Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE FORMIDABLE DENZEL WASHINGTON ALMOST ERADICATES THE FLAWS OF ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Denzel Washington in the title role of ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (copyright 2017)

Is there any actor working today who exhibits the power that Denzel Washington does onscreen? No matter what the role, you can’t take your eyes off of him. And even when he’s playing negative characters like Alonzo, the crooked cop in TRAINING DAY or Troy, the self-delusional dad in FENCES, he imbues his characters with such substance and gravitas that you can’t help but be drawn to them, even if they’re ginormous pricks. Now, he’s back on the big screen, playing a borderline savant lawyer as the title character in the just released ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., and he’s still commanding every scene, driving the story, and almost eradicating the flaws in the screenplay. Almost.

Washington plays Israel, a behind-the-scenes lawyer working in a two-man law office fronted by a flamboyant and storied senior partner. When his mentor takes ill and lands in the hospital in a vegetative state, Israel starts to flounder. The smart but sheltered counselor has little courtroom experience, and he rubs most people the wrong way with his quirky and antisocial behavior. All of that strikes George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the high-priced lawyer given the task of shutting down the office when the senior partner finally dies, as offensive. He and Israel behave like oil and water almost immediately as the battle between the rich and righteous heats up.

Pierce used to be idealistic, but now he's so oily he practically glides into every room he enters. Still, he does see traces of his former idealistic self in Israel’s romanticism and tries to employ Israel. Israel is pigheaded though, and has no time for the corporate mindset, so he hits the bricks on his own. He searches for his own way, an honorable way, handing out his card to every potential client that comes along.

Farrell is formidable in his role as Pierce, but few can ever match Washington onscreen. Israel may be back on his heels in their scenes, but Washington is so strong that his Israel is never quite the hopeless eccentric that Gilroy’s script wants us to believe the character is. Part of that is simply because Washington is too savvy and shrewd of an actor for us to ever fully buy some of the goofier aspects of his Israel. The part may call for ill-fitting clothing, a heavy-footed manner, even obsessive face scratching - but Washington comes shy of making Israel 100% believable. Even when the character obsessively makes the same peanut butter and honey sandwich every day for lunch, the audience might be inclined to think that's not such a bad idea. That's how smart Washington comes off onscreen.

Still, the story tries gamely to portray Israel as a lost soul, wandering the streets of LA, too beleaguered or broke to even lease a car for transport. We're asked to believe that the veteran lawyer was existing on a meager $500 a week at his old job. That not only seems criminal but begs the question of whether Israel was ever clever enough to ask for a cost-of-living increase, let alone a raise. How did a brilliant mind accept that? Even the script starts to have trouble selling Israel as that clueless.

Then, as Israel tries to find gainful employment, his idealism leads him towards jobs where there is no money. He interviews with a civil liberties firm, but leaves when he realizes they can’t even pay him what he used to get as his former weekly compensation. At least Maya (Carmen Eyogo), the woman who spearheads the do-gooder practice, respects his history and scolds a co-worker who turns up his nose at Israel’s quirky idealism. (“We’re standing on his shoulders”, she reminds her fellow Millennial.)

Maya becomes a champion of Israel’s, inviting him to speak at a community gathering of others who are politically conscious from the neighborhood. She also becomes the story’s quasi-love interest, even though decades separate her and the aging lawyer. Luckily, Gilroy treats their one dinner date as a night out based more on friendship and mutual political interests. (I must admit I held my breath, worried that Gilroy was going to go down that Tinsel Town fantasy of pairing old men with women a third their age. Thankfully, he didn’t.)  

Ultimately, Maya is a sidelight, and a platonic one at that. The real story here is Israel’s legal career and after wandering aimlessly for a chunk of the story, the aging activist ends up back at Pierce’s glass-towered firm. He sucks up his pride and takes a bad job, stuck in a dinky office, and charged with wrapping up the residual cases from his old firm that Pierce won't sully his $3,000 fitted suits with.

Then, during an attempt to do right by a young gangbanger incarcerated on trumped up charges, Israel overplays his hand with a cynical district attorney and the previously agreed upon deal crumbles right before his eyes. That dumb maneuver ends up getting his young client killed in prison. Now, Israel’s conscience reels. To right the wrong, he chooses an utterly unethical course using privileged information to nab the true culprit, even reaping a $100,000 reward for ratting out the bad guy. 

From there, the rest of the movie becomes all about that ethical dilemma and Israel's comeuppance for dealing with the wages of sin. Sure, he enjoys having money to spend on suits and indulge in bacon maple donuts at the Santa Monica Pier, but his mind is plagued by his greed. It also doesn't help that the thug he turned in knows what he did and promises to exact revenge upon him. 

