Saturday, October 15, 2016

September 2016

SULLY (2016)
    While the landing on the Hudson River of a passenger jet just after take-off from LaGuardia Airport after a bird encounter disabled both engines makes for an incredibly dramatic moment, the event hardly offers enough grist for a feature-length film.
    Yet in the hands of master storyteller Clint Eastwood and the dependable, spot-on acting of Tom Hanks—both Hollywood royalty if that still exists—a fine piece of historical drama, a tribute to American professionalism and a jab at over-reaching government oversight has been crafted, with an essential assist from the startlingly convincing special effects.
    The film skips around the incident of Jan. 15, 2009, showing the workaday mentality of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger before and after the incident, eventually flawlessly recreating the audacious landing on the river and the Coast Guard rescue of the 155 passengers and crew.
    The only drama of the film centers on the FAA post-incident investigation that after studying simulated recreations, doubts the decision of Sully and his copilot (played by Aaron Eckhart) to scuttle suggestions to return to LaGuardia or land at the nearby Teterboro Airport. While the world is hailing Sully as an authentic American hero, the FAA officials, at least as depicted here, are looking to scapegoat Sully.
      Even weaker is the script’s (by Tom Komarnicki, based on Sully’s book) attempts to show Sully’s relationship with his wife (Laura Linney), which comes off as forced and pointless.
      Trimmed down to its essentials, this could have been an amazing 60-minute film; but that wouldn’t have given Hanks time to stretch the character out, reveal his doubts in the aftermath and show Sully as a real human. Hanks makes him even more heroic for his humble questioning of himself even as he offers a convincing defense of his decisions.
     In many ways, this is a better performance than Hanks’ recent, showier roles, including “Captain Phillips” and “Bridge of Spies.” There is a cleansing of pretense that occurs with actors when they reach their mid 50s or early 60s that can open a whole new door of performances. At 60, Hanks may be about to reach a level beyond his earlier peak in the 1990s in films dramas as “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan” and comedies “You’ve Got Mail” and the “Toy Story” movies.
       As for Eastwood, it grows more difficult each year to come up with stronger adjective to describe his post-65 career, now covering 20 years of some of the best filmmaking anyone has ever done. While “Sully” isn’t a great film, coming right after the equally impressive “American Sniper” (2014) erased any doubts I had after the disappointment of “Hereafter,” “J. Edgar” and “The Jersey Boys,” about this director’s continued relevance.
    No one in the history of American film has ever been entrusted with so many high-profile, major studio films at this stage of life. At 86, Eastwood has more leverage in Hollywood than almost any director in town.
      As much as I may find his political and social commentary offensively dated, Eastwood, with six great films (half in the past 13 years) and another 10 first-rate efforts, continues to climb the pantheon of filmmakers, more than 55 years after he became a television star on “Rawhide.”

    Set in the early 1950s, with the Korean War and the draft looming in the background, this adaptation of a slim, but memorable Philip Roth novel explores the disastrous, often ironic, results of choices by a young man, ones that seem perfectly reasonable at the time.
    Logan Lerman, who starred as an anxious high school freshman in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), one of most insightful coming-of-age film ever made, has matriculated to college here, playing Marcus Messner, who escapes the stifling life in New Jersey under the thumb of his butcher father only to find equal frustration at the white-bred Winesburg University in Ohio.  
     Even a date with blonde dream-girl Olivia (Sarah Gadon, who manages to be both vulnerable and icy) leaves him confused, but it’s that relationship, along with his hatred of the requirement to attend chapel each week, that seals his fate.
    At the center of this exceptional film is a long scene between Marcus and his pompous dean (a memorable Tracy Letts) as they discuss what the dean sees as Marcus’ refusal to acclimate to life at Winesburg (starting with the dean’s reference to Marcus’ father as a “kosher” butcher).
     Writer-director James Schamus, best known as Ang Lee’s producer on such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain,” achieves a rare feat: He brings a thoughtful piece of literature to the screen without losing the author’s purpose and vision. Schamus doesn’t give in to recent Hollywood conventions—there’s no big-name in the cast, the tone remains far from upbeat and the protagonist is a contentious loner (there are similarities to “The Graduate”).    
     While Lerman dominates the film, expertly portraying the conflicting desires of an ambitious, yet tragically naive youth, Linda Emond, a veteran character actress in films, on TV and the stage, deserves Oscar consideration for her searing performance as the boy’s mother, whose visit to the campus changes everyone’s world.
    Roth, one of the most acclaimed novelists of the post-World War II era, has suddenly become popular among filmmakers, with five of his books adapted for the big screen in the past 15 years.
     Before “Indignation” were the less successful “The Human Stain,” “Elegy” and “The Humbling;” in a few weeks, “American Pastoral,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1997 about ‘60s radicalism, will open in theaters, directed by and starring Ewan McGregor.

