Archives for August 2013

Brian De Palma’s ‘Passion’ fails to ignite critics

Neo-noir master Brian De Palma’s latest film, “Passion,” starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, was released today. It’s a reworking of a French film called “Love Crime,” which I reviewed last summer and thought was rather good. (“Love Crime” was directed by Alain Corneau and starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier).

I haven’t seen “Passion” and am wondering if it behooves me to see it, having not been contacted re: screenings arranged by the film’s publicity team. It’s bloody hot out, it’s a holiday weekend and I do have to live up to my nickname, Lazy Legs.

The NYT’s A. O. Scott said the film was “often sleek and enjoyable, dispensing titillation, suspense and a few laughs without taking itself too seriously.”

Justin Chang of Variety puts it this way: “By the time it reaches its overwrought final act, the picture has generated neither the tension of its forebears nor the audacity that would allow it to transcend its silliness.”

And the New York Daily NewsJoe Neumaier pretty much hated it. “With no heat at all and a woefully disjointed cast, De Palma’s danse macabre never catches fire,” Neumaier writes.

Anyone out there seen it? Let me know what you think. I’m going to ponder, while sipping a cool & refreshing cocktail, whether I can get fired up over “Passion.”

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Wicked violence, wild beauty permeate classic ‘Badlands’

By Mike Wilmington

Badlands/1973/Warner Bros./94 min.

The late 1960s and early 1970s, in America, were marked by violence and loneliness, war and craziness, and wild beauty. We see a portrait of a lot of that trauma, in microcosm, in Terrence Malick’s shattering 1973 classic, “Badlands.” Set in the American West of the 1950s, it’s the story of two young people on the run: Kit, who works on a trash truck and tries to model himself after James Dean, and Holly, a high-school baton twirler with a strange blank stare, who thinks Kit is the handsomest boy she’s ever seen.

These two moonchildren run off together after Kit tries and fails to reconcile Holly’s mean, smiley-sign-painter father (Warren Oates) to their relationship. Then, plumb out of arguments, Kit shoots him dead and burns his house down. It’s probably Kit’s first murder; he’s such a weirdly polite guy that it’s hard to envision it otherwise. But soon he develops a taste for slaughter. And he and Holly embark on a savage cross-country trek by stolen cars, one that includes the massacre of many people, including Kit’s best (only) friend Cato (Ramon Bieri).

Kit appears to be killing not out of need or fear, but out of some perverse pleasure he gets from pulling the trigger and making a soul disappear from a body. “He was the most trigger-happy person I’d ever seen,” says Holly, in her flat, unemotional voice.

Kit and Holly are played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the first lead roles for either of them.

Kit and Holly are played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the first lead roles for either of them. They are a couple of beautiful but amoral (at least in Kit’s case) American eccentrics who seem to have gotten most of their ideas about love and romance from the movies. Kit keeps constructing his own dream world, even as the real world is falling apart below their feet. They build tree houses, they dance at night by the lights of their stolen car to Nat King Cole’s achingly romantic ballad “A Blossom Fell.”

Kit and Holly were inspired, to a degree, by real people: serial killer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The pair went on a murder spree in 1957-58 and wound up killing 11 people, some of them with a cruelty that surpasses anything we see in Malick’s movie.

Kit is a born killer and we’re probably more afraid of him than any of the jolly Barrow gang.

“Badlands” was also inspired by Arthur Penn’s 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde,” another movie where unsavory real-life characters, the Clyde BarrowBonnie Parker gang, become likeable and sympathetic, even glamorous. Bonnie, Clyde, Kit and Holly are stunningly attractive, which is a cinematic short-cut to sympathy and something we see in other films like the 1950 film noir classic “Gun Crazy,” directed by Joseph H. Lewis. But Clyde is more of a businessman who’s chosen crime as a profession; Kit is a born killer and we’re probably more afraid of him than any of the jolly Barrow gang.

There’s something else that “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde” share: a true, piercing sense of the rough-hewn beauty of the American landscapes and of the American physiognomy. And while Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have A-list knockout looks (the kind of faces moviemakers use to draw us to the screen and what the movies themselves sell) Sheen and Spacek have a different kind of good looks: an outsider sexiness, a tender and beguiling charm.

