50 posts categorized "Social Satire"

May 11, 2020

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

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ColeSmithey.comAlexander Mackendrick (director of “The Ladykillers”) may have been of British descent, but his quick-paced 1957 sardonic drama — about the symbiotic relationship between a decadent Manhattan newspaper showbiz columnist and a hungry press agent — captures America’s indulgence in greed, corruption, and aggression like none other. Drawing on the noir style and subject matter of Billy Wilder’s perfect “Ace in the Hole” (1952) “black political drama” would be a suitable moniker for the dark pitch of cynical social satire that “Sweet Smell of Success” examines, rather than the “film noir” attribution that it frequently attracts. Here lies the defective foundation of the American Dream as viewed from an American viewpoint (Burt Lancaster’s company produced the film).

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The story takes place during a day and a half in the life of its New York City characters. Fey toady press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is in the doghouse with his Walter Winchell-type gossip columnist mentor-and-abuser JJ Hunsecker (emphasis on the second “J”). Mackendrick’s ravenous camera moves through Manhattan’s late '50s Broadway theater district on a nocturnal quest for truth.

According to JJ, the frequently groveling Sidney is not responding quickly enough to JJ’s orders to rev up the rumor mill to break up a hot romance brewing between Hunsecker’s adult sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a bland jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Steve Dallas isn’t exactly the next Tal Farlow on guitar, but he’s earned Susan’s romantic devotion. JJ wants to shut the whole thing down with a smear-job on Steve Dallas that sticks. “Communist” is a convenient accusation. JJ’s incestuous emotions seethe in his sexually impotent [or bound] mind. Sidney is working through an imagined apprenticeship with JJ that he hopes will eventually lead to his mentor’s place. The latent homosexual dominant/submissive subtext that exists between the two men underscores JJ’s impotent but nonetheless incestuous desires for his sister. Trouble in mind; trouble in action.

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Neither man has an ounce of ethics but both fake morals to mask their true devotion — to power and money. Sidney calls everybody “baby” or “sweetheart” to get what he wants for his master. He sees though JJ regardless of how beholden to him he is. Sidney tells his de facto boss, “JJ, you’ve got such contempt for people it makes you stupid.”

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Based on a novella by former press agent Ernest Lehman (“Sabrina”) and adapted by Clifford Odets, the great leftist poet of Harold Clurman Group Theatre — “Sweet Smell of Success” exists in a self-loathing urban bourgeois stratosphere where a gossip columnist like JJ Hunsecker can make or break a career depending on whether or not he mentioned it in his column.

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Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker is a nasty master manipulator, but he doesn’t know his limits — and he doesn’t care because he’s been rewarded so much and so long for his ruthless tactics. He’s irresponsible. JJ’s capacious power has blinded everyone, including him. Still, his days are numbered.

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Neither the antagonist (JJ) nor the film’s (purposefully) falsely represented protagonist (Sidney) has any redeeming traits. They suffer ongoing degrees of retribution, but each will carry on in the prescribed despicable methods to which each is accustomed.

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“ColeSmithey.com” flopped at the box office. It is in Time Magazine’s list as one of the top movies of all time.

Not Rated. 96 mins.

5 Stars ColeSmithey.com

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May 09, 2020

THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER

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ColeSmithey.comPeter Greenaway's reputation as Britain's most ferocious intellectual filmmaker reached its apex in 1989 with his sixth feature film. Although everything about this black comedy including its tongue-twisting title challenges audiences, "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" remains Greenaway's most successful effort. Methodically constructed in the Jacobean form of Elizabethan revenge tragedies, the movie is an unrestrained attack on Margaret Thatcher's version of Ronald Reagan-style capitalism that infected the globe.

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Greenaway conceived his film as a play, "a performance," with which the audience is meant to engage. His strict adherence to formal laws of theatrical dramaturgy, including proscenium staging, is attenuated by a non-stop assault of physical and verbal violence from the film's loathsome antagonist Albert Spica. In the role of Albert, Michael Gambon embodies his boorish character with a virulent toxicity of epic scale.

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Greenaway lets the audience know what it's in for during a tense opening sequence. Albert dislodges the owner of a haute cuisine restaurant named Le Hollandaise. The restaurant's proprietor "Roy" (note the allusion to a "king") hasn't been keeping up on his protection payments to Albert, a mean-spirited mob boss with a taste for fine dishes he can barely pronounce. Peter Greenaway predicted a future he hoped wouldn't arrive. It did. The vicious way Albert tortures Roy and smears his nude body with feces reflects the same cruel brand of devastating psychological humiliation later committed by guards at Guantánamo prison.

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Against Albert's orders his elegant wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) smokes cigarettes as a singular act of insubordination. Knowing her turn will come, she nevertheless tolerates Albert's brutish behavior toward others. Inside the grand restaurant Albert confers with his "employee," a veteran French chef named Richard (Richard Bohringer), about the menu.

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The dining room's red color scheme is watched over by Dutch painter Frans Hals's "Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company" —  another thematic poke by the filmmaker. Albert spews his cockney variety of verbal bile at a large rectangular table that allows for Greenaway's formal tableaux compositions to blossom. Challenging thematic ideas come in spades.

