December 29, 2008

0 Brief Reviews

GUN CRAZY (1949) ***½
Film noir is one of my pet genres. I've been waiting years to see this one, a highly regarded work from the era when the genre reached its fullest expression, and it didn't disappoint me. Director Joseph H. Lewis spent years directing B-movies for various studios before gaining attention for a stylishly directed, noirish little thriller called My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). Gun Crazy was made the same year as Nicholas Ray's similar They Live by Night, and those two films were huge influences on Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, in which traces of each are plainly visible.

Gun Crazy
is a crime-spree movie, the story of a young man (John Dall) and woman (Peggy Cummins) who throw off all societal inhibitions and go on an anarchic binge of bank and payroll robberies. The thing that first brings them together is a clearly erotic obsession with guns. The thing that distinguishes them from each other is his refusal to use his gun to kill, and her barely controlled impulses to use her gun for violence against others. Once they start on their spree, there is no turning back, and there is little doubt that they are ultimately doomed. It's no wonder Gun Crazy was such an influence on early films of the French New Wave like Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and Godard's Breathless.

The photography by Russell Harlan is full of striking visual flourishes including asymmetrical compositions and unconventional camera placement. The numerous scenes shot from the back seat of the getaway car create a perceptible sense of heightened realism, especially one very long, unbroken take of a robbery in the middle of the movie, where Cummins gets out of the car to distract a policeman. The film's atmospheric finale, on a small island in a reedy, fog-shrouded marsh, is a model of achieving maximum effect with minimal means. The British Cummins—with her Bonnie Parker beret, full, sensuous lips, snub nose, insolent expression, and slightly lock-jawed speech—is the epitome of the alluring femme fatale, and Dall, as the maladjusted but sensitive young sharpshooter in sexual thrall to her, expresses just the right amount of internal conflict over their actions. The screenplay, co-credited to Millard Kaufmann, was actually co-written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, using Kaufmann as a front. Highly recommended to all devotees of film noir.

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) **
To make a truly terrible movie is not an easy thing to do. The movie must be intended to be taken seriously, made with reasonable care and an adequate budget, and involve respected and talented film artists. But for some reason, often a series of misguided artistic choices, it simply misses the mark completely, its only interest the mystery of how something with so much apparent potential turned out to be so dreadful.

Duel in the Sun, a Western directed by King Vidor and written and produced by David O. Selznick, is spectacularly bad. Its every element self-consciously inflated, the film is paradoxically both boring (as a narrative experience) and fascinating (as an example of cinematic awfulness). The unrelenting bombast of the movie is obvious as soon as it starts, with a seemingly interminable section titled "Prelude" that consists of a frozen image of a reddish desert landscape with symphonic music playing over it, followed by another section titled "Overture," consisting of another frozen image of a desert landscape with more music and a pompous voice-over by Orson Welles. The gaudy opening sequence, which takes place in a gambling den, is so lavish in its over-the-top decadence that it resembles a scene in a Roman epic by Cecil B. de Mille. It's all downhill for the next two hours until the movie reaches its labored and improbable conclusion.

So many normally capable performers (Gregory Peck, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall) give such terrible performances in their one-dimensional roles that it must surely set a record of some kind. Only Walter Huston, chewing the scenery as a lascivious evangelist called The Sinkiller, seems to be having any fun. As the main character, a feral, sexually-charged, half-Caucasion, half-Mexican wench (there is no other word to describe her adequately), Jennifer Jones—with her absurd bronze makeup, wild, unkempt hair, lowcut peasant blouses, and bare feet—easily takes the bad acting prize in this marathon of terrible acting. Before Johnny Guitar, before Lonesome Cowboys, before Lust in the Dust, there was Duel in the Sun. If I had to use one word to sum up the overall effect of Duel in the Sun, that word would be camp (and not in the entertaining sense, because it is apparently wholly unintentional).

CROUPIER (1999) ***½
The British director Mike Hodges was in his late 60's when he made this film, but it doesn't seem like the work of a man of that age. The highly accomplished direction, unshowy and unfussy, is rightfully respectful of the taut, focused screenplay by Paul Mayersburg and has a hip sensibility that seems right in tune with the material. Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), a former croupier from South Africa now living in London, is a man at loose ends. Unemployed, he wants to be a writer but is not interested in the project his publisher proposes, a tale about soccer players with lots of sex. When his father calls from South Africa and says he has found Jack a job at a London casino, Jack accepts the offer because of the very large salary and because he immediately sees the job in terms of research for a novel about gamblers and gambling.

The film has lots of philosophical voice-over narration by Jack about being a participant in events and at the same time a detached observer gathering material for his book. In these internal monologues Jack also ruminates on how gambling and odds permeate so much of life. Although adamant that he is not himself a gambler, he obsessively calculates the odds on his every action, seeing all of life as one gamble after another. Later an attractive woman (Alex Kingston) who comes to the casino fascinates Jack. When she says she is deeply in debt to dangerous people and proposes that Jack be the inside-man in a robbery of the casino, he reluctantly agrees.

The movie is above all a character study and thus relies heavily on Owen's brilliant performance for its success. Looking leaner and hungrier than in Gosford Park or Children of Men, he makes Jack aloof but fascinating. Beneath a still, calm, nonreactive exterior, this is a complex man in constant thought, a silent internal observer and interpreter of external events. It is because Owen projects this aspect of Jack's character so thoroughly that the large amount of voice-over narration with its almost Dostoyevskian slant works so well. The movie builds to a tense outcome that results in several unexpected turns, an ending consistent with the film's theme that the outcome of a bet cannot be accurately predicted in advance and is by its nature the result of randomness.

ADAPTATION (2002) **½
In the late 1990's, New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean wrote a series of articles about the Florida wild orchid collector John Laroche, published in 1998 as the book The Orchid Thief. For some reason the book, which is more a profile than a narrative, was bought for adaptation as a movie and assigned to the screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), whose sensibility would seem wholly unsuited to such a project. The resulting movie is a real curiosity.

The first two-thirds are divided unevenly between two interwoven plots—Kaufmann's (Nicholas Cage) personal insecurities and his professional struggles writing the screenplay (the predominant thread), and a straight account of Orlean's (Meryl Streep) experiences with Laroche (Chris Cooper) while writing the book (the secondary thread). The latter plot line is fascinating. The other part, about Kaufmann, is not. As Kaufmann himself says of this narrative strategy, "It's self-indulgent, narcissistic, solipsistic." Not content to transform the film into his own personal vanity project by making himself the main character, Kaufmann even gives himself an alter ego, a fictitious twin brother (also Cage). The most embarrassing scene in the movie: the one in which Kaufmann masturbates to a photo of Orlean on the dust jacket of the book. One can only wonder how anyone connected with this movie, having read the script, agreed to participate. The last third or so of Adaptation veers in an altogether different direction as a response to the suggestion of a screenwriting guru (Brian Cox) who advises Kaufmann to write a knockout "last act" to disguise the flaws of the rest of the film. This preposterous last act has Laroche deriving a psychoactive substance that looks like green cocaine from his orchids and mailing some to Streep, who snorts it, has a psychedelic experience, then rushes off to Florida for a tryst with Laroche. The Kaufmann brothers follow, and the movie becomes an outlandish crime thriller with Orlean and Laroche trying to murder the Kaufmanns.

received rave reviews from many critics as well as numerous nominations and awards from critics' groups, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars. More than 50,000 users of IMDb give it a very high 7.8/10 rating. I can sum up my reaction to the movie in two words: pretentious rubbish. Nearly everything in it seems a contrived, attention-seeking stunt. If the acting weren't so good, I would give it an even lower rating.


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