Kit and Holly were inspired serial killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.

Sheen and Spacek are alluring, and so is the film: a series of gorgeous landscapes, images that can fill us with delight and awe. (“Badlands” went through three camera artists: Tak Fujimoto, Brian Probyn and Stevan Larner.) In his next film, “Days of Heaven,” Malick would also get incredible beauty in exterior shots. But “Badlands”— shot on a minuscule budget in what Malick has called an outlaw production — has something madder, freer. It’s a darkening vision of two naïve kids in love and flight, but it’s also the head-shot of a killer, picking out his targets. He’s there, smiling, with a gun in his hand, almost before you know it.

The question “Badlands” poses, like “Bonnie and Clyde,” is the riddle of which is more deadly: society or its outlaws. We think we know the answer, but we don’t. Both movies, made in the Vietnam era, are about the struggle between the establishment and its outlaws. Both deliberately blur the boundaries between what we see as good and evil.

“Badlands” is about the America and the people we think we know but really don’t, the people we hear about from afar. It’s about that car racing along the road against the night-sky, those twisted childlike lovers, looking for freedom but finding darkness and death, and the soft, fleeting sound of Nat King Cole on the car radio.

Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of “Badlands” include a number of outstanding extras.

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‘Leave Her to Heaven’ flaunts an upper-crust femme fatale

Leave Her to Heaven/1945/ Twentieth Century Fox/110 min.

“Leave Her to Heaven” shows a glossy new strand of film noir: a domestic-based story shot in color. Of course, there were mixed-up families all along and melodrama was nothing new – Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for “Mildred Pierce,” also from 1945. But here we are immersed in the inner-workings of an upper- middle-class, superficially happy clan and witness the deadly consequences of Daddy complexes. (Yes, there is a family-size helping of obvious Freudian psychology.)

Gene Tierney tackles the role of Ellen Berent – ravishingly beautiful, rich as a princess, and smart as a tack. (Rita Hayworth reportedly turned the part down.) Shortly after the death of her father, she meets a handsome novelist named Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) who looks and acts like Dad. Ellen’s quickly heads over heels and in short order she dumps her fiancé, aspiring politician Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), and marries Richard.

Breaking the noir convention that a femme fatale typically has a tough childhood and few remaining family ties, Ellen comes from a wealthy and well respected East Coast family. Ellen’s mom (Mary Philips) says: “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much. She loved her fahhhther too much.”

Richard (Cornel Wilde) and Ellen (Gene Tierney) meet on a train.

We also learn that Richard has a younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) who’s an invalid and, in Ellen’s view, really a bit of a third wheel. For you see, the lovely Ellen is turning out to be a green-eyed monster fond of sticking to her husband like glue.

To top it off, Richard has the irritating notion that he’s The Writer of the House and needs some time to himself To Write. Seriously, Richard?

As Ellen’s paranoia and possessiveness grow, her cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) appears strikingly sane by contrast and hence more competition for Richard’s attention. Ellen may be clinical, but she’s not stupid, so once she decides that Richard no longer wants her, she sets an If-I-can’t-have-him … trap. She also commits one of the most cold-blooded killings in the film-noir canon.

A big-budget production with a strong cast, “Leave Her to Heaven” is immensely entertaining. (Price and Tierney had worked together in 1944’s “Laura” as well.) For one thing, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Shot in luscious Technicolor by cinematographer Leon Shamroy (he won an Oscar for this film) with frothy art direction by Maurice Ransford and Lyle Wheeler, “Leave Her to Heaven” is a feast for the eyes.

Ellen commits an atrocious crime. But at least she has chic eyewear.

Another highlight: John M. Stahl’s elegant direction. Known for women’s films such as “Back Street (1932), “Imitation of Life” (1934) and “Magnificent Obsession” (1935) as well as the MGM flop “Parnell” (1937), Stahl could make a stylish soap opera like nobody’s business. The executive producer was Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited).

