Category Archives: Cinema

Classic Movie Watch — On Dangerous Ground (1952)

It’s far too facile to call Nicholas Ray’s stark 1952 classic, On Dangerous Ground, a film noir. It certainly starts out that way with hardened cop Jim Wilson, played by the incomparable Robert Ryan, violently working his way through tarts and hoodlums in his obsessive pursuit of two cop killers. But quickly we see that Wilson is no hero. His partners are finding it difficult to work with him and his superior has had to give him increasing warnings about police brutality. From the opening shots of the film we see that Wilson is utterly alone and has only the job to live for, while one of his two partners has a devoted young wife and the other more senior one already has a large family. Worse still for Wilson, he is beginning to hate his job and himself by proxy. As Wilson sneers at one point “everyone hates a cop” on both sides of the law and “garbage is all we handle.” It’s readily apparent that violent self-loathing is beginning to consume Ryan’s masterfully curdled Jim Wilson.

But although On Dangerous Ground begins in the grimy urban shadow world typical of film noir it doesn’t stay there. Having cuffed around one too many suspects Wilson is given an assignment out of town and far upstate until things cool down for the wayward detective. A young girl has been murdered in a small country town and Wilson is sent up to help the local sheriff. Suddenly the movie drives out of a crime infested, artificially lit city and up into the stark and pristine mountains, eventually arriving at a sparsely populated wintry outpost that has been the scene of a horrible crime.

There Wilson meets Walter Brent and his family, whose young daughter has been slain. Brent, played by the square-jawed and tough Ward Bond, familiar from so many John Ford Westerns alongside John Wayne, is consumed by the need for revenge and vigilante justice. He is resentful and dismissive of the big city detective when all he wants to do is find his daughter’s killer and blow him away. Nonetheless, Wilson and Brent join together to pursue the suspected killer after he steals a car in town, following him even further into the mountainous wilds until they crash their car in the icy conditions. Their quarry has also crashed his car and they follow his tracks as best they can to a remote house in a barren, frozen landscape. There they meet a blind woman seemingly living alone, Mary Malden, played by the always excellent Ida Lupino. And now the source of tension changes yet again, as the detective and the bereaved father wonder if the blind woman is hiding or helping the assailant and Wilson begins to wonder if he can open his heart to this stubbornly independent yet tender and kind woman.

Once the action has left the city and moved to the rocky terrain the tenor of the film also changes. Upon repeated viewings there is a distinctive existential aspect to the manhunt and its implications, becoming almost an allegory. All of a sudden Wilson is the one upholding the law and trying to keep Brent from pursuing extra judicial action. It’s almost as if Brent is the ultimate extension of Wilson’s increasingly judge and jury approach to law enforcement in the city. In seeing it in another man he experiences a similar revulsion to that of his partners at his own over-the-line actions. And can the blindness of Mary Malden simply be a plot device or is there something more profound being implied there? After all, the famous statue of Justice is blindfolded and once Wilson comes into contact with this isolated blind woman his own angry defenses begin to soften and he begins to want to trust in the process of the law again over simple retribution.

It all makes for an extremely strange and intriguing police drama. Ray’s sense of story is inventive and never bound by the conventions of genre. The black and white cinematography is dark to the point of cinema verite with the vast outdoor spaces seemingly even more claustrophobic than the inky, densely packed city streets of the first third of the film. The tense mood is consistently heightened by the pulsing score of the great Bernard Herrmann, Hicthcock’s favorite composer. And the two stars are top notch. Ida Lupino, with her lovely eyes and husky voice, was always such a fascinating combination of tough and tender, a perfect foil for hard men, and never more so than in this brave and accomplished role. She was also a Hollywood groundbreaker as a female director at a time when that was almost unheard of and got her start in that pursuit by directing a few scenes in On Dangerous Ground when Ray was too ill to work.

But the movie’s center of gravity is Ryan’s hair-trigger Jim Wilson, a man drowning in his own exposure to the darkest aspects of human behavior, in others and those within himself. Made some 20 years before Dirty Harry, the cop in On Dangerous Ground is a direct progenitor of the kind of avenging urban policeman that Clint Eastwood portrayed so well. But whereas in Eastwood’s conception of Dirty Harry his vigilante violence is cathartic and necessary as a response to impotent bureaucracy in an increasingly chaotic and frightening world, for Ryan’s Jim Wilson the chaos is within and so the resort to violence is self-wounding and destructive of his humanity. His exposure to someone even more out of control, even more hungry for blood in Brent the avenging father brings him back to the belief in the power of and the need for the due process of the law. Of all the classic Hollywood leading men of the 1940s and 50s Ryan was the probably the least suited to that title. He was more like an anti-matinee idol, often specializing in heavies and unreliable neurotics. But there is not really another actor like him and his ability to channel an inner darkness was rarely matched. There’s just something about those jet black eyes of his that radiates menace even when he is a supposedly sympathetic character. That his Jim Wilson requires the help of a blind woman to save him from himself and that Ryan only grudgingly allows this redemption to happen makes this one of his most satisfying “heroic” roles in a career mainly distinguished by masterful portrayals of violent racists and psychopaths.

