Friday, September 30, 2011

The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)

It takes one hell of a star to embody an entire decade, but Jimmy Cagney moves through The Roaring Twenties with such energy that the title might as well refer to his character. Raoul Walsh's gift for mixing huge, meaty setpieces, and moods with economic staging fits Cagney's brand of spare, raw grandeur perfectly. Together, the two present a profoundly cynical view of the decade retroactively seen as the glory days upon the onset of the Depression. The Roaring Twenties exposes the grim naïveté beneath that view as mercilessly as it undermines the fresh-faced pluck of Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), who returns from WWI expecting a hero's welcome and instead finds a society in chaos.

The Roaring Twenties plays by gangster movie rules, complete with stern, almost newsreel-like narration, clipped dialogue and sleazy views of the underworld. Nevertheless, it also works as a people's history of the '20s, digging beneath the glitzy surface of pre-crash society to see how the only people who were having a good time during the period were criminals, and even they soon suffered collapse.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century is so ahead of its time it serves as a precursor to two great types of Hollywood storytelling: the behind-the-scenes, referential melodrama and the screwball comedy. Even in the film's first segment, in which the dialogue tumbles out with the speed and visceral impact of a golf match, it still feels like the ping-ponged exchanges that would grace Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Hawks' economic direction, his ability to eke the fullest energy from the simplest, barest setup gives even jazzes up the dim slurring of the drunken sot who moves around the demented Broadway world of the protagonists.

"Discovered" by Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), an impresario who tyrannically parades around like a scarfed Caesar, a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) opens the film infuriating the rest of Jaffe's troupe with her awful acting. Cast in a melodrama, she proves incapable of conveying emotion. She transcends natural acting; she's so plain and starched she proves more suited to play the role of a bread loaf than a frenzied damsel. But Jaffe refuses to fire her, and though his insistence carries predatory desire, somehow his instincts prove correct and Mildred is reborn as star Lily Garland, and a cut across several years instantly hops from a tearful, overwhelmed "Hoboken Cinderella" to a jaded diva.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Brian De Palma: Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes is, in a bizarre way, the logical continuation of Brian De Palma's previous film, Mission Impossible. Mixing political thriller with questionable plays for De Palma's capacity to capture Romantic grief, Snake Eyes likewise feels like a safe bet for the director, but one he that allows him to push his luck. If it's one of the emptiest films of De Palma's corpus—a collection of work that houses more than a few technical exercises—at least the director gives us a story so ridiculous you almost don't mind when it collapses in the third act.

In a long career of intricate, arresting openings, the start of De Palma's Snake Eyes may be his finest. A 13-minute tracking shot that moves through the grimy politics behind a heavyweight championship fight, the opening moves from camera monitors through police corruption and finally ends with an assassination. I would couch that in a spoiler warning, but I want to avoid repetition and thus see no need to mention that this is a Brian De Palma movie a second time. It's the start of a shallow but merry and hysterically over-intricate journey into late-Clinton America, a time of economic success and almost-grating peace, of a country so well off it's now darkly quaint to think how badly everyone wanted something interesting to happen.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Lola (1961), Safety Last!, Parks and Recreation—Season 1

Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961)

If character dramas unfold in arcs, the lines of the people in Jacques Demy's debut form asymptotes. Demy's New Wave-cum-classical style creates a self-contained world that gives a softly lift haze to reality as characters constantly aim for each other and miss, sometimes passing within mere inches of each other before carrying on or being redirected. The linking of characters—the ennui-ridden Roland and the American sailor looking to stay outside his homeland, the titular dancer and the sweet but equally restless teenager Cécile—only serves to compound and make mutually perpetuating cycles of the sense of missed chances and empty dreams that cool the film's fits of aspirational jauntiness. Roland is the Ghost of Christmas Future of Frankie's desire to stay in France, whose quixotic quest to win Lola's spoken-for heart suggests the endpoint of Roland's own courtship. A spoken-word film has never wanted so badly to be a musical, but everyone's too confused and sad to dance around and sing. Raoul Coutard's cinematography is deftly composed but as antsy and fidgety as the characters, creating a balance between formalism and rawness worthy of the title card's dedication to another master of technical, grim melodrama, Max Ophüls. The camera certainly moves enough to betray aspirations to Ophüls, but Demy accomplishes similar acts of formal rigor on real port city streets, replacing Max's almost clinical touch with more deeply felt longing and obliviousness. Grade: A

Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923)

From the opening misdirect—threatening bars and a hanging noose revealed to be a harmless train station—Safety Last! advertises a keen sense of cheek that makes use of Harold Lloyd's perpetual look of having been forced into a situation that, despite his undiluted confidence, exists wholly outside his understanding and, unless you pay attention, his physical capacity. Yet Lloyd, with his anti-Keaton arsenal of beguiling smiles, also demonstrates the hucksterism implanted by his father, and his perpetually unassuming nature masks a capacity to play at levels no less minutely planned and vast as his contemporaries. Lloyd knew how to cater to an audience without letting it come off as condescension, and his eager young worker makes for a more identifiable and empathetic character than Chaplin's pitiable, idealistic Tramp. He'll find a way to push through any moment, turning a pratfall into a desperate rep of push-ups in a flash as if to convince an onlooking crowd that he meant to do that, demonstrating the indefatigable nature of the American spirit, even if he made it look ridiculous.

