‘Nightcrawler’ teaches how to creep up the career ladder

Nightcrawler posterNightcrawler/2014/Bold Films, Open Road Films/117 min.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is a slick, suspenseful neo-noir satire on “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” journalism and the bleak reality of big-city survival.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, a Los Angeles loner whose “resume” is an odd blend of scavenging, thievery and clumsy self-promotion. While selling stolen goods to get by, he eagerly seeks a more upright job. But parroting cheesy memes he’s learned in online business classes to potential employers doesn’t compensate for his blatant dishonesty.

Then his late-night carousing leads him to a potential goldmine and an actual career path. He discovers that he can shoot video of crime scenes and sell it to local TV news stations. His camera might be cheap but he has the requisite ruthlessness and unflagging energy to join the ranks of freelance videographers who race against dawn, on deadline, from one crime scene to the next.

Equally ruthless is Nina Romina (Rene Russo), station manager of KWLA. Sharp-tongued and steely, Nina serves as Louis’ mentor; he helps her spike ratings and protect her job. Louis appears to have a crush on Nina and an awkward pseudo-romance ensues.

Having zero ethics and finding no shortage of wrong-doing around town, Louis has enough work to hire a gopher (Riz Ahmed). As the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher, Louis crosses the line to become what he might call a “hands-on entrepreneur” and what anyone else would call a criminal.

Where the film arguably missteps is in failing to humanize Louis (though maybe that’s not Gilroy’s goal). There’s no descent into craziness – Louis is unhinged from the first scene. Also, the budding “romance” is dropped too soon. It would have added a layer to both of their characters had Gilroy explored that subplot in more detail.

Nevertheless, “Nightcrawler” engages throughout, thanks to fierce performances from Gyllenhaal and Russo, crisp writing and direction from Gilroy and stunning cinematography from Robert Elswit.

 “Nightcrawler” opens in theaters today.

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Moody and hypnotic, ‘Force Majeure’ breathes new life into a tired trope

Force Majeure posterForce Majeure/2014/Magnolia Pictures/118 min.

It’s a question as old as the hills (or, in this case, the Alps): Can you ever really know a person? In “Force Majeure,” a domestic noir, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund probes the surface of a couple’s relationship, on a skiing holiday with their kids in the majestic French mountains. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is a handsome workaholic; his lovely wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) sometimes compete with his i-phone for his attention.

When an avalanche hits, Eric’s instinct is to take off on his own, rather than protect his family. Later, he denies and minimizes his behavior. But Anna is devastated by what happened and she won’t let it go. The children distance themselves from their parents.

Östlund creates strange, jarring tension driven by a primal betrayal unfolding in unfamiliar territory. Tomas and Ebba are claustrophobic and quarrelsome at the ski lodge; exposed and vulnerable when they hit the slopes. Time drags, they bicker in front of strangers, drink too much booze and pretend all is well in front of the kids.

Moody and hypnotic, “Force Majeure” scored big at the Cannes Film Fest where it won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard.  The characters are rendered with piercing honesty as Östlund takes his time to tell the story. It’s a good, well acted yarn, pretty and ponderous, despite a few contrivances.

My one gripe: the film ends on a random note that doesn’t play particularly well.

“Force Majeure” opens in theaters today.

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Film Noir File: Welles’ magnum opus, Halloween nightmares

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

Touch of Evil” (1958, Orson Welles). Wednesday, Oct. 29. 10 p.m. (7 p.m.).

“A little old lady walked down Main Street last night and picked up a shoe. That shoe had a foot in it. I’m going to make you pay for that, boy.”
Detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles)

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston lock horns in “Touch of Evil.”

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston lock horns in “Touch of Evil.”

In two Hellish border towns, one in California, the other in Mexico, a grotesque and loony gallery of rogues, cops, narcs, city bosses, gangsters, juvenile delinquents, psycho motel clerks and ladies of the evening are thrown together, when a wealthy banker, Rudy Linnekar, is blown to smithereens at the border. We watch a bomb being planted in his car (from above, in one of cinema’s greatest long-take, moving-camera shots) by a shadowy, not-quite-seen killer.