This character study, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, wants to be another MICHAEL CLAYTON and comes close until that ratting reward twist in the third act. Interestingly, that legal thriller  starring George Clooney in 2007 was written and directed by Dan’s brother Tony Gilroy and they both have a knack for telling stories about the ruthless politics of power through the POV of a hungry title character. Tony’s film was one of the best that year, and Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER, about a crime journalist who ruthlessly steps over all comers in his attempt to gain fame and fortune, was a standout in 2014 while treading similar terrain. Dan Gilroy is on the same type of ground here again, yet Israel’s story isn’t as complex or nuanced as in those other films. Because of that, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. misses out on greatness.

Israel’s unethical choice in the third act seems woefully out of character. After all, wouldn’t a smart lawyer like Israel, one who can quote legal precedent and statutes as quickly as Rain Man could count toothpicks, find a better answer to his problems than to merely cheat the system? Complicating matters even more is the fact that Washington conveys such intelligence that it makes his character's bad judgment seem all the more questionable. Washington can play naive, but not that dumb.

The film was better when it concentrated on Israel simply trying to fit in. Finding a job as a man of color, fighting blatant age discrimination all around him, struggling as an idealist in a world of cynics – that's more than enough story. The third act here becomes labored, "plotty", even corny in a “movie-movie” sort of way. And then it all careens to the inevitable conclusion that anyone can see coming a mile away. Dan Gilroy fails to create any sublime moments like the one in brother Tony's film when Tilda Swinton’s corporate shyster drops to her knees after Michael Clayton (George Clooney) has bested her in their game of cat and mouse. The only thing that drops to the floor here are our hopes that Gilroy's film would finish just as strong as his brother's.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. is a better film than its ending, but its miscalculation turns it from an African-American MICHAEL CLAYTON into an African-American LINCOLN LAWYER, even with such an intelligent and formidable talent like Washington in the role. He deserves better. We do too. And frankly, so did the wonderful character that Gilroy created named Roman J. Israel.

Monday, November 13, 2017

GRETA GERWIG’S “LADY BIRD” IS ONE OF THE ABSOLUTE BEST FILMS OF 2017

Original caricature by Jeff York of Saoirse Ronan in LADY BIRD. (copyright 2017)

Sometimes critics and audiences alike think a movie has to be big to warrant the term ‘best of the year.’ War movies, epics, ginormous biographies – these types of films often rise to the top of 10 best lists and at awards shows. But often, it is the simpler and even quieter films that resonate more. This year, that film is LADY BIRD, a coming-of-age story that may be small in scale but it is truly epic in what it accomplishes and what it makes us feel. And it’s easily one of this year’s absolute best.

It is the first film written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig and what a debut it is. She has learned a lot from her experiences being directed by filmmaker Noah Baumbach in films such as GREENBERG, FRANCES HA, and MISTRESS AMERICA. LADY BIRD has some of the same quirky, off-hand humor that Baumbach favors, but while her mentor often ridicules his characters, Gerwig treats hers more gently, creating a story that is always laughing with them, but never at them.

That respect starts with the main character. High school senior Christine McPherson (Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, doing a flawless American accent) is not the typical lead you find in most coming-of-age films. She is not a tragically lost individual to be brought down a number of pegs on the journey to self-discovery. Rather, this girl will remain steadfast and shrewd throughout, no matter what obstacles are thrown her way. Granted, she will blunder a number of situations, but she will learn from those mistakes without being wholly humiliated. How wonderful to find such a smart, strong, and confident young woman presented onscreen. It is exceedingly rare, and in this year of WONDER WOMAN, women’s protests, and brave women taking down the likes of Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Louis C.K., Gerwig’s female lead could not be more “of the moment.”

Christine dubs herself “Lady Bird” and insists that it is her given name. “It’s given to me, by me”, she exclaims, and it’s just one of the ways that Lady Bird pushes the envelope to see what she can get away with within the boring confines of Sacramento. (She calls it the ‘Midwest of California’.) To spice things up, Lady Bird also dyes her dark hair magenta to counter the gray and black Catholic student uniforms, steals her math teacher’s grade book so he forgets she’s a C student, and hoists the school’s communion wafer supply to snack on with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).

Despite such shenanigans, however, Lady Bird is really a good egg. She’s merely fighting conformity by refusing to grow up too fast. She loathes the status quo of the adult world around here especially her hard-ass mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Mom doesn’t have much faith in Lady Bird, going out of her way to constantly put her down, and Lady Bird will have none of it. Thus, she mouths off back to her, forges her own path, and even tells lies to further her agenda.

