Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Movie: The Big Bang (2011)

In the wake of an extremely limited theatrical release earlier this month, The Big Bang is now available on DVD. No doubt you’re thinking, “Another particle physics neo-noir? Does Hollywood make anything else?”

Ned Cruz (Antonio Banderas) is a bottom-feeding L.A. private eye having serious doubts about his profession. A boxer surprised to be sprung from prison following a homicide conviction shambles into his office with what should be an easy case: find his stripper penpal. But the Uncertainty Principle is in full effect. Before long Cruz finds himself dealing with Russian mobsters, a trio of angry cops (one played by habitual offender William Fichtner, who steals every movie he’s in), some missing conflict diamonds, and a hippie billionaire (Sam Elliott) who has bought a sizeable chunk of New Mexico to further his quest to discover the God particle.

The gaudy visual scheme deployed by director Tony Krantz is distracting and the polyglot of accents is, in the early going at least, tough to follow. But Erik Jendresen’s script has some genuine wit and cleverness, finding parallels between theoretical physics and detective fiction, between mysteries large (the universe) and small (the human heart). There are amusing riffs on Farewell, My Lovely and Kiss Me Deadly among other classic noirs. Johnny Marr of The Smiths provides the soundtrack. Jimmi Simpson has some good scenes late as Elliott’s boy genius. And Autumn Reeser explains fundamental scientific precepts in a most illuminating manner, featuring highly effective visual aids.

Is The Big Bang good? Probably not. But I was never bored. If you find the notion of Snoop Dogg shooting an existential porn film in Schrödinger’s warehouse amusing, then you may be in this movie’s burgeoning cult following. I’m there, and I hate being alone.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Alfred Hitchcock is on the short list of directors who remade their own movies. The second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is a globe-trotting adventure featuring a big star in James Stewart plus money and style to burn. It’s also one of the only Hitchcock films that I find boring.

The original is a full forty-five minutes shorter and a very British affair indeed. It shares the same basic plot as the remake. You’ve got a couple on holiday with their child. They befriend another man who is murdered – and with his dying breath reveals himself as a spy. The couple retrieve information the dead man was carrying about a planned assassination. The plotters kidnap the child in order to guarantee their silence. Can our heroes save their offspring and the day?

Hitchcock said the 1956 version was better, calling it the work of a professional while the first film was made by a gifted amateur. If that’s the case, give me the gifted amateur every time. The command Hitchcock demonstrates in the years since The Lodger is astonishing, never more so in the famous Albert Hall sequence. It’s to be the site of the assassination. The conspirators (led by Peter Lorre with a skunk stripe in his hair and speaking his lines phonetically) listen to the concert on the radio, waiting for the fatal gunshot. Jill Lawrence (Edna Best) has slipped into the hall, desperate to foil the scheme but fearful that her daughter and husband will be killed if she does. Hitchcock briefly lets the film go out of focus as tears of frustration fill her eyes. Then Jill finds a suitably Hitchcockian way to prevail.

There are terrific set pieces prior to this. Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) showing resourcefulness at the office of the dentist who’s one of the villains, an extended sequence at a church where Bob and his pal Clive (Hugh Wakefield, bearing the stiffest of upper lips) try to blend in with the baddies. When the Lawrences resist entreaties to help the authorities they’re asked if they would have shown similar indifference toward the prospect of averting the death of Archduke Ferdinand, a speech given extra teeth considering that the events of Sarajevo were only twenty years earlier. The climactic shootout, modeled on a famous London showdown between police and anarchists in 1911, drags a bit and seems to be headed toward a grim outcome until you realize that Hitch is going to make every detail count. This was the first of the remarkable run of 1930s films that would bring Hitchcock to Hollywood’s attention, and it’s easy to see why.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Movie: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Apparently it’s Classic Thrillers Involving Telephones That I’ve Seen But My Wife Has Not week, if two movies can be said to constitute a theme.

Sorry, Wrong Number is based on Lucille Fletcher’s famous radio play. I know it’s famous because the credits say so: “Screenplay by Lucille Fletcher, based on her famous radio play.” Barbara Stanwyck is a wealthy, bed-ridden woman who overhears a phone conversation between two men planning a woman’s murder to take place that night. But she can’t get anyone to believe her. Her husband (Burt Lancaster) is for some reason unreachable. And who, she wonders, could this poor targeted woman be?

Fletcher’s play was clearly so famous that the producers were reluctant to change a word. Stanwyck’s character is introduced with a torrent of expository dialogue that might as well be streaming out of a Philco. Dialogue rendered largely unnecessary thanks to director Anatole Litvak; his camera glides through Stanwyck’s luxe digs highlighting details that convey everything Stanwyck insists on relaying to a procession of beleaguered operators. The story that follows, which includes flashbacks within flashbacks, is a daisy chain of contrivance. Stanwyck happens to be patched into a phone call that strikes close to home. The old flame still carrying a torch for Lancaster (Ann Richards) is, by coincidence, married to the D.A. who – can you beat that? – is investigating Lancaster’s business dealings. At one point, Richards tails her own spouse to a desolate stretch of Staten Island beach. There’s not a soul around, yet no one spots her in a scene that stretches credulity to the breaking point.

