‘Man on a Ledge’ falls squarely into the realm of the absurd

Man on a Ledge/2012/Summit Entertainment/102 min.

By Michael Wilmington

“Man on a Ledge,” a thriller about a man clinging to a 21st-story ledge, while Manhattan goes wild below him, is a real mind-boggler – not because of any hair-raising suspense but because the story is so ridiculous that, despite a high-octane cast, it’s capable of putting you into a state of befuddled exasperation and disbelief.

“Man on a Ledge” has that slick, self-satisfied gleam movies can get when they cost too much and they’re stuffed with formula and clichés and stars. The picture’s constantly accelerating absurdities suggest that the filmmakers assume their audience will swallow anything. It also has a plot so preposterous, motivations so inane and an ending so bonkers that the best way to play them would be for laughs, if the show were good at comedy (which it isn’t).

Consider the premise. A tough ex-cop named Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) is in jail, framed for a $40 million diamond robbery from a Donald Trump-like financier named David Englander (Ed Harris). Nick escapes from custody while on a furlough to attend his father’s funeral, then checks into the Roosevelt Hotel, orders breakfast and crawls out the window onto the ledge, 21 stories above the street.

Soon, he attracts a crowd, as well as police (his buddy Mike played by Anthony Mackie and the cynical Jack played by Edward Burns), along with a vain, callous TV news reporter Suzie Morales (Kyra Sedgwick), and a lusty but conscientious crisis negotiator, Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), who tries a little harder than Jack to talk Nick back inside.

It doesn’t work. Nick keeps refusing to get off his ledge while talking in a curious accent that suggests an Australian trying to impersonate a New York City Irish-American. (Couldn’t Worthington get some lessons from Burns?)

Why, you might wonder, does somebody break out of prison in order to jump out of a hotel window? Good question. (There are many more.) It turns out that the episode we’re watching is not a real suicide attempt, but an elaborate diversion, intended to preoccupy the police and everyone else.

Meanwhile, across the street, Nick’s live-wire brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey’s hottie partner Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) break into Englander’s suite, where they’re convinced the $40 million diamond is still lying around somewhere and will exonerate Nick, if they can find it. In other words, the “jump” is staged as part of a robbery intended to clear the “jumper” of a conviction for another robbery of the very same diamond. Got that?

Why this outrageously silly heist is committed during the day, after a huge crowd, police and media have been pulled into the area by the phony suicide, or why Nick didn’t do his ledge routine somewhere else farther away, remains another of the show’s endless mysteries.

“Man on a Ledge” is director Asger Leth’s first fiction feature – he’s done an admired documentary called “Ghosts of City Soleil” – and he makes the movie slick and fast. (Pablo F. Fenjves wrote the script.) Ludicrous, yes, but it’s never boring, and the sheer, uninspired phoniness and preposterousness almost command a perverse respect, though, to tell the truth, I couldn’t wait to leave.

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‘Marnie’ is a complex, thoughtful and satisfying story

Marnie/1964/Universal Pictures/130 min.

In honor of Tippi Hedren’s 82nd birthday earlier this month (Jan. 19), I’m running this review of “Marnie.” In 1983, Hedren, a Minnesota native of Scandinavian descent, founded the Roar Foundation to support abandoned exotic felines at the Shambala Preserve in Acton, Calif.

Most cynics have romantic souls and if there’s one Hitchcock film that works on this premise it’s “Marnie.” Though the legendary auteur frequently featured redemptive, romantic endings, here a pair of feuding lovers must work through many an issue before they hit happily ever after. It’s also a portrait of a wayward woman struggling with a tortured psyche, stemming from an unresolved childhood trauma.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) and Mark (Sean Connery) must work through many an issue.

In the opening scene we meet impeccably dressed, raven-haired career girl Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) carrying a citron-colored handbag that’s as covetable today as it was in 1964. (Hedren starred in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” one year earlier.)

Marnie has just finished doing what she does best: stealing from her employer, then donning a new disguise so she can pull the same scam at another company.