Lady Bird boasts of wealthy digs in the rich part of Sacramento, even though her parents are struggling to make ends meet in the middling part of town. She assumes airs as well, and dreams of escaping to the East Coast to be an accomplished artist or career girl. Lady Bird’s most defiant middle finger to all that her mom represents occurs in the first two minutes of the film. When mom becomes too strident in her control as they drive home from a trip to explore colleges, Lady Bird hurls herself out of the speeding car as the ultimate “Fuck you, I can’t take this anymore!” That shocking stunt earns her a broken arm and a cast for the first third of the film, but Gerwig treats it like it’s all part of dealing with Lady Bird and her odd, brazen choices.

In fact, Gerwig treats Lady Bird’s defiance very matter-of-factly throughout, recognizing that most teens go through similar disobedience. Where some coming-of-age stories would treat such actions as hysterical, Gerwig wisely doesn’t over-dramatize them. Instead, by being so droll about Lady Bird’s obstacle course, it makes her journey hysterically funny. Gerwig, like her lead Lady Bird, treats these moments as something to let wash off the back.

Lady Bird struggles with love interests too, but never in a histrionic fashion. She crushes on Danny (Lucas Hedges) the lead in her school’s joint musical production with a local boys’ Catholic school, but when she discovers he’s gay, it doesn’t ruin her world. Sure, she’s unhappy about it but she moves on and finds another boy to set her sights on. And even though they break up, Lady Bird doesn’t shun Danny. In fact, she is the shoulder he cries on when he confesses fear about coming out to his parents. Lady Bird is maturing, even though she may not entirely realize it.

The young woman screws up right and left, but she always manages to bounce back. She starts hanging out with rich girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), hoping to raise her cool factor, but when she’s caught lying about her middle-class background, Lady Bird comes clean immediately. She doesn’t cover that lie with more lies, as would happen in so many teen comedies. Instead, she apologizes and moves on. Again, Gerwig is showing how Lady Bird grows in smaller ways, rather than by one ginormous defining incident. That’s not only rare in coming-of-age films, it’s unusual in any Hollywood fare.  

In episode after episode, Lady Bird is faced with choices of behavior that she doesn’t always ace. Should she prank one of the old nuns at the school? Should she defy her mom and secretly apply for student aid to get into an out-of-state school? Should she give up her virginity to an aloof, pretentious classmate? Lady Bird makes bad choices with all three, but she’s never leveled for her risks. In her breezy and comic fashion, Gerwig has made one of the most female positive stories of the year.

Additionally, the filmmaker paints a more complex and nuanced mother/daughter relationship as well. The great revelation in this story is that Lady Bird and her mom are so much more alike than either of them wants to acknowledge. In fact, the very first shot of the film makes that point. The two wake up in a motel room, after a long trek to check out colleges, and their pillow profiles facing each other match perfectly. Throughout the film, Lady Bird is shown to be a very headstrong woman, and a bit of a pill, just like her mom. They’re both prickly, but they both have big hearts. If anything, both women care too much and that can get them into trouble.  Lady Bird wants to be someone who matters, and Marion wants to be a mom that does.

Marion is a fascinating character, a successful nurse/clinician helping patients with depression, but she can’t help but bring her own daughter down with her passive/aggressive mothering. Yet, despite playing such a quippy and often bitter cynic, Laurie Metcalf instills Marion with a sadness that makes her admirable even when she’s at her most awful. Her wounded puppy dog eyes give away the fact that mom’s bite is really just her defense mechanism against a world that continually craps in her corn flakes.

Still, Gerwig never lets such bitter emotions ruin the fun or let the sad moments in the story become maudlin. She’s an incredibly disciplined filmmaker, keeping things tight and on track, editing the film crisply and economically, but never pushing past emotional payoffs. Quite the contrary, as an actress Gerwig recognizes the moments where character moments need to breathe and she certainly gives her cast those golden opportunities. She gets great work from all her cast, even in the smallest roles. (Both Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson are sublime as Catholic teachers). Gerwig does especially well by Tracy Letts. He plays Lady Bird’s frustrated father Larry with gruff humor and quiet dignity. Midway through the film, the sixtysomething Larry gets laid off, and his interview with a young, vacuous HR head is both incredibly funny and quietly heartbreaking. Gerwig lets her camera linger there a tad longer, focusing on Letts' expressive face, to make the scene play all the more beautifully.

Even the biggest emotional scenes are kept in check and not overdone, all the more to render them realistically. Towards the end, Marion drives Lady Bird to the airport to head east for college, but refuses to get out of the car to say goodbye. Her excuse is that parking the car will cost money they don’t need to misspend. Then Marion has a change of heart and desperately tries to park to say goodbye. She misses her daughter, however, but Gerwig doesn't overplay the moment. The music doesn’t swell, nor do big tears. Instead, Gerwig lets Marion find comfort in the arms of her understanding husband.  

