Friday, September 30, 2016

The Ides of March

Written at the time of the film's release.

"'The Situation' in The Situation Room"
"A Little Problem with the DnC"

The bobble-head version of George Clooney is back in The Ides of March, the new film directed by...George Clooney. You remember the bobble-head Clooney, don't you? It was the loosey-goosey version of the actor that was popular during his "ER" days, a combination of casualness and arrogance, and it made up his persona in his early film career, before the time he decided that he'd get serious about things after the debacle that was Batman & Robin.

Well, that wobble of the head returns in Ides, adapted from the play by Beau Willimon (by Willimon, Clooney and Grant Heslov) called "Farragut North." I've always seen that wobble as an indication that whichever character he played with it had a lack of moral rectitude, an imperfection of the spine or sensibility that disconnected the head from the rest of the persona—a flaw that lent unpredictability to what actions they'd take, a toss of the head like a toss of the coin. And it is one of the ways that Clooney telegraphs what his Governor Mike Morris, candidate for President on the democratic ticket, might be capable of. It keeps you guessing, whatever the words from his mouth might indicate, about the actions this man might take in his run for power.
It is tough to express surprise at the roads political films—or films about politics—might take these days. They're all about disenchantment with the process and how power—or even the quest for it—corrupts. It's an old saw that goes back long before Shakespeare and back to The Greeks. And very few films—or plays—about the Court of Kings, fact or fictional,  can look clear-eyed at the process, thinking that ideals might remain intact. Even Mr. Smith Goes to Washington deals with the innate corruption of government and pleads for a clinging to of ideals from our public servants...or even an acknowledgment that they are servants, rather than our Masters. What was nice about things like the television series "The West Wing" was that, despite the maneuverings, manipulations and moral morasses that went with the job, public service was declared an altruistic aspiration, a noble thing, however down and dirty things got to accomplish anything. Most, though, like The Candidate or All the Kings Men (any version) have it as a "given" that compromise of purpose, process and principles are par for the course, that it is next to impossible to determine the true measure of a political man. The only variable is how corrupt that man (it's usually a man, and white) can be. Post-Watergate and The Lewinsky Affair, even a film like Absolute Power assumes, without doubt, that The President of the United States is capable of the most craven of murders. The Ides of March doesn't swerve from that cynicism.
The film begins with
Morris' Head of Communications, Stephen Myers (the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling—if his Drive performance is a "1" and Crazy, Stupid Love is a "10," in dramatics, this is is an average "5") approaching a microphone, coming slowly into focus, a process that is completed when he is at the podium—the shot will be mirrored later in the show. He begins to slap-dashedly spew homilies about his religion, and then the speech deteriorates into babble. Not that it is important, he is merely a stand-in, checking a microphone for his candidate at ;a technical rehearsal for a televised debate. It would pass without much notice, except at the real debate, Morris uses the same lines words for words defending his lack of religion when challenged on the point. It is clear, at that point, that Myers is Morris' surrogate, putting words in his mouth, articulating the governor's message, packaging the man to appeal to the lowest common denominator and the highest number of registered voters.
The campaign manager is
Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a jaded veteran of the political trenches, spinning, manipulating and point-man for acquiring the parties' nomination a few months down the road. Zara is the Big Picture Packager, Myers is Dr. Details. On the other side is campaign manager Tom Duffy, who is played by Paul Giamatti—and let me just say what a pleasure it is to see Hoffman and Giamatti, two of the best character-spinners in movies today going up against each other. It is a match made in Political Purgatory.

Before too much gets underway, Clooney introduces another character in a shot that tracks her movements, flouncing, buffed, polished and toned, towards campaign HQ: this is
Molly Stearns, intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and just the way Clooney introduces her puts you on alert that she is important to the drama, far more than her job of bringing coffee would indicate. Wood is a fine actress, and as with Down in the Valley, she's able to convey twin faces of innocence and corruption, the theme of the film at which she is the fulcrum. Already one sees where things are going, but one wonders if Clooney has the directing chops to make it fresh.
He does...kinda. There are nice little touches of how the film seems to bifurcate into twin halves reflecting each other,
* the actors make the dialog snap and there's just enough "play" in the film to keep you guessing about what is "real" or political theater. And there's one scene that's shot very simply—a tension-inducing pull-in to a black van that makes you suspect the worse (which, for some it might be) that is rather nifty.