Besides her sizable clothing and hair-color budget, Marnie wants money to give to her poor frumpy Mama (Louise Latham), telling her: “That’s what money’s for. To spend.” (Especially when it’s someone else’s cash.) But despite these handouts, which Marnie personally delivers, Mama’s uptight and hard to please, preferring to lavish her attention on a little girl from the neighborhood (Kimberly Beck) instead of on her daughter.

At her next job, Marnie sports auburn up-do’s and sensible shoes. It’s here that she meets devastatingly handsome businessman Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Intense and domineering, Mark is quickly smitten but ice-queen Marnie has no interest in him or in any man, though she does weaken long enough to kiss him.

Diane Baker plays sassy Lil.

Not so impressed with Marnie is Mark’s sharp, sassy sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker). Packed with interesting women, the cast also includes Mariette Hartley as Marnie’s office colleague and Melody Thomas Scott as young Marnie.

Marnie’s coldness just makes Mark more determined – he is used to getting what he wants – and once he finds out about her criminal past, he uses this info to hasten their marriage.

The fact that Marnie can’t stand his touch doesn’t make for the most romantic honeymoon. Perhaps if he were a tad less controlling …

Will Mark help Marnie confront her past before her spate of Dior-collar crime catches up with her? That’s the movie’s source of suspense. It’s loosely based on a novel by Winston Graham but Hitchcock typically used the literary source material as merely a starting point to create a tension-filled, sometimes terrifying, reality and render his unique vision. The script came from Jay Presson Allen, a former actress and writer, who also worked with Sidney Lumet.

Hitchcock enjoyed exploring psychosexual theory in his films, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes not. In this case, Dr. Hitch diagnoses frigidity, rescue fantasies, control issues bordering on obsession, repressed memories and of course a major power struggle.

The movie was trashed upon its release. Critics called Hitchcock sloppy and unfairly pounced on Hedren’s acting. The editing is occasionally choppy, some of the backdrops look fake, the screen goes red when Marnie sees the color red, there are thunderstorms aplenty. Though they might seem flawed or slightly old-hat, these noirish devices reflect Marnie’s off-kilter world, her confused and anguished psychological state.

And Hitchcock’s personality was too controlling and perfectionistic to have coasted through this movie. Conscious of every detail of every frame, he sometimes shopped for and selected accessories like hats and handbags because even these seemingly minor visual elements affected the color palette of each shot. He also wanted classic lines for the clothes so that in years to come they wouldn’t look dated.

Always engaging, sometimes thrilling, “Marnie” is a complex, thoughtful and satisfying story.

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‘Marnie’ quick hit

Marnie/1964/Universal Pictures/130 min.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” a twisted rescue fantasy meets a pretty passel of repressed memories. The wannabe rescuer is intense, domineering and drop-dead gorgeous Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). His damsel in distress, and often in disguise, is chic thief Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren), still dogged by a childhood trauma. Marnie is determined to buy a few new dresses for her fashion-challenged Mama (Louise Latham), just as Hitch was determined to make Tippi his new Grace Kelly. Always engaging, sometimes thrilling, “Marnie” is a complex, thoughtful and satisfying story.

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Literary confection, noir reflection from Simon Doonan

"I am invariably stuffed into a flowery shirt of some description," says Doonan. "It's my signature flourish."

Was “ratchet up your fabulosity factor” one of your New Year’s resolutions? Does that resolve now seem a dim and fuzzy memory? Then thank heaven for Simon Doonan and his new book, “Gay Men Don’t Get Fat” (Blue Rider Press; $24.95).

Style setter, best-selling author and creative director for Barneys New York, Doonan riffs on our tendency to defer to French women regarding matters of living well, dressing with panache and eating dessert. Really though, who knows more about good times and looking great than gay men? As Doonan puts it: “Gay men are French women … with penises.”

This self-described “Gucci-wearing Margaret Mead at heart” shows why gays know how to work, play and dress better than anyone else, and offers advice for getting with the program.

Most gratifying to me was that in his Top 10-ish (actually 13) life-enhancingly fabulous films, Doonan includes “Double Indemnity,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Some Like It Hot” and “All About Eve.” Oh, and “Mommie Dearest” – duh! (The others are: “Paris is Burning,” “The Boys in the Band,” “X, Y and Zee,” “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” “Female Trouble,” “Showgirls,” Rosemary’s Baby,” and “Midnight Cowboy.”)

