Tension

tension 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Allen Rivkin

Story: John D. Klorer

Director: John Berry

Cinematographer: Harry Stradling

Music: Andre Previn

Cast: Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Barry Sullivan, Cyd Charisse

Release: November 25, 1949

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 70%

“Tension” has a bunch of great ideas but no idea how to properly execute them. And while there is one pretty darn good twist at the halfway point, the movie has almost none of the tension promised in the title. It also has, bar none, the worst police investigator I’ve seen in a movie of this type who isn’t explicitly evil.

tension 2Richard Basehart stars as Warren, a pushover pharmacist whose wife Claire (Audrey Totter) is just the worst. She’s cheating on him all the time, hates the house he wants to buy for her (which, to be fair, is pretty fugly), makes them sleep with that doll from “The Conjuring” and has a tendency to blast a car horn whenever he tries to have a conversation with her. After she leaves him for some guy named Barney (Lloyd Gough), whose main character trait seems to be his back hair (no judgment), Warren does what anyone in that situation would do – he creates an alternate identity named Paul Southern. After switching out his glasses for contacts to make him look completely different (false), “Paul” makes harassing phone calls to Barney, always leaving his name, moves into a coastal apartment where his neighbor looks a lot like Cyd Charisse (probably because she’s played by Cyd Charisse) then, one night, breaks into Barney’s house and threatens to kill him with a trident (!?).

At the last minute, Warren cannot do it… but the next day Claire shows up at their apartment with bad news: Barney was murdered! Yes, it’s the same twist as “Fallen Angel,” but it got me again. A really terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad cop named Collier (Barry Sullivan) begins his investigation. He overlooks major evidence, immediately begins an affair with Claire and in general is a super gross human being.

I’ve gone into more detail than I usually do about the plot because there are so many good ideas here. Creating an alternate identity. The twist of not killing someone you want dead… and then having them die anyway. The police officer investigating you for murder being seduced by the killer. And yet none of these ideas ever really coalesce into anything worthwhile. The screenplay by Allen Rivkin feels like a first draft that was rushed into production when it needed more time to cook.

Tension 3There are also a lot of super-weird story details that make little to no sense. The story is introduced by gross cop Collier, who says upfront that the case is over so there is no actual suspense that the killer will get away or that Warren is in any real danger. Collier also has this visual tick – in the prologue he stretches a rubber band more and more until it snaps to visually illustrate tension. It’s good in theory but silly in practice. Even sillier is that Collier keeps doing this throughout the film for no reason. He’ll just be sitting at a desk randomly stretching a rubber band until it almost breaks. Now, I’m sure that someone off in Idaho or whatever does this as a nervous tick, but it seems cuckoo for cocoa puffs for most human beings, and seeing it done repeatedly becomes funny very quickly. Other beats feel weird, like the aforementioned trident, the fact that no one checks for fingerprints once in the entire movie, and the idea that you’d lock an apartment door in order to plant a gun but not close the blinds even though there is someone right outside trying to stop you.

There are also some fundamental storytelling problems, and the coolness of the concept isn’t enough to make up for them. For example, despite eye witnesses and a photo, no one connects that Warren is Paul Southern until they literally blow the photo up to seven feet tall… because Warren is wearing contact lenses. Really? I mean… REALLY?! The screenplay never explicitly says that Claire was the killer until the end even though it couldn’t be more obvious – wouldn’t a more interesting second half be Warren trying to find evidence his wife killed Barney while Claire tries to indict Warren for her crimes? Most egregious is the disgusting Collier character, whose behavior ensures that Claire’s murder charges are going to get thrown out in court. First, as I wrote before, he’s fucking her. Second, he ignores major evidence because he – and the movie – doesn’t want to deal with things they set up. Third, he arrests Claire after lying to her that he changed out the furniture in an apartment (shades of “Crossfire’s” apartment swap), which means that the entire foundation of the arrest is faulty! Seriously, this guy is the worst – it’s almost as if they were writing him like a parody of a hardboiled detective.

The cast also does the movie no favors. Basehart misses a huge opportunity to shade his “Paul Southern” creation as a Mr. Hyde-style character. But instead “Paul” is just like Warren without glasses, who is just like a piece of wood with glasses. Noir MVP Totter is adrift here, making Claire one of the worst caricatures of a femme fatale I’ve seen on the Odyssey so far – it’s astonishing to me that this is the same actress who gave such beautiful, subtle performances in “The Set-Up” and “Lady in the Lake.” Sullivan is awful in the similarly awful roll of Collier, and the immensely talented Charisse merely takes up space onscreen.

I haven’t gotten to the direction or cinematography yet because neither is very distinguished. Director John Berry (“He Ran All the Way”) did not work well with the actors, and his collaboration with Cinematographer Harry Stradling (“Suspicion,” “A Streetcar Named Desire”) offers up not a single shot that resonates after the movie ends. Composer Andre Previn accidentally created the weird trombone siren music that is often found in noir parodies when a femme fatale enters the room by doing exactly that every time Claire enters a scene. Whoops!

“Tension” is a clusterfuck, not worth the 95 minutes you need to invest in it. The fascinating things about its premise (living dual lives to commit a crime, the midpoint twist) were done better elsewhere (“Vertigo,” “Fallen Angel”), and “borderline competence throughout” is about the nicest thing I can say about the rest of the production.

Score: **

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Notorious

notorious 1The Criterion Odyssey/The Film Noir Odyssey

Spine #137

Writer: Ben Hecht

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cinematographer: Ted Tetzlaff

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Leopoldine Konstantin

Country: USA

Release: September 6, 1946

Studio: RKO

Percent Noir: 70%

Awards: Rains was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

Hecht was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to “The Seventh Veil.” Also nominated was Raymond Chandler for “The Blue Dahlia.”

Hecht’s screenplay was chosen by the WGA as one of the 101 Best Screenplays ever written.

When I was in my early teens, I would go to the library every week and borrow 8-10 old black-and-white VHS films. I was obsessed – I would devour the Charlie Chan series, the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies… anything in the mystery genre was my favorite. And then, of course, there was Alfred Hitchcock… who I quickly deemed my “favorite director ever in the history of time.” That is an actual quote I recently found in one of my notebooks cataloging the movies I had watched back then. “Notorious” wasn’t that big of a deal for me at that age – I was too young to really understand its themes – I was more of a “Psycho” and “Strangers on a Train” kinda kid. One week I discovered on the library video shelves the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony for Hitchcock, and during the ceremony they singled out several people who went to the AFI Conservatory to learn filmmaking, and at that moment I decided that one day I would go there. And then I did.

In retrospect, it was a lifechanging moment in my life. Had I not loved Hitchcock so much, I would have never borrowed the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, never known about AFI, probably never applied and wouldn’t be here in Los Angeles today working as a screenwriter.

notorious 2Ingrid Bergman plays our hero, Alicia, who is the daughter of a Nazi spy who has just been sentenced to prison (and soon commits suicide) for her crimes. Alicia is a complicated person, liking her alcohol and assumed by most men to be a “loose” woman, whatever that even means anymore. She falls for a government agent named Devlin (Cary Grant), who enlists her to go to Rio to help continue rounding up Nazi spies. Devlin learns from his superiors that her assignment is to seduce a Nazi agent named Sebastian (Claude Rains), who had been (and still is) in love with her.

Alicia takes the job, and Devlin begins manipulating and mentally abusing her… incapable or purposely withholding admitting he loves her out of jealousy and anger. All the while, Alicia continues to put herself in riskier situations, first marrying Sebastian and then moving into his home, which is overseen by his mother, the Mrs. Danvers-esque Anna (Leopoldine Konstantin)… all to figure out what new plan is about to be launched by what remains of the Nazi party.

notorious 8When I revisited “Notorious” in college, it clicked with me in a way few other films could, and catapulted itself up to the top of not only my favorite Hitchcock films, but my favorite films of all time. “Rear Window” just edges it out as my personal favorite, but I think it’s fair to say that “Notorious” is the most perfect film Hitchcock ever directed.

It’s a shame, then, that “Notorious” has been overshadowed by “Vertigo” as Hitchcock’s “best” film – the latter being the one that tops all the critics’ lists, as well as the AFI and Sight & Sound rankings. I really enjoy “Vertigo” and consider it top-tier Hitchcock, but come on now! Aside from that opening chase, the first 20 minutes of “Vertigo” are a total drag, with bad exposition and a super clunky introduction of what we expect the main mystery will be. And the less said about James Stewart and Kim Novak’s chemistry, the better. “Notorious,” on the other hand, doesn’t have a bad scene. It also has the most complex central character of any Hitchcock film, a nearly flawless screenplay and cinematography that could make you weep.

notorious 6That said, I get why “Vertigo” keeps topping those lists. It’s flashier. The makeover of Novak as an icy blonde is something one can easily point to as the statement of Hitchcock’s obsessions. Plus, those colors! That camera trick! Bernard Herrmann’s score! San Francisco!

