Monday, January 20, 2014

John Frankenheimer: The Train

Growing up with action films in the ‘80s and ‘90s — memorizing every John Woo slow-mo gun battle, every world-weary Bruce Willis character quip, every Ah-nold one-liner, and every single frame of something like Lethal Weapon — I didn’t have to look hard to see the influence that Frankenheimer’s approach to the action film in The Train had on the films that I remember so fondly from my formative years. I love what Matt Zoller Seitz says in his remembrance of The Train, calling it: “A huge, roiling, clanking, screeching, rumbling hulk of mayhem that seizes you from frame one and never lets go, the film takes such visible delight in the image of small, desperate men blowing huge things sky-high that it amounts to the very first Joel Silver picture.”

Indeed, The Train does remind one of those early ‘80s/’90s Joel Silver produced actioners, but it’s also something that those movies so often fail at being: it gets you to care about the characters without spending a whole lot of time on character development. There’s something to be said about the way Frankenheimer keeps his film moving at the clip it does but also makes sure to stop long enough so that the viewer is always able to get their bearing and be sure what the characters’ motivations are. This isn't just a fun action movie because stuff gets blowed-up real good; it’s an impressive technical spectacle because, to be sure, but it's also impressive in how it gets you to care about what's happening despite its economy of dialogue and character development. Again, I’ll invoke the great Matt Zoller Seitz here: The Train “balances intellectualized suspense and primitive violence, so that one quality reinforces the other in a never ending cycle of mechanized frenzy and spooky stillness.”

I’ll get back to that “spooky stillness," first, though, the plot: Set in occupied France during the last days of Nazi control, The Train concerns itself with Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a French railroad engineer and Resistance fighter who must keep a train filled with valuable art from leaving France for Germany. Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), is the German military officer in charge of the train, and he carries a special affinity for the art collection that he watched over in occupied Paris. His plan is to take art back to his homeland despite orders to the contrary; however, Labiche and his team try to thwart his efforts.
It’s a pretty simple premise, really, and that’s what is so refreshing about it. The motivations for both characters are clear, and we get the classic cat-and-mouse game between Labiche and von Waldheim that would be just as at home in something like (to pick a random ‘90s action movie that I love) Andrew Davis’ Under Siege. And because of The Train’s simplicity, the temptation is there to see the movie as nothing more than impressive setpiece after impressive setpiece.

But Frankenheimer gives us moments that challenges this all-style-no-substance argument like the exchange between our two main characters at the end where von Walheim says, "Those paintings mean as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape!" This statement makes the viewer question Labiche’s motives throughout the film. He may indeed “feel” nothing for the art, so what his motivation then? His sense of duty? Mere revenge? Is it a moral stance (the film does seem to be about the value of life being more important than the value of art). These are questions that most action films don’t ask their audiences to consider, but Frankenheimer does, and he has summed up his reputation as an action director in numerous interviews, calling himself a director of “character-based action movies.”

These deeper character aspects of the film were intended to be more overt during the film’s initial production. Due to the disappointing returns after making Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Burt Lancaster was extremely cognizant of his waning stardom. When he signed on to do The Train, the film’s initial director, Arthur Penn, was much more interested in making it a small-scale character study. Nervous that this would only compound his run of bad box office, Lancaster fired the director and called in his favorite for-hire filmmaker Frankenheimer. I have made mention of this before, but their working relationship always makes me laugh. Perhaps Lancaster brought Frankenheimer on because he knew that Frankenheimer would let him do his thing and instead focus on the technical aspects of the film.

And so it was: Frankenheimer asked the studio to shut down production in order to allow him the appropriate amount of time to rewrite the script, turning The Train from small-scale character study to larger, more ambitious action film. But again, that doesn’t the mean the film is without heart, nor does it mean that Frankenheimer’s only imprint on the film is from the technical side of things. The Train’s character's aren’t merely cutouts designed to stand in front of large-scale setpieces where lots of things explode.

In fact, Frankenheimer has said, “Actually, all of my films have the same theme, and that's a definite choice on my part. I take a character and push him to his physical or emotional limit, to see how he reacts. I think that's the only way you can ever really reach the limits of a human personality, and that's what I'm interested in exploring in my films." So instead of making the film a smaller-scale character study, Frankenheimer heightened the action in order to achieve the same goal that Penn was going for.

A quick note about the actors playing those characters: Both Lancaster and Scofield are great as two stubborn men engaged in a battle of wills (there is a small role for Jeanne Moreau, playing an innkeeper , who assists Labiche, but it feels like another shoehorned female role in an all-male movie a la Ava Gardner’s role in Seven Days in May). Once the action starts, and the motivations for both characters becomes more about defeating the other, The Train never lets up, and neither do the characters. Von Waldheim and Labiche both suffer from a case of severe tunnel vision and are willing to go to great lengths (and in some cases even kill) in order to win their cat-and-mouse game, disregarding the effect it has on those around them. I love the way Scofield utters that final line to Lancaster’s Labiche (stated above); it’s his final attempt to differentiate himself as being better/different than Labiche. Lancaster is equal to the task (I’m warming up to him the more and more I see him in these strong, silent type roles) and a real physical presence on the screen (I also love that he doesn’t even attempt to do a French accent). Lancaster’s performance, in fact, gives credence to the notion that The Train is a masculine action film at its very core.

I want to get back, for a moment, to that phrase that Matt Zoller Seitz used in his essay on the film: “spooky stillness.” Yes, the film is masculine (Burt Lancaster being the avatar for such masculinity as it sure seems like he’s doing his own stunts here, and pay attention to the scene where he is panting like a madman as he crawls up a steep hill and then takes a dangerous fall down the hill in, again, what looks like the actor doing his own stunt), but it also slows down for more reverent moments. And this is due in large part to the way Frankenheimer frames his shots or slows down just enough so that we let the power of a scene wash over us while only hearing the mechanical noises of the train.

The framing in the film is classic Frankenheimer — as we’ve discussed numerous times during this retrospective, he frequently uses wide angle lenses and shoots characters in a basic two shot but employs deep focus — and the most effective of these framing devices is when the elderly train engineer, Papa Boule (Michel Simon), is executed. While Labiche pleads with Colonel von Waldheim, we see in the background the three German soldiers shoot their guns, and then from behind a wall we see Boule’s body slump down. It’s a powerful moment — made more so by the way Frankenheimer frames it and then isn’t in a hurry to rush to the next scene. “Spooky stillness,” indeed.

