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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007


Smokin’ Aces is a movie that desperately wants to be liked. Not by your typical mainstream moviegoer, however. No, Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to his well received Narc is feverishly adamant about being adored by the frantic film geek contingent – the mélange of messageboard taste makers who determine their own individual aesthetic criteria by what Quentin Taratino determines is cool on his MySpace page. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the slightly introverted dork who walks around the high school cool kids bragging about his accomplishments and contacts. By faking and fronting, this movie hopes to grab their attention and earn an uneasy place in their crime genre lovin’ hearts.


It’s just too bad then that the director decides to win their praise by overplaying his obvious and rather obscure hand. Part of the problem is in the story itself. Smokin’ Aces (released on DVD by Universal on 17, April) rests its entire effectiveness on our desire to empathize with and/or outright despise its amoral center, a sleazy Las Vegas magician named Buddy “Aces” Israel. Brought to remarkable life by Entourage‘s Jeremy Piven, this miscreant mobster wannabe is ready to rat out the entire West Coast syndicate, and a substantial bounty has been placed on his head (and, oddly enough, his heart). Naturally, word gets out on the street that the successful assassin will earn themselves $1 million large, and before you know it, every noted nutcase with a comic book persona and a wealth of heavy artillery is headed towards Israel’s Lake Tahoe penthouse suite. Their goal? Pump this putz full of lead – and various other projectiles- before the Feds can speed him off to Witness Protection.


Thus begins the parade of peculiar cartoon characters and lean mean action movie archetypes. Carnahan is not out to manufacture realistic, three dimensional thugs. Instead, he decides that a heightened sense of stature, a caricature perhaps, would be the best way to envision his wild and wooly villains. This means we get ghetto gangbusters Georgia Sykes (a decent Alicia Keyes) and her slightly Sappho backup, Sharice. There’s also the slightly homosexual redneck retards The Tremor Brothers. Played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling, they’re like the Three Stooges on speed metal and too many episodes of Jackass. Toss in the torture expert Pasquale Acosta, the master of impersonation Lazlo Soot, and a trio of bewildered bounty hunters led by a seedy Ben Affleck, and you’ve got a considerable cast of crackpots.


On the side of good, Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta are fast talking FBI agents, their partnership so focused and single minded that they more or less finish each other’s thoughts. Their boss is Andy Garcia, a stuffed shirt hiding his bureaucratic bluster within an air of suave seriousness. There are ancillary people props as well, including a heard but not seen Alex Rocco, a Ritalin addicted brat who speaks like a rapper, and a collection of slight and sketchy human odds and ends. Everyone’s status as incomplete ideas wouldn’t be so bad if Carnahan had set them up inside one of those wonderfully impractical macho mania movie narratives. You know the kind – an impenetrable fortress, a series of video game like challenges to be met and overcome, the sense that defeat is just around the corner while victory is almost always assured. Had Smokin’ Aces been so intricate and innovation, the flat features of its cast would fit right in.


Instead, we find our attention wandering during many of the so-called set pieces. We watch Alicia Keyes’ Georgia and try to decipher how she started her life as a hired gun. As the Tremor Brothers grapple with each other and constantly fidget with their privates, we speculate on how these Deliverance style bumpkins became such in demand daredevil thugs. Even as round after round of ammunition is dumped into situations, when muzzles are flashing and sparks are spraying in eye and mind appealing slow motion, we never once feel connected to the chaos. That’s because Carnahan is merely pretending to play visionary. In truth, he’s just riffing on those filmic forefathers that created and confounded the formulas he’s fooling with, which makes the arm’s length ideal that much stronger.


This doesn’t mean that Smokin’ Aces is unwatchable. Hardly. There are specific scenes and individual moments that stand throughout as examples of the movie’s many facets – comedy, action, homage and spectacle – coming together in amazing statements of artistic clarity. When the backstory on Buddy Israel is offered, it’s many Las Vegas insider elements revealed, we feel the dizzy glitz of the city where any and all sins are meant to stay secret. Similarly, each hit man (or woman) gets a nice little illustration of their skills, and this helps to make Soto, the Tremors, and Acosta into viable evil. As the moral center of the story, Reynolds gets a couple of fantastic visual moments. One comes as he leaves the hotel, the attempt to protect Israel botched by a dozen intervening elements. As he walks into the daylight, the sun literally absorbs his outline, losing his fixture as a hero in a cloud of dazzling whiteness.