But, amazingly, not past it. Credit again is due to Litvak, whose direction gives the sequence an ethereal quality making it seem like a dream Richards is relaying to Stanwyck at the other end of a long, long telephone wire. We come to feel for the isolated, neurasthenic Stanwyck, and for Lancaster as a decent man frustrated to discover that marrying above his station means he can’t make his own way in the world.

The movie’s first half, with its labored set-up and on-the-nose speechifying, is dated but fun. Then comes a point when sheer narrative momentum takes over. Tension mounts with a sinister precision throughout the last act. The final three minutes are unbearable, with a denouement enshrined in the thriller hall of fame. Sorry, Wrong Number is like a ride on an ancient wooden roller coaster at some forgotten amusement park; the prospect that the rickety structure may shake itself to pieces is part of the excitement. Or to use another tortured metaphor, sometimes watching those toppling domino artists lay out every piece first only adds to your appreciation when that last one falls into place.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Dial M for Murder (1954)

Welcome to a very special installment of Sundays with Hitch.

The point of this series is for me to watch the Alfred Hitchcock films that I’ve missed. Rosemarie’s list of such titles is far shorter. The early English movies that are my biggest Hitchcock blind spot? She’s seen ‘em all. She even took a class taught by Donald Spoto, Hitch’s most prominent biographer. A few of the movies we’ve watched so far were new to her – good luck finding people who have made it through Topaz – but many were old favorites.

Dial M for Murder is different. It’s the only Alfred Hitchcock film that I had seen but Rosemarie had not.

In the opening minutes of this adaptation of Frederick Knott’s stage thriller, Hitchcock manages to convey a complicated story of infidelity without dialogue. Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) could easily be Strangers on a Train’s Guy Haines a couple of years down the road, a one-time tennis pro who married well but now finds himself trapped in an unsatisfying job. Worse, the man his wife (Grace Kelly) truly loves – successful American mystery novelist Robert Cummings – has returned to England intent on winning her over. In a scene so long it becomes as thrilling as a high-wire act – how long can Hitch keep this up? – Wendice blackmails an old school chum into bumping off the missus and lays out how it’s to be done. But that only marks the start of Milland’s scheming, in a performance that reaches spectacular heights of both cunning and odiousness.

When I saw the film as a teenager I dismissed it as a lesser effort, thinking it stagy. But I was an idiot then. I disavow most of what I said in the 1980s. Hitchcock doesn’t make the expected attempt to open up Knott’s play, keeping the action almost entirely in the Wendices’ flat and using the claustrophobia to his advantage. He relishes every bit of Knott’s stagecraft no matter how hokey; he practically imposes a proscenium arch over the closing moments, making you appreciate how effective the piece must have been when performed live. John Williams reprises his Tony-award winning performance as Inspector Hubbard, the blandly implacable detective. There’s more than a hint of Lieutenant Columbo in the character, right down to the “one more thing” question as he’s heading out the door. The film was shot but not initially released in 3-D. To think that audiences missed all the excitement of a key going into a lock.

For the record, Rosemarie thought it was great.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On The Web: My Guilty Pleasure at Crimespree

Crimespree Magazine is your go-to source for information on crime no matter the format: in print, on TV, or at the movies. Redoubtable entertainment editor Jeremy Lynch has brought back his Guilty Pleasures series and was kind enough to ask me to participate.

I could have taken the easy way out. I could have waxed rhapsodic about Jade and been done with it, emerging with some of my dignity intact.

But no. I had to give poor Jeremy more than he bargained for. I’ll say this for myself: I am unafraid to put the guilt in guilty pleasure.

Skate on over to Crimespree to see which movie I picked.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The wait, ladies and gentlemen, is over. The all-new issue of Noir City is out. Completely redesigned by Michael Kronenberg, the house rag of the Film Noir Foundation is now a true magazine – and renamed to boot. (Noir City Sentinel, R.I.P.) To commemorate the new launch, this gorgeous issue is the biggest to date, tipping the scales at over 100 pages.

I’m particularly excited about this edition because yours truly penned the cover story. It’s a survey of songbirds in film noir, those world-weary chanteuses who step up to microphones in swank joints and dive bars alike to provide a few moments of comfort. The article covers dozens of films and includes a sidebar on forgotten thrushes, the singers who provided the vocals for some of noir’s most glamorous dames. The piece was a labor of love, and I hope readers enjoy it.

I also contributed to the exhaustive tribute to Raymond Burr and the Perry Mason stable of players with a salute to Della Street herself, Barbara Hale.