    There is something astonishing about watching a motion picture (in this case re-watching) that was made 100 years ago. While in comparison to other arts, the cinema remains an infant, or maybe a tween, now we have more than a century of works to consider.
     This D.W. Griffith epic, it clocks in at three hours (but, being a silent seems twice as long), is the most important picture of 1916, considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films of the silent era. It was the only pre-1920 film to make the prestigious Sight and Sound list of greatest films (No. 93) in 2012.
     The movie is divided into four separate stories, constantly shifting back and forth between each, all telling a tragic tale of human intolerance through the ages. The film, for all its faults, remains one of the most ambitious projects in American film history, possibly surpassed only by Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” David O. Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind” and Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
    Of the chapters—ancient Babylon armies fighting off invaders, the story of Jesus Christ, 16th Century France and a modern story of social reformers—the contemporary story of a laid off worker who finds himself mixed up in crime and the tragedy that brings to his young bride (a brilliant Mae Marsh) is most effective.
      While the Babylon sequences, with their mammoth, surreal sets and thousands of extra, remain eye popping, it’s more pageant than story, much like the Biblical tale. Surprisingly, all these stories lack of the visual storytelling that made this pioneering director so important. Take away the inter-titles and I would have been clueless as to what was going on.
    Just a year earlier, Griffith’s most infamous picture was released. “The Birth of a Nation” remains the most controversial movie ever made: reviled for Griffith’s depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes saving the South from the violence and corrupting effect of freed slaves on the innocent white citizens; admired for advancing the art of filmmaking, utilizing the tools of visual storytelling as no movie before it had and, also maybe a first, striving for some kind of artistic greatness.
      In many ways, Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” encapsulate the history of this country; brilliant innovation and audacious ambition flourishing side by side with hatred and fear. Is it any wonder his next major picture was titled “Intolerance”?
     At this point, watching this 100-year-old movie is too much like a homework assignment. Unquestionable, Griffith was exploring the kind of serious themes few moviemakers of the time were touching (but would in the next decade) and displaying filmmaking acumen years ahead of others, yet “Intolerance” is as plodding as “Birth of a Nation” is racist.      

     Updating the Jesse James legend (the working poor vs. the bankers), this taunt, superbly acted modern Western manages to be both an entertaining crime picture and a thoughtful character study.
      And just in case that’s not enough, the film features another priceless turn by Jeff Bridges, this time as a been-there, done-that lawman on the verge of retirement, a more slovenly, talkative version of Tommy Lee Jones’ character from “No Country for Old Men.”
      Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard are your classic good guy-bad guy brothers who unite to save the farm, literally, as they are close to losing their late mother’s seemingly worthless home and land to back taxes.
      Their solution involves a series of low-key bank robberies, all branches of a small West Texas bank that has no working closed circuit cameras.
      The robberies draw the attention of a pair of Texas Rangers, Marcus (Bridges) and his partner (and butt of his racist jokes) Alberto (Gil Birmingham). While the Howard brothers are at each other’s throats as their plan seems to fall apart—mostly from Tanner unpredictability—the Rangers bicker back and forth like an old married couple.
      British director David Mackenzie (best known for “Young Adam”) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who wrote last year’s fast-paced drug agent film “Sicario”) display a sharp ear for the way men communication and the manner they deal with one another. There is nothing “Hollywood” about this picture. 
      Pine, who has made Capt. Kirk his signature role, is a solid actor with an intense, world-worn look, which fits perfectly into this film, while Foster has quietly become one of the best supporting players in the business. Before this he shined in the fine remake of “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), “The Messenger” (2009) and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013).
       I’ve spend many an entry in this blog describing the masterful acting of Bridges. While this role won’t bring him any awards, it is another of the countless soulful performances he’s delivered in the past 45 years. With so many of the important actors of the 1970s retired or wasting time in throwaway comedies, it’s a pleasure that Bridges continues to find substantial roles. He makes any film he’s in that much better.

