New noirs: ‘The Guard,’ ‘Good Neighbors’

The Guard/2011/Sony Pictures Classics/96 min.

In “The Guard,” Brendan Gleeson is a small-town Irish cop and Don Cheadle a by-the-book FBI agent who comes to the Emerald Isle to bust an international drug-smuggling gang. The two clash at first, then become unlikely allies, then friends, as they get closer to core of the criminal operation.

On the plus side, this black comedy, with a healthy dose of murder, blackmail and corruption, is good for some dark dry laughs, especially from the formidable and funny Gleeson. He knocks back the lines as easily as his character downs a pint. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh (writer/director of 2008′s “In Bruges”) and, like his brother, he relishes irreverent sarcasm. On the minus side, though, “The Guard” is superficial and derivative; you have seen this movie before.

But if it’s a bit of entertainment you’re after, “The Guard” is your man.

“The Guard” opens July 29.

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Good Neighbors/2010/Magnolia Pictures/96 min.

According to writer/director Jacob Tierney, “Good Neighbors,” based on a novel by Chrystine Brouillet, isn’t so much a whodunit as it is a satirical movie about people uncovering information and then having to decide what to do with it.

The people in this case are residents of a Montreal apartment building in 1995, three young tenants who become friends: charming, sly Spencer (Scott Speedman), brusque and to-the-point cat lover Louise (Emily Hampshire) and cute but geeky Victor (Jay Baruchel). The above-mentioned information relates to the rape and murder of several young women around the city. Safe at home in a cozy apartment? Not so much, especially since the members of the friendly trio turn out to be capable of shocking, searing violence.

There are more holes than surprises in this movie, the compositions are a little dull looking and it’s not particularly suspenseful until the last reel. That said, the last reel delivers some full-on tension, the actors are interesting to watch, especially Hampshire, and the writing’s not bad. Also, cats figure prominently in the plot – reason enough to see it in my book. ;)

“Good Neighbors” opens July 29.

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Totally exciting, wildly preposterous: French police thriller ‘Point Blank’ knocks us out, then keeps right on going

Point Blank/2010/Magnolia Pictures/90 min.

French police thrillers, especially the classics by Clouzot, Chabrol and Melville, used to be a bit more plausible and psychologically acute than their American counterparts – explosive action shoot-’em-ups that have mostly tried to knock us on our asses. Not so these days. The French cops-and-robbers hit movie “Point Blank” out-Yanks the Yanks by knocking us on our derrieres in the first few minutes – and then keeps it up, racing like hell on wheels for the next 80.

That’s the good news: It’s an exciting movie. The bad news is that, like many of its U.S. counterparts, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. The other good news is that writer/director Fred Cavayé’s movie is so well-gunned and goes by so damned fast, you barely notice the holes as you bounce over them.

Gilles Lellouche as Samuel is caught between the crooks and the cops.

The plot, jam-packed into the movie’s screamingly fast running time, has to do with a hit man named Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem, the somberly magnetic actor of “Days of Glory”) who’s been betrayed and nearly killed. He winds up in the hospital in the custody of the police and the care of a low-key male nurse, Samuel Pierret (the amiable and wonderfully nervous Gilles Lellouche).

Samuel saves Hugo from more would-be assassins and then, to his horror, finds himself trapped between the crooks and the cops – and the crooks who are cops (quite a lot of them, as it turns out). Under the evil command of the Teutonic-looking Commandant Patrick Werner (Gerard Lanvin), who’s actually conducting the investigation of his own crimes, those rogue police start chasing Hugo and Samuel all around Paris.

And, for insurance, they kidnap Samuel‘s beautiful wife Nadia (Elena Anaya), who’s eight months pregnant – threatening her death unless Samuel helps them. Soon Samuel and Hugo have become friends, of a sort, and a large section of Paris has become a bloody battleground.

I told you it didn’t make much sense. And, as I said, it doesn’t really matter. Cavayé, an ex-fashion photographer with a good eye and a blistering sense of pace, also made the big French neo-noir hit “Pour Elle,” which was translated and Americanized into the savagely improbable Russell Crowe thriller “The Next Three Days.” (Hollywood copied it so fast that Cavayé’s French original wasn’t imported and may still pop up here.)

