Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival)

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951) Probably more familiar under its name-change-in-desperation The Big Carnival (which sounds happier and more fun–which it isn't) Ace in the Hole is Billy Wilder's most acid-tongued movie to date (and considering it was coming off the heels of Sunset Boulevard, that's saying something).Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) rides into Albuquerque, New Mexico literally on the hook, and convinces the small-town newspaper to hire him. But after a year, Tatum feels trapped and is desperate for the Big Story that will get him back into The City Beat again. He stumbles onto a minor cave-in that has trapped Leo Minosa who was caught while looking for indian arrow-heads. Not a big deal to get him out, but it will take some work. But, as Tatum was on his way to cover a rattle-snake festival, the incident gives him a whiff of a potentially Big Story.

He should have stayed with the other rattle-snakes. 




Working with the corrupt sheriff and
the bored-out-of-her-skull wife, Tatum prolongs the rescue, turning it into a major (and unnecessary) drilling operation that will keep the story alive for days. The reporter keeps his fingers on all aspects including access to other news-services, and pretty soon he's the Only Game in Town. No one associated with the rescue does anything without his say-so, lest they risk the promises Tatum's made.

Then the curious start showing up. Then the hopeful. Then the carnivorous. The Story becomes a vigil, and where there are crowds of people, comes the salesmen, and the site becomes "The Big Carnival" of Paramount's cheery alias.
Meanwhile, Leo is getting weaker and the pounding of the drills is slowly driving him crazy.




The screenplay, by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, has its ink mixed with venom (the most quoted line is from Minosa's wife (Jan Sterling): "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons."), but it's no worse than the cynical lines from Wilder's previous film, Sunset Boulevard. The difference is Wilder's not looking at the easily-satirized egotism of Hollywood, he's looking at us, and the American capacity to make a buck while wallowing in tragedy. Ace in the Hole is before its time, before the mawkishness and the trivial pursuit of the 24 hour news cycle made the trend easier to spot.



And there's one other thing: Sunset Boulevard's dispassionate cynic was
William Holden, "the golden boy," whose snide wise-cracks passed for intelligence. Here, he's Kirk Douglas, who is a more energetic performer, and so that constant cynicism is seen as more of a constant attack that just seems mean-spirited. And where Holden's self-loathing seemed somehow relaxed and noble, Douglas's is never less than actively self-destructive. It's a smarter, more satisfying performance that doesn't try to be likeable, or a wolf in sheep's clothing, but audiences found it repellant (as well they should!). They didn't want their movie-heroes (or anti-heroes) to be too unlikable. So, even though there is no redemption for this character, and no happy ending in sight, the crowds stayed home from The Big Carnival.

That doesn't stop it from being the classic that it is, of Billy Wilder (who famously said "You're only as good as your best movie") in his prime.





Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Maps to the Stars

Boo-ray for Hell-y-weird!
or
They Should Have Called the Town "Phoenix," instead.

Los Angeles is a suitable case for Xanaxing it's water supply in the way they used to fluoridate the waters for tooth decay; the Xanax is for the psychic decay of a town whose whose compass in mainly bi-polar.  A town built on incoming heights of hope and the gravelly-crushed dreams of the downwardly spiraling, L.A. and its tarty step-sister Hollywood have inspired many a cautionary tale since...well, since they started making movies there.  Every decade sees at least one or two poison pen letters to Tinsel-town, be it A Star is Born (three versions), The Day of the Locust, Mulholland Drive, The Oscar, The Player, Barton Fink, S.O.B., Postcards From the Edge, The Big Knife, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (those by Robert Aldrich), and the most revered and stylish, Sunset Boulevard.  Those are the most successful, but there have been others by lesser lights, hoping their screeds to the industry would get them noticed—it's that kind of thinking that might be at the root of their discontent.

