Wednesday, March 29, 2017

84 Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road (David Hugh Jones, 1987) You never know where something delightful might come in, like a parcel of unexpected mail that can lighten one's mood, or found money in a not-recently worn garment, or the spurious act of kindness.  The "nice" surprise. 84 Charing Cross is one of those, one of the films I've known about, mostly for its score by George Fenton, and that's about it, save that it starred Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, both of whom were in a popularity valley, Hopkins doing TV movies at that time (four years away from The Silence of the Lambs), she doing one movie a year, often at the behest of her producer-director husband, Mel Brooks (who produced this one).  

Good property, too. Brooks tended to bankroll movies from stage-plays (or based on stage-plays), and 84 Charing Cross made it to the boards after being published in book form by author Helene Hanff, documenting her decades long relationship with a London book store. This was in the day before the Internet, before Amazon, even before Barnes & Noble or Tower Books or the massive retailers who would buy books by the case-load to over-populate bargain bins. These were Mom & Pop operations, or even older, in dark rooms that smelled of dust and yellowing paper, where books had cloth or leather bindings, and even opening one of them was an adventure. I could spend an entire day in one of these hovels, marveling at what one could find waiting on the heavy oaken shelves. Before they actually became warehouses, it was the closest thing to a warehouse of information and just following a line across the Dewey Decimal System could lead you to an amazing surprise. 
The Marks and Cohen Secondhand Bookseller at 84 Charing Cross Road

The story begins in New York, 1949. Hanff, an editor by trade a playwright by desire, is looking for specific books around the city and coming up with bupkis. A stray ad in the Saturday Review of Books mentions the bookseller in London, Marks & Co, at the 84, Charing Cross Road address and she writes to the place looking for her treasures. She is answered by Fred Doel, buyer, who sends her what he has, mentions the price and the two work out a pounds to dollars conversion with some sloppage in change here and there, with a relationship of immediate trust established, and an expertise that Hanff comes to rely on and marvel at.

Before long, her hearing of food shortages in Britain inspires her to send food-stuffs to the store, which are distributed amongst the employees and generally making their life increasingly special. Before long, everyone is on a first name basis in correspondence and the letters and orders from Hanff become a special treat for the business. It becomes a long distance love story of mutual kindnesses and respect.
Hanff (Anne Bancroft) leaves a long ash watching Brief Encounter (in a theater, kids!)

Lovely story, and certainly something that anyone who has a favorite place of business or customer for whom business is never usual can relate to.  And it's one of those movies that would particularly appeal to the blue-haired old ladies in matinees for whom the shocks should not be roller-coasterish or beyond community standards. The performances are comfortable—Bancroft's verbose and brazen, Hopkins, donnish and in that automaton-ically restrained emotional manner he'd perfect in Remains of the Day, Judi Dench has very little to do as his wife, other than dignified fretting, but does it with an immediacy and a good-natured bantering with Hopkins that feels right.

If there is one complaint, it is that, after awhile, the director gets weary with the cutting back and forth and gets a little cutesy with the transitions, at one point Hanff addresses the camera which is jarring, and then there is a sequence where both characters are talking to the camera with no pretext of papyrus, writing or reading interpolated as voice-over. They appear (God help us) to be on Skype, and by that time the illusion and some of the magic disappears. They're not talking to each other anymore, as we've gotten used to. Instead the fourth wall is broken and they're talking to us, right at us, and, frankly, the movie treating the audience as an unnecessary go-between is rather a step-down from our previous role as omniscient viewer.  I didn't appreciate it much.

But other than that little spoiler, it's fun, nicely unique, and quite refreshing.

                         Helene Hanff                                                   The Doel family, Frank to the right

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Just Claws
That Old Man Logan...He Just Keeps "Shnikting" Along...

The X-Men series of films have had their good and bad editions, while the off-shoots of the most popular character from the comics and the films—Hugh Jackman's Wolverine—haven't had a really good film at all.

Until now.

