12/10/21

A Sci-Fi Noir? Rediscover Dark City

 

DARK CITY (1998)

Directed by Alex Proyas

New Line Cinema, 111 minutes (director’s cut), R (nudity, language)

★★★★

 

 

Dark City dovetails with my recent interest in film noir, though it’s a sci-fi movie. Though it tanked in North American theaters, it has come in for reevaluation. Subsequently, elements of it made their way into works such as The Matrix and Inception. The latter copied Dark City’s trippy f/x effect of a city building itself in front of our eyes, an afflatus also borrowed by Amazon Studios.

 

Dark City has inspired comic books and spin-off novels, plus director Alex Proyas, who also cowrote the screenplay, went on to direct I, Robot, which was a huge hit. It didn’t hurt that the late Roger Ebert declared Dark City the best film of 1998, or that it won major non-Oscar awards.

 

Is Dark City a noir film? Absolutely! There’s not a speck of light in it until the end and cinematographer Darius Adam Wolski manipulates shadows, incidental light, and nighttime with the skill of 1940s masters. It's a good thing, as the entire movie is set in darkness and external settings look like a moving version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Dark City also shares film noir’s penchant for murder mystery, though it might be more accurate to call the murders more of a subplot.

 

In brief, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is an amnesiac who has no idea why he’s being pursued. As he attempts to piece together his identity, he learns that Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) has marked him the prime suspect in a series of Jack the Ripper-like murders of prostitutes. As John’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) explains to Bumstead, she hasn’t seen John in weeks, as he stormed out after learning that she had an affair.

 

So far, so normal, but it won’t stay that way. As a line in the movie puts it, “First there was darkness; then came the Strangers.” The latter are aliens manipulating humankind through a reluctant human intermediary, research scientist Dr. Daniel Scheher (Kiefer Sutherland). As we learn, it’s always dark because each midnight the aliens hold a “tuning.” As fast as you can “Shut it down!” everyone falls asleep, all transportation freezes to a halt, and the bald, black-cloaked aliens float from place-to-place exchanging memories and rearranging much of the city. For instance, one unkempt couple in a decrepit hovel awake to find themselves seated at a fancy table in a luxury apartment and have no recollection of having lived any other way. Injections to the front of the brain provide complete backstories.

 

Why? That’s what John wants to know. He literally doesn’t sleep, but unlike everyone else except Detective Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels), he remembers everything that happened since he last slept. Whereas Walenski has gone ‘round the twist and is painting concentric circles everywhere, John is determined to find out if he’s actually a serial killer, why things grind to a halt a midnight, why the city shapeshifts, and why it’s always dark. He even escorts a hooker named May (Melissa George), watches her undress, and leaves her apartment, satisfied that he’s not a murderer. He will also learn about the Strangers from Scherer. Why are they doing all of this? It has something to do with wanting to unlock the secret of the soul, but I’ll leave it at that. Needless to say, John will be tasked with avoiding Bumstead and saving the city. If only he can find Shell Beach, he thinks he can do it.

 

That is, if reality is “real.” Dark City mixes enough speculative science with fiction to inspire interesting mind games. There is a reference to “Last Thursdayism,” a geek’s take on Creationist theory that postulates there is no objective way to prove that anything existed prior to what can be perceived now. And maybe there is no city at all; perhaps everyone is inside a Dyson sphere.

 

Dark City has been compared to Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. I can see that, but it also borrows from Blade Runner (1982), Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995), and Star Trek’s Borg episodes. The Strangers are a lot like the Borg in that they exist as a hive mind, though Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) seems to be a male equivalent of a queen bee. Anticipate caper-like flights and an f/x-infused showdown.

 

If you don’t like science-fiction, you should avoid this movie. I found it stylish. gripping, and a really interesting non-conventional appropriation of film noir. Ebert was right; most Americans missed a really outstanding movie.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

The Rose Tattoo Fades Badly

 

The Rose Tattoo (1955)

Directed by Daniel Mann

Paramount, 117 minutes, Not-rated

★★


 


 

Once upon a time, a handsome man who played the field was called Lothario, Don Juan, or Casanova. That morphed into lady-killer, then skirt-chaser. These days such behavior invites even less savory labels like lecher or predator. Why the vocabulary lesson? Call it a reminder that how we describe the world changes over time. Shifting values are also why a once-heralded movie such as The Rose Tattoo (1955) seems problematic when viewed today. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and won three, including a Best Actress trophy for Italian icon Anna Magnani.

 

The movie is based upon a play written by Tennessee Williams, who wrote the film’s screenplay. He too has undergone reconsideration. His works often featured family trauma that skirted or crossed the borders of domestic violence. Women tended to be frightened rabbits or sultry temptresses, but even damaged male characters oozed animalistic masculinity. Williams died in 1983, but you could probably draw conclusions from the fact that only one of his plays has been made into a film since then. It bombed and drew slams such as stodgy and old-fashioned. I’d use both to describe The Rose Tattoo.