A final word on director Nick Ray, at least for now: Ray was undoubtedly one of the most interesting American directors to emerge from the post-WWII era. While trained to be a typical handler of studio projects, Ray constantly found ways of making routine material something more transcendent. Thus a movie like They Live By Night (1949) becomes a doomed romance rather than a simple crime spree movie. In A Lonely Place (1950) allows Humphrey Bogart to take his uncompromising tough guy persona to an unsavory extreme. Bigger Than Life (1956) is a seemingly typical 1950s domestic melodrama upended by James Mason’s frightening steroid-induced psychosis. The brilliantly stylized Rebel Without A Cause (1955) became the signature youth rebellion film of all time due to an intuitive grasp of a coming generational revolution and the absolutely perfect casting of James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as the teenagers. And 55 Days At Peking (1963), Ray’s last major film after being dismissed late in the production, is a period war epic that allows the often monolithic Charlton Heston moments of wounded humanity that he only rarely revealed in his other films. And there are several other great films to his credit aside from these like The Lusty Men, Bitter Victory and Johnny Guitar, all well worth seeking out.

Ray had an obvious gift with actors, getting them to delve deep and really expose themselves and also a rare understanding of interior and exterior spaces as emotional contributors and activators (not coincidentally he studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s). All of his best talents of mining hidden depths in conventional material and making the most of limited resources are on display in On Dangerous Ground, possibly the most unusual film noir in the canon. It’s truly a movie of deceptive complexity and beautiful playing that rewards multiple viewings and reveals new levels of understanding each time. It’s hard to think of a better compliment to Ray’s unique cinematic talents than that and it’s an ideal jumping off point for further exploration of one of the more idiosyncratic of the major “Golden Age” Hollywood directors.

Horological Mythology: The Osmosis of Cool

In the world of watch collecting, one gets used to heady price tags and watching the those prices rise over the years. It’s logical, despite occasional anomalies like market corrections and bubbles, that desirable things go up in value over time. It equally adds up that in a time when wealth is more concentrated than it has been in decades, those who can afford to pay a lot for something can usually afford to pay a WHOLE LOT for something, and so dealers adjust their prices accordingly, and the rest of us have to pay up to keep up. C’est la vie.

But what in the world accounts for something like the $17.75 million we saw shelled out for Paul Newman’s own Rolex “Paul Newman” ref. 6239 Daytona at auction last week? The most paid for any watch ever. Theories abound, of course. The fact that a normal Rolex “Paul Newman” ref. 6239 Daytona is a somewhat rare and desirable watch in it’s own right is a good starting point. Add to that the sweet story about his wife gifting it to him, and Mr. Newman’s owning and wearing this particular watch throughout an exciting portion of his life (regularly racing cars and frequently seen in public generally being cooler and better looking than the rest of us), thus leading collectors in the 80’s to name the reference the “Paul Newman” in his honour, and we have a pretty solid explanation as to why this watch would be worth more than the “normal” Paul Newman. But a normal “Paul Newman” Daytona goes for about $200,000, so is the one that started it all really worth that much more, solely as an originator of a sect of the watch collecting world? I say no.

Continue reading

Classic Movie Watch — Harper (1966)

1966’s Harper is not only one of the great Paul Newman’s best and most enjoyable films. It’s also by this late date a bit of an under looked classic with a remarkable creative pedigree. Based on the great Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, and capturing the bubbling striking and strangeness of burgeoning, fast moving California in the post war era, Harper is an excellent crime thriller with a first-rate cast. Not only is there the always terrific Newman as the title character at his most wry, nimble and reluctantly heroic.  The film is also packed with other standout actors like the screen legends Lauren Bacall, Shelly Winters, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner. Great character actors also play their parts notably the always indelible Strother Martin, Robert Webber and Harold Gould. The movie was also legendary screenwriter William Goldman‘s big breakthrough, establishing him as a major Hollywood writer and adaptor of work and essentially launching his long successful career in the movies. It was capably directed by Jack Smight with a nice light touch, who also went on a pretty good run later in the 60s and 70s helming films like No Way to Treat a Lady (from a novel by Goldman), The Illustrated Man, Airport 1975 and Midway. Finally Harper was shot by the great Conrad Hall and the film has a terrifically bright and colorful California feel even though it is essentially a noir in content.

Without giving too much away, down on his luck private investigator Lew Harper is hired by an old friend, an ex- Assistant DA and now private attorney Alfred Graves (Arthur Hill) to investigate the disappearance of his client, millionaire grower and developer, Ralph Sampson. The unlikeable Sampson has disappeared en route to LA while flying back from Vegas and his wife, the beautiful but ice cold and disabled Elaine Sampson (Bacall) wants to find out what happened if only to catch him stepping out on her. Harper also meets Sampson’s daughter from another marriage, Miranda (played by a very kittenish Pamela Tiffin) and her boyfriend and Sampson’s private pilot, Alan Taggert (Wagner), who also happens to be the last person to see Sampson before he went missing at the LA airport after ordering a limo. By searching Sampson’s private bungalow Harper finds a picture of faded starlet Fay Estabrook (Winters), whom he tracks down and finds to be overweight and alcoholic. Harper gets her drunk to pump her for info and from Fay’s web of strange connections he’s led to even more unseemly characters such as the nightclub singer and junkie Betty Fraley (Harris), Fay’s vicious husband Troy (Webber) and the bogus holy man Claude (the one-of-a-kind Martin). Deeper crimes are uncovered including kidnapping, human trafficking and even murder and no one is entirely what they seem.