Lady Bird faces tough choices in every scene, and arguably, so does filmmaker Gerwig. The writer/director could have so easily trotted out a host of teenage angst-ridden clichés - the “kumbaya” moments, the snot-filled crying jags, the post-learning hugs – but she refuses to turn this into treacle. Instead, Gerwig strives for something more recognizable in every moment. She finds the off-hand humor and honesty in the situation, and such choices make for   one of the best freshman films in the history of the medium. Expect to see LADY BIRD figure strongly in the Oscar race this year, with likely nods for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Ronan does her career best work in this role), and Supporting Actress.
             
LADY BIRD is a film about taking flight, leaving the nest, and transcending childhood. By the end, Christine has become a young woman who is going to have a terrific future in front of her. The same is true of Gerwig’s career as a filmmaker.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

KENNETH BRANAGH ENSURES "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS" TRAVELS A DIFFERENT ROUTE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in the 2017 version of
 MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. (copyright 2017)

In 2013, the Agatha Christie estate signed with talent agency William Morris Endeavor (WME) to remake her works and revive her reputation as one of the greatest female authors of all time. A generation or two had lost track of her works as well as the sterling reputation she fostered as the world’s foremost mystery writer. Thus, the estate struck a deal to remake her classics through film, television, and digital media. And one of the first efforts is a shiny new remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It pulls into the station this weekend, and it reminds the world that when it comes to procedurals, no one can match the panache of Dame Agatha. And while this new adaptation, directing by and starring Kenneth Branagh, doesn’t come close to matching the 1974 classic film, it still is a whole lot of frothy fun.

In some respects, Christie’s original material is so delicious, it’s hard not to savor her twisty storytelling, no matter how it’s been updated or reimagined. Her story here is set aboard the opulent Orient Express in 1934, a luxury passenger train that provides a gorgeous and elegant setting for her to juxtapose a nasty little murder against. Christie just loved to take the piss out of the upper class, thus she always placed manicured men and high society ladies in glorious settings that were soon ruined by a distasteful and low-class murder. And whether it was her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot or her doddering dowager Miss Marple, Christie would always bring the rich and pampered down by the righteous fingering of her intrepid sleuths. And indeed, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is one of Poirot’s most incredible take-downs.

The murder victim here is an evil wolf in Saville Row clothing named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp). He pretends to be a rich businessman, traveling the world over and collecting art, yet he comes by his money in the bloodiest of fashions. The gauche and graceless creep used to be a gangster, and his most notorious crime was in the kidnapping and murder of a little rich girl named Daisy Armstrong. Based loosely on the famous Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932, Ratchett got away with the child's murder, as well as all the ransom money. But in this story, justice will soon take him for a ride.

His mob ties and sorted past make him one very paranoid traveler. On the train trip bound for London from Istanbul, Ratchett offers fellow passenger Poirot (Branagh) 10 grand to be his bodyguard. Over a shared confection in the dining car, Poirot refuses by telling his potential employer, “I do not like your face.” At least one other person on the train doesn’t like it very much either and ensures that Ratchett receives more just desserts. Later that evening, when he asleep in his cabin, the child killer is stabbed 12 times in the chest.

Poirot is called into service by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), the train company’s big shot aboard, and the Belgian detective realizes in no time at all that he has more suspects than he can shake his silver topped cane at. The collected assortment of potential murderers traveling in the Calais coach include a brash widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), an earnest teacher (Daisy Ridley), a strict missionary (Penelope Cruz), a Russian royal (Judi Dench), her assistant (Olivia Colman), a black doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a count (Sergei Polunin), his countess (Lucy Boynton), a German professor (Willem Dafoe), a car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo),  the train’s attendant (Marwan Kenzari), along with the dead’s man secretary (Josh Gad) and manservant (Derek Jacobi). Whodunit? Whydunit? And Whendunit?

Original caricature by Jeff York of Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot in the 1974 version of
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. (copyright 2017).


For the bulk of the film, Poirot interviews each passenger. He’s got some time as the train is snowbound from a nighttime avalanche, but he needs to find the killer quick before the local authorities get their hands on the case. Most all of this is in the book, as well as in the classic ’74 film stunningly directed by Sidney Lumet, but from there, Branagh’s trip on the train takes a few different routes.

For starters, Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot indulges in some key differences from her written pages. Christie described the detective this way in “The Mystery of the Bagdad Chest”:

“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendor of his famous mustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy.

Yes, Branagh plays a well-dressed, inveterate dandy, but after that, he’s quite different. The acclaimed British actor is still leading man handsome, lean, and he's quite dashing here. That’s hardly the sinister little troll often seen offending those he interrogates in the books. Poirot’s fastidious little mustache is nowhere to be found this time. Instead, his facial hair is a thick, wrap-around mustache more President Chester A. Arthur than prissy European. Branagh also makes his Poirot exceedingly physical, running all about, traipsing out in the cold, and wielding his cane as if it were a light saber. It’s hard to imagine the previous Poirot’s of Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, and David Suchet working up such a sweat.