On the killer’s trail, in what seems only minutes after that explosive opening, is the local star police detective, Hank Quinlan (writer-director-star Orson Welles), a mountainously fat, savagely cynical but brilliant cop, who specializes in cracking the most mysterious crimes and nailing the wiliest killers. In this case, Quinlan fingers a good-looking Mexican shoe clerk (Victor Millan) who was sleeping with Linnekar’s daughter (Joanna Moore) and who has a shoebox full of dynamite in their motel room.

Only one problem: An upright, unshakably honest narcotics-cop named Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, at his most righteous) – who’s visiting the town with his gorgeous blonde wife Susie (Janet Leigh, at her liveliest) – knows that the dynamite was planted. And if Quinlan planted the evidence on this murder, maybe he, and his hero-worshipping partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) have been faking things for years.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (as Mike and Susie Vargas) have much to fear.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (as Mike and Susie Vargas) have much to fear.

What follows is a war of nerves (and of guts and morality) between two great cops, one of whom may be a murderer.

Around them is the rest of one of film noir’s greatest casts: Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe Grandi, the local sawed-off Little Caesar, Valentin de Vargas as Uncle Joe’s lady-killing leather-jacketed nephew, Dennis Weaver as the nervous “night man” at the local motel, Mercedes McCambridge as the most blood-freezing lesbian biker ever, and a couple of salty old pros from “Citizen Kane” (Joseph Cotten and Ray Collins). And, in one of her (and our) favorite performances, Marlene Dietrich as Tana, the sultry, sardonic madame who plays the pianola at her high-style whorehouse and makes great chili. She tells her old flame Quinlan, “You’re a mess, honey.”

The Universal studio execs of 1958 made a mess of “Touch of Evil,” in its original release, ordering reshooting and recuts. But it’s long since assumed classic status and been put back in the shape it’s believed writer-director-star Welles wanted.

We actually owe the existence of “Touch of Evil” to Charlton Heston. He was hired to play the hero, Vargas, in an initially unpromising adaptation of Whit Masterson’s paperback thriller “Badge of Evil,” after Welles was already cast as Quinlan. Heston then insisted that Welles direct it as well.

Marlene Dietrich as Tana plays the pianola and makes great chili.

Marlene Dietrich as Tana plays the pianola and makes great chili.

Welles was still in his prime when he made “Touch of Evil” and he did it with a flair, panache and unflagging invention. He displays a mastery of  staging, of camera placement and of bravura acting from the incredible cast that has seldom been matched in the canon of noir. (Russell Metty photographed it and Henry Mancini wrote the score.)

The movie is a masterpiece of pulp and expressionism. Just as with “Citizen Kane,” you can watch it over and over again, and still find surprises. The ending is both melancholy and exhilarating.

It’s wonderful that Welles got this last big studio chance. But it’s sad too, because we know that he was never able to make a go-for-broke super-Hollywood studio film like this again. No one was better at it.

Some aficionados think “Touch of Evil” is the very pinnacle of film noir. Even if it isn’t, it’s a movie that takes the whole notion of noir (the melding of hard-boiled crime stories and expressionist high style technique) to one of its craziest, wildest, most brilliant extremes.

“He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
Tana (Marlene Dietrich)

Act of Violence posterWednesday, Oct. 29

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Psycho” (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). With Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam. Reviewed in FNB, on July 7, 2011.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Act of Violence” (1948, Fred Zinnemann). With Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh. Reviewed in FNB, on Aug. 4, 2012.

1:45 a.m. (10:45 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). With Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall and Julie Harris. Reviewed in FNB, on Dec. 4, 2012.

Friday, Oct. 31

Horror Halloween Marathon

“Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur) is a purrfect choice for Halloween.

“Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur) is a purrfect choice for Halloween.

11 a.m. (8 a.m.): “Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur). With Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Tom Conway. Reviewed in FNB, on July 20, 2014.

3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m.): “Dementia 13” (1963, Francis Ford Coppola). With William Campbell, Luana Anders and Patrick Magee. Reviewed in FNB, on June 12, 2014.

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Carnival of Souls” (1962, Herk Harvey). An anguished young woman (Candace Hilligoss) nearly drowns and then makes her way to a small city. It’s mysteriously inhabited by ordinary-looking but strange people who seem to be the citizens of some other, more dangerous place. (The eerie, smiling little man who follows her all around is played by the writer-director, Herk Harvey.) This is a legendary low-budget horror classic, and few films of its type are scarier.