Better late than never, I say, and it's extremely fortunate in that Jackman has stated Logan is his last appearance as Wolverine (yeah, we'll see...never say never). What is ironic is that, in this last Wolverine film, the best thing about it is that it strays from X-Men lore and comes up with a new concept that takes risks, if only because there is no continuity that needs to be saved and no sequel that degrades the stakes the character must overcome by ensuring his return. Logan treads No-X-Man's Land and that territory bears no marks of previous vehicles and feels as entirely fresh as an open road. 
The year is 2029 and all the X-Men are dead. No mutants have appeared in their wake. Their evolutionary pace has been stilled. John Howlett (Jackman) is making his way through life as a limousine driver-for-hire. He's older and not much wiser, suffering now from years of wounds as his healing powers are starting to shut down, while the adamantium lacing his bones is slowly killing him and he keeps himself going through the pain with pills and booze. His fares are enough to allow him to purchase special drugs from a surreptitious hospital contact.* But, they're not for him. They're for a special patient being secreted in Mexico.
That patient is Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), former head of the Xavier School for Gifted Children. Elderly now, and suffering from dementia, the old Professor X needs to be heavily sedated, or his mental powers, now erratic, will cause seizures that will paralyze everyone in a very large area surrounding him. One such seizure killed the last remaining X-Men and Xavier is wracked by guilt and depression. He is kept medicated and watched over by Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino mutant-tracker, who must stay out of the sun or face debilitating burns.
But, Wolverine is being triangulated: first, he is being sought out by a nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who has with her a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen)—Gabriela wants to hire Logan to take them to Canada where a secret facility named "Eden" can protect them; the second is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a "modified" security agent for an organization named "Alkili Transigen" who is also looking for Gabriela, if only to find Laura, and knows that Logan has been contacted by her. He also seems to know that Professor X is in Mexico and has a great interest in him, as well.
Before you know it, Gabriela is dead, and all parties are in Mexico duking it out, and it is only then that the truth about Laura is known—she is a mutant, raised in the facility of Alkili Transigen to create a new line of weaponized "muties" bred from the ones who have gone before, and she has been cloned from a very specific DNA strain—Logan's. She has the healing powers and the claws, but being female, has a bit more—as in nature, the claws in her hands are for attack, but the ones in her feet, are for defense. Laura, designated "X-23," is a fighting machine, and her skills are ferocious and often devious.
A prolonged attack in Mexico sets the mutants on the run, ostensibly to Canada, but, for the short term, out of the way of Pierce and Transigen's gang of bio-mechanically enhanced "Rievers." But, they're never too far away, having captured Caliban and torturing him to track the fugitives. At the same time, Logan the loner must learn to deal with the possibility of being a reluctant hero for the ones under his charge, something he resists for all the death and destruction in his wake; as he tells Laura, "Bad shit happens to people I care about" "Then I'll be fine," is her aware reply..
It is the best of the Wolverine films, and it might be the best of the X-Men films (they've all blurred in my head these days). Since their inception (X-ception?), Marvel's mutant movies have been plagued by a fuzziness that has more to do with the inability to focus on any one member or conflict because the things are stacked from fade-in to fade-out with too many characters all demanding some amount of screen-time (you can see the same thing happening with the Avengers line of films, only two in). Here, Logan doesn't spend the whole movie ignoring the platitudes of dozens of pep-talkers, it's just him being "Mad Max" wrestling with his own conscience to get in the fight rather than being lectured to, constantly. Just as sure as the adamantium inside is killing him, he's shredding himself internally over his reluctance to commit.
Perhaps taking some courage from the box-office of Deadpool (there is a short, goofy interlude featuring that character pre-film), Logan is rated R—and a hard R—for violence and pervasive shnikting.** It is a problem with the X-Men films—and Wolverine in particular—that this most popular character is also the most violent, slashing, carving, dicing, gashing, eviscerating, and disembowling anything that comes across his path. The comics get away with it by showing the side of the victim that isn't being shredded or by hiding it in a swing-arc. The movies get away with it by keeping the action off-frame or (dare I say it?) "cutting away," thus (dare I say it again?) "under-cutting" the character and his ginzu-power. Logan's Wolverine cuts off hands, heads, guts people, rams his claws into eyes, foreheads and delivers one nasty upper-cut. 
"One nasty uppercut." They should have named him "Pierce"
...and curses like a sailor with a limited vocabulary. But, it's the surgeries that earned the rating. It lends the movie and the character a bit more desperation than we've seen previously and, in so doing, raises the stakes (ouch...can't get away from the puns) of the film.
Director James Mangold did the last unimpressive 'Wolverine-in-Japan" film which managed to not bring to mind any of the strong iconography of the comics in that setting. Here, however, telling a more personal story, with a much-weakened character and with less X-ephemera, that works far better than any previous attempts. And he ends it with a late, craggy Johnny Cash song (not "Hurt" as in the trailers—Mangold directed Walk the Line, the very good Cash bio-pic, by the way) that couldn't be more apt as a coda. Logan is tough and tender, and finally, does the character some justice, and makes the task of replacing Jackman a little bit more daunting. Good on them.
* And, seemingly, an endless supply of gasoline. That limo gets a lot of miles on it, and it's mileage must be incredible, as we never, ever see Logan fill the tank.

** I know, it's supposed to be "SNIKT!" but I was a sound-designer, dude, and when those claws go through wolverine's knuckle skin, it's going to make a "sch" sound so I think it's "SHNIKT!"