One can clearly see the influence of the Benedict Cumberbatch SHERLOCK series which updated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective in similarly aggressive and action-oriented ways. This may infuriate some Christie purists, but it’s actually no less egregious than the numerous bald Belgians played in the past by actors like Suchet and even Tony Randall back in 1965’s THE ALPHABET MURDERS. The truth is, Christie described Poirot as having the appearance of a full head of hair. Thus, that point goes to Mr. Branagh, and overall, his Poirot is one that I'm certain Christie would admire. He's savvy, elegant, righteous, and Branagh gives a fully is engaging performance. 

Clearly, the filmmaker has set out to present a new take on her old material. Most of his choices as a director or actor that deviate from the source material still work here because of he keeps Christie's core mystery the same. Still, it is interesting to note all the ways he’s let screenwriter Michael Green freely play with the Christie canon. Colonel Arbuthnot is now not only a black man, but he's the doctor present on the train, eliminating the need for Dr. Constantine from the original prose. Christie’s digs at racism and sexism, served mostly as subtext in the original story, have been moved to the forefront here. And even the detective’s gathering all the suspects into a drawing room to announce the murderer is given a fresh spin as Branagh's Poirot addresses all of them outside where they’re seated at a long table in the train tunnel. It’s a visual that is more reminiscent of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” than the Christie cliché. 

The ending still is a boffo surprise for those who don’t know it, and to his credit, Green actually hides the inevitable longer than in most previous filmed versions. Branagh ensures that the film looks like a million bucks and showcases the train decked out in all its glory. There’s a great shot of a waiter measuring the distance from the end of a spoon to the end of the dining table. Indeed, they still do that on the train as I had the privilege of vacationing on the Orient Express a decade ago and I saw that practice first-hand.

Branagh does make some unfortunate errors in his telling though. For starters, he all but glosses over the backstory of the Daisy Armstrong case, giving it short shrift in both the discussion of it, as well as in flashback. Shown in the middle of the film as black and white home movies, he fails to deliver the sense of the scandalous murder's enormity on the nation and its lingering aftermath. (The Lindbergh kidnapping was the O.J. Simpson trail of its day.) The original film did a brilliant job setting up all this important exposition in the very opening and this new version suffers mightily in that comparison.  

The director also doesn't make the train particularly treacherous. Sure, there’s a dangerous chase on the bridge underneath the train, and the snowy exteriors provide a certain amount of danger, but the train never seems like a shadowy, claustrophobic setting that could easily enable crime. Saddest of all, most of the characters in this telling register more as types than people. Thus, we don't feel particularly invested in any of their fates. Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and most notably, Josh Gad, shine but few else make much of an impression. Bit players like Polunin and Boynton barely register at all. And why was Penelope Cruz's presence squandered so? She’s dramatically cast against type here playing a rigid stiff of a Christian harpy, but does she even have eight lines? It’s the biggest missed opportunity of the film to give the likes of her, as well as other brilliant character actors like Dench, Dafoe and Colman so little to do.


Finally, Branagh rushes his finale and for those who’ve never experienced the story on the page or screen, the gist of it all may be more than a little lost. It is one of Christie’s most intricately plotted denouements, and Lumet famously took 35 minutes for Poirot to explain the who, why, what, and where of the crime in the ’74 classic. It played as a spellbinding explanation of all that had occurred, as well as a masterly actor’s showcase for Finney who received a richly deserved Oscar nod for Best Actor. Branagh is an actor who could equal that monologue but chooses instead to settle the story’s score in about half the time. This should be the scene most relished in the film, instead it relinquishes to the attention deficit in today's modern audiences.

Yet, at the end of it all, this is still Christie and it’s one of her greatest yarns no matter what the differences or mistakes made in this version. All her stories are intricate puzzles that dazzle, and this one shines especially so. For those who think television’s CSI is a great procedural or count THE BLACK LIST as a tale with amazing twists and turns, they need to see this MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. And then they should see the 1974 version to be wowed even more.

It makes one look forward to even more of Christie's works back on the big screen. (Her other Poirot standout DEATH ON THE NILE is teased as a possible sequel at the end.) And in the year of Wonder Woman, and various actresses bringing thugs like Harvey Weinstein down, it’s opportune to realize just how important a female writer Christie was in her time and still is today. Not only was she an incredible novelist and short story impresario, but she managed to be so during a period in history when women had barely earned the right to vote. To add even more perspective to her feats, Christie signed her works using her own moniker, not some bogus male pen name as often was the case with female writers in the day. She was and is an utter legend, and ignoring her greatness, courage, and Herculean achievements, well, that would be the real crime.