"GMDGF" is Doonan's fifth book.

At a recent book signing at Barneys in Beverly Hills, Doonan graciously shared his thoughts on the glory of black and white. “Film noir has been important to me since I first saw ‘Double Indemnity’ at age 6 [on TV]. It’s mysterious and sad and sexy. I’ve always loved it. I can’t imagine living without knowing about film noir. I feel sorry for kids who grew up on rom-coms and don’t have this beauty in their lives. J’adore!”

The book is the literary equivalent of the champagne and macaroons that circulated at the Barneys event. In chapters such as “Macaroons Are So Gay!” “Jamie Oliver is a Lesbian,” “The Bitter Tears of Jackie O” and “Go Tuck Yourself,” Doonan merrily gushes about the surprisingly straight origins of chi-chi gay-friendly food, lesbian trend-setting, ignorant interns and scary plastic surgery. In “The Fag Hagony and the Ecstasy,” he offers tips for ditching the shackles of ridonculous societal expectations and cultivating a gay entourage.

His hilarious observations are laced with fondness and compassion for his target market. “I dedicate this book to the straight women of the world, whose lives seem insanely more complicated than my own and whose shoes must surely hurt like hell. I feel your pain, girls!”

Author photo by Albert Sanchez

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Jean Gillie in ‘Decoy’ is classic noir’s hardest, greediest and most daring femme fatale

Decoy/1946/Monogram Pictures/76 min.

Jean Gillie as Margot is tougher than any American femme fatale of the era.

Talk about raw deals. The hardest, greediest, most daring femme fatale in all of classic film noir – England’s Jean Gillie in “Decoy” – is not widely known today, beyond a fervent cult following.

But rest easy, fatale fans, I am joining the charge to get the word out on Ms. Gillie. I may even become motivated to get off my famously comfy sofa and take to the streets to spread the word. Though that seems a tad drastic, especially since I’ve just achieved the perfect arrangement for my pillows …

Well, let me start by telling you about it. Made in 1946 by director Jack Bernhard, who also directed “Blonde Ice,” this is another hard-core noir story with a totally heartless seductress, a wildly improbable plot and a grimly pessimistic take on human nature.

First, the dame: Dainty, devious and always dressed to a T, Margot Shelby (Gillie) wants the $400,000 that her jailed boyfriend, an old codger named Frank (Robert Armstrong of “King Kong”), has hidden in a buried suitcase. But Frank is awaiting execution and he’s squirreled away the map to the treasure.

Gangster Jim (Edward Norris), Margot and prison doctor Lloyd (Herbert Rudley) band together to find the $400,000 in cash that Frank has buried.

Hmm, that’s a drag. What to do? Margot figures, after he gets the lethal gas, my pals and I will just bring him back to life. Then, he can lead us to the cash. Margot’s helpers are gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) and prison doctor Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley), both of whom are crazy about her. So is nosy police sergeant Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) or Jo-Jo as Margot calls him when she’s flirting with him.

Like any good ringleader, Margot keeps abreast of all kinds of news, and she learns about a chemical called methylene blue, which can be used as an antidote to gas poisoning. So, all they have to do is grab Frank after the execution, pop another body in the hearse and hightail it to the doctor.

Selling Jim, a fully oozing sleaze-atron, on her absurd plan is easy. Earnest and upright Dr. Lloyd is a bit trickier. “I had to smash that shield of ideals,” says Margot. Helping people, healing the sick and making the world a better place? Puhleeze. As she points out, how could they possibly be happy on Lloyd’s paltry $75/week salary when one bottle of Margot’s fave perfume costs $75?

By the time Margot is digging for dollars under the moonlight, her motley gang has dwindled to one, ie Margot. Nothing makes Margot laugh more than bumping somebody off. Her gleeful chortling punctuates the action throughout, but it’s most memorable as a defiant final gesture toward Jo-Jo the cop. She may get what’s coming to her but she also gets the last laugh. Sorry? Penitent? Remorseful? Not a chance!

As the take-no-prisoners Margot, Jean Gillie is amazing to watch – tougher than Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, Joan Bennett or even snarling Ann Savage in “Detour.” In neo noir, her closest equivalent is diabolical Linda Fiorentino in “The Last Seduction.”