David Cronenberg is the latest to poke the wasp's nest in Maps to the Stars (written by Bruce Wagner, who wrote a Nightmare on Elm Street episode, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and the TV series "Wild Palms"), which is less about the movie business and what it creates and tears down, and more about the culture (or lack of it) swarming around the business.  It's more of a self-contained soap opera that exposes the selfishness, egotism, neuroses, incestuousness, and just plain venality that provides the background stink to the town.*

"How's that therapy working out for ya, hun'?"
Like a soap, it's convoluted.  There are two spheres of influence, one is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, in the performance that should have won her the Oscar), child-star of a famous movie-star Mom (played by Sarah Gadon as a 20 year old ghost), who is starting to fade and is such a mess of conflicts she can't seem to get them straight—she's vying for a role in a remake of a film her mother starred in, despite the fact that she seems to have invented a past abusive relationship, when the abuse she seems to inhabit are of her own conjuring.  Moore plays her with a valley-girl voice and a wild-animal stare that unnerves—one keeps thinking of Lindsey Lohan while watching her, which seems intentional, as the movie is steeped in name-dropping and gossipy in-jokes.  She has visions of her mother that appear, only to break her down and throw her into an emotional melt-down.




Her therapist is a self-help guru of enormous ego named Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who specializes in what mathematician-comedian Tom Lehrer used to call "diseases of the rich."  He's very touchy-feely (especially with stars) and keeps up a running dialogue with them during his sessions—as opposed to them doing the talking—that encourages the wildest surface instincts.  Weiss is married to Christina (Olivia Williams), a chain-smoker and manager of the career of their son Benjie (Evan Bird), a child-star with a franchise to keep up and a drug habit to keep down.  Negotiations for him to star in the latest of the "Bad Babysitter" series of movies is going well, but things aren't going well for him—he's being haunted by a patient with Hodgkins that he visited in the hospital and subsequently died.  Is she a vision of a flash-back—it's hard to differentiate.


And then (speaking of flashbacks) there's daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who's just come back to L.A. after "being" in Florida for many years.  Why she was living there and not with the family is one of the many suspicions that get revealed eventually in the film (but not really revealed, and even then, circumspectly) but there might be some clue given the burns that she hides with her distinctive haircut and the black gloves that she constantly sports.  Agatha meets up with a screenwriter/limo-driver—that's his order of importance, anyway, fantasy/reality—(Robert Pattinson) and lands a job as Havana's personal assistant (convenient!), while planning out how she will individually re-unite with her family, none of whom know that she has returned, as she is one of those many subjects the family avoids.  



There's a lot of back-story, some of which may be interconnected, but maybe not, but all of which explains why the people populating this movie might be crazy...now.   All kinds of crazy, starting with the merely deluded to the criminally insane.  Illusion is the normal—in fact, in L.A., it's business as usual—it's reality that no one has a grasp on, by choice or circumstance. 


So, what are we to make of this cloistered, desolate finger-trap of a movie that has little to do with the illusion of movie-making, and more to do with the illusions of our own making.  Movie-making is an art, even if it's the art of making a deal, but Maps to the Stars is all about lying to ourselves to get by. Just like movie-making, it takes imagination and a lot of work, but that's the extent of it.  It is wasted effort.  There's no art to kidding ourselves.  All it takes is a bubble-world with no perspective other than our own.  Movie-making is designed to leave a legacy.  The tragedy of Maps to the Stars is that no one gets out alive, without any marker to show their existence.





* I've done some work in L.A. and have mostly stayed in the safety of the studios and hotels, rather than do any sight-seeing.  The last time I walked down Hollywood Boulevard ("The Walk of the Stars"), I was so appalled, I couldn't get out of there fast enough.  Between the hustlers, screwballs, and weirdo's, the place gave off a vibe of cheapness that I've never been able to shake.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: The Producers (1968)

The Story: These days, when you go to YouTube for clips of "The Producers," you get the 2005 filmed version of Mel Brooks' Broadway adaptation.  Not my preference, but that's the way it goes.  The Broadway version made zillions of dollars.  However, it is astounding to note that Mel Brooks' screenplay for The Producers won the 1968 Best Original Screenplay Oscar beating out the scripts for The Battle for Algiers, Hot Millions (by Peter Ustinov), Faces (by John Cassavettes), and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.

