‘A Most Wanted Man’ ranks as one of the year’s best movies

A Most Wanted Man posterA Most Wanted Man/2014/Demarest Films/122 min.

Shocking violence has become so yawningly common, so eye-rollingly banal that its flippant depiction onscreen is often just par for the course.

But once in a while you see a movie that derives its tension not from a pool of trigger-happy cardboard psychos and their brutal pursuers but from white-hot sparks that fly between finely drawn flesh-and-blood characters; people with depth and dimension, with vital things at stake.  That’s the case with “A Most Wanted Man,” a sharp, suspenseful thriller (based on a John le Carré novel) by director Anton Corbijn.

Corbijn has assembled outstanding actors at the top of their game to bring this story to life. The story and the film belong to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014) as Günther Bachmann, a driven workaholic in a German government security/anti-terrorist agency in Hamburg.

His job is keeping surreptitious watch over a mysterious half-Chechen, half-Russian Islamic immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who learns he is the potential heir to a fortune, assuming his claim to the money can be verified. In Günther’s mind, Karpov is a “minnow” in the larger quest to capture “a barracuda and a shark.”

Hoffman plays Günther with arresting realism. We see the dirt under Günther’s nails, hear the raspy voice that’s endured countless smokes and copious Scotch, see the hint of a pleased smile at the culmination of his search. Hoffman is mesmerizing.

Also turning in captivating performances are: Rachel McAdams as Karpov’s lawyer, Willem Dafoe as an uptight banker, Robin Wright as a CIA agent and Nina Hoss as Günther’s colleague.

Corbijn’s carefully rendered  mise-en-scène shows Hamburg, often shot against inky-blank nightscapes by Benoît Delhomme, as glossy and gritty, bustling and lonely. Herbert Grönemeyer provides a haunting score. Where Corbijn missteps is pacing what turns out to be a rather spare plot – the story idles a bit in the third act.

That’s a small flaw, however. Well crafted and superbly acted, “A Most Wanted Man” stands as one of the best films of 2014.

‘A Most Wanted Man’ is currently in theaters.

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‘Red Rock West’ still rocks, 21 years later

Red Rock West posterRed Rock West/1993/Red Rock Films/98 min.

Nicolas Cage’s new movie “Joe” is being hailed as Cage’s comeback. It’s a meaty role in a dark film about desperate people doing bad things, to be sure.  But I like my degenerates a bit more clever and I kept thinking of Cage’s terrific turn in the smart and stylish neo-noir “Red Rock West.” It’s now 21 years old and I think it improves with age.

In playing Michael Williams, an ex-Marine looking for a job in a dusty Wyoming town, Cage creates an uncommonly sympathetic character. Rejected for a spot on an oil-drilling crew because of his bad leg, Michael figures he’s got nothing to lose by stopping into the Red Rock West tavern, the hub of a bustling metropolis of 200 people.

Brooding tavern-owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) mistakes Michael for a hitman known as Lyle from Dallas (damn those Texas license plates). Wayne wants his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), out of his hair forever. Before Michael’s picked up a buzz, he stumbles into a quagmire of serpentine deception and murder for hire.

Since he accepted the cash, Michael gives it a go, but changes his mind when he gets an eyeful of the raven-haired, fine-boned Suzanne – a flinty, ferocious femme fatale – and hears her side of the story, including a chapter in which she wants Michael to kill Wayne. “Being married does strange things to people,” she tells him.

Nic Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle remind us of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

Nic Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle remind us of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

Michael hits the road but comes to a screeching halt as he nearly drives over a body, who, it turns out, is Suzanne’s ex-lover. Then the real Lyle from Dallas (the inimitable Dennis Hopper) shows up. Lyle from Dallas don’t take kindly to another man messin’ with his hard-earned hit money. Natch.

It also turns out that Wayne works two jobs – tavern owner and, gulp, town sheriff. Actually make that three – pre-Red Rock, he and Suzanne robbed a bank in Illinois for about $2 million. Suzanne don’t take kindly to anybody messin’ with her haul from the robbery so, with Michael in tow, she sets out to stake her claim, then vamoose South of the Border. But, in the end, Michael isn’t quite the slave to cash that she is and when she finally heads out of town, it’s not quite in the style she’d been planning.