I’m not trying to turn this article into a dismissal of “Vertigo” (which, again, I like very much), but rewatching it this time, I could not help but notice the thematic connections between the two films. The most notable of these is that, in both, the male lead makes over the female lead, who then has to play two roles during the running time.

notorious 3There are a myriad of connections to other Hitchcock here, to the point where “Notorious” could function as a “Greatest Hits” album in the same way that “North By Northwest” later would. When Alicia moves into the grand house, it’s “Rebecca” all over again. We have poisoned tea instead of the (possible) poisoned milk in “Suspicion.” A husband trying to kill his wife, also from “Suspicion.” The much-lauded long pan from the entire ballroom down to the key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand was exploited by Hitchcock numerous times in his career, from “The Young and Innocent” to “Marnie.” I could keep going.

And yet screenwriter Ben Hecht manages to intertwine all the above seamlessly into his astonishing script. Screenwriters are often an unfortunate afterthought when discussing Hitchcock’s work… aside from his bitter relationship with Raymond Chandler on “Strangers on a Train” and his leaning on his wife Alma Reville for many screenplays, the writers often fade into the background. This is a damn shame, but expected since Hitchcock had such close working relationships with each of them that it’s easy to consider him the “author” of his movies, with the screenwriter an afterthought. One look at the special features on the Criterion disc supports this — you’ll see a distinct lack of coverage for Hecht (he’s there, certainly, but probably only 15 minutes of the hours of special features involve him).

notorious 4Hecht is one of the best screenwriters in the history of the medium. There are as many classic films with his name on it as there are ones without it that he ghostwrote. And of all of Hitchcock’s screenwriters, Hecht seemed most capable of streamlining the director’s obsessions, his insistence for set pieces and visual tricks while still allowing the film to feel like a singular “experience.” Looking at this list of other films he worked on for Hitchcock, whether credited or uncredited: “Strangers on a Train,” “Rope,” “The Paradine Case,” “Spellbound,” “Foreign Correspondent” and “Lifeboat.” Why are we not connecting him in the same way Charles Brackett is connected with Billy Wilder?

From the largest sequences all the way down to the tiniest of touches, Hecht’s screenplay is splendid. Using alcohol consumption at a party is perhaps the most ingenious, original method to build suspense in the history of the medium. But what I really want to focus on here is his character building, specifically that of Alicia.

notorious 5It was the 40s, and to say we weren’t getting a wealth of three-dimensional, complex female heroines would be a lie. This was the era of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, after all. But it’s thrilling all the same to see someone front and center who likes drinking, likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it. When we meet Alicia, she’s a live wire as she tries to numb her complex feelings about what has just happened to her father… a man she loved until she no longer could. Bergman is an excellent actress, perhaps the best who ever worked with Hitchcock, and of all the roles I’ve seen her in, this is my favorite. She was born to portray this character.

Critics have read into Alicia’s agreement to help the US Government as her acquiescence to Devlin because of her love for him, but I think that’s a misread. She loves her adopted country and understands sacrifice better than Devlin, which is why she wavers at first… but she was always going to do it. In almost every scene and sequence, Alicia is the one putting her life on the line, as well as surrendering her body to the cause. Her bravery is such that it inspires the cowardly Devlin to act heroically at the climax and save her.

notorious 7Alicia does all this, despite being judged and dismissed by every male American character in the film. Hitchcock was smart to cast the charismatic Grant as Devlin so that the audience would forgive how monstrous he is, but Hecht’s screenplay pulls no punches. When not acting like a coward, Devlin is a manipulative bastard. The screenplay to “Vertigo” allows us to sympathize with Scotty even as he does horrible things, but Hecht isn’t interested in that. He paints the American government just as coldly – their well-chosen adjectives used to describe Alicia are somehow even more dismissive than if they just called her a “slut.” Hitchcock frames them as a group often – purposely or inadvertently giving them the feel of a blunt object who should be the good guys but are really just judgmental dicks.

In a genius move, Hecht goes out of the way to portray Raines’ Sebastian as the more human of the two men in Alicia’s life. On the surface, he treats her with love and respect at all times, goes out of the way to make sure she’s comfortable, is never harsh with her (even when he catches her kissing Devlin) and doesn’t bring up her reputation once. All the animosity in the house comes from his mother. I’m telling you, if Sebastian wasn’t a Nazi, he’d be the perfect guy.

notorious 9The final 15 minutes of “Notorious” are among the best ever committed to film, for my money. I haven’t talked enough about how beautiful the movie is, thanks to cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (“My Man Godfrey”), but are these the most stunning images Hitchcock ever captured in his career? Maybe. Hecht’s screenplay perfectly pays off Devlin’s inability to admit to Alicia that he loves her, flips Anna’s contempt for Alicia by having her character help facilitate her escape, and reframes the always calm Sebastian as the wild card. It’s absolutely thrilling, and all done without a single gunshot or punch thrown.

“Notorious” is also one of those rare films that makes you think about what happens to the characters after “The End” is plastered on the screen. I hope Alicia got away from her toxic relationship with Devlin. I hope she realized her own power… and genuinely believe she’s strong enough to do it. It’s such an odd thing – loving a film’s ending but rooting for the main couple to separate after the credits roll. And yet that is the power of this movie… one I love truly, madly, deeply. It’s essential viewing if you have never had the opportunity to fall in love too.

Cover: A photorealistic painting by Greg Ruth depicting one of the key moments (pun intended), but the huge swath of black on the cover mixed with the small title do it no favors. Also, Bergman’s right hand looks… not good. I much prefer the cover to the Criterion DVD.

I award it two vintage 1934 bottles of wine out of five.

Essay: A wonderful essay by Angelica Jade Bastien which puts the spotlight on Alicia’s character and examines her through a feminist lens. One of the better Criterion essays I’ve read.

I award it five teacups out of five.

Extras: Wow. Criterion gives “Notorious” the royal treatment, with a wealth of extras, some new and others regurgitated from previous releases.

  • We get two commentary tracks, one by Rudy Behlmer and one by Marian Keane. Keane’s focuses more on style and metaphor and becomes grating after awhile. Behlmer’s, on the other hand, is aces all the way through, threading that needle of covering all the usual information with giving us some real insight into the process.
  • There’s a wonderful hourlong documentary called “Once Upon a Time… Notorious” with several scholars, buffs and filmmakers (gurl, you know Peter Bogdonavich is here). It also includes footage from the Hitchcock AFI Lifetime Achievement Award which I mentioned at the top of the article.
  • A half-hour interview with Donald Spoto, who wrote the awful Hitchcock biography “The Dark Side of Genius,” is less successful, with him basically yelling at the screen the entire time and offering no real insight that can’t be gleaned from the other extras on the disc.
  • David Bordwell offers a lovely deep dive into the final reel of the movie and how it encompasses everything great about who Hitchcock is as a director.
  • Cinematographer John Baily offers a surface level interview about the movie’s visuals, which is fun but not essential.
  • David Raim gives us a look at Hitchcock’s obsession with previsualization, and there are some great tidbits to be found here, though it’s a bit overlong.
  • Disposable newsreel footage of Bergman and Hitchcock.
  • The radio adaptation of “Notorious,” starring Bergman and Joseph Cotton in Grant’s role. A very interesting listen, as Cotton softens Devlin quite a bit, plus some hilarious back-and-forth about skiing during the interview at the end.
  • Fun trailers.

I award this five overcooked chickens out of five.

24 Frames

24 frames 1The Criterion Odyssey

Spine #956

Director/Writer: Abbas Kiarostami

Release: May 23, 2017

Country: Iran

Six years ago I was in my second year at AFI in our “World Approaches to Film” class and our instructor had chosen to screen a film generally considered a modern classic – it had appeared on several “Best Films of the Decade” lists. I was not enjoying myself, but I was having trouble articulating why. Finally, something clicked, and though the movie was not memorable, the night was. It was then that I came up with my own personal definition of what art means to me – something which causes an emotional reaction, whether positive or negative. As long as it conjured something from within me, I consider it successful as art. And the movie I was watching did nothing – it left me completely unmoved – so by that definition it failed as art. Your definition of what art is may be (and probably is) completely different than mine, and that’s fine… is there anything more intimate in this life than coming up with a definition for how you approach aspects of it?

Abbas Kiarostami’s “24 Frames” offers up 24 seemingly simple four-to-four-and-a-half-minute short snippets of life… the imagined moments before and after the frozen second captured in a photograph or, in one example, a painting. In his final film – if you can even call this a film – he is offering up moments in time that moved him, and then showing us how he personally interpreted them into a story, however simple it may be. Of course, even calling the shorts “stories” is debatable.