Harper-3

If that all sounds complicated it is. True to the Ross MacDonald style there are a lot of characters to keep track of and a lot of plot twists to follow and throw the audience off balance. Harper uses his wits more than his fists to move the case forward, though he is more than capable in either hand-to-hand combat or with a gun. He’s a step above the local police and he doesn’t mind letting them know it to their face. He takes more than a few beatings and serious risks to his life but, like all great detectives, is compelled to stay on the case and see it through no matter were it may lead. As personified by Paul Newman, Harper is never grim but always wise-cracking, quick witted, effortlessly masculine with a appropriately sardonic take on his gray-shaded word and the people in it. It’s one of Newman’s subtly great performances in that it comes across so effortlessly, as though Harper were just a second skin he was slipping on, and ranks right up there with Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (another Goldman screenplay) and The Sting for moving Newman away from the “angry young man” stereotype of his earlier career — a sort of alternative Brando — and into the persona of the affably cynical, world wise, wise-cracking and sometimes reluctant hero that served him and us as theater-goers so well. The direction is crisp and manages to fit in all its twists and turns in a highly enjoyable and never draggy 2 hours. And of course the brilliant screenplay does justice to MacDonald’s original novel even elevating the humor somewhat to keep the dialogue fast and clever, rife with sharp ripostes and cutting lines. It’s tough and violent enough without being exploitative and it’s one of those movies where everything just seems to hum along like a well-oiled machine with just enough oddness and ingenuity to prevent it from being an exercise in formula or slickness. In short, if you’re a Paul Newman fan and crime thriller fan and you haven’t  seen Harper yet what are you waiting for? It’s a mid-60s knockout and you are going to love it.

Just a couple of quick asides: Legend has it that the character was changed from the original Archer to Harper because Newman liked H names and thought they were lucky (see Hud, Hombre, The Hustler, etc). Other sources say that because the producers only has the rights to The Moving Target and no other MacDonald works at that time they didn’t want to use Archer. In fact another Harper/Archer movie was made nearly 10 years later with Newman reprising his role and playing alongside his wife Joanne Woodward in The Drowning Pool (1975). The location was shifted from MacDonald’s beloved coastal California to New Orleans and while the plot was equally byzantine if not more so and the cast of characters just as compelling the film plays a lot more seriously and almost has a grim feel to it. Not a bad thriller by any means but definitely not the nimble, witty masterpiece that the original Harper is. It’s also worth mentioning that the original Archer books themselves are definitely worthy of a read. They are a major cut above most detective fiction and MacDonald earns his high praise as the natural successor to Raymond Chandler as a superlative writer of hard-boiled crime fiction with his Lew Archer grabbing the baton from Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe and ably running with it.

RIP Roger Moore, 1927 – 2017

The heroes of our youth continue to fade away. So it is with the passing of Sir Roger Moore Tuesday, May 23 at the age of 89 after a life very well spent. The Guardian’s obituary is here.

Moore was “our” James Bond for those of us growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, an impossibly suave and arch version of Ian Fleming’s iconic super spy. Taking over the role at 45 from the great Sean Connery and Aussie George Lazenby, who flamed out after one very good outing (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Moore slowly moved the portrayal of Bond away from the super macho style that Connery personified and into a more self-aware, almost ironic approach. With his first two outings as Bond, the very good blacksploitation hybrid Live And Let Die and the rather less effective The Man With the Golden Gun, Moore seemed to be trying to split the diferrence between his own mischievous personality and the hardness of the Connery era, including slapping women around nonchalantly. But as two-time Bond movie alum Maude Adams famously remarked that was simply not Roger. And as the movies became more gadget driven and wilder in concept, culminating in the very wacky Moonraker that tried to capitalize on the Star Wars craze by putting Bond into space, Moore’s self-aware bemusement served the ever more hyperbolic franchise well. Even if today’s pundits are quick to dismiss the Moore era as lightweight and his portrayal of Bond as lacking in gravitas this misses the zeitgeist of when his films were made. The 70s were not a time of gravitas but rather The Me Decade, a time of partying down and sexual abandon, of thinking less and doing more. And so Moore’s Bond was simply suitable to the times. He seemed to recognize that his perfect features constituted the most important weapon in Bond’s ultimate pursuit, the conquest of women while in the service of the Queen. It’s certainly no accident that he essayed the role 7 times over 12 years, even if by his last outing in 1985’s A View To A Kill his knees seemed to be showing their 57 years more than that well-tanned face. Yet he still managed to take on the Amazonian Grace Jones and a very nasty Christopher Walken, as well as bed Tanya Roberts in the process, so you could say Moore’s Bond retained the good stuff even in his swan song.

