennedy was responsible for one of my favorite neglected noirs, The Money Trap. He deploys some elements here that have dated badly – there are too many pointless ‘70s zooms, and the soundtrack is truly lousy – but overall the film holds up. It’s less faithful to Thompson than the newer film, but more cohesive. That there are two such different approaches more than three decades apart is a testament to the power of the novel. And really, that’s where you ought to start.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson (2010)

In the beginning, Stieg Larsson created The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And it was good.

I stand by that verdict. Yes, the prose was clunky, but it worked for a story of modern characters – Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who splits his time between crusading and preening, and Lisbeth Salander, the damaged genius of the title – in an anachronistic setting.

(ASIDE: I’m in the minority on this, but I saw the Swedish film adaptation and, aside from Noomi Rapace’s Salander, found it a dreary slog. Stripped of Larsson’s idiosyncratic style the story came across as formulaic. Rosemarie, who hadn’t read the book beforehand, summed it up thusly: “Horrible things happen to women, then and now.” An American remake, especially one directed by David Fincher, can only be an improvement.)

Next was The Girl Who Played With Fire. Actively disliked it.

Comes now Hornet’s Nest, picking up mere seconds after Fire ends. Salander has been reunited with her more-than-estranged father, a Soviet defector turned gangster, and as these things usually go each tries to kill the other.

I’ve stuck with the series for one reason, and that’s Salander. So naturally she spends almost the entirety of this book incapacitated. Instead we follow a cover-up carried out by septuagenarians and their dimwitted factotums.

The granularity of Larsson’s plotting keeps the pages turning, but the writing has not improved. Here’s Salander’s doctor as she’s wheeled into the ER.

“And now the murderer herself had been shot, which was surely poetic justice of a sort. But that was not his concern. His job was to save his patient’s life, irrespective of whether she was a triple murderer or a Nobel Prize winner. Or both.”

The critical term we’re looking for is yeesh.

Once again terrible things happen to women. The book is further padded with a stalker storyline involving Blomkvist’s lover Erika Berger that Salander unravels without leaving her hospital bed. Admittedly, personal and institutional misogyny is Larsson’s true subject. He even has Blomkvist say so for those who haven’t tumbled to that fact.

“When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.”

But too often Larsson wallows in what he professes to decry. And seriously, who uses a semi-colon in dialogue?

Lisbeth Salander is such a singular creation that I read all 1,500+ pages about her. I just didn’t care for most of them. But Stieg Larsson has single-handedly saved publishing and created a tourism industry, so take my take with a grain of salt. Preferably washed down with an Akvavit.

UPDATE: Nora Ephron has some problems with the books as well.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Miscellaneous: Life in the Cheap Bastard Section

Whenever I told someone in Seattle that we were spending a few days in Las Vegas, I always got the same response. Never “When are you going?” or “Where are you staying?” but “Why?,” the assumption being that I was heading to Sin City against my will. I’ve stopped trying to explain that I actually enjoy Las Vegas. I’d simply say that my client insisted that’s where the job go down and then change the subject.

On this trip we decided to honor the city’s bygone glory days by attending a Rat Pack tribute show. Trouble is there are two of them, one borne of the other, and they’re feuding, at times in true old-school fashion. We opted for The Rat Pack is Back because it’s the older show and it would allow us, at last, to visit downtown Las Vegas. That its home, the Plaza, served as Biff’s casino in Back to the Future Part II and the devil’s headquarters in The Stand was another plus, as was the fact that the Plaza’s showroom had essentially been neglected for decades prior to a renovation that preserved its Nixon-era glamour.

The show is modeled on original Rat Pack concerts but flexible enough to allow for late-career hits and Viagra jokes. The impersonations are variable, yet offered with energy and palpable affection. And the band is terrific, so a good time is had by all.

I knew that there was some audience participation in the show and sought out seats in the second tier. What happened next taught me a valuable lesson. Halfway into Frank’s set, the doors behind us burst open and “Joey Bishop” came down the aisle pretending to sell T-shirts. “I’ve got an extra large here, and looks like I’ve got another extra large right ... here.”

Guess who the spotlight hits.

I have limited recollection of the next few minutes. Rosemarie assures me that I was a good sport. I do remember Frank yelling at Joey from the stage and Joey hollering back, “I’m over here, in the cheap bastard section!” I did get a free T-shirt out of the deal, and in the men’s room after the show a guy pointed at me and said, “Hey, you’re the cheap bastard!” Recognized in a Las Vegas casino. Easily the high point of the trip.