Ultimately, though, as well as the film is presented and played, it is not telling us anything we don't already know...or fear...that hasn't been said for the last 60 years, when, post-Eisenhower and the star-struck Kennedy years, we ditched the notion that politicians are concerned with the People, rather than their prestige and the perks. The Ides of March has no spine of its own to speak of and brings us nothing new, offering no solution (not even providing dramatic satisfaction)...but merely more of the same, just like every election season

* Clooney did a good interview with Charlie Rose about the film—Rose has a cameo for verisimilitude, as do a few other familiar talking heads—in which he said "The first half of the film is for democrats and the second half is for republicans." Exactly right.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1966) It starts normally enough. Most nightmares do.

American Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), newly moved to London following with her brother Steven (Keir Dullea) who has moved for a prominent new job there, goes to pick up her daughter Bunny at the private school she's just enrolled her in. 

But, she can't find her. Nobody at the school remembers her, and can't recall seeing her. The teachers (including Anna Massey) are trying to deal with a crush of new kids starting off to school, so it's a little hard to pin-point the one individual child from the pack. But Ann is insistent, almost to the point of hysteria, and Steven is no help, poking around and questioning the odd woman (Martita Hunt) who lives above the school, berating the teachers and being oddly, vaguely threatening. Fearing a "bit of a row", the police are called in to investigate.
In walks Superintendant Newhouse (Sir Laurence Olivier) and his adjutant Williams (Clive Revill). Newhouse is a bit fusty, a might impatient, trying to understand a situation he doesn't quite fathom. He has an hysterical mother, a "helicoptering" brother, and a "missing person" that no one seems to have seen. It's all quite queer. He presses for details that seem to be there but no corroborating witnesses. He starts a line of inquiry that begins with a search of Steven and Ann's apartment.
When they get there, all traces of "Bunny Lake" are gone. No clothes, no toys, no dolls. Nothing. There isn't a sign that a child has ever lived there. Ever. Newhouse begins to suspect (as do we) that "Bunny Lake" is not only missing, but never existed in the first place. She may just be a figment of Ann's imagination, and the investigation changes from a "missing person" case to an investigation of Ann's psychological state. Steven volunteers that Ann had an imaginary friend as a child that was named "Bunny," and that steers Newhouse to try a different line of inquiry.
He takes Ann to a local pub where he begins an odd line of investigation. He asks Ann about "Bunny" and their history, hoping to liquor her up to find the truth. He learns that, while in the States, Ann had a boyfriend who got her pregnant and skipped out and Ann kept the baby, whom she called "Bunny." Steven was livid at the boyfriend's behavior and had even threatened him, but decided, instead, to get Ann out of that environment, taking a job in London and moving there with Ann and the child.
If the move had improved Steven's temper, it isn't noticeable when he storms into the pub and accuses Newhouse of trying to "railroad" his sister, and, instead of trying to find "Bunny," of trying to prove his sister is crazy. He warns the police to stay away from her...and him and do their jobs finding the missing child. Newhouse demurs, but he widens the search to find out what he can about the Lakes...all of them. 
Meanwhile, for the audience, the list of possibilities grows with every scene. That crazy old lady in the school's attic apartment doesn't seem the most stable of people, the cook who took charge of "Bunny" in the morning goes missing as well. Then, there's the actor-neighbor of the Lakes (Noel Coward), who can only be described as "pan-sexual," making a pass at Ann when they're alone. Maybe there is a "Bunny Lake," given all the potential suspects that would be handy to commit the crime. Maybe there isn't. And maybe Ann is being "gas-lit," led down a particular path to drive her crazy.
Adapted by John Mortimer (he created "Rumpole of the Bailey") and his wife Penelope (The Pumpkin Eater)—with a reported assist from Ira Levin—from a novel by Marryamm Modell, Bunny Lake is Missing is directed by Otto Preminger, a director who vacillated between prestige projects and controversial ones, to the point where one wondered whether he favored making good movies or headlines. But, he rarely played it safe, except in matters of budget. Here, he combines the genres of noir (with which he was all too familiar, having directed one of the classic ones, Laura) and the psychological drama, which Hitchcock had exploited successfully before and who had reached the box-office apex with Psycho.
Since 1960, Preminger had produced and directed big budget blockbusters with novel credibility—Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal, Exodus, and In Harm's Way. With Bunny Lake... there was budgetary down-sizing, so that less money was at stake, but Preminger's reputation was such that he could still get actors like Olivier and Coward, even if the film was small in scope and less than seemly in content. He changed the book's location from New York to London (probably for budget reasons, but also to benefit from an unfamiliar British cast and enhancing the disorientation of the "Ann" character). And somewhere along the way, they also changed the ending of the book to lend an extra element of surprise. 

