PICKS OF THE WEEK
France: Francois Ozon, 2010, Music Box
A few words about Potiche: Catherine Deneuve is still beautiful at 67. Gerard Depardieu, still tremendous at 62, has grown as immense as Brando (in girth as well as talent). Both still hold the screen casually and with real brilliance, though Depardieu, if he keeps this up, may soon burst the boundaries of even an IMAX screen.
That's the good and mixed news about director and co-writer Francois Ozon's Potiche, in which Deneuve and Depardieu play ex-lovers who have aged into later-life roles: Deneuve as Mme. Pujol, the deeply intelligent but criminally wasted "potiche" (or trophy wife) of a wealthy factory owner, and Depardieu as M. Babin, the same city's Communist mayor, parliamentary representative and pro-labor firebrand.
Now, during a contentious strike, they find themselves on opposite political sides, and then similar ones (when she takes over the factory, in her husband's illness), and then opposed again. Meanwhile, the irascible factory owner Pujol, behaves very badly. He is played, very well, by a third longtime French cinema icon, Fabrice Luchini, 60 (The Girl from Monaco, Uranus).
The bad news, I suppose is that the play Ozon is adapting -- by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy -- seems to me not very good (at least if Ozon's adaptation is faithful): a little arch, smug and artificial, contrived too obviously, embellished too predictably, wrapped up too neatly. Cute all the same, it's a feminist parable that could use a bit less Marx and Chomsky and a bit more Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.
In the end though, I don't think it matters. Movies can be works of art. (This one isn't.) But they can also be, in a way, fantasy bistros where we meet and re-meet people we love to watch. Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool), one of France's most prolific auteurs, loves fine actors, and he seems to do his best to make them comfortable and happy and inspired -- in this case not just the formidable trio above, but Karin Viard as Pujol's feisty mistress, Judith Godreche and Jeremie Renier as his discontent children, Sergi Lopez as a Spanish routier, and many others.
Now: a last word about Deneuve. A confession. For three years, at the UW-Madison, I had five celebrity posters on my walls, along with my prints of Pieter Breugel's "The Harvesters," El Greco's "View of Toledo" and Van Gogh's "Starry Night." The posters were of four of my pop culture heroes: Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Ray Charles, and Steve McQueen. And one great crush: Catherine Deneuve.
So, if you disagree with my review of Potiche, you should remember that you're talking about a woman I love. In French, with English subtitles.
Some Like It Hot
U.S.: Billy Wilder, 1959, MGM/20th Century Fox, Blu-ray
The place is Chicago. Windy City. Downtown. The color: a film noirish black and white. The caliber: 45. The proof: 90. The time: 1929, The Capone Era and the Roaring Twenties -- roaring their loudest.
We're watching Some Like It Hot, again, and Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are playing Joe and Jerry, again: two talented, but kind of threadbare Chicago jazz/dance band musicians who remind you a bit of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis in their early '50s heyday, and who work in a speakeasy fronted as a funeral parlor. (The password is "I've come for Grandma's funeral.") Joe, who plays saxophone, is a smoothie and a champ ladies' man. ("Isn't he a bit of terrific!" his bass-playing pal Jerry wonderingly exclaims, after one of Joe's quick scores.) Jerry is your classic Jack Lemmon schnook, with a couple of kinks thrown in.
Joe and Jerry are also in Dutch: Out of work for months until Grandma opened the funeral parlor, they're now a pair of hapless, broke guys who get tossed out of their speakeasy band jobs by a police raid, blow their salary on a dog race, and who accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre (ordered by George Raft as their ex-employer, natty gangster Spats Colombo).