Repulsion Criterion poster6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Repulsion” (1965, Roman Polanski). With Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux and Ian Hendry. Reviewed in FNB, on Oct. 27, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Night of the Living Dead” (1968, George Romero). With Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea. Reviewed in FNB, on March 27, 2012.

5:15 a.m. (2:15 a.m.): “Eyes Without a Face” (1959, Georges Franju). With Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli and Edith Scob. Reviewed in FNB, on Nov. 4, 2011.

Saturday, Nov. 1

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Point Blank” (1967, John Boorman). With Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Carroll O’Connor. Reviewed in FNB, on Jan. 28, 2013.

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.): “North by Northwest” (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969, Leonard Kastle). With Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco. Reviewed in FNB, on July 21, 2011.

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Film Noir File: Have a Happy, Haunting Halloween with Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

The Birds” (1963, Alfred Hitchcock). Saturday, Oct. 25. 5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.)

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

A smug, snobbish, stylishly beautiful, and very, very blonde San Francisco socialite named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) chases a cocky lawyer she’s just met named Mitch (Rod Taylor), to his family home in scenic Bodega Bay, to mock him with a gift of love birds in a cage. Once they’ve reconnected, Mitch and Melanie commence on what first seems a typical Hollywood movie romance, with typical Hitchcockian mother problems (Jessica Tandy). And there’s another woman – Mitch’s old flame, a gorgeous brunette schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette).

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Suddenly, inexplicably, the uncaged wild birds of Bodega Bay – crows, sparrows, sea gulls – start massing into murderous flocks or going on solitary raids, attacking Melanie and everyone else. As the attacks escalate in fury, their hapless human targets become immersed in an avian nightmare from the sky where no one is safe.

Perhaps most terrifying is the famous scene when Melanie sits on a bench outside the school to pick up Mitch’s kids, while, in the schoolroom, the children chant a doggerel nursery rhyme and behind Melanie masses of crows gather and perch, waiting quietly on the schoolyard jungle gym. Chaos ensues, with typical Hitchcockian invention and panache.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Back in 1963, critics, especially the more intellectual ones, generally attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it and that is the verdict that has lasted. The source of Evan Hunter’s screenplay was a novelette by Daphne du Maurier (“Rebecca”). The crisp and crystalline color cinematography is by Hitch regular Robert Burks and the menacing, shrieking bird sounds were created by Hitch’s masterly composer, Bernard Herrmann. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, Oct. 25: Horror Day

Sweeney Todd poster 19822 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1982, Terry Hughes & Harold Price). A film of the celebrated Harold Prince Broadway staging of Stephen Sondheim’s very dark musical play about the notorious killer-barber Sweeney Todd. With Angela Lansbury and George Hearn from the original stage cast.

4:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.): “Mad Love” (1935, Karl Freund). The most stylish film version of novelist Maurice Renard’s eerie horror tale “The Hands of Orlac,” in which a murderer’s hands are grafted onto the wrists of a famed concert pianist and amputee (Colin Clive) by a mad doctor (Peter Lorre), with an unspeakable yen for the pianist’s wife (Frances Drake). This one has a brilliantly maniacal performance by Lorre, and it’s a masterpiece of noir photography by German expressionist cameraman-turned-Hollywood-director Freund and his great cinematographer Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane“). With Sara Haden and Edward Brophy.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Haunting” (1963, Robert Wise). With Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. The second great American horror movie of 1963. (See “The Birds” above.)

Sunday, Oct. 26

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): In a Lonely Place(1950, Nicholas Ray). With Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame and Frank Lovejoy.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941, Victor Fleming). The often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson thriller about the good doctor whose potion turns him into a bad man. Spencer Tracys Jekyll-Hyde is much more realistically and psychologically played than the classic hammery of predecessors John Barrymore and the Oscar-winning Fredric March. Tracy does him with less extreme makeup, as a brilliant, sensitive but tormented Victorian Britisher beset with repressions and secret desires that explode into evil with the creation of Hyde. Fleming directed this movie near his “Gone with the Wind”-“Wizard of Oz” heyday and, though it’s a bit slow in the beginning, the last 30 minutes are a noir triumph. The excellent supporting cast includes Ingrid Bergman (as Hyde’s terrorized sex victim Ivy), Lana Turner, Donald Crisp and C. Aubrey Smith. (Off-screen, Bergman reportedly had affairs with Fleming and Tracy.)