(Following in Stahl’s soap-opera tradition was the great Douglas Sirk, known for his lavish productions underpinned with stinging social criticism. He remade “Magnificent Obsession” in 1954 with Rock Hudson and “Imitation of Life” in 1959 with Lana Turner.)

The source for “Leave Her to Heaven” was Ben Ames Williams’ novel “Leave Her to Heaven” (a line from “Hamlet”). The book was a best seller that prompted a bidding war among studios wanting to make the movie. Jo Swerling wrote the screenplay.

In the DVD version, actor Hickman and film critic Richard Schickel provide commentary. Hickman tells us that Tierney didn’t give him the time of day and he couldn’t seem to please Stahl, then picks on Tierney’s acting. But then he did apparently get pneumonia from shooting the famous lake scene so that might sour one just a tad.

Schickel’s comments are far more interesting, especially his insightful observation about fashion. Despite her issues, Ellen is dressed to a T in every scene, looking icy cool, highly polished and timeless. And when you come down it, what’s more important than that? Neurotic, schmurotic.

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Good buzz over ‘The World’s End’ is well deserved

The World’s End/2013/Focus Features/109 min.

A comedy with an apocalyptic slant is required viewing here at FNB and, given that this one is made by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, “The World’s End” is a must-see for anyone who likes a good laugh and a glass of beer with a twist of Brit.

Following their hits “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Hot Fuzz (2007), I had high hopes for their latest collaboration (Wright directed and co-wrote with Pegg). And, despite Pegg and Frost’s misfire with “Paul” (2011), the trio delivers nicely here.

It’s a simple premise: Five boyhood friends reluctantly reunite in their hometown for a pub crawl at the same spots they frequented 20 years before – the final stop is the aptly named The World’s End. Pegg plays Gary King, the cocky party-hardy dude, short on cash and long on looking back because his best days are behind him.

His friends, on the other hand, have moved on with their lives and assumed the usual responsibilities, i.e. jobs and families. Gary manages to get Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) on board with the binge quest fairly quickly. It’s more work to convince Andy (Frost), now a well dressed, teetotalling lawyer as serious as he is successful.

Pints are poured and tension between the estranged friends bubbles up, just as a creamy head tops a draft of Guinness. But bigger trouble appears when “the five musketeers” discover that their sleepy small town has been overrun by a breed of mutants, a la “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and that the future of humanity now rests on their soused shoulders.

As was the case with “Shaun of the Dead,” a smart script and strong characterizations allow the leads to deftly balance comedy and drama. And it’s a refreshing treat to see Frost playing a stuffy sourpuss to Pegg’s puerile doofus. Also spot on: Rosamund Pike as Samantha, Steven’s smart and sexy unrequited love.

“The World’s End” skillfully mixes broad, knockabout humor with sharp observation (playing with and puncturing British stereotypes) and quick wit. “I haven’t had a drink in 15 years,” says Andy, to which Gary replies, “You must be thirsty!”

“The World’s End” opens nationwide today.

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Neo-noir ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is a pretty tone poem that skimps on story

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints/2013/IFC Films/105 min.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” by writer/director David Lowery, opens with a quarrel between a pair of young lovers, ambling along the hills of desolate central Texas. Ruth (Rooney Mara with a Plain Jane, ’70s vibe) frets that her restless boyfriend Bob (Casey Affleck) is going to take off on his own and leave her behind.

He reassures her but her fears are not unfounded – when a robbery goes wrong, Bob goes to jail and Ruth must fend for herself. But knowing that Ruth is pregnant, Bob determines to escape and return to his wife and child.

Lowery creates and sustains a languid mood tinged with loneliness, frustration, guilt and longing, underscored by steady dread, thanks particularly to cinematographer Bradford Young’s pretty camerawork and Daniel Hart’s plaintive music. The director also draws subtle performances from Mara as a teen transformed by motherhood and a tenderly expressive Ben Foster as the cop who forms the third side of the love triangle.

Lowery’s work essentially belongs to the lovers-on-the-run tradition that mixes film noir, poetic realism and grisly fairy tale – presumably attempting to join the ranks of movies like “Gun Crazy,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Badlands.”