The Train is one of the most brilliantly kinetic action films I’ve ever seen. And even if one chooses to disregard its obvious (or “low hanging,” an annoying term that so many poo-pooers like to say and then pat themselves on the back) existentialist tone and themes, it still has its technical merits to fall back on — it still can be regarded and studied as an important and masterful piece of filmmaking purely based on its technical merits. Every frame of this black-and-white beauty has something interesting to look at: the characters faces (again, often shot close-up and in a two shot with deep focus), the grimy and gray setting that fills the frame, the way the action drives the narrative (the editing is really something). It’s a film with some serious impact — there’s a real tangible quality about the film — as Frankenheimer gives us shots of the giant train barreling towards the camera (we understand early how massive this piece of machinery is), or showing in high angle long shots of the train barely escaping huge explosions and a potentially disastrous derailing (which, as shots go, must have been hell setting up for). It’s truly a piece of filmmaking that holds up — not only does it hold up, but it puts nearly every modern action film to shame — and showcases what Frankenheimer was best at. The Train, like the best actioners from any era, is a film you feel.

Frankenheimer would return to the paranoid thriller with his next film, Seconds (it would conclude his unofficial “paranoid trilogy”), but would close out the decade with more elaborate, setpiece oriented films like Grand Prix and The Gypsy Moths. But neither of those films are quite as good at balancing the character elements with the technical elements, making The Train one of Frankenheimer’s best, most memorable films of his very prolific and successful run during the ‘60s (we’ll talk more about this with his other films, but the ‘60s were an interesting time for Frankenheimer — perhaps the last decade where he was a real “known” filmmaker before the Scorsese’s and Spielberg’s and Friedkin’s and Coppola’s burst onto the scene kind of leaving him in the dust).

Monday, January 6, 2014

John Frankenheimer: Seven Days in May

Based on the best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Waldo Bailey II, Seven Days in May is sometimes referred to as Frankenheimer resting on his laurels by following up his previous film — the masterful The Manchurian Candidate — with yet another paranoid political thriller. That’s a bit unfair, though. Seven Days in May doesn’t have much in common with The Manchurian Candidate. It takes itself too seriously to be a satire, and it seems that Frankenheimer and his screenwriter, Rod Serling, are too busy emphasizing Big Important Speeches than ensuring that there’s any kind of drama or intrigue in the film. The film has a great cast and a fantastic opening sequence, but it ultimately is just too talky. Some of those talky scenes really work thanks to the acting (especially a scene near the end between Burt Lancaster and Frederic March), but ultimately the film feels a lot like Frankenheimer’s previously flawed films like The Birdman of Alcatraz: a film heavy on exposition with some good acting and good setpiece mixed in — but there isn’t much more to it than that.

The premise of Seven Days in May is as follows: Lancaster plays General James M. Scott, who is convinced that President Jordan Lyman (March) is too soft on America's enemies. He feels so deeply about this that he plots a military takeover of the United States. Every time President Lyman gets close to figuring out the scheme, though, he is derailed by political protocol. Eventually, Lyman seeks the aide of the man who first uncovered the plot: Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas), who is more of a reluctant aide as his ties are very strong to the General.

You see, General Scott has formed a secret base in New Mexico, which serves as headquarters for his plan to overthrow the government. But Colonel Casey begins to think things are odd when he hears of this base — which he is unfamiliar with — as well as references to other bases and units and suspicious protocols that he is unfamiliar with. All of this piques his interest, concerning him to the point where he has no choice but to set aside his loyalty to the General and tell the president about his suspicions that General Scott is planning a military coup d’etat under the guise of a military exercise. 

Seven Days in May is one of the first paranoid thrillers, but it’s not one of the better ones. There are parts where the film really moves — especially in a “The West Wing” kind of a way where there isn’t a whole lot happening on screen, but the acting is so good and the delivery of the dialogue so stellar, that it’s hardly noticeable that we’re essentially just watching people sit/stand around and talk.  The film may feel a bit dated (unlike Manchurian) to some since — as Frankenheimer admitted in the DVD commentary — modern audiences would never be able to accept the premise because such a secret plan in the modern technological age could never go by undetected the way it does in this film. He also stated that audiences would never accept the premise because modern opinions of politicians is lower than it has ever been, so audiences would simply roll their eyes at the President’s speech that ends the film.

But I don’t know that I agree with Frankenheimer. Audiences bought Aaron Sorkin’s idealized White House in “The West Wing,” and as I mentioned above, the film’s emphasis on big speeches about honor and duty and other bits of exposition underlining American Pride is something that would be right up Sorkin’s alley — so the film doesn’t feel too dated.

And whether or not the film may or may not be dated isn’t even the film’s biggest flaw — that would be Rod Serling’s (best known for “The Twilight Zone,” obviously) script and the unconvincing deus ex machina ending. A lot was changed from the source material, actually, most notably the ending where General Scott gets into a car and simply drives home—his name disgraced and career over after his plan has been outed—whereas in the novel Scott drives his car head-on into another car, killing himself. There’s also the matter of the totally unconvincing subplot concerning General Scott’s former mistress, which feels like nothing more than a way to shoehorn Ava Gardner into the film (otherwise it would have been all men in the film). In addition to these flaws, the film is just too talky in parts and is a bit of a slog through the middle portions where it becomes a pretty dull procedural, but that soggy middle is bookended by some great moments that make the film worth seeking out (and make it so much more than a mere Manchurian clone). 

The opening of Seven Days in May — a protest outside of the White House (which was legitimately shot outside of the front gate of the White House without problems thanks to Pierre Salinger’s, President Kennedy’s Press Secretary, insistence that President Kennedy wanted the film made) gone awry — is one of Frankenheimer’s standout setpieces. It’s really the primary reason to check out the film. In my previous essay on The Manchurian Candidate, I brought up the quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum where he said that The Manchurian Candidate could “conceivably be the only commercial American film linked to the French New Wave.” Here, that link is more overt than ever. The immediacy Frankenheimer and his DP Ellsworth Fredericks give the scene and the way they free their camera from the tripod is really quite jarring when you consider the small, talky movie that follows.

Here, Frankenheimer once again relies on his experiences with live television as he moves through the crowd of protesters, making it feel like we’re right there in the fight, and at one point even mounts his camera on the back of police motorcycle. The scene is chaotic (and reminds the viewer of the aesthetic choices used in the fantastic ending to Manchurian), and it is no doubt exciting stuff for the time, but, unfortunately, it is also the most exciting and intriguing thing about the film as every scene that follows fails to live up to this great opening.