Dennis Hopper plays the "real" hitman from Texas.

Dennis Hopper plays the “real” hitman from Texas.

At 98 minutes, “Red Rock West” is a taut, sexy, funny story that lingers at the right spots and lurches forward just when you were getting cozy. The scene in the graveyard where the four principals dig up bills and duke it out, then plug and pierce the night away is stellar. As they go through bullets, blades, a sword and chains, Hopper snarls, Cage seethes, and Boyle shows prowess with a pistol. Fine performances, all around.

Director John Dahl, who co-wrote the script with his brother Rick, taps 1940s film noir roots with their exploration of shifting identities, appearance vs. reality and the range of motivations that drive people to create their own moral codes. Cage’s disillusioned dreamer recalls the laconic sadness of a young Robert Mitchum, though Cage’s part doesn’t quite allow him to plumb the depths of darkness. Boyle recalls the regal beauty of Gene Tierney and the cool intensity of Jane Greer.

The story is set in a dusty Wyoming town.

The story is set in a dusty Wyoming town.

Infused with humor, the script meditates on the role that luck plays in our lives. We see that Cage has borne Fortune’s smiles and blows. At one point, upon finding his gas tank near empty, he mutters, “F’ing story of my life.”

Natives of Billings, Montana, the Dahls set the film not in a claustrophobic or hostile big city but in sunny Western climes, which work well to highlight Cage’s isolation and desperation. Country singer and actor Dwight Yoakam plays a grimy a truck driver who gives Cage a lift and Yoakam’s mournful “Thousand Miles From Nowhere” is a fitting conclusion to the film’s score. (Dahl started his career directing shorts and music videos.)

After 1989’s “Kill Me Again” and “Red Rock,” John Dahl made “The Last Seduction” in 1994 as well as “Rounders” in 1998 and “You Kill Me” in 2007. He’s also worked on many high-profile TV shows like “Breaking Bad,” “True Blood” and “Dexter.” We hope he and Nic Cage can hook up again – a slick thriller, or a jet-black TV series, perhaps? We’re waiting impatiently.

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Enchanté: COLCOA film fest hits LA

coloca-logo5[1]The City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) Film Festival, a fixture in Los Angeles for 18 years, shows new and classic French films at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles. The fest runs April 21-28.

This year’s fest offers another prime schedule of French motion pictures. “We Love You, You Bastard” (or Salaud, on t’aime, to be French about it), the latest film by Claude Lelouch, is the opening night film.

Lelouch, a New Wave writer-director (auteur), won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with his 1966 “A Man and a Woman” (or Une Homme et un Femme). He conquered movie art-houses and has been active ever since. This new Lelouch movie stars two venerable French rock stars Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell in a story about sowing wild oats and dealing with the results.

What is showing to tempt noiristas? Well, 1960’s “Purple Noon,” one of the great film noirs, starring Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. This gripping thriller was directed by Rene Clement, based on a novel by the American expatriate crime writer Patricia Highsmith and dazzlingly shot by Henri Decae. It screens at 1:45 p.m., on Tuesday, April 22.

our-heroes[1]le-dernier-diamant[1]Then, there’s the highly popular Film Noir Series on Friday, April 25. Can’t wait! At 5:30 p.m. is the North American premiere of “Our Heroes Died Tonight” (Nos héros sont morts ce soir). Set in early-1960s Paris, this minimalist noir, written and directed by David Perrault, plunges into the seedy world of semi-professional wrestling where backroom dives smell of Gauloise and sweat, and the fights are all rigged.

At 7:30 p.m. Eric Barbier’s heist thriller “The Last Diamond,” makes its international premiere. Starring Bérénice Bejo and Yvan Attal, the film follows in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.” The carrot for the crooks is mighty pretty: the fabled Florentine, a 137-carat yellow diamond last seen in 1918, which has resurfaced and is up for sale in an exclusive Antwerp auction house.


venus-in-fur[1]The Larriere Brothers’ crime drama “Love is a Perfect Crime” plays at 10:30 p.m. Adapted from “Incidences by Philippe Dijan, whose other novels inspired the films “Betty Blue and “Unforgivable,” this chilly thriller revolves around a University of Lausanne student who goes missing. The top suspect? Her professor and lover, natch. “Love is a Perfect Crime” stars Mathieu Almaric, Karin Viard, Maiwenn and Sara Forrestier. This is the film’s West Coast premiere.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

