Thursday, September 19, 2013

You're Next (Adam Wingard); The Man With Two Brains (Carl Reiner); Act of Love (Anatole Litvak); The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger)

(WARNING: plot twists and surprises in the films may and often are revealed in the course of discussion)

What next?
Adam Wingard's You're Next is a nasty, fairly well-made house-invasion flick, with the added kick of animal masks for that extra dose of surrealism. Wingard is a horror veteran, and knows how to stage shocks and suspense as well as anyone out there, maybe a little better than most; if he still cuts too fast and shoves his camera too closely to the action for my taste--well, we're not talking high standards for the genre as a whole here, nowadays.

A bigger problem in my book are the characters, mostly repulsive upper-class types blessed with faintly amusing dialogue (you find your entertainment where you can) and a level of sadism that suggests twisted motives behind their cruelty--which sadly isn't the case; turns out the driving force behind the murders is good ole-fashioned greed. All this--the elaborate planning, the archaic weaponry, the serene animal masks (the single best detail in the whole picture)--just for daddy's money? Really? Couldn't they just have purchased assault rifles from the nearest gun shop and stormed the house? At the very least, couldn't the writer develop the contrast in class and background between the movie's Addams Family and the she-Rambo (whose father is, conveniently, a survivalist) acting as the movie's putative protagonist? At one point things started to look interesting when sex is offered on a bed next to a dead relative's body--but the offer is swiftly rejected. We're fucked up, but not that fucked, apparently (and unfortunately). 

As for that ending: I suppose the writers were trying to make a metaphysical point--that we're all killers or become killers given the right circumstance, or that we're pawns played by an infinitely more cunning chess master--but by then I was just waiting for the end credits to roll. The finale pretty much came out of nowhere, connected with nothing, and apparently isn't meant to be anything more than a cheap punchline to the picture.

Unfair to use another film to bash the one you're discussing but Michael Haneke's Funny Games is so much better at playing the same game it isn't even funny. Haneke doesn't so much avoid as drop the pretense of making a horror movie--avoids fast cutting, for example, doesn't so much as tilt the camera (which glides with stately aplomb through the large if low-key home), doesn't bother waiting for night to start twisting one's nerves into little knots--which only serves to intensify the horror. He operates on the more interesting proposition that psychological suffering is crueler and harder to watch than any mere crossbow bolt to the skull.

I pretty much realized the movie wasn't going to be all that when I saw "YOU'RE NEXT" painted with blood in sloppy giggling-psychopath handwriting, all over the bedroom wall. Aside from the corniness of announcing the title of the picture, the sheer conventionality of the cliche was overwhelming: couldn't the handwriting be neater at least, perhaps in cursive? The threat was a blatant promise of standard-issue horror to come; sadly, the filmmakers deliver. 

Cerveau en gelee

Once upon a time, long before he started remaking the Pink Panther films to disastrous effect, Steve Martin (especially in collaboration with Carl Reiner) was a one-of-a-kind wonder, and while my favorite might be the comically complex and surprisingly coherent All of Me, not far behind and coming fast up the ladder of regard is the demented The Man with Two Brains. Suppose I still love the former--watching Steve Martin argue with the Lily Tomlin inside him is an indispensable pleasure--but the latter is Martin and Reiner at their unfettered undiluted best, without the benefit (or limitation) of a conventionally structured script. Mad scientists depicted by mad filmmakers--what more can anyone ask?  

It's unexpectedly erotic, with the faithless Dolores (Kathleen Turner) in the habit of driving her neurosurgeon husband Dr. Hfuhruhurr (extended running gag where various people mispronounce his name) wild by not sleeping with him--roughly the first half of the film is about building up a massive case of blue balls, and the film is all the sexier for it. Turner was fresh off the success of Body Heat, where I felt her femme fatale newcomer (it was her debut feature film role) was stilted and stiff, more focused on looking good onscreen with little to no clothes on than she was on delivering a sensual performance (hint: it's more important to relax than focus). Comedy seems to release something inside her; she's more assured here, more playful, a tease rather than a tart (though we get plenty evidence of the latter), and for single sexiest image in the film--or most of '80s cinema for that matter--it's hard to think of anything more potent than Turner's eyes aglow with power as she leaves Martin hard up--literally--with sexual frustration.

Also helps that Michael Chapman--Rainer Werner Fassbinder's old collaborator--handles the camerawork. Reiner (Carl) is no visual stylist, and comedy as a genre rarely if ever pays lip service to the art of cinematography (look at the entire career of Mel Brooks, or--arguably--Woody Allen), but with the not inconsiderable help of Chapman the film achieves a darkly handsome subterranean ambiance, adds conviction (and an unholy Gothic grandeur) to the film's mad-scientist shenanigans, lends credence to the possibility that the doctor is mad, maybe dangerous. 

Just check the above still: Martin is surrounded by jars of brains--a staple for the genre--only here the brains float in what seem like various enticing flavors of phosphorescent Kool-Aid, from Purple Passion Grape to Bubble-Gum Pink to Certified Cherry; one is almost tempted to tilt a jar lid, stick in a flexible drinking straw, and sip.