(pause for effect)

And I really can't kick about it.

Because it really is a splendid script of invention and wackiness and heart, born of Brooks' days scripting for "Your Show of Shows" and many show business personalities that Brooks had to suffer with in his career-building days. The measure of hysteria that Wilder evokes is at once terrifying and astoundingly funny. Before this scene, Mostel has been doing the heavy lifting with a pyrotechnical display of energy and theatrics, while Wilder has had only to sit back and get tossed about by the Zero tailspin. With this scene, Wilder finally gets to dominate, and his reactions send the previously alpha Mostel into a temporary holding pattern--it at least compels him to stand still.

And Wilder is amazing. Supposedly, to get to this agitated state, he had to imagine the worst thing Mostel could do to him, and it works like gangbusters. Wilder's face turns a florid purple, and one worries about him popping a blood vessel, but the comic timing is precise--Brooks wouldn't settle for anything less--and the scene builds to a boil and continues to bubble even turned down to "simmer." It's testament to these two comic geniuses (okay, three, but let's talk about the actors), the veteran and the novice, that the scene is as hysterical as it is.

Accepting his Oscar, Brooks said, "I want to thank Gene Wilder, and Gene Wilder, and Gene Wilder." I think he's still thanking him.

The Story: Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) hapless schlemiel Broadway producer, is scraping out a living seducing ancient old widows for their money on the promise of an upcoming mythical production. On this sourful day, he is being audited by accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who, thinking out loud, surmises that a Producer could, in effect, make more money with a flop than a hit, an idea that sends Bialystock into insane flights of avarice.


Action!


BIALYSTOCK: Don't you see, Bloom. Darling, Bloom, glorious Bloom, it's so simple.

BIALYSTOCK: Step one: We find the worst play in the world -- a sure flop.

BIALYSTOCK: Step two: I raise a million dollars -- there's a lot of little old ladies in this world.


BIALYSTOCK: Step three: You go back to work on the books. Phoney lists of backers -- one for the government, one for us. You can do it, Bloom, you're a wizard.


BIALYSTOCK: Step four: We open on Broadway and before you can say...


BIALYSTOCK: ...'Step five' we close on Broadway. Step six: We take our million dollars and fly to Rio de Janiero.
BIALYSTOCK GRABS BLOOM IN HIS ARMS AND BEGINS TO LEAD HIM IN A WILD TANGO AROUND THE ROOM.


BIALYSTOCK: (sings) "Ah, Rio, Rio by the seao, meo, myo, meo ..."


BLOOM (afraid of the scheme, afraid of the dance, afraid of Bialystock): Mr. Bialystock. No. Wait. Please. You're holding me too tight. I'm an honest man. You don't understand.


BIALYSTOCK (leading Bloom as he talks): No, Bloom, you don't understand. This is fate, this is destiny. There's no avoiding it.
AT THIS POINT, BIALYSTOCK SWEEPS BLOOM INTO AN ELABORATE DIP.


BLOOM (the back of his head practically touching the floor): Mr. Bialystock, not more than five minutes ago, against my better judgment, I doctored your books. That, sir, is the ultimate extent of my criminal life.


BIALYSTOCK RAISES HIS FISTS TO THE HEAVENS IN DESPAIR. BLOOM, EXPERIENCING A DEFINITE LACK OF SUPPORT, GOES CRASHING TO THE FLOOR.

BIALYSTOCK: OOOOOHH! OOOOOHH! OOOOOHH! OOOOOHH! I WANT THAT MONEY!

CAMERA ON BLOOM AS HE LIES STRICKEN ON THE FLOOR.