Also in this issue: Jake Hinkson on Orson Welles, Mark Fertig on the sad life of Alan Ladd, reviews of contemporary noir, and so much more. It’s an embarrassment of riches and I’m honored to be a part of it. To get your copy, simply donate a minimum of twenty dollars to the Film Noir Foundation. You’ll be supporting their important work.

While I’m at it, let me also note that the Noir City Sentinel Annual #3, featuring several of my articles including a history of the Whistler films, is now for sale at Amazon. Look at all those glowing reviews! You’d be a fool not to buy it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Movie: A Somewhat Gentle Man (U.S. 2011)

This somewhat gentle movie slipped into a handful of theaters at the start of the year and is now on DVD and Netflix Instant. Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård) walks out of prison after serving 12 years for murder – and finds out everyone has his release date wrong. He’s got that kind of luck. His old boss sets him up with a hovel and a lousy job, expecting him to seek vengeance on the man who sent him away. But once Ulrik discovers he’s due to be a grandfather, he considers the completely alien prospect of simply living his life.

Everything about the movie is beautifully deadpan; even the composition of director Hans Petter Moland’s shots is funny. The Norwegian Tourist Board cannot be happy with the chosen locations. The characters are uniformly shabby and disreputable, grabbing for what they can at the margins, yet they’re treated with real affection. You generally know where the story is going but it still manages to sneak up on you. Much of the credit goes to Skarsgård. From the second you glimpse his ponytail, it’s clear he owns this character. He gives an epically Zen performance; the simple joy Ulrik is able to take in small things becomes a sizeable joy indeed. And if there’s not a soundtrack album, there ought to be. A lovely surprise of a film.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

Time now for the most atypical film Alfred Hitchcock ever directed. There’s plenty of humor in his work, provided you take it dark. (See: Harry, The Trouble with.) But Mr. & Mrs. Smith marks Hitch’s sole foray into screwball comedy.

Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard play a couple given to epic feuds and equally epic reconciliations. They learn separately that, owing to a legal oversight, they are not technically married. Thanks to assorted miscommunications, Lombard decides she’s in no hurry to tie the knot again. Hitchcock doesn’t break a sweat selling screenwriter Norman Krasna’s premise, wisely realizing that you’ll either buy it or you won’t.

There’s not enough of the nimble Jack Carson as the hound sharing Montgomery’s doghouse. Once Montgomery’s law partner Gene Raymond expresses romantic interest in Lombard, we get a lot of Southern-fried hokum, including a casual reference to “white trash,” and a shrill third act. And that goddamn whistling on the soundtrack? I never need to hear that again.

But a comedy, like a thriller, can be judged on the basis of its set pieces, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith features a pair of beauties. The first occurs when Montgomery arranges to meet Lombard at their former favorite restaurant to re-pop the question, only to discover that the old joint isn’t quite the same. The tone is both funny and wistful – maybe the restaurant isn’t all that’s changed – and Montgomery has some great business with the house cat. Even better is a hilarious extended sequence at a nightclub involving a “high class girl” named Gertie and a self-inflicted nosebleed. Factor in an effervescent performance by Carole Lombard, who would prove the most tragic of Hitchcock blondes, and the movie certainly merits a look.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Book: So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman (2011)

Haeden, New York is not one of those quaint upstate towns that serves as a weekend getaway for Manhattanites. It’s an isolated, hardscrabble town at the base of Appalachia’s spine. When the local girl dating the local golden boy disappears and eventually turns up dead, the residents immediately affix blame on some outsider, a “drifter.” Only those with roots elsewhere resist the explanation. Stacy Flynn, the transplanted tightly-wound journalist who has taken over Haeden’s newspaper. Gene and Claire Piper, a pair of unreconstructed hippie doctors who abandoned New York City to go back to the land. And above all their whip-smart daughter Alice.

In her debut novel Cara Hoffman opts for a mosaic approach that ping-pongs back and forth through decades, assumes the POVs of a dozen characters, and incorporates a variety of documents. Despite the high degree of difficulty every voice rings true, none more so than Claire, a profoundly decent woman who is “exhausted ... from hearing nothing new for half a year at a time - not even a new joke or figure of speech - from constantly explaining what she’d said or what she meant, or putting the places she was talking about into context. Tired of being poor now for almost twenty years.” Hoffman’s facility with this complex technique is daunting, and at times makes one wish she’d stick with one thread a little longer. She also tackles a brace of issues like the environmental effects of factory farming without slowing the narrative, and expresses a righteous fury about the silence surrounding crimes against women without resorting to Stieg Larsson-style sensationalism.

Some readers will undoubtedly be frustrated by Hoffman’s emphasis on the why rather than the who of one of her book’s central mysteries. But there is absolutely no denying the potency of its shocking ending. So Much Pretty is occasionally maddening and frequently brilliant, an astonishing feat of storytelling. It’s a tough book to love and a tougher one to shake.