MAX ROSE (2016)
     I just couldn’t resist. Jerry Lewis, a 90-year-old showbiz legend, plays a retired jazz pianist who must deal with the loss of his wife of 65 years. Could this be the final, career-topping performance for this irascible star who burst on the national stage as a nightclub sensation with singer-comedian Dean Martin in 1946? It seemed to be the perfect role, like his kidnapped TV comic in “The King of Comedy” or as the overbearing father of a young comic in “Funny Bones.”
      Almost immediately, my hopes were dashed, as the film begins at such a slow, dreary pace that I struggled to stay awake. The first 30 minutes of the film consists of Max’s granddaughter (a game Kerry Bishe) trying to rustle him out of his funk and referee angry exchanges between her father (Kevin Pollack) and the unpleasant old man. The complexities of the relationships are mostly left unsaid as Max (or is it Lewis?) sits in his chair moping about his life.
       I wasn’t sure if it was just a bad script or that Lewis lacked the energy to give a real performance. Yet the film (and Max) picks up when the family moves Max to a nursing home and he begins in earnest his search for a mystery man who seems to have had an affair with Max’s wife 50 years ago. But he remains the least interesting character in the film; for someone who worked as a musician all his life, he displays little charisma.
      While Max grows more and more obsessed with tracking down the scoundrel who has ruined Max’s memory of his wife, the flashbacks—the great Claire Bloom plays Mrs. Rose—don’t reveal much of a loving relationship.
       Writer-director Daniel Noah’s script is filled with enough conventional wisdom and homilies for a half-dozen Hallmark TV movies. Even when Max finally meets his rival (though a coincidence that stretches believability to its breaking point), the film has nothing of interest to say.
       And even worse, the director never even has Max to sit down at his piano and remember his music; disappointing, to say the least.

    Since Shakespeare, one of the tried and true comedic devices has been mistaken identity. Even at its most unbelievable, the device provides a dramatic irony that is hard to resist—there is great pleasure in knowing what a character in the film doesn’t.
     In this vehicle for two of the era’s most attractive stars, Tyrone Power plays the preposterously named Thomas Jefferson Tyler, who has written a series of unflattering newspaper profiles of socialite and heiress Sara Farley (Gene Tierney). In hopes of obtaining quotes for his next story, he heads to a Colorado resort where Sara is vacationing and, pretending to be a reporter for a local paper, quickly becomes very cozy with her. (Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to meet people in movies?)
     When the ruse is exposed, she has an unusual response: She tells all the rival New York papers that she and Tyler were secretly married. Without a convenient way to disprove her claim, Tyler finds life difficult, losing his job (for getting scooped and involved with the story’s subject), straining his relationship with his real fiancée and, ironically, chaffing under the harassment of fellow reporters and photographers.
     While he comes up with inventive ways to make her deny the marriage, including moving into her house, getting free groceries at her family’s store and crashing high-society parties, the audience knows there is only one way this amusing tale can end.
    Both stars were at the peak of careers destined to be short lived.
    Power was coming off his two best performances, “The Razor’s Edge” (1946), co-starring Tierney, and “Nightmare Alley” (1947), but his roles in the 1950s were less interesting until two 1957 films, “The Sun Also Rises” and “Witness for the Prosecution.” The next year, at age 44, he died of a heart attack.
    Tierney had a few more good roles (“Night and the City,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”) before she stopped acting in the mid 1950s, suffering from depression while in her 30s. She didn’t work for about seven years. After her 1962 comeback in “Advise and Consent,” Tierney gave only a handful of performances, mostly on TV, as her star had dimmed. She died at age 70 in 1991.
      For director Robert Sinclair, it was the last feature he ever made, moving to TV where he directed on such series as “Johnny Staccato,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “Lawman.” In 1970, at age 64, he was stabbed to death by a UC Santa Barbara graduate student, apparently attempting to rob Sinclair’s home.