They then have to flee to Miami, chased by the gangsters and the cops (Pat O'Brien as Detective Mulligan, no less), disguised as the female sax and the female bass (Josephine and, uh, Daphne) of Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, a distaff jazz orchestra whose blonde band songbird and ukulele player, Sugar ("Runnin' Wild") Kane/Kowalczyk, is the Marilyn Monroe of our dreams. Sugar has a weakness for saxophone players. Josephine and Daphne have a weakness, period. And there are a lot of horny millionaires in Miami, including Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who marries chorus girls like you or I catch the morning bus. And, oh yeah, there are gangsters jumping out of birthday cakes, waving submachine guns. Miami, land of dreams and coconuts and bathing beauties and, to quote Sugar Kane, runnin' wild. ("Runnin' wild. Lost control. Runnin' wild. Mighty bold. Feelin' gay, reckless too! Carefree mind, all the time, never blue!")
Made in 1959, the very good Hollywood year of North by Northwest, Anatomy of a Murder, Rio Bravo, Ben-Hur, Imitation of Life, The Diary of Anne Frank and Odds Against Tomorrow, Wilder's movie was probably the best of them all. Some Like It Hot is a bit of terrific, an intoxicating mix of gangster thriller and screwball romantic farce that shows the king of the cynical/sentimental American movie comedy, at his irreverent best. Risqué, quick-witted, scathingly funny, unfazed by foibles and unfooled by phonies, Wilder and his dead-on co-writer, I. A. L. ("Izzy") Diamond, were two Hollywood moviemakers who could cheerfully rip up the establishment, and make the establishment love it -- a pair of razor-sharp script wizards who understood our society to its core, relishing its delights and scorning its hypocrisies. And with Some Like It Hot, they broke the comedy bank.
A bona fide, uninhibited, unrivaled laugh-out-loud classic, Some Like It Hot became one of the all-time killer American comedies, and it also made a first-rank star out of Lemmon. Better than that, it made him Wilder's main man for the rest of his career. Lemmon's Jerry is one of the great American movie comedy performances, because it's so utterly shamless, and Lemmon is an actor who's actually quite good at shame. (Days of Wine and Roses. Save the Tiger. Glengarry Glen Ross.)
When he played the lecherous, sneaky but somewhat cowardy Ensign Pulver for John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy in the 1955 Mister Roberts, in his first Oscar-winning performance, Lemmon had already established most of the basic Lemmon character and style points: the rushed, clipped, skittery delibery, the whines, the funks, the boyish eruptions of glee, the sad stares, the occasional look of joyous impishness and wickedness. In Some Like It Hot, Lemmon took that character and style and kicked it up into sheer comic lunacy, something just this side of Harpo Marx. After establishing Jerry as a guy who isn't too cool with women, but wants to be, and who probably idolizes Joe a bit because he's such a winner with ladies, Wilder and Lemmon pull a wicked switcheroo. The secret of Jerry getting closer to women is for Jerry to be a woman -- which opens up a vein of mad delight, a pseudo-gay side, and then something of a quasi-lesbian side, and finally swings open the door onto Osgood Fielding and "Nobody's perfect."
That's the secret of Some Like It Hot too. Wilder, who's made lots of gay jokes in his time, deliberately keeps his two cross-dressing stars straight, even in undertext, even though Lemmon had triumphed the year before as the unspokenly gay warlock Nicky in Bell, Book and Candle, even when Jerry does a saucy tango with Osgood, and never more so than when Jack/Jerry whips off his wig in the last shot and says, disgustedly but resignedly, "I'm a man!" Which is exactly what makes Lemmon's Jerry so funny.
Jerry and C. C. Baxter, of The Apartment, were Lemmon's two greatest performances, and they're as good as any American movie actor ever gave. The movie also handed Tony Curtis and Joe E. Brown their best movie roles (well, for Tony, probably a tie with Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success). And it came up with what most of us think is Monroe's all time top shot too. (Well, for Marilyn, maybe a tie with Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Ah, Marilyn, Marilyn.... Or as Jack/Jerry says when he spots her doing her famous wiggle-walk and quick-skip in the train station: "Look at that, it's like Jell-O on springs! I tell you, it's a whole different sex." Marilyn had a little trouble with her lines in Some Like It Hot, but we're talking about dialogue, not curves. At one point, Curtis and Lemmon, watching from the sidelines, made bets on how many takes would be required by their beloved but sometimes tardy costar to get over a problem she was having with a line ("Where's that bourbon?" I think) in the train sequence.