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot). With Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel and Vera Clouzot.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Gaslight” (1944, George Cukor). With Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty and Angela Lansbury. Reviewed in FNB on August 26, 2012.

Monday, Oct. 27: Jack Carson Day

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Eve Arden.

Tuesday, Oct. 28

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Nosferatu” (1922, F. W. Murnau). Regarded by many critics as one of the greatest German films – and one of the greatest horror movies – of all time: F. W. Murnau’s hypnotic, brilliantly visual, unacknowledged adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic “Dracula.” Murnau’s Nosferatu, the mysterious Max Schreck, is one of the eeriest, creepiest, most frightening horror film monsters ever. He really looks as if he’d just crawled up out of a grave to kill you and drink your blood. And if you want a quick one-stop lesson in German film expressionism, here is a consummate example. (German silent, with intertitles and music score.)

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Film Noir File: A Day with Ulmer, the King of Poverty Row Noir

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

A Dark Day with Edgar G. Ulmer

Edgar Ulmer

Edgar Ulmer

The French call him an auteur. The Americans call him The King of Poverty Row. And no cultish filmmaker of the classic Hollywood era, not even the infamous Ed Wood, Jr., has a stranger, more offbeat, more off-the-wall filmography than Edgar G. Ulmer. He’s the man who made “The Black Cat,” “Bluebeard” and “The Strange Woman” as well as a picture shot for a song that eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry, that legendary 1945 no-exit low-budget classic of fate, despair and sudden death, “Detour.”

Ulmer, born in Olmutz, Moravia, Austria-Hungary in 1904, started his career in Germany, in the heyday of German Expressionism, working, he claimed (some dispute it), on classics such as “Metropolis,” and “The Last Laugh” for film geniuses like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. He received his first directorial credit on “People on Sunday,” with fellow filmmakers Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann.

While Wilder and the others became A-list directors and even Oscar-winners in Hollywood, Ulmer was exiled to “Poverty Row.” There he labored for the rest of his career on an amazing potpourri of low-budget titles, including westerns, film noir and science fiction.

The Black Cat posterThe reason: While he was directing the 1934 horror hit, “The Black Cat” starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Ulmer made the mistake of having an affair with his producer’s wife, Shirley Alexander. Shirley later divorced her husband Max, married Ulmer and worked beside him, as script supervisor or scenarist, from then on.

Ulmer’s Hollywood career lasted from the early ’30s to the mid ’60s, largely because he doesn’t seem to have ever turned down a script. He shot on bare-bones sets, with actors usually (though not always) on the B or C or D lists, from scripts for which the adjective “clichéd” would be a compliment. And though his movies may have been shot for peanuts, in his hands, they often looked like caviar.

A healthy percentage of Ulmer’s movies were film noir – or close to film noir. They took place in a world of fear and darkness, sometimes because the characters were swallowed up in impending doom, and sometimes, one suspects, because the electricity bill hadn’t been paid. Whatever the job though, Ulmer was one of the real masters of the noir form and style.

And why shouldn’t he be? His whole life and career, in a way, were film noirs – dark stories of infidelity, betrayal, paranoia and persecution, enacted in an Ulmerworld that was lost in shadows of menace and dread.

Ann Savage is one fierce femme in “Detour.”

Ann Savage is one fierce femme in “Detour.”

Ulmer died in 1972, but he lived to see his work revived and his name made famous – cultishly famous, it’s true, but renowned nonetheless. He and Shirley are buried near each other. And they now have Ulmerfests near his Austrian-Hungarian birthplace.

Here is your own Ulmerfest from TCM. So, take the detour. You won’t find cheaper, better, crazier, more cultish, shadowy, mesmerizing (or should we say “Ulmerizing“) Poverty Row classics anywhere.

The Ulmerfilmen (Tuesday, Oct. 21)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Her Sister’s Secret” (1946, Edgar Ulmer). A weepy soaper, starring Nancy Coleman and Margaret Lindsay as sisters with a secret (an illegitimate child). Not quite in Douglas Sirk’s class, but better than most cheapo tear-jerkers.

9:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m.): “Edgar G. Ulmer The Man Off-Screen” (2004, Michael Palm). A 2004 Ulmer documentary. Interviewees include Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Corman. Also shown at 5 a.m. (2 a.m.) on Wednesday, Oct. 22.

“Detour” eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry.

“Detour” eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry.

10:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m.): “Carnegie Hall” (1947, Edgar Ulmer). Marsha Hunt is a faithful Carnegie Hall music lover determined that her son (William Prince) will be a great classical pianist. While she drives him onward and upward, director Ulmer –  a classical music buff of the first degree – beautifully stages and photographs some incredible performances by such legendary classical virtuosi as pianist Artur Rubinstein, violinist Jascha Heifetz, cellist Gregor Piatagorsky, conductors Leopold Stokowski and Fritz Reiner (Ulmer’s personal friend and the godfather of his daughter), opera singers Lily Pons, Ezio Pinza and Rise Stevens, and, for variation, pop music stars Harry James and Vaughn Monroe.

Few musical movies have ever boasted a lineup like that – and this movie probably had a special place in music-lover Ulmer’s heart.

Paul Langton and Barbara Payton star in “Murder is My Beat.”

Paul Langton and Barbara Payton star in “Murder is My Beat.”

1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.): “Murder is My Beat” (1955, Edgar Ulmer). Two cops chase a killer. One of Ulmer’s pure noirs. With Paul Langton, Robert Shayne and Barbara Payton.

2:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m.): “Detour” (1945, Edgar Ulmer). With Tom Neal, Ann Savage and Esther Howard. Read the full review here.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Amazing Transparent Man” (1960, Edgar Ulmer). A gangster and a mad scientist with an invisibility formula team up for a crime wave. There is no truth to the rumor that the producer told Ulmer to make the entire cast invisible to save on salaries. With Marguerite Chapman and Douglas Kennedy.

Saturday, Oct. 18

Assault poster2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976, John Carpenter). Trapped in a local Los Angeles precinct station and lock-up, with communication cut off and a gang of vicious delinquents and criminals besieging them from outside, a group of cops and convicts try to make it through the night. Director-writer John Carpenter, inspired by one of his favorite movies (the 1959 Howard Hawks Western “Rio Bravo”) gives us one of the quintessential entrapment thrillers. With Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston.

Sunday, Oct. 19

5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.): “Foreign Correspondent” (1940, Alfred Hitchcock). With Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, George Sanders and Herbert Marshall. Reviewed in FNB on March 26, 2014.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Marnie” (1964, Alfred Hitchcock). With Sean Connery, Tippi Hedren and Martin Gabel. Reviewed in FNB on Jan. 30, 2012.

10:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m.): “Julie” (1956, Andrew L. Stone). The same year she sang “Que Sera, Sera” for Hitchcock as the menaced mom in Hitch’s remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Doris Day played a comely stewardess stalked by her psycho ex-husband, Louis Jourdan, in this lady-in-distress thriller from the poor man’s Hitchcock, Andrew Stone. It’s an okay movie with a good cast: Barry Sullivan, Frank Lovejoy, Jack (“Maverick”) Kelly, Jack Kruschen and one of D. W. Griffith’s great threatened ladies, Mae Marsh of “Intolerance.” Reviewed in FNB on June 27, 2012.

Monday, Oct. 20

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Saboteur” (1942, Alfred Hitchcock). Robert Cummings plays one of the classic Hitchcockian “wrong men,” falsely accused of World War II era sabotage, racing cross country to try to find and expose the real saboteurs. In the tradition of “The 39 Steps“ and “North by Northwest,“ it’s full of sometimes astonishing suspense set-pieces, including the breathtaking, vertigo-inducing scene with Cummings and Norman Lloyd at the top of the Statue of Liberty.

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‘Fury’ hits hard with a powerful story and fine performances

Fury posterFury/2014/Columbia Pictures/134 min.

Writer/director David Ayer’s “Fury,” a World War II drama, is a force to behold, with one of Brad Pitt’s finest performances.

The movie is set in April of 1945 and the war is coming to an end, but this is no gradual winding down. Instead, it’s a tooth and nail fight, a savage final struggle to defeat the Nazis on the European front. Pitt plays an army sergeant nicknamed Wardaddy who commands a Sherman tank and a crew of men.

Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) clings steadfastly to religion to get him through. Jon Bernthal’s Coon and Michael Peña’s Gordo gave up hope a long time ago. Logan Lerman, as a new addition named Norman, shows us a heart-wrenching evolution from paper-pusher to Nazi-slayer.

The soldiers hold their own for a while but, as they push through enemy lines, it becomes frighteningly clear that they are far outnumbered by the Germans.

Pitt melds fierce intensity and psychological battle scars with layers of mystery, dignity and reserve. The rest of the cast (including Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg as German women the men encounter) match him, beat for beat, thanks to assured and nuanced direction from Ayer.

‘Fury’ can be hard to watch at times – it’s gory and graphic from the start – but war is hell, remember. And this is one hell of a story.

“Fury” opens in theaters today.

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‘Whiplash,’ by writer/director Damien Chazelle, works on many levels, including as a neo-noir tale of obsession

Whiplash posterStrictly speaking, “Whiplash,” about a jazz student going to crazy lengths to please his maniacal teacher, is a drama. But unstrictly speaking, “Whiplash” counts as neo-noir.

How so? Shot in LA (in 19 days) but set in New York City, the urban landscape has a stark, unforgiving, slightly menacing vibe. Andrew, the sensitive but determined student (Miles Teller) at an elite fictional music conservatory, steers his passion into obsession, blood dripping from his fingers, as he determines to be the world’s greatest jazz drummer, à la Buddy Rich.

Andrew shuns his ever-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and, perhaps thinking he’s in charge of his destiny, he stubs out his nascent romance with a lonely movie usher/Fordham student named Nicole (Melissa Benoist) feeling that it’s only a matter of time before he will resent her.

Andrew meets his match in the form of the tyrannical, abusive teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), always dressed in black with immaculate posture and a perfectly shined bald head, who believes that verbal whippings and public humiliation will push his musicians into the realm of greatness.

Most noirishly, as the story unspools, there are subtle signs that we somehow, without knowing quite when or how, have left reality behind and are stranded in a dream-world of desperation, angst and paranoia. The dramatic lighting and tense pacing also contribute to the edgy, one-foot-in-hell mood. Cleverly, though, the story ends on a high note – a triumph of Andrew’s talent and perseverance.

“Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is one of my favorite films this year. Chazelle is both imaginative and precise in his storytelling; the Harvard University grad clearly knows what’s like to navigate a path at a competitive, elite institution. And he clearly knows jazz – in fact, both he and Teller play the drums. “Whiplash” also functions as an homage to the art form.

To me, though, Chazelle’s greatest accomplishments are the memorable, moving performances from the entire cast, especially Teller, looking a bit pudgier and pastier than usual, as he goes from schlubby to super-focused, and Simmons as the quietly rageful, ready-to-pounce sadist.

Kill the Messenger poster“Whiplash” opens today in theaters.


The Judge,” directed by David Dobkin. Compelling performances from a great cast (Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton), but the bloated, overlong script weighs this court-room drama/father-son story down. Way down.

And still on my list to see: “Kill the Messenger” is a conspiracy thriller directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner about drug smugglers with links to CIA. Based on true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb.

Also: “Addicted,” a story of adultery, directed by Bille Woodruff and starring Sharon Leal.

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Film Noir File: Hitchcock’s favorite: ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

Shadow of a Doubt
(1943, Alfred Hitchcock). Sunday, Oct. 12; 8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright star in "Shadow."

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright star in “Shadow.”

A bright and beautiful small town girl named Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is bored, bored with her well-ordered home in her pretty Norman Rockwellish little city of Santa Rosa, California. It’s a place where trees line the sunlit streets, everyone goes to church on Sunday and lots of them read murder mysteries at night. Charlie has more exotic dreams. She adores her globe-trotting, urbane Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) – for whom she was nicknamed – and is deliriously happy when he shows up in Santa Rosa for a visit.

But Uncle Charlie has some secrets that no one in his family or among their friends knows about. Not Uncle Charlie‘s adoring sister (Patricia Collinge), nor his good-hearted brother-in-law (Henry Travers), nor their murder-mystery-loving neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn), nor Charlie herself.