“There are very few femmes fatales who don’t have a little time for love and seduction, and she really doesn’t,” says critic Molly Haskell in the Warner Bros. DVD featurette. “Not to any man who comes across her path is she loyal. The only thing she wants is the money.”

Writer/producer Stanley Rubin

In the DVD commentary, historian Glenn Erickson and writer Stanley Rubin note that as an English actress, Gillie was new to Hollywood and didn’t have to worry that by being a total bitch she would lose favor with her fan base. So, she’s a total bitch and then some. (Rubin conceived the “Decoy” story; Ned Young wrote the script.)

Gillie’s is the standout performance, but the guys certainly hold their own, especially Sheldon Leonard as the conflicted cop. (Leonard also played Nick the bartender in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) I love the part in “Decoy” when Leonard’s Jo-Jo sits on a bar stool munching a snack – not a burger or fries, but a hard-boiled egg. Mmm, what could be better than a beer and a yolk? Another great moment is when he bums a “stay-awake” pill  from Dr. Lloyd.

Like most B-movies, “Decoy” was cheap and churned out quickly, yet director and co-producer Jack Bernhard’s artistic style distinguishes this film from run-of-the-mill, mediocre B-fare. “Decoy” was out of commission for several decades after its release; a screening at the American Cinematheque about 10 years ago earned fresh appreciation for the film and director.

Bernhard discovered Gillie in England while he was serving in World War Two. They married, made this film and split up. Sadly, Gillie died of pneumonia in 1949, at age 33. Bernhard disappeared from the Hollywood scene shortly after and little is known about the rest of his life.

So, have I convinced you – are you going to give Jean Gillie a chance? If I haven’t, guess I’ll have to pry myself off the sofa and hit the pavement. Just as soon as I finish my nap and book my massage.

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‘Decoy’ quick hit

Decoy/1946/Monogram Pictures/76 min.

She’s hard-boiled and thoroughly heartless. But did I mention that she looks good and gets all the money for herself? English actress Jean Gillie as Margot Shelby in “Decoy” shows American femmes fatales a thing or two about seduction, scheming and betrayal. She’s tougher than any Yank and more creative – tapping science fiction to come up with her brilliant plan to steal her boyfriend’s hidden cash. Discovered and directed by husband Jack Bernhard, Gillie delivers a knock-out performance.

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Santa Monica shows its dark side at NoirFest

Farewell, My Lovely” screens Wednesday, Jan. 25, as part of NoirFest Santa Monica.

The newly launched festival includes art, film, photography, literature, music and spoken-word events. NoirFest runs through March 28.

Other films to be screened include: “The Brasher Doubloon,” “Murder, My Sweet,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Big Sleep,” “Strangers on a Train,” “The Lady in the Lake” and “The Long Goodbye.”

The fest is the brainchild of longtime Santa Monica resident and artist Helen K. Garber, whose solo show “Encaustic Noir” runs through Feb. 25 at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave. Also on display is vintage night photography by famed Parisian photographer Brassaï and several of his contemporaries.

“Farewell My Lovely” screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Vidiots Annex, 302 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica 90405. There is a pre-screening reception at 7:00 p.m. Seating is limited to 35; rsvp essential: [email protected]

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‘Miss Bala’ exudes anti-Hollywood, anti-glamour realism

Miss Bala/2011/Canana Films/113 min.

“Miss Bala” is a grisly tale of crime and corruption, a grim neo-noir that chooses not to temper the darkness with snazzy visuals, sympathetic characters or sly one-liners.

The film starts with Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) posing in front of a mirror adorned with cut-outs from magazines; she imagines a glossy, improbable future that will whisk her away from her hardscrabble life in poverty-stricken Baja, a Mexican border city. Her potential escape is entering the Miss Baja California beauty pageant with her best friend Suzu. (Bala is a play on the word for bullet.)

Laura’s dream veers crazily off course when she agrees to go to a nightclub with Suzu the night before their audition. Amid the tacky lights and cranking music, armed men barge in and shoot dozens of patrons. Laura survives but cannot find Suzu; her attempt to re-connect throws her into the violent nightmare world of a drug lord named Lino (Noe Hernandez) who puts her to work for his gang. After completing smaller jobs, she crosses the border to exchange money for weapons with a corrupt U.S. officer.

