Wednesday, February 22, 2017
ACE IN THE HOLE he retreated from that darkness to somewhat safer projects. STALAG 17, SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH were based on acclaimed stage plays, all commercial properties to one degree or other. Whether or not it was by design, with his three 1957 releases it’s almost like he’s finding the way back to his own pure voice, gradually scaling things down from the epic CinemaScope sprawl of SPIRIT which was a prolonged, unhappy production to the big stars on location for LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON to the ultra-compact WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (based on the Agatha Christie stage play; adaptation by Larry Marcus, screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz), shot on soundstages in Hollywood featuring a mere handful of sets and starring big names who by all accounts got along famously with the director. There’s a confidence felt in each scene as if everything about it is automatically clicking together and just as the film’s lead character is rediscovering the passion for his own work, Wilder is doing the same. Based on some of the films he made over the following decade he may have even realized that he never wanted to leave the confines of a soundstage again unless forced to, that all he requires are these actors speaking his dialogue and going at each other full throttle. And it does this without sacrificing the basics of the Christie narrative; in an interview excerpted on the Blu-ray Wilder talks about how the author was brilliant when it came to plot but lousy with characters and if you read the original 15-page story it doesn’t feel like anything more than a rough sketch. Very little dialogue is kept from the stage version as well; at one point in the Christie script for the play Vole mentions a job selling egg beaters which in the hands of Wilder is turned into a contraption he’s invented out of a Lubitsch film, just one small example of how the film was intent on transforming everything in the story. Even the character of Miss Plimsoll played by Elsa Lanchester is a new invention to go along with this subplot and it’s like Wilder mostly treated the source material as an outline (“Nothing was in the play,” he told Cameron Crowe, not far off from the truth) keeping the basic essentials and using those pieces to make the film that allowed him to say what he needed to. A FOREIGN AFFAIR, another reference to one of his other films. The two films paired together would work beautifully as reflections of each other and which performance ultimately reveals who this person she’s playing is. THE APARTMENT. A few lower points came in the years that followed like IRMA LA DOUCE and THE FORTUNE COOKIE as well as others which vary in quality but they also spend a great deal of time in their principle locations, just like this one. It’s hard not to wish that Wilder could have loosened up by a certain point (AVANTI! and FEDORA do a little, not that it helped the receptions that those films got) but let’s stick with this film for now. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION plays so effortlessly that it’s probably been underrated over the years, looked at as just a stage adaptation that came between Marilyn Monroe vehicles. But mixed in with its incisive storytelling is a look at a cynical world, one where automatic innocence may be presumed while at the same time doubting the very concept of goodness. That’s part of why it works so well in the end—unlike the triumph of Lindbergh landing in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS the sliver of optimism found in human nature comes from just about the last place you’d expect. So maybe we have to accept the possibility that something like it can be found again in this world. I’m not sure I totally believe in that yet but I’m trying.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
W. speeches practically commenting directly on plot developments. Since it becomes the point more than anything it all overwhelms the narrative but since there really isn’t anyone to ‘care’ about it all becomes a little clinical, almost as if we were watching a film about a worldwide financial crisis set on another planet. Even some of the plot developments are basically reported to us, information learned offscreen then reported secondhand later on. On a purely cinematic level the whole thing becomes so skillful in how alienating it’s willing to be that I kind of admire how the approach all becomes more about the scummy vibe than anything. Even the sound mix is downright Lynchian at times making each rundown building seem alive with subterranean noises. The camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser (recently the DP of both LION and ROGUE ONE) is almost reptilian in the way it seems to follow behind the characters and at times it’s a little mesmerizing. The big robbery sequence is particularly impressive in how it drags that quiet tension out even with those stupid dishwashing gloves they have on, playing almost as a short film in itself with minimal dialogue and in that silence we can tell exactly what the card players are thinking as well as how Ray Liotta’s poor bastard Trattman knows they’re thinking he’s in on all this. It’s isolated moments like that which work best throughout, not necessarily connected to the larger narrative as if the film itself can’t ever bother to get interested in the actual story, knowing that some clarity to a few story beats would help but not bothering—how many scenes are even in the film? 25? 30? Even if Dominik decided that the fractured nature of the storytelling was more appropriate at least he shoots the hell out of some of those individual moments and in its own way there’s barely a wrong shot in the film, the camera always knowing who to fix on at any moment and how far away to stay from them, keeping scenes visually active by breaking them up into sections but too often the wordiness of the dialogue gets lost in it all as if Dominik was staging for the visuals instead of the dialogue. To be honest it was a help when I decided to turn on the subtitles to help follow along with the plot which clarified a few things but also made me wonder about holes that weren’t plugged in, making the film seem more like a collection of stylish scenes than a complete story.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
THE NICE GUYS, yes, and recently there was Jim Jarmusch’s PATERSON) and if other people don’t feel that way, well, they could always just see it again a few more times. As the eternal depression that was 2016 grinded forward something about what the film was saying, or at least said to me, began to feel more and more potent so once the Blu came out it became one of my default choices for what to put on late at night as I refused to fall asleep, waiting for those phone calls I knew wouldn’t come. At some point we’ll hopefully be looking back at this horrible period as the past, just as the unknown future this film’s characters are facing now is the present, more or less. That might be a good thing. Or maybe not. It’s complicated. You Must Remember This focusing on Mannix goes into details on some of the worst of it) so I’m not convinced that the character of the same name being played by Brolin hasn’t been involved in a few such things as well but as presented here even if he’s slapping someone around it’s all in the context of the greater good of the studio, all the better for it to provide that enlightenment and entertainment for the masses.
Saturday, December 31, 2016
THE LAST BOY SCOUT or, during our crazier moods, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT that nobody seemed to pick up on how it may turn out to be as close as we’ll ever come to getting a third J.J. Gittes film. At least sort of, plotwise anyway--that fabled never-made final chapter of the CHINATOWN saga was going to somehow involve air in Los Angeles, following the water and oil-related storylines of the earlier films, set at some point after the no-fault divorce law was put into effect. The issue of smog, courtesy of the all-powerful auto manufacturers, plays a role in THE NICE GUYS although matters related to divorce surprisingly don’t figure in very much, even though it does get a passing mention. Holland March even makes a reference in narration to “a guy in a local retirement park” who passes cases his way which could maybe, kinda plausibly, be a retired Gittes hopefully living a comfortable life somewhere off screen and free of his demons as he’ll ever be.