Frankenheimer's style of direction is perfect for this film. He uses the same framing techniques and deep focus and wide-angle shots as well as low camera angles that he’s used in all of his previous films. He also worries about the filmmaking and lets his actors act. In an interview with Frank Sinatra on the DVD for The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra noted how impressed he was with Frankenheimer that he trusted his actors to make the right choices when it came to the script. This is probably because Frankenheimer is a director that is more concerned with the technical aspects of the film than with choices the actors make (why else would he continue to work with Burt Lancaster when the two didn’t really see eye-to-eye?) , and even though the opening scene is a great example of Frankenheimer’s gift for memorable setpieces, Seven Days in May is also a great showcase for its actors, showing that Frankenheimer could facilitate some great performances out of a low key character drama.

Douglas is great as Colonel Casey, displaying an array of conflicting emotions as he juggles loyalty to his country and loyalty to the General. He was also more invested than if this were just a normal job, for he was one of the major driving forces in getting the film made. Initially he was to play General Scott; however, he insisted that Burt Lancaster be in the film and take the much juicer role. This was all very much to the chagrin of Frankenheimer, who, as we’ve discussed in other entries of this retrospect, had some major problems with the star. Ironically, Douglas and Frankenheimer would be the ones that would butt-heads on the set, while Lancaster would continue to collaborate with Frankenheimer on two more films (The Train and The Gypsy Moths).

Lancaster and Frederic March have a fantastic verbal confrontation at the end that, in addition to the opening protest sequence, is the other highlight of the film. I loved the was Lancaster just barrels through the President’s arguments because he knows he’s right, and portrays this character as a man obsessed with his righteousness.It’s not just Douglass, Lancaster, and March that are worth watching, though: Seven Days in May also has a couple of nice supporting performances. Character actors Martin Balsam and Edmond O'Brien are great as President Lyman's advisors.

In wrapping this up, I don’t want it to sound like I’m ragging on Seven Days in May too much. There’s a lot to like here, but the film is a bit of let down coming on the heels of The Manchurian Candidate. Still, the opening is fantastic, and the acting is top notch. Ultimately, it feels a bit like a film Frankenheimer needed to get off of his chest and then move on something less political. However, Burt Lancaster would call upon the filmmaker to rescue yet another one of his films (read: let Lancaster do whatever he wanted), this time from Arthur Penn, as Frankenheimer was brought on for a complete overhaul of The Train, taking it from in-depth character study to action film. The results are a finished product that is certainly the opposite of Seven Days in May.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

I want to hold off on making any kind of declarative statements about The Wolf of Wall Street until I see it again. It reminded me a bit of when I saw Django Unchained last year (coincidentally another film released on Christmas day that has a great performance from Leonardo DiCaprio): here’s a film from one of my favorite American filmmakers, but something just felt off about it. The pacing felt all wrong at times in Tarantino’s film, but I chalked that up to the fact that it was, sadly, the first time he had to work without his go-to editor Sally Menke (who had tragically died in 2010), whose absence was quite noticeable. Martin Scorsese, however, didn’t have to replace a long-time collaborator and good friend at editor, so he doesn’t have that excuse, for Thelma Schoonmaker did work on The Wolf of Wall Street. Which makes the whole thing so confounding: how in the hell did these two think this version of The Wolf of Wall Street resembled a complete film? Not only does the film resemble something hastily stuck together with scotch tape, it also lacks the headlong energy of the film it is most being compared to, Casino.

I’m not saying it’s bad — because there are many, many times throughout its three hour runtime that I was enthralled (or laughing my ass off, for the film is very funny). But it doesn’t really earn its length. I never felt like Casino was a three hour film, but boy did I begin to feel that final 60 minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street. And I think one of the film’s biggest flaws is that it think excess is a subtle substitute for that kind of headlong energy found in Casino or Bringing Out the Dead. It uses some of the same narrative tricks that Goodfellas implemented (there’s a moment where DiCaprio talks directly to the audience, explaining what was going on in the room where he works, Henry Hill-like) like multiple voice over narrations, but it lacks the urgency in how that story is told. The film is lacking something; there’s no getting around it. Perhaps my concerns would disappear with another viewing. Like I said, I want to see The Wolf of Wall Street again. It almost demands a second viewing because of just how much happening on the screen while you watch it.

But the story of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) and his merry band of Hedonists (most notably Donnie Azoff played by Jonah Hill), and all of the debauched yens they succumb to, begins to tread water after about the 150 minute mark. The movie feels so disjointed at the end (I thought it had ended two different times). Oh, here’s Belfort on a boat in a storm; here he is sitting at a table talking to some federal agents; here he is making an infomercial; here he is talking to those same agents again; here is wearing a wire; here he is getting arrested...and so on. All of those moments feel so disconnected; or, better yet, they feel like they’ve been dropped in on the viewer with their larger context removed. Those scenes with Belfort made me shift in my seat (I never checked the time, but I was tempted to) because they kept coming on the heels of what felt like natural endings for the film. It wasn’t as bad as Return of the King, but it made me think of it.

Over and over, the film would gain momentum and then screech to a halt; its rhythms in certain sections felt so uncharacteristically off. Perhaps this is because of the locked-in release date for the film, and so Scorsese and Schoonmaker just threw together what they could (apparently the film had to go from a four hour cut to a three hour cut) and it looks every bit a slapped together effort in parts. The aforementioned scene of Belfort and Azoff riding out a storm on Belfort’s yacht seems so superfluous (my wife turned to me at that point and just asked, “what the hell is this movie?”). And I get it, I mean that’s probably the point of Scorsese’s film: everything about these people’s lives is superfluous. But boy did that scene just come off as flat to me. Again, excessiveness on the screen does not necessarily equate to energy emanating from the screen. So I was just waiting for that scene to come to an end and put me out of my misery.

Similarly, there are some odd cuts at the end. When Belfort wears a wire and is told to incriminate all of his co-workers, there is a moment where he’s eating lunch with Azoff, and he writes a note on a napkin that informs him he’s wearing a wire and that he shouldn’t say anything that can incriminate him. Well, the next scene is Belfort being awoken by the federal agents (led by Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights”) holding the napkin, informing Belfort that he’s going to jail. Okay. How did he get the napkin? Did Azoff rat out Belfort? Was it found with the feds raided the building (probably)? I don’t need a beat by beat explanation of how they got the napkin, but it’s such an odd cut that feels designed to do nothing more than quickly tidy up the movie.

Okay, I’m getting too negative here. Like I said, there is so much to like about The Wolf of Wall Street. Primarily, this is Leo’s movie. He owns every scene and seems to be having a helluva time playing Belfort. Make no mistake, the film depicts these men as the douchebags they are, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify the film as comedy. The Wolf of Wall Street is really funny in parts, and that’s almost all due to the sheer enthusiasm and energy brought to the performance by DiCaprio. It’s the best thing I’ve seen him do, and it may just go down as the one performance he’s most remembered for.

