Monday, November 8, 2010

Quick Cuts

The following column is reprinted from the November issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel


Despite the fact that Hilary Swank suddenly seems to have a bunch of naysayers lying in wait of her next big screen portrait as a jut-jawed epitome of almost saintly decency (thus a guaranteed Oscar nominee), she continually manages to turn in affecting, no frills performances. Conviction, from a script by Pamela Gray, is director Tony Goldwyn’s (A Walk on the Moon) brick-by-brick retelling of the real life tale of RI”s own Betty Anne Waters (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I do happen to know) and her 18-year struggle to free her brother Kenny from a wrongful murder charge. Swank plays Waters, eyes forever verging on moistness, blue collar New England accent front and center, unwavering decency emanating from every pore, yet she avoids the off-putting air of self-righteousness and delivers a stellar, if somewhat predictable, turn.

While Goldwyn’s finished product doesn’t pander or over-sentimentalize, it never quite rises above a certain made-for-television movie feel, and not one of those crafted for cable, which usually push into darker corners or poke beneath frayed edges. Part courtroom drama, part hand-on-the-glass prison fare, part minor league Erin Brockovich, Conviction strives so hard to do the story justice and to impart a final sense of man-vs.-the-machine uplift that the movie gets bogged done with an overall vibe of good intentions, making it admirable enough, but not especially insightful or inspiring.

For those who enjoy exceptional casting, or, even better, scene-stealing; the movie abounds with the dynamic players, especially Melissa Leo as a hardnosed cop, Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s law school BFF, and the always terrific Juliette Lewis as a townie witness. Of course, secret weapon Sam Rockwell as the volatile and cocky Kenny is a superb as ever, but the film’s by-the-numbers conventions never quite allow him or Swank to reach any sustained heights.


Remember the much bandied about inside Hollywood term, the Concept film? Well, there are both Low Concept and High Concept movies, while Red might be categorized as an Old Concept. Based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, it’s a throwback actioneer and spy-vs.-spy fable, lightly comic and generally torpid, centering around a reforming of a team of over-the-hill ex CIA assassins, all, Retired and Extremely Dangerous. (Red, get it?)

It’s thoroughly disposable, late night cable fodder down the road, and probably only memorable for it’s supposedly humorously incongruous coupling of middle agers Mary Louise Parker (46) and Bruce Willis (55) alongside Morgan Freeman (73), John Malkovich (56), Brian Cox (64), Richard Dreyfuss (62), Helen Mirren (65), and, god bless him, old Marty himself, Ernest Borgnine (93). Parker is excruciatingly over-the-top, Malkovich triple hammed-up, Freeman goes through his by rote the eye-twinkling motions, Willis does his deadpan retro thang, and director Robert Schwentke makes sure we all focus on the venerable Helen Mirren teamed with a gun nearly as big as her, because, well, that’s basically the whole concept.

Tony Curtis RIP 1925-2010

1959’s Some Like it Hot is unarguably among the greatest American movie comedies and as such, it is a cornucopia of hilarious plotting, trenchantly funny dialogue, razor sharp direction (from Billy Wilder) and exceptional comic acting. As enduringly hilarious and pin-pointedly funny as Joe E. Brown’s vaudevillian maliciousness’ is, never mind Marilyn Monroe’s breathtaking timing and cartoonish physicality, topped off by Jack Lemmon’s wildly neurotic and neatly comic over-machinations, it is Tony Curtis and his bravura playing of (simultaneously) an on-the-hustle musician, a Cary Grant-like playboy, and an all-knowing been-around-the-block dame (in heels and stockings) who ultimately absconds with the honors of the most magical farceur in this resoundingly humorous big screen farce.

Curtis, (born in the Bronx as Bernie Schwartz) was ever the strange hybrid of 50’s glamour boy, and John Garfield knock-off, with inexplicable connections to both James Dean and Jerry Lewis, and he proved more than adept in urban dramas, costumed sagas, gritty biopics, romantic comedies, and all-out satires. He will deservedly hold a solid place in Hollywood’s all-time firmament, eschewing endurable performances in Houdini (’53)Trapeze (’56), Mister Cory (’57), The Defiant Ones (’58), Spartacus (’60), Operation Petticoat (’59), The Great Imposter (’60), The Outsider (’61), The Great Race (’65), and most particularly, in The Boston Strangler (’68).

Although Curtis was initially noticed for his almost feminized good looks—-e was decidedly ethnic, with strikingly dark, curly hair piled high, full lips, and manicured eyebrows—-was his highly combustible combination of amped-up masculinity, genuine vulnerability and deep-seated naked ambition that played most fiercely on screen. This was ultimately proved when Curtis was cast opposite Burt Lancaster as hustling pree agent Sidney Falco in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, resulting in the one Curtis movie role that equals his all-time acting antics in Some Like it Hot.