24 frames 9How one reacts to a photograph (or painting) is much different than how one reacts to a film because we find ourselves writing and impressing our own narrative onto what we are seeing. We stare at the photo, if it is a person, and think of the person’s life before and after the moment it was taken. Who they are. What are they like? And so on. If it is a landscape, we examine the little details in the corners – the bird’s nest, the crab in the sand – and create a narrative in our mind concerning them. Kiarostami takes those thoughts and literally illustrates it for us, but miraculously offers few answers in the process of expansion. More often than not, we are watching the small things in life we usually overlook, and in forcing us to stare at it for four minutes, Kiarostami dares us to react to it. To expand the narrative he has already expanded upon from the original photograph. Sure, he’s cheating a bit because (except for the painting) we never see what the original photo was which he is adapting, but the idea nonetheless remains valid.

24 frames 3

I watch these 24 shorts and, because I am a writer, I place stories within them. Is the short where a deer in a snowy wood who is felled by a hunter’s gun connected to the previous short? In that one, we hear a shot and then watch a herd of deer racing through a snowy wood. Early on we see cows marching along a beach, and later in a wood. Are they the same cows, forever marching? Am I overthinking things? Underthinking? It does not matter, I suppose – Kiarostami presents what he presents and allows us to interpret what we see however we choose. There are no answers, no matter how many times we watch – no matter how much we squint at the corners of the frame. You take out of “24 Frames” whatever you put into it and, as a result, its success or failure as an experience depends almost entirely on you. In one of the bonus features, Kiarostami’s son Ahmad calls the film “a meditation,” and that sounds about right. If you go in with the right mindset, you will find it transcendent. If not, you’ll be crawling up the walls by Frame 3. Some people will never be in the right mindset, and that’s fine.

Does “24 Frames” succeed as art, at least by the definition I mentioned earlier? Yes. Sure, I was sometimes bored (another bird in the snow?!), sometimes enraptured and, once or twice, genuinely moved by what I saw. Further, despite the simplicity of most of the shorts, when added together you pick up several of Kiarostami’s likes and, just as importantly, at least one theme that seem to underline his point-of-view as an artist from the beginning of his career to this, his final offering.

What are his likes? Well, he really loves snow. Lots of snow. So much fucking snow. And birds. Specifically crows. Oh, and deer. And cows.

In terms of theme, what struck me is that Kiarostami so often separates one animal from the others, sometimes physically but often in mentality. The deer that wanders towards the gunshot. The duck by the fence. The crow from the other birds. The cow lying on the beach. For a man who reached such heights creatively and garnered so much critical acclaim, he has never quite seemed comfortable with the awards and lauding… at least to me. He made many masterpieces of film, but felt he could truly express himself through his photography. He wrote poetry. Painted. Created art installations. Never at peace. Always reaching. Always trying. Always separated from the others around him.

24 frames 5But even as I write that, I wonder if I am reading too much into a simple repetition within the shorts? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Once more, there are no right or wrong answers. A friend mentioned that the duck separated from the others by the fence was a perfect metaphor for the moment Kiarostami was denied entrance into the United States after 9/11. That sounds nuts to me, but I suppose it’s as realistic as any of the other conjectures I’ve made so far.

Another theme that seems to recur within the shorts is sudden violence interrupting the stillness of idyllic life. There are, as mentioned above, several shots by hunters throughout the film, but also animals that savagely attack birds from out of frame. Cars that abruptly pull up to a curb where birds were resting. And so on.

Beyond those themes, if they are even themes, I cannot help but wonder what Kiarostami would want us to read into the shorts narratively. Then again, here is a man whose “Certified Copy” revised and rewrote its narrative during the film, so I know that the previous sentence is fundamentally silly. And yet…

24 frames 2I also have to wonder how much was altered from the original photographs in their expansion for the screen. The first frame – the painting “The Return of the Hunters” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (he’s so awesome he gets the name “The Elder” too!) – is something most everyone has at least seen once or twice, but that is also the one instance where Kiarostami slowly brings in the alterations. In every other instance, when exactly was the original photograph snapped over the course of the four-minute runtime? No idea. Again, we never gain access to his original photos during the film. In one of the “Making Of” featurettes on the disc, we see Kiarostami and his collaborator making gigantic alterations to one of the photos… what is even left from the original inspiration? And does this ultimately even matter?

The lack of realism within the individual shorts is also interesting. The digital alterations of the landscapes are usually obvious, as are many of the animations of the animals. For example, one short of birds on a fence seems more like classic Disney animation than a representation of nature. Weirdly, this often enhances the shorts – leaning into the expressionism that Kiarostami appears to be going for.

Though I enjoyed many, two of the shorts stood out as transcendent. Your mileage, however, may vary.24 frames 6The first unfolds, at least to me, as a mystery. We open on a beach at high tide, with a black-and-white shape lying center frame. Is it a beached creature? Something else? The waves crash against it. Is it dead? Then a line of cows pass by, adding to the weirdness of the moment, until finally the shape stands and walks off. It was another cow, somehow willing itself to nap in the sand as the waves hit it.

24 frames 4The second is the final thing we see in the film… in Kiarostami’s storied career. Someone sleeps at a desk while the final moment of “The Best Years of Our Lives” plays on a computer screen in front of him or her, a frame at a time. All the while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies” plays. The moment I realized, about a minute before it happened, that the movie was going to end when “The End” of “The Best Years of Our Lives” appeared on the computer screen caused every part of me to be covered in goosebumps. Contrast that with Webber’s amazing song, the best in a musical filled with great music but awful storytelling, whose thesis is just that: everything else may fall away, journeys may reach their ends, but love remains. Kiarostami’s story may have reached its end, but his impact as a storyteller, in film and beyond, remains.

His love for the creation of art never dies, nor does our love for the magic he conjured for us.

Cover: A simple cover by Sarah Habibi takes a still from one of the shorts and puts it front and center. It’s unmemorable, but somehow perfect.

I give it 4 deer in the snow out of 5.

Essay: Bilge Ebiri gives us a great mood-setter of an essay, trying to parse both what Kiarostami was thinking when creating the film and how we as an audience may react to it. It gets too descriptive of the individual shorts in its second half, but is still very good.

I award it 4 marching cows out of 5.

Extras: We get three short pieces, two of them interviews and the third a documentary. In the first, Ahmad Kiarostami talks about the movie and how he approached its completion. He’s surprisingly frank about how one may react to the movie, but his love for his father comes through in spades.

The second is a talk between critic Godfrey Cheshire and scholar Jamsheed Akrami. Cheshire does every bit of heavy lifting here, while Akrami doesn’t even get the name of the movie correct at the beginning.

Finally, a brief documentary by Salma Monshizadeh chronicling moments in the creation of the film. It’s interesting here to see Kiarostami at work, but the real draw here are the glimpses at the pieces that did not make the final cut (according to his son, Kiarostami made 30 shorts before they were cut to 24 for release).

Nothing mindblowing here – the film works better on its own than in conjunction with these extras, which don’t add much to the experience.

I give them 2 crows on a fence out of 5.

Emerald City

emerald city 1The Tarsem Odyssey

Ten Episode Season

Creators: Matthew Arnold and Joshua Friedman

Writers: Joshua Friedman, Matthew Arnold, Shaun Cassidy, Justin Doble, David Schulner, Nichole Beattie, Sheri Holman, Halley Gross, Naomi Hisako Iizuka, Leah Fong, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Tracy Bellomo, Josh Carlebach

Cast: Adria Arjona, Vincent D’Onofrio, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Ana Ularu, Mido Hamada, Gerran Howell, Jordan Loughran, Joely Richardson, Florence Kasumba, Stefanie Martini

Cinematography: Colin Watkinson

Music: Trevor Morris

Network: NBC

Release: January 6, 2017

In 2012, Tarsem directed “Mirror Mirror,” a perky, family-friendly retelling of “Snow White,” and the movie was ignored in favor of the dark, sexy retelling of the same fairy tale called “Snow White & the Huntsman” Five years later, Tarsem directed a ten-episode dark retelling of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” but the series was largely ignored by an audience who now were wanting more bright, fun adventure stories. Yes, Tarsem had just missed the zeitgeist once again, with more fun movies like “Wonder Woman,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2” reigning at the box office.

To be fair, that was not the only reason that “Emerald City” was mostly ignored upon release. Coming out at the height of “Game of Thrones’” popularity, the show’s world-building, epic cast and fantasy tone was seen as a rip-off of the HBO hit. It didn’t help that the series had an infamously difficult development – with multiple creators taking a crack at its creation before being replaced mid-stream. Shaun Cassidy, who created the excellent one-season wonder “Invasion,” ultimately served as the showrunner over most of the scripts. Regardless, critics smelled blood in the water. NBC, which was then defined by shows like “The Voice” and the “Chicago Fire” franchise, was not the right network for this ambitious epic – not knowing what to do with it, they dumped it as a midseason replacement late Friday nights.

Emerald City - Season 1

All this is a shame, because “Emerald City” is a wonder to behold.