Lloyd also knew how to set up a gag as well as anyone: that wry open is merely the first of many jokes that call for physical dexterity but work best for their staging and the mad logic of their comic crescendos and expectation-shattering fakeouts. The best of these, of course, is the legendary sequence in which Lloyd, an amateur forced to double for an expert climber, scales a building façade as everything goes wrong to impede him, most famously him falling on a clock hand that then pulls the whole face of it out of the building. And even when he recovers, he gets caught in a damn spring. It's always something. But even the scenes of working life in a department store, with its two-pronged assault of employee-dehumanizing surveillance and rampaging customers engaged into open war for the best deals, show off Lloyd's body language and his ability to frame big scenes with coherent economy. Lloyd may not mine the same thematic depth as Chaplin, nor the technical brilliance of Keaton's setpieces and innovative camera techniques, but he had the purest laughs, and this is one of the few silents where intertitles are almost as funny as the sight gags. Not a hair out of place. Grade: A+

Parks and Recreation—Season 1 (2009)

Granted, the American version of The Office started off weakly too, but it's amazing the Parks and Rec we know and love emerged from this six-episode mid-season replacement. If the first six episodes of The Office's own truncated season felt too tethered to the original, Parks and Recreation feels downright chained to the American Office, an exhibition of Plato's argument against art as being thrice removed from reality, only this is thrice removed from yet more art. The show does manage to ground itself in the intriguing setting of small-town government, and some characters—chiefly Tom and Ron Swanson—are winners from the start. But the rest of its considerably talented cast is largely wasted, and Leslie Knope's laminated Michael Scott copy is too clueless even as Poehler uncomfortably draws on Hillary Clinton-esque ambition that should (and eventually would) come across as bucking gender norms but here plays into the most aggravating types of career-driven women. The last episode represents a notable uptick in quality, but not until the writers came back that fall, armed with feedback they wisely did not ignore, the show soon found its feet and became one of the best shows on TV. Say what you will about NBC (I have), but you've got to admire their confidence in letting not one but three major creative investments pay off despite initially poor results (see also The Office and 30 Rock). Grade: C

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, 1941)

With its tight running length—barely stretching to the point of feature length—and stripped-down visual style, Dumbo broadcasts the financial desperation motivating it as if trumpeting it through the trunks of its elephants. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved one of the greatest hits in motion-picture history, Walt Disney promptly sank profits into the far more ambitious experiments of Pinocchio and Fantasia, both of which proved to be costly flops. Desperate to refill coffers, Disney took a planned short film adapting a story written for a novelty toy and had his team inflate up to a 64-minute picture to get some money, any money, back into the studio.

Yet if Dumbo is, fundamentally, a last-ditch effort to raise money, it must surely rank as one of the most delightful and genuinely creative "cash grabs" put to film. Moving away from the more detailed and expensive oil and gouache background paintings that gave Disney's previous two features their considerable artistic depth, the animation team returned to the more economical use of watercolor for backgrounds. But if the cuter, broader backgrounds lacked the intricacy of Fantasia's vastness or Pinocchio's masterfully modulated sense of scale, they also freed up the animators to focus on more vivid character animation, and one need only compare the expressiveness of Dumbo's baby blues to the more basic facial capabilities of prior characters to see how much the Nine Old Men and the rest of the animators could grow even when taking a studio-mandated step-backward.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943)

Predating Arthur Miller's The Crucible by a decade, Carl Theodor Dreyer's own witch hunt allegory is not only politically braver—he managed to get away with making it under Denmark's Nazi occupation—but more morally complex. Its scathing view of institutions goes beyond any one target, even one as pervasively evil as the Third Reich, to indict the pettiness and paranoia not overcome by objective rule but given a focal point for the mob. By the same token, Dreyer also visualizes the presence of unfathomable evil (a redundancy, as all true evil is on some level insoluble) and how our understandably fearful reaction to such evil leads us to create such harsh, inhuman institutions. Nevertheless, as the first shots of the film move down an illuminated text of the titular hymn, its portentous, almost bloodthirsty revelry in Judgment Day matching the force of the score. The shadow of a cross descending with the camera only makes the moment more uncomfortable, and for those who found Dreyer's tribute to Joan of Arc religiously uplifting, here he makes clear his disdain for organized religion.

Then, he complicates matters. The signing of a glorified execution notice of a suspected witch moves to the woman in question, Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier), giving concoctions to a village woman. The old crone claims the herbs she used for her drought have power because she picked them under the gallows. "There is power in evil," she tells her suspicious customer. But just as Dreyer inserts the possibility of actual witchcraft, the sound of an encroaching mob brings back the fear of witch hunts as the old woman flees out her pig trough. Then she makes the mistake of hiding out in the home of the local, persecuting pastor. Or is it a mistake after all?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Red-Headed Woman, Waterloo Bridge, Fish Tank

Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932)

"So blondes have all the fun, huh?" asks the platinum blonde goddess Jean Harlow, here sporting a wig so fiery you can practically see the ginger blaze in black and white. The question is less an interrogative than the slap of a gauntlet across the face of those who would deny this redhead her fun. Like Stanwyck in Baby Face, Harlow uses sex to climb to the top. Also like Stanwyck, she's such a sexual force that she barely puts any effort at all into her eyelash-fluttering wilting flower bit, her crocodile tears a half-step above saying "Boo-hoo" in perfect monotone. But when the men fold like deck chairs, why waste time honing the craft? Harlow was never more seductive or unrepentant; her conniving grin presages Jack Nicholson at his most manic, and her asymptotic eyebrows divebomb toward her eyeballs, only to catch a glimpse of the steel and fire in them and make a last-second attempt to break out of their gravitational pull. It gives her a perpetually furious look, and at times you wonder if Cagney put on drag to play this part.

