Thursday, February 24, 2011

Touch of Evil

Spoiler alert-o-meter: 53-year-old spoilers ahead.

Movies used to be designed, shot, and edited to be viewed on a movie screen. Today, movies seem to be made to be watched on decidedly smaller screens. Evidence of this is reflected in the faster cutting within scenes and the generally manic, disjointed nature of most Hollywood movies.

Have you ever gone to a movie with lots of action and fast cutting and stumbled out of the theater in a daze, thinking the movie made no sense? That’s because your eyes couldn’t adjust to each new shot before it was replaced by the next one. On a movie screen, your eye moves around the screen to discern the focus of each shot. On a TV screen, laptop monitor, or a miniature iPad/iPod screen you basically stare at one point in space and let a movie’s narrative shuffle on by without you having to scan around and get your grip on the action. In other words, the action comes to you – mainlined you could say – without you having to think much about it.

So, watching an old movie on the big screen comes as something of a revelation, a shock, no matter what movie you’re watching. To see an Orson Welles movie, it’s even more thrilling. Screened at the Capital Theater in Arlington (DVD projection, not a 35 mm print), Touch of Evil crackles with Welles' signature deep focus composition, wide angles, meaningfully cluttered shots (what the film students used to call mise-en-scène), and voices overlapping on a soundtrack often dubbed in post production.

It's a film noir fever dream. Probably the last movie to be considered noir as it came out in 1958 at the end of the era, it showcases the classic noir elements of vivid black and white cinematography, on-location photography, and cynical characters. In Touch of Evil we've got corrupt, racist border town cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) who has been dealing dirty all his life.

Touch of Evil chronicles Quinlan's downfall over the course of one day, as he attempts to bring down up-and-coming Mexican do-gooder cop Miguel (Mike to you) Vargas. Vargas is played by Charlton Heston with his signature Hest-rionics dialed down to about a four. Or maybe it just seems that way playing the straight man to Welles' Quinlan, a festering, bloated recovering alcoholic who seals his own fate when he falls off the wagon and implicates himself at the scene of a crime by leaving his cane behind.

Then there's Dennis Weaver as a motel clerk who...I can't explain it, but Heston's performance is nuanced and subtle compared to Weaver's. His character inspiration comes from one of those little dogs who pants and trots and whose eyes belie an internal terror. Mr. Weaver here invents the term manic. He overacts to such a degree that I wanted to extricate him from the movie and plunk him down into some Three Stooges flick.

Elsewhere there's Janet Leigh. Leigh plays Susan, Vargas' very blond wife. Vargas and Susan are newlyweds just trying leave for a honeymoon, but their reverie is interrupted by a double murder at the border crossing. While Vargas remains sidetracked investigating, Susan is kidnapped and brought out to the remote motel that employs Weaver’s clueless night man. Meanwhile, Vargas witnesses Quinlan frame a young Mexican man for the double murder and this sends him on a righteous crusade to bring Quinlan down.

Welles directs Touch of Evil like his life depended on it. He stages a virtuosic, uninterrupted opening crane shot that lasts about 3 and a half minutes ending in a car explosion (the double murder). He starts a scene with a close up of two shot glasses atop a bar, then follows them getting walked to a nearby table as the camera moves back to frame the rest of the bar. What other director would do this in one shot? None director.

Welles puts the camera on the hood of a car and lets Charlton Heston and Mort Mills (as an assistant DA) drive through a street no wider than an alley at high speeds instead of shooting a cheesy rear screen projection. A good noir doesn't just show you the dirt, it pushes your face in it. Touch of Evil is dusty and oily from tequila and hopped up on MaryJane and doesn't shy from seedy whore houses and garbage-filled canals.

Many familiar faces pepper the movie, including Zsa Zsa Gabor as a showgirl and Marlene Dietrich as a madame, who's worth seeing for some great dialogue ("He was some kind of a man... What does it matter what you say about people?"). Then some actors who worked often with Welles, including Joseph Cotton, Akim Tamiroff, and Ray Collins.

If you rent the DVD, ensure it's the most recent version, which has been restored to Welles' original specs after Universal took the film from him, recut it, and even reshot some of it with another director. This latest version was reconstructed based on Welles' notes. There's so much to like in this lost classic, that I won't give away any more details. Just rent it, and enjoy. And if you get a chance to watch it projected on a movie screen, so much the better.

Here's the famous opening crane shot:


Theater location: Capital Theater, Arlington, Sunday, February 20th, 3:15 matinee. Price $7.00. Viewed with Liz. Snacks--RJ's Raspberry Licorice Log.

Coming Attractions:


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Easy A vs. Machete!

