Monday, April 25, 2011

Casablanca Deconstructed: Sending Up Table One

Released in 2000, the film Table One strips the glamour from Rick’s iconic nightclub—and reveals strippers galore.  Set in that denizen of pretenders, the Great White Way of New York, this wry comedy introduces a whole cast of males who deliver every line as if it were Bogart’s secret to life—and female surrender—including “Everybody wants to be Rick from Casablanca.”

The film announces its intentions when one pretender after another claims the honor of running the joint the slick way—right into the ground.  Standing in for Bogart’s fascists, small-time hoods compete for sophistication beyond all their means.  Chief among the competitors, the balding fiery Frankie “Chips” (Burt Young) throws food and the truth—with guns to back him up.
So, is the audience of this film, clued to falsehood from the get-go, supposed to laugh or burp on their way to a fantasy climax?  Pretense is as pretence does. The plot requires the total fool in the lot to realize that his pop’s money alone will NOT get him—as they say—a life.  Every circuit of the club brings viewers back to Norman (David Herman).  Call him Norman Normal NOT.
The primary normal trait which Norman demonstrates is what is known as The American Dream.  But that mirage never appeared so far overseas that it took a plane to carry it off in the person of an innocent blonde—or did it?  Standing in for Ingrid Bergman, a ditzy girl waltzes her way into—and right out of—a seduction scheme, launched by Norman, who ends up, of course, throwing up.
Can more ways be discovered to stand the glamour of the forties on its head?  This movie goes for broke.  A lengthy discussion of the joint’s cuisine reveals that Frankie “Chips” doesn’t eat shrimp, which he considers “bugs.”  Norman might have a chance with the girl of his dreams if he could recall his pretender’s name, which he can’t, even after practicing before a mirror.  
Perhaps Norman’s chances would improve, if the girl in question (Mary Hammet) were not also on the make.  She sells chairs for a living, but Norman cannot even throw her out of “his” Casablanca because, when the “chips” are down, Frankie “Chips” owns the place—kit, caboodle, and dames. In her perfectly innocuous way, she actually explains that each chair goes for “$4,900”!
Who can picture Ingrid Bergman hustling chairs while turning her short blonde curls into an admiring camera? But then, who could imagine Frankie “Chips,” the thug of the moment, collapsing in laughter as a gay stripper’s designer (Luis Guzman) shrieks when his face suffers a ding?  And how about that former actor, known as “Jimmy,” (Stephen Baldwin) stealing the show by courting Norman’s girl?
If send-ups are your thing, this thing is made for you!  Get inside the glam that comes and goes faster than World War 2.  Remember those times when a fish landed in your lap just as you thought you owned some stupid thing, too!  But the future is always for the foolish—and that plane can take you to Casablanca any old time—just don’t ride Southwest!   

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Politics at the Movies: Rutger Hauer Goes Feminist

Partners in Crime offers that unusual experience:  Politics underlies its script and characters, but Art triumphs here, even hauling political correctness.  Released in 2000, this film begins with a timeless sequence: a snow-covered rural landscape saddled with an abandoned vehicle.

