Friday, June 29, 2012

Capsule Reviews: While the City Sleeps, Cracking Up, The Kid, Rock of Ages

While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

Fritz Lang's underseen noir blends the yellowest of journalism with King Lear in a prescient, savage view of media feeding a public frenzy. A news empire is offered to three successors, with the new kingdom to be ruled by the one who can beat the cops to solving the identity of a serial killer infamous only from the organization's own salacious coverage. Lang's framing is more stripped down than some other efforts but no less immaculate: the newsroom of transparent but isolating glass and roaring presses speak to the capacity of journalism to reveal and obscure, and how a giant conglomerate can drown out the truth instead of exposing it. As much as the actual string of murders, the tension operates on simple office politics, in which the promise of a raise and a title change to move up the modern social ladder can bring out the basest, most primitive behavior. The characterization of the sexually confused killer is oh-so-standard, but Lang's ability to make high style out of even the most basic movements and mise-en-scène combines with the otherwise fantastic story for a great anti-journo noir. Grade: A-

Cracking Up (Jerry Lewis, 1983)

When Lewis' name credit flashes on the screen over one of the star's pratfalls with the added text, "Who else?" that may be because no one else would dream of making a slapstick movie in 1983. Hell, only Lewis would have been so bold as to make slapstick back in the '50s and '60s. That defiance informs all of Cracked Up, which nominally dives into a suicidal loser's headspace to give Lewis the chance to appear in various guises without any semblance of plot. Instead, it's just wall-to-wall gags, carefully composed yet anarchic in Tati fashion. Among the highlights: Zane Buzby's appearance as a waitress nasally droning out every item on the menu and its preparatory options until her incessant questions about what kind of dressing or how the steak should be cooked become their own circle of hell. Also great is a vignette on the world's cheapest airline that tops Airplane! for sheer invention, turning the economy class level into a Roman galley and "first class" into what appears to be a half-cleaned Mexican village set, complete with drunks, chickens and filthy hay. There's also the opening credits, a series of pratfalls on Teflon-coated floors and furniture that attempts a one-man version of the club-destroying climax of Playtime; even the titles are carefree, attributing the singing of the all-instrumental title track to Marcel Marceau and dropping the audio track completely when the composer is credited, as if he stopped to take an offscreen bow. Not every joke lands, but I'm not sure they're supposed to: the absurdly awful King Kong hand that reaches in to grab Lewis' psychiatrist (Herb Edelman) might as well be a giant middle finger for how much it dares the audience to hate it. Cracking Up joins a line of comic writer-director-star masterpieces that mourn modernity's effect on slapstick. But if Chaplin commiserated with Keaton in one final showstopper in Limelight and Tati actually got out ahead of modern times and preempted May '68 by giving Hulot and the rest of Playtime away in an act of comic socialism, Lewis is a product of the Reagan era he despises. It's as narcissistic as they come, but so freewheeling and shameless that it is no less an achievement as the other two works. Grade: A

The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921)

Chaplin's first feature looks a bit rough compared to the total control the genius would exert over his later works, yet that same rawness makes its emotional impact one of Chaplin's most visceral thrills. Aided by the kid vaudevillian Jackie Coogan, Chaplin's Tramp establishes world dominance with a blend of Dickensian squalor and wry comedy that showcases Chaplin's deftness with underplayed comedy, bombastic sentimentalist that he may be. The trade of warning and supplicant glances between the cop and Tramp alone are a masterclass in body acting. The climactic race across the rooftops after the abducted kid is, compared to more controlled mise-en-scène of later setpieces, not that technically impressive, but its immediacy and tension makes it one of the director's finest moments. Grade: B+

Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012)

An experiment designed to test the limits of camp, Rock of Ages scrubs the coke and dried blood off the nose of the '80s and rolls sleeves over its track marks to render a host of hair metal and MOR classics with Glee-esque covers. It's got caricatures galore, from the small-town girl lookin' to find fame in the city (Julianne Hough) to the even-more-ambitious meathead hiding a knack for genius songwriting (Diego Boneta). There's also conniving managers (Paul Giamatti), a political couple looking for a social scapegoat in rock (Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones), and an aged ex-hippie (Alec Baldwin) who, like Spinal Tap, has drifted through rock trends for decades and has no idea that this music, too shall pass. But the only person who makes any kind of impression is Tom Cruise, who, when one also thinks of his minor role in Tropic Thunder, seems to be setting some space aside to just absolutely go for whatever role he gets. His Stacee Jaxx is a watered-down Axl Rose, but Cruise plays his all-consuming egomania and rock-god isolation for all it's worth, even if it's not worth that much.

But for a movie that lets its actors go a bit crazy, the surroundings are frustratingly low-key. Ported over from the necessary limitations of the stage, the Whisky-A-Go-Go-esque venue doesn't really convey the sheer ludicrous scale of 1980s rock: the arenas packed to the rafters with shrieking fans; the too-bright gloss of the music and style, every party song its own sensorily overloaded hangover; and the Dionysian orgy of illicit substances and sex tamely alluded to here. Instead, the audience must suffer through toothless renditions of metal complete with uninspired choreography; ridiculous arrogance (a hip-hop boy band is paraded around as the nadir of commercial prefabricaton, as if so many hair metal acts weren't label slaves); one song that serves as a big, unfunny gay joke; and the insultingly sexist suggestion that the big-dreaming girl really wanted love, not fame. This is a movie where a stripper becomes a star and wears less clothes in the limelight than she did on the pole. I don't even understand who gets songwriting credits in this universe: these characters "write" covers, yet the master tracks for some songs are played as well. Does this mean all the bands being covered here exist in this universe but didn't write the songs sung by the characters? Or is Stacee Jaxx merely the world's most popular cover artist? And who cares? Grade: D

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