      This poetically named movie, based on a 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, might have been more appropriately set in the 1820s rather than the 1920s.
     The tragic romanticism, at least as transferred to the screen, seems ill suited to the Twentieth Century, even given its setting on a small island off the coast of West Australia. Somehow it’d be easier to accept the coincidences, the themes of fate, guilt and self-sacrifice if it took place in the Nineteenth or Eighteenth centuries.
      Tom (played by a very solemn Michael Fassbender), deeply affect by his service in World War I, accepts a position as a lighthouse keeper, where he finds a slice of happiness, especially after his marriage to local girl Isabel (last year’s breakthrough star Alicia Vikander).
      But after two miscarriages, a gloomy mood hangs over the marriage, as Isabel desperately seeks motherhood. Then, taking a page out of a Dickens or Hardy novel, a boat drifts ashore containing an infant girl and a dead man.
      Isabel convinces her husband not to report their discovery, instead burying the man and pretending the baby is their own, as they live far from any doctors or neighbors. He reluctantly agrees, but his guilt lies heavily over his life, especially once he learns of the circumstances that lead to them receiving the child.
     Both actors are fine, with the chemistry that apparently bloomed in real life on the set evident on screen; maybe too much. I grew tired of the long, prettily photographed scenes of the couple playing with the baby, running through open fields, living their simple but loving life.
      It seems so obviously the setup for the inevitable, as Tom begins to question their decision and Isabel becomes more psychotic, more obsessed to retain the child, now two or three,
      Along with the stars, Aussie veteran Jack Thomson (“Breaker Morant”) gives a fine turn as a trusted friend of the couple, as does Rachel Weisz, playing a woman whose tragedy sends the plot in motion.
     Like his previous efforts, two intense Ryan Gosling vehicles, “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” director Derek Cianfrance tackles the effects of a difficult, sometimes destructive relationship, this time letting in much more light and burdening the characters with plot twists that double-back on themselves. “The Light Between Oceans” is a tragedy that doesn’t seem tragic enough; a romance that doesn’t have the emotional sweep it deserves.

ELVIS & NIXON (2016)
     One of the iconic images of the 1970s captures a visit Elvis Presley made to the White House in 1970 to discuss the drug problems of America’s youth with President Nixon. As insane as the idea of such a meeting sounds, the summit of these two famous men actually happened. 
     From a script by husband and wife Joey and Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes, this film offers the buildup to the events, the negotiations within the White House and the sheer nuttiness of Elvis’ life. (He shows up at the White House with two concealed weapons and a commemorative World War II pistol he wants to present to Nixon.)
     Liza Johnson, who directed the well-reviewed “Hateship Loveship,” pads the film out with a back story of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a confident of “E,” who went on to become an unofficial curator of the Elvis legacy. In this story, he’s caught between helping Presley arrange the Nixon meeting and flying back to L.A. for a dinner with his fiancée—as if anyone cares. But he’s also listed as an executive producer on the film and, I suspect, the source for the script.  
     Needless to say, there’s not much to this film and it’s not especially funny, yet it benefits greatly from a very quirky performance by Michael Shannon as Elvis. Though he looks like a really bad impersonator, Shannon captures the naïveté and sincerity of the King as he uses his privileged status to attempt to secure a position as an undercover DEA agent.
      The actor, who seems to thrive in smaller, offbeat films, has hypnotic glare and the ability to bring a mysterious, slightly dangerous edge to his characters.
    Kevin Spacey, a comfortable figure in the Oval Office from his role in the television series “House of Cards,” offers a believable impersonation of Nixon, but he’s never more than a supporting player as Shannon’s Elvis dominates every scene, especially in the White House.
      A pair of Nixon flunkies, Dwight Chapin and Bud Krogh (Evan Peters and Colin Hanks), later key players in the Watergate scandal, have more interesting roles, lobbying for the Presley meeting, originally rejected by Nixon, to help with the “youth vote.”
     While the film is forgettable, the actual event remains a fascinating tidbit of history; a classic case of the truth being so much stranger than fiction.