It's amazing to think Conway actually cut this film for Hays Office approval, as its almost combative sexuality and defiance is precisely the reason that office was created in the first place. But no one can resist the sultry charm of the redhead, and the social outrage that greeted the film only drove up its profits further. If you look hard enough at the end, you can almost see Harlow laughing her way to the bank. Grade: B

Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931)

Waterloo Bridge is one of the more disturbing Pre-Code films out there, less for its forthright treatment of social malaise, sexuality and crime than its contextualizing of same around not the sinful speakeasies but war-torn London gripped in panic and confusion. Mae Clarke extrapolates the pain and bewilderment she brought to The Public Enemy to fit the protagonist Myra, an impoverished, American chorus girl stranded in London during WWI, too penniless to return home from the storm. To get by, she turns to prostitution, a plan that jades her but does not wholly rob her innocence, an innocence that comes to the fore when a sweet Canadian soldier (Douglass Montgomery) comes into her life and she can't bear to hurt him. A mournful quality hangs over this film that stresses the weariness of world-weariness. Clarke's hardened exterior soon cracks, and the waves of revulsion and sadness that wash over her face (a face that registers pure helplessness over her situation) are heartbreaking. So troubling are the implications of its view of how poverty and war has the grimmest of consequences, it's no wonder the film met with huge controversy despite clearly portraying prostitution as a bad thing where so many Pre-Codes viewed it as a mere way of life. A sense of pointlessness hangs over this film, and as a depiction of the waste and senselessness of war, it makes the home front as savage and horrific as the trenches of All Quiet on the Western Front. Grade: A

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Arnold's tight 4:3 framing drops a Mentos in a Diet Coke and shakes up the bottle. Her view of a council estate is initially chaotic, wrapped up in aggressive editing, hand-held shots, violence among teens and language so coarse it takes on a physicality of its own; it's a wonder the film doesn't catch fire in the gate. Things smooth into a more coherent portrait of directionless youth with a terrific, anguished performance from discovery Katie Jarvis and a shifting portrayal of emotional stability and warmth in Michael Fassbender's kind but vaguely off-putting Connor. Arnold's crisp imagery is breathtaking, and she never uses it ironically, even when capturing the glint of sunlight through a cheap plastic bottle. It makes everything so much more tragic, the characters unable to see the gorgeous beauty around them for their troubles. A credibility-stretching but harrowing climax drives Mia to the brink, and it's a miracle Arnold wrings some kind of vague, cautious hope out of the end, more so that she does so to the strains of Nas' "Life's a Bitch." Grade: B+

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)

[Note: this review is spoiler-free but I would still encourage those who haven't yet seen the film to go into it as cold as possible.]

Having proudly managed to seclude myself from practically anything related to Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive following its rapturous reception at Cannes, I found myself surprised by the extremity of the praise that filtered through my blinders. What particularly caught my eye was one rhetorical headline (I did not read the story in my anti-hype lockdown) that asked whether Refn and his star Ryan Gosling were the new Scorsese-De Niro, a comparison I found particularly odd since this is only their first collaboration. Having now seen Drive, however, I can almost see where that writer was coming from: Gosling represents a synthesis and an embodiment of the director's goals, thematic intent and emotional frequency. Refn's previous film, Valhalla Rising, was an abstract tone poem to masculine horror, the kind codified and even encouraged by chauvinistic, barbaric religious organization. Gosling introduces feminine contours to Refn's stylized but dimmed and rough side, though the sensitive actor with the gentle eyes displays an equal capacity for brutality here that places him on the tipping point between grace and savagery.

But then, maybe the invocation of Scorsese and De Niro was just that writer's way of getting in on the  referential action. Refn, who says he modeled Bronson on Kenneth Anger films (there's a reference here, too) and Valhalla Rising on Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, here unloads a dump-truck of stylistic homages, from early Michael Mann to stripped-down car movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Driver to an overt reference to Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin. Hell, the most visible reference point, to my surprise, was that of Wong Kar-wai, particularly his devastating In the Mood for Love. For some, all these references will be a delight, a smorgasbord of retro cool gussied up further by the inexplicable (but fun) use of '80s synth music. For others, this is merely a sign of self-satisfied theft, a lazy repackaging of ideas. Either way, this fixation misses the true joy of Drive: watching Refn wring tension out nearly every moment, even doe-eyed, wistful stares of impossible love.