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Striking costumes by Jean-Paul Gautier and a haunting musical score by Michael Nyman augment the film's purposefully artificial execution. Georgina strikes up an affair with Michael (Alan Howard), a solitary man who reads as he dines across from Albert's table of savages. Over the course of the next few nights the lovers retreat to the restaurant's bathroom and kitchen to make love between courses. Their trysts represent a desperate escape of independent thinkers from an oppressive outside world that would just as soon eat them alive, or dead.

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"The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" is a masterpiece of British cinema built on several hundred years of literary tradition. The film must be viewed more than once to begin to digest its pungent and subtle layers of rope-thick satire. There are far worse cinematic fates to be had. 

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Rated X. 124 mins.

5 Stars ColeSmithey.com

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February 12, 2020

MODEL SHOP

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ColeSmithey.comSomewhere between Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” and Andrew Slater’s essential Laurel Canyon music scene documentary “Echo In The Canyon,” sits Nouvelle Vague reject Jacques Demy’s time-capsule of the romanticized, and sexualized, Viet Nam War era of Los Angeles, circa 1968.

Here is an anti-war romantic drama depicted in personal terms. America's pervasive ennui is palpable even in sunny California. Ideals must be tempered. No heart is pure.

“Model Shop” is a subtle anti-war film for the ages. L.A. might be sunny, but the filter of War turns the brightest colors gray.

This is a movie you can dream into, even as nightmare glimpses of American sexual repression and capitalist culture of greed and war come and go.

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Hitchhiking, pot smoking, and a handsome lead throwing around a green-and-red 1952 MG convertible like a scattered rug, contribute to Demy’s uncanny study of shifting cultural moods that the city inspired before 1969 came crashing down on hippie culture like a mousetrap. Watergate finished the job a few years later.

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Jacques Demy exhibits poetic affection for the sprawling beachside town where an oil rig sits only a few feet away from our rudderless protagonist George Matthews’s ramshackle bungalow that he shares with a shameless would-be actress Gloria (Alexandra Hay). Gloria wants to break up; George (Gary Lockwood) isn’t surprised and doesn’t care. Gloria wants to build a family, George wants to build a career, but doesn’t want to wait the 15 years it will take to develop a reputation that will have him designing gas stations. Then a draft notice arrives for George.

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Nouvelle vague-inspired Leos Carax’s 1984 “Boy Meets Girl” shares “Model Shop’s” sense of existential dread for young male characters whose pending military duty colors their emotional interactions with the women they fall in love in short circumstances. Forget “meet-cute,” this is meet-horny-and-depressed, in that order. 

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The “Model shops” of the film’s title offer men an opportunity to pay to take Polaroid pictures of women in, or out, of their negligées in the privacy of a gaudy-colored room in a shady district of the Sunset Strip. Want to know more? I know you do.

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George gets along much better with his male friends than he does with the fairer sex. In one of the film’s most inspired scenes, George visits the Laurel Canyon home of a musician pal. The two friends go into a home studio where George’s friend plays the music for a song he’s writing on a piano while his wife takes care of their baby elsewhere in the house. George silently grooves while sitting peacefully listening to his friend’s work-in-progress. However, when comes to communicating with women, George isn’t socialized nearly as well.

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When George sees a lovely woman in white (Anouk Aimée as Lola), he’s inspired to follow her. Discovering that Lola works at a model shop doesn’t dissuade him. Commodification of sexuality can’t be all bad, can it? George takes the bait and takes photos of her in a frilly nothing gown. Once home with the erotic photos and a joint in his hand in bed, George’s live-in girlfriend interrupts his would-be masturbation session. George can’t get a break but on this day of all days, he really needs one. Demy makes George’s inevitable sexual release a suspense element that increases in tension as the picture goes along.

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Gary Lockwood (he played Dr. Frank Poole in “2001: A Space Odyssey”) carries the same world-weary vibe of Robert Forster’s news cameraman in character Haskell Wexler’s similarly timed drama “Medium Cool” (1969). The two men look enough alike to have been brothers. Like Brad Pitt’s stunt double Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” Gary Lockwood worked in Hollywood as a stunt man. And similar to Leonardo Di Caprio’s Rick Dalton character, Gary Lockwood was a would-be leading man relegated to doing supporting roles on television.

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When he made “Model Shop,” Jacques Demy lived in L.A. with his wife, the great French New Wave maverick Agnes Varda. Overlapping storylines from Demy’s previous movies enter into the narrative at key points. Demy allows his personal history with French filmmaking to weave into the story at hand.

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Social commentary arrives via LA’s west side locations and streets, such as Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, that hold aromatic nostalgic importance for a pre-internet world when you didn’t have a cell phone crutch to rely on for information, human interaction, and social guidance. The war that rages in Viet Nam reverberates through L.A. like an invisible gas. America’s militarized corporate structure have put George in a maze full of dead-ends. At least he can appreciate the beauty and promise of Los Angeles for all of the good it will do him.   

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Rated PG. 97 mins.

4 Stars ColeSmithey.com

Cozy Cole

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