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has impressed many critics, but I found it hard to connect with and the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. Lowery seems uncomfortable letting a simple tale unfold. Several narrative threads felt clunky and tacked on, without adding anything of substance. Some of the storytelling was hard to follow; other parts were boring (though, to be fair, action isn’t the aim here) and hollow.

Pretentious and plodding more than heartfelt and contemplative,“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” failed to move me.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens nationwide today.

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UCLA to screen ‘Champion’ and ‘The Men’

Kirk Douglas stars in “Champion.”

As part of Champion: The Stanley Kramer Centennial, the UCLA Film & Television Archive is showing a great double feature Friday night at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. Sally Kellerman will appear in person.

Champion” (1949, Mark Robson)
Producer Stanley Kramer brought this stylish feature in under budget and ahead of schedule. He also provided a career-defining vehicle for actor Kirk Douglas as a ruthless boxer seeking fame at any cost.

The Men” (1950, Fred Zinnemann)
Actor Marlon Brando’s first feature (following his Broadway success in “A Streetcar Named Desire”) was this thoughtful portrait of WWII wounded veterans returning to America ambivalent about their role in civilian life.  Shot in a veterans’ hospital, and featuring many of the patients as actors, the film was a sobering look behind the trappings of military victory.

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Stanwyck and Colbert kick off new DVD line from TCM

Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert are the featured stars in TCM Showcase, a new line of DVD sets, launched today by TCM and Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

TCM Showcase: Barbara Stanwyck shows the tough and versatile actress in “The Lady Eve” (1941), perhaps the greatest film noir of all “Double Indemnity” (1944), “All I Desire” (1953) and “There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956).

TCM Showcase: Claudette Colbert features the playful and sophisticated Colbert in “Cleopatra” (1934), “Imitation of Life” (1934), “Midnight” (1939) and “The Palm Beach Story” (1942).

TCM Showcase: Barbara Stanwyck and TCM Showcase: Claudette Colbert are on sale now from the TCM online store. Each set is available for $24.99, 17 percent off the suggested retail price.

TCM and Universal’s collaboration began in 2009 with the launch of the TCM Vault Collection. While the vault collection focuses on rare and hard-to-find titles, the showcase collection offers Hollywood’s greatest stars in the roles that made them legends.

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RIP Elmore Leonard

Noir great Elmore Leonard, author of “Get Shorty,” “Freaky Deaky” and “Glitz” (among many others) died Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Township, Mich. He was 87. You can read his NYT obituary here.

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Happy birthday, Coco Chanel

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”

“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

“You live but once; you might as well be amusing.”

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.”

“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.”

“I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little – if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny. And it’s best to be as pretty as possible for destiny.”

“You can be gorgeous at thirty, charming at forty, and irresistible for the rest of your life.”

“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.”

“Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.”

“I wanted to give a woman comfortable clothes that would flow with her body. A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed.”

Coco Chanel: Aug. 19, 1883 – Jan. 10, 1971. Image: My Vintage Vogue

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ThreadCrawl taps the allure of bricks-and-mortar buying

After noticing a number of lonely storefronts and seeing his favorite Melrose Avenue boutique close last winter, Joshua Jordison decided to take action. Says the Los Angeles native: “I am a music industry guy and have been involved in producing hundreds of events. I started to ask myself what I could do to get people excited about shopping again.”

That’s when he got the idea for ThreadCrawl, a citywide sale from Aug. 19-25 that he hopes will lure shop-a-holics away from their screens and onto their feet. Jordison says his foray into the fashion realm involves hundreds of stores, most of which will off 20 percent off all merchandise. Many stores are offering a bigger discount on select items.

Restaurants, bars, salons, spas and other merchants are also participating.

ThreadCrawl tickets are $17 and are good for the entire event. There is no limit on how much you can buy. Also, says Jordison,  $2 from every ticket sold will be donated to City of Hope.

While shopping, get inspired by Jordison’s carpe-diem approach. If you think, “I’m not sure I have anywhere to wear this,” then find somewhere fun to go!

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