Category Archives: Great Depression

It’s only a canvas sky: R.I.P. Peter Bogdanovich

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2022)

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From a 2017 piece I wrote on the demise of neighborhood theaters:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all of these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Alas, as it is wont to do, Time has caught up with a number of those filmmakers. This week, it caught up with Peter Bogdanovich. Along with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Malick, and De Palma, Bogdanovich was at the core of the revolutionary “maverick” American filmmakers who flourished from the late 60s through the late 70s.

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter called him “a surrogate film professor for a generation”. That’s a good encapsulation of his professional life off the set; he lived and breathed cinema. Perhaps not surprising, considering he wrote about movies before becoming a filmmaker (as did Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, et.al.).

One of Bogdanovich’s contemporaries, Martin Scorsese, issued this statement:

 “In the 60s, at a crucial moment in the history of the movie business and the art of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich was right there at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. Curator, critic, historian, actor, director, popular entertainer…Peter did it all. As a programmer here in New York, he put together essential retrospectives of then still overlooked masters from the glory days of the studio system; as a journalist he got to know almost everybody, from John Ford and Howard Hawks to Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Like many of us, he made his way into directing pictures by way of Roger Corman, and he and Francis Coppola broke into the system early on: Peter’s debut, ‘Targets,’ is still one of his very best films.

“With ‘The Last Picture Show,’ he made a movie that seemed to look backward and forward at the same time as well as a phenomenal success, followed quickly by ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ In the years that followed, Peter had setbacks and tragedies, and he just kept going on, constantly reinventing himself. The last time I saw Peter was in 2018 at The New York Film Festival, where we appeared together on a panel discussion of his old friend Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (in which Peter gives a great performance, and to which he dedicated a lot of time and energy throughout many years). Right up to the end, he was fighting for the art of cinema and the people who created it.”

I think Scorsese has articulated why this passing feels significant. I’m confident there are curators, critics, historians and filmmakers who will pick up the torch …those who can “look backward and forward at the same time”. It’s important. After all, as someone says in The Last Picture Show: “Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

Here are my picks for the five most essential Bogdanovich films:

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Targets – Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this impressively assured directorial debut; a low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “nice” young man (a Vietnam vet) who is about to go Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. It holds up well, as it is (sadly) quite prescient. Chilling and effective. The film marked the first of several collaborations between the director and cinematographer László Kovács. Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with (his then-wife) producer/production designer Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller.

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The Last Picture Show – Oddly enough, I was Tweeting about this film only last week:

Indeed, Bogdanovich’s most celebrated film, which he co-adapted with the great Larry McMurtry from the author’s eponymous novel, is an embarrassment of riches on every level-directing, writing, cinematography (outstanding B & W work by Robert Surtees), production design (Polly Platt), and acting.

Set in the 1950s, this network narrative (a sort of “Peyton Place on the prairie”) concerns the citizens of a one-horse Texas burg called Anarene (it was actually filmed in McMurtry’s home town of Archer City). This is a town of beginners and losers, with naught in-between but those living lives of quiet desperation. Okay, it’s depressing as hell.

But what a cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson (Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. Every performance, down to the smallest part, feels authentic; you feel like you know these people (and if you’ve ever lived in a small town…you do know these people). A landmark of 70s American cinema.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy). The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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Paper Moon – Two years after 1971’s The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another film in black and white-which was going against the grain (so to speak) by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, mostly thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who handily steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

Father and daughter portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned young girl he is (initially) transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover that they make a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two O’Neals. Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Saint Jack – After refreshing my memory by dusting off my DVD copy for a re-watch last night, I have to say that Bogdanovich’s least “commercial” project is my favorite, after The Last Picture Show. Adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel by the author, Howard Sackler and Bogdanovich, this 1979 drama is a low-key character study about an American (Ben Gazzara) hustling a living in Singapore during the Vietnam War era.

Gazzara plays Ben Flowers, an ingratiating fellow who specializes in showing visiting foreigners (mostly Brits) a good time. His modest brothel and bar isn’t exactly Rick’s Cafe, but he dreams of expanding, making a bundle and heading back to the states with a comfortable nest egg.  Unfortunately, this has put him on the radar of the local triad, who are escalating their harassment by the day. Flowers is wary, but too good-natured to go to the mattresses, as it were (he’s the antithesis of a “mobster type”, which is what makes the character so interesting). Eventually, however, he’s forced to seek another avenue-running a CIA-sanctioned brothel for soldiers on R&R from tours of duty in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but Gazzara’s performance is surely one of (if not “the”) best he ever delivered. The film is also a late-career highlight for the perennially underrated Denholm Elliot, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1980 (but didn’t win). Keep your eyes peeled for George Lazenby in the penultimate scene-a wordless, yet extraordinary sequence. Bogdanovich casts himself as a mysterious government spook. Leisurely paced but completely absorbing, it’s one of those films that has an immersive sense of “place” (beautifully shot on location by the late great Robby Müller).