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: The Untouchables

The Story: It's about oaths. It's a very simple scene in David Mamet's script for The Untouchables. Elliott Ness has gone to "Good Cop" Jimmy Malone to ask for his help in bringing Al Capone to justice. But Capone is too big, too wiley, and has too many attachments to legitimate means to be had. And Malone has doubts--about himself, about this Ness fellow, about dying. The task is too important to be screwed up, and he just doesn't have any confidence in the "green" simon-pure Ness. The scene is about oaths and promises kept, and not casually. It's about determining responsibility and the measure of a man. 

Where else to meet, but in a Church. In the Police precinct, "the walls have ears," but in a Church, you have God's. You'd better mean what you say, and be right sure about it. Director Brian De Palma (one of those directors who never leaves anything to chance) shoots from just two angles*--both two-shots because the scene is about the two men and their needs: Ness' for Malone's help and expertise, and Malone for Ness' commitment. The first shot looks up at them from a forward pew, looking through their hands at their up-turned faces. In Malone's hands are his fob with his master key and a medal of St. Jude ("the patron saint of Lost Causes" "...and cops," as we'll find out later.), which swings like a guillotine at times in the scene. Ness' hands are folded together, as if in prayer, as if pleading. 

The other shot is more difficult to get--it required a split-focal lens that would keep both Ness and Malone in sharp focus despite their different proximities to the camera. Ness is in profile (an angle that connotes dismissal, or supplication) Malone is talking directly at Ness, and to the camera, and that angle is saved for the most dramatically charged speeches. Ness' face is soft, doughy, unsure. And Malone's is craggy, lined and in constant conflict—at points angry, pitying, weak, and hard. The men are talking about life and death—for themselves and the city of Chicago. Good intentions are not good enough. You have to do what needs to be done to win. To not win is to die. It's all or nothing. There is no "middle way." Commit or die. The scene begins with Ness looking at the medal in Malone's hands. It reaches its crux when Malone looks at Ness' praying hands. Both tell each men all they need to know.

The Set-Up: Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) has been charged to bring Chicago gangster Al "Scarface" Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice, and clean up the streets of Chicago. His first attempts have gone badly, and he begins to organize a special unit he can trust. He is first rebuffed by an elder beat-cop "Jimmy" Malone (Sean Connery), then is assigned an owlish accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). His spirits low, Ness is encouraged when Malone appears outside his office.

Malone: Okay. Let's go.
Ness: Where are we going?
Malone: These walls have ears.
Malone: You said you wanted to know how to "get" Capone. (Ness nods) Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying? What are you prepared to do?
Ness: Everything within the Law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do?
Malone: If you open the ball on these people, Mr. Ness, you must be prepared to go...all the way.
Malone: Because they won't give up the fight...until one of you is dead.
Ness: I wanna get Capone, I don't know how to get him.
Malone: You wanna "get" Capone? Here's how you get him: He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the Hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!
Malone: That's the Chicago way. That's how you "get" Capone.
Malone: you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm making you a deal. Do you want this deal?
Ness: I have sworn to put this man away, with any and all legal means at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well....the Lord hates a coward.
(Hits him..holds out his hand. Ness takes it.)

Malone: D'you know what a "blood-oath" is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good. 'cuz you just took one.

The Untouchables

Words by David Mamet

Pictures by Stephen H. Burum and Brian De Palma

The Untouchables is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

* Maybe the scene is so simple because it involves Connery. The story goes that Costner, Smith, Andy Garcia, Connery and De Palma were shooting the scene of the four "Untouchables" awaiting a "sting" operation in Canada. They're in a slap-dash shack--cold, nervous, anticipating--and Connery's Malone goes to each man in turn with a bit of advice on "how to wait." At the start of the day, De Palma said to Connery: "How you gonna play this, Sean?" "I'll sit over in the corner, reading a paper." "Okay."

Then Connery left the set. And as
Kim Basinger said of him: "Women love Sean. Sean loves golf." Connery learned to play golf from Robert Shaw while filming From Russia With Love, and has been slavishly devoted to the game for most of his life, often spending his working days finding an excuse to head to the links.
Connery, finding any excuse, on the set of Diamonds Are Forever.
De Palma spent the day shooting the scene with the other three, getting their close-ups and the "coverage" needed. Connery strolled in towards the end of the day, having played 18 holes. De Palma then shot his close-ups, one take, and the master shot of Connery wandering the room giving each man his advice, one take. The other three actors were amazed; they spent all day working, while Connery did two takes at the end of the day and played golf the rest of the time. They confronted Connery. "This isn't my first barbecue," was his amused reply.