Valhalla Rising (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2009)

If one were to play the old "X meets Y" game of critical shorthand, one would have to plot Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising along several other axes. Unequal parts Apocalypse Now, Aguirre and, of all things, Stalker (this reference actually supplied by the director), Valhalla Rising creates oneiric abstraction out of bluntly realistic primitivism. A far cry from the epic, glorious tone of swords-and-sandals films, Refn's meditation on the meeting point of barbarism and religious fervor depicts not the raw energy and codified nobility of man's first hints of civilization but of the unformed rage and atrocity that truly defined the early man. But then, the Greeks and the Romans came long before these Celts and Norsemen, and Refn leaves the social effects of early Christianity hanging in the air as we see a world far more primitive and savage than the supposed heathens who practiced their idolatry.

Divided into six parts, the film initially presents no story at all, and for a long stretch, no dialogue. Instead, we are treated the the sight of tattooed Viking slaves pounding each other into mulch for the amusement of their captors. Amusement may be the wrong word: unlike the cheering throngs of bloodthirsty Romans, these tribesmen watch their slaves beat, bash and strangle each other with impassivity, as if this were some kind of perfunctory act, just some way to pass the time. It almost looks like the barbaric equivalent of discussing the weather. Even the worrying proficiency of the slave One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) at destroying his opponents prompts little more than water-cooler chat, as it were. When One-Eye gets a hold of an arrowhead that allows him to break free of his bondage and slaughter his captors, their brief flashes of overwhelming fear mark the first emotional beat of the film.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, 2007)

Francis Ford Coppola's modern rejuvenation is one of the most unexpected and wonderful occurrences of contemporary American cinema. Almost entirely written off as a has-been who burned out while trapped in his mock-up Vietnam, Coppola's seeming early retirement after 1997's The Rainmaker appeared less premature but, if anything, belated. But Youth Without Youth was not merely Coppola's first film in a decade but his greatest in a generation, at least since 1983's Rumble Fish. The usual round of scathing late-period reviews greeted the director's work, but if one looks past a script that clearly reads better than it sounds aloud, Youth Without Youth becomes one of the most powerful expressions of the possibilities of the new cinema and, for all its reduced scale and budget, an astonishing leap forward in the classically minded Coppola's search for the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Based on the novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth wears its literary influences on its sleeves, introducing a 70-year-old Romanian intellectual, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) at the end of a career spent unsuccessfully tracing linguistics to the origins of language. Despondent for a life wasted in solitary confinement, he returns home with plans to commit suicide, until a bolt of lightning strikes him as he crosses the street. Left horrifically charred, blind and near death, poor Dominic appears to suffer one final injustice before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Then, he makes a full recovery with breathtaking speed, not merely recuperating but aging backwards three decades.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, 2011)

With his gentile, if drably ironic, style and textured, nuanced characters, Thomas McCarthy's Win Win respects and subverts two formulaic, rigid genres: the sports film and the marketably "indie" movie. Set in New Providence, a borough in New Jersey's densely populated Union County, Win Win nevertheless feels isolated and lonely, populated by a scattered collection of reject teenagers both literal and metaphoric who wile away the time in a chilly, winter-barren suburb with nothing but a lot of broken or preemptively denied dreams to stir them. It's the sort of place made for an underdog story, but this is not a film of big victories; though he finds the expressive and emotional value of sports in some people's lives, McCarthy does not suggest that sports holds much relevance in a world beset with political and simple human issues. It is, at best, a salve to alleviate deep wounds that require stronger medicine.

Emphasizing the sense of faded glory and economically dessicated comfort from the start, McCarthy opens the film by tracking forward with Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a local attorney, jogging in a park as two younger runners in sleek, form-fitting black barrel past his stocky, yellow-sweatshirted frame. Mike jogs not to stay in shape but because his doctor recommended it to control panic attacks brought on by financial worries. Effectively, he ties nagging terror over his economic straits to his physical deterioration as an out-of-shape, middle-aged man, which seems a recipe for a worse outcome rather than an improvement. Faced with his failing practice collapsing, the otherwise good Mike makes a mercenary decision that soon meets with complications he could not have anticipated and cannot hope to control if some people learn the truth. Amazingly, this ticking time-bomb manages to get tied into high-school wrestling.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Community — Season 2

Community's second season improves so dramatically on the first that it's hard to believe the show was already, pound for pound, the funniest series currently on air. While it lacks the depth and ingenuity of Louie, Community achieves such a rapid-fire rate of jokes that it rises over the current crop of excellent television to be one of the finest shows around. Balancing old-school sitcom narrative style (self-contained episodes of ludicrous adventures) with modern TV storytelling (long arcs of both character and narrative), Community often gets away with having its cake and eating it too. It offers episodes so outlandish that the show often breaks even the loosest connection to reality, yet somehow the show manages to consolidate even something as possibility-shattering as a zombie outbreak into the core story of the study group septet of varying ages and backgrounds that resembles more and more the most touching family on-screen as time goes by.

The previous season ended on an emotional cliffhanger not unlike the second season finale of the American version of The Office.  A confession of love, a physical expression of another kind and various subplots resolved and opened new paths to be explored upon the show's return. From the moment Dan Harmon and his crew get back, they not only follow up on these stories but give unexpected spins on plots headed seemingly in the opposite direction. Where the series got off to a slow start with its first few episodes, the second season wastes no time assessing where it stands, where it needs to go and how it can get there in the strangest, most unorthodox way possible.