Indiana wants me: Whelm (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 14, 2021)

“My only request is that you pay mind to the details of my story, with hope we see eye-to-eye at the end,” writes the protagonist/narrator in the opening of Skyler Lawson’s Whelm. As I learned the hard way (that is, having watched it in a somewhat distracted frame of mind in my first go-around), it would behoove the viewer to heed the writer’s advisement, so as not to be left feeling blindsided or bewildered by the epilogue.

That is not to say the narrative is willfully obscure; at its core it’s no more densely plotted than your standard-issue 90-minute crime caper. It’s just that (and I know this will be an instant turn-off for some) it has been s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a 2-hour ah…visual tone poem. In other words-patience, Grasshopper.

Not that that is a bad thing in this handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. Writer-director Lawson’s debut feature evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.

Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, the story centers on two estranged brothers: our narrator Reed (Dylan Grunn) and his older sibling August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. The brothers help their father run an inn that has seen better days.

Like most people of the time, the brothers are bereft of funds and always looking to scare up extra coin. This leads them to fall in with a pair of extralegal characters-a suave, charismatic but decidedly felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). What ensues is equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy (in 13 “chapters”).

For an indie project that was shot in just 2 weeks, the film has an astonishingly epic feel, which portends a big future for Lawson. Lawson also co-composed the dynamic original score (with Chris Dudley). He is helped by a great ensemble (all previously unknown to me). Baran makes fascinating choices as Aleksy- I think he will be someone to keep an eye on as well.

If you’re hankering for a film with (as Stanley Kubrick once described his approach) “…a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks” and hearkens back to something we old folks used to refer to as “cinema”-this is about as good as it gets in the Summer of 2021.

WHELM is on digital platforms and in select theaters as a 35mm roadshow event.

Let’s party like it’s 1929: Top 10 Great Depression Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2021)

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I’m not running for office, so I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been a tough week. Not just for me, personally…but for Democracy and junk. Most of today, I was trying (really trying, gentle reader) to finish up a review for you of a couple of new films, but it wasn’t working. I haven’t been able to concentrate very well since the events of this past Wednesday. I just…can’t.

So I was texting with my pal Digby, to give her a heads up that I might just take a breather this week. Or perhaps I could just find something from my archives to recycle that would be apropos to the current news cycle. My first thought was “conspiracy a go-go”…but then I remembered I just recycled that one back in November on the anniversary of the JFK assassination. Besides, I don’t think we need to get that dark just now. “What about something on fascism?” (Digby helpfully texted). Yes! I thought. A capital idea (Capitol?).

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t find a post I published the day after the current occupant of the White House was inaugurated that makes a perfect bookend for the imminent denouement of said occupant’s rent-free overstayed welcome in our collective unconscious . Er, enjoy?

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 21, 2017)

Yesterday, after putting my head down on the desk for a spell (which I haven’t done since kindergarten), in order to process the inaugural address, I felt compelled to do a Google search using the key words “Fascism” and “ideal conditions” – and I found this:

Fascism begins by promising to make the country strong again, to restore pride. It wants to help, it wants to build a better country, it wants to improve your life. It wants to challenge a corrupt establishment and change a broken system. It wants to get people working again and get tough on crime. It doesn’t present an image of violent thugs to you, instead it shows the face of ordinary respectable people, people just like you, who have had enough. […]

So it starts with things a lot of people find attractive: national pride, restoration of glory, fighting the establishment. Then it pushes this further and further to the extreme. The nationalism becomes more extreme. Not only are we the best people, but all others are inferior. They only appear better because they cheat, they lie, they steal. The establishment is corrupt, the system is rigged, it is undeserving of support, it is illegitimate. The opponents are crooks, they should be put in jail. The media is suppressing the facts, censoring the truth, spreading lies, their dishonesty must be silenced.  Democracy only leads to indecisive and ineffective politicians, it only elects liars too corrupt to serve the people. If only we had a strong and decisive ruler, then we could solve the country’s problems. Drastic problems require drastic solutions.

-from a post by Robert Nielsen (Whistling in the Wind blog)

The author is explaining how Fascism was able to flourish in Europe between the wars, but there are obvious parallels with the current political climate (in Europe and the U.S.).

So, with that cheery thought in mind, and in the interest of applying what I call cinematic aversion therapy, here’s my Top 10 Great Depression Movies. Study them well, because you know what “they” say: Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz- When you think of the Depression in terms of film and literature, it tends to vibe America-centric. In reality, the economic downturn between wars was a global phenomenon; things were literally “tough all over”. You could say Germany had a jumpstart (economically speaking, everything below the waist was kaput by the mid 1920s). In October of 1929 (interesting historical timing), Alfred Doblin’s epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was published, then adapted into a film in 1931 directed by Phil Jutzi.