Reynolds’ second scene brings the film to a close, and after the half-baked denouement we get for all the gunplay, it’s a very dramatic and very necessary sequence. Yes, Smokin’ Aces wants to give us one of those gobsmacking, jaw-dropping twist endings, a conclusion that cancels out and changes everything we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, only the dimmest of cinematic sleuths would miss the obvious clues to the reveal, and though he intends it to be insightful, Carnahan’s finish just kind of lays there, doing very little to alter our perceptions. It’s like learning that there’s no Santa Claus, or that Dr. Pepper doesn’t contain prune juice. For all it’s attempted kinetic energy, Smokin’ Aces can’t help but resemble an urban legend that’s been left out in the public consciousness for far too long.


And the recently released DVD does little to alter that suggestion. Universal deserves credit for creating a technically sound (nice image and audio), fully supplemented package that draws us into the various facets of this film’s production. Two commentaries expertly illustrate the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the film. Carnahan and his editor Robert Frazen discuss the actual shaping of the storyline, mentioning scene by scene what was filmed and how it was tweaked in the cutting room. A second track with Carnahan and a few cast members (no one significant) is just an excuse to joke around and mock the other actors. The deleted and extended scenes clarify very little, while the “explosive alternate ending” advertised on the package is nothing more than gunshots substituting for nuance. The best material offered is a trio of backstage featurettes, all of which illustrate how determined and delighted Carnahan is to be working on this, his first major motion picture.


It’s a shame then that the results weren’t more magical. Smokin’ Aces stands somewhere between the creative crack attack of Crank, and the testosterone fueled freak out of the WWE’s The Marine. It’s not the highest octane thriller in the entire post-modern motion picture paradigm, but it sure doesn’t crackle and snap like it should. It could be a case of too many character kooks spoiling the body count broth, or a filmmaker so filled with ideas that he doesn’t know how to successfully streamline his approach. Whatever the case may be, you’ll enjoy the various overly aggressive face offs while wondering aloud just who in the heck these oddball people really are. While Buddy “Aces” Israel may be the center of a murderous maelstrom, pitting mobsters against maniacs, he remains the core enigma of an entertaining offering that just can’t fit in – not within the creative OR commercial cliques.


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Monday, Apr 16, 2007


Jackpot! Finally, a week where any one of the seven selected titles would make a fine addition to your own personal DVD collection. These situations are rare, so they demand celebrating. Better yet, there are several other titles – Overlord: Criterion Collection, Freedom Writers, The History Boys – that have their positives and negatives as well. Sure, some are better than others, with one offering in particular clearly meant as fodder for a future sequel release (say, around 4 May???), but with previous Tuesdays providing a paltry selection of acceptable, let alone good releases, you won’t hear SE&L complaining. In fact, picking the disc to highlight was a difficult if not next to impossible process. In the end, it came down to interest and popularity over art and added content. Still, you won’t be disappointed with any of the digital presentations available on 17, April, beginning with:


Spider-Man 2.1


Okay, it’s an obvious cash grab, a chance for Sony to milk the fanbase out of a few more bucks before they role out Part 3 the first weekend in May. Still, even with its cynical status as a marketing ploy, you can’t deny the power in Sam Raimi’s perfectly balanced comic book adventure yarn. Alfred Molina is an excellent Dr. Octopus, bringing the right amount of horror and humor to his villainous role. Similarly, the rest of the cast continue to push the boundaries of their characters’ core, including Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, a young man having a hard time dealing with his newfound import. Granted, this new DVD fleshes out the fight scenes, adding bits and pieces here and there to warrant the revamp. And we do get a couple of conversations that help explain away some of the movie’s more muddled motivations. While purists may balk at this non-directorial cut, and completists will plotz at the wealth of new added content, this remains an unnecessary double dip of a really great fantasy film.

Other Titles of Interest


Brute Force: The Criterion Collection


It’s time for another installment of moral men behind bars as the preservation experts over at C2 give this 1947 melodrama a thorough DVD workout. Director Jules Dassin, who would go on to helm the unusual noir Naked City and the truck driving thriller Thieves’ Highway, does a similarly startling job here, giving a young Burt Lancaster the fascinating role of a concerned convict up against a corrupt guard.

La Haine: The Criterion Collection


Race and its overriding social issues is not just an American quandary. In 1995, young filmmaker Matthieu Kassovitz decided to illustrate the strife and unrest growing in the French suburbs via a story of police brutality and friendship avenged. Playing like a documentary, thanks in part of the director’s decision to film cinema verite style, what we end up with is a universal statement on human intolerance and dignity destroyed.