Also crossed off our Las Vegas to-do list was an excursion to the Liberace Museum. Located in a mini-mall off the Strip, it’s more fun than it has any right to be. Liberace’s showmanship, turning his excesses into part of his act and inviting the audience to enjoy his ostentation right along with him, was ahead of its time; the museum is cannily marketing him to a new generation as “The King of Bling.” I hope it works, because the exhibits also underscore his skill as a performer. There’s no flash photography allowed – all those rhinestones are blinding enough as it is – so the pictures of each of us wearing a Liberace-style cape came out blurry. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Random Las Vegas thoughts –

* Everywhere we went, we ran into fighting couples. In restaurants, at neighboring slot machines. The worst was in the shuttle coming in from McCarran Airport. I wanted to lean forward and say, “If you two came here to rekindle something, I think it’s too late.”

* I was amazed at the floor space given over to penny slots in the high-end casinos. On previous trips I only saw them in B-list joints. Considering that Rosemarie won money on them, I’m not complaining.

* Casino themes are spoiled by staff tattoos. Historically, cowgirls and antebellum Southern belles did not have tramp stamps.

* I know it’s hot in Las Vegas. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to wear flip-flops everywhere. And if you must, at least pick up your feet. A guy scuffing along in front of us lost his sandal three times in a block and a half. I’m fairly sure he didn’t make it out of town alive, killed in some horrific moving sidewalk accident.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Movie: The Killer Inside Me (2010)

This adaptation of Jim Thompson’s chilling 1952 novel has stirred controversy since walkouts occurred during its Sundance screenings this year. Word was that it was faithful to its source. That is undoubtedly true, perhaps to a fault. The film is uncompromised, uncompromising and ultimately unsuccessful. Yet despite its flaws, I’m finding it awfully hard to shake.

Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in Central City, Texas. He’s also a high-functioning sociopath who has managed to hide his derangement for years, even from his steady girlfriend. In order to exact revenge against the town kingpin (Ned Beatty) he sets into motion a plot that starts with Lou murdering a prostitute he himself has been sleeping with. But nothing goes according to plan, and the blood continues to flow.

Thompson’s novel is not a descent into madness. It can’t be, because Lou is already there. It’s a brief ascent into lucidity. Lou Ford knows that something is wrong with him, and is intensely curious about what it might be. That sense of self-observation, of a man watching himself with great if detached interest, has no obvious cinematic correlative, putting any film version behind the eight-ball from the start.

Director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran hew very closely to the book in what Winterbottom himself calls a “very literal film.” It’s as if they believe that because Thompson’s prose is so spare, even stark, Lou’s story is to be taken at face value. But this approach is essentially playing the notes and not the music; as Bertrand Tavernier, who made the finest Thompson adaptation with Coup de Torchon, observes, there’s a metaphysical element to all of the author’s work that’s too often ignored.

The violence is brutal, callous, and almost impossible to watch. It’s also exactly as Thompson describes it. More to the point, though, it’s exactly as Lou Ford describes it. He’s an unreliable narrator, so maybe we don’t believe him when he claims that the women involved not only refuse to defend themselves but profess their love as the blows rain down. And the film’s increased emphasis on the sadomasochistic nature of the relationships has the unpleasant side effect of suggesting that the women are complicit in their fates.

Still, this is a serious, thoughtful adaptation, and the filmmakers deserve credit for sticking to their point of view to the bitter end. Plus they get so much right. The movie looks terrific, nailing the period, the place, the desolation. Casey Affleck gives a fearless performance as Lou Ford, hiding a host of demons behind a boyish, placid mask. The offhand manner with which he delivers the most disturbing moments – his parting words to Jessica Alba’s Joyce amidst his attack on her, telling a fellow deputy not to say anything because “I haven’t given you any lines” – only heightens their effect. And the supporting performances are first rate, like Elias Koteas as a cunning union leader and especially Bill Pullman’s barnburner of a late cameo, spouting dialogue straight from Thompson’s book (“A weed is a plant out of place”). It’s not a perfect film. But it’s one I won’t soon forget.

The movie opens in theaters on June 18 but is available via IFC On Demand now. I’ll echo what was said in the last issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Sentinel: by releasing this film and the Red Riding trilogy, IFC has proven that it’s the best hope for contemporary film noir in America.

UPDATE: I watch the 1976 film version here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book: The Nearest Exit, by Olen Steinhauer (2010)

Maybe my problem is that I don’t like origin stories.

Steinhauer introduced diffident spy Milo Weaver in last year’s The Tourist. A veteran of the Department of Tourism, a CIA black-ops shop, Milo had found solace as an administrator, husband and father. Then a personal history more tortured than even Milo suspected forced him back into his old life. In Exit Milo has, to his surprise, been welcomed back to full-time Tourism, a existence both rootless and ruthless. Case in point: an assignment to kidnap and execute a 15-year-old immigrant girl living in Germany. Milo, desperate to reconnect with his own family, concocts an asymmetrical solution that fools his superiors. Having earned their trust he’s then tasked with investigating a security breach, but both matters are linked in a way that delves into Milo’s past and threatens the future of Tourism.

