Sunday, March 6, 2011

What a Way To Go! (1964)

Packed, front-to-back, with old-school Hollywood glam, but ultimately hollow, this star-studded affair concerns a young heiress as she recalls, to a psychiatrist, the circumstances that led to the various deaths of her previous husbands. Shirley MacLaine plays the bereaved, but ditzy young woman, who we see progress from a young, naive farm girl to an endowed, but still innocent millionaire. In an early role, MacLaine is hilarious and adorable; while not conventionally attractive, she possesses a certain quirky earthiness that provides a sharp contrast with the traditionalism of her contemporaries (Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn). However, due to the episodic nature of the film, the energy of the film is maintained only through the caliber of male co-stars they managed to dig up for MacLaine: her ill-fated husbands include Dick Van Dyke, Dean Martin, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, and Gene Kelly. They are all exemplary, highlighting various aspects and methods of attaining wealth, from Newman's anarchic, Pollack-esque artist to Robert Mitchum's big business executive. Newman and Martin fare the best with their zany, cartooney characters, while Kelly's sub-interesting throughline leaves him with little more than his quick feet to work with.

Aside from a co-star, each sequence gets a specific interlude where, in a musical montage, we see how MacLaine's character has encapsulated these relationships in her mind. For example, Dick Van Dyke's clumsy schlub gets a goofy, black and white silent-film bit, while Mitchum's penthouse provides the stage for a fashion show for Edith Head's phenomenally larger-than-life costumes. Director J. Lee Thompson has the most fun in these scenes, which are far more ironic and meta than many of the sillier, but equally gaudy '60s Hollywood vanity pics. However, in the end, the episodic nature, and the unfortunate positioning of Kelly's sequence as the sendoff, keep the energy of the film from going full speed, and keeps it as, merely, a gorgeous, but hollow postcard to a lost era in big-budget, production design-heavy Hollywood filmmaking.

Slightly Recommended for fans of the cast or really absurdly lavish and busy Technicolor Hollywood musicals of the '50s and '60s. There are a couple of truly memorable set pieces and musical numbers here; too bad they are not wrapped around with something more thematically ambitious.

Blast of Silence (1961)

Simultaneously old-school noir and new wave, this stark, black-and-white pic revolves around a hitman who comes to New York for a job that, progressively, becomes more and more complicated. The opening shot sets the tone for the picture, showing a train going through the last stretch of a tunnel while the voice-over relays, as the narrator thinks of it, the experience of childbirth. We are further brought into the material when we realize that the narrator, although, ostensibly, the voice of the protaganist, is referring to the actions on-screen in the third person, as if the main character, Frank Bono, is watching the movie of his life along with us. This provides a sense of moral objectivity and ruthlessness to the proceedings that weren't common in this era of American noir. As Bono, Allen Baron (who also wrote and directed) cuts a distinct figure, even in the pantheon of cinematic hitmen; looking a cross between George C. Scott and Robert De Niro, he is the perrenial New York outcast, trying to be invisible, and thus, inherently distancing himself and rendering himself conspicuous. As his various plans and assumptions become skewed and complex, Baron treats us with an intimacy into his frame of mind and the sort of conscience-less thought structure that dictates his behavior; he is neither the tragic, hardened figure that Lee Marvin perfected, nor the simpering, scheming fool whom we watch dig his own grave, a la Peter Lorre. The film utilizes New York locations better than any film of this era (save for maybe Hitchcock's The Wrong Man); the accompanying DVD documentary, shot in color, which visits the same locations 40 years later, shows just how impressively and majestically the gorgeous black and white compositions were rendered.

Highly Recommended for fans of New Wave-era noir, such as Elevator to the Gallows or Le Samurai, or of seeing old New York in loving, evocative black and white. There are lots of films with vaguely similar subject matter, even from back then; this terse, yet surprisingly human entry is one of the better ones.

Burke & Hare (2010)

Clever, pitch-black English comedy about two Scottish peasants who begin selling fresh dead bodies on the black market in 1840's Edinburgh. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis play the titular duo, who, after failing to make it as street vendors and hustlers, discover an enterprise to be made out of the local university's desperation for fresh cadavers for the purposes of public autopsies. They begin by hunting down the near-dead and waiting out their demise, but soon, they find that, to meet demand, making cadavers out of live subjects (read: murder) would be a more business-savvy approach. The film is nasty; aside from the macabre subject matter, the Scottish setting is grimy, foggy, and dirty, even in the halls of the Scottish aristocracy. However, the performers, and, especially, director John Landis do much to keep the tone lively and energetic, infusing the project with a less contemporary, more fearless style of comedy that, I'm sure, contributed to the film's current floundering for U.S. distribution (as far as I've heard).