It was a risky bet for the guy with the lower number. Director Wilder was soon, temporarily and unwillingly, close to competing for some kind of unofficial record of most takes of a single scene with his famously finicky director pal Willie "Once Again" Wyler, and eventually Billy passed 60. (Willie sometimes topped 90, and he never worked with MM.) But as Wilder insisted to his dying day, it may have taken you a while with Marilyn, but it was worth it. Always. What you got was pure gold.
The movie is pure gold too, and pure schnapps, pure hilarity, pure straight-up Billy Wilder. No better American sound movie comedy has ever been made than Some Like it Hot, though a (very) few are just about as good, including His Girl Friday, Trouble in Paradise, Duck Soup, The Great Dictator, Adam's Rib, The Producers, Annie Hall, and Wilder and Diamond's next movie with Lemmon, The Apartment. (Yes, I noticed a lot of Jewish writers and directors and actors in there, too.)
The picture is so daring, it's giddy. In the waning years of the Production Code, with all its prissy strictures and no-no-Noooos, Wilder managed to put his leading men in drag for much of the picture, make jokes about gangland slayings and mob rub-outs, stage an orgy (almost) in a night-time train upper berth, show the country's and maybe the century's reigning sex symbol (MM) crawling all over Tony Curtis in a borrowed yacht and a skin-tight gown (while Tony does his best Cary Grant impression) -- and unforgettably end the picture with Joe E. Brown's thoughtful and only slightly hesitant response to the news that the gold-digging fiancée with whom he's skipping town is a man: "Well, nobody's perfect."
Really? Some Like It Hot gets away with so much that it's a wonder there was a brick or a quibble of the Production Code left standing by the time Jack/Jerry tore off his wig and Osgood/Brown (steering the motorboat, with Tony/Josephine and MM/Sugar in the back seat) uttered that classic, classic line. Maybe the curiously violent attacks on Wilder for the raunchy but -- to me at least -- entertaining 1964 sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid was some kind of payback from frustrated blue-noses who couldn't clean up Some Like it Hot or The Apartment, or slightly prudish free-speechers who felt Billy had been conning them and getting away with murder.
Maybe he had, but it was justifiable homicide. Just remember how much nonsense American movie audiences had to put up with because of the Production Code, and how much nonsense we have to put up with now, because of the Code backlash that followed.
In any case, Some Like It Hot is a ribald, hot, jazzy, sexy, hilarious joy. It's full of playful references to classic gangster movies like Little Caesar and Scarface. (At one point, Edward G. Robinson, Jr., recalling a famous riff in Howard Hawks' Scarface flips a coin a la Raft's coin-flip as Paul Muni's Scarface sidekick Guino Rinaldi, and Raft grabs it and demands: "Where'd you learn that cheap trick?") And it's an absolute delight. Especially if you're the kind of movie-lover who digs iconic film moments like Guino's coin-flips and Tony/Cary's cadences. And Jack's castanets. And Marilyn's wiggle.
Some like it hot. Some like it cool. But no one would dare to try to clean up a word of Some Like It Hot now. By common consent of everybody smart, with dissenting opinions from everybody stupid, it's a perfect movie from a sometimes perfect moviemaker: one of the all time great, perfect comedy scripts and perfect comedy movies, anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Nobody's perfect, you say? Well, where'd you learn that cheap trick? (Extras: commentary with Curtis and Lemmon from archives, Paul Diamond, and splashwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; documentary; featurettes; original trailer.)