Monday, August 8, 2016

July 2016


     As much as audiences love to see familiar characters on the screen, the more we know about them the fewer surprises a film can offer. Case in point: No longer am I impressed when Jason Bourne finds a way to escape the most inescapable situations. It’s like worrying about a bullet fired at Superman.
     After three of the best chase films ever made, we all know “they” will never catch him, yet when it comes to summer movie entertainment, I’ll take another Paul Greengrass-directed “Bourne” over anything Hollywood’s cookie-cutter machine has to offer.
    Almost 10 year ago, when we last saw Bourne (an especially stoic Matt Damon), he had discovered that he had been brainwashed/conditioned as part of a secret CIA operation to serve as a government-controlled killing machine.
    He’s brought back into the game by his old ally and ex-CIA operative Nicky (Julia Stiles), who brings him additional classified info on his background and the black-ops program.
     This computer breach is quickly spotted by the agency’s young tech specialist Heather Lee (a steely Alicia Vikander, last year’s breakthrough star) and the new Langley chief Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, as pissed off as ever) who fear Bourne will destroy their latest scheme. The chase is on.
    Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse bring it all together in a car-slamming finale in Las Vegas, which seems more suited for the “Fast and Furious” franchise in its nihilistic excess.
     The director, utilizing hand-held cameras almost exclusively and an editing style that renders a walk down a hallway into a thrilling action sequence, never lets up on the accelerator, showing his best work in orchestrating a chase in the midst of a political protest in Athens.  
       More interesting than the machinations to track down Bourne are the underlying reasons why he’s so feared: The documents stolen by Nicky detail plans for unprecedented government access to users’ personal information aggregated by a social media firm’s latest upgrade.
      While the American intelligence community has always been the bad guys in this series, “Jason Bourne” ups the villainy a notch—it’s not just that there a few out-of-control, overly patriotic types ignoring the Constitution, but the entire high-tech government machinery of the Twenty-first Century (sorry to sound like Snowden) have stripped all of us of any semblance of privacy. The ease in which they track down the movements of even a pro like Bourne (I assume it can’t be far from reality) is more disturbing than the most ominous dystopian fiction.