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

For about 45-50 minutes, Contagion had me ready to run home, duct-tape the seals of my house and never come into contact with a human being again. Steven Soderbergh's detached, "so this is how the world ends" direction and and crisp, clinical cinematography effectively built fear through a steady profession of paranoia escalating from backdoor, classified whispers over vague data to full-on societal panic. Soderbergh's classical style makes even his transcontinental montage intelligible, and his experiments with asynchronous sound and image separates the aesthetic from the action even more, giving it a paradoxically compelling flatness that reminded me of the purportedly meek delivery Jonathan Edwards gave to the fiery words of his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," a mild intellectual remove that only makes the impact that much more powerful.

Then, cracks started to form. Contagion boasts the largest, most geographically disconnected cast of any of his films since Traffic, a film that shares more than a few stylistic and structural traits with Contagion and even seems the thematic inverse of this movie. But like Traffic, Contagion spreads itself too thin, across too many people and too many locations without being reliant upon any of them. The emotional distance of such incessant cross-cutting gives way to a belated, almost arbitrary stab at sentimentality that burdens Soderbergh's film with calculated schmaltz that clashes garishly with the studious, medical examiner feel of the rest of the movie. Funnily enough, this is the rare film that actually suffers for its attempts at humanity.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Janitor (Nicholas Ray, 1974)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Nicholas Ray's contribution to the Wet Dreams anthology film, entitled "The Janitor," is a deconstruction of Nicholas Ray the symbol through the symbolic destruction of Nicholas Ray the man. Ray himself plays two of the film's three chief parts, those of a priest speaking to a teenage congregation and a janitor who toils in a movie studio that becomes increasingly connected to the priest's story through broken diegesis and metacinema. And through it all, the film adheres to the softcore theme behind the overall project.

The first striking aspect of the film is Ray's face. With his untamed hair, eye patch, lined face and perilous, craggy chasm of a mouth, Ray looks like Dionysus in decline, a hard-living hero now dessicated by self-abuse. That brand of self-abuse finds its way into the film's main form of self-abuse, and the swirling torrent of religiosity, sexual ecstasy, guilt and self-hatred that springs forth from this collision makes "The Janitor" an unexpected triumph. Unless you were watching this to get off, in which case the film is a horrendous failure.

55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

The last true feature Nicholas Ray made before his death, the Boxer Rebellion epic 55 Days at Peking perhaps doesn't even count on those terms as he collapsed before its completion. But while We Can't Go Home Again shall perhaps forever be an incomplete assembly of experimental sight and sound and Lightning Over Water is more Wim Wenders' baby, 55 Days at Peking must stand as the last movie to at least look like a Nick Ray movie, though I'm afraid it doesn't ever do much more than that. Often, this is the precise opposite of a problem, Ray's mad style elevating even the most stiff of projects into the realms of pure, glorious spectacle. Here, however, it at last feels like window-dressing, a spring of parsley on a burnt roast made by too many cooks.

But if the film is one of Ray's rare failures, it is nevertheless a necessary viewing, if for no other reason than the grim spectacle of seeing a master fall apart behind the camera. Even then, there are sumptuous visual delights to be had in this over-sprawling clash of West and East. Its clever opening shots, floating over the various embassies of foreign powers as their anthems merge with harmony and disharmony just outside the Forbidden City. As one cynical Chinese man says to a friend, "Different nations say the same thing at the same time: 'We want China.'" The resentment of foreign encroachment (and equal incredulity on the part of the Westerners at the resistance they face at disseminating their values) gives the film a common thread with all late-career Ray features. Sadly, it soon loses focuses and improperly handles the potential incisiveness of the commentary.

King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Though it begins with the overture and audiovisual bombast expected of a 70mm Biblical epic, King of Kings soon turns into a movie that establishes emotional resonance even as it continues to deliver vast-scale shots of grandeur. Beginning more than 50 years before Christ's birth, Nicholas Ray's film thus dedicates its first images to the sights of Romans sacking Jerusalem, enslaving, pillaging and murdering Jews to establish supremacy. This curbs the sense of wonder, to say the least. Yet this focus on the historical context of the Gospel finds a secular approach to the religious story. The Jews in this film do not pine for a savior because of age-old prophecies; they simply need someone to help them escape this misery.

This situates the film somewhere between Ben-Hur and The Last Temptation of Christ. Though not as humanizing as Martin Scorsese's controversial film, Ray's epic nevertheless breaks ground of its own, breaking from the tradition of showing Jesus in synecdochical ellipses to show Christ in full. The mere process of visualizing him humanizes him, focusing on the man instead of the symbol. Ray understands this, even going so far as to frame most of Jesus' miracles in shadow or other indirect visuals to firmly separate the man from the god. Ray does not visually segment these sides of Jesus for the purposes of commentary or irony, merely to keep our focus on the man even if, like all Ray heroes, becomes an idol before our eyes.

The Savage Innocents (Nicholas Ray, 1960)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Shot partially on location in the Arctic, The Savage Innocents switches the familiar expanse of the West for the bleached tundra of the North. Where the heroes of the West stand as moral individualists, carving out their space in the seeming infinity of the range, the protagonist of the Arctic must fight not for his moral authority but mere survival. Its title speaks to the contrast of Inuit life between the innocence of such life and the savagery needed to stay alive. This is embodied in the first shots, of two Inuits throwing real spears into a real polar bear, puncturing the poor beast as blood pours out into the icy water in which it swims. The Eskimos simply need to eat, but the sight of a bear being stabbed to death is gruesome, especially in the age of close animal monitoring and CGI slaughters in the movies.

