Wednesday, September 28, 2016

the contrarian: "match me, sidney"

Alexander Mackendrick's atmospheric
"Sweet Smell of Success"of 1957 is one of those films that I like but not as much as I'm supposed to.

I mean, what's not to like? The '50s New York ambience (shot in black-&-white, natch, by James Wong Howe) is seductive, and the acting duet of Burt Lancaster as ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the weak, fawning publicist Sidney Falco should be enough to get me through the film.

So, again, what's not to like? Well, the plot. Which, for me, is - well - kinda silly. Everything hinges on the fact that J.J. doesn't want his spoiled kid sister, Susan (played by a mink-wrapped Susan Harrison, who looks young enough to be Lancaster's daughter and yet who looks nothing like him at all), to marry a musician with the great name Steve Dallas (a character played by the always surprising Martin Milner).

And this is what accounts for this so-called tough film's palpable angst.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

indelible moment: Jane Russell and the Olypmic Team in Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

There have been a lot of great numbers in movie musicals but few have become as controversial as Jane Russell's "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" from Howard Hawks' 1953 loose adaptation of the Joseph Fields-Anita Loos 1949 stage play, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Jule Style and Leo Robin wrote the show's music and lyrics but this is not one of their compositions. It was an addition to the film version and Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson wrote it.  The song itself isn't that memorable. It's the staging of it that makes it soar - athletic, acrobatic choreography by the inimitable Jack Cole, with an Olympic team of bathing suit-clad men twirling, flexing, kicking, wrestling, somersaulting, diving and doing splits and other gymnastic feats as Russell makes advances to them.

I've no idea what reaction, if any, the number stirred back in '53 but for the past couple decades, it's been viewed as a wildly homoerotic spectacle, largely because of the skimpy bathing suits worn by Cole's dance troupe.

Skimpy?  Not really.  It was the norm for men to wear such bathing suits (and even Speedos) in the 1950s and '60s.  I've taken to calling those suits The Steve McQueen because the late actor was frequently seen wearing one. (That's Steve, to your left, posing with his first wife Neile Adams in 1963 and wearing a typical '60s bathing suit, much like those in the film.)

It's only in the past decade or so that, for some reason, guys have started wearing what looks like Bermuda Shorts with a 9" inseam for swimming and even for playing professional basketball.  (The new basketball gear, which resembles a short skirt, looks nothing like what Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore in their heyday.) Anyway, it's easy to see why the suits worn in the "Blondes" number cause culture shock these days.

BTW, the bald actor (below) playing the coach at the beginning of "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" is no actor but choreographer Cole. The "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" number was modeled after The Gladiators, a dance suite that Cole did with Rod Alexander and George Martin.
Note in Passing: John Branch wrote an interesting piece in yesterday's The New York Times that posits the theory that one of the appeals of watching the Olympics this year was the opportunity to see more skin and form-fitting gear as the contestants did their thing.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

eurotrash, american-style

Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Broad Green Pictures ©

I come, belatedly, to Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups" and Angelina Jolie-Pitt's "By the Sea" largely because it was impossible to see either of them in a theater.  Both received rather minimal, perfunctory, almost invisible releases, with scant publicity, and both were quickly whisked away by their handlers when no one showed up. Hmmm, I wonder why.

Both films are rather embarrassing and take a lot of patience, but neither is without a certain solipsistic charm. I rather like both because each one seemed to challenge/ignore Big Studio dictums about what would sell and what would play.  I doubt that either one was shown to a preview audience of moviegoers ruined by CGI superhero flicks. Still, neither is very good.

Both are also rather difficult to decipher.

Malick's is typical of the disposable "art" that he has been churning out for decades.  His first - and best - film, "Badlands" (1973) remains an oddity because it comes with such clarity and with a conventional narrative.  His second film, on the other hand - "Days of Heaven" - was a still life committed to film featuring actors who were not required to act.  That film, released in 1978, has served as a template for his oeuvre ever since.

In "Knight of Cups," Christian Bale stumbles around a very appealing Los Angeles and neighboring places in a fog for two hours.  Again, there's no acting, per se, even though the film has a huge cast - Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Antonio Banderas, Imogen Poots, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jason Clarke, Nick Offerman, Kevin Corrigan, Ryan O'Neal, Clifton Collins Jr., Dane DeHann, Fabio (!), Joe Manganiello and, if you blink you'll miss her, Cherry Jones.

Odd. Actors want to be in a Malick film even if they do nothing.

A paid vacation, I guess.

I had no idea what was going on.  The dialogue is either mumbled or muted.  Then, it hit me.  "Knight of Cups" is Malick's variation on Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," with Bale playing the same cynical, disillusioned character as Marcello Mastroianni did in Fellini's 1960 art-house epic. The trouble is, this kind of storytelling plays better with subtitles.

Jolie-Pitt's "By the Sea" is also a foreign-film wannabe. In this case, she's aping Claude Lelouch.  One makes the connection almost immediately, thanks to Gabriel Yared's Gallic music score and shots of Joie-Pitt (who wrote, as well as directed the film) cruising around the south of France in a benumbed state with her husband, Brad Pitt, behind the wheel of a swank little roadster.  Très charmant!

Anyway, something is clearly wrong with this marriage.  There are vague references to a dead baby or child and, when both become obsessed with the newlyweds (forever having intercourse) in the hotel room next to theirs, I half expected the film to turn into "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966).  But Jolie-Pitt isn't playful enough to investigate that possiblity.

Instead, it turns into a rather bland domestic drama about a wife who thinks her husband drinks too much (and why wouldn't he?) while, self-deluded, she drinks just a much.  But I liked Jolie-Pitt's distracted, woozy performance here.  She's like a zombie here - not unlike Delphine Seyrig in  Harry Kümel's "Daughter of Darkness" (1971).

Both "Knight of Cups" and "By the Sea" are hugely amusing, albeit it's clear their makers didn't have that intention at all.

credit: Universal Pictures ©