It’s imperfect, frustrating, even infuriating at times… but it’s also unlike anything I’ve ever seen before on television. When it’s good – and it often is – it’s marvelous. If you haven’t seen it, and I assume you have not, you really should make time for its ten-episode first and only season.

The story involves a Latinx woman who is dropped into a magical dreamscape where she must face off against the land’s villainous monster, played by Vincent D’Onofrio…

Holy shit, guys, “Emerald City” is Tarsem remaking “The Cell”!

Okay, not quite, but it does feel like a major course correction for the director, getting him back in touch with the things that made him a distinctive voice to begin with. This is heartening after the awful, abortive “Self/less.” Here Tarsem reunited with Colin Watkinson, who previously lensed his “The Fall” and “Immortals.” Also back from “Immortals” is composer Trevor Morris, and I’ve already mentioned him casting D’Onofrio again. More than that, it’s him getting back to the themes that were featured in his best movies – ones like creating your own story, broken men angling for power and more.

Emerald City - Season 1

The series very vaguely follows the Baum narrative. Dorothy (Adria Arjona) is now an adult nurse plucked from Kansas in the direct aftermath of a mysterious, violent crime and dropped into Oz. Instead of Munchkins, we get a tribe of natives who begin torturing her. The Yellow Brick Road is yellow because it’s lined with opium. The major witches are not known as wicked anymore, just by their directional designation. West (Ana Ularu) is an opium addict who owns a brothel. Glinda (Joely Richardson) owns a nunnery up North. The Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a sexy stranger found crucified and covered in tar & straw. He doesn’t remember who he is, but sure is good at murdering people. Characters from subsequent Oz books also figure prominently here, most notably Tip (Jordan Loughran), who is secretly Queen Ozma, but has been magically turned into a boy for over a decade by her captor Mombi. Langwidere (Stefanie Martini) hides her face from everyone under a series of elaborate masks (Tarsem’s specialty) as she plots against the Wizard.

emerald city 5Speaking of the Wizard (D’Onofrio), he is the most fascinating of villains here. Dropped into Oz from our world, his real name is Frank Morgan (yes, the name of the actor who played the Wizard in the iconic 1939 MGM musical). Using fear and intimidation, he has removed magic from the society and suppressed each of the powerful women who helped to run Oz before his arrival. He is not an extraordinary individual, and everyone is constantly plotting against him, but he has a real gift at manipulating any situation to his favor, so the cockroach keeps surviving. D’Onofrio has a field day playing the pathetic bastard, and is perfectly cast.

The rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag, partly because some of the casting choices were weak and partly because some of the characters are caught in wheel-spinning storylines that ultimately lead somewhere, but not for eight episodes. The Dorothy character is an unfortunate cipher, saddled with being wide-eyed at everything around her and a bland “find my mommy!” storyline while wandering around for most of the season. Without much to toy with, Arjona decides to play the role with “token pluck,” which is whatever.

Much better served are Ularu as West and Loughran as Tip. Ularu all but takes over as heroine of the series as it progresses, with a three-dimensional character fueling a tremendous performance. Loughran also does quite well with the season-long arc of feeling like a boy trapped in the body of a woman (or is it the inverse?), and when the two finally team up around the two-third mark, their scenes all but explode with chemistry.

Over on the other end of the spectrum is poor, poor Gerran Howell as Jack, the series’ Tin Man, who is just the worst. I have no idea if Howell is a good actor or not – the series only gives him the opportunity to either be angry or mopey – but I do know that Jack sucks the life out of any scenes or storylines he is in. The twist on the Tin Man is good in theory… after Tip pushes him off a ledge, he is brought back to life as a makeshift Terminator… but nothing he does is interesting. He always makes idiotic choices, and when he accidentally shoots his love interest in the head (yes, you read that right) during the penultimate episode, I began laughing at the character’s ineptitude.

Emerald City - Season 1Part of the problem stems from the writers pairing the characters off and, in most cases, half of the pair is a drag. The Scarecrow character, Lucas, is one of the better variations on the brooding, little-talking hero, and Jackson-Cohen (who now plays the world’s most muscular heroin addict on the wonderful “The Haunting of Hill House”) is an engaging presence. But for most of the season Lucas is saddled with the bland Dorothy. Before meeting up with Tip, West spends many scenes with the boringly evil Glinda. Tip is first with Jack (blahhh) before Jack pairs up with Langwidere, and he single-handedly sinks that character into a raving maniac within two episodes.

Reasons like this are why “Emerald City” isn’t the blockbuster success it could have been, but there are so many storytelling choices here which are just right. I love the throughline of guns and how it pays off in the finale. And there’s something so amazing about ending Lucas’ romance with Dorothy in a dark, violent, fucked-up place instead of the expected happy ending. After regaining his memory, Lucas is sent by Glinda to murder Dorothy in cold blood. He doesn’t succeed (thanks, police dog Toto!), and the full-circle imagery of the lovers’ final moments together made me weep. Dorothy strings Lucas up on a wooden cross, just like the crucifixion where she found him, and walks away, telling him sadly “It’s like I was never even here.”

emerald city 8All that said, the major reason you’ll never forget “Emerald City” once you watch it is Tarsem. Shot in three countries at hundreds of locations, the series looks astonishing. There’s no other word for it. The way he inverts and twists expected “Wizard of Oz” imagery is genius. There are moments and sights here that I will never forget. I feel like what I just wrote may come off as empty hype, but it’s not. There has never been another television show that looked like this one, and unless he directs another, I doubt there ever will be.

Not only did he shoot all over Europe, but I learned from the Making-Of Documentary on the DVD that he actually had roads built into mountainous areas of Spain to shoot areas that had never been captured on film before. And it was worth it – the landscapes are breathtaking. But not just the mountains… there are miles of abandoned beaches. A river with a low, narrow bridge navigating its way over the water. The cities feature buildings with the distinct work of Antoni Gaudi. Like “The Fall,” you walk away from “Emerald City” feeling like you’ve seen something transformative… locations you’ll never forget.

emerald city 7It’s also so refreshing to see so much of this fantastical world rendered practically (again, shades of “The Fall” there). The team of visual effects technicians have gone out of their way to enhance existing worlds with their 1s and 0s, not conjure them from scratch. Sure, there are exceptions – a neighboring Steampunk world is very much a CG creation, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. It’s worth mentioning that the CGI is beautifully placed into the worlds – those giant Goliath creatures that tower hundreds of feet over Oz and other locations look as good as anything currently in cinemas. A sequence of three women committing magical suicide by hanging themselves from the creatures is a perfect matching of the CGI creation and the practical effect of the stuntwomen falling… and there are numerous examples of that in nearly every episode.

My favorite visual in the entire series was saved for the finale, though, when millions of locusts descend on the army of Oz like a gigantic wave. Using magic, Dorothy freezes the creatures and creates a cylindrical haven for herself – an eye in the middle of the hurricane, where she has a conversation with Glinda… the frozen insects surrounding them, their wings moving ever-so-slightly. I have never seen anything like that in film and doubt I will again, and it took my breath away. The entire series is worth the investment for that one moment – that’s how awesome it is.

Even the most dismissive reviews (and there were plenty of them) lavished praise on Tarsem’s visuals, and his work throughout the entire series matches his best work in “The Fall.” He made the decision to direct all ten episodes – something more common now (“Better Things,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “True Detective”) but groundbreaking two years ago – and you can feel his fingerprints everywhere.

emerald city 3The only visual aspect I could have asked for more was the costumes. It’s tragic that Tarsem’s muse Eiko Ishioka did not live to provide work for this series – I can only dream how amazing they could have been. Ishioka’s replacement, Trisha Bigger, is no slouch… she designed the costumes for the “Star Wars” prequels after all… and does provide a few great gowns. My favorite is East’s costume, with brilliant reds and trains that flow yards and yards behind her. But for the most part, that’s what they are – gowns. Despite the beauty and intricacies, they are clothes, not works of art.

The series ends on a bunch of cliffhangers, but none so drastic that you’ll scream to the heavens and hate that you invested your time… the first season tells the entire story of the Wizard’s reign and undoing. Though it at first seems anticlimactic, it is ultimately fitting that he’s shot to death unexpectedly by a minor secondary character… the bastard didn’t deserve better.

Though “Emerald City” was barely seen when it came out (ratings never hit five million viewers and were more often closer to two million), it has aged much better than many other, more critically lauded series from the beginning of our current Golden Age of Television. I’m not even sure what is even defined as a cult hit anymore in our era of streaming, where everything but the biggest hits are considered niche, but “Emerald City” deserves being rediscovered in the same way “Firefly” or “Pushing Daisies” was after their initial airings. I imagine people happening upon it while browsing streaming sites, being blown away and wondering how the hell they missed it when it first came out.