Yet Ray's film depicts not so much a Manichean contrast as a coexistence of the irreconcilable traits of humanity. By filtering that humanity through the customs of a non-Western race—some of them true, some of them not, all of that beside the point—Ray divorces the audience from its sense of normalcy to show the contradictory nature of culture and its inexplicability to those of another civilization. Granted, the inaccuracies and ignorance that pepper The Savage Innocents (to say nothing of the casting of not one Inuit in a part) hinder the film to a significant degree, but Ray's overriding point is the same one of all his films: the homes we make and who we make them with. Riddled with dated elements, The Savage Innocents nevertheless finds yet another angle from which Ray can attack his central preoccupations. And if his depiction of Inuits occasionally sends the eyes darting down from the screen to look at the embarrassment, that shame should also come from the realization that this thoroughly non-idealized portrait of another culture is more interested in the true behavior of a different race than nearly any Hollywood movie before or since.

Wind Across the Everglades (Nicholas Ray & Budd Schulberg, 1958)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Wind Across the Everglades marked the beginning of the end for Nicholas Ray. After falling ill during several productions during his career and necessitating shots from other directors, Everglades was the first time Ray's substance abuse problems finally got him fired. As such, it opens up a contentious debate centered on the film's auteurist cred. Budd Schulberg, the film's writer and co-producer, took over for Ray and purportedly discarded a great deal of footage in the editing bay. But if the final product certainly feels to have been put together by another's hand, there are numerous visual and narrative traits common to Ray's oeuvre.

Set in the late 19th century, Wind Across the Everglades charts American expansion into Florida, opening up new territory through swamps to Miami. It also creates a market for the plumage of region-specific birds, sparking a poaching frenzy that flagrantly ignores conservation laws, and few people rise to the challenge of monitoring the glades to enforce these laws. But when a nature studies professor named Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) steps off a train and immediately gets arrested for indignantly ripping the feathers off a woman's hat, the Audobon Society realizes they have just the man for the job. Unfortunately for the now option-less Murdock, the poaching gangs won't give up their lucrative trades without a fight, and as he ventures into the glades, Murdock finds himself confronted with a way of life at odds with his own even, in true Ray fashion, as he comes to see his rival as an equal not merely in intelligence and capability but almost spiritual connection to their setting.

Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Bursting with clichés and a simplistic script, Party Girl is nevertheless too packed with ideas not to love. An imperfect blend of Ray's mastered genres of film noir and melodrama, Party Girl is a sinister mob movie that also happens to be the most colorful and vibrant film of the director's career of color-soaked, passionate films. Ray's capacity for near-surreal dips into pure cinema have rarely, if ever, been as unabashed as the musical numbers, while others scenes plunge into such chiaroscuro that shots seem to cling to a branch hanging over monochrome.

Not that any of this is visible in the film's opening scenes, which portray the staid, conventional showgirl act that acts as the background noise for the drunken antics of the club owner, mob boss Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb, eyes never quite focused even when he turns into an icy monster later). Beneath the stage, the dames bicker viciously, insulting looks and brandishing nails with promises of hair yanking of Biblical proportions. The only supportive woman among this bevy of befeathered and besequined harpies is Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), who tries to comfort her co-worker and roommate, a despairing, crumbling woman named Joy in one of life's cruel ironies. Pregnant with the child of a married man, Joy's childish pouting belies a serious problem, but Ray has a knack for removing foreshadowing from his atmosphere. When he follows through on this brief subplot with a shocking quick shot of gruesome finality, the effect is stunning, and I found myself for the first time truly unsettled by Ray's use of red.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

For the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon being held at Cinema Viewfinder from Sept. 5-8, I've written a piece on Ray's elegant but unromantic war movie Bitter Victory at Cinelogue. A work of twisted purity, it uses a war as a backdrop for the more intimate, and thus more humanistically meaningful conflict between two men ostensibly on the same side. For a man who found the Romantic in self-immolation elsewhere, Ray's view of war is one of pure disgust: the death of one man, as they say, is tragic, but the death of millions is a statistic. Where he can find the sad resonance of one person's death reaching for his futile goals, the impersonal slaughter of war holds no glory. This makes for one of Ray's most downbeat and chilly films, but also one of his most passionately argued and affecting. And there's something so compelling about it that Godard's legendary praise of the movie still holds up. One of the master's finest works.

The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray, 1957)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

The first of Nicholas Ray's farewells to Hollywood, The True Story of Jesse James served the primary purpose of satisfying his contract with 20th Century Fox. Accordingly, its place within Ray's filmography is relatively obscure, and perhaps not without reason. The film plays like a repository for Ray's themes and tics, but Ray presents most of them early in the film, as if he wanted to make sure he didn't miss his flight to Europe. Mob and gang violence, tormented and iconic youth, and a sense of overriding hopelessness pervade the film, but these elements do not gel the way they do in Ray's finest pictures.