Specifically, I am thinking of two scenes that are  brilliant displays of physical acting. The first is a moment where Belfort, via voiceover, informs of his morning ritual with his wife (the fantastic newcomer Margot Robbie): an hilarious argument where Belfort, perched on his knees (its almost like he’s in a constant position of asking for forgiveness), argues with his wife about the name Venice. She wants to know if he’s been messing around on her because he’s been saying this name in his sleep. While he tries to think of a way to weasel out of the precarious spot he’s in, Scorsese cuts away to one of the film’s more wild (and wildly hilarious) scenes where Belfort has hot wax poured on him by a dominatrix named Venice. The energy that DiCaprio expends in this scene is nothing short of phenomenal, mostly because DiCaprio’s face turning red and his neck veins bulging, it never feels he’s overacting in a bad way. And that’s why it works so damn well. It’s one of the best scenes in the film, particularly in the way that Robbie plays off DiCaprio, milking the gag of her throwing cold water on this wild animal, and him getting more and more pissed each time she does it.

Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s absolutely over-the-top, but it is so in the best possible way — the way in which Scorsese so brilliantly and singularly does excessive. And perhaps the best scene in the film (and certainly the one I’ve heard the msot people talk about) is the scene where Belfort, hopped up on Quaaludes (“I discovered a new phase: the Bell’s cerebral palsy.”), tries to make it home before Azoff, who is also hopped up on Quaaludes and is using Belfort’s recently tapped phone, says something stupid (likely) that could incriminate them both. It’s a showcase scene for Leo, who I really want to see do a physical comedy now after witnessing his contorted efforts to get to his car. The scene is some seriously brilliant physical acting by DiCaprio, and it is a scene that somehow pulls off being hilarious, sad, and pathetic.

I don’t understand the complaints levied against Scorsese and co., saying that he doesn’t condemn these characters enough. Honestly, how can anyone watch the scene where Belfort explains via voice over that Brad (Jon Bernthal from “The Walking Dead”, who is really great in this) commits suicide and then segues to the next scene with a nonchalant, “Anyway,” and think that Scorsese is letting these guys off easy. The final hour of the film felt like nothing but condemnation. In fact, the only character that I was remotely happy to see show up near the end was Bernthal’s Brad because at least his crimes felt petty enough that you didn’t mind laughing at him. There is an argument between him and Azoff near the end of the film that takes place in a parking lot that seemingly goes on forever. I was so tired of Jonah Hill by this point that all I wanted to do was yell at the screen, “Just give him the damn briefcase already!” It’s another example of how some scenes at the end could have been tinkered with, but I also think Scorsese is doing something here that is just as deliberate as the scene with the yacht in the storm: he’s making sure we’re sick of seeing these characters. They are deplorable, and the scene in the parking lot was like finger nails on a chalkboard to me, and I think that’s the way Scorsese and his writer Terence Winter (the two work together on “Boardwalk Empire”) want it to come across.

At the beginning of the film, I was laughing a lot at/with these characters. So kudos to Scorsese and Winter for making sure audiences turn on these people. This isn’t a tragedy because we feel bad for these characters (I love the pseudo-tragic tone and the way Scorsese shoots the scene where Belfort attempts to kidnap his own child — there’s nothing tragic about it; it’s merely pathetic) and what comes of their lives; it’s a tragedy because nothing is learned in this movie. These men and their lifestyles and their twisted ethos is perpetual. By the end, nothing has changed (I love the callback to the “sell me this pen” moment at the end), and Belfort is simply just peddling the same bullshit in a different arena. We’re not supposed to think their antics are cute or funny, but that doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to laugh during the film. And since the film is funny and I did laugh a lot, that doesn’t mean I believe that the filmmakers are making light and condoning Belfort’s escapades.

I’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street described as a three hour version of the memorable cocaine-induced montage that marks the end for Henry Hill in Goodfellas. I don’t know. There are too many moments during The Wolf of Wall Street that lack that kind of frenetic energy. Besides, I think Scorsese already made that movie — it was called Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese’s most criminally underrated films). I think the sloppiness of the film’s editing gets in the way of The Wolf of Wall Street being on a par with the exhilarating craziness of Bringing Out the Dead or, as I alluded to above, the headlong energy found in Casino with its great musical cues, patented Scorsese whip pans, or other techniques the old master usually employs. Again, I really feel like the editing here is showing us all the excess in order to mask how un-energetic it comes across. Which, again, may have been Scorsese’s intent.

Rhythm and pacing is such an odd thing to criticize when discussing a Martin Scorsese/Thelma Schoonmaker collaboration. But no matter how tempted I may be to give Scorsese a pass because I know what he may have intended to do based on his previous films, there’s just no getting around the biggest hang-ups I had with The Wolf of Wall Street. And I think this is why I’m so excited to revisit the film. Now that I know Scorsese’s endgame, I’ll be curious to see if the film works on me differently a second time. Perhaps I won’t be so distracted (in a good way) by DiCaprio’s acting that I’ll be able to focus more on what Scorsese was trying to say with his aesthetic choices (I admit, even though I didn’t think music worked the way it usually works in a Scorsese film, I loved his use of the Lemonheads’ version of “Mrs. Robinson”), and maybe not just understand more fully what Scorsese was going for, but to see if I’m wrong in my assessment that The Wolf of Wall Street is a sloppy film filled with some spectacular scenes that never quite coalesce into the kind of finished product we come to expect from the American master.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

John Frankenheimer: The Manchurian Candidate

One of the driving forces behind this retrospective was the urge to revisit The Manchurian Candidate. I hadn’t seen the film since high school film class, but Frankenheimer’s film — the last of three released in 1962 — is one that I’ve always had the urge to revisit but just have never gotten around to. It’s a classic thriller containing classic performances (Frank Sinatra was never better), sure, but as Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies essay: "The Manchurian Candidate" is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a "classic" but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released.” I love the use of the word “frisky” and “alive” because The Manchurian Candidate has an energy that not one of Frankenheimer’s films to this point in the retrospective have had. It not only was, to that point, the best showcase for Frankenheimer’s style, melding brilliantly his experience with live television and aesthetic flourishes (deep focus, handheld, tilts, et al.) that he had been fine-tuning on those previous films, but it was also his most efficient and effective and popular film, and it arguably remains so to this day.