Moore had been a major international TV star before being cast in Live And Let Die in 1973. His big break came when he took over from James Garner as his British cousin on Maverick in the early 1960s after working regularly in other action roles on American television. Most importantly, he played Simon Templar in The Saint from 1962 to 1969, a cultured thief who only steals from other criminals. The series was a huge hit both in England and in the US and probably put Moore on Albert Broccoli’s radar as a potential future Bond. He was also immensely enjoyable as one half of the wealthy oil-and-water crime fighting duo in The Persuaders! alongside a manic Tony Curtis, bickering and galavanting their way through jet set Europe and generally having a ball. While the series was not the big hit in the States that the producers hoped it remains a very enjoyable cult classic and peak super suave Moore (check out his very early-70s self-designed wardrobe as Lord Brett Sinclair). After his time as Bond, Sir Roger became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador due to the example and influence of his friend, Audrey Hepburn. He was knighted by the British Empire in 2003 for his years of service doing that worthwhile charitable work and his special focus on helping children in the developing world.

roger-moore

Roger Moore liked beautiful women, finely tailored clothes, good cigars and good drink and most of all pleasant company. He loved playing  James Bond and never struggled with being strongly identified with the role, as so many of the other actors have (with the notable exception of Pierce Brosnan). For him, Bond and his ever wilder and more humorous adventures were all great fun to be approached with a raised eyebrow and a good quip but not too much perspiration. There was never any doubt he was going to accomplish his mission, kill the villain and sleep with the girl. He made the James Bond movie a terrifically enjoyable experience during a time when the films were real blockbuster summer events. His was an angst-free Bond for a hedonistic era, helping perfect an over-the-top formula that simply worked like a charm nearly every time. If tastes have changed and authenticity is now the new fetish that is no fault of Moore’s. He had the light touch at the right moment and his films remain the most consistently and purely fun of the franchise’s epic run. So godspeed to Sir Roger Moore and may he rest in peace. He brought the world a lot of joy and entertainment and did a lot of good work in his long time on this earth. He is the first cinema Bond to pass on and certainly one of the most loved. But even with that towering cinematic accomplishment he’ll be even more fondly remembered as Roger Moore the kind, funny and very generous human being. Just read this great anecdote from a fan who met him as a child and then again as an adult for proof of that.

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming — Live And Let Die

Live And Let Die is the second of Ian Fleming’s legendary James Bond novels. It is also frankly the most problematic. Written in 1954 about a Caribbean crime boss wreaking havoc from his lair in Harlem and obviously penned by the most English of mid-century Englishman this side of Churchill, the writing often invokes cringe-worthy instances of political incorrectness for the modern reader. For example, while the dangerous and supremely intelligent super villain Mr. Big is erudite and possesses a genius level intellect, there are many bits of dialogue spoken by his African American underlings in rather unfortunate “Yassuh, Boss” dialect. This may reflect Fleming’s efforts at portraying colloquial English accurately but 60 years on it does not exactly hold up as the author’s best moment, not to mention Bond calling those henchmen “clumsy black apes” or the use of rude British seaman’s slang as the name for shallow coral reefs once the action shifts to Jamaica (hint: rhymes with “biggerhead”). At best the offending language is terribly dated and at worst it is extremely condescending and racially insulting.

LiveAndLetDieVintageCover

But if we can forgive Fleming for being a man of his time and for his very English mid-20th Century views on race relations and insensitive language (which is probably much easier to do if you’re not a person of color, to be fair) then what we get when putting aside those jarring racialisms is a massive improvement in Fleming’s writing style over Bond’s debut in Casino Royale, though the latter was published just a year prior. Bond’s character has much more depth, humor and élan than in the first book and the action and adventure is crisper and more sustained, not mention the book seems much better edited so that Fleming’s more repetitive ticks have been largely jettisoned. While Casino Royale was already a very good effort, especially as a debut, Live And Let Die proves that Bond has real staying power as an iconic super spy through his character’s increased toughness and ingenuity. And certainly one doesn’t go into a Bond novel — or most of the films, for that matter — looking for a treatise on racial or feminist enlightenment. As the more modern movies would come to acknowledge, Bond is a dinosaur, a man of thoroughly 1950s outlook on women and minorities. If you can’t get over that — and it’s fine if you can’t, of course — essentially none of the original Bond novels is going to work for you. They are a guilty pleasure best enjoyed as old action books and not viewed through a modern prism any more than you would, say, a Sam Spade, Mike Hammer or Philip Marlowe adventure.