Nevertheless, the film does contain its charms, chiefly in the manner with which it presents the iconography of its protagonist. So many of Ray's heroes feel like timeless figures, but James was the first character Ray put on the screen who knew he was an icon. That foreknowledge allows Ray to have fun with the idea of someone who exists as a legend before a man: often, Jesse can interact with people who have no actual image of the man and thus never once suspect that the person to whom they are chatting is really the Jesse James. Even when some of them later learn the man's true identity, the looks on their faces still register mild disbelief. "How could he be Jesse James?" they seem to say. "He was talking to me!"

Hot Blood (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
Nicholas Ray specialized in making films about misfits and outsiders coalescing into the nuclear units of new collectives, more often than not marking such formations with the harsh tragedies of emerging orders. But as Evan Davis rightly noted, Hot Blood is "the first film in which Ray begins from within a fully formed community." This would become a staple of Ray's late career, leading to journeys to Peking, the wild swamps of Florida and the Arctic. What links these movies is an ignorance of their subjects' cultures that cannot be entirely forgiven even with historical perspective in mind. However, like the misguided but not altogether untruthful depiction of Inuits in The Savage Innocents, the gypsies of Hot Blood serve a broader purpose that pushes their cultural traits, both accurate and inaccurate, into universal terms of societal abstraction. The fundamental point is that their system of values is not that of the traditional West's, and by focusing tightly on their isolated world of customs, Ray can not only show that the American way of life is not the only one but that it can even look as ridiculous to others as those people's civilizations look to us.

It should be noted up front, however, that Hot Blood does not approach the level of thematic depth of The Savage Innocents. In fact, it boasts the weakest screenplay of any Ray film since A Woman's Secret. Like that film, Hot Blood squanders a potential mindfield of twists and turns, but where Ray and Mankiewicz clearly put a great deal of stock into their lifeless melo-noir, the director here cares little for the narrative. Instead, Ray devotes his attention to various dance numbers, color-soaked expressions of lust and violence that constantly push the film to the verge of becoming a musical. But it never crosses that line, perhaps because we'd forgive it its excesses if it did so. But Ray seems to delight in the garishness of it all—and of making a quasi-musical without identifiable songs and relying on dances from amateur dancers—and this is the only film so brazen that "gaudy" becomes a compliment.

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

Nicholas Ray's most enduring and iconic feature, Rebel Without a Cause resonates not only for its portrait of teenage alienation but its complex and warring thoughts on gender and filial roles in society. We meet Jim Stark (James Dean) not as the defiant image of youth we now see outside context but a drunken, morose boy so desperate for a stable vision of family that he curls up on a filthy street with a toy cymbal monkey, gingerly "tucking it in" with litter. Rent apart by the reversed gender roles of his parents, Jim will eventually craft his own nuclear unit out of equally disaffected friends, finding a human normalcy amid confusing and shifting family life.

Lest one assume, however, that this teen angst film is really a support of basic social conservatism, consider the complexities with which it handles its teenagers' confusion. While Ray presents characters striving toward a family of their own, he also shows that the world that grew out of such a basic social makeup is broken, so rigid it turned brittle and shattered from the force of incongruous modernity. What Rebel Without a Cause is, then, is something of an emotional "return to zero," to take a phrase from perhaps Ray's most noted admirer. By bringing its pariahs together to make their own funhouse reflection of conventional society, Ray offers a chance to begin anew, to take the basic building blocks of family, gender and normalcy to find new avenues to happiness. But even then, fate has other plans.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Run For Cover (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Though not as wild as Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray's lesser-known follow-up, Run for Cover, likewise deconstructs the West as a place of mythical individualism. The former inverted gender roles, used vivid color to paint a surreal and demonic vision of the West and crafted an anti-McCarthy allegory that ate at the genre as much as the political realm in which Ray operated. The latter continues to eat at the romanticized lawlessness of the West, going so far as to begin with a dangerous misunderstanding that prompts mob violence without any shred of proof or rationality.

After meeting at a waterhole and engaging in a brief stand-off that soon turns friendly, Matt Dow (James Cagney) and studly young Davey Bishop (John Derek), set off together to the nearby town. When they stop to shoot at a hawk, the workers on a passing train, having just been held up, assume these two are more robbers and toss out a sack of money. Before Matt and Davey can return it, the workers reach the town and exaggerate the story to whip up a posse, leading to the shooting and permanent injury of Davey. When Cagney confronts the posse with the truth, their resolve freezes. Even when backed by numerical superiority, people will go to great lengths to make James Cagney less angry.

The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

The Lusty Men is Nicholas Ray's most desolate and melancholy film, the charting of various paths all leading to the same dead end. It is a story of has-beens, starting where so many of Ray's movies end, with the hero reduced by a tragic act of existential, karmic fate. Its initial flurry of excitement concerning a rodeo coming to town (from the parade of its arrival to hand-held POV blurs of riding a bucking bull) gives way to the aimlessness of early retirement and the budding sense of doom for the young upstart who wants to carve out his own name and fortune, blind to the sad truth of his idol's true status. The young man still sees the usual Ray hero before him, and no amount of sensible talk from everyone around him or naked views of the consequences of such a hard life can dissuade him.