Preminger favored long "takes," getting the most mileage out of his actors and his shooting day, editing being dictated by how things went on stage—nothing fancy. Preminger, who favored black and white for cinematography whenever he could, filled the screen with rich areas of darkness, learned from his early noir's.
Bunny Lake is engaging, fairly engrossing for most of its length with odd curiosities along the way. That it doesn't quite fulfill the promise of maintaining it might be a bit in the playing of it, rather than in the preparation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (George Pal, 1964) One of those movies I wanted to see as a kid, but never got the chance. An ersatz Western directed by film-fantasist George Pal (The War of the WorldsThe Time Machine) with a screenplay by the mordantly sunny Charles Beaumont, responsible for many of the best mind-twisting "Twilight Zone" episodes. Dr. Lao is the "Mysterious Stranger" who comes into the troubled town of Abalone with a circus that exposes truth, shines a light on hypocrisy, and turns lives around. One might be a bit off-put by Lao's initial pigeon-English, but it's as ephemeral as everything else about Dr. Lao, for he's not any nationality (As the locals say: "He looks like a 'Jap' to me" "Naw, he's more Chinese" "How d'you know that?" "'Cause I'm not stupid!"), sticks to no dialect or any sex, for that matter—if he's made of matter, at all! One should be more concerned with the idea that a "Good Man" will un-starch the collar of the Local school-marm, except that this transformation (by the Circus' "Pan") leaving Barbara Eden sweating and panting is bravurely provocative for a G-rated kid's film. That's something Disney wouldn't try! 
Everything turns nicely-nicely at the end, but there is trauma along the way to balance it. Tony Randall plays Lao beneath all sorts of William Tuttle (another "TZ" alum) make-up that doesn't hamper the elasticity of his performance, and as a kind of bow/acknowledgement he appears in the circus audience gravely shaking his head.

But back to Beaumont. Check out this thesis speech delivered in low reverent tones by Randall:
"The whole world is a circus, if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you're tired, and comes up when you want to be on the move. That's real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night with the Moon embracing it. Oh, my boy. That's circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery--a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think "I'm alive, and being alive is fantastic!" Every time such a thing happens, you're a part of the Circus of Dr. Lao."
That is heavy stuff, delivered in an intoxicating rhythm and smoothness of tone--it's joy mounting as the commonness of the examples increases, getting down to the dirt. That's a great speech. And as Beaumont could be dark in tone, his words could excite and throw apart any veil of despair. But even if that speech gets a little heavy, Beaumont has the cure. "I don't understand," the child answers. Lao grabs the top of his head and leaps over it. "Neither do I!" he exults, and begins a high-kicking dance. Life is too wonderful to spend your time saying how wonderful it is. Use it. Dance!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: When Harry Met Sally

The Story:  Everybody's a critic, really.