It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that the ultimate film version emerged as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour opus (made for German TV but also distributed as a feature film). It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate this emotionally draining epic in a few lines; it is by turns one of the most shocking, transcendent, maddening and soul-scorching films you’ll ever see. If that time investment is too daunting, you can always opt for Cabaret!

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Bonnie and Clyde– The gangster movie meets the art house in this 1967 offering from director Arthur Penn. There is much more to this influential masterpiece than the oft-referenced operatic crescendo of violent death in the closing frames; particularly of note was the ingenious way its attractive antiheroes were posited to appeal to the counterculture zeitgeist of the 1960s, even though the film was ostensibly a period piece. The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were nowhere near as charismatic as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty…but we don’t care, do we? The outstanding cast includes Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, and Gene Wilder in his movie debut.

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Bound for Glory– “This machine kills Fascists”. There’s only one man to whom Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen must kowtow-and that’s Woody Guthrie. You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of America’s premier protest songwriter/social activist. David Carradine gives one of his finest performances, and does a credible job with his own singing and playing. Haskell Wexler’s outstanding cinematography earned him a well-deserved Oscar. The film may feel a bit overlong and slow in spots if you aren’t particularly fascinated by Guthrie’s story; but I think it is just as much about the Depression itself, and perhaps more than any other film on this list, it succeeds as a “total immersion” back to that era.

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The Grapes of Wrath– I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s masterful film or John Steinbeck’s classic source novel, so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this comes closest to nabbing the title as the quintessential film about the heartbreak and struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take (real or imagined) comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get over the next few months (years?), Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.”

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Inserts-If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

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King of the Hill– Steven Soderbergh’s exquisitely photographed film (somewhat reminiscent of Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon) is a bittersweet rendering of A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era tale about young Aaron (Jesse Bradford) who lives with his parents and kid brother in a decrepit hotel. After his sickly mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is sent away for convalescence, his kid brother is packed off to stay with relatives, and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) hits the road as a traveling salesman, leaving Aaron to fend for himself.

The Grand Hotel-style network narrative provides a microcosm of those who live through such times. The film is full of wonderful moments of insight into the human condition. The cast includes Karen Allen, Adrian Brody, Elizabeth McGovern and Spaulding Gray.

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Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC version)-I’ve always preferred the original 1978 British television production of this to the Americanized theatrical version released several years afterwards. Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), it is rife with the usual Potter obsessions: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by the occasional, incongruous song and dance number.

Bob Hoskins is outstanding as a married traveling sheet music salesman in Depression-era England whose life takes interesting Potter-esque turns once he becomes smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two extremely creepy brothers. Probably best described as a film noir musical.

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Sullivan’s Travels-A unique and amazingly deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and hard-hitting social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film.

Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he decides to hit the road with no money in his pocket and “embed” himself as a railroad tramp (much to the chagrin of his handlers). He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into more than he had bargained for.

Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. The Coen Brothers borrowed the title of the fictional film within the film for their own unique take on the Depression, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – “Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!” This richly decadent allegory about the human condition (adapted from Horace McCoy’s novel) is one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Director Sydney Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxes the wooden Michael Sarrazin into his finest performance. The powerful ending is devastating and difficult to shake off.

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Thieves Like Us-This loose remake of Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film noir classic They Live by Night is the late Robert Altman’s most underrated film. It is often compared to Bonnie and Clyde, but stylistically speaking, the two films could not be farther apart. Altman’s tale of bank-robbing lovers on the lam (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) is far less flashy and stylized, but ultimately more affecting thanks to a consistently naturalistic, elegiac tone throughout.

Carradine and Duvall really breathe life into their doomed couple; every moment of intimacy between them (not just sexual) feels warm, touching, and genuine-which gives the film real heart. Altman adapted the screenplay (with co-writers Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham) from the same source novel (by Edward Anderson) that inspired Ray’s earlier film.

Blu-ray reissue: They Live By Night ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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They Live By Night – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

This 1949 film noir/progenitor of the “lovers on the lam” genre marked the directing debut for the great Nicholas Ray. Adapted by Ray and Charles Schnee from Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (the same source novel that inspired Robert Altman’s eponymous 1974 film), this Depression-era tale concerns the unexpected and intense mutual attraction that sparks between a young escaped convict (Farley Granger) and a sheltered young woman (Cathy O’Donnell). The young lovers’ primal drive to meaningfully connect with someone who truly “gets” them clouds the illogic of expecting to play house when one of them is a wanted fugitive.

With its themes of young outcasts, adolescent confusion, and doomed love, the film presages Ray’s 1955 social drama Rebel Without a Cause more so than it does his later noirs like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground,  Moody, atmospheric and surprisingly sensual for its time (it doesn’t hurt that Granger and O’Donnell are so beautiful). Criterion’s 2K restoration lends depth to the shadows and light of George E. Diskant’s cinematography. Extras include commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller.

