Monday, August 8, 2016

July 2016

 

JASON BOURNE  (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.



CAFÉ SOCIETY (2016)
     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.
 

TIGHT SPOT (1955)
      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. 


MILES AHEAD (2016)
      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.


THE INFILTRATOR  (2016)
      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. 


THE REWRITE (2015)
    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.”



Saturday, July 9, 2016

June 2016

 


OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) and
THE NIGHT MANAGER (2016)
     While spy novelist John le Carré has long been a favorite of filmmakers—over 15 movies and TV series since 1965—the last few years have been particularly rich for fans of the British writer.
     The new film, based on his 2010 book, comes on the heels of the superb AMC miniseries “The Night Manager” and two excellent feature films “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) and “A Most Wanted Man” (2014).
    The traitor of the title is Dima (a perfectly cast Stellan Skarsgard), an accountant in the Russian mob who is reluctantly helping legitimize the criminal organization’s move into international banking. But he knows his value is decreasing, putting his life and his family’s in jeopardy.
    So he befriends Perry (Ewan McGregor), a young British professor, while on vacation in Morocco, asking him to pass along a flashdrive of inside information to British intelligence.
    But that was the easy part. Now Perry and his reluctant wife, Gail (Naomie Harris, an excellent actress deserving of better roles), must met up with Dima and his family again to help bring them in from the cold. Doing his best to facilitate all this is Hector (the underrated Damian Lewis), a mid-level agent who must fight unconvinced, and/or compromised, superiors (a staple of le Carré’s plots going back to the Cold War novels).
     What makes this film better than your average spy yarn is the relationship le Carré (and screenwriter Hossein Amini) weave between this profane, boisterous mobster and a mild-mannered, rather boring poetry teacher. I’m not much of a fan of the jittery acting of McGregor, but he does well in capturing this accidental hero, an “honorable man,” to use le Carré’s most precious compliment.
      Director Susanna White, a veteran of British television, struggles with the film’s pacing at the beginning, but once the story picks back up in Paris and then moves for the finale in Bern, she finds the right mix of thriller urgency and character-driven sentimentality.
     Keane, so good in everything he’s done, mostly on TV (including “Homeland,” “Wolf Hall” and “Billions”) over the past 15 years, fits perfectly into the British intelligence world; in one crucial scene he wears a George Smiley-like 1960s raincoat. But it’s hard to take one’s eyes off Skarsgard’s Dima, crazed and brilliant all at once.
     The actor fully embraces this larger than life character, one of le Carré most intriguing in recent years.  Though a star of stage and film in Sweden for years, the actor didn’t become known to American audiences until his mid-40s when he played a paralyzed oil worker in “Breaking the Waves” (1996). He’s had dozens of memorable performances