This scene from When Harry Met Sally starts out as a rather interesting discussion on the ending of Casablanca from a (uniquely, one must say) male and female perspective and how twains don't meet. Casablanca (do we need to mention there's a spoiler here?) ends with the heroine having to choose between the two men in her life (even if she is somewhat pushed in one direction over the other—something that's barely mentioned). From his perspective, it's sadly romantic—"he's" doing what he's doing for the good of the world, and his sacrifice is noble and heroic. From her perspective, "she's" doing what she's doing because it's practical—it's better to be the first lady of Czechoslovakia than stay with a guy who runs a bar (said that way it makes perfect sense). From her perspective, it's the better future that can be obtained, and from his perspective it's about the great sex (which, if anywhere, occurred during a scene dissolve), which, to a man, might be considered practical.

And, bear in mind here, this is Sally and Harry's views (filtered through the pen and ink of Nora Ephron); in any man-woman perspective, "results may vary."

And...bear in mind, again...this is the first of two When Harry Met Sally scenes set in a diner: in this one, Harry has the upper hand; in the second, more famous "I'll-have-what-she's having" scene, Sally has the advantage. They'll also take a look at Casablanca later in the movie and there, no controversy: "perfect movie/perfect ending." The structure of the movie is "Before/After," comparing and contrasting two similar situations in two different times in their lives, showing how far the two people have evolved from their "scruffy" days and have turned into older, wiser people who then (and only then) might be right for each other.

The fundamental things still apply, as time goes by.

The Set-Up: Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) is getting a ride from Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) back to New York after college in Chicago has let out.  They don't get along all that well.