“Emerald City” serves as a creative reset for Tarsem’s career and shows that the guy still has the capability of providing amazing work. He hasn’t directed anything since the show ended in early 2017, and I have no idea what (if anything) he is currently developing. Despite a few low points, I have enjoyed this Odyssey exploring his film and television work, and ending it now is bittersweet, because “Emerald City” has left me hungry for more. Maybe his next project will finally hit the zeitgeist at the right time and he’ll get the respect and recognition he deserves.

One can hope.

Premiere Of Relativity Media's "Immortals" Presented In RealD 3D - Arrivals

 

Odd Man Out

odd man out 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: R.C. Sherriff

Based on the book by F.L. Green

Director: Carol Reed

Cinematographer: Robert Krasker

Music: William Alwyn

Cast: James Mason, Robert Newton, Kathleen Ryan

Release: February 1, 1947

Studio: RKO

Awards: Was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film Editing, but lost to noir “Body and Soul”

Percent Noir: 80%

I am normally allergic to films like “Odd Man Out.” Its main character, Johnny, is incapacitated for nearly the entire running time, to the point where he is basically a slab of meat, stumbling from one situation to the next with no active role in his fate. It’s the definition of a passive protagonist.

And yet, for that seemingly fatal surface error, I actually like the film quite a bit. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff (“The Invisible Man”) and director Carol Reed (“The Third Man”) aren’t interested in Johnny, you see – they are interested in how the various citizens within this city in Northern Ireland react to Johnny. It’s a bold move, and one that pays off well for the filmmakers.

odd man out 2Johnny is the head of the city’s IRA and has been in hiding for over six months after breaking out of prison. He and three other men plot a heist together, but Johnny isn’t mentally fit for the job – when he’s outside for the first time, things get blurry for him. The heist goes full tilt, with Johnny killing a man after getting shot in the shoulder. He falls from the getaway vehicle and begins a very long night of wandering around the city, trying to find safety and medical care while avoiding the police. The movie is almost two hours, so it obviously does not go well.

Johnny’s character doesn’t have much to him, and I have to think that it’s purposeful on the part of the filmmakers. Early sections of the movie, before he is injured, will go out of their way to enhance and define the other characters in the room with Johnny to his expense, particularly Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), who is mildly obsessed with him. Then again, it is James Mason, so can you blame her? Johnny’s most interesting character moment comes early, when Kathleen asks him if he thinks he’ll ever escape his life, and he brushes it aside – you can tell that he’s never thought that far ahead and has no interest in a life apart from the IRA.

Mason has done much more with much less, and is as engaging as one could possibly be while still being the human equivalent of a bean bag for most of the running time. But he’s just the name on the poster. The movie is much more interested in those he wanders into.

Several of these sequences are just about perfect. When Johnny hides out in a falling-apart shelter, a super horny teenage boy brings his girl there to have sex, but she hesitates, finally shutting the situation down with a firm “Besides, I have a stye.” A more brilliant line of dialogue has never been written. When Johnny collapses on the street, two women think he was hit by a bus and take him to their place to fix him up, and then begin spiraling upon realizing it’s a gunshot wound. Later, a bar owner simply locks Johnny into a booth because he doesn’t want to deal with this shit tonight. All the while, Johnny keeps bleeding and bleeding…

odd man out 3Each of these characters, who are online onscreen for ten minutes or less, becomes three dimensional almost immediately thanks to sharply drawn dialogue by Sherriff and spot-on casting and direction by Reed. It takes a few minutes for the viewer to key into the tonal shift in the film, away from Johnny and onto those surrounding him, but once it all clicks, the treasures that await are myriad.

Of course, not every character is a grand slam. It’s annoying that the two most annoying get the most screen time. I’m talking here about Shell (F.C. McCormick), who is obsessed with birds and has a four hour speech/metaphor (it may be less, I didn’t count) about how Johnny is a bird with an injured wing. And then there’s Lukey (Robert Newton), an annoying painter (!) who wants the bleeding out Johnny to pose for him (!!) because he wants to capture the death in his eyes (!!!). Yikes.

Luckily, as these characters begin to annoy, you can easily become distracted by how pretty everything is onscreen. The further the story descends into night and a snowstorm, the more gorgeous Reed and his cinematographer Robert Krasker (“Brief Encounter”) make the world. Several scene compositions seem pulled directly from their most famous pairing in “The Third Man,” and though those images may be more iconic because the movie is superior, I actually think “Odd Man Out” may be the better-looking of the two.

There’s a distinct contrast to their visual palate. The first are the beautiful, warm interiors of homes, bars and places where you just know things are going to go downhill fast. This is accented with the snowstorm outside, which only once or twice gets so dense it seems like a danger. In general, it appears to be out of a completely different movie – a romance, perhaps? An Irish version of “Swing Time”? The second are the more grunge-y, dire-looking spots, where Krasker and Reed go full-on film noir with their lighting. These locations, ironically, are where Johnny is safest longest. The broken shelter. The cab he jumps into before the rain turns to snow.

“Odd Man Out” is an odd duck of a noir, usually engaging and better drawn than most of its counterparts… in every regard but its hero. The fact that I don’t mind that at all is a credit to the mastery of acting, writing and direction throughout – the result is a flawed film that lingers on with the viewer more than many other, more structurally “perfect” films noir.

Score: ****

Cabaret

Cabaret 1Year: 1972
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 63
Writer: Jay Allen
Director: Bob Fosse
Star: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey

The interesting thing about a cabaret is that just about everyone there would rather be elsewhere. The performers often consider cabarets either a step toward true stardom or one last desperate breath before the end of a career. Patrons looking for booze would get a less watered-down selection at a bar, those looking for a great show would rather be at the theatre and those looking for sex would be better served at a whorehouse. This holds true for almost all of the characters in “Cabaret,” who consider the title place an afterthought. Only the Master of Ceremonies remains fully devoted, providing endless energy and humor even as everything around him crumbles.

Unless you are considering the summer stock-type MGM films, the very best representations of the musical genre are the ones that tell a story first and foremost, and “Cabaret” is just about as extreme an example of this as you can find. I don’t even know if I would call it a musical, despite having eight major numbers. Bob Fosse seems determined to take viewers’ expectations and tear us away from them before throwing us into an uncertain, emotional wreck.

Cabaret 2As the film begins, it certainly seems to follow the classic musical structure, with the firecracker Cabaret singer Sally (Liza Minnelli) positive that she is destined for bigger and better things. We are in Germany just before the Nazis rose to power, and meet Englishman Brian (Michael York), who takes up residence in the same building as Sally. They form a quick friendship and we are certain they are meant for one another, but then reality begins to get in the way.

The signs are subtle at first, with a Nazi or two wandering around the streets handing out propaganda, but then the main characters begin to reveal layers we don’t expect. Brian thinks he might be gay but still beds Sally. Sally begins a friendship with a rich, well-to-do man, but is he interested more in Sally or Brian? By the end, anti-Semitism (of course) is touched upon, but so is abuse and abortion. Early in the film Fosse stages a scene that works wonderfully as a metaphor for everything about the film: Sally and Brian, hidden behind a building, howl orgasmically, but are drowned out by the passing train above.

Fosse handles all of these subjects with refreshing frankness, but still keeps it subtle enough to never become exploitative. The only time he stumbles is with the rise of the Nazi party. In the final half of the film Nazis just begin showing up everywhere, paralleling the slow deterioration of the main characters’ seeming innocence, which is good in theory but superfluous in execution. The worst example of this is a Nazi sing-along Fosse stages around the mid-point of the film, where a lone Nazi boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is soon joined by an entire village of Germans—including a milkmaid. Fosse would have been better served just stepping out of the screen and nailing a note with his point on it to my forehead.

Minnelli creates one of the most fascinating heroines I’ve ever seen here. She is, of course, hugely talented as a singer/dancer, but I wonder if any other actress, modern or classic, could have pulled off what she did. We immediately fall in love with Sally—she of the innocent, playful smile and fantastic lines (look at the way she delivers this zinger: “He is absolutely my oldest friend! In Germany.”) and schoolchild jealousy of Brian giving English lessons to a beautiful Jewish woman. And then, slowly, her character becomes darker and more complicated. The first moment we realize Sally is capable of making horrible decisions, Fosse suddenly isolates us from her, giving us a smash-cut to peering at Minnelli through a window of the building she is in. And it only goes downhill from there. There are moments we laugh with her and love her as much we did when she took Brian underneath that elevated train, but they become fleeting and far between. But still, by her final appearance, after she has made a decision that is at best questionable and, at worst, unforgivable, we still love her. But we don’t like her all that much.

I’m deep inside this article and haven’t yet mentioned any of the musical numbers, which is a testament to the strength of the underlying narrative. There are several all-time classics, my favorites being the title song and “Maybe This Time.” So much has been written about how Fosse went to great lengths to only have the characters sing on stage that there’s no point in rehashing it here. Of course the numbers are wonderful, from the intricately choreographed early songs with Sally to the anarchic nature of later numbers starring Joel Grey’s M.C.