The setting asks the question which the movie will resolve.  Who abandoned this vehicle on his mysterious quest through life?  The director of this work knows exactly how to engineer the cinematic experience, with not a scene wasted on excessive rhetoric or red herrings.
A body emerges later, AFTER the audience absorbs its meaning.  Following the critical theory of Edgar Allan Poe, that master of mania, the killer stands before us all along, unrecognized and apparently guileless.  Viewers can watch this film repeatedly, and still be seeking giveaways.
Rutger Hauer bestrides this movie like the poor schlep’s John Wayne.  Outspoken and macho, he confesses early on that his “personality” has crippled his law enforcement career.  Too forthright for administrative positions, and too astute for gumshoe plodding, Hauer captures Everyman’s Wannabe.
Hauling his past around has left him cynical but not bitter—no small achievement for a man whose dream career landed in his ex-wife’s lap like the proverbial bowl of cherries.  Both applied to be FBI agents, but only one stayed home to become a dedicated family man.
He could have ended up hating women, accusing them of stealing his birthright.  He doesn’t.  He could have ended up resenting his daughter, the legacy of a second go-round on the marriage circuit.  He doesn’t.  Instead, he dives headfirst into loving that child like the most important man in her life.
His ego suffers a knock-down nonetheless.  Twice now, women abandoned him to appear the inveterate loser.  Yet not once does this word escape his manly lips.  He plays the Chinese waiter to his daughter’s amusement in a scene which deserves trailer status.  No failures can kill his joie de vivre.
Encountering his first ex-wife as a superior in the professional environment tests his equanimity to the limits.  Will he stalk off, wounded beyond endurance?  Will he refuse to cooperate and dump the responsibility she sought completely in her unaided jurisdiction?  At every step of decision, the audience senses his deliberation.
“So, do you have any kids?” his ex-wife asks, delivering the turning point in the movie’s plot.  Obviously, if she’s gadding about on FBI assignments, she wouldn’t have been home long enough to foster an heir to a failed marriage.  Miraculously, the man of the house has produced this phenomenon without a petri dish.
Even while sewing—mending his errant life—the macho Hauer tucks into domesticity, without missing a beat.  Reading to his daughter demonstrates his faithfulness to his nightly duties.  No one can miss this fact, though:  Hauer’s character does what he enjoys, and he enjoys being a good man and father.
Will he mend more than laundry?  This film keeps the audience wondering and wishing until the last lovely minute.  Credibility is never at stake here.  Love is.    

Not Just Another Holiday Movie

As a setting for an Easter parade, Seville offers more than bunnies.  “Welcome to the Middle Ages,” one resident quips in the film Angel of Death.  There, age-old traditions saunter forth down byways cloistered with cheek-by-jowl medieval housing—and murders galore. 

One mystery piles on another in this feast for the eyes.  “Have you seen a dead body before?” another resident queries.  Americans hide bodies in readymade closets of all kinds, of course—and think nothing of it.  Apparently, civil sevillanos practically need a task force to deal with theirs.
So, a task force turns up, since this is Easter, and spring miracles keep springing out of nowhere.  As a wily detective, Mira Sorvino achieves miracle number one:  She practices critical thinking when every right-minded relative would be screaming at her:  “Get outta there!”
Sorvino’s talent in no small portion consists of curving her lips as if she’d just tucked away a chocolate rabbit and a dozen peeps.  Her hair glows; her heels click.  When encountering ANOTHER MURDER, she just demonstrates that Hemingway possessed no monopoly on grace under pressure. 
How little Americans know about Spain—with the exception of Hemingway, who wrote Death in the Afternoon, a classic on bullfighting.  The secret to this sport, he confided, lay in coming as close to death as possible, without letting the bull gore the innards.  Happy thought!
This sport, demonstrated in this film by a less than fortunate athlete, a la Hemingway again, grabs the spotlight here.  The gold in the sun glimmers not only on idyllic hills but also on the bullfighter’s shoulders.  He triumphs against the beast, but loses to fascist plotters, keen on revenge.
As in Spain’s Civil War, as Hemingway knew well, too, the citizens of Spain divided among La Pasionaria, Nationalists, and the Republicans, his heroes.  Treachery could be expected because the Catholic Church defended Mary but did not save the Jews from the death camps.
Miracle number two in this movie consists of ninety minutes of abridged Spanish history.  Miracle number three arises for readers of modern literature who know Hemingway front to back of every one of his novels, especially For Whom The Bell Tolls, whose heroine must be named Maria.
Why?  Because Hemingway’s world drenches readers in Catholicism, existentialism, and courage—the kind of courage it takes to face down killers, and saunter away from the medieval Dance with Death.  The telling connection between the two scripts screams imitation, if not icon-envy.
In fact, this film’s script begins where For Whom The Bell Tolls ends.  The key question at the end of Hemingway’s masterpiece remains:  What happens to Robert Jordan’s love interest? Maria spent three days and nights with him—long enough to conceive an avenger?
The world moved beneath Hemingway’s hero, when he discovered that even fascists cannot kill love, no matter their other talents.  But rape remains a kind of execution in this movie—and requires accounting.  The devil may get his due, but God doesn’t look the other way NOW.