Shadow posterUncle Charlie, who conceals a darker personality and profession beneath his charming persona, is on the run, pursued by a dogged police detective (Macdonald Carey), who suspects him of being a notorious serial killer – a murderer who seduces rich old widows, kills them for their money, and whose signature tune and nickname come from Franz Lehar’s “Merry Widow” waltz. As handsome, cold-blooded Uncle Charlie, Cotten, who called “Shadow” his personal favorite film, is, with Robert Walker and Anthony Perkins, one of the three great Hitchcockian psychopaths.

“Shadow of a Doubt,” released in 1943, was Hitchcock’s sixth American movie and the one he often described as his favorite. As he explained to Francois Truffaut, he felt that his critical enemies, the “plausibles,” could have nothing to quibble about with “Shadow.” It was written by two superb chroniclers of Americana, Thornton Wilder (“Our Town”) and Sally Benson (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), along with Hitch‘s constant collaborator, wife Alma Reville. The result is one of the supreme examples of Hitchcockian counterpoint – an American small town nightmare: with a sunny, beguiling background against which dark terror erupts.

Friday, Oct. 10

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “Illegal” (1955, Lewis Allen). Edward G. Robinson in one of his better later roles: as a district attorney turned big-bucks defense attorney for mostly rich guilty clients, who tries to regain his integrity with a sensational murder trial. Directed by Lewis Allen (“Desert Fury,“ “Suddenly”); based on Elliot Nugent’s 1932 “The Mouthpiece.” With Nina Foch (the defendant), Jayne Mansfield, Hugh Marlowe and Albert Dekker.

Sunday, Oct. 12

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943, Alfred Hitchcock). See Pick of the Week. [Read more...]

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Bardot reigns over land of lost chances in noirish ‘Contempt’

By Mike Wilmington

Contempt posterJean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” is a melancholy drama about love’s dissolution and the compromises of moviemaking. Few films on either subject project so much beauty and bitterness. Thanks to Godard and Brigitte Bardot, it’s a masterpiece of mournful eroticism, one of the cinema’s most anguished portrayals of the ways love turns to hatred and passion curdles to contempt.

Based on Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel “Ghost at Noon,” about a couple falling apart during a blighted film production of Homer’s “Odyssey,” Godard’s movie was considered a failure on its release in 1963. But “Contempt” gradually became acknowledged as one of the great French films of the ’60s.

The doomed husband and wife are played by Michel Piccoli, as Paul, an opportunistic young playwright doctoring the script of “The Odyssey,” and Bardot – then the world’s reigning movie sex goddess – as Camille, Paul’s infinitely desirable but thoroughly alienated wife. Supporting them are Jack Palance as the brutal, lechy and egomaniacal American producer Jerry Prokosch, and Fritz Lang as himself, a legendary film director trying to create art in the midst of madness.

"Contempt" features a classic love triangle.

“Contempt” features a classic love triangle between Bardot, Palance (center) and Piccoli (top right).

When Godard (who also appears in the movie as Lang’s assistant director) started “Contempt,” he had one foot inside the door of the studio system. He was a maverick art-house director with a big international hit (1960’s “Breathless”) and an ambivalent but strong affection for classic Hollywood, especially film noir. Godard has called “Contempt” a film with an Antonioni subject done in the style of Hitchcock and Hawks.

But, after his fracases with “Contempt” producers, Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine, and the picture’s commercial disappointment, he was an independent and an outsider again – and remains so to this day.

“Contempt” is a sad, sarcastic film and a stunningly beautiful one. It dazzles us with visions of Bardot and the sun-drenched backdrops of Italy’s Cinecitta Studios and Capri, photographed by Godard’s master cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Godard, then more famous for the nervous, jump-cut editing style of “Breathless,” here favors long, luxuriant takes in the Max Ophuls-Vincente Minnelli style.

Filmed in Capri, the movie is full of stunning scenery and memorable shots.

Filmed partly in Capri, the movie is full of stunning scenery.

His elegantly composed shots drink in the sumptuous sights of international moviemaking: plush screening rooms, swimming pools, the sparkling blue ocean. Perhaps most memorably, Bardot’s radiant blonde Camille, a ravishing yet vulnerable sexpot, is shot in the nude through red, white and blue filters, in the movie’s opening. (That scene was a strip tease the producers demanded, and that Godard and Bardot turned into an ironic/iconic triumph of her sexuality and his cinematic “gaze”).