When one watches the rodeo, however, it's easy to forgive Wes (Arthur Kennedy) for wanting not only to get the needed capital to buy his dream ranch but to gain notoriety. Not even the injured has-been, Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), can stay away from the scene that so quickly forgot him. Made well before the modern obsession with fame, The Lusty Men depicts with alarming prescience the all-consuming nature of celebrity of any level and its inexorable pull on those who are nobodies without it. When fame grabs a hold of a person, even the sights of the maimed and killed fail to sober a person up to reality.

On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

After making two certifiable classics (his debut, They Live By Night and In a Lonely Place) out of his first six films, Nicholas Ray upped his batting average with On Dangerous Ground, the film that launched one of the great gold runs of cinema, a decade-plus level of quality that experienced only one or two aberrations while churning out masterpiece after masterpiece. Though it is not his best film, On Dangerous Ground points to the reason for Ray's upcoming string of quality by succinctly demonstrating his ability to spin prose into poetic, psychological beauty.

Establishing the film's mood is a vibrant opening inside a car speeding down darkened city streets. Over these shots plays Bernard Herrmann's music, which kicks off with verve. The music is fast and vigorous, like the scherzo of a sonata, a passionate explosion of sound that nevertheless hints at the darker, more dour moods to come. The next dominant sound to come through the mix is the blaring car horn of a detective summoning his two partners, both of whom react to the urgent, impossibly loud sound with complete calm and disinterest, getting everything ready before departing as the impatient man below continue to agitate the whole block. The lackadaisical response of these cops, who are meant to be tracking the murder of one of their own, belies the energy of Herrmann's opening blast, suggesting that the true passion lies underneath these cynical exteriors.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

What if Nicholas Ray had directed a Pre-Code? It might resemble Born to Be Bad, a noirish melodrama about a woman unrepentantly destroying the lives of others for her own financial and sexual gratification. Like the fresh-faced and steel-eyed vixen of the contemporaneous All About Eve, Christabel (Joan Fontaine) is charming to the point of childlike innocence. Yet just as Eve's fresh-of-the-bus sunniness belied a stop-at-nothing ambition to supplant her idol, so too does Christabel's sweetness soon give way to complete manipulation as she guns for the wealth of her cousin's fiancé. With Fontaine herself being wooed at the time by Ray's RKO boss, Howard Hughes, Ray's not-so-subtle jabs remind one of the jabs of Citizen Kane. But just imagine if Orson Welles had made that movie with Hearst's money.

More worthy of attention is Ray's style, which begins to show its true flashes of aesthetic invention that would make him the greatest director of the '50s. His use of doorways and other frames-within-frames emerges here with numerous shots that isolate characters and open up the mise-en-scène with unexpected entrances and transitions. Deep-focus photography captures the domestic boilerplate in crisp detail, allowing for all the objects to play their role in presenting domestic comfort surrounding inner turmoil. This, of course, would become the dominant form of Ray's thematic expression over the next decade, and Ray's background as an architectural apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright is vividly on display even in this formative early work.

A Woman's Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

A Woman's Secret feels like a test run for its maker. It presages the following year's far more sturdy and aesthetically adveturous Born to Be Bad in its plot elements and noir-tinctured melodrama. Yet if the film looks forward to Ray's career to come, it also represents a step backwards for the man whose raw energy made They Live By Night one of the emotive of noirs. A Woman's Secret (a misnomer, as there's no real mystery in this movie), is too buttoned down, too reminiscent of better movies made before and since, to make much of an impact for anyone save Ray completists.

Herman J. Mankiewicz's script conveys his caustic brand of wit, but his screenplay bizarrely seems a first draft of his brother Joseph's superior treatment of All About Eve, which makes pointed satire out of the broader showbiz melancholy seen here. But the flashback structure he used to unravel the life of Charles Foster Kane works better to contextualize and empathize with a character. As he tries to string out a series of self-serving recollections from truth-twisting suspects and lawyers, Mankiewicz fails to maintain any suspense, and by the time a key clue unlocks the story, the narrative has moved in such a disjointed, uninterested fashion that one is hard-pressed to care. This is the only film I can think of that can begin with a woman shooting another woman and still feel pedestrian. That is is a Nicholas Ray film makes its zero-Kelvin stagnation all the more upsetting.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011)

Kevin Smith's Red State indirectly posits a future where "ripped-from-the-blogopshere" becomes the new method of stabbing at relevance. Its unfocused narrative, contradictory thematic thrusts and strawmen fallacies play like an unresearched screed against, well, everything within reach. The man whose command of Catholic teachings gave Dogma its depth here presents...I'm not even sure, to be honest. The fitful narrative spurts in and out of topics: occasionally, it goes after dumb, horny teenage boys, then to Christian Extremists In No Way Related to the Phelps Family (lawsuit-avoiding clarification included) and finally to the lethally inane bureaucracy of law enforcement.

Smith seems to want to make a hyperkinetic Coen brothers film, but he has made the same mistake of so many detractors in assuming that every character in a Coens' movie is loathsome. There's no one to latch onto with this film, which already whiplashes so much it could use an identifiable center. Smith, who has made some of the most tangible characters in modern comedy, crafts props who spit out his lines with either listlessness or overacting bathos the one time he really needs great delivery to maintain suspense with words. So thin are these characters that, amazingly, the most inherently likable one turns out to be the homphobic preacher sitting on top of a small arsenal.