There are two other enticing events on Friday. The massively influential but too mortal (and gone too soon) French auteur François Truffaut will be remembered at a 1:30 p.m. screening of his very personal 1977 tale of a femme-chaser “The Man Who Loved Women,” starring Charles Denner as the Man, and Brigitte Fossey, Nathalie Baye and the supremely piquant Leslie Caron as some of the Women. There will be a talk on Truffaut after the movie.

At 8:30 p.m., that brilliant and elusive Polish-American-French cineaste, Roman Polanski will be represented by his latest film “Venus in Fur,” based on the masochistic novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch and David Ives’ play from it. “Venus” stars Polanski’s muse-mate Emmanuelle Seigner as an extroverted actress who shows up after hours to read for a part.

la-belle-et-la-bete[1]the-murderer-lives[1]On Saturday, at 11 a.m., the one French film of this year’s glittering menu that you absolutely don’t want to miss: the 1946 fairytale treasure “Beauty and the Beast,” written and directed by Jean Cocteau. Josette Day stars as Belle and Jean Marais as Bete. The film was photographed (lustrously) by Henri Alekan, scored (hauntingly) by Georges Auric and technically advised by Rene Clement, who we suspect, had more to do with the film‘s impeccable, fantastic technique than just advice.

If fairytales aren’t your tray of gateaux, there’s a brutally real alternative: “Abuse of Weakness,” a fierce semi-autobiographical drama by auteur Catherine Breillat about her own fleecing by a famous conman. “Abuse” screens at 7:45 p.m.

“We Love You, You Bastard” rescreens at 1:15 p.m.

Sunday brings the closing session of the competition, but there are two more major French classics on Monday, April 28. At 2 p.m., you can see the great director Patrice Chereau’s 1994 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ breathless historical novel “Queen Margot” (La Reine Margot). Chereau’s film stars Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil.

And at 3:30 p.m. there’s another film noir, a black-and-white ‘40s classic: “The Murderer Lives at No. 21” by Henri-Georges Clouzot. French stage and screen actor Louis Jouvet stars as the relentless detective Wens.

The COLCOA screenings are at the Directors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046.

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The Film Noir File: Oscar-winning ‘Nights of Cabiria’ is stylish darkness from Fellini

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

Nights posterNights of Cabiria” (1957, Federico Fellini). 12 a.m. (9 p.m.); Friday, April 11.

Federico Fellini takes us into the sordid, sinful, falsely glamorous, sometimes oddly appealing and sometimes dangerous night world of Roman prostitution. He and his actress wife Giulietta Masina (the magical waif of “La Strada”) create one of their most memorable characters: the childlike, hard-luck whore, Cabiria – unlucky in love, but lucky in cinema. While the buoyant but put-upon Cabiria is batted back and forth among a succession of awful johns and lovers – a thief, a philandering movie star and a gentle-eyed suitor who may be a killer – she becomes a figure of almost Chaplinesque charm and resilience. Co-written by Pier Paolo Pasolini, costarring Francois Perier, and Amedeo Nazarri, with a wonderful, typically lilting score by Nino Rota. It’s one of Fellini’s masterpieces, and the Oscar winner as 1957’s best foreign language picture.

Is it noir? Well, at least partly. In fact, imagine the same story, shot the same way, in the same stylish black-and-white, but with English-speaking actors in an American city (say, Los Angeles or New York), and you’re thinking, more than likely, of another noir. Of course, the actual American remake, Bob Fosse’s colorful “Sweet Charity,” with Shirley MacLaine, is somewhat brighter and more sentimental, but it was a musical. If anyone was a maker of noir musicals, though, it was Fosse. And, if anyone was a poet of the dark sides of the city, it was Fellini. (In Italian, with subtitles.) [Read more...]

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Noirish sci-fi ‘Under the Skin’ is both artful and annoying

Under the Skin posterUnder the Skin/2013/Film4, BFI et al/108 min.