LADLdetail-2

After recovering from injuries both physical and emotional sustained during the course of the brutal Casino Royale affair, Bond is summoned by M., head of MI6, to investigate the flooding of gold coins dating from the notorious privateer Henry Morgan’s era onto the black market. With the spymaster’s typical well-reasoned logic, M. theorizes that a Russian agent of Haitian descent, Buonapart Ignace Gallia, a voodoo practitioner who keeps a criminal empire running on fear and murder, aka “Mr. Big,” is pulling the strings on the elaborate plot to launder the old pirate’s treasure for nefarious ends. For Bond, who has sworn personal revenge on the Soviet assassin’s group SMERSH for their evil deeds in the Royale caper, the chance to take on Mr. Big, their key man in America, is too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Quickly, Bond finds himself in New York City, where Fleming’s love of all things American (except for the lousy coffee and fast food of the era) is ever apparent in his evocative descriptions of the fast-paced big city. Staying at the luxury St. Regis hotel in Midtown, Bond is quickly reunited with his pal from the CIA, Felix Leiter, who is to team with Bond on the Mr. Big case. (Never mind that the CIA is ostensibly prohibited from operating within US borders…) The two secret agents make the journey up to Harlem and unsurprisingly, as two extremely square, extremely white gentlemen they are quickly spotted by Mr. Big’s pervasive underground network. This leads to Bond and Leiter being captured while looking for clues at Mr. Big’s lurid exotic club, “The Boneyard.” The men are separated and Bond finds himself alone and face-to-face with the fearsome Mr. Big.

As with nearly all of Fleming’s villains, Mr. Big is something of a physical monstrosity: 6’6″ tall and 280 pounds with an enormous, oversized bald head, gray skin and bulging yellow eyes. Bond concocts a story of coming to America to aide the US Treasury in tracking the mysterious inflow of ancient gold coins but Mr. Big, as a key member of SMERSH, already has intelligence hinting at Bond’s broader plans and his Double-0 status. Mr. Big asks his kept woman, the beautiful Creole psychic Solitaire, to corroborate Bond’s cover story by reading the Tarot cards. To Bond’s surprise she does so, while also sending him unmistakable signals of alliance. As a parting warning, Mr. Big directs his henchman, the fearsomely gleeful Tee-Hee, to snap Bond’s pinky finger. Coming to after blacking out from that pain, Bond is warned by Mr. Big to go back to England and stay away from his affairs. The next time they meet, the theatrical and megalomaniacal SMERSH agent will have Bond killed in as artistically satisfying way as he, the great Mr. Big, can devise.

LiveAndLetDiePoster_copy

So begins the first third of Live And Let Die and it only picks up steam from there, with a furtive train journey down the East Coast to Mr. Big’s secretive operations in St. Petersburg, Florida; a deepening relationship between Bond and the now-fugitive Solitaire; and mortal danger for Bond, Leiter and the beautiful Creole telepath at every turn. Culminating with a masterfully tense and brutal showdown at Mr. Big’s aka Baron Samedi’s secret island hideout in Jamaica, Live And Let Die ratchets up the considerable thrills of Casino Royale with an even more sensational plot, graphic violence and detailed attention to the intricacies and dangers of spycraft by Fleming. The characters are sharper, the villain bigger and better and the second novel also introduces the globe-trotting change of locales that would come to be a hallmark of the series, both literary and filmed. If the 1973 movie Live And Let Die, Roger Moore’s debut in the iconic role, cleverly incorporated elements of the pulpy and then-popular Blaxsplotation genre, as well as inaugurating the more high-concept, sometimes wacky action era of Bond in cinema (see that speedboat chase in the bayou as well as the redneck sheriff and army of crashing police cars), the original book is more focused on finely honed observations about the power and history of voodoo, how a huge criminal enterprise might successfully operate in the United States under cover of small time crime and the ingenious and ruthless methods deployed by the criminal mastermind involved. In short, it’s a ripping yarn full of dynamic changes of pace, hard-nosed detective work, camaraderie in the face of danger and memorable bursts of ultra-violence. Fleming’s gift for the sudden shock and the unexpected upping of stakes continues to evolve nicely, leaving one primed and ready for the apocalyptic possibilities of his third Bond adventure, Moonraker. Tune in next time to see how that one stacks up.

Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Krysten Ritter

Once in a while an actress finds a role so perfect that it lets her punch through to another level entirely. Such is the case with the fascinating and unconventionally beautiful Krysten Ritter and her wonderful work as the title character in Netflix’s original series,  Jessica Jones. Netflix and Marvel have cleverly reimagined some of the more obscure protagonists in the Marvel Universe for TV, with Luke Cage and Iron Fist also getting their own series, and the compelling Jessica Jones shows just how satisfying it can be when relatively unknown superheroes get modernized and fleshed out in a morally complex world that is anything but black & white.

krysten_ritter_8

And it is Ritter who enables Jessica Jones to reach it’s very fine full potential. At turns fragile and combative, cynical and idealistic, Ritter lets Jones’ damage show beneath the surface of her gamine good looks and her tough private eye facade. With it’s claustrophobic urban setting and her ominously dangerous nemesis, Jessica Jones inhabits a truly adult superhero demimonde, portraying sexual and mental subjugation in ways the big ticket franchises could never be bold enough to tackle. Add to that barely remarked upon interracial sex scenes between Jones and Cage, Jones’ use of her wits over her own seldom-deployed super strength and surprising eruptions of deadly, sanguineous violence, and Jessica Jones is a sophisticated vehicle that Ms. Ritter is wringing the very most out of.