Okay, I haven’t dragged my sorry butt to the movies in a couple weeks. And the last time I did, I made my poor wife write the review. But I have something special for you this week: dueling DVD reviews, where I attempt to connect two newish, disparate DVD releases in the same review. Can it be done? Read on to find out…

First up, Easy A. It’s a movie that wants to be a John Hughes movie so bad that it has its main character, Olive—a high school girl who discovers she can be popular just by pretending to be a slut—lament to the audience via a fourth wall-busting web cam, that she wishes her life were like a teen movie. In case all in the audience are twelve and have no context, director Will Gluck includes film clips from Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Say Anything. Then goes on to include various teen-movie references throughout his script.

Olive wants a musical sequence for no apparent reason, just like when Ferris danced on a parade float. The guy Olive likes recreates the Say Anything moment when John Cusack serenaded Ione Skye with a boom box in the rain. But Easy A doesn’t simply live to revere Hughes and the 80s; it feels very much like a movie made in 2010. When the rumor mill over Olive’s apparent slutty exploits churns to life, news spreads like digital smart bombs around school via text and tweet.

Emma Stone plays Olive as a precocious 30-year-old in a 17-year-old’s bod. She speed talks with a charm obviously inherited from her charming, funny parents (the effervescent Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) with such self-assured intelligence and humanity that the only people at her school who dare keep up are her English teacher (Thomas Haden Church, teaching the Scarlet Letter with élan) and the dude Olive’s liked since junior high. 

Olive plays up her new status as school slut, and brazenly stitches a red A onto her tops. She pretends to sleep with certain guys to help them achieve popular status at school (the harassed gay kid, the overweight outcast, the nerd) for which they give her gift cards. At first she likes the attention and thinks the joke is on everybody else. But her conceit gets out of control, especially when random guys expect the gift card treatment—but for real.

The movie’s weakness is that I had a hard believing: a) such a great disarming, cute girl had gone unnoticed until she became a notorious (if ersatz) slut and b) The preternaturally intelligent and knowing Olive doesn’t see the demise she eventually causes sooner. Regardless, take Easy A how it wants you to—as a giddy ride through the neo, post-Hughesian high school of 2010.

Which brings us to Machete. But wait. What’s the segue here? What’s the connection?

Lindsey Lohan. Five or six years ago she could have played Olive with the same obvious intelligence and nascent sexuality. Olive is similar to Cady, Lohan’s star-making role in Mean Girls, a movie which covered similar high school ground. Mean Girls was to Lohan as Easy A is to Stone. And as long as Stone keeps showing up for work with the same enthusiasm she shows not only throughout Easy A but in the reel of outtakes where she bubbles like an actress damn happy to be headlining a minor Hollywood feature, she’ll do great. Unlike poor Lohan, who anyone with a predilection for entertainment headlines knows, has bottomed out to such a degree that she may not rebound.

The evidence of Lohan’s fall is displayed in her small, superfluous role in Robert Rodriguez’ Machete. Co-directed by Ethan Maniquis, Machete is a comic-book giddy, violent love letter to 70’s crime exploitation (or grindhouse) movies like TNT Jackson, Foxy Brown, and Shaft. Lohan is mostly naked throughout her few scenes, until the end where she joins a climactic shootout dressed as a nun. Ha. She still recites her lines with game enthusiasm. But her presence in the movie is for titillation only. But then titillation is what Machete is all about.

Had the movie actually been made in the 70s, it would have played at a triple bill at a drive-in theater. It’s a stuffed enchilada of crazed machete and gun play grafted onto a pro-immigration message (or is that anti anti-immigration?). Danny Trejo, looking like ten miles of rough Georgia asphalt, plays Machete, an ex Mexican Federale who is still trying to get over the murder of his wife and child at the hands of a ruthless Mexican drug lord, Torrez (Steven Seagal!).

Robert DeNiro (with a slimy Southern accent) plays shady Texas border town politician, Senator John McLaughlin, who wants to build that Mexican border wall high and strong. When he’s not making speeches, he’s out at night cruising the Mexican/American border using illegals as target practice.

Machete’s been framed for the attempted assassination of the Senator by the Senator’s own right hand man, who is also a cohort of Torrez. Got that? Now everybody’s wants a piece of Machete:  the police, the drug lords, the Senator, Jessica Alba’s lovely, tough ICE agent Sartana Rivera, and Michelle Rodriguez’ Luz, the leader of an underground group fighting for the rights of immigrants, illegal and otherwise.

Like all Robert Rodriguez flicks, Machete is over-busy and over reaching, but it mainly works. And, if you can stomach the severed limbs, decapitations, innards used for rappelling, gratuitous nudity, silly dialogue, gun toting priests, and the reemergence of Steven Seagal, then you are the right audience for Machete.