Like Luc Besson and his disciples, Cavayé can do certain high-tech American tricks better than a lot of Americans. How does he get any suspension of disbelief, besides pure speed and kinetic rush? The leads, Zem, Lellouche and Anaya, are all excellent actors (Zem has a great glare) and they bring emotional conviction to a story you can barely believe for a minute.

The title “Point Blank,” by the way, has nothing to do with Cavayé’s original title “A Bout Portant” and nothing to do with the 1967 Lee Marvin-John Boorman noir classic “Point Blank,” which in turn was adapted from the 1962 Richard Stark-Donald Westlake novel “The Hunter,” which has nothing to do with the 1980 Steve McQueen crime thriller of the same name.

But whether you call it “Point Blank” or “A Bout Portant” or “The French Reconnection” or “Paris Goes Kaboom,” this is still one totally exciting if often wildly preposterous movie.

– Michael Wilmington

“Point Blank” opens July 29. (In French with English subtitles.)

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With its engrossing story, gorgeous cinematography and riveting performances, ‘The Conformist’ still compels

The Conformist/1970/115 min.

Is Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” – an art film classic regarded by many cinematographers as the most beautifully photographed movie of its era – also a neo-noir?

Well, it’s a movie, set in the 1930s, about those old noir standbys: romance, sex, murder, betrayal, guilt and political/police corruption. Adapted from the famous novel by Alberto Moravia, it has a psychologically divided and tormented central character, Marcello Clerici (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant of “Z” and “A Man and a Woman”), who is racked by Freudian desires and guilty secrets. The opaque-faced Marcello has homosexual leanings, which he tries to wipe out by marrying and becoming a good reliable government man. In 1930s Italy, this means being a good fascist.

Marcello is also involved in a messy triangle with his lovely, naive wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and with the incredibly beautiful bisexual Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). In 1970, because of this movie, the ravishing blonde Sanda was often described as the most beautiful actress in movies. Sanda was also Bertolucci’s first choice to be Marlon Brando’s co-star in “Last Tango in Paris.” (She chose motherhood instead.)

Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli

“The Conformist,” though, made her a movie immortal. Sanda’s feverish onscreen tango with Sandrelli against an iridescent, gorgeously colored background, while Marcello watches, is one of the most justly famous erotic/musical set-pieces in all of cinema.

Bertolucci later went on to make celebrated and even notorious classics like “The Last Emperor” and “Last Tango,” but many aficionados still prefer “The Conformist” for its engrossing story, the savvy political background, the absolutely gorgeous Storaro cinematography (the color equivalent of a great noir black-and-white), and for the riveting performances by Sanda, Trintignant, Sandrelli, Pierre Clementi, Yvonne Sanson and the others. [Read more...]

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‘Lady from Shanghai’ is richly surreal, haunting in its intensity

The Lady from Shanghai/1948/Columbia Pictures/87 min.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

“Citizen Kane” is hallowed cinematic ground, I know, but my favorite Orson Welles film is “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948), which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in, playing opposite his real-life wife Rita Hayworth, one of the most popular entertainers of the 1940s.

In “The Lady from Shanghai” Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish merchant seaman, in between ships in New York. By chance, or so he thinks, he meets the wily blonde operator Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) and saves her from being mugged in the park.

Elsa invites Michael to join her as she sets sail for Acapulco. The boat belongs to her husband, a wizened, creepy criminal lawyer named Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), and he’ll be on the trip too. So will his partner, the moon-faced and sinister George Grisby (Glenn Anders). O’Hara agrees regardless. “Once I’d seen her,” he says, “I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.”

On their voyage (the yacht belonged to Errol Flynn), Elsa and Michael flirt every chance they get; Arthur gets touchy and calls her “Lovah,” in a most unloving way; Grisby is generally unpleasant. The tension builds, then breaks when they reach San Francisco. But not for long.

Grisby has a plan to cash in on an insurance policy by faking his own murder and bribes Michael to help him. Need I say the plan doesn’t quite work out as they’d hoped? This is film noir, you know.