Meanwhile, Lino uses his pervasive influence to ensure that Laura wins the beauty-pageant crown. Laura/Miss Baja is introduced to the general of the Mexican police at a formal event, which serves as the backdrop for another deadly ambush and an ironic climax.

Based on true events (outlined in a 2008 newspaper story), “Miss Bala” is Mexico’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. The film exudes anti-Hollywood, anti-glamour hyper-realism. We learn little about these opaque characters’ inner lives and dialogue is uncommonly spare. In fact, we never see drugs or hear them mentioned.

“These gangsters aren’t cool, going to parties and wearing gold,” said director Gerardo Naranjo at a round-table interview last week in Santa Monica. “These guys are living a pathetic life.”

This restraint and realism extends to the look of the film as well, with long takes, minimal editing and an absence of close-ups. Naranjo said he did not look to other movies or directors for stylistic inspiration. Instead, he said, everything in the story had to pass though a logic filter. How would it feel? How would it happen in terms of logic?

“Miss Bala” is told mostly from Laura’s point of view and she is very much a victim, one who believes that fighting back is pointless. Naranjo says this reflects the fact that Mexico is frozen with fear about drug cartels and their enormous power. Laura is a metaphor for fearful Mexican society, he says, even if that passivity might sometimes alienate the audience.

On a dramatic level, the lack of pushback does spur frustration. Though we feel sorry for Laura, it’s hard to connect emotionally with her. For her to resist would incur great risk, it’s true, but in terms of telling a story and melding realism with art, it would have been more dramatically satisfying, more soul-touching, if she’d tried. Despite that frustration, “Miss Bala” is a unique, gripping ride through a dark and dangerous world.

“Miss Bala” opens today in LA and New York.

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Weegee works on display in New York and Los Angeles

Weegee's Hats in pool room, Mulberry Street, New York, circa 1943. Copyright Weegee/ICP

Opening today at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York is “Weegee: Murder Is My Business.”

The famous photographer was born Usher Fellig in 1899 in what is now the Ukraine; his family moved to New York in 1909. He later acquired the nickname Weegee from the Ouija board game because of his knack for arriving at crime scenes just minutes after the crimes were reported.

Says the ICP: Between 1935 and 1946, Weegee was one of the most relentlessly inventive figures in American photography. His graphically dramatic and often lurid photographs of New York crimes and news events set the standard for what has become known as tabloid journalism.

Weegee also wrote extensively (including his autobiographical “Naked City,” published in 1945) and organized his own exhibitions. He died in 1968. This show includes environmental recreations of Weegee’s apartment and exhibitions. It runs through Sept. 2.

And running through Feb. 27 at MOCA is “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles.” More than 200 works from ICP’s Weegee archive are on display.

This Sunday, Jan. 22, at 3 p.m., Richard Meyer, guest curator of “Naked Hollywood,” Brian Wallis, chief curator at the ICP, and art historian Colin Westerbeck will discuss Weegee’s work, tabloid photography, celebrity culture and the lure of the lowbrow.

MOCA is at 250 S. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles.

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Noir City X film fest starts Friday in San Francisco

The Film Noir Foundation celebrates 10 years of deliciously dark programming with NOIR CITY X: The Stuff Bad Dreams Are Made Of. The 10-day festival features a Dashiell Hammett marathon, freshly preserved 35mm rarities, by-popular-demand encore screenings, and special guest star Angie Dickinson. The fest runs Jan. 20-29 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Among the rarities NOIR CITY is presenting this year is a new 35mm print from Universal Pictures of 1949’s “The Great Gatsby,” starring Alan Ladd as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary hero. Universal is also providing a new 35mm print of 1954’s “Naked Alibi,” starring noir’s favorite bad girl, Gloria Grahame. Also on the bill are preservations of the 1946 classic “Three Strangers” and 1950’s “The Breaking Point,” directed by Michael Curtiz and starring John Garfield.

After San Francisco, the fest will travel to other cities with variations on the programming.

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