“Under the Skin,” a noirish sci-fi film by Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) is austere and visually striking, inscrutable and haunting. It’s also a meditation on what it’s like to be a woman in contemporary society. Or not.

The “woman” here is an alien in disguise, played by Scarlett Johansson, who has come to Earth to hunt men. After climbing into the pretty skin of an expired human, she dons a fluffy black wig and tarty clothes, and applies a bright pop of color to those famous pouty lips.

Her trap set, she drives a van through the streets of Glasgow and seduces her victims, leading them, zombielike, into pools of black gunk. Then the tables turn; she shows vulnerability and becomes the hunted.

Shot on a low-budget often with hidden cameras and using a mix of professionals (like Johansson) and non-actors, “Under the Skin” feels dually creepy – it tells a strange story and, reportedly, the everyday Scotsmen she picks up didn’t recognize the raven-haired, English-accented Johansson or know that a movie was being made.

Glazer artfully creates a mood of anxiety, dread and mystery – to that end, he puts dashes of Polanski, Hitchcock, Kubrick, DePalma, Scorsese, Cocteau and Buñuel into this cinematic stew. What’s not in the recipe is meat – we get virtually nothing in the way of back story, exposition or even a suggestion as to why any of this is happening (a question that is answered in the source novel by Michel Faber).

Though the spare dialogue adds to the tension, it also keeps us in the dark in terms of a traditional narrative. But perhaps that is Glazer’s point: since we are watching a story of an alien it’s fitting that it unfolds not in a common language but in ambiguous images.

Depending on your taste, “Under the Skin” will be exquisitely harrowing or peculiarly maddening.

“Under the Skin” opens April 4 in New York at the Regal Union Square 14 and AMC Empire 25 and in Los Angeles at the ArcLight Hollywood and AMC Century City 15. On April 4 and April 5, at the Regal in NYC, director Jonathan Glazer will do a Q&A after the 7:20 p.m. shows. The film will expand nationwide throughout April.

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New York’s Ziegfeld Theater celebrates film collaboration of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio

By Mike Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

Few actor-director collaborations have generated more cinematic excitement and sheer brilliance than the team of director Martin Scorsese and star actor Leonardo DiCaprio – two kings of neo-noir. In their five films together, they have left an indelible stamp on our movies and on our pop culture.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio around the time of "Shutter Island." Photo by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Staff

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio publicize the release of “Shutter Island.” Photo by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

DiCaprio was first recommended to Scorsese by the director‘s other long-term actor-collaborator Robert De Niro, who was impressed by Leonardo after playing his father in the 1993 family drama “This Boy’s Life.” DiCaprio and Scorsese joined up in 2002 for the explosive period gangster saga “Gangs of New York” and the rest is neo-noir history.

DiCaprio and Scorsese and their chemistry will be celebrated this Thursday and Friday (Feb. 13 and 14) in New York City at Bowtie Cinema’s storied Ziegfeld Theater, with a five-film retrospective.

The retrospective begins on Thursday with afternoon screenings of “The Aviator” (2004) with DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and their Oscar-winning all-star gangster drama “The Departed“ (2006).

The program also includes a live panel discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday with DiCaprio and two other key Scorsese collaborators on “The Wolf of Wall Street“: screenwriter Terence Winter and longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Their talk will be followed by a screening of “Wolf of Wall Street,” one of the most controversial of all 2013 American movies, and a multiple Oscar nominee. The discussion will be moderated by critic-filmmaker Kent Jones, a Scorsese collaborator as well.

On Friday, the retrospective continues with showings of the psychological thriller “Shutter Island” (2010) and “Gangs of New York” (2002).

DiCaprio is one actor who’s used his stardom well. And we can’t think of another director who has done more for film noir appreciation and history than Scorsese. The guy has been watching noirs since his Little Italy boyhood and making neo-noirs since 1973’s classic “Mean Streets” (and, arguably, since 1968’s “Who’s That Knocking at my Door”). He also shares his love for the genre with lectures, introductions for box sets and in his “Scorsese Screens” column for TCM’s Now Playing. All that and “Boardwalk Empire” too.

For showtimes and ticket information, visit www.bowtiecinemas.com. The Ziegfeld Theater is located at 141 W. 54th St. in Manhattan.