Friday, November 3, 2017

QUICK HITS AND MISSES AT THIS FALL'S CINEPLEX


78/52

Is the shower murder from Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO the most iconic scene in film history? Judging by the numerous critical dissertations, scholarly analysis, and endless parodies that have been made of it since the film’s debut in 1960, the answer may very well be yes. Thus, an entire documentary devoted to analyzing it hardly seems excessive. In fact, it really is a must-see for anyone who’s a fan of movies, Hitch, or horror.

The name 78/52 refers to the 78 camera set-ups for that unforgettable scene and the 52 cuts which made up its edit. One could argue that this film could have used a little editing itself, especially the dumb opening which tries in vain to recreate Janet Leigh’s drive in the rain. Still, the rest of the doc is entirely enthralling as it gathers everyone from actress Jamie Lee Curtis to novelist Bret Easton Ellis to provide on-camera commentary about the impact the graphic, meticulously constructed scene had on the movies, society, and even the world of bathing.

The best voices in the documentary are those filmmakers who dig deep into the minutiae like Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo Del Toro, and especially, editor and sound designer Walter Murch. He really dissects the second-by-second of what the Master of Suspense intrinsically designed melding sight, sound, and suggestion. 

The whole of Alexandre O. Phillipe's documentary is a fascinating tutorial on the power of images, sound design, and Hitchcock’s darkly comic sense of humor. Hitchcock famously expressed that PSYCHO was really a comedy. Indeed, when you watch it the first time, it's a horror movie. The second time? It's a dark comedy loaded with all kinds of wit, double entendres, and sexual imagery that would make Larry Flynt blush.

And you’ll never look at shopping for melons the same again after Hitchcock's foley artist explains how it took a range of the fruit to determine which gourd sounded the best getting stabbed. 


SUBURBICON

Good thing that the American Film Institute already chose George Clooney to be their 2018 Life Achievement Award recipient because this film isn’t much of one. Clooney is a talented filmmaker and he’s assembled a tony cast here, with a script worked on by the Coen Brothers, but none of it makes this work.  Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, among others, flounder trying to play despicable characters in a tone somewhere between BLOOD SIMPLE and THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW.  It has impeccable 1950’s production design, but everything else feels too yesteryear. It’s noisy, garish, and boorish. And its portrayal of the ugliness beneath the manicured lawns and courteous manners of suburban white America is so on-the-nose,  I'm surprised it doesn't need a Breathe Rite strip.

There’s a racial subplot that is meant to be pointed commentary about prejudice, but it gets lost amidst all the violent skullduggery that the actors huff and puff to bring to life. Material like this that is so dark and nihilistic would be better served up dryly, but Clooney wants to deliver an elbow to the ribs every couple of minutes.  My stomach hurt from turning, not laughing.

Clooney has delivered time and time again as an actor, but his helming track record is spotty. GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK? Bravo! THE MONUMENTS MEN? Good night. Good thing he’s getting the AFI honor next year, because this one will likely not figure in any awards race.  



MARSHALL

Speaking of Oscars, this period piece, about a young Thurgood Marshall who went on to become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, should have been an awards contender. It too is a timely commentary about racial conflict in America. It has an excellent cast, headed up by Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, and James Cromwell. And it wisely focuses on a singular case rather than try to be a cradle-to-grave biopic. Unfortunately, the film picks the wrong case to dramatize. 

For starters, the trial concerns a working class black man (Brown) wrongfully accused of raping a white woman (Hudson), and comparisons to the classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD do not do this new film any favors. Secondly, even if you don’t know the specifics of that Marshall case, the story's twist can be seen coming a mile away.

Most damaging however is the fact that Marshall wasn’t allowed to argue his case as the judge forbade him from taking first chair due to the black man's out-of-state status. That hoisted all the courtroom theatrics upon the timid local counselor, a young Jewish attorney named William Friedman. He's played here in fine seriocomic form by the talented Josh Gad, but it makes Marshall feel like a supporting player in his own biography. Are studios afraid to let African-American talent carry a film? Does it need a white costar to make it more palatable in the South?  Emma Stone was fine in THE HELP, but Viola Davis was more than capable of carrying that film alone. Same here. Gad is good, but Boseman should be the show.

The direction by Reginald Hudlin and production values are first-rate in this crowd-pleasing film, but the focus of Marshall should have been on something he accomplished as a groundbreaking justice on the highest court of the land. At the very least, by showcasing a case where Marshall plays “Cyrano de Bergerac” to a nervous newbie, the character arc that drives the film is Friedman’s. And that’s hardly just at all.