People they do bad things: Serena *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2015)

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Off the rails: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Serena

It’s a damn shame to see a good cast wasted. Such is the case with Danish director Susanne Bier’s curiously off-putting period melodrama Serena, which gets inextricably bogged down somewhere between torrid soap opera and watered-down Shakespearean tragedy. It appears Bier, despite having several acclaimed films to her credit (including 2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World), may have nodded off at the wheel this time out.

The story is set during the Great Depression. Bradley Cooper stars as George Pemberton, a burgeoning lumber baron who is carving (well, more like chopping) out an empire from the rugged woodlands of North Carolina. Being one of the most eligible bachelors in the holler, George is ever on the lookout for a wife.

One day, while he’s out shootin’ at some food, he spots the eponymous protagonist/future missus (Jennifer Lawrence), who literally comes riding into frame on a white horse; confident, mysterious and purty as all get-out.

Serena, as it turns out, is no shrinking violet. In fact, she is so headstrong that George’s second-hand man (David Dencik) takes an immediate disliking to her, especially after she muscles her way into hubby’s business. She’s also a sociopath, which becomes apparent as she morphs into a backwoods Lady Macbeth.

The machinations that ensue in Christopher Kyle’s muddled screenplay (adapted from the 2008 novel by Ron Rash) are at once so underdeveloped and over-the-top that, coupled with the histrionic performances, the film just misses qualifying as an “instant camp classic” (Fifty Shades of Grey is the one to beat this year).

There are a few steamy, pseudo-explicit moments with Cooper and Lawrence that may make you sit up straight and pay attention, but as the bard himself said…two or three inspired hump scenes alone doth not a good melodrama make.

Bang bang shoot ’em up, 1-2-3: Public Enemies **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2009)

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly contemporizes this otherwise old school “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of crumpled bills and loose change . “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”

I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savoring the vicarious thrill of watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up  bailout money  funded by my hard-earned tax dollars. And in context of current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

Mann focuses his story on the last year or so of Dillinger’s short life (he was  31 when he was fatally ambushed by FBI agents while exiting a movie screening at Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934). The film literally opens with a bang, with Dillinger and his gang shooting their way out of a Lima, Ohio prison in 1933.

While this is not the first crime thriller to open with a prison break (one of Mann’s prime influences, Jean-Pierre Melville came to mind as I watched), it is an exciting and well-mounted sequence, bestowed with a jolting  hyper-realism through Mann’s use of hi-def video. Unfortunately, with the exception of a pulse-pounding reenactment of a pre-dawn gun battle between Dillinger’s gang and FBI agents at the remote Little Bohemia Lodge, the remainder of the film never quite lives up to the crackling promise of its opening salvo.

There’s only one thing a notorious bank robber wants to do as soon as he busts out of stir (hint: the film’s catchphrase is “I rob banks.”). OK…maybe there are two things. Rising star Marion Cotillard (who made a splash last year as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose) plays Dillinger’s French-Native American girlfriend, Billie Frechette with a sexy earthiness that spices up her scenes with Depp (although she is not given much to do beyond playing a stalwart gangster’s moll).

When he’s not wooing Billie, Dillinger spends most of his time robbing banks and staying one step ahead of his arch-nemesis, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s golden boys back in the fledgling days of the FBI (Billy Crudup hams it up as Hoover). Liverpudlian Stephen Graham appears to be having the time of his life as Dillinger’s most well-known associate, the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (I hailed Graham as a new talent to watch in my 2007 review of This is England).

Look fast for Diana Krall’s cameo as a nightclub singer (crooning a smoky “Bye Bye Blackbird”). And of course there is an appearance by “the lady in red” (Branka Katic)-although apparently it was the “lady in the white blouse and orange skirt” who led the unwitting Dillinger to his doom.

It’s a good thing that the charismatic Depp is present, and that the film is stylishly executed in Mann’s fastidious manner, because, had lesser artists been involved, the rote cops and robbers story lurking at its core would be exposed. Although Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman recycle the narrative device that made his 1995 crime thriller Heat so compelling (i.e., blurring the line of moral demarcation by fleshing out pursuer and quarry with equal import) it all feels sort of perfunctory in this outing.

And, at the risk of being accused of talking apples and oranges, I felt that Bale and Depp’s Big Scene together failed to ignite sparks like Pacino and DeNiro’s face-off did in the aforementioned film. Since Mann has established himself as an auteur,  I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that, relative to his own standards, this is not his best work (although it’s still superior to most of the summer fare currently grinding away at the multiplexes). That being said, if you are a Depp and/or Mann fan, you still may want to give it a shot.