“The Lady from Shanghai” is richly surreal and haunting in its intensity. Welles and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. use staggering angles and startling black shadow almost to the point of abstraction. Two of the most famous sequences are the aquarium and the funhouse hall of mirrors at the end. Of the latter, Time Out notes that “it stands as a brilliant expressionist metaphor for sexual unease and its accompanying loss of identity.”

The script, based on the Sherwood King novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” crackles with noir attitude (“Everybody’s somebody’s fool,” says O’Hara). Hayworth, the perfect femme fatale, looks contemporary and sexy whether in her chic nautical garb or the filigree hat she wears in the courtroom. [Read more...]

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‘The Lady from Shanghai’ quick hit

The Lady from Shanghai/1948/Columbia Pictures/87 min.

Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) knows from the start that it’s probably not going to work out well when Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth, Welles’ real-life wife) invites him to join her on a sailing trip with her husband and his business partner. “When I start out to make a fool of myself, there’s very little can stop me,” says O’Hara. The plot is downright acrobatic; the visuals are dazzling. Welles directed, wrote and produced.

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High praise for Tightline from a makeup junkie

Laura Mercier's cake liner comes in six stunning colors.

I figure that a cosmetic, or really any product, that has the word cake in its name is worth a try. And Laura Mercier’s Tightline Cake Eye Liner is suitably decadent, the makeup equivalent of a coconut-lemon layered confection.

You add a drop or two of Tightline Activator to the cake and mix with a flat brush to form a lightweight paste. It takes a few extra minutes to apply (compared with liquid liners) and you may need a few practice rounds, trying different brushes, to get the precise line you want. But to a makeup junkie like me, that’s a plus.

And the color is gorgeous, vibrant but not over the top. In fact, the best thing about Mercier’s cake is the choice of colors: black (duh!), mahogany brown, plum, forest green, charcoal grey and, my favorite, bleu marine.

The activator contains a polymer to make the liner last longer, so once it’s on, it sticks. That said, it doesn’t blend very easily so be careful until you really have the hang of it. As much fun as it is to play with, this product is pricey. The cake is $22, the activator is $20 and the Mercier flat brush is $25, so almost $70. (I used other brushes.)

Still, it’s a chance to have dessert first thing in the morning without an actual sugar fix. How can that be bad?

Product source: From my own collection; I did not receive product or compensation from Laura Mercier. (This post is part five in my quest for the perfect eyeliner.)

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‘In a Lonely Place’ an ode to romantic, cynical noir love

In a Lonely Place/1950/Columbia Pictures/94 min.

Gloria Grahame

One of Gloria Grahame’s most nuanced performances is as Laurel Gray in 1950’s “In a Lonely Place,” a noir love story from director Nicholas Ray. Laurel eschews any double-dealing or dark deeds in this film. She’s got enough on her hands trying to navigate a new romance: Does she like the way he kisses? Will he call when he says he will? Did he brutally kill a girl for no reason? You know, the usual dating stuff.

Her love interest is her neighbor, Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a volatile, sometimes violent, screenwriter, with a history of fights and scandals. Her cool affection seems the perfect salve for his simmering aggression.

The fly in the ointment is that Police Capt. Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) is convinced that Dix, in a fit of temper, murdered a hatcheck girl named Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart). He was, after all, the last person to see her alive. Dix professes his innocence and Laurel backs him up. But Dix’s erratic behavior gets worse and, when he proposes, Laurel’s too scared to say no.

“In a Lonely Place” is an exquisitely tender love story and it holds up incredibly well for contemporary audiences, who know the ropes of brief, ill-fated affairs. “It’s complicated” would be Laurel’s Facebook relationship status if she’d lived in the age of online communication.

On one hand, she tries to take it slow with Dix, telling him, “I don’t want to be rushed.” But she’s already lied to the police to give him an alibi for the night of the Atkinson murder. At first, the pair conveniently push the reality of Dix’s rage under the rug, though it becomes harder and harder as their shared fear (that he is capable of such a killing) slowly and steadily builds.