The Last King of Scotland


Forest Whittaker took home his first Oscar for this portrayal of Ugandan madman Idi Amin in what is otherwise a very average motion picture. But no matter the flaws in the dramatization and fictionalization of the main character, a Scottish doctor who soon becomes Amin’s private physician and confidant – there is no denying Whittaker’s powerhouse performance. It will stand as a personal triumph long after the film itself has fallen out of favor.

Notes on a Scandal


It sounds like a tawdry tabloid tale – a young teacher seduces one of her male students. To make matters worse, a dowdy old spinster discovers the tryst and blackmails the naïve instructor. Of course, motives are never exactly what they seem, and with Judy Dench and Cate Blachette in the leads, what could become clichéd ends up playing as very powerful and rather personal. Not given enough respect come Awards time, DVD provides the perfect opportunity to catch up with this tripwire title.

Smokin’ Aces


Stylized action has its advocates. Both Quentin Tarantino and his Hong Kong counterpart, John Woo, have fashioned an entire career out of making violence and gunplay seem practically poetic. Now Narc‘s Joe Carnahan wants to try his hand at over the top mayhem, and the results are rather mixed. He gets the firefights and attitude right, but somewhere in between his affinity for stunt casting and a lack of clear characterization, a potentially great film finds itself marginalized.


And Now for Something Completely Different
True Confessions


The reteaming of Godfather aces Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall seemed like a match made in movie heaven. Fresh off his work in Raging Bull, and still carrying a bit of weight, Mr. Method decided to take on the role of a corrupt priest trying to hide a horrible murder from his detective brother – the aforementioned Corleone counselari. Using bits of the famed Black Dahlia murder, and lots of distinctive LA period set pieces, director Ulu Grosbard laid on the atmosphere in thick, moody slices. It was quite a chance of pace for the famed Hollywood rebel, a man whose previous films had been experimental and almost neo-realistic in style. Some found the pacing slow and the plot overly complicated. But with fine work from the stars, and a single sequence of awful implied violence, this anti-noir became a minor masterwork.

 


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Sunday, Apr 15, 2007


Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure.  It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.


Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.


Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.


But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.


Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.


So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.


In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.


As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.


Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept. 


And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.


Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.


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Saturday, Apr 14, 2007


The world has ended. All that is left behind are individual beauty cults, groups of girls seeking safety and identity in numbers. Basing their bond on hair color and giving themselves strangely evocative gang names, the blond Phayrays (King Kong), the brunette Satanas (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!), and the wicked, redheaded Tempests (as in Storm, the stripper) are constantly battling the brutish cavemen roaming the afterworld ruins and looking for potential dye job converts. Only one group tries to incorporate all follicle factions. They are the Superstarlets. The dark haired leader Naomi, along with her goldilocks lover Rachel are on a quest: they want to find a link to the past, Naomi’s grandmother’s long lost stag reel which she hopes will provide some insight into who and why she is.


But if it’s up to the fiery leader of the henna honeys, Jezebel, everyone will be dead or have red on their head. When a mysterious vixen named Valentine shows up, she throws a wrench into everyone’s agenda. In this aftermath of austerity, there are no clothes. A reliance on the homosexual fashion industry (which is now extinct) and an inability to sew means that everyone in the brave new world surrounding Femphis is forced to walk around in skimpy lingerie. But Valentine knows where there are dresses to be found. And she is willing to play all sides against each other to see the various factions destroy themselves. It’s bitches against broads, battling with gossip and guns, as we await the fate of those involved in the decidedly dark, self-indulgent society of Superstarlet A.D.


Superstarlet A.D. is a jaw-droppingly bizarre, outrageous exercise in kitsch and camp. It proclaims itself a morbid, deviant comedy but actually plays more like a smart collection of vintage porn magazines come to life. Telling a detailed and intricate sci-fi Judgment Day story of femme fatale fashion victims roaming a desolate landscape in like hair-colored harems, this is gang warfare, Vogue style: a never ending power struggle between Mary Kaye and Maybelline for supremacy over the lipstick lesbian population of power babes. Sexy, sultry, and drenched in a heaving knowledge of smoker/exploitation films of the 1930s thru ‘60s, this ambitious, baffling stag loop for the new millennium creates a private, provocative universe of glam gals with firepower battling each other and bemused de-evolved Neanderthal men in the name of domination and dominatrix.