U.K.: Mike Leigh, 1993, Criterion
With a filmmaker like Mike Leigh, who thrives on spontaneity and humanity, I think it may be a good thing to bring you my immediate reaction to his 1993 masterpiece Naked, my favorite of all his films. Here is an excerpt of that reaction, as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
"Mike Leigh's Naked is a great one -- a film of brutal impact, withering wit and humanity. Seeing it shakes you up, changes your vision. This blistering film, with its ferocious dialogue, scathing humor, nightmare iconoclasm and profound compassion, crawls right into your mind, heart and guts. No one who sees it will forget it -- or its fiery, confused, thoroughly real people. It's a movie that conveys a whole world by showing us only its edges. And it's a study of people on those edges, done without a trace of strain, contrivance or prurience. This seemingly lower-depths portrait of a sexually promiscuous Manchester drifter-wandering all over London, seducing strangers and spewing out great, gusty torrents of vile, sarcastic or misanthropic rhetoric, has the unpredictability and volatile kick of life itself."
At its center is young British actor David Thewlis (more recently visible as part of the huge Harry Potter ensemble), in his much-awarded turn as Johnny, a scarily reckless 27-year-old on the dole and on the run. We may remember Thewlis from his bit in Leigh's Life Is Sweet as bulemic Jane Horrocks' beleaguered boyfriend. But this is obviously the role of a lifetime. Thewlis' Johnny is to most other movie portraits of the homeless as Shakespeare's Richard III is to most other stage royalty.
Still, fantastic as Thewlis is, he's only the centerpiece of a brilliant ensemble. As Johnny's old Manchester girlfriend, Louise -- to whose London flat he flees after an alley rape and a car theft put him in peril -- Lesley Sharp gives us goodness without unction, sentiment without saccharine. As Louise's drugged-out roommate Sophie, a wounded witch in a black miniskirt and beads, with a near-narcoleptic drawl, Katrin Cartlidge creates a portrait of urban madness that's true, hilarious pathetic, and totally convincing. As the brutally obnoxious Jeremy Smart, a.k.a. Sebastian Hawks, Greg Cruttwell delivers one of the nastiest, most stinging peeks at upper-class sensuality and selfishness recently on film. As Brian, a gentle and eccentric night watchman who's one of Johnny's many casual victims, Peter Wight gives us soft shades of urban loneliness and yearning. And, as Sandra, Louise's landlady, Claire Skinner makes a priceless comic cameo out of 10 minutes of amazed exasperation, frayed nerves and mangled, disrupted sentences.
Thewlis dominates. But only because Johnny does, because he's the character whose manic energy galvanizes everyone else. Fleeing toward the reliable warmth, pity and sanctuary of Louise, and then fleeing away from her into the night and city after callously seducing her roommate, Johnny catches in one skin that whole ribald-picaresque American literary string of outlaws torn between home and wilderness. He's the antihero tramp and urban pilgrim, drawn totally without illusions. And, because his outlawry is intellectual and sexual, because he can't resist indulging his gifts for fast talk and quick seduction, Johnny's conquests become transgressions. They slide over the line into brutalism.
By now, we expect great acting in a Mike Leigh movie; it's the raison d'etre of his unique improvisatory, exploratory methods. And we expect a certain kind of acting in a Leigh film -- a mixture of compassion and comedy, theatrical whimsy and shocking naturalism, in which the characters, pushed almost to the edge of caricature, never lose their realistic base, psychological truth or stunning individuality. But, even in the notable ranks of Leigh's movie, TV and theater work -- an oeuvre embracing high comedy, biting comment and shivering pathos -- Naked is extraordinary. In the hands of Leigh and his magnificently gifted, gutsy cast, these days and nights on London's streets burn themselves into our memory.
Thewlis' Johnny, fleeing into the urban wilderness and the cavernous grips of sex, becomes an embodiment of man embracing chaos in an unjust world. He's both a reveler in deviance and a witness to madness. Compared to Johnny's dark sad lot, the women he left are lucky. (Extras: Leigh's The Short and Curlies, another fruit of the collaboration between Leigh and Thelis, this time a short comedy; commentary with Leigh, Thewlis and Cartlidge; interview with Neil LaBute; interview with Leigh by Will Self; trailer; booklet with essays by Amy Taubin and Derek Malcolm.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S. Neil Burger, 2011, 20th Century Fox
Limitless makes drama out of brain power and heroes out of geniuses, and maybe that's something more of our movies should try to do. Directed by Neil Burger (of The Illusionist), it's a gaudy science fiction thriller with an intriguing subject. It's about increasing your intelligence with a wonder drug, and about the ways that artificially enhanced brain power can enhance your life, and it's also about the ways a wonder-drug become addictive and start to ruin you as well.