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Costa-Gavras hits a peak in true-crime thriller ‘Z’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

Z posterZ” (1969, Costa-Gavras). 3:45 p.m. (12:45 p.m.). Tuesday, Feb. 4.

In Greece, in the turbulent 1960s, under the tyrannical reign of “The Colonels,” an extremely popular leftist opposition leader (played by Yves Montand and based on the real-life politician Lambrakis) tries to speak at a political rally. But, before he even arrives, he is frustrated by the Greek police, by obstructionist “regulations” and by a vicious band of hecklers and armed thugs outside the hall. Finally, while crossing the street to the rally, Montand’s political leader is assaulted with a blow to the head that eventually kills him.

The police do nothing, though the killers are well known to them. These deliberately undiligent law enforcers and unresponsive government leaders (namely Pierre Dux) ignore the facts and leads, including one persistent witness (Charles Denner), whom the assassins try to run down in the street s most famous scene and image). But an incorruptible court investigator (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a crusading young journalist (Jacques Perrin) keep gathering facts and tracking down the guilty.

Greek-French director Constantin Costa-Gavras had had an early ’60s film noir hit with his first film, the cop thriller “The Sleeping Car Murders.” It’s a fast exhilarating murder mystery, based on the Sebastian Japrisot novel, with a cast that boasted many of the same actors as “Z“: Montand, Trintignant, Perrin, and Denner. In “Z,” working with screenwriter Jorge Semprun, Gavras goes further, digs deeper. He exposed a real-life murder and a plot that involved the Greek police, right-wing political parties and government leaders — all part of the oppressive Greek regime.

The film’s impact was enormous. The French-made “Z,” a huge international hit and the 1970 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Picture, is one of the most influential true-crime thrillers ever made. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Wednesday, Jan. 29

Manchurian Candidate poster8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer). With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury Reviewed in FNB on July 18, 2013.

12:15 a.m. (9:15 a.m.). “Pennies from Heaven” (1981, Herbert Ross). Adapted from writer Dennis Potter’s brilliant British TV mini-series, this Depression-era film noir musical was probably star Steve Martin’s finest hour. He plays a traveling salesman, who, together with the ravishing Bernadette Peters, sings and lip-synchs his way to an unplanned career as an outlaw lover on the run. One of the major unfairly neglected Hollywood musicals, and a marvelous neo-noir. Features a wonderful score of vintage period recordings (including the title song) and standout dancing from lanky Christopher Walken.

Thursday, Jan. 30

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “The Kennel Murder Case” (1933, Michael Curtiz). William Powell plays the snobbish Manhattan socialite/sleuth Philo Vance as he turns his detecting prowess to foul play at a Long Island dog show. Snappily acted by Powell and directed by Curtiz, and one of the best Golden Age detective series movies.

10:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m.): “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962, Robert Aldrich). With Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Victor Buono. Reviewed in FNB on July 28, 2012.

Sunday, Feb. 2

6 a.m. 3 a.m.: “The Letter” (1940, William Wyler). With Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson. Reviewed in FNB on Sept. 19, 2012.

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “12 Angry Men“ (1957, Sidney Lumet). With Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley and Jack Warden, Reviewed in FNB on June 13, 2013.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Lost Weekend” (1945, Billy Wilder). Ray Milland as Don Birnam, an alcoholic writer is left alone by his girlfriend (Jane Wyman) and his brother (Phillip Terry) for a long, lost weekend in New York City. In something close in mood to a German expressionist nightmare, Don will try to sell his soul for a bottle, to find the booze (and the shame) that he’s hidden, and to stumble from (drunken) ecstasy to (withdrawal) agony, from life to near-death, from one empty glass to another.

It’s a noir without crime, but with plenty of guilt and punishment. “The Lost Weekend” won the Best Picture Oscar; Wilder won Oscars for directing and co-writing, and Milland won Best Actor.

The film’s source was the best-selling novel by Charles Jackson, himself an alcoholic writer, and a man who knew whereof he spoke. (The actress playing the hat-check girl in the night club became Wilder’s wife, Audrey Wilder.)

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Spellbound” (1945, Alfred Hitchcock). With Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck and Leo G. Carroll. Reviewed in FNB on Jan. 9, 2013.