Cabaret 3Grey is maniacally effective, flaunting his one-dimensionality with glee. His character is a fascinating counterpart to Sally. With the M.C. you see only surface and, though you have the feeling there is much hidden emotion underneath (I’m thinking of his staging in later numbers where he begins sending up Nazis), but we never see it. He never cracks, even for an instant. Even in that final shot, where he dashes offstage and we see warped reflections of all the Nazis in the audience, his smile never fades.

Though Fosse and writer Jay Allen do a fantastic job of opening Pandora’s Box, they do less of a good job at closing it. I’m certain that part of their intention was to show that life was always messy, often pointless and never really over, and I applaud them for that, but part of me also thinks that perhaps they left things a bit too messy. We know Brian is returning to England, but aren’t given any insight to how he or Sally feel about it. Sure it’s murky, in that situation anything would be murky, but allowing the characters to suddenly act so devoid of feeling or emotion feels wrong in that context. And what of the young Jewish couple who got married? I don’t need to know whether they escaped or were ultimately captured, but I would like to know something about characters I spent so much of the movie following.

Ah well. Fosse would continue to try to tear away new layers of the emotional onion in the semi-autobiographical musical “All That Jazz” and the dark, dark, dark “Star 80”… and of course his fingerprints were all over the Rob Marshall-directed “Chicago.” But “Cabaret” still stands as his masterpiece, if only because it was the only time he successfully could balance the cynical with real emotion. Liza Minnelli giving one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema didn’t hurt, either.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

Self/less

selfless 1The Tarsem Odyssey

Writers: Alex Pastor & David Pastor

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Matthew Goode, Victor Garber, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Martinez, Derek Luke

Producers: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern, Peter Schlessel

Cinematography: Brendan Galvin

Music: Antonio Pinto

Company: Focus Features

Release: July 10, 2015

At first blush, “Self/less” should have been a homerun for Tarsem. It contained many of the themes that he has toyed with time and again over his relatively brief filmography and offered much opportunity for visual invention. And yet, here I am trying to come up with the ideal way to describe the film and the best I can come up with is “competent.” That’s never a good sign. That and the fact that it is as close to a remake of “Seconds” as possible without the filmmakers actually getting the rights.

We’re not getting off on the right foot, are we?

The film is the story of billionaire real estate mogul Damian Hale, who is played first by Ben Kingsley. Despite having an apartment that overlooks Central Park, has multiple fountains and appears to be shitting gold (In the credits I learn that this was shot in Trump Tower. Because of course.), Kingsley has two Screenwriting 101 problems. First, he is estranged from his daughter Claire, played by Lady Mary Crawley… er… Michelle Dockery. Claire works at some anonymous environmental nonprofit or something, and when Damian visits her early in act one we hear one of the only genuinely good lines in the movie as he dismisses her entire lifestyle: “This isn’t work. It’s a bunch of children throwing a tantrum.”

selfless 2The second problem is that he only has six months left to live. Something or other has metastasized and lumps are growing and even though he probably should and would be bedridden in reality, all this Stage Five cancer seems to be doing is causing him to cough from time to time and look sad. Still, life isn’t too bad. Victor Garber is his best friend, and I think we can all agree that is a privilege we can only hope to be worthy enough of one day. Also, he’s found his way into a conversation with Dr. Albright, played by Matthew Goode, who was Mary Crawley’s final great love on “Downton Abbey” and why couldn’t they have shared a damn scene together! Anyway, Albright tells Damian that there is a way for him to stay alive after all.

There are a few red flags here. First, his name is Albright, which is way too positive of a last name, which means he must be a villain. Secondly, he has an unconscious tick where he flicks his glasses, which is only a thing that happens to villains in Bond movies or Steven Segal films. Thirdly, the procedure to save Damian’s life is called “shedding,” which sounds super gross and snake like. Damian forks over $250 million to get the procedure, which involves his consciousness and soul being transferred into a younger, handsome man who Albright claims was grown in a lab.

The procedure works, and Ben Kingsley has now officially become Ryan Reynolds.

selfless 3Now, one would assume that Kingsley and Reynolds should have sat down before shooting began to try and turn their different acting styles into something similar so that, although they are obviously different people, the audience feels like they are watching one performance. Right?

Nope!

Kingsley does some genuinely weird work as the older, cancer-ridden Damian. He has a very thick, odd, New Yawker accent which is certainly a… choice. He convinces you that he is a deeply eccentric real estate mogul who is a good man but also an incredibly difficult man. You’ve got a hand it to him – as misguided as some of his decisions with the character are, he is making decisions.

Ryan Reynolds is playing Ryan Reynolds.

Now I don’t want to disparage Reynolds’ acting abilities because I genuinely enjoy him as a performer. He is very good when staying within his range, which is lovable cad (“The Proposal”) to lovable douchebag (“Deadpool”). Instead of incorporating any of Kingsley’s performance, Reynolds decides to keep it within his wheelhouse and play Damian as a “Ryan Reynolds Type.” This is a huge tonal shift and I’m sure every audience member felt the weird whiplash. Act One Damian and Acts 2 & 3 Damian are fundamentally different people even though they aren’t supposed to be. For many viewers, it was probably too big of an ask to swallow the change, which is understandable.

selfless 4The actor shift is also when “Self/less” (putting this slash in the title every time is driving me nuts) uncomfortably transitions from a Tarsem movie into a relatively forgettable low-budget action movie. The first act isn’t great, but Tarsem still managed to discover a myriad of interesting places in New York City to shoot with his trademark inventive angles. It felt like the same voice of a filmmaker I’ve come to know so far. But after Reynolds comes to the fore, things fundamentally shift to the blander. Make no mistake, there are moments, even sequences where bits and pieces of Tarsem’s trademark flair come out (which we’ll talk about later), but for the most part it is shot flatly and in a style that is interchangeable with most comparable action movies.

This is heartbreaking. Did he stop caring? Was production rushed? Was he not fully engaged with the opportunities of the story? Studio interference? I don’t know what, but I found myself writing many variations of the following in my notes: “I wanted more with…” when usually Tarsem goes too far.

The most blatant stumble is the flashes that Damian starts to get of another life… a life he realized belonged to the body he inhabits. Though he was told the body was grown in a lab, it turns out he’s hanging out in Mark Bitwell, a former military man who sacrificed his body so that his sick daughter would get the money she needed for a medical procedure. Say it with me: aww…! Tarsem does nothing inventive with the cuts to Damian’s other life… we just see bland visual flashes as Reynolds squints and acts like he has a headache. This is a visual cue that felt tired when it was done on every supernatural show on The WB in the ‘90s, but in a 2015 movie directed by the same guy who conjured “The Cell” and “The Fall”? Really? I mean… really?!

Before the flashes, Tarsem does get a small chance to show off in a few music video-esque montages. Damian is getting settled in his new body in New Orleans, and the montages do have a wit and vigor missing everywhere else. Interesting shot choice, a precise relationship between Reynolds and the location he’s inhabiting… it’s not great, but it’s something. And at this point, it’s worth being happy for it. Plus, I love any movie where someone crushes a soda can, attaches it to his shoe and then dances.

SELF/less

Anyway, so Damian is also Mark. He’s taking pills that keep Mark’s consciousness at bay, but if he stops taking them then Mark will take over again, effectively ending Damian. Drawn to the house and water tower in his flashes, Damian discovers Mark’s wife Madeline (Natalie Morales). Madeline has no personality and is completely defined by her shock at Mark’s “return,” and poor Morales is adrift in the role. There’s also the daughter (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), now healthy, whose main function is to guilt trip Damian into his third act decision to “die” and let Mark take over.

From here on in, “Self/less” turns into a mostly routine action thriller. Albright and his men chase Damian and his “family” across various southern locations until there’s a final face off in the lab where Damian took over Mark. You know the beats.

That said, screenwriters Alex Pastor & David Pastor must be given credit for throwing in some interesting wrinkles into the story. I very much appreciated that the friend that Damian makes in his new life (played first and most memorably by Derek Luke) turned out to be a plant by Albright when most other action flicks would have kept him as the best friend along on the journey, or first casualty. I also loved that when they brought back Damian’s BFF Victor Garber, they didn’t have Garber turn into a supervillain who betrayed them – they kept him a good man who made mistakes but ultimately wanted to help his friend. Kudos to the screenwriters for recognizing the usual traps and avoiding them.

Of course, there are a lot of clichés at play too. Albright can’t use his procedure on his wife because she has dementia… irony! Madeline reacts to the situation exactly how you would expect her to when she learns the truth. And there’s a whole to-do about the pills Damian has to take to suppress Mark, which is super important to the plot until it’s waved away in three lines of dialogue and almost never touched upon again.

Then there are the action sequences.