Much of the action takes place at the Beverly Patio Apartments complex, where Laurel and Dix both live, offering ample opportunity for skulking and spying.  Director Ray lived in a similar complex in West Hollywood and it served as the model for the film set.

If Ray is a poet as a director, this film is an ode to impossible love, a sensitive portrayal of a strong, egoic man succumbing to dark inner demons and the pain he inflicts on those around him. It might be just as apt to compare Ray to a painter so arresting and assured are his compositions (he studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright).

As with most of Ray’s films, “In a Lonely Place” offers powerful, sometimes blisteringly raw, performances all around. Grahame’s tear-stained face at the end is an image that never leaves you once you see it. (Ray and Grahame married in 1948, separated in 1950 and divorced in 1952).

Bogart, though he never loses his swagger, brilliantly conveys Dix’s growing desperation and alienation. Excellent in supporting parts are Frank Lovejoy as Dix’s friend and lone ally at the police station, Jean Marie “Jeff” Donnell as his friend’s wife and Art Smith as Dix’s agent.

Scripted by Andrew Solt, “In a Lonely Place” is based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, which is well worth a read; it’s a very fast read by the way. In the book, Dix is a shadowy, psychopathic killer, not a successful screenwriter with a bad temper, and Hughes explores his psyche in great detail. She also conjures a gritty picture of LA after World War Two.

The movie contains a good dose of noir cynicism about Hollywood and how it treats its struggling denizens. “In a Lonely Place” would make an excellent double bill with Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” also from 1950.

Grahame played in many noirs (and won the best supporting actress Oscar in 1952 for her role in “The Bad and the Beautiful”) but by the early ’60s, her career was dragging and she saw for herself how Tinseltown’s chummy embrace could turn to cold shoulders and closed doors.

“In a Lonely Place” plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

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Quick hit: ‘In a Lonely Place’

In a Lonely Place/1950/Columbia Pictures/94 min.

Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) and Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) are neighbors in LA’s Beverly Patio Apartments complex. Instead of providing the odd cup of sugar, Laurel goes the extra mile – she gives Dix an alibi when he’s accused of murder and that leads to a tortured romance. A sensitive, subtle, touching noir by Nicholas Ray, a master of the form; based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes.

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A deadly duo and classic of ’70s noir: ‘Honeymoon Killers’

The Honeymoon Killers/1970/107 min.

Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco star in "The Honeymoon Killers."

Based on a notorious real-life murder case, shot in striking black-and-white, and scored to the ominous strains of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”), this is one of the true classics of ’70s neo noir: a low-budget masterpiece about a couple of ruthless killers who make the murderous lovers of “Double Indemnity” look almost normal.

Hefty Shirley Stoler unforgettably plays Martha Beck, a deadly nurse who joins with sleazy Lothario Ray Fernandez (the equally unforgettable Tony Lo Bianco) to seduce, kill and rob her wealthy women patients. Crime doesn’t play, but not before your blood is thoroughly chilled.

The movie was both written and directed by Leonard D. Kastle, and despite consistent rave reviews for “The Honeymoon Killers“ from François Truffaut and many others, Kastle never made another movie. A young director who was fired from the project earlier on did slightly better. His name was Martin Scorsese.

– Michael Wilmington

“The Honeymoon Killers” plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

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New Debbie Reynolds’ exhibition opens at Paley Center

Debbie Reynolds: The Exhibit opens Saturday at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

This new multimedia show comes on the heels of last month’s Debbie Reynolds Hollywood memorabilia exhibit, which culminated in an auction during which Marilyn Monroe’s famous white dress from “The Seven Year Itch” sold for $4.6 million.

On display will be iconic costumes, posters and props from Academy Award-winning film classics including “Gone with the Wind,” “Show Boat,” “The Yearling” and “Moulin Rouge,” as well as costumes worn by icons such as Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda and Doris Day. Film clips will accompany the items.

Reynolds’ collection will stay at the Paley Center throughout 2011; additional items will be added each month. The first-floor viewing is free of charge. Admission to the second-floor space is free to Paley Center members and $6 for the general public. Visitors will also have access to the center’s media archive featuring more than 150,000 programs spanning the history of television, radio and digital media.

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