The Manchurian Candidate is exhilarating and darkly funny and emotionally exhausting; it’s also endlessly fascinating — as both paranoid thriller and political satire (the fact that we can’t trust politics at face value is nothing new in the era of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” constantly lampooning our inept government, but it is nevertheless relevant and effective still as satire even if it may not seem as effective as it once was). It’s not just the film’s narrative that is enthralling, though. The mythos surrounding the film’s production and whether or not it presaged the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as the subsequent snags the film’s distribution faced because of what the film may or may not have presaged, is ingrained in popular culture.

For the one or two that may not know what the film is about: The Manchurian Candidate concerns itself with Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who during the Korean War, is credited with saving the lives of two of his men, who have been reported missing, in combat. The platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), suggests that Raymond be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism. When Marco returns to the states, he suffers from a terrifying, recurring nightmare in which Shaw is hypnotized during a demonstration before military higher ups from different Communist nations. During the demonstration, Shaw is ordered to murder the two missing soldiers. Something about this nightmare keeps gnawing at Marco, and he wants to investigate further but has nothing but his gut to back up his claims of a massive government brainwashing conspiracy. However, Marco learns that another soldier from the same platoon has had the same nightmare, and when Marco get him to identify some of the men in the dream, Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco investigate his claims.

Raymond Shaw's mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury in a movie-stealing performance), is the puppet master behind the political career of her husband, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). The senator is essentially a McCarthy clone, claiming that a number of communists work within the Department of Defense. Raymond wants nothing to do with his stepfather or his mother, who is parading him around for photo ops and the like. Unbeknownst to Raymond, his mother is a communist agent with a secret plan to supplant her husband as vice president and then have her brainwashed son kill the president so that Senator Iselin can become the new (Communist) president. The catalyst: a playing card. And when Raymond goes into his trances, it is due to the emergence of the Queen of Diamonds during a game of solitaire.

Okay, enough of that. Like I said, The Manchurian Candidate is so ingrained in popular culture that one doesn’t really need a detailed plot synopsis do know what the film is about (the image of the Queen of Diamonds is synonymous with the film’s primary theme). There are so many things that amaze me about the film, and the performances are right near the top of that list. Arguably the best performance Sinatra ever gave (I know many prefer The Man with the Golden Arm), his portrayal as the haunted Marco is great stuff. Notorious for just wanting to do one take (this bit Sinatra in the form of a broken finger during the film’s famous, claustrophobic fight scene with Henry Silva), Sinatra plays Marco’s desperation to figure out the conspiracy brilliantly. Especially in the scene near the end where he plays solitaire with rigged deck in order to get Shaw to tell the truth about the conspiracy.

Lawrence Harvey is quite great, too, although it’s a more subdued performance. The way he acts with his eyes is one of the most memorable things in The Manchurian Candidate. During the aforementioned scene of solitaire, where Marco is playing with the rigged deck, Frankenheimer films Harvey in extreme close up so that we feel his despair (and the paranoia that underlines the scene) — as if we could walk up to the screen and wipe the beads of sweat off of Harvey’s face — and his sad, sad eye say so much. It’s a helluva bit of acting on Harvey’s part, and it all seems so effortless. The way he plays Shaw as the hapless pawn who has serious women issues (established early during the film’s opening scene in a Korean bordello and hammered home by his awkward interactions with his overbearing mother) is just one of the reasons why the film is so unforgettable.

The real show-stealer, though, is Lansbury as Iselin. Already having played a similar character in Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (which was the reason for her being hired as Sinatra insisted on Lucile Ball for the role, but once Frankenheimer showed him Lansbury’s performance as Warren Beatty’s overbearing mother in All Fall Down, Sinatra was all-in), Lansbury plays Shaw’s mother as the proper doting, overbearing — she’s also maniacally evil in her civility. She knows just when to bring moments from Raymond’s tortured past (a forbidden romance with a girl on a summer vacation) to needle him and remind him how much he needs her.

And in one of the film’s most terrifying scenes, she sits with her son and tells him what he’s going to do (“you are to shoot the presidential nominee in the head” – the matter of fact way she says that is chilling), laying out the plan for her husband to take the reins of the country after the presidential nominee has been killed by Raymond (“the speech is short, but it is the most rousing speech that I have ever read”). The whole thing is chilling because of how Lansbury plays it low-key. She could have easily shouted these lines or made them more menacing by implementing hokey acting tricks like some kind of silent movie villain twirling their mustache; however, she very plainly, very confidently lays out the plan for poor, hapless Raymond as if it’s just another conversation.

Apparently the character was toned down considerably from the source material. In the book, Iselin uses the brainwashing techniques to have sex with her son. Wisely thinking that audiences in 1962 wouldn’t go for such a plot point, Frankenheimer had Lansbury play that part of the role very minor (the only hint is the scene near the end where she kisses her son on the lips — I believe this was the compromise). Her portrayal of Iselin as the puppet master vicariously living through the two weak-willed men in her life is one of the legendary performances in all of cinema.

The Manchurian Candidate is also notable for being the film that stands above all others in Frankenheimer’s oeuvre. Only his fifth film, Frankenheimer peppers The Manchurian Candidate with all kinds of signature visuals (a two shot where one character is in focus in the foreground and the other, in focus as well, is in the background is his favorite), and the surreal images and vérité style were not that common to American film at the time. Obviously Frankenheimer is influenced by these styles, but he also implements the documentary he loves to use to evoke that things are really happening at that moment. This is found at the end during the convention and the press conference earlier in the film.

Frankenheimer, like he does in a lot of his film, uses his experience (and techniques he helped innovate) in live television to evoke a sense that the things we’re watching are real/are really happening at that moment. It’s really quite something (the fantastic opening to his follow-up film, Seven Days in May, is even more indebted to this style), especially in those final moments in the convention hall. But for those final moments in the convention hall, Frankenheimer couldn’t figure out how to stage the setpiece where Marco identifies Shaw’s location logically, so he decided to use something out of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent where a lone light in a window would locate where the assassin was hiding out. Frankenheimer even joked that was would be seen as plagiarism during the ‘60s would seen as homage today.

I like what Stephen Bowie on Frankenheimer’s Senses of Cinema page has to say about this style in The Manchurian Candidate:

“Amidst this documentary-styled mise en scène Frankenheimer plants a series of Buñuelian images and draws so little attention to them that the effect is, literally, hallucinatory. The ingenue turns up dressed as a gigantic playing card. One character is shot through a milk carton so that he “bleeds” white. And then there’s the rifle toting assassin with the Medal of Honor pinned directly beneath his priest’s collar. Frankenheimer places each of these moments in an utterly realistic context, never winking at the spectator to acknowledge their out-of-context absurdity. The tone that dominates by a fifth or a sixth viewing may be black comedy.”