In the past, Tarsem offered up sumptuous visual marvels when he got the action going. Gods at war in glorious 3-D. A million bandits chasing our heroes in “The Fall.” Here we get three action sequences, two of which are so routine you find yourself forgetting about them as soon as they are over. The first is an assault on Madeline’s house where Damian finds out he basically has superpowers thanks to Mark’s subconscious. There is no fun or awe to be had as Damian realizes he’s The Terminator. Compare this scene to similar moments in great recent movies like “Upgrade” or even mediocre movies like “Venom” and you can see that “Self/less” wasn’t even trying. How forgettable is it? The only note I made during the entire ten minutes was the following: “You’ve got a flamethrower and that’s all you’re gonna do with it?” (Yes, I know the flamethrower comes back. Shut up.)

The second is the most interesting because it is almost a great action scene. It’s a car chase on a deserted road in the south, and Tarsem captures some interesting imagery of the empty road as far as the eye can see, completely illuminated by overhead lamps. It feels odd, like a different world, but the car stunts are nothing special and underlines that Damian is no longer a human but Ryan Reynolds in action hero mode.

selfless 6The third is at the facility itself after Albright attempts to mind wipe Damian’s consciousness and replace it with his minion previously played by Luke. It doesn’t take, but Albright doesn’t ask any follow-up questions, so he really deserves the flamethrower to the face that climaxes the sequence and the movie. The rest of the finale, though? Meh.

The final scene makes a fundamental point-of-view storytelling error by switching to Mark waking up in his bed after Damian has ceded control to him, then watching Damian’s cliché goodbye video on a laptop before rejoining his wife and daughter. We should have been with Damian as he recorded the message, feeling the trauma and the tragedy as the old man in the young body realized it was time to die and move on. But instead any emotion the finale may have summoned up is undercut by us watching a stranger look at a computer screen with a blank face for three minutes.

In a way, it seems like “Self/less” was at war with itself. Tarsem could have made a great movie out of this. Genuinely. I can see it. Or I could have seen him direct the hell out of a miniseries on the subject – the script has too many interesting ideas for a two-hour movie that also has to serve the action fanatics who make up most of its audience. But instead of putting his stamp on the movie, he ceded style to allow it to be just another Ryan Reynolds mid-budget action flick, interchangeable with “Criminal” or “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” on video store shelves if video stores and video store shelves were still a thing.

It opened right in the middle of summer movie season against “Minions” and while “Jurassic World,” “Inside Out” and “Terminator: Genisys” (that’s how Box Office Mojo is insisting the title is spelled, I promise) were going strong. It bombed, opening eighth and grossing only 12 million domestically and about the same elsewhere for a grand total of $30 million. Its production budget was $26 million, so it lost money. Critics didn’t care, the audiences that did see it were indifferent, and it’s not even a blip on Netflix anymore. One year later, “Deadpool” would cement Reynolds’ place on the A-list.

Tarsem retreated from film entirely at this point, which further supports my theory that studio interference sucked any identity out of “Self/less” and instead hung his hat on the NBC miniseries “Emerald City,” a gritty reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz” which most critics said was a rip-off of what “Game of Thrones” was doing better over on HBO, continuing Tarsem’s unlucky tendency to strike right after the zeitgeist cools. Still, he seemed to really care about this project – he reunited with composer Trevor Morris, who sat out “Self/less” (Antonio Pinto’s music here is forgettable at best and annoying at worst) and Vincent D’Onofrio, plus he shot the film in 11 countries. I hope he felt creatively revitalized, because he needed a palate cleanser after this. I know I do.

Experiment Perilous

experiment perilous 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Warren Duff

Based on the book by Margaret Carpenter

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Cinematographer: Tony Gaudio

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: George Brent, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Lukas, Olive Blakeney

Release: December 29, 1944

Studio: RKO

Percent Noir: 50%

“Experiment Perilous,” which was released a few months after George Cukor’s iconic “Gaslight,” tells a similar story, but makes the odd decision to switch the hero’s point-of-view away from the woman in distress and instead to a rando doctor who decides he’s going to save her. The shift damages the movie on a fundamental level, wasting two great female performances and an abundance of atmosphere on a story you really could care less about.

George Brent puts you to sleep as Dr. Huntington Bailey (oy.), who meets odd duck Cissie (Olive Blakeney) on a train into town one rainy night. She’s going on and on about moving out of her brother Nick’s house. Later that day, Cissie is dead but no one seems to care. Later in the week, Bailey meets Nick (Paul Lukas) in person, as well as his wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). Nick keeps telling Bailey that Allida is crazy, but there’s more to the story than that, says anyone who has seen “Gaslight” or “Undercurrent” or “The House on Telegraph Hill” or… well… stop me before I get started.

experiment perilous 3The saddest part about “Experiment Perilous,” which has perhaps the worst title of any film I have encountered yet on my noir odyssey (with apologies to “Ride the Pink Horse”), is that it starts off brilliantly. The train (director Jacques Tourneur has a thing for trains, as anyone who has seen “Berlin Express” or “Curse of the Demon” will tell you) struggles through a full-on flood as a storm refuses to let up around it. Water cascades downhill against the train, splashing off it and into camera. We watch, weirdly nervous, as the train’s weight bends a wet wooden bridge when it drives over it. Inside, Blakeney makes an immediate, spectacular impact as Cissie, embodying the part utterly. I can see casting directors high-fiving upon finding her for the role. In just a few lines and awkward mannerisms, Blakeney becomes her character and we imprint on her, despite knowing as soon as she brings up her brother that she’s not going to make it to the third reel.

Things go off the rails soon after that. Brent doesn’t have the charisma to ground the film, and from the moment the characters of Nick and Allida are introduced, we can figure out the rest of the plot, almost point for point. Lamarr is excellent as Allida and, were the circumstances different, could have easily turned in a performance rivalling Bergman in “Gaslight.” But she’s undercut at every turn by Brent and Lukas, with whom she shares zero chemistry.

experiment perilous 2Lukas never convinces you of any aspect of his character. He’s way too old to be paired with Lamarr, so you fundamentally don’t buy their love story despite the over-the-top romantic flashbacks to their courting. And once it’s revealed that (gasp!) he’s the bad guy, he’s never villainous enough to be menacing to the hero or the audience.

Brent doesn’t do much better – his character essentially stalks Allida. He grabs her by the arm a few times to get her to stay and listen to him. He only offers her help within the context that he’ll help her because he loves her and she must love him too, which is – in most respects – just as bad as the situation Allida is already in. With a character like that, Brent already has the deck stacked against him, but it also doesn’t help when he recites exposition in a completely boring manner.

By the halfway point, it’s obvious that this should have been Allida’s story, but none of the filmmakers seem aware of this fact. If that wasn’t enough, screenwriter Warren Duff (“Appointment With Danger”) structures the movie very poorly. Cissie’s probable murder becomes an afterthought, and just when things are getting interesting he drops about 20 minutes of expressionistic flashbacks to get across information we could have gotten in a quarter-page monologue. A big deal is made about Nick and Allida’s son, but the boy barely gets a scene to make an impact. And poor Allida? Well, she is knocked out by gas poisoning for the climax, an afterthought to her own story.

Tourneur (“Out of the Past,” “Cat People”) is obviously a master filmmaker, and his work with cinematographer Tony Gaudio is atmospheric and beautiful. They use water throughout as a metaphor, never better than in one of the flashbacks. After being shaped and courted by Nick for years, he proposes to Allida next to a fountain. Allida stares at her reflection in the pool, then blots it out with her hand – unhappy with the woman she has become. And despite the major logic gaps in the climax (how an explosion and fire in a house with no obvious escape would not kill three people on the third floor), it looks great. Watching the statue fall on Nick, or the aquariums shatter and flood the floor (oh look, more water) are pretty awesome technical feats, and the film is better for them.

But the problem is that every one of these great moments is an island unto itself. It’s just enough to remind you that you should be in a better movie. But you aren’t – you’re in “Experiment Perilous.”

Score: **

Network

Network 1Year: 1976

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 64

Writer: Paddy Chayefsky

Director: Sidney Lumet

Star: Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden

“Network” has managed to be one of the only films to pull of the seemingly impossible task of “de-aging” since its release in 1976. It certainly must have seemed like outlandish satire in its first year of release, but today the movie seems like a pointed, subversive send-up of currently broadcasting channels like Fox News, E! and many others. How many other films can claim that they are more topical today then when they were released? I’d argue for “In Cold Blood,” “All About Eve” and the original version of “The Manchurian Candidate,” but very few, if any, others.

Network 2Well-respected-but-aging UBS national news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) was recently fired and appears to have reacted to the news by having something like a nervous breakdown. How can we tell? The next day he announces on air that he will be committing suicide on his final episode. He’s pulled immediately, but the next day convinces network executive Max (William Holden) to let him say a goodbye on air. Instead, he launches into either another insane tirade or perhaps his only lucid moment in the film when he laments that he just got sick and tired of life’s “bullshit.” Ratings skyrocket and executives over Max’s head decide to keep Beale on the air, just to see what happens next and if the 18-49 year old audience sticks around.