BLOOM (to himself): Oh, I fell on my keys. (he shifts slightly to make himself more comfortable) I've got to get out of here.


BIALYSTOCK (angrily hovering over Bloom): You miserable, cowardly, wretched little caterpillar. Don't you ever want to become a butterfly?


BIALYSTOCK: Don't you want to spread your wings and flap your way to glory?
BIALYSTOCK FLAPS HIS ARMS LIKE A HUGE PREDATORY BIRD.
BLOOM (his eyes widened in terror): You're going to jump on me!


BIALYSTOCK STARES AT HIM INCREDULOUSLY.


BLOOM: You're going to jump on me! I know you're going to jump on me -- like Nero jumped on Poppea!


BIALYSTOCK (nonplussed): Who???


BLOOM (by now he is shrieking): Poppea! She was his wife! And she was unfaithful to him! So he got mad and he jumped on her! Up and down, up and down, until he squashed her like a bug! Please don't jump on me!


BIALYSTOCK (shouting and jumping up and down next to Bloom): I'm not going to jump on you!


BLOOM (rolling away in terror): Aaaaaaaaaa!


BIALYSTOCK (hoisting Bloom to his feet): Will you get a hold on yourself.


BLOOM (up on his feet and running for cover): Don't touch me! Don't touch me!
HE RUNS TO A CORNER OF THE ROOM. TRAPPED! HE TURNS.


BIALYSTOCK: What are you afraid of? I'm not going to hurt you! What's the matter with you?
BLOOM: I'm hysterical. I'm having hysterics. I'm hysterical. I can't stop. When I get like this, I can't stop. I'm hysterical.


BIALYSTOCK RUSHES TO THE DESK. PICKS UP A CARAFE OF WATER AND SHOSHES ITS CONTENTS INTO BLOOM'S FACE.

BLOOM: I'm wet! I'm wet! I'm hysterical and I'm wet!

BIALYSTOCK IN A DESPERATE MOVE TO STOP BLOOM'S HYSTERICS,SLAPS HIM ACROSS THE FACE.


BLOOM (holding his face): I'm in pain! And I'm wet! And I'm still hysterical!
BIALYSTOCK RAISES HIS HAND AGAIN.


BLOOM: No! No! Don't hit. It doesn't help. It only increases my sense of danger.


BIALYSTOCK: What can I do? What can I do? You're getting me hysterical.
BLOOM: Go away from me. You frighten me. (he indicates the sofa) Sit over there.
BIALYSTOCK SITS ON THE SOFA.


BIALYSTOCK (exasperated): Okay. I'm way over here. Is that better?


BLOOM: It's a little better, but you still look angry.

BIALYSTOCK: How's this? (he smiles sweetly)


BLOOM: Good. Good. That's nice. That's very nice. I think I'm coming out of it now. Yes. Yes. I'm definitely coming out of it. Thank you for smiling. It helped a great deal.


BIALYSTOCK (for want of something sensible): Well, you know what they say...


BIALYSTOCK: ..."Smile and the world smiles with you." Heh, heh.


BIALYSTOCK (to himself) The man should be in a straight jacket.


BIALYSTOCK(to Bloom) Feeling better?


BLOOM: Much, thank you. But I am a little lightheaded. Maybe I should eat something. Hysterics have a way of severely depleting one's blood sugar, you know.


BIALYSTOCK: They certainly do. They certainly do. Come, let me take you to lunch.
BLOOM: That's very kind of you, Mr. Bialystock, but I ...
BIALYSTOCK (interrupting): Nonsense, nonsense, my dear boy. I lowered your blood sugar, but least I could do is raise it a little.
BLOOM LOOKS AT HIM SUSPICIOUSLY.
BIALYSTOCK: And I promise you faithfully, I won't discuss that silly scheme to make a million dollars anymore.



The Producers
 (originally "Springtime for Hitler")

Words by Mel Brooks

Pictures by Joseph F. Coffey and Mel Brooks


The Producers is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.