krysten-ritter-3

The 34-year old actress was born in rural Pennsylvania and was spotted by a modeling scout as gangly teenager in a local mall. With her throwback Coco Chanel looks, Ritter found herself in New York City in no time flat, where she was signed by the big agencies for print and runway work. With her lively and outgoing personality she made an easy transition into acting for commercials and television. She also made a concerted effort to act in theater, honing her acting chops even further.

krysten_ritter_15

She had her first sustained TV work with a nice multi-episode role on the WB’s very popular hit, Gilmore Girls. That propelled her to supporting roles in features in the romantic comedies What Happens in Vegas with Cameron Diaz and Aston Kutcher, 27 Dresses with Katherine Heigl and She’s Out of My League with Jay Baruchel (all 2008) and again as the lead’s gal pal in 2009’s Confessions of a Shopaholic alongside Isla Fisher.

krysten_ritter_7

But Ms. Ritter’s real breakthrough came with her remarkable portrayal of Jane Margolis during the second season of AMC’s legendary Breaking Bad. Effortlessly conveying the trademark tough-vulnerable qualities that would serve her so well in Jessica Jones, Ritter’s sexy tattoo artist and heroin-addict is a wonderful femme fatal and irresistible to the love-starved Jesse. So perfect was the role and the casting that one wishes Ritter’s Jane and Aaron Paul’s Jesse could have escaped Walt’s clutches and made their getaway to New Zealand. Instead the character’s death served to propel several profound plot twists going forward, and Ritter’s short-lived Jane Margolis was very much a vital deus ex machina. More than that, though, her performance was pitch perfect and indelible.

krysten_ritter_6

An actor never likes to see a project get canceled but it was almost certainly a blessing when Krysten’s ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- In Apt. 23 got the axe after two seasons. Yes the show was reasonably funny and Ms. Ritter was perfectly cast as the titular B—-. But the show’s demise created the opening for her to take her role of a lifetime in Jessica Jones. Now not only is her show one of Netflix’s top properties and a critical success but she will be featured in the multi-hero spinoff, The Defenders, slated to debut in 2017.  Alongside Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Jessica Jones will be keeping good company as these heroes team up to fight crime and injustice. And Krysten Ritter is sure to keep doing attention-grabbing work as one of the more interesting actresses out there.

RIP Gene Wilder, 1933 – 2016

When the great comic actor Gene Wilder passed away on August 29th at the age of 83 due to complications from Alzheimer’s it felt just as though a favorite eccentric uncle had died. (The New York Times obituary is here.) For those of us who grew up in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s Wilder left an indelible impression. If you enjoyed funny movies in the least (and really, who doesn’t?), Wilder was one of the joys of the cinema during that period, all the more so because there was nobody before or since who quite possessed his unique blend of neurotic mania and soulful mensch-ness. Even when Wilder was portraying a character a little bit naughty, like Leo Bloom in the original The Producers, the unpredictable Willy Wonka of chocolate factory fame, a descendent of Victor Frankenstein compelled to pursue the same macabre obsessions as his infamous grandfather or a wrongly convicted con alongside his great comedy partner Richard Prior in Stir Crazy, Wilder always seemed to juxtapose a sweetness with his delightfully manic outbursts.

After studying acting at the Old Vic in England and the HB Studio in New York, the Milwaukee-born Wilder first came to wide attention with a small but impactful role in Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn’s seminal Bonnie and Clyde (1967), interrupting the film’s otherwise grim narrative with a burst of humor as a rather eager and happy hostage. But his major breakthrough came a year later in Mel Brooks’ all-time classic, the hysterically funny The Producers. As the nebbishy and neurotic Leo Bloom, Wilder was perfectly matched with the bigger-than-life, morally bankrupt has-been theater producer Max Bialystock, played to the hilt by the peerless Zero Mostel. Amidst the side-splitting opening sequence, as Bloom is abruptly initiated into Bialytsock’s crazy world when he comes to do the producer’s accounting books, it is Bloom who conceives of the idea of raising much more money than needed for a production so bad that it is doomed to close on opening night, thereby allowing the surplus cash to be kept. Bialystock runs with it, coercing Bloom to be his accomplice. They then find a fantastically wretched play called “Springtime for Hitler” and the rest is cinematic comedy history.

His next major role was as the title character in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though not a major hit at the time it became a cult classic with some likening it to a latter day Wizard of Oz, a film that works as both a kids’ movie and something more profound, and Wilder’s influence can be seen throughout in his unique bits of improvisation and inspiration. Johnny Depp was good in the remake but it’s hard to think of anyone other than Gene Wilder as the definitive Willy Wonka, especially when delivering his unexpectedly poignant song, “Pure Imagination.”