The Tourist, alas, left me somewhat cold; it’s a big, expansive book that at times is too self-conscious about its ambition. Still, it contained enough passages on par with Steinhauer’s dazzling series of crime novels set in an unnamed Communist country for me to pick up Exit. I’m glad I did. Freed of the burdens of establishing the world it’s a completely different animal, densely plotted yet fleetly paced. You want globe-trotting derring-do, hidden agendas and suspense? They’re here, but not at the expense of character. Steinhauer never loses sight of the human costs of intelligence work. Milo is a truly good man in a genuinely bad world, always and only wanting to go home. And the ending delivers. I’m fully on board with Milo now, and await his next adventure.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Miscellaneous: Cable Box Theater

Ondine (U.S. 2010). The latest film from Neil Jordan is in theaters and on demand. Colin Farrell, continuing his string of strong performances, plays a down-at-the-heel Irish fisherman who catches a mysterious woman in his net. Farrell’s young daughter suspects that she’s a selkie, an outlandish explanation that Farrell himself is inclined to believe even in the face of evidence suggesting a more earthbound – and dangerous – origin. It’s a lovely, delicate film, essentially a fable, helped enormously by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography that captures an Ireland where sea, sky and sod are at times indistinguishable.

Jordan is one of the few filmmakers whose work I never miss no matter the venue. In a spoiler-packed interview in Cineaste, he explains his move into television. Depressing quote of the day: “... the kind of cinema that we used to make is drying up, I’m afraid. The distribution is vanishing. The funding is vanishing.”

Related depressing story: Variety on the fate of literary adaptations in a world where “Clint Eastwood is single-handedly holding up the adult drama at the studio level.”

The Special Relationship (2010). Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen’s third collaboration about Tony Blair, now on HBO, focuses on the PM’s tricky relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton (Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis), especially post-Lewinsky. The familiarity of the material makes it the least successful of the trio, but it deepens their joint portrait of Blair as a glib leader with sharp instincts who is all too easily starstruck, at times even by himself.

I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009). Cazale only appeared in five movies before his death at age 42, but every performance still haunts. And all five films – The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter – were nominated for Best Picture. Director Richard Shepard (The Matador) has assembled a lively tribute featuring those who worked with and loved the actor (Al Pacino, Sidney Lumet, Meryl Streep) and those who were inspired by him, like a very astute Sam Rockwell. My favorite observation comes from one of Cazale’s friends, who says that the secret to his technique was to find what caused his character pain and build the performance around that. On HBO.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Movie: Hollywood Story (1951)

It turns out that I possess heretofore unsuspected powers. If I express my displeasure on the internets, the universe will make things right. All I had to do was grouse about not being able to see the rarity Hollywood Story at Noir City Los Angeles and a reader of the blog, the redoubtable John Hall, sent me a copy of the movie.

Now to use this gift judiciously. Friday should be National Donut Day. I’d like to see Armando Galarraga pitch another, official perfect game. And I wish Hollywood Story were better.

William Castle directs this B-movie riff on the previous year’s Sunset Blvd. Richard Conte is Larry O’Brien, a New York producer who finally moves to the Left Coast. When he learns that the mothballed studio he’s taking over was the scene of Tinseltown’s most famous unsolved murder, he’s found his first new project. And he’s not about to let the police or the box office stop him from tracking down the killer.

Hollywood Story is loosely based on the case of silent film director William Desmond Taylor. (For a better fictionalized unraveling of that sordid affair, may I suggest Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming.) After a great opening sequence featuring early ‘50s L.A. street scenes, things go off the rails in a hurry. Jim Backus is playing an agent only peripherally involved with what’s going on. So why give him the voiceover?

Silent era stars like Francis X. Bushman appear – but as themselves, in a single scene in which they talk about how great it is to be working on a movie before they toddle off, never to be seen again. Conte gives his usual solid performance even though he’s saddled with a ridiculous character who insists on investigating the crime himself in the interest of verisimilitude. (Although, to be fair, Jerry Bruckheimer did personally demolish some space junk prior to the shooting of Armageddon.) The movie’s greatest problem is the paucity of viable suspects. Only a handful of characters were present during the events of twenty years earlier, and most of them can be eliminated by the ham-fisted way they’re introduced. The reveal of the guilty party is no big surprise, but it is cleverly staged.

On the whole Hollywood Story is a talky disappointment. I’m still glad I saw it. It has a genuine love of showbiz lore on its side. Not to mention a pretentious hack writer named Vince. For that reason alone, I’m in John’s debt.

By coincidence, I watched the 2007 documentary Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story around the same time. It (understandably) overlooks the interesting crime dramas Castle made in the 1940s and ‘50s like my beloved Whistler series in favor of his gimmicky horror films like, well, The Tingler. But it’s a lot of fun.