Monday, Feb. 3

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth and Zachary Scott. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 1, 2010.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955, Nicholas Ray). With James Dea, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper. Reviewed in FNB on April 13, 2013.

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Face in the Crowd reveals a beguiling portrait-maker

Crowd #9 (Sunset 5), 2013, by Alex Prager

Crowd #9 (Sunset 5), 2013, by Alex Prager

Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd at M+B Gallery in West Hollywood is well worth a visit; the FNB team attended the opening on Saturday night and snapped a few candids (below). The exhibition reveals an artist with an eye for sublime color and masterful compositions as well as a beguiling portrait-maker who deftly mixes kitsch and mystery with humor and poignancy.

Prager, 34, is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker who started shooting after seeing William Eggleston’s color images. A Los Angeles native, her work frequently draws on vintage Hollywood, retro advertising and neo-noir imagery. The new show features large-scale color photographs of elaborately staged crowd scenes that explore the psychological complexities of human interaction, specifically the dynamics of an individual within a mass of people.

“I’m fascinated by the experience of being involved in other people’s lives accidentally,” Prager said, noting that her work has been influenced by time spent in busy cities such as New York and London. “Crowds have always been an interest of mine. It may look like a sea of people, but there are so many interesting stories, all colliding silently.”

Prager directed hundreds of costumed actors on specially constructed sets, creating congested public spaces including an airport terminal, a city hall lobby, a beach and the Sunset 5 movie theater. The stories of the various characters within these crowds culminate in a new film, featuring actress Elizabeth Banks.

Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd will run at M+B through March 8.

AP crowd 1

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AP crowd 7

AP crowd 8

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AP crowd 10

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‘Laura’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ to screen at the Egyptian Theatre

Laura 1944 posterThe delightful, urbane and unapologetically posh film noir “Laura” (1944, Otto Preminger) screens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, part of the American Cinematheque.

“Laura” makes me nostalgic for a life I never led — the adventures of a 1940s career girl living in Manhattan: landing a job on Madison Avenue, buying suits and silk stockings for work, renting a place for $40/month, meeting handsome men, dinner and drinks at the Stork Club, weekend trips to the country.

Of course, “Laura” does have a few downsides — murder and mistaken identity, for starters. Seems that turning every head and being the toast of the town, as is the case with the charming and lovely Laura (Gene Tierney), may prove very dangerous. In a series of flashbacks, we learn the details of Laura’s life and it appears that in addition to having many admirers, she attracted an enemy or two as well. You can read the full review here.

Blue Velvet posterAnd Thursday night: Thomas Ethan Harris presents a seminar on deconstructing writer/director David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986). This detailed look inside Lynch’s masterpiece takes place in the Spielberg Theatre of the Egyptian.

In “Blue Velvet,” Lynch dazzles and disturbs us as he probes the evil beneath the surface of sunny small-town Americana. Twenty-eight years later, its trippy shimmer has not dimmed, reminding us of Lynch’s auteur power. You can read the full review here.

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Bleak but stylish ‘The Grifters’ lets Anjelica Huston sparkle

Grifters posterThe Grifters/1990/Miramax Films/119 min.

“I’m lucky,” actress Anjelica Huston once said. “The people who tell me they like my work tend to be the kind of people I might be friends with anyway. I have a really nice audience.”

She definitely had a really nice audience last month at the book-signing party at Bookmarc in West Hollywood for her new memoir, “A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York.”

The FNB team got off the sofa for this one and we had a lovely time. It made us think of our favorite Anjelica Huston roles and “The Grifters” from 1990 (Yikes! Was it really that long ago?) was at the top of the list. Director Stephen Frears’ bleak but very stylish neo-noir about a family that grifts together and sticks together is a far cry from all that holiday/togetherness stuff, which can sometimes be a tad saccharine for our tastes.

The cold and cut-throat mother here is Lilly Dillon as played by the incomparable Ms. Huston (daughter of John Huston, who directed the classic noirs “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Asphalt Jungle.”) Rail thin, hard as fake nails and damaged as her ash blonde locks, Lilly works for the mob by wedging bad bets at the racetrack.