     Woody Allen’s forty-sixth feature, mining similar ground he explored 30 years ago in “Radio Days,” is one of his most inconsistent, containing pages of clichés alongside of insightful, touchingly humorous scenes.
     Like “Radio Days,” a highly verbal, combative Jewish family from Depression-era Brooklyn serves as its center, but this time the youngest son (a miscast Jesse Eisenberg) heads to Hollywood. He has no real plans, except that he expects his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell, trying way too hard), a high-powered movie agent, will find him a job.
      The character of Phil all but sinks the entire Hollywood section of the film as he does nothing but name drop (“I’m having lunch with Ginger; does Bill Powell want the role?” kind of lines), which is amusing for about five minutes and then grows tiresome, especially when it seems to be legit; he’s not just a blowhard. Then there’s his relationship with his nephew. For the first two weeks Bobby is in town, his uncle ignores him—can’t find five minutes to shake his hand and say welcome to L.A.—then, suddenly, he treats him as a protégé and before long he’s promoting him in his office.
     If it wasn’t for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, so real that you think she walked in from another movie), Phil’s assistant who shows Bobby around town as he falls hard for her, the first half of the film would be nearly unwatchable. As their relationship grows, the audience, but not Bobby, can see it’s doomed as she clings to the hope that her older, married lover will divorce.
    Allen narrates the film, offering short sketches of various characters as the camera moves through its many party scenes (cinematography legend Vittorio Storaro, working on his first mainstream film in 18 years, makes them sparkle) and then fills in the narrative gaps, making the story seems as if it’s lifted right from the pages of a short story collection.
     And while I hope Allen continues to direct films until he’s well into his 90s, I’m not sure if his somewhat shaky 81-year-old voice is right for movie narration; a younger, smoother voice would have been more effective.
      The film comes alive when Bobby finds great success back in New York managing the nightclub owned by his mobster brother (the always fine Corey Stoll). It’s in the nightclub that the director’s narration works best as he describes the characters that populate this hip nightspot. Back in New York, the script comes alive and feels real, especially when the parents (‘70s star Jeannie Berlin and Scottish actor Ken Stott) and the older daughter (Sari Lennick) are given their moments to shine.
     Despite the inconsistencies, there are enough interesting elements, especially Stewart’s unforced seductiveness and the reimaging of 1930s high society, to make the film worth seeing. Of course, I wish Allen would stop his lead actors from imitating his mannerisms; mediocre actor Eisenberg fumbles badly. Yet clearly this is Woody’s life story: flirting with Hollywood and its exquisite beauty, but ultimately feeling more comfortable in the hothouse atmosphere of a darker, grimier New York.
      While “Café Society” could have used a rewrite as he struggles to balance the satire and straight-up romantic comedy, Allen nails the ending, poignantly reminding that even the best of lives are marked by painful regret.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
     Was there something in the water last year that inspired both Allen and the Coen brothers to tap into Hollywood history? While the glamour of the movies are a backdrop for “Café Society,” the most recent film from Joel and Ethan puts it front and center, setting the film inside the world of a fictional movie studio (in the 1950s) and devoting nearly half the picture’s screen time to scenes of various genre movies being shot by Capitol Studios. 
     Even for someone interested in how things worked in studio-run Hollywood, these “recreations” become tedious quickly. Brief moments of a B-Western, a shore-leave musical, an Esther Williams-like extravaganza, a Biblical epic and theatrical adaptation would have sufficed instead of the long scenes the Coens depict. But without those time fillers they would have had to invent an actual plot, rather than the flimsy idea of a witless movie star (George Clooney) kidnapped by a gang of screenwriters.
      Last year, the only laugh-out-loud moments I experience at the movies were the dozen or so times I saw the trailer for this film. I laughed every time I saw it. Then, finally, watching the actual film I didn’t laugh once. It wasn’t that I knew the punch lines were coming; it was that in the full cut of the scenes, they had no punch.
     Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a real guy who worked as a “fixer” for MGM for four decades, but who, in the Coen’s world, runs Capitol, overseeing every detail of the student’s business, from keeping productions on schedule to arranging for a star to secretly have her baby. Brolin’s role is as the straight man to all the lunacy around him, but the script never provides any laughs. Clooney comes closest, just being his goofy self, while Scarlett Johansson is perfect as the swimming star whose off-screen life isn’t as innocent as her on-screen image.
     Yet in scene after scene, I waited for some great bit of screwball comedy, but it never showed up.

      Like so many post-war crime pictures, “Tight Spot” opens in such dramatic fashion that the rest of the film is inevitably disappointing. Usually it’s a robbery gone wrong or the sullen anti-hero arriving in town; here it’s a car ride to the courthouse, with the gangster witness squeezed between two feds in the backseat.
    Director Phil Karlson and his impeccable director of photography Burnett Guffey (“From Here to Eternity,” “Bonnie and Clyde”), shoot the trio in tight close-up, in glorious black-and-white, on their early morning ride. Then, shooting wide from across the street, the filmmakers show the men walking up the long, empty steps of the courthouse until…a shot rings out and the witness is dead.
     The next scene opens in the laundry room of a women prison, where Ginger Rodgers plays Sherry Conley, a gum-smacking party girl serving time for helping out the wrong guy at the wrong time. She’s suddenly escorted by lawman Vince Striker (Brian Keith) from the prison to a downtown hotel to meet District Attorney Lloyd Hallett (no less than Edward G. Robinson) who wants her to testify against the mobster who just had the other witness killed.
      It’s the best cast Karlson (or almost any B-director) ever had to work with, but the story, even with plenty of rounds fired at Sherry and a surprising turn in the last act, never matches the energy of the director’s “Kansas City Confidential” (1952), “99 River Street” (1953) or “The Phenix City Story” (1955).
      Keith and Robinson are fine in roles they could pull off in their sleep, but Rogers struggles portraying the low-class tough girl; she tries so hard it shows. Noir veterans Audrey Totter or Gloria Grahame would have been better bets for the role, but they wouldn’t have generated equal box office. Rogers, though well past her days as a megastar, dancing with Fred Astaire or starring opposite James Stewart or Katharine Hepburn, was still a giant name in Hollywood.
    Keith’s a fascinating actor, who went from playing sour tough guys in the 1950s to gaining bigger fame as the cloyingly sweet uncle in “Family Affair” on television starting in 1966. He never rose to the top ranks of film actors, but could be effective, notably in “Nightfall” (1956), “Run of the Arrow” (1957) and “The Deadly Companions” (1961), Sam Peckinpah’s film debut that Keith, who had starred in the director’s TV series. “The Westerner,” orchestrated.
     While never reclaiming the intensity of the opening, “Tight Spot” is a fast-paced, well-acted minor crime movie with an unusually star-studded cast. 