THOR: RAGNAROK

Who knew that Chris Hemsworth could be so utterly hilarious? I mean, he was funny in the reboot of GHOSTBUSTERS, albeit in an absurdly written part, but here in THOR: RAGNAROK he displays comic inflections and deadpan timing that rival Bob Newhart and Jim Parsons. Is that why the new Marvel Studios film leans so heavily on the comedic, because he's so magical, or have the powers that be decided to ratchet up the comedy across the Marvel portfolio due to the stunning successes of the more frivolous franchises like DEADPOOL and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY? Either way, the audience benefits as this action/adventure movie is more of a hoot than a hero’s journey. 

Heck, this is such a raucous romp, directed with a shaggy ease by Taika Waititi, even the tragic story of Bruce Banner seems lost forever now after this outing. The sensitive scientist and his Hulk alter ego, played once again with intensity and verve by Mark Ruffalo, detour into a sort of Belushi/Farley/Galifianakis frat boy sidekick thing. Then, by throwing Jeff Goldblum into the mix, and directing him to play his dystopian dictator as a loopy loon, you've got a movie with more laughs than any billed comedy this year.

This third in the THOR series is a ton of fun despite a needlessly complex plot, its standard issue intergalactic villainess (Cate Blanchett, slumming), and space ship set pieces that come off like GOTG left-overs. It also comes dangerously close to earning unintentional laughs with its cornball attempts at creating pathos around the raggedy regular folk who become displaced from their homes on planet Asgard. They look like extras who wandered in from the lame sequels to THE MATRIX. 

Still, with witty turns additionally supplied by Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch in a Dr. Strange cameo, and surprise guest appearances by Matt Damon, Sam Neill, and Hemsworth’s brother Luke, THOR: RAGNAROK is the flashlight through a dark and stormy autumn marred by the piggery of Weinstein, Spacey, et al. If only Thor's legendary hammer could obliterate the male monsters in Tinsel Town.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

NEW JAYNE MANSFIELD DOCUMENTARY CAPTURES HER KITSCH AND CONTROVERSY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey from the new documentary MANSFIELD 66/67. (copyright 2017)

Was Jayne Mansfield the Kim Kardashian of her time? The new documentary MANSFIELD 66/67 makes the argument without uttering those words. It lets its audience fill in such blanks. After all, as showcased in the terrific new film opening this weekend from directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, Mansfield was an actress known as much for her publicity seeking and camera hogging schemes as for her talent. Plus, Mansfield defined her era’s sexual ideal the same way that Kardashian does her generation, flaunting a cartoonish sex appeal and larger-than-life figure. It makes this new movie not only a fascinating study of history but a relevant editorial on how fleeting and shallow fame can be in Tinsel Town. No matter what the decade.

Long before Mrs. West was ‘breaking the internet’ repeatedly, Mansfield herself was reaping all kinds of magazine covers, gossip column ink, and PR from her overtly sexual schemes. Mansfield was a talented comic actress, no doubt, sort of a caricature of Marilyn Monroe in her way, and yet her greatest talent was in self-promotion. Long before sex tapes could turn an heiress’ best friend into a multimillionaire, Mansfield was using her sexuality to climb the ladder to success. Coming from the world of beauty pageants and modeling, and a significant presence in the early pages of Playboy, Mansfield made sure she became an icon of the era, and a physical representation of the larger-than-life industry in La-la Land.

Interestingly, the actress did have the talent as well as the body. Her comedic skills received raves when she starred on Broadway in the romantic comedy WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER in 1955? She received rave reviews and Hollywood quickly cast her in the film version of it. Not only were her 40-21-35 measures eye-catching, but her personality took the big screen by storm too. Her comic timing, her warmth, and an innate ability to make fun of herself, endeared her to audiences and Tinsel Town executives alike. Her tireless work ethic also appealed to filmmakers who were tired of dealing with the emotional juggernaut and erratic on-set behavior of troubled rival Monroe. 


Mansfield soon became in demand, as well as a household name, at least with most of the male movie-going audience. Amongst her best credits were starring turns in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, THE WAYWARD BUS, and KISS THEM FOR ME, where she received star billing alongside the legendary Cary Grant.

Unfortunately, from there, Mansfield’s career started to waver. Age is never kind to actresses, let alone sex symbols. Plus, tastes were changing as the nation veered into the 60’s. A more naturalistic, even hippie style feminine look started to take hold, and the platinum-coiffed Mansfield suddenly seemed as outdated as her leopard spot and polka dot bikinis. Hurting her resume as well were her numerous pregnancies which kept her from cultivating her career. Ultimately, Mansfield’s greatest productions were the five children she had from her three marriages. (She was married three times in 15 years.) 

As fame waned, Mansfield made all sorts of attempts to stay in the limelight. She recorded a pop music album and proved to be a very fine singer. Mansfield also recorded the novelty disc Jayne Mansfield: Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me. There, she defied her dumb blonde image by passionately reciting the Bard’s sonnets and poems against classical music in the background. Few knew it, but Mansfield was actually one smart cookie. Her IQ was measured at 149. Indeed, her looks were quite deceiving. (She also was a natural brunette, but then no one on God's green earth has ever had such platinum tresses naturally.)