The dialogue is arch and obtuse. Characters occasionally provide voice-over monologues that sound like Marshall McLuhan meets Penthouse Forum. The production design is wasteland chic. And the women are bountiful, beefy maidens of hot sexy death. But this is not really a trashy take-off on post-apocalyptic action films. Superstarlet A.D. is actually more of a meditation on pop, sexual ambiguity and the role that pornography and fashion photography have played in blurring the lines between genders and lowering feminine self-esteem. On one hand, this is a twisted tawdry treat filled with bodacious broads and blazing artillery. On the other, it’s an insane statement on empowerment gone awry.


Director John Michael McCarthy cannot receive enough praise for the impressive look and visionary style he gives to this film. What he accomplishes with lighting, makeup, location, and a single 16mm camera is a lesson for all would-be auteurs to learn by. Every image is like a long lost still from a smut producer’s press kit, and McCarthy creates comic book compositions (his origins are in comics) that are a feast for the eye and food for thought. He constantly references pop culture, social stigmas, and mainstream mantras to make his cracked commentary as recognizable as it is profound. While it’s true he is treading ground already worked well by similar minded madmen like John Waters (Eat Your Makeup, Female Trouble), Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat), and Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), McCarthy has a freshness born of nostalgia, of being a generation removed from the areas he’s exploring which allows him to add a more modern sensibility to his homage.


Not everything works here. The Sappho scenes have a strange staginess to them, the actresses so outrageous that it feels like we’re watching The B-52’s have sex. Also, star Kerine Elkins has a singing style only a crack whore could love (it does work within the confines of the film, but it is a chore to endure). And the movie has one too many endings. Once Naomi’s vintage film is located and its contents revealed, there is a sequence of events that leads to a natural conclusion. But McCarthy just doesn’t leave well enough alone. He lets the movie take yet another mind blowing meandering step into another realm before finally putting on the brakes, and this destroys the near perfect symmetry he had previously created. A little tighter editing and this would have been a startling cinematic revelation. As it stands, it’s a stunning work of art that needs to be seen to be believed


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Friday, Apr 13, 2007


Coca-Colonization


With One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder confirmed what everyone already suspected about business interests abroad: that it’s espionage with fringe benefits. One, Two, Three is a movie that satirizes the great American executive lifestyle - the suited stiff glued to the phone, golf on Saturdays, the 2.5 kids, the luscious secretary.  And it does so in the unlikeliest of places – West Berlin circa 1961. To ease America’s anxieties about the spread of Communism, Hollywood producers realized they needed less stodgy suspense thrillers (The Ipcress Files), and more screwball comedies with hapless Bolshies and thwarted plots (think Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader). More reassuring was the idea of a US multinational stationed in a dangerous foreign outpost, generously doling out enticing consumer products to the starving masses. Pop culture is the most effective, insidious colonizer. Every hot-blooded anarchist eventually succumbs to its seduction in the form of Marvel comics and Wrigley’s Bubblegum. It was how America won The Cold War.


Wilder must have been thinking along these lines when he and his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, penned One, Two, Three in the early ‘60s. Wilder, an Austrian émigré to Hollywood since the late ‘30s, was all too familiar with the hot-air pomposity of totalitarian politics. He wanted to mock Soviet pretentiousness just as his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had done deftly in Ninotchka. But rather than mimic Lubitsch’s effervescent style of romantic comedy, Wilder stamped his own brand of cynicism onto this tale of bungled corporate intrigue.


He couldn’t have found a better star than Jimmy Cagney, who imparted all the wiry, bantam energy he brought to his famous criminal roles into this lead.  Wilder, a playful provocateur, in casting Cagney as an executive, was making a bold statement about American business—scratch a businessman, find a gangster, vice versa.  Cagney, who hadn’t made a movie since the late 40s, was called back to cinema to essay C.R. MacNamara (a wry nod to then Machiavellian Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara), a fast-talking, scheming executive for the Coca-Cola Corporation stationed in West Berlin. There, he tries to advance Coke to the neighboring Russians in East Berlin in an effort to be promoted to head of European operations, located in the glamorous London office. To MacNamara’s dismay, all headquarters back in Atlanta requires of him is to chaperone the CEO’s daughter, a perky sorority socialite, Scarlett Hazeltine, around Germany on her Grand Tour of Europe. Scarlett, played to broad comic exaggeration by the lovely Pamela Tiffin, comes across as Brittney Spears in pearls and gloves: a boozy, lascivious mess of a woman who can’t control herself around men.