      For those who aren’t jazz aficionados, Miles Davis, trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader, soared for 40 years as one of the most influential musicians of the Twentieth Century. While this challenging movie—co-written, directed and starring Don Cheadle—makes attempts to show his musical brilliance, it primarily focuses on Davis’ drug-fueled, gun-waving, chaotic period in the 1980s, near the end of a long stretch of unproductive years for the trumpeter.
       While the accuracy of some of the film’s specific incidences may be in doubt, there is no question that Cheadle, both as an actor and director, truthfully captures Miles, a self-destructive, egotistical, profane, paranoid misogynistic bully who treated everyone as an unwanted intruder. The wild adventure at the center of the film—a stolen tape of Davis’ latest work—is abated by a freelance journalist (a breathless Ewan McGregor) looking for a story who ends up serving as the driver on a two-day rampage through the streets of Manhattan.
      The first-time director utilizes some interesting devices—at one point Miles opens the back of the elevator at Columbia Records—to flash back to the prime of the musician’s career in the 1960s, when he met and married dancer Frances Taylor. Though younger and well-groomed, Cheadle’s Davis shows the seeds of his destructive personality that grew out-of-control 20 years later.
      Cheadle offers a chillingly realistic performance as Davis, looking like him (especially in the later years) but, more importantly, mimicking his distinctive voice and gait and replicating his omnipresence piercing stare, reflecting his seemingly unceasing anger.
     While I was quite aware of Davis’ childish lifestyle in the ‘80s (the autobiography he wrote with Quincy Troupe is shockingly revealing), but seeing it played out on screen was simply sad. A man who stands with Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Gillespie and Coltrane as the most innovative performers in jazz history lives life in his middle age as a if he was an unstable street junkie.
    I have nothing against drug use; just don’t let it define your entire life. For Davis, his troubled life is best left to the historians—I don’t think there’s even much of a moral lesson to be gained. 
     I prefer to enjoy his timeless music, as beautiful and emotionally revealing as the day it was recorded, and remember the searing performer I saw on stage near the end of his life (he was only 65 when he died in 1991). Give a listen to “So What,” “Milestones” or his version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” and you’ll hear American music at its finest. That’s worth remembering.

      Bryan Cranston has carved out a nice little niche as the “everyman” put in extraordinary situations, from his “Breaking Bad” television series to last year’s “Trumbo,” which earned him an Oscar nomination, and this new film, in which he plays a real-life federal agent.
    While the movie is a messy collection of often hard-to-connect incidents in a U.S. operation to disrupt Pablo Escobar’s massive drug business in the 1980s, Cranston and the supporting cast turn it into an entertaining picture.
    Set in the Reagan administration, when cocaine was the era’s Starbucks, abetted by American and international bankers, gangs in every city and, in some case, local and federal law enforcement, “Infiltrator” details DEA agent Bob Mazur (Cranston) maneuvers to win the trust of various players in the Colombian drug mob. With the help of street-wise agent Emir Abreu (an edgy John Leguizamo), he convinces the syndicate that he’s a Mafia-backed money launderer who will keep their money away from suspicious feds.
    Early in his posing, he uses the excuse of having a “fiancé” to avoid having sex with a drug-lord-provided call girl. That turns out to be a crucial turn in the operation as Mazur and agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), as his fiancé, quickly become close friends with Escobar lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (played to perfection by Benjamin Bratt) and his wife.  
     With a better director (Brad Furman, best known for “The Lincoln Lawyer,” never finds a tone) and a better structured screenplay (by Ellen Brown Furman, from Mazur’s book)—though the dialogue is sharp and believable—this could have been a really good film.
    As much as I admired Cranston’s and Leguizamo’s nonstop bickering as they create characters who are regular guys doing a job, not fearless superheroes, Bratt gives the film’s outstanding performance. He became a TV star as Jerry Orbach’s partner in “Law and Order” from 1995 to 1999, when it was the best drama on television. But before this film, his best movie role was as Sandra Bullock’s keeper in “Miss Congeniality” (2000). In “Infiltrator,” Bratt is a smooth charmer whose ruthlessness lies just beneath the surface.
      Also not to be missed is veteran Olympia Dukakis’ turn as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, who has the smarmy presence of an aged Connie Corleone. 

    While I was never much of a Hugh Grant fan, I was surprised by his sudden disappearance from major film roles over the past dozen years. “Rewrite,” which barely opened in this country early last year, didn’t do anything to revive his dormant career, but it’s an enjoyable, well-written romantic comedy that even I found amusing.
     Grant plays Keith Michaels, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the beloved hit film “Paradise Misplaced,” which, from descriptions, sounds simply awful—angels that get lost seeking heaven. Yet he’s never duplicated that success (a common ailment of screenwriters) and his career is sputtering.
     His indulgent agent (a feisty Caroline Aaron) suggests he take a position in the upstate New York college of University of Binghamton, teaching, of course, screenwriting. Though he firmly believes that noting of values, especially writing, can be taught, his dire situation forces him to accept the position.
     In case it wasn’t clear that Keith is totally unsuited for academic life, during his first night in the college town he meets a student, the seductive Karen (Bella Heathcote), who has applied for his class, and spends the night with her.
     Continuing his clueless, Hollywood-privileged ways, he insults, at a staff reception for him, the uptight professor (Allison Janney) whose life is devoted to the work of Jane Austen, ridiculing Austen’s novels as trite and without merit. While this confrontation is necessary to create an antagonist for Keith, it plays out in ridiculous fashion, even for a comedy. Not even someone in showbiz could be that insensitive.
      But Keith doesn’t take anything too seriously; in fact, rather than reading the scripts submitted by the students seeking to take his class, he looks up their student profile online and selects the cutest girls (including Karen, who he continues to sleep with) and a couple of nerdy guys. Then, on the first day of class, he instructs them to work on their script and reassemble for class in a month. End of class. Did he really think he could get away with that? He’s getting paid; of course, in Hollywood many people get paid very well for doing nothing.
       A persistent older student (Marisa Tomei) persuades Keith to actually read her script and allow her in the class, giving him an age-appropriate female to banter with and, eventually, fall for.
     The film has many of the elements of Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man,” also released last year, about a new professor who becomes involved with both a student and a woman closer to his age. In both films, and in most Hollywood pictures, middle-class morals prevail and the May-September romance implodes. Though Allen receives constant criticism for his portrayals of romantic matches, rarely do the older man-younger woman involvements turn out well in his (or any other’s) films. Yet Allen is the perfect example: he’s been married for almost 20 years to a woman 40 years his junior. 
     Needless to say, Keith eventually takes to teaching, becoming involved (in the right way) with his students and sees the appeal of Tomei’s Holly. He even considers writing a sequel to his hit, something he labeled creative suicide in the past (“that was when I was young and believed in myself”).
     Despite all the ridiculous, overly convenient plot developments, the fine cast—clearly someone thought this could be a hit—carries the film.
     Grant, now looking more like a man who has faced some rough spots in his life, still can deliver low-key sarcasm with ease while evoking the character’s overarching depression.
    The supporting cast is first rate, led by J.K. Simmons as the ex-Marine department chair who tears up at any mention of his family; Janney, who makes her cliché-based character somewhat real; newcomers Heathcote as the dangerous Karen, Annie Qian as the class’ cool chick and Steven Kaplan, as the most talented of the students; along with Chris Elliott (David Letterman’s long-time stooge), who plays a lonely Shakespearean professor who lives next door to Keith.
     Writer-director Marc Lawrence, who directed Grant in “Two Weeks Notice” and “Music and Lyrics,” seems content to let the actors carry the show and, up to a point, they do. Grant’s next comeback attempt will begin this week in a supporting role in the Meryl Streep vehicle, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”