The most memorable of these hallucinatory moments is the opening brainwashing sequence. Frankenheimer and his editor, Farris Webster (who also does a great job of cutting the fight scene between Sinatra and Silva), move seamlessly from subjective point of view to objective point of view in one virtuoso 360 degree pan. The scene begins with the objective point of view of Marco’s platoon sitting in a communist seminar to a subjective point of view of the soldiers attending a harmless and quite banal meeting of the Ladies’ Garden Society.

What makes the staging of Marco’s dream sequence so memorable and haunting is that it steers clear of the clichéd dream imagery found in most films (even though I like Spellbound’s Dali-designed dream sequences, they aren’t as unnerving as the unflinching presentation Frankenheimer goes with here). Instead, Frankenheimer slowly metes out the information in a single shot — drawing a nice comparison to the way the characters slowly draw card after card during their games of solitaire throughout the film — so that we go from the safe location and boring garden club seminar (the soldiers even yawn and look totally disengaged with their far-off stares) to a stage where the stuffiness of the garden club is replaced with the starkness of the Communist seminar backed by portraits of Stalin and Mao. It’s really quite something, and does a tremendous job — since it shows up so early in the film — of displacing the viewer in a manner that makes everything that follows all the more intriguing because of how Marco’s dream makes us think everything in this world is askew.

I also love what Frankenheimer and his production designer, Richard Sylbert, do with the blocking. Most shots are just one take (typical Frankenheimer two shot), but they both blanket the screen in political (mainly Lincoln) iconography. There’s a shot where Lansbury sits in the foreground and Harvey enters the scene in the background, but Frankenheimer stages the scene to almost make this a three shot by having a bust of Abraham Lincoln on the desk where Lansbury is sitting, staring at her. He also positions a lamp in a manner that makes the lampshade looks like Lincoln’s iconic hat. There are other scenes, too, for example where Senator Iselin sees his reflection in a portrait of Lincoln or when Frankenheimer has him dress up as Lincoln during the scene where the Iselin’s are at a Halloween party, which also includes the famous shot of Lansbury standing over the Queen of Diamonds costume (just as important an image as Lincoln).

Frankenheimer’s aesthetics often steal the show (and rightly so in many cases), but it shouldn’t ignored that his approach to the film’s narrative (aided by screenwriter George Axelrod) is what also makes it memorable as a dark satire. Like Bowie says in the quote above, it is certainly Frankenheimer’s straight-ahead approach to the material that allows the viewer to see it as a black comedy. The film never preaches its politics, and that’s because that wasn’t Frankenheimer’s intent — he set out to adapt the source material, and that’s it. They weren’t trying to make any grand political statement. And that’s why despite the film’s Cold War setting, The Manchurian Candidate doesn’t feel dated in the least. I also think that detachment from the material — that straight-ahead approach — helps Frankenheimer and Axelrod create the appropriate tone for the film, which Jonathan Rosenbaum called, “conceivably the only American film that deserves to be linked to the French New Wave, full of visual and verbal wit that recalls Orson Welles.” 

I can’t speak for this since I haven’t seen Axelrod’s films post-The Manchurian Candidate, but Stephen Bowie does make a point to mention that the reason the narrative works as satire on repeated viewings is solely attributed to Frankenheimer as Axelrod’s own attempts at directing satire (Lord Love a Duck and The Secret Life of an American Wife) were apparently the types of comedies that constantly wink at the camera and italicize every joke.

As we look at The Manchurian Candidate today, we think of it as being a presage to what occurred a year later with the assassination of President Kennedy and the subsequent assassination of the man accused of killing Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald (who many claimed was nothing more than a “Manchurian candidate”). Unfortunately a lot of the film’s provocative elements now seem common place in the political realm, and so seen through the lens of 2013 politics and the farce that American congress has become, The Manchurian Candidate's satirizing of politicians may possibly feel dated to some. But as a film — as a piece of brilliantly executed paranoid cinema — it’s of the highest order...timeless, I dare say. Frankenheimer was not yet a major filmmaker at this point, but he would cement himself within Hollywood as a major talent known for blending realism with visual metaphor and a kind of “What can I get away with?” mentality. William Friedkin called him “the best, most important, and most innovative filmmaker of his era.” I’ve yet to see enough that makes me think Friedkin is correct, but judging solely on The Manchurian Candidate, I can definitely see where he’s coming from.

Frankenheimer’s next film was another political thriller, Seven Days in May, which was unfairly criticized for being just another version of The Manchurian Candidate. It’s better than those criticisms suggest, but it lacks the darkly wry undercurrent of this film (it’s also really talky) and plays more like a Very Serious Message Movie than something that gets under your skin and continues to work on you. But really, what could have Frankenheimer done to follow up The Manchurian Candidate? It’s a career defining film, and it’s one of the great pieces of cinema from the 1960s.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Catching up with 2013: The Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem is something special. The type of outré experience found in the best European horror films — a film that made me giddy with anticipation for each scene. I haven’t felt that way in a long, long time in regards to a horror film, and I could easily see myself slotting The Lords of Salem into my regular Halloween viewing rotation. Rob Zombie’s latest isn’t going to be for every horror fan — it’s far too much of a slow burn for it to appeal to the masses — but it’s so visually and aurally on-point, I cannot fathom how some are calling the film boring. Despite the film’s old chestnut of a narrative (Satanism/witches) suggesting that the whole thing may be old hat, and despite the film being slower than most horror films (there’s a surprising amount attention paid to characters, and Zombie gets some good performances from his leads), The Lords of Salem is never boring. It reminded me of some of my favorite Italian horror films (especially Fulci’s City of the Living Dead) and some of John Carpenter’s early work.

Perhaps those that didn’t care for the movie were merely unengaged in the story of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering drug addict turned popular late night DJ. Her co-workers, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree) help round out the popular trio known as “The Big H Radio Team.” Like all DJs, they have their bits and their shticks, and one night while doing their show a mysterious wooden box appears for Heidi from an unheard of band calling themselves The Lords of Salem. Once the record is played on the show, all sorts of odd goings-on occur. The music is a huge hit in Salem, and really strikes a nerve with on-air guest Francis Matthias (Bruce Davidson, giving a great performance) who is writing a book about the Salem witch trials. However, Heidi seems to be hearing something completely different than the masses, for every time the needle drops on the LP, she begins hallucinating.

