Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Short Cuts: April '05

Angels with Dirty Faces
d. Michael Curtiz, 1938

Remarkable not for its storyline (even though it is above average) or its acting (even though James Cagney is wonderful), but for the way in which - even in the height of the Code Era - the bad guy is portrayed not as a purely evil entity but as a product of chance and society. The story concludes with Rocky's best friend, the priest, remarking that Rocky (Cagney) was just a slower runner than himself, alluding to the incident that brought Rocky his first stretch in prison. Overall the film is marred by the Hays requisites - particularly the halo effect and choral music that hand-in-hand with the priest's monologues - but marred less than the usual late-30's gangster flick. In fact, Rocky's demise (spoiler? give me a break - you knew it was coming anyway) adds to the picture, showing his death as a product of a normal individual burnt by a corrupt society rather than the usual angelic society destroyed by the inherently corrupt individual. Also: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Angels with Dirty Faces - is Michael Curtiz the most underrated director of the 30's/40's/50's or did he somehow arbitrarily become attached to pictures that were destined to work? I'm leaning toward the former, folks.

Big Wednesday
d. John Milius, 1978

For the first 2/3 of Big Wednesday, I was watching one of the most entertaining and absorbing films I had ever seen. The last 1/3 (a grab-bag of surfing cliches, dull character development, and knee-jerk social commentary), unfortunately, fails to live up to rest of the film. Regardless, Big Wednesday is a near-great film about the 60's, both early and late. In its purest essence an American Film (so much so that there's no way it could have been made in any other country), Big Wednesday indulges in several themes that are situated near the heart of the American Film: coming-of-age, the passing of an era, lost friendship, Vietnam, et cetera. Neither of these themes is built into anything, really. But that too does not matter; Milius' film so understatedly embodies the early-60's zeitgeist, and its doom spelled out by the late-60's, that the lack of real subtext seems to be part of the point. Entirely worthwhile for, if nothing else, the beautiful nature-porn/surfing cinematography.

Boxcar Bertha
d. Martin Scorsese, 1972

All of the hallmarks of Scorsese's technique (frenetic camera, complex tracking shots, zooms, montage) are there, and even his thematic territory (outcasts, rebelllion, politics) to some extent, but its clear that this is an early work before Scorsese became "sophisticated." Mind, not that this is a bad thing. Boxcar Bertha is 10x the film that both Casino and Gangs of New York (the former being 10x more excruciating than a nail slowly pounded through the patella.) Bertha is full of camp (a Roger Corman production) - inexplicable nudity and gratuitous violence being par for the course - and full of entertainment. I don't think I could make the argument that Boxcar Bertha is great film in terms of importance or theme (although Scorsese tries really hard with the latter), but I can unequivocally say that it's one helluva' good time watching it.

Bringing Up Baby
d. Howard Hawks, 1938

Am I the only who finds the Screwball Comedy, on the whole, more than just a little overbearing? I thoroughly enjoyed The Lady Eve, The Thin Man was grand, and Trouble in Paradise was just tops, but when the cases of mistaken identities and understandings are so damn obvious, the whole thing takes on an obvious and irritating character. Case in point: Bringing Up Baby. I understand I'm speaking about one of the hallowed and revered titles of the Golden Age of Cinema, but - frankly my dear - I don't give a damn. Cary Grant is miscast, Katharine Hepburn is magnificently obnoxious, and the whole cast makes due with a cache of facial tics and redundant hand gestures that are, generally speaking, hamfisted & hackneyed. Somewhere in the middle the film settles into a nice groove well-articulated humor, only to implode during the jail scene near the end. It wasn't not worthwhile, but it wasn't the great film I expected either. (Although something positive should definitely be said about the surreality of incorporating a leopard (!) into the main plotline.)

Life is Sweet
d. Mike Leigh, 1991

One beautifully leaden, irony filled balloon of a movie. (For the record, I have no clue exactly what that means.) A saccharine carnivalesque score punctuates the entire film, giving rise to the idea that life is a purely absurd balance between comedy and tragedy, with an inescapable bathos demarcating the two. The story pivots around a four person family composed of A) One husband/father (Jim Broadbent, fantastic) - a dreamer/sucker, attempting to become a self-made man and failing horribly B) One wife/mother (Alison Steadman) - a seeming-nymphomaniac who actually is just hungry for another baby in the house, a baby that would make up for and offset the disappointment of her C) Two daughters - twins, actually; one a bulimic (Jane Horrocks) who fancies herself the size of whale (even though her proportions are more akin to a spider monkey), one a tom-boy/plumber (Claire Skinner) who, although not a lesbian, is stuck in that frightfully gray ground between a masculine woman and an effeminate man. Add to this an equally quirky supporting cast (the highlight being Timothy Spall as Aubrey), and one would think the recipe's result a quaint situational exercise in bloated broad strokes. The remarkable thing is the Leigh and the cast keep things with within the realm of reality - in spite of what would seem to be flat caricatures, the characters are entirely human, capable of the entire palette of human emotion and action. (What I'm most blown away by is that this is the very same TImothy Spall - who here turns in a great performance as the grotesque, phlegmatic, and entirely pathetic man, Aubry - that would go on to play Maurice, the altruistic, tender and caring father/husband, in Leigh's 1996 film, Secrets & Lies. Got range?)

Mildred Pierce
d. Michael Curtiz, 1945

This might be Curtiz' best directorial effort, but the film itself left me somewhat flat. Mildred Pierce is roughly 20 minutes too long, hampered (unlike Double Indemnity) by its flashback narrative, which leaves me with the feeling of "get on with it already." (Although it should be noted that, also unlike Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce does not entirely give away its ending in the beginning of the film, so the last 10 minutes or so are far more compelling than the preceding 20.) Joan Crawford is great as Mildred, playing a very complex character. The writers (James M. Cain being the source) and Curtiz should be applauded for - really - changing the position of women in film. If Pierce were the traditional femme fatale, the film would be an interesting excericise in style, but not much more. If Pierce were written devoid of character flaws, the film would be nothing but a rags-to-riches, feel-good flick. But Pierce is a bit of both; a little from column A, a little from column B. This complexity marks her as a true protagonist, a female character that - finally - could enjoy the same complexity and depth of character that her male counterparts had been enjoying for years. But that extra 20 minutes...Ultimately Mildred Pierce is an important film for its treatment of women, but stumbled by unnecessary verbosity.

Sweet Smell of Success
d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1957

Half Scarface, half Citizen Kane, half Night and the City. (Wait, what?) Mackendrick's noir weaves a complex tale about Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent trying to get his client into J.J. Hunsecker's (Burt Lancaster) column - the most revered and read column in The Globe, a daily newspaper in New York City. The movie consists entirely of Falco's actions toward this end. Among the things he has to do to achieve this end: smear Hunsecker's sister's fiancee, find a dame for another columnist to sleep with, plant marijuana in a man's coat pocket, and appease his current client. It is a film about the nature of power (i.e. those who have it choose who gets what), the corrupted state of the media, the inability to come up in the world, and the depravity of a man plagued by jealousy. The film, from the outset, promises little in the way of sweet endings, and it becomes clear that Mackendrick is working with characters diseased by the sickness of modern man - the utter lack of concern for anyone but one's own self. Curtis turns in a stellar performance, while Lancaster isn't so far behind, playing a ruthless man completely out of touch with what it means to be human.