The film is shot with a lot of pizzazz and visual style by Burger, and well-acted by a cast that includes Bradley Cooper (of The Hangover), Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish (of Bright Star) and Anna Friel (of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). It's an exciting movie, even though the script (by Leslie Dixon, adapting the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn) has some dubious spots and too-convenient plotting, and even though the show isn't quite as inventive or imaginative as those other recent sci-fi neo-noirs (sci-noirs?), Inception and Source Code.
But Limitless is almost as snazzy a thrill-ride, and it's an interesting try at something smarter than usual: a flashy thriller that turns wish fulfillment into nightmare and vice versa. I liked it pretty much all the way through (with reservations), then disliked intensely what seemed the phony tack-on of an ending in the last five minutes. But I liked Limitless better again when I saw the DVD, which includes, among the extras, a much better "alternative ending," which I assume is what Burger and Dixon originally wanted.
Science fiction is one literary genre that depends on ideas, as much as on characters, view-of-life, story and style, and the ideas in Limitless are provocative, if sometimes disappointingly developed. The central character is Eddie Morra (Cooper), an attractive but somewhat shaggy, up-against-it writer in desperate straits, who's just lost his better-connected girlfriend Lindy (Cornish) and has serious job trouble -- unable to meet a deadline on a novel for which he hasn't written word one. Eddie starts taking the drug, an experimental pill called NZT, when he gets a freebie from his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who also used to be a dealer.
That's how the story begins. But it's a flashback and we first see Eddie, who narrates the picture, standing on a ledge at a fancy Manhattan condo terrace at night, seemingly about to jump, while someone unfriendly-sounding tries to batt er down his door. His narration then takes us back a little to show Eddie in the thick of that busted-deadline, lost-girlfriend fix, getting the NZT from Vernon -- a drug that supposedly makes you five times smarter than you were before, by letting you access the 80% of your brain power that you supposedly don't use. (I don't know about you, but I find the idea of that unused 80% comforting.) Eddie swallows the pill and soon he becomes both incredibly smart and in major peril -- with Vernon murdered in his apartment, apparently by other folks connected with NZT, and some killer-thugs hot on Eddie's trail.
The rest of this unusually fast-paced movie -- it sometimes plays like Three Days of the Condor on speed -- shows us how this extra edge suddenly fills Eddie's life with sex and money and huge financial success and danger and subway muggings and murders he may have committed in a blackout, and pretty, pretty Abbie Cornish who loved Eddie once and may love him again, and a sadistic Russian loan shark named Gennady (Andrew Howard) threatening to skin him alive, and botched meetings with the one of the richest, meanest, maybe most powerful men in America (De Niro as Carl Van Loon) -- and about how it ultimately all leaves you standing on that ledge on that condo terrace and looking straight down to your death dozens of floors below.
Actually, all of this suggests a cocaine allegory, or a fantasy of addiction or steroid use. But cocaine certainly: the drug that made Los Angeles famous, the drug of the Hollywood '70s (when De Niro was making movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets and The Godfather 2) . And since the audience surrogate of Limitless is Bradley Cooper, the likable seducer of The Hangover, this is also a movie about success in the 2000s, with corrupt Wall Street speculators and greed-crazed politic ians bleeding the country dry, the stock market rising and crashing, and a looks-über-alles pop culture turning us into glib phonies and glib phony-watchers. Cooper as Eddie, the frazzled-writer-turned-ber mensch of Limitless, will narrate the whole damned thing to us, while standing on that ledge and listening to thugs break down his door: and he'll retain our interest even when the plot becomes overstretched, because he's a pro -- as are Burger and Dixon and all the tech people.
By the way, whatever happened to ginkgo? (Extras: theatrical and unrated versions; alternative ending; commentary by Burger; featurette; trailer.)