He was drafted again by Brooks, as a last minute replacement no less, for 1974’s screamingly funny Western satire, Blazing Saddles. Against type, Wilder played a laconic gunman with a drinking problem given renewed purpose by his fast friendship with the town’s besieged new black sheriff, played by Clevon Little. As if that wasn’t enough comedy gold, that same year Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the brilliant Young Frankenstein, a masterpiece that was Wilder’s concept and that he co-wrote. Filmed in beautiful black and white as an elaborate sendup of 1930s Universal-style horror, Young Frankenstein became a classic in its own right with an unparalleled ensemble cast — including Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars and newcomers Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle — and pitch perfect direction and screenplay. It stands as one of the great collaborative movies of all time and is arguably both Brooks and Wilder’s best work.

1976 saw a magical bit of good casting as Wilder was paired with Richard Pryor for the first time in Silver Streak. Alongside the wonderful Jill Clayburgh in this very good, very funny comedy-thriller about murder and mayhem aboard an LA-to-Chicago train, the two men made cinema history as the first bi-racial comedy duo and audiences loved their unlikely, yin-yang chemistry. As a result, Wilder and Pryor would make three more films together, 1980’s excellent prison comedy Stir Crazy (directed by Sidney Poitier!), the underrated See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and finally Another You in 1991 when Pryor was already greatly diminished by multiple sclerosis.

Wilder found another impactful partnership when he met Gilda Radner on the set of 1981’s Hanky Panky. The two became comedy royalty when they married in 1984. But the relationship ended tragically when Radner passed away in 1989, a victim of ovarian cancer. This loss inspired Wilder to establish an early detection center in Los Angeles, as well as co-founding Gilda’s Club in New York City, a non-profit support group for cancer patients and their families that now has branches throughout the United States (where it is now known as the Cancer Support Community) and Canada. Wilder found love again when he met Karen Webb while working on See No Evil and they married in 1991. They remained together until his death, a much longer if less romanticized relationship than his union with Gilda Radner, so spare a thought for Ms. Webb at this sad time as well.

Though Gene Wilder had largely retired from acting since the early 1990s, instead concentrating on writing, the importance of his best work grew over the years as his special films became part of the greater pop cultural and comedy firmament. That makes it extra difficult to lose such an original actor who got the laughs because he played his characters so truthfully, one who was always so audaciously alive and vibrant on screen. For those of us who grew up with his movies it feels as if we’ve lost a very funny older friend, one we could turn to for a guaranteed laugh no matter how the world was treating us. But we must also remember that Gene Wilder lived a wonderfully full life, was a truly good man and left a massively joyful contribution to the world that survives him via his films. And if we’re being just a little sentimental, it’s not hard to imagine Gene reunited with Richard and Gilda and Marty and Peter and Kenny and Madeline someplace special, cutting up with them all again, his explosive, utterly contagious laugh ringing out through the ether in the company of fine old friends.

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming — Casino Royale

We’ve all seen every James Bond movie multiple times and have our own firm opinion on who is the best Bond — Connery? Moore? Craig? Brosnan?? But how many have read the original Ian Fleming novels? Well, if you’re a true Bond aficionado you really should check them out. And if you’re looking for enjoyable, action-packed summer reading it’ll be a win-win. While the films jump off to an entirely more fantastical level and become their own distinctly grandiose vision of 007, the stripped-down genesis of the Bond phenomenon is in the books. There isn’t close to the gadgetry in Fleming’s original conception, although there are some impressively explosive high-concept climaxes, and the bon mots are a little more subtle. Bond himself tends to be more grim, fallible and vulnerable and less of an glibly unstoppable killing machine than in the films. He comes across as a diligent, well-trained espionage professional with above average self-defense skills and an expert with firearms, a top agent with a sharp, opportunistic mind and a cold reserve covering up signs of doubt and melancholia. It’s a definite key to Daniel Craig’s success that his Bond hews more closely to Fleiming’s original dour conception.

Ian Fleming's own early drawing of Bond

Ian Fleming’s own early drawing of Bond (pic from Wikipedia)

The first novel in Fleming’s massively successful opus is the notorious Casino Royale. I say notorious primarily because the film rights were tangled up for so long that it was the only Bond novel not to make it to the big screen… in recognizable form — the very poor 1967 Woody Allen-David Niven parody shares only the name. It took more than half a century for it to be properly adapted for the cinema via 2006’s explosive blockbuster, Craig’s excellent debut and a film many Bond fans consider one of the best in the franchise. Coming as it did after the ever more elaborate and bloated Brosnan films (although one could see some darker foreshadowing in his last, Die Another Day, where Bond is subjected to harsh torture at the hands of the North Koreans), it was no accident that finally having secured the rights to Fleming’s elusive first work, Broccoli & Co.’s franchise reboot would also try to stay true to the elements that made the start of the Bond story so special. But Casino Royale was also notorious when it was published in 1953 for its violence and sexual content, as well as the very frank and graphic way Fleming approached both issues, with many critics lining up to deride it as pornographic garbage. More than 60 years on it’s Fleming who has the last laugh because his debut novel still holds up very well.

casino-royale_cover2

In Casino Royale the novel we meet Bond for the first time, a WWII naval veteran (presumably an ex-commando) and now an agent in England’s Secret Service with a Double-0 classification, which, as we all know, is a license to kill on behalf of the British government. Continue reading