Bear in mind, this is the role that won Connery his Oscar.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Get Out (2017)

Horror is Best in Black and White
"White Girls Do It To You Every Time"

I'm not a big fan of horror movies (I don't see everything), but the genre is extremely useful. Look at a new horror movie and the chances are good that you'll see the debut of an upcoming director fast-tracked to "Big" movies because of their sophomore efforts keeping the budget tight and the shots fast and purposeful. Horror is a great training ground for the movie art of manipulation and getting a rise out of the audience and the list of directors who got noticed slogging through the horror genre are long and frequently surprising. And when horror films are very very good (at being bad), they'll explore sub-texts of society and the psyche, sometimes overtly, or sometimes merely tickling a deeply recessed part of our alligator-brains to make the heart jump and our flight-or-flight instincts surface. Horror reduces us to the basics, removing all the drama and the time-wasting melodrama. Horror comes down to the primary drive of survival.

But survival from what makes it interesting.
After a prologue in which a young man is abducted in a somewhat pedestrian suburban neighborhood,* we focus on Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya in a great, understated performance) who is having a certain amount of trepidation over the weekend trip he's taking with his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). It is the usual anxiety any boyfriend might have going to meet his lover's parents, but there's also the added color that he's black—the way the film seats it, the problem is always that Chris is black, not that Rose is white, but the film is rooted in Chris' perspective and Rose has never brought up the issue with her parents, despite her protestations that there will be no "problems" ("He's going to tell you that he would have voted for Obama a third time" and, of course, he does). His buddy with the TSA, Rod (LilRey Howery) thinks it is a bad idea, very bad. Any time a black man goes to the house to visit his white girlfriend's parents is a BAD idea, bruh.
But that's not the only issue. Chris has insecurities and this is just the one on the closest burner. He suspects Rose might be cheating on him, despite her protestations—she protests a lot, you'll find during this movie—but the suspicion persists, groundless as it might be, to the point where it clouds anything else and everything is refracted through that jealous filter.
Chris shouldn't have worried about the parents—they are affluent liberals who are guilty as sin: Papa Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a semi-retired neurosurgeon (and yes, he WOULD have voted for a third term for Obama); Mama Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychologist/therapist specializing in anti-smoking therapies. They couldn't be more welcoming...with the tightest smiles without benefit of Botox injections. When brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) joins the party, he's a bit of a creep, but everybody thinks he's a creep, so it's okay. 
Then, there are the servants, who are "part of the family"—they've been around since Dean's parents needed care-taking and the Armitages couldn't bear to part with them, even though they "hate how it looks." Walter (Marcus Henderson) is a groundskeeper, who keeps an eye on Chris, and Georgina, the maid, (Betty Gabriel, who plays creepy as hell and has one of the best repetitive line readings in a movie—"Oh no, no, no, no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-No!"—since Kevin Spacey told Alan Arkin to go to lunch in Glengarry Glen Ross) is a hovering presence. Chris finds them vaguely threatening. "It's not so much WHAT they say, but how they say it..." he tells Rose.
The same could be said for all the guests at a weekend family function—it's not what they say so much, as how unctuously they say it—a little too cheery, a little too welcoming, no conflict, just a little too "TOO". Then, a night-time walk around the grounds makes Chris extraordinarily uncomfortable, and a resulting chat with Missy over tea gets extraordinarily weird. Maybe, she hypnotizes him, sending him to a weird nether-world she calls "the sunken place." Maybe it happened. Maybe it was a dream. Whatever it was, he doesn't want to smoke any more.
Get Out is the work of Jordan Peele, one of the brilliant sketch comedy team Keye and Peele, late of their self-titled Comedy Central show, and there is comedy here, of a particularly cerebral kind—terror and laughter, tragedy and comedy being Arbus twins of each other, each evoking honest instinctive reactions. As a new director, he knows he can get a small-budgeted project green-lit in the horror field, just as he knows that horror doesn't have to have a big budget to sneak in Big Ideas, that it can be as simple a matter as casting an African-American actor as the most competent-guy-in-the-room (as George Romero did in Night of the Living Dead—a move that was made because Duane Jones was the best actor in the cast). Here, Peele makes the "minority experience" real for anyone not living "in the sociological skin," presenting the foundation of dread that the suspicion of the targeted experience on a daily basis with the ignition of blue lights in the rear-view.
"Give me the keys, Rose"
Get Out is smart, funny, and horrific in a wild, bizarre way. Peele has plans for other horror films that one hopes are as wild in concept, but steeped in the psychological reality that this one is. They could do a lot of good by doing bad as all Get Out.

* Interestingly, it is the second use of "Run, Rabbit, Run" (after its use in the bombing sequence of Miss Peregrine's School for Unusual Children) in the last few months. References keep folding back on themselves in movies, just as there are frequently competitions between similarly themed movies that open nearly simultaneously.