Still, the bimbo image made it difficult for Mansfield to be taken seriously in some circles, and after a while, she started to just give in and go with it. She created a nightclub act where she sang, shimmied and cooed her way through pop standards. The aging actress even agreed to help launch grocery stores in the LA area, and attend whatever red-carpet movie premiere ticket she could get her hands on. Apparently, the desperate actress even crashed some.  

Her most stunning move was in 1966 and 1967 when she started dabbling in occultism alongside Anton LaVey, the founder and head of America’s Church of Satan. More of a hedonistic outlet for her narcissistic excesses, Mansfield nonetheless allowed herself to be photographed performing Satanic rituals alongside LaVey in full devil’s garb. Such shenanigans earned her as much bad PR as positive ones, but some believe any publicity is good publicity. Mansfield, at that point in her career, obviously thought anything would help.

All of this is featured in the documentary, but what makes MANSFIELD 66/67 so much more than an expert A & E network profile is the fun and kitsch that the filmmakers add to their film. Ebersole and Hughes interview dozens of name celebrities about Mansfield and some of them are outright coups. John Waters provides some of the wittier and more insightful barbs. And you’d expect such a doc to include 50’s sexpot Mamie Van Doren and tabloid journalist A.J. Benza, but when’s the last time Kenneth Anger gave such an exclusive on-camera interview? The author/occultist/filmmaker famously put Mansfield on the cover of his landmark 1965 tell-all Hollywood Babylon and here he provides a ton of insight into what drove her regarding the relationship she had with LaVey. (He suggests they had a sexual affair without saying outright that they did.)

An interpretive dance scene from MANSFIELD 66/67.
This film also utilizes a treasure trove of photos and film that have rarely been seen before to help chronicle all aspects of Mansfield’s life. And for those moments that the filmmakers don’t have such pics, they create their own content, often in hilarious ways. Documenting some of the crazier moments, Ebersole and Hughes  employ staged recreations, even incorporating some cheeky animated storytelling. They also use interpretative dance, tongues and toes planted firmly in cheek of course, as well as some original songs written for the doc to highlight various parts of Mansfield’s sorted history. It all keeps even the heavier moments from bogging down and becoming depressing. 

That’s especially helpful during the documentary’s final section where it delves into Mansfield’s notorious death from a car crash in 1967. She was in Biloxi, MI for an engagement at a supper club when the Buick carrying her, her companion Sam Brody, and three of her children – Miklós, Zoltán and Mariska – crashed into a tractor-trailer at 2:20 in the AM. The adults in the front seat were killed instantly, along with one of Mansfield’s beloved Chihuahua’s, yet the sleeping children in the back seat survived with only minor injuries. The film shows off plenty of lurid accident police photos, even an utterly unseemly one of the lifeless dog.

Mansfield with LaVey in 1967.
For decades, the rumor that Mansfield was decapitated in that accident added an unsavory notoriety to her biography, but that simply wasn’t the truth. Those death scene shots caught one with her platinum blonde wig amongst the wreckage, leading to the rumors that it was her whole head. The filmmakers here make a point to clear up the falsehood once and for all by including documentation, not to mention film of an interview with Mansfield’s embalmer. Of course, it is only fitting that the life of a woman so public would achieve some of her greatest fame in death, and that fact is not lost in this film. Arguably, it is the cherry on the top of its darkly comic assessment of the notorious star.

Missing from this doc, and rather conspicuously at that, are any interviews with her closest family members. Especially interesting is the very little said about TV star Mariska Hargitay, Mansfield's  daughter from her second marriage to bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. Mariska overcame her troubled childhood with her mother to build one of the more incredible careers in television. (She's been one of its top stars and highest paid actresses for over a decade.) Granted, I didn’t expect such an interview here, but omitting more mention of her seems like an oversight.

In 1967, film critic and trash film expert Whitney Williams wrote of Mansfield in Variety: "her personal life out-rivaled any of the roles she played." This film argues that case as well, making for a timely lesson on Hollywood and the cost of fame. The release of this film can only benefit from all the Harvey Weinstein talk and how hard the town is on female talent. Jayne Mansfield was truly one of those talents – gorgeous, funny, and whip smart. Still, that wasn’t enough, and even making whatever sort of pact with the devil couldn’t help her as much as she had hoped.

The cover of Kenneth Anger's notorious 1965 tell-all featuring Mansfield falling out of her dress.
Dying early, in a lurid and unforgettable way, certainly did manage to cement Mansfield's place in the pantheon of Hollywood celebrity in a way the rest of her career could not, but was that too large a price to pay for poor Jayne? Hmmm...