Or so we’re led to believe.It’s never explicitly laid out whether this is all in the mind of a recovering drug addict who has relapsed, or if this is a straight-up horror film. So, I guess I can see why some threw up their hands in frustration with Zombie’s film or shook their head in disbelief over people like me drooling over the film. It’s a tricky, different kind of horror film. And for that, I am grateful.

The film’s intentions are elusive, which adds to the dread that underlines every scene; it may not be obvious and explicit dread, but there’s something unsettling about The Lords of Salem that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and I love it when a horror film displaces me in that fashion than just trying to scare me with schlocky jump scares and cheap looking gore effects.

I hate when people qualify aspects of filmmaking simply because it is found in a “lesser” genre film, but I’m going to do it here (forgive me): the acting is pretty damn good. Not just for a horror film, but for a Rob Zombie movie, too. Zombie is no different than Tarantino in that he likes to pay homage to the films he grew up with by casting actors from the B-Movies he grew up watching. Here, he casts Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Meg Foster (They Live) in various roles to great effect. His wife, Moon Zombie, as the film’s lead plays Heidi to great effect. Her recovering drug addict actually elicits some poignant moment, a rare thing indeed for a horror film.

One thing I have been noticing more and more with Zombie’s films: he’s pretty good at directing actors. But perhaps nothing prepared me for how well he paced the film. There are some moments where Zombie really slows things to down to develop characters, and for that I was grateful; it makes the ambiance and dread resonate all the more.

One of the best things about the film is one of the best things about the horror genre in general: the element of surprise. In The Lords of Salem, lots of weird shit happens, yes, but horror films don’t require a fool-proof narrative in order to be successful — sometimes weird shit happens “just because.” And that’s okay and the best kind of surprise a horror film can deliver depending on the context of your horror film. Lucio Fulci (post-Zombi 2) was only ever interested in the image and the displacement of the viewer via the succession of his images. Zombie seems to be cribbing from the same playbook here. But that’s not a dig; no, Zombie is showing himself to be a better director with each film he releases, and similar to Tarantino, he is more and more interested in making a much broader, varied pastiche, which I think gives his films more energy.

Rather than just making his version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (House of 1000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects) or just making his version of the slasher (Halloween and Halloween II, which was much better than his first attempt at being something more than just a remake), here the breadth of Zombie’s influences is greater as he seems to be making his version of The Shining, yes (the hallways of the apartment Heidi lives are like a more drab version of the hallways of  The Overlook Hotel), but also a Ken Russell film (in fact, Zombie stated that The Lords of Salem was conceived with the idea of being as if Ken Russell directed The Shining), and an Argento/Fulci type Italian horror film. And I don’t know about all of you, but out of that bunch, that last type of horror film is the most interesting to me.

Zombie and his cinematographer, Brandon Trost, are indebted to outré nature of Argento’s baroque horror films like Suspiria and Inferno, but even more so they seem to be heavily influenced by Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (the mummified priests that pop up reminded me of another Fulci creation: Dr. Freudstein from The House by the Cemetery, which got me thinking: if anyone were qualified to remake a popular Fulci film, it would be Zombie). The way Zombie and Trost shoot the Salem exteriors is eerily reminiscent of the way Fulci and his cinematographer, the great Sergio Salvati, evoked dread with those great tracking shots through the doomed city of Dunwich.

So, yeah, visually, the film evokes the great Italian masters like Argento and Fulci, but I also saw a bit of Michele Soavi in there. I can’t be sure that Zombie is a fan of Soavi’s La Setta (The Sect), but there sure were parts of this film, especially the ending, that reminded me of Soavi’s own take on the whole women-as-vessel-for-demon-child subgenre. And about the film’s ending: man, is that quite the setpiece. Some disliked the ending, and even though I agree in that I found the lead-up (very Argento) to the film’s coda more intriguing than the payoff, I still loved what Zombie was doing with that ending. I know that final montage isn’t for everyone, but I loved it — it reminded me of one of those gonzo montages Ken Russell would put in one of his films (more specifically Altered States).

The Lords of Salem has a very Euro Horror rhythm to it, too. Zombie and his editor, Glenn Garland, take a page out of Kubrick’s book by building dread by marking days of the week with title cards, each coming on the heels of a key scene that introduces each day of the week with more dread than the previous (my favorite being when Heidi walks by a grotesque figure in her bathroom...and then it cuts to the title card for the next day). It’s similar to what John Carpenter did in his great Euro Horror-influenced film Prince of Darkness. And it’s a great way to build tension despite very little actually happening on screen.

I think it is in the editing — the pacing — of the film that I was most appreciative of. I’ve already re-visited the film, and it’s one of those horror films that has a way of getting under your skin — its effects sustaining for days after — and it’s why I think it is one of those films that I could see slotting into my regular rotation of must-see movies on Halloween. It got to me in a way that is very similar to City of the Living Dead: the film has flaws to be sure, but there’s just something about it that gets me, and I think the editing and the way Zombie just lets his atmosphere do all of the talking.

Aurally, the film is a masterpiece. Zombie collaborates with his guitarist, John 5, to create a truly unsettling score (especially once the needle drops on The Lords of Salem record that drives Heidi crazy). I love that Zombie understands how to use sound to his advantage, which is so crucial for horror film (this should come as no surprise since he is a musician). The music stings are sometimes so subtle—the opposite of what modern horror tells us is scary—that we barely notice there’s music there; however, like the Heidi’s downward spiral thanks to the bizarre record she plays, I felt a similar displacement every time that musical would hum or thump in the background. It seriously unnerved me, which is exactly what I wanted it to do.

Zombie has claimed that he is done with horror. That’s too bad since The Lords of Salem is just gorgeous to look at. Cliché “Satanism horror film” iconography aside, it's just a pleasure to bask in the imagery on screen. However, it makes me glad that he’s so willing to step outside of the genre he is associated with. I like that he’s willing to go outside of his comfort zone. In fact, The Lords of Salem is so well made and so damn gorgeous to look at and such an affecting experience, that Zombie could be a seriously great director, not just a good genre filmmaker.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

John Frankenheimer: The Birdman of Alcatraz

Here’s what I know about The Birdman of Alcatraz: I hadn’t seen it since the summer when I started this retrospective, and I looking around for my notes, I could only scrounge up, “At 143 minutes, the film is way too long.” Insightful, I know. So, seeing how the film is on Amazon Prime at the moment, I decided to re-watch it since I honestly could remember nothing about it, and my notes weren’t offering any help. Well, I can confirm: at 143 minutes, the film is way too long. Like 43 minutes too long. The Birdman of Alcatraz seems to be a popular entry in Franklin’s oeuvre, but I cannot understand why this is. It has little-to-none of the aesthetic flourishes one would associate with Frankenheimer’s later work (as in later that year with the much, much better The Manchurian Candidate), and it boasts one of the most prosaic performances of Burt Lancaster’s (who I am admittedly not a huge fan of) career. The parts of the film that do work are buoyed by some great supporting performances by Karl Malden and Telly Savalas, and an impressive setpiece when the prisoners riots. Other than that, it’s a totally skippable film.