(a while later, still in the car)
Sally: You're wrong. 
Harry: I'm not wrong, he wants... 
Sally: You're wrong. 
Harry: ...he wants her to leave that's why he puts her on the plane. 
Sally: I don't think she wants to stay. 
Harry: Of course she wants to stay. Wouldn't you rather be with Humphrey Bogart than the other guy? 
Sally: I don't want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca married to a man who runs a bar. I probably sound very snobbish to you but I don't.
Harry: You'd rather be in a passionless marriage. 
Sally: And be the first lady of Czechoslovakia. 
Harry: Than live with the man you've had the greatest sex of your life with, and just because he owns a bar and that is all he does. 
Sally: Yes. And so would any woman in her right mind, women are very practical, even Ingrid Bergman, which is why she gets on the plane at the end of the movie. 
(They pull up to a road side cafe.) 
Harry: I understand. 
Sally: What? What? 
Harry: Nothing. 
Sally: What? 
Harry: Forget about it. 
Sally: For.. What? Forget about what? 
Harry: It's not important. 
Sally: No just tell me. 
Harry: Obviously you haven't had great sex yet. 
Harry: (Turns to waitress) Two please. 
Waitress:: Right over there. 
Sally: Yes I have. 
Harry: No you haven't. 
Sally: It just so happens that I have had plenty of good sex.
(Silence, the whole restaurant looks at Sally. Sally realises what she had done, walks carefully with a tilted head towards the table.) 
Harry: With whom? 
Sally: What? 
Harry: With whom did you have this great sex? 
Sally: I'm not going to tell you that! 
Harry: Fine, don't tell me. 
Sally: Shel Gordon. 
Harry: Shel? Sheldon? No, no, you didn't have great sex with ... Sheldon. 
Sally: I did too. 
Harry: No you didn't. 
Harry: A Sheldon can do your income taxes. If you need a root canal Sheldon's your man, but humping and pumping is not Sheldon's strong suit. 
Harry: It's the name. Do it to me 'Sheldon',
Harry:'re an animal 'Sheldon', ride me big 'Sheldon'. 
Harry: Doesn't work. 
Waitress: Hi, 
Waitress: what can I get ya? 
Harry: I'll have a number three. 
Sally: I'd like the chef salad please with the oil and vinegar on the side and the apple pie a la mode. 
Waitress: Chef and apple a la mode. 
Sally: But I'd like the pie heated... 
Sally: ...and I don't want the ice cream on top I want it on the side and I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it 
Sally: ...if not then no ice cream just whipped cream 
Sally:...but only if it's real if it's out of a can then nothing. 
Waitress: Not even the pie? 
Sally: No, just the pie, but then not heated. 
Waitress: Uh huh. 
Sally: What?
Harry: Nothing, nothing. 
Harry: So how come you broke up with Sheldon?
Sally: How you know we broke up?
Harry: Because if you didn't break up you wouldn't be here with me, you'd be off with Sheldon the wonder-schlong.
Sally: First of all, I am not *with* you, and second of all it is none of your business why we broke up.
Harry: You're right, you're right, I don't want to know.
Sally: Well if you must know, it was because he was very jealous and I had these days-of-the-week underpants.
Harry: (imitates a wrong answer buzzer) Uah! I'm sorry I need a judge's ruling on this...days-of-week underpants.
Sally: Yes. They had the days of the week on them and I thought they were sort of funny. And then one day Sheldon says to me, 'You never wear Sunday'. It's all suspicious, where was Sunday, where was Sunday? And I told him and he didn't believe me. 
Harry: Why? 
Sally: They don't make Sunday. 
Harry: Why? 
 Sally: Because of God. 
(They've finished eating.) 
Sally: (talking to herself) Ok, so fifteen percent of my share is ninety... six ninety. This leaves seven.
Sally:(To Harry) What? 
Sally: Do I have something on my face? 
Harry: You're a very attractive person. 
Sally: Thank you. 
Harry: Amanda never said how attractive you were. 
Sally: Well maybe she doesn't think I'm attractive. 
Harry: I don't think it's a matter of opinion, empirically you are attractive. 
Sally: Amanda is my friend. 
Harry: So? 
Sally: So you're going with her. 
Harry: So? 
Sally: So you're coming on to me! 
Harry: No I wasn't. What? 
(Sally is not impressed, jaw drops, wide eyes) 
Harry: Can't a man say a woman is attractive without it being a come-on? Alright, alright, let's just say just for the sake of argument that it was a come-on. What do you want me to do about it? I take it back, ok? I take it back. 
Sally: You can't take it back. 
Harry: Why not? 
Sally: Because it's already out there. 
Harry: Oh gees, what are we suppose to do, call the cops? It's already out there. 
Sally: Just let it lie, ok? 
Harry: Great! Let it lie. That's my policy. 
Harry: That's what I always say, let it lie. 
Harry: Wanna spend the night at a motel? See what I did? I didn't let it lie. 
Sally: Harry. 
Harry: I said I wouldn't and I didn't. 
Sally: Harry. 
Harry: I went the other way. 
Sally: Harry. 
Harry: What? 
Sally: We are just going to be friends, ok? 
Harry: Great! Friends! It's the best thing. 
(On the road once more) 
Harry: You realise of course that we can never be friends. 
Sally: Why not? 
Harry: What I'm saying is... and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form, is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way. 
Sally: That's not true, I have a number of men friends and there's is no sex involved. 
Harry: No you don't. 
Sally: Yes I do. 
Harry: No you don't. 
Sally: Yes I do. 
Harry: You only think you do. 
Sally: You're saying I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge? 
Harry: No, what I'm saying is they all want to have sex with you. 
Sally: They do not. 
Harry: Do too. 
Sally: They do not. 
Harry: Do too. 
Sally: How do you know? 
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive, he always wants to have sex with her. 
Sally: So you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive. 
Harry: Nuh, you pretty much wanna nail 'em too. 
Sally: What if they don't want to have sex with you? 
Harry: Doesn't matter, because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story. 
Sally: Well I guess we're not going to be friends then. 
Harry: Guess not. 
Sally: That's too bad. You are the only person I knew in New York.

When Harry Met Sally

Words by Nora Ephron

Pictures by Barry Sonenfeld and Rob Reiner

When Harry Met Sally is available on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment.