Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life directed by Max Allan Collins (starring Michael Cornelison)

Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life (2007). Screenplay by Max Allan Collins from his Edgar Allan Poe Award–nominated play of the same name.

On May 16, 1957, the last night of his life, Eliot Ness receives a call from Oscar Fraley (his co-author or ghostwriter on The Untouchables, depending on whom you believe) about the galleys of the "upcoming" book. When the phone call is over, he begins telling his life story.

If there's a single author I would call the expert on Eliot Ness, it would be Max Allan Collins. Collins has been researching and writing fiction featuring Ness since the 1980s (longer if you consider that Dick Tracy, the daily comic strip Collins wrote from 1977 to 1992, was inspired by Ness): he has appeared in four novels as the main characters (The Dark City, etc., chronicling his time as Cleveland Safety Director), at least three novels in Collins's Nathan Heller series, Road to Perdition and its sequel Road to Purgatory, and probably a few others I have yet to encounter (I've only been a fan since 2004).

My point is, Collins has been putting historically accurate (and character-appropriate) words in Ness's mouth for 25 years, so who better to write Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, a one-man show starring the man most famous for sending Al "Snorky" Capone to Alcatraz?

In fact, when I read that Collins was going to write a career retrospective of Ness, the only surprise was that it was going to be on the stage, an area I believe was new to the novelist and independent-film director. (But since a short film was produced to raise money for the project, it was only a matter of time before it would return to the screen.) Mounted in the Des Moines Playhouse in August 2005, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life was reportedly shot during the week, using the theater set, while the play itself was performed for audiences on weekends.

Relative unknown Michael Cornelison, an experienced stage and film actor who has appeared in several Collins-directed features and short films (see The Black Box Collection) inhabits Ness fully, never allowing a single doubt to creep in the viewer's mind that this is in fact the man telling his own story. Collins's conversational script also helps with the illusion. And, also acting as director, Collins keeps this potentially "stagy" venture visually interesting.

Two quibbles: the electric piano and theremin in the score by Mark A. Johnson are sometimes distracting, as is Ness's continual removing and replacing of his coat and hat, especially early on. Cornelison moves from set to set depending on the story he's telling, and — while this keeps the atmosphere of each portion authentic — I sometimes wanted him to just sit still and talk for a change. An individual with a good story to tell is endlessly fascinating, and after a while, I got so involved in the story that I didn't notice the motion anymore.

The combination of historical accuracy, Collins's roll-off-the-tongue prose, and Cornelison's engaging personality and character immersion make Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life a story that begs to be told again and again. I can even imagine listening to it while doing something else, just to be able to listen to the sheer wealth of information again. (Someone should consider releasing the audio track by itself; it would be great for commuters.)

Collins always packs his DVDs with extras, and Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life continues the tradition. Included is a feature-length commentary with Collins, Cornelison, and Dingeldein where they display just how much in love with this project they were. Also here are a deleted scene, a behind-the-scenes photo slideshow, and — most interesting of all — a new short film noir called "An Inconsequential Matter" (also with commentary) that is currently making the festival rounds. The story starts out similar to Sleuth but turns into something else entirely and is a good opportunity for viewers new to Cornelison to see him in a different role.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sleuth (2007) directed by Kenneth Branagh (starring Michael Caine, Jude Law)

Sleuth (2007). Screenplay by Harold Pinter from the play by Anthony Shaffer.

Successful crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine) invites actor and sometime hairdresser Milo Tindle (Jude Law) out to his English country home to discuss the woman they have in common: Andrew's wife Maggie. What follows is an elaborate game of wits that can have only one winner. Or is there a winner at all?

The original 1972 Sleuth is one of my favorite movies, so I went into this one with both curiosity and trepidation. I knew it wasn't possible to equate the experience of the original, but with a Harold Pinter script, Kenneth Branagh directing, and Michael Caine as Andrew, I knew I simply had to see what happened. (By pure coincidence, I watched both this and Sweeney Todd in the same week, and they're both remakes of favorites.)

I was both disappointed and pleased. The first hour of the 2007 Sleuth basically replicates the first two-thirds of the 1972 version, up to and including a visit from the police inspector (a small role that is nonetheless pivotal), but in a way that feels very much cut to the bone. All the details are there, but little of the emotion. The meeting of these two should be fraught with tension, but Pinter's screenplay wants so much to just get on with the proceedings that it feels rushed.

From that first hour, however, events begin to depart from the Anthony Shaffer play that is the source. And, similarly, from that point on, things get really interesting for the viewer expecting a retread of the original. In an interview on the DVD, Pinter states that prior to being asked to write this script, he had neither seen the movie nor read the play. He was therefore able to give it his own stamp. And he does indeed. The tone of the final third is completely different from its predecessor, with tonal changes both modern and unexpected (though not necessarily to fans of other Michael Caine films, Deathtrap in particular).

Caine and Law are well paired here. Having played Milo in the original to Laurence Olivier's Andrew, Caine has firsthand seen the role done definitively. Luckily, apart from some hauntingly familiar line readings (Intended? Who knows?), he takes a completely different tack and offers an Andrew almost completely self-assured. Whereas, Jude Law's Milo is a very modern man: somewhat confused by his woman and, certainly in this case, merely acting as the mouthpiece for her needs. But even these perceptions are turned on their heads in a film that refuses to take anything for granted.

I've seen Law in other films before, but Sleuth is the first one where he really shines through the material. This may be due to acting opposite a heavyweight like Caine (that always seems to bring out the best in relative newcomers), or to Branagh's direction (not likely as he seems to cast who he thinks can work without his help), or to the fact that, as producer, Law reportedly initiated this project for his own purposes (the most likely, since it means he already saw himself in the role). Either way, he offers a performance far beyond where I assumed his abilities lay and emerges as the real star of the film.

Though this Sleuth can never expect to stand up to the legacy of the original, it does indeed prove itself to be a worthy companion. And one that deserves respect, if only for taking the road less traveled by. In an era that wants film viewers to take everything at face value, a film that circumvents our expectations is a welcome one indeed.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sweeney Todd directed by Tim Burton (starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Screenplay by John Logan from the 1979 musical (book by Hugh Wheeler, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and the 1973 play by Christopher Bond.

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again,
Did Sweeney,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The demon barber of Fleet Street.

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a wonder. I originally came across it on PBS (the nationally touring version with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn), and knew immediately — with bloody murder, dark humor, and cannibalism — that this was a musical I could get my head around! I immediately bought the only CD copy I could find (highlights of the original cast recording with Lansbury and Len Cariou), and I've been a fan ever since, especially of the centerpiece (and Act 1 closer) "A Little Priest," wherein Todd and Mrs. Lovett fantasize what they're going to serve in her meat-pie shop:

"Is that squire on the fire?"
"Mercy, no, sir. Look closer, you'll notice it's grocer."
"Looks thicker — more like vicar."
"No, it has to be grocer, it's green."

Director Tim Burton's film really does justice to this story of a barber returning to London after 15 years in prison to take revenge on the man who ruined his life. Johnny Depp is a solid singer (he adds a rock and roll touch that is not unwelcome), and Helena Bonham Carter carries the more difficult role of Mrs. Lovett with surprising skill. (In an interview on the DVD, she states she's been a fan for decades and that it was the first thing she and Burton had in common. And, yes, she had to audition for Stephen Sondheim.) Even Sacha Baron Cohen (whose "comedy" I don't find funny at all) is a treat in a broad performance that works and allows him to use two different accents.

Visually, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is perfect, mixing light and dark brilliantly, as one might expect from Burton (a director whose entire filmography consists primarily of shades of gray). And even though several of the songs are missing (and large portions cut from those that are included, such as all pieces requiring a chorus), the trimming works well on the screen. (The only song I really missed was "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," quoted at the beginning of this review.) This change means that the amount of music will not be overwhelming to people who don't generally like musicals — and the amount of blood spilled will surely keep the attention of horror fans!

It works as a horror film, as a tragedy, as an oddball romance (of sorts), and best of all, it still works as a musical. Even Stephen Sondheim (the composer and lyricist) liked it, and he's notoriously disapproved of all other films based on his work. I'm not likely to buy the soundtrack — the singing isn't bad, but it's by no means good enough to listen to by itself — but Sweeney Todd has reinvigorated my love of the material, and that's enough to recommend it to anyone.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Books I Read in May 2008

Trailin'! by Max Brand
The First Quarry by Max Allan Collins
The Max by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley
"The Frigid Flame" (novella from American Pulp) by Richard Matheson
Ten Plus One by Ed McBain
British Invasion edited by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, and James A. Moore
Shooting Star / Spiderweb by Robert Bloch
Lemur by Tom Bradley
Rio Largo: a Ralph Compton novel by David Robbins

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lemur by Tom Bradley

Spencer Sproul aspires to be a serial killer. His locker at work (he is a busboy, or "bus-bitch," at Lemuel's Family Restaurant) is papered with portraits of murderers both real and fictitious . His apartment is also loaded with memorabilia.

Unfortunately, he just isn't very threatening (he can't even growl convincingly), and when he breaks into a woman's apartment to kill her, he gets distracted by her book (about a serial killer, natch) and reads it till dawn.

Inspired by the machinations of a convenience store clerk (who he also originally intended to kill), an expert at luring obese people into his shop to consume even more questionable comestibles, Spencer realizes that his best potential murder weapon is the restaurant itself. So he turns his creative talents to marketing — and especially to ratcheting up the effect of its mascot, Lemmy the Lemur (pictured on the cover) — and rapidly moves up the ranks by capitalizing on the subliminal power of gonzo advertising.

Satire is not a strong enough word for what Tom Bradley is doing with Lemur. Every character is painted with a bizarro brush, and yet they remain relatable. Spencer can't even use English properly (Bradley calls this "oral dyslexia"), but he isn't hard to understand, and this difference actually works to make him more engaging and sympathetic.

Readers who like their social commentary wrapped up in absurdity will find a lot to like about Lemur. You can read it as a tightly written treatise on consumption in the modern age, or as the touching story of a serial killer's coming of age. Either way you choose to approach it, this darkly comic novella is sure to entertain.
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