Camille is the movie’s object of desire and its victim of love. And when Paul loses Camille, his life, we feel, is almost deservedly shattered. The movie resonates with regret over lost romance and squandered lives, showing the exact points at which love dies, could be rescued and is thrown away again.

BB plays Camille, the alienated wife.

BB plays Camille, the alienated wife.

“Contempt” also shows us another kind of threatened passion: love for the cinema of the great auteurs (like Lang), a cinema that seems to be dying along with Camille‘s love for Paul.

Moravia’s novel was said to be inspired his relationship with his wife, novelist Elsa Morante, a goddess of fiction. Godard, retelling the story in pictures, turns Bardot into another kind of deity. She is BB, flesh become art: high priestess of the land of lost chances, the cinema queen of the moving camera and measureless desire.

(In French, with English subtitles. Available to buy at Criterion. It’s also shown from time to time on TCM.)

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Tense neo-noir ‘Gone Girl’ is the go-to movie this weekend

Gone Girl posterIn the poster for “Gone Girl,” star Ben Affleck stands near a body of water – not a sandy white beach burnished by the sun, but a murky strip of gray bounded by non-descript industrial buildings. A dump, in other words, and just the kind of place that could drive you crazy, especially if the rest of your life isn’t going so great and if your relationship is, well, a bit frayed.

Director David Fincher conveys that strong, vivid sense of place (North Carthage, Missouri) as well as a mood of dour frustration (Affleck’s Nick Dunne is in a strained marriage) within the first few minutes of “Gone Girl,” the much-anticipated neo-noir movie based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. (Flynn also wrote the script.)

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head,” Nick tells us. Literally, as he touches her sleek blonde hair, and figuratively: “What are you thinking, Amy? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

It seems that Nick’s fate is to ponder these questions and consistently come up short on answers. That’s because elegant and efficient Amy (Rosamund Pike), a trust-fund only child from an upper-crust East Coast family, is always several steps ahead of Nick, a good-looking, polite Midwestern guy who fancies that he might one day write the great American novel. They meet in Manhattan, where they both work as magazine writers but, when they lose their jobs, they move back to Nick’s hometown, which has been decimated by the recession.

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears and Nick becomes the No. 1 suspect. As the drama unfolds, we discover that the answers to the questions about Nick and Amy are far more devastating than we could have imagined.

Flynn’s smart, multi-layered script (which closely follows her book) is just right for Fincher’s capable hands. The film is tense, gripping and darkly funny, and Fincher draws stellar performances from Affleck and Pike as well as Kim Dickens  as the low-key but tenacious lead detective on the case, Tyler Perry as Nick’s slick, smooth-talking defense attorney and Carrie Coon as Margo, Nick’s straight-shooting and sarcastic twin sister.

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

The plot of both the book and movie eventually becomes fantastic, even absurd. Sticklers for plausibility likely will grumble by the end.

But that didn’t bother me much because I think Flynn’s aim, as outlined on page one, was to raise thorny questions about the façades we present when dating, the fronts we gain from our jobs (or lack thereof), the compromises of intimacy and the unconscious crafting of a joint identity, the waning and waxing distance between two people over time, and the creeping self-denial and even outright lies that sometimes prop up a relationship, not to mention the current state of sexual power and politics. (The “cool-girl” soliloquy, particularly in the book, is downright searing.)

It’s a lot to think about and Flynn makes it entertaining to boot. That said, there is one central flaw to both the movie and the book, and that’s a deep connection, an undeniable, goose-pimply intensity, between Nick and Amy. That needs to be there for the story to work completely and it’s missing – there isn’t much chemistry, let alone a combustible, powerful passion. In establishing Amy as the alpha girl, Nick’s character remains a bit dull and two-dimensional.

Granted, she’s drawn to the good-looking, affable Milquetoast because she can boss him around, but a Type A like Amy would tire of mere arm candy and look for more of a challenge – someone to push back a bit and stand up to her. After all, she appears to be the golden girl with the world as her oyster.

And there are still a few stand-up, take-charge guys out there, right?

“Gone Girl” opens today in theaters.

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