We are introduced to more studio executives, all soulless and conniving to one degree or another. Robert Duvall plays the none-too-subtly named Frank Hackett, who is obsessed with making the fiscally irresponsible news segment profitable, whatever the means. Faye Dunaway is most memorable as Diana Christensen, who provides Hackett with those means, which involve giving Beale his own spin-off series and greenlighting a series about a terrorist sect called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. Diana gets Hackett to fire Max, and Max is so shaken up that he immediately falls into bed with her, despite the pesky fact that he is married.

At some point we realize that all of the characters are also having their own nervous breakdowns, but no one questions them because they have big offices, expensive suits and control the bottom line.

The first hour of the film doesn’t seem to last more than a minute or two because it is so witty, fast-paced and subversively funny. Beale’s threat of suicide seems to be inspired by the mostly-forgotten-except-among-newspeople (of which I’m one) on-air suicide of news anchor Christine Chubbuck. The Ecumenical Liberation Army is a spoof of the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst and at one point “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” is greenlit. Of course these news stories have faded from most of the public’s memory, but the inspiration remains the same. We laugh, but the subject matter is really not that funny, is it? Writer Paddy Chayefsky wants to get us as angry as we are entertained.

The high point of the film comes when Beale wanders on his stage during a live broadcast wearing a raincoat and pajamas and declares that “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The camera follows him as he continues to rage and encourages his audience to scream the same thing. All across the country we see windows flung open as people scream the same phrase into the streets. It’s the pure, undiluted anger of a country allowed only to create a wider profit margin for UBS.

After this, the film begins to stumble a bit, awkwardly trying to instill emotions and feeling into a story that loathes such a sentiment. Beale disappears from camera for long periods of time, and he is missed. Chayefsky seems to be surrendering to the necessity to have human feeling in his film but, even then, mocks it and make it seem languid. Take the scene where Max and Diana take a romantic holiday weekend together. Director Sidney Lumet shoots it in soft focus, giving us all the clichés we expect from such scenes, but Chayefsky inserts dry, television-related dialogue from Diana throughout. The result is an odd, unbalanced second and third act that has several astonishingly powerful, funny moments but other uncomfortable missteps.

Network 3Perhaps some of this comes from the miscasting of Holden. Holden is a very good actor, but this was over twenty years since he was so startlingly dark in “Sunset Blvd.”, and his persona had softened considerably. We want to like him, and we don’t buy him so dismissively leaving his wife and jumping into Diana’s bed. The persona he creates here can’t sell fourth-wall-breaking lines like, “And it’s a happy ending: Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife, with whom he has established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week’s show,” no matter how great they read in the script. Perhaps someone like Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis would have been a better choice.

Whatever the cause for the lack of balance in the film’s second half, it’s hard to argue that Chayefsky’s screenplay is anything but amazing. When Diana is introduced to one of the terrorist sect’s representatives, the following exchange takes place:

-“I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.”

-“I’m Lauren Hobbs, a badass commie (n-word).”

-“Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.”

There are so many small moments like that where Chayefsky gets it precisely right, and others, like when Hobbs is very vocal about her contract negotiations, where he purposely goes so over the top you are bursting with laughter. He’s the kind of once-in-a-generation writers, like Aaron Sorkin (who paid homage to Chayefsky’s “Mad as hell” speech in the fantastic pilot of his “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip” series), who can successfully make the intricacies of politics not only digestible to a mass audience, but make them hugely enjoyable as well. Instead of getting a screenplay credit, he instead gets an “author” credit in the main titles: “Network By Paddy Chayefsky,” and that sounds about right.

This isn’t to say that we should not give Lumet the credit he deserves for keeping the ship upright and getting it successfully through the changes in tone. He also gets Dunaway to give the performance of her career here, and his casting for the smaller roles is flawless.

Despite how funny the film is, the substance beneath the humor ring almost frighteningly true today. I’m fairly certain Tucker Carlson shouldn’t be worried about being executed on air during one of his tirades if his ratings go down…but then again, Carlson actually managed to get a “hit” television show to spew his ramblings…so who knows?

My Score (out of 5): ****

Farewell, My Lovely

Farewell My Lovely 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: David Zelag Goodman

Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler

Director: Dick Richards

Cinematographer: John A. Alonzo

Music: David Shire

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, Sylvia Miles

Release: August 8, 1975

Studio: Avco Embassy Pictures

Awards: Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 1975 Academy Awards, but lost to Lee Grant in “Shampoo.”

Percent Noir: 70%

I genuinely wish that “Farewell, My Lovely” was not an adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely.” I want to talk about the great performances, the smart script and the lengths to which the filmmakers go to capture the mood and style of the ‘40s. I’m desperate to talk about all those things, but the problem is that Raymond Chandler’s book was already adapted, and adapted better, in 1944’s “Murder, My Sweet.” Had the filmmakers simply adapted something like Chandler’s “Playback,” which has never had a feature version before, or remake of one of his lesser book-to-films like “Lady in the Lake” or “The High Window,” then I could be much more positive, because it would feel fresh. And, make no mistake, this is a very good movie. But why tread territory that had been done better elsewhere?

Whatever the filmmakers’ motives were for choosing this book to adapt, the story is very similar to the 1944 version. Private detective Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) is hired by a beast of a man named Moose (Jack O’Halloran) to find his lost love Velma. Concurrently, Marlowe begins investigating another murder that involves the theft of a necklace. Things get more complex before they get more complex, as anyone who has read Chandler knows, and soon two women are brought into the mix. First is the very drunk Jessie (Sylvia Miles), second is the very glamourous Helen (Charlotte Rampling) and – spoiler alert – one of them ends up the femme fatale and the other one just ends up fatale.

Farewell My Lovely 2The screenplay hews quite closely to Chandler’s book, utilizing voiceover for Marlowe to incorporate even more of his wit and dark humor. Maybe a little too close… one can’t help but miss moments from “Murder, My Sweet” like the prologue with a blind Marlowe. I was also surprised to see other moments, like Marlowe’s drug trip, were done way better technically in the 1944 version – here the psychedelic stuff seems underbaked and not visually appealing at all.

I feel like I’m being unfair, because the screenplay by David Zelag Goodman is good. But as a fan of “Murder” (and I have a feeling that most people who would seek out “Farewell, My Lovely” would be fans of the 1944 iteration), I could not help but compare and contrast scenes and moments as I watched. Every now and then I was pleased, like when Marlowe walks into a brothel and bites off way more than he can chew, but more often I was neutral or let down a bit. And the third act of both versions remains the weakest – Goodman did not crack a way to streamline it or make it feel more climactic.

Director Dick Richards has a name perfectly suited for noir, and goes to extreme lengths to make the entire film feel authentically like 1940s’ Los Angeles. Well, maybe “authentically” is the wrong word – he and his cohorts make “Farewell, My Lovely” look like a noir lover’s dream of 1940s’ Los Angeles. From the set design to the props, every inch of every location is covered in props and furniture that you just want to drink in. You watch “Farewell, My Lovely” the first time for the plot and performances, and the second time to check out everything in the background. I am not exaggerating when I write that this is one of the best looking period pieces I have ever seen, and it’s something you simply have to see for yourself to believe.

Mitchum is very good as an older version of Marlowe. I have already seen his bored performance as the same character in 1978’s “The Big Sleep,” but here he is on point throughout. He does especially well in voiceover, which seems like a weird compliment unless you have been doing a Film Noir Odyssey for over a year and hear bad voiceover work on the regular. It’s difficult to rank him with the other iterations of the character simply because this older take changes the character’s point of view. When he is younger, he is simply a jaded jackass. But older? Now he’s worn down. Jaded, but also exhausted. It’s a smart choice for the character that feels fresh.

Farewell My Lovely 3Rampling has little to do but bide her time until her big climactic villain reveal, so she doesn’t make much of an impact. Miles, on the other hand, is superb. From the first moment she appears onscreen, it’s clear that Miles has removed all of her vanity for the performance, and as a result it’s impossible to look away from her. She was rightly nominated for an Oscar here, and earns it with every slightly slurred line and awkward step. Kate Murtagh is also incredible in her small role, doing so well that she actually steals her scenes from Mitchum.

I want to take a moment to spotlight David Shire’s exquisite score. Despite probably a dozen Chandler adaptations, Shire produces by far the best theme for Marlowe’s character, one that lingers in your mind long after the movie fades away. He threads the needle of producing a score that feels both fresh and retro with seeming ease, and I really wish he was still producing great scores today (his last work was for David Fincher’s “Zodiac”).

Despite the fact that it isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, there are so many great things in “Farewell, My Lovely” that I can easily recommend it. Knowing the shithole that is ‘78’s “The Big Sleep,” I wish that the entire creative team had gotten back together for more Chandler. As it is, you’ll walk away from the film melancholy… remembering the mood and the beauty of the city… knowing it was never that lovely, except when “recreated” in films like this.

Score: ****