Her estranged son Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a small-time con artist who says he can quit the grift any time he wants. Sure, Roy, whatever you say. Feeling a little guilty about never winning Mother of the Year and hoping she might help to set him straight, Lilly starts by paying Roy’s hospital bill after he’s in a dust-up that leaves him with internal hemorrhaging.

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening play the members of a sordid trio.[/

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening play the members of a sordid trio.

Roy’s not rushing back into her arms – at least not right away. He’s busy with his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). Myra used to be a “roper” for big-time money-bilking schemes, meaning she’d lure victims into parting with chunks of cash, falsely promising a big payoff down the line. But the roping biz has slow for Myra so she makes a living any way she can.

Meanwhile, while this strange version of a love triangle does its stuff, there’s another fly in the ointment: Lilly’s boss Bobo (Pat Hingle) who doesn’t write his staffers up – he prefers to inflict intense physical pain. When questioning Lilly after she slips up, he asks: “Do you want to stick to that story, or do you want to keep your teeth?” What a charming guy.

But charming is not what you’d associate with the mind behind “The Grifters” novel, on which the film is based. Writer Jim Thompson (1906-1977) was a troubled alcoholic who recorded his desolate vision of life on the pages of his pulpy but powerful novels. Thompson has been described as a dimestore Doestyevsky and as bringing Greek tragedy to the underclass.

“The Grifters” screenwriter Donald E. Westlake initially turned down the offer to write the script because he thought the novel was “too gloomy. … the characters all go to hell.” Director Frears (an English talent who directed Judi Dench in the terrifically funny and moving “Philomena” and directed Helen Mirren to an Oscar for 2006’s “The Queen”) talked Westlake into it, arguing that the crux of the story was not the son’s defeat, but the mother’s survival.

Lilly's long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

Lilly’s long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

Westlake accepted the challenge and wrote a sparkling, if sad and twisted, script. (“You really do like B movies,” Westlake told Frears, after hearing which scenes from the book Frears wanted in the movie. Well, the film’s producer Martin Scorsese is certainly a huge fan of B’s.)

Frears, who refers to the film as an “eccentric melodrama” said he was surprised at the film’s popularity, given its grim tone. The popularity surely stems from the fact that Frears still manages to entertain on some level and the leads all deliver searing performances. There are lots of funny one-liners, such as when Lilly addresses Roy’s doctor as they enter the hospital. She matter-of-factly informs him: “My son is going to be all right. If not, I’ll have you killed.”

Huston’s performance will make your skin crawl – Myra has long resigned herself to a lonely life that includes giving and taking violence as an inevitable part of the bargain. She’s tough, sometimes desperate, but also regal with the odd glimpse of warmth.

Bening lets her natural smarts show through, whether she’s coyly conning or clowning around in the nude. Frears says that while making the flick, he turned Bening on to the work of Gloria Grahame, gangster moll extraordinaire, and that Bening “went mad about her.” Bening brings Grahame gals into the ’90s in her own fresh, provocative way. Though Huston and Bening share only two scenes, their rivalry infuses the whole film.

The Grifters got four Oscar nods: Huston for best actress, Bening for best supporting actress, Frears for best director, and Westlake for adapted screenplay. (They lost to: Kathy Bates in “Misery,” Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost,” Kevin Costner for “Dances With Wolves,” and Michael Blake for “Dances With Wolves.”) Huston and Bening did, however, win honors from several critics’ groups.

Cusack, who previously had played mainly all-American types, relished the chance to play a perverse cheater, who’s not above hitting women. Look out for his Chicago chum: actor Jeremy Piven in the scene with the sailors on the train.

Set mostly in sunny Southern California, the film looks glossy and glaring, just like its heroines. The movie is not a period piece, but Frears plays with time elements – we see Art Deco buildings and a ’50s-era motel. The characters drive ’70s cars like big old Caddys. The Elmer Bernstein score also deftly draws from a number of musical styles.

Cusack wears ’80s suits and rips people off at a Bennigans. Myra and Lilly wear a mixture of ’40s eveningwear, shift dresses, skin-tight animal prints and mini-skirts. Lilly’s wardrobe has special significance: the color red tracks her slide into total wretchedness. Frears says her long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

You know, maybe motherhood just isn’t for every woman.

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