Pegg is his usual sympathetic, blustery self, while Serkis, in a rare live-action leading man role (he's best known for mo-cap work as Gollum in LOTR and King Kong in...King Kong), creates a distinct character out of what could've been a typical cynical, money-mad barker type; I hope his comic, and, surprisingly, romantic (a flirty scene with him and Jessica Hynes was my favorite moment in the picture) sensibilities help him attain more actual on-screen work. Hynes, Pegg's costar from Spaced, outshines her former cohort in terms of energy, timing, and panache, but in her particularly British fashion, which may not translate to further work on this side of the pond (a shame). As the dueling aristocratic doctors, Tom Wilkinson(!) and Tim Curry(!!!!) are wonderfully in tune with the material, playing it straight and reveling in the comic bleakness when the situation calls for either. Isla Fisher, while initially distracting, is a serviceable femme fatale of sorts, and does not grind the picture to a halt like a more sympathetic, less merciless approach would have done. Cameos by British talents permeate the picture, with names like Stephen Merchant, Bill Bailey, and Christopher Lee popping up for, sometimes, just a line or two, along with the various directors Landis called in for his traditional filmmaker walk-ons (Ray Harryhausen, Costa-Gravas, among others).

The wonderful cast aside, it is John Landis who steals the show from off-camera. After a decade(!!)-long absence from narrative film, he pulled a Frank Oz and went to England where, it seems, the creative control allowed to him, due to his undeniable track record, the ability to render the clever script into fully-formed and well-devised comic set-pieces, which, while being more obvious and showy than the more recent, Apatow-led style of comedy, rings as true as the finer moments in his classic films (John Landis classic film rollcall for the unitiated: Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos!, Coming to America). His style allows for both high-concept black comedy blunders and more restrained, human moments that never even border on schmaltz or corniness. While I am not hopeful for this film's stateside returns (the mix of jet-black comedy and the grimy Scottish setting will probably turn off most Americans), I am grateful that Landis was allowed even just one more chance to prove his last few pictures (Blues Brothers 2000, The Stupids, Beverly Hills Cop 3) were not the best he could do.

Recommended to fans of black or British comedy, John Landis, or the eclectic cast; for me, the dual joy of seeing John Landis and Tim Curry doing memorable big-screen work again would've been enough to warrant recommending the film, but the whole project is, while slightly less effective than Pegg's recent, more heartfelt Paul, an unabashed success.

P.S. WATCH THE CREDITS for a fairly genius, wordless epilogue.

Salt (2010)

Unconventionally plotted, fairly riveting spy-thriller about a female CIA agent who, after being incarcerated by foreign powers, is accused of being a double-agent. The most inspired element of the piece is the script by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Ultraviolet), which initially plays it straight as a contemporary action-espionage flick, but then begins to call doubts onto Evelyn Salt's true allegiance. Keeping the protagonist a mysterious and inscrutable element for the length of the film is a very brave move for a film of this size, and I applaud the filmmakers for going ahead with something this ambitious. Angelina Jolie, as Salt, is more than up to the task of straddling the fence between sympathetic and despicable, without ever losing her enigmatic, style-savvy touch, even in a plethora of varied wigs and disguises. She was born for this sort of role, and even without Matt Damon's open-faced boyishness or Clive Owen's brutish masculinity, she carves out a presence that could go toe-to-toe with any of the contemporary spy heroes (needless to say, Daniel Craig's blonde hair would turn white after dealing with Eve Salt).

However, through truncated editing and direction, the film feels somewhat incomplete. We always feel a scene or two behind Salt's motivations, yet you sense Jolie's kismit with the role, so the fault lies with the pacing. The script, with it's bevy of double crosses, scenery changes, and dialogue-free, yet thoroughly relevant characters, was probably dismissed as confusing, and the filmmakers took it upon themselves to retain the framework of Wimmer's script, while expediting his particular brand of information dispersal. The end result is a hodgepodge of set-pieces, but without the character details and nuance that would have made this a true classic. Not only does the relevance of the action itself take a hit, but the plot twists, particularly the final reveal of the villain, end up coming across as contrived and calculated rather than organic. That being said, director Philip Noyce does display a previously-unseen talent for kinetic action choreography and spectacle that is a disctinct deviation from his usual, 1970's-cultivated sensibilities (see: Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Saint); he does not go as far as Paul Greengrass, nor as restrained and meticulous as Wimmer, himself, creating an effective, distinct style of his own. It is just a shame that the film ends up feeling like all the creative energy went to the set-pieces, and not the storytelling itself. Cast-wise, no one has enough time to really register, other than Liev Schreiber, who, once again, after X-Men Origins: Wolverine, manages to cobble together a memorable character out of a series of plot necessities and contrivances.

Recommended for fans of more difficult spy movies, such as the Holcroft Covenant or the Parallax View (read: NOT BOURNE), or Angelina Jolie; so far, there are two films which I would say appropriately convey her action-heroine potential, and while she was only second-fiddle in Wanted, this show is all about her, and, somewhat surprisingly, she lives up.