Both Easy A and Machete are derivative of earlier movies, other genres. But the movies stand as welcome entertainment, refreshing in their cheeky homage to dozens of other movies while still managing some originality.

Watch the Easy A trailer:

Watch the Machete trailer:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Murderer's Daughters -- Out in Paperback

Taking a one-off break from the movie theme to announce that the paperback of Randy Susan-Meyer's page turner, The Murderer's Daughters, came out February 1st and was immediately chosen by Target as a Club Pick.

For those late to the party, The Murderer's Daughters concerns two young sisters who witness the murder of their mother at the hands of their father and how this trauma dogs them through their adult lives. If you haven't picked up her book yet, check out an excerpt, and then get thee to your local indie bookstore. The paperback includes a brief Q & A with Randy, and questions to ponder for book groups.

Randy is a full-time member (along with myself and ten other writers) of the group writer blog, Beyond the Margins. If you want to find out more about Randy and her experiences writing and publishing the book, check out an interview I did with her before her book was published in hardcover, then this follow-up after it was published. (Hey, it's not every day your writer friend gets published.) Can't wait for her next novel to hit the shelves!

Check out her book trailer:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Illusionist

Guest review by Liz Smith.

The Illusionist is an animated film concerning an aging magician trying to continue his line of work as the 1960’s start to blossom and leave him behind, a dusty relic of pre-television and rock band days.

The story is taken from an unproduced Jaques Tati script and the animators have modeled the magician, M. Tatischeff, rather straightforwardly on Tati himself, Tatischeff being Tati's original surname. Tati’s physicality was his signature in his own films when he played a character called M. Hulot in Mon Oncle, and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday among others. Tati was a tall man who gave his Hulot persona pants that were a touch too short and a strange, forward-tilting gait that lent a crazy momentum to his walk. He often seemed like he was trying to keep balance on a listing ship though he was standing on terra firma.

Tatischeff lists about, waiting in the wings of shabby music halls for more popular acts to end, stuffing his irascible rabbit back into its magic hat. When he is fired from his steady gig in France, he travels to a small island in Scotland where his act is well received. While there he is befriended by a young girl who is enchanted by the magician’s ability to materialize coins from thin air.

His gig done, he heads back to the mainland. On the ferry ride he finds the girl from the island has made herself his companion and he does not rebuff her. He secures a gig in a music hall in Edinburgh and they room in a shabby hotel full of other dated acts including 3 very energetic acrobats, a genteel ventriloquist and a depressed clown.

The illustrations that make up the backgrounds and interiors of the movie are stunning works of art, take-your-breath-away watercolors in motion.

Many standard cinematic methods are employed; a view of the city as if photographed from a crane, wide panning shots that sweep across landscapes and give you a sense of scale.

The people are rendered in the exaggerated style I loved in the director’s previous animated film, The Triplets of Belleville, moving caricatures, often ugly but never uninteresting.

From The Triplets of Belleville
While the movie feels so strongly its Tati origins, (the magician even briefly happens into a movie house showing a Tati movie at one point, a touching nod to the creator) I found the tone decidedly un-Tati-like. In Mr. Hulot’s Holiday Tati plays a clueless nice guy who inadvertently creates small havoc around him in a seaside resort. People who crave order are offended by him, free spirits and children are delighted by him. In Mon Oncle he is the favorite uncle of a small boy being brought up in an ultra modern, antiseptic house with all the latest electronic amenities but no warmth or comfort. Hulot is a welcome bit of chaos in his nephew’s ordered world. And at the same time, Tati is gently poking fun at the changing world around him.

In The Illusionist, the world is changing around Tatischeff, but this doesn’t present him with a chance to make mischief. It depresses him that no-one wants to see his act anymore, and the people who do show are not impressed. For this magician, the changing times force him to find work so he can continue to produce coins out of thin air for the little girl who is growing into a young woman who wants things like dresses and shoes.

There are moments of slapstick, many brought on by the aforementioned rabbit, and in one scene he attempts to wash a car, a job for which he is wholly unqualified, while he moonlights in a garage. But these scenes lack the humor, the joy, the childish mischief of a Tati film. The overall feeling is instead one of beautiful, poignant, melancholy.

I don’t think anyone in the packed theater was prepared for that. When the movie ended, an older gentleman behind us exclaimed “That was depressing! Makes me wanna go home and take poison!” While I was left with a less anguished response, I did need some time to compose myself before emerging into sunlight. And I’m glad we stayed to the end of the credits because there was a tiny little joke there which helped lighten our moods.