Documentary view — Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans

(This article was co-written with tomvox1, who helped fill in the biographical blanks of McQueen’s Hollywood career)

Legendary screen icon Steve McQueen was not only one of his generation’s most interesting and successful actors but he was also a serious motorsports addict. An accomplished racer on both two wheels and four, McQueen began spending lavishly on racing machines just as soon as he started making money as an actor after his discharge from the Marines, where he had even attempted to soup up his squad’s tank. Tearing around Greenwich Village in a wire-spoked 1950s MG, he graduated to ever more exotic fare upon moving to California and hitting the big time with his starring role on the Western TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. As well as means, McQueen had exquisite automotive taste and would come to be identified with some of the most remarkable cars of the second half of the 20th Century: the 1958 Porsche Speedster, the stunning Jaguar XK-SS, the 1963 Ferrari 250 Lusso and, perhaps most famously, his personal gunmetal gray 1969 Porsche 911S and the Highland Green ’68 Mustang GT fastback from Bullitt.

Throughout the 1960s, running parallel to his rise as a Hollywood superstar, McQueen honed his craft as an expert racer. While truly gifted on a dirt bike, the King of Cool worked hard to become one of the top amateur sports car drivers in the US. In fact, despite being hampered by a broken foot in a cast, McQueen and co-driver Peter Revson drove their Porsche 908 Spyder prototype to an impressive second overall at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970, and first in the P2 class. After a gritty and inspired run, McQueen and Revson only missed out on the overall win when Ferrari drafted the great Mario Andretti into their second car as the laps wound down. It was the pinnacle of McQueen’s racing career but it was almost incidental to the real reason for purchasing the 908 in the first place: he was bound and determined to make the greatest racing movie of all time.

And that’s where the excellent documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans, picks up the story. In exhaustively researched detail, the film, a 2015 Cannes official selection, delves into how McQueen put the full force of his stardom and clout behind making his racing epic for good and for ill. Grabbing hold of a project originally titled “Day of the Champion” but now renamed simply “Le Mans,” his vision was to capture as realistically as possible the thrills he himself was experiencing in the cockpit of a high performance race car. And as the title now suggested, the indispensable backdrop for all of the action would be the greatest race of them all, the world famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. With a cast full of real-life professional road racers and innovative filming techniques, including converting the Sebring Porsche 908 into a 150 mph camera car, the aim was to mix actual race footage with realistic recreations executed at speed by top pros along with McQueen driving a Gulf-liveried Porsche 917 as the movie’s protagonist, Michael Delaney.

MOTORSPORT / STEVE MC QUEEN

But despite the dedication and advanced technology brought to bear for the driving sequences and McQueen’s personal desire to eclipse John Frakenheimer’s 1966 Formula 1 epic, Grand Prix, as the the greatest racing movie of all time, production of Le Mans was star crossed from the get-go. Continue reading

Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Rebecca Ferguson

In 2015’s surprisingly good installment of the action adventure evergreen, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Rebecca Ferguson didn’t just hold her own with the franchise’s superstar, Tom Cruise. She proved to be his co-equal, which is no mean feat for any actress. The 32-year-old Anglo-Swedish import’s memorable portrayal of Ilsa Faust, a morally ambiguous rogue MI6 agent, is every bit the match for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.

RebeccaFerguson-1

A striking beauty with remarkable martial arts, weapons and vehicle handling abilities, it is Faust’s mental brilliance that truly makes her such a confounding and alluring opponent for the Mission: Impossible team. And with a stunning choice of apparel for an opera assassination showing off her feline grace and wonderfully muscular physique, Ms. Ferguson certainly made a profoundly favorable impression on many a movie goer.

RebeccaFerguson-3

Born in Stockholm to a Swedish father & British mother, Rebecca began modeling in her teens and had a breakout success in the Swedish soap, Nya tider, at the tender age of 17. This led to more TV and film work in Scandinavia until she came to broader attention with her titular role in the BBC’s The White Queen. While the historical drama failed to garner a huge audience, Rebecca’s portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville, scheming consort of King Edward IV during the War of the Roses, received high marks, including a Golden Globe award for best actress in a miniseries.

RebeccaFerguson-5

In 2014 she had a good little role in the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle, Hercules, and had another miniseries lead in Lifetime’s Biblical drama, The Red Tent, where she played Dinah, daughter of Jacob and brother to Joseph, alongside Minnie Driver & Deborah Winger.

RebeccaFerguson-6

Then came her standout work in Rogue Nation and the good news that Ms. Ferguson’s formidable Ilsa Faust should be staying on for the sequel, M:I 6, when that ramps up. With a number of other projects in post-production, as well as her own Tango studio to help keep her in nimble and muscular good shape, the multi-national, multi-talented Ms. Ferguson is primed for even more and better work. And with a winning combination of natural beauty and physical grace, she’s also likely to keep on making the kinds of impressions that only a very few talented and appealing actresses seem able to manage on a regular basis. It should be interesting to watch where Rebecca Ferguson goes from here. Our guess is it’ll be pretty far.

RebbecaFerguson-6