Perhaps most surprising of all is how sweet-natured the film turns out to be: Dr. Hfuhruhurr meets Anne Uumellmaehaye (voice of Sissy Spacek), and it isn't just that their surnames somehow match; Anne also happens to be a brain in a jar, which of course is irresistible catnip to a brain surgeon. From a perfectly incarnated if faithless wife the doctor learns the true value of facial beauty (basically not much more than the silicon it's built on); he finds himself falling for a woman who's all mind, literally transcending the limitations of flesh. We feel the force of his delight at discovering how every detail of her fits neatly into the sharp edges of his eccentric if essentially gentle character; we're charmed at how neatly a bizarrely comic horror-movie plot premise is deftly twisted into a bizarrely apt romantic-comedy plot twist (added bonus are some hilarious commentary on the shoddy construction of apartment dwellings). We're conquered, seduced by these lovers; we feel (swoon, pine, fear) for them almost as much as they feel (swoon, pine, fear) for each other. 

Love you long time

Anatole Litvak had a varied career ranging from costumed films (Mayerling, Anastasia) to harrowing dramas (The Snake Pit) to noir thrillers (Sorry, Wrong Number). Act of Love is a lesser-known work, a wartime melodrama about a homeless French girl (Dany Robin) stranded in Paris without papers, forced to pretend that an American GI (Kirk Douglas) is her husband. Robin gives a fine understated performance as a naive girl trapped in a sordid situation--reacting to her fellow Frenchmen leering at her and her 'husband,' her face registering every humiliating moment quietly yet indelibly, like rice paper on a barroom floor. Douglas is Douglas, a straight-shootin' soldier who plays it bitter and cynical when the script demands it but is ultimately sincere in his declaration of marriage (of course fate decrees otherwise); he's much better years later I think, as a kind of lounge lizard in a south of France seaport--more thoughtful, more conscious of the burden of memory, and of possibly having exchanged roles with the girl he once loved.

Litvak's camera is stylish as ever, and he delivers various memorable flourishes: a riff on the marriage scene in Citizen Kane where various French folk give their thoughts on the American occupation before a whirling camera; a harrowing point-of-view shot of a disillusioned Frenchman wielding a sharp knife. The tragic finale (with stories of this sort the finale has to be tragic) is delivered with graceful simplicity: the camera stands at a corner and gazes at the people going to and fro, running and missing their various fateful appointments with destiny.   

Monkey never dies

Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm has a gorgeous title, its protagonist a beautifully intimidating name; no wonder Frank Sinatra wanted the role, would probably have killed for the role (for all we know he did). 

Admittedly the film pales in comparison to Nelson Algren's dark novel; admittedly what was shocking in the '50s--the necktie looped tight round the arm, the slim syringe--seems mild today; admittedly the film is regarded nowadays as more a historically important curio than an artistically significant film, mostly for breaking the Hollywood taboo on onscreen drug use.

But is it still relevant? Does it still have the power to startle, at least unsettle? 

I think so. Drug movies like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream draw on an arsenal of pyrotechnic effects, from giant close-ups to shock cuts to time lapse to slow motion, all to suggest the diabolically distorting nature of drug use; all Man had by way of pyrotechnics was Preminger's classically oriented eye, Elmer Bernstein's music, and Sinatra. 

Sinatra owns Frankie Machine; that's him onscreen, or as much him as careful research and a volatile acting talent untainted by any formal training can muster. The sweat on Sinatra's brow and upper lip when he's shooting up could have been sprayed there for all I know but he makes you believe he compelled them out of sheer effort; the dilated eyes are simple to achieve, but when co-star Kim Novak lights a match and shoves it at his face the sight can still make the flesh crawl, like the sight of maggots found writhing beneath a stone.

As for the clearly studio-constructed apartment and street sets--I submit to you that they are (intentionally or not) Preminger's most cunning effect, his way of suggesting the city of Chicago is a flimsy extension of Frankie's fevered mind, row upon row of balsa and plywood piled high and teetering and ready to fold at the slightest excuse. Do the apartment, the very streets seem unreal? They do to Frankie--nothing is solid, nothing registers, nothing matters to him save that needle in his arm. 

And Sinatra pushes past everything as if propelled by Preminger's  camera (barely making it before everything around him collapses), his progress marked by Bernstein's hot jazz score (performed by Shorty Rogers and His Giants). He approaches Louie (Darren McGavin, decades before he took up night-stalking), who throws coy looks; he follows the dealer to an apartment, watches shivering as the spoon, the packet and so forth are (like an elaborate dinner setting) meticulously laid out. Preminger's camera rushes up to Sinatra's face as his jaw slackens and his pupils flare wide, brass horns blaring heedless triumph; it's a hell of a high, one even the unlikely happy ending (arguably a fantasy like the rest of Chicago, who's to say it isn't?) can't quite squelch, a monkey that--as Louie puts it--you can't quite pull off your back.



Atom Magadia said...

The Man with Two Brains is definitely one of Steve Martin's best. One of the films I had to make my kids see...

Noel Vera said...

Don't stop there; All of Me is also worth the wait...