 

The setting is an Italian immigrant community largely populated by Sicilians and Neapolitans. Williams didn’t imagine that; only New York City had a larger Italian population than New Orleans. Much of The Rose Tattoo hinges on hyper-masculine machismo. Magnani’s performance remains Oscar-worthy, though it sometimes looks as if she’s acting in a Fellini film rather than one based in the steamy shack-strewn U.S. South. She is Serafina Delle Rose, with the play/movie title performing double duty. An actual rose-colored tattoo—okay a black and white one per the film stock used–is a major prop, as is a silk shirt.

 

Serafina, a seamstress, is married to Rosario, a truck driver and contraband runner, though his major occupation is that of a skirt-chaser. Serafina is pregnant with their second child and refuses to believe that Rosario (rhymes with Lothario!) is unfaithful. Not even when Estelle (Virginia Grey), a current conquest, describes his tattoo and shows off her matching ink. Gossipy neighbors, though, taunt Serafina for being such a tart that she can’t hold onto her man. Alas, Serafina! She’s poor as a church mouse, prone to hysterics, and wedded to old ways in a new land. What she seems to do best is embarrass her daughter Rosa (Marisa Pavan) and undermine a burgeoning romance with a decidedly non-Sicilian sailor.

 

When Rosario falls out of the picture, Serafina sulks, throws temper tantrums, and screams like a banshee. She’s a strong-willed (or is it pigheaded?) woman who scares away men, until Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Burt Lancaster) comes along. He’s also a truck driver, and an unwashed one with the brains of a woodchuck to boot. Neither Serafina nor viewers are entirely sure if he’s a gigolo, a conman, or just a big-hearted doofus. 

 

Leaving aside the fact that an Irish-American such as Lancaster probably wouldn’t get to play an Italian these days, The Rose Tattoo is a broad drama leavened with comedic touches that pull laughter from a hamper full of stereotypes. Lancaster and others are clearly giving method acting their best shot. They do okay, but for me, way too much dissolves into histrionics.

 

At is best, The Rose Tattoo touches upon issues of social class, traditionalism versus emergent norms, and Protestant/Catholic tensions. It also makes us ponder what it would be like to be a Sicilian in the 1950s Deep South. It’s not enough. The Rose Tattoo feels like a hipster’s weathered ink: drained of color, murky, and so, so yesterday.

 

Rob Weir

 

12/8/21

The Maidens: Excellent Writing, Mediocre Mystery

 

THE MAIDENS (2021)

By Alex Michaelides

Celadon Books, 352 pages.

★★★

 


 

 

The Maidens opens with these lines: "Edward Fosca was a murderer. This wasn't something Mariana knew just on an intellectual level…. Her body knew it. She felt it in her bones, along her blood, and deep in every cell.”

 

When I read something like that, I can smell the Egg MacGuffins sizzling on a greasy grill. Author Alex Michaelides scored with his previous novel The Silent Patient (2019) and like it, The Maidens is smart and well written. That does not mean, though, that it's a good mystery. I read a lot of mysteries and often figure them out before the Big Reveal, but it's rare that I finger the murderer 40 pages into a 352-page book. Alas, to use a Millennial phrase, the culprit in The Maidens is obvi. I finished it for the sheer pleasure of the prose, its setting at Cambridge University, and its forays into Greek mythology.

 

Speaking of Greeks, protagonist Mariana is Greek, though a long-time English resident. She was born in Athens to hard-working father who made a lot of money in the shipping trade. He was also a tyrant whose wife skipped out on him and left Mariana behind. Mariana couldn't wait to bolt to London and begin a new life. At 19, she met Sebastian at Cambridge University, and the two soon married. At 36, however, she is a widow, Sebastian having drowned on a vacation on Naxos. Mariana abandoned her literature and classics studies to train as a therapist and now runs group sessions, though we infer she's not very good at them. We watch as she fumbles attempts to set boundaries for Henry, a deeply troubled man who talks a good line of violence.

 

Real violence intervenes when her adoptive niece Zoe calls from Cambridge and frantically tells her that her best friend Tara is missing. In good compassionate style, Mariana buys a train ticket and sets off to comfort Zoe. Too late; Tara’s body has been discovered. This is the set up for the book’s namesake maidens, which are linked to the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the latter of whom was kidnapped by Hades. (If your mythology is rusty, the story is a metaphor for winter and spring.) In Greek Persephone is called “kore,” or “maiden.”

 

In the novel, the term is in the plural; the maidens are the privileged and nubile young female acolytes of star professor Edward Fosca. They hold Fosca, a magnetic personality, in cult-like reverence. Tara was one of the maidens. Mariana hardly helps matters by angering Chief Inspector Sadhu Sangha, who quickly sizes her up and determines she’s prone to hysterics. For once, there’s no sexism at play.

 

There will be more victims before the final knife is plunged and, in addition to Fosca, potential suspects include: the psychotic Henry, drug dealer Ellis, a dodgy porter named Morris, and perhaps Fred, a mathematics graduate student Mariana met on the train from London. Fred insists he's psychic and will one day marry Mariana, though he's seven years younger than she. There are a few other wild cards but as I indicated, it's pretty clear early on who is doing the slicing and dicing.

 

In the end, the biggest mystery is how a writer is gifted as Michaelides could be so clunky with plot development. It certainly doesn’t help when one wonders how anyone as damaged and dense as Mariana could get through a third-rate community college let alone Cambridge. What conclusion would you draw about the identity of a killer who leaves clues in the form of postcards with verses written in ancient Greek? You could certainly disqualify me as a suspect, but I didn’t go to Cambridge!

 

Rob Weir

 

12/6/21

Seven Husband of Evelyn Hugo an Almost Master Work


 

 

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO (2018-19)

By Taylor Jenkins Reid

Simon and Shuster, 400 pages.

★★★★

 

The Seven Wives of Evelyn Hugo is a satisfying, dishy book that blows the lid off of celebrity culture. It does so by showing how fame is both manufactured and fragile. Like several other novels I’ve spotlighted on this blog, it would have been even better–perhaps the master work by Taylor Jenkins Reid–had the author stuck to one narrative instead of interjecting a second.

 

The novel’s protagonist is the eponymous Evelyn Hugo, and what a brassy and determined woman she is. We meet the seven-husbanded but reclusive Hugo at age 79. She is about to authorize a spill-all biography with a handpicked writer, the biracial Monique Grant, who first assumes she’s only doing her first feature for Vivant Magazine. Hugo shocks Monique by telling her she won’t do an article; she wants her to write an unvarnished biography that will make Monique millions in royalties.

 

That’s the setup for a trip back in time and across the post-World War II decades. Hugo is Cuban American, though not many know that as she is a bottle blond sexpot who is so gorgeous that men and women alike freeze when they see her. Think of Hugo as a composite of numerous Golden Age Hollywood stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Dolores del Rio, Jayne Mansfield, and others that movie studio celebrity machines “invented”.” (Taylor actually had seven husbands, eight if you count Richard Burton whom she married and divorced twice!) Reid presents Hugo as a girl from a poor background, a dead mother, an abusive father, and a spectacular bust that allowed her to pass for 16 when she was just 14. She married Ernie Diaz to get away from her father and because, as Evelyn puts it, “I traded my virginity … for a ride to Hollywood.”

 

That’s not all she traded! Hugo sleeps her way to the top, meets high-powered men who transform her from bumpkin to bombshell, pair her with stars, and arrange dates, divorces, and marriages for her. She loved only one of her seven husbands: producer Harry Cameron, who is her best friend and a closeted gay man. Each marriage is introduced with a chapter title that signposts where things are headed, though the way things unfold are unique each time: “Goddamn Don Adler,” “Na├»ve Mick Riva,” “Brilliant, Kindhearted, Tortured Harry Cameron,” etc. There is no shortage of suitors; thanks to the luck of the genetic draw, Hugo is so breathtaking that she inspires lustful fantasies into her late 70s. As we discover, Evelyn has lots of closet skeletons to reveal.

 

Evelyn’s transformation involves leaving her Hell’s Kitchen roots behind, inventing new ones, learning to become a good actress, wallowing in egoism, engaging in catfights with other actresses, experiencing motherhood, and becoming a rich and powerful figure of sufficient sway to command rather than ask. In many ways, her story is (metaphorically) one of selling and reselling her soul. Along the way, Evelyn becomes jaded and stops caring, because the one person she can’t have fully is the one she wants the most. As she informs Monique, she wants to make sure two things are clear in her biography: that sex and sexuality are two different things, and that she’s not a nice person. No fear on the second score; to call Evelyn Hugo a difficult woman doesn’t even begin to get it.  

 

The backstories of each phase of Evelyn’s life are told in rich detail. In addition to the interpersonal relationships, Reid takes us into worlds of tyrannical studio heads, racism, rampant sex, herculean partying, homophobia, changes in American society, and more mind games than a convention of mentalists. At a key juncture of the book our anti-heroine insists that Evelyn Hugo never existed in the way her fans imagined: “[S]he was a person I made up for them.” We know exactly what she means.

 

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo would have been a near-perfect novel had Reid let Evelyn tell her tale to a non-descript scribbler who nods and types. Instead, she tries to flesh out Monique Grant, but it would take many more pages to do so thoroughly. Reid’s aim is to draw parallels between two generationally separated biracial women with partner problems, pose Evelyn as a cranky mentor, and highlight changing social mores. The obvious question is why bother?  The intercalary chapters are interruptions. Monique’s biracialism aside, she’s a conflicted young adult looking for a break, a page out of any magazine confessional. To put it as Evelyn might have at the height of her fame, who wants to gaze upon space dust when there’s a star in front of your face?

 

Rob Weir