The well-known story is as follows: Robert Stroud (Lancaster) is imprisoned at a young age for a murder he committed in Alaska. He is taken to Leavenworth Prison where he has some run-ins with the  warden (Malden). While in prison, he learns of a situation where his mother was denied the right to see him. Angered by this, Stroud kills a guard and is sentenced to death; however, his mother stages a successful campaign to change the death sentence to life in prison, and the judge agrees so long as the terms include that Stroud spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.

While in solitary, Stroud adopts a pet sparrow, which acts as the catalyst for him collecting different types of birds and cages. When the birds fall ill, Stroud experiments with a cure, and as the film’s story moves forward in time, we see Stroud not as a homicidal killer but as an expert on bird diseases (even publishing a book about the subject). Stroud eventually marries (much to the chagrin of his mother) and begins selling his remedies. However, he is transferred to Alcatraz — which was new at the time — where he is not allowed to keep his birds. And it is there where perhaps Stroud’s legend grew largest.

The rest of the film concerns itself with an again Stroud who is mostly shown as the reluctant rabble-rouser rather than the rebellious and ruthless inmate he supposedly was. Lancaster’s decision to play Stroud’s rebellious attitude as doing what’s best for his fellow inmates in the name of cruel treatment by the prison system is one of the film’s major flaws.

The Birdman of Alcatraz was Lancaster’s pet project. It’s far too serious, subjective, and self-serving to be an effective piece of filmmaking. Lancaster was inspired by Thomas Gaddis’ profile on the convict’s life and rehabilitation. It is said that it touched Lancaster deeply, and this is, I think, the film’s ultimate undoing. Lancaster is too much in the business of idealizing Stroud (again, known to be a prickly customer, even during his “Birdman” phase) that totally removes any intrigue from the film — handcuffing Frankenheimer and the writers so that it is impossible to view Stroud as anything but an angel. A much more interesting film could have been made about a conflicted, complex, and (yes) even dickish Stroud — who, despite being a convicted murder, does some good. But I didn’t feel like that was the person I got to see.

But, the dulling of Stroud’s rough edges was intentional. Lancaster made Stroud into more of an existential character — doing good despite the warden and other’s disapproval. This is a character type not uncommon to Frankenheimer films, but again, this version of Stroud (who Lancaster thought was more of a victim of the system than a cold-blooded killer) is nothing more than an avatar for Lancaster’s message: we need to rethink our prison system. A noble intent, indeed, but one that is too sugary-sweet  in its portrayal of a known psychopath to support a 143 minute prison drama. The film’s best scenes are when Stroud’s intentions are challenged, specifically in the scene between Lancaster and Malden. But moments like that are few and far between.

Frankenheimer does his best to light scenes in a manner that suggests as much space as possible — even though Stroud spent 43 years in solitary confinement, you’d never know by the way the film’s mise-en-scene. But this isn’t one of Frankenheimer’s more stylized efforts. In fact, this is more “A Burt Lancaster film” than a “John Frankenheimer film,” and even though the filmmaker was proud of the final product, he did voice regret over the chance to make the film he could have made out of the subject material. But since Frankenheimer came to the film incredibly late (he was honestly shocked that Lancaster wanted to work with him again after their not-so-great experience working together on The Young Savages), and Lancaster insisted on controlling every aspect of the process, it’s no surprise that outside of the prison riot, we don’t see a lot of what we associate with Frankenheimer.

So as it is, The Birdman of Alcatraz is a too-long drama with some decent supporting performances. But it can’t truly be considered a Frankenheimer film, and even if we were to consider it so, it’s not a very good one. It’s far too impressed with its own sense of moral duty and far, far too languid in its pacing (and not in a good, contemplative way) to elicit any kind of response beyond, “that was a professionally made movie.” No, the real show-stealer of Frankenheimer’s prolific year in film would be his third and final film of 1962, the brilliant (and still exhilarating and relevant) The Manchurian Candidate.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Catching up with 2013: The Way, Way Back

Tonally, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush’s The Way, Way Back reminded me a bit of Greg Motolla’s wonderful coming of age story Adventureland. Even though The Way, Way Back deals with younger characters, here we have a young male protagonist, Duncan (Liam James), using an amusement park to help him navigate the murky waters of his life that await him post-summer vacation. Those murky waters: which parent he’ll end up living with, each residing on opposite coasts. On the west coast is Duncan’s father, who always seems to have something going on and keeps his son perpetually hoping that he’ll be invited to stay with him. On the east coast — where the film takes place — Duncan’s divorced mother, Pam (the always great Toni Collette), is dragging him along to a beach house with her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). There, all of the usual coming of age/Summer that Defined My Life stuff happens, with all of the usual characters that inhabit these type of indies (Allison Janney as the acid-tongued drunk and Sam Rockwell as freewheeling guru).

That’s not to say The Way, Way Back isn’t effective in parts. Rockwell and James are great together (especially their last two scenes, which trend more towards the dramatic), and Anna Sophia Robb’s performance as Susanna, the girl that (mostly) quietly observes Duncan’s behavior, finding him fascinating in the process. Janney and Carell seem mostly superfluous, though, and even though Janney does elicit laughs and Carell elicits cringes, they’re both just kind of going through the motions.

Superfluous and familiar character types aside, I appreciated Faxon and Rash’s reluctance to use narration or spell out some kind of usual coming of age epiphany via exposition at the end. The Oscar winners do a good job of keeping things humming and refraining from doing any kind radical character makeovers (in fact, I would say I liked this film more than the film they won their Oscar for, The Descendants, because this one is more earnest in that regard). Collette is always brilliant and worth watching, and Sam Rockwell puts a lot of energy into his role, yet he wisely knows when to dial down his shtick as Owen — the immature man-child that shows Duncan how to follow his own path (their introduction to each other, using Pac-Man as an obvious metaphor, is a great scene, but it tips its hand early in regards to what we’re getting with Owen).

But  it feels minor for the subgenre; The Way, Way Back is not as smart about young male life or as funny as something like the aforementioned summertime coming of age tale Adventureland, but it goes down just as smoothly. It’s a totally watchable and smile-inducing experience that is nothing memorable or note-worthy, but it’s perfect for a lazy afternoon/evening.