To MacNamara’s worst fears, a few weeks into her stay she elopes with a hot-tempered Communist revolutionary from East Berlin, Otto Piffil. Doing what any decent surrogate father would, he concocts a plan to get Otto arrested by the East German police and away from Scarlett. Once Otto’s motorcycle whirrs through the Brandenburg Gate with large balloons emblazoned “Go Home Russkies,” the poor boy doesn’t have a chance. But before Otto can waste away in prison, Scarlett reveals she’s pregnant, and MacNamara has to not only conceive of a way of bribing the officials to release Otto, but to transform Otto from a unwashed, angry beatnik to a Brooks Brothers-suited Count (there’s nothing an American robber-baron loves more than European minor royalty) charming enough to please Scarlett’s parents.


In a veritable symphony of high-speed commands, MacNamara micro-manages every aspect of Otto’s transformation. He bribes a monocle-wearing, impoverished Count, who works as a valet in the men’s restroom of The Hotel Kempinski, to adopt Otto. He meticulously picks out tube socks and demanding ties straight off of his employees’ necks. MacNamara throws himself at the task with the kind of gusto he should be using every day at work but never gets the chance to because his corporation is such a well-oiled machine it doesn’t really need him in the first place. But he delivers in the end. MacNamara is so successful that Scarlett’s father decides that Otto is the man to head Coca-Cola’s European operations. MacNamara must settle for a vice-presidency in the Atlanta office, a city that he acidly refers to as “Siberia with mint juleps.”


One, Two, Three has never been considered one of Wilder’s best movies and it’s obvious why. It lacks the innovative twisting of genre he showed in Double Indemnity, the romantic gloss of Sabrina, or the sinister, elegiac quality of Sunset Boulevard. As far as Wilder goes, One, Two, Three, is average, with some recycled elements of his peerless screwball masterpiece, Some Like it Hot—a cross-dressing scrawny man and the men who lust after him, a jiggly buxom blond, the riotous confusion that ensues from mistaken identity. But as a political comedy, it is inventive and daring.


It pushes all the sensitive buttons of America’s complacency in foreign affairs, particularly as The Cuban Missile Crisis made everyone uneasy. The New Yorker nervously suggested Wilder had pitched his “circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery,” and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the year’s other movie about postwar Germany), thought Wilder’s movie so tasteless that he apologized for it at the Moscow Film Festival. The public’s anxiety to Wilder’s farce was not unlike the jumpy nervousness that followed our own brazen political satires, like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s underrated and quickly hidden, That’s My Bush!  But true to form and genius, Wilder couldn’t have cared less. Comedy comes with no apologies.


One, Two, Three  looks ahead to the two great black comedies of the 60s, the playfully dark and brutal Dr. Strangelove and The Producers maniacal and relentless Nazi baiting. It’s a clever movie that shows that people are seldom loyal, least of all to ideology. And the film works well for all its incessant one-line gags pulled straight from the headlines (when MacNamara cautiously warns his tailor not to tell Otto that the cufflinks he’s wearing are French “with the whole Algeria situation being what it is”). One enjoyably ridiculous moment occurs when the East German police torture Otto into confessing he’s an American spy by playing a high-pitched, squeaky version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again till the young man screams to submission. One, Two, Three is full of shrewd jokes about America’s gift for exploiting its cultural power and of the eagerness of countries willing to be exploited and the futility of those who try to resist.


C.R. MacNamara’s vision of the world isn’t altogether far from the truth. No other American product has had the imperial power enjoyed by Coca-Cola. It’s everywhere. I went backpacking through Malaysia last summer and was reluctantly convinced to go boating through the dense, lush jungles of Sarawalk. It was a haunting, ethereal experience right out of Apocalypse Now.  When my friend, a hardy Peace Corps alum (the sojurn was his idea), needed to go to the bathroom, we stopped at this makeshift rest area, a wooden shack that served as a provisions shop. The shop sold only three items: broken flashlights, cigarettes, and numerous cases of lukewarm Coke. The same situation exists in India, where people who are afraid to drink the local water constantly swill bottles of Coke. Three-fourths of the world’s population suffers from tooth decay and doesn’t seem to care. Coke is the poor man’s nectar, the self-anointed elixir of democracy, and it’s taken over our planet with its rapacious corporate tentacles. Its power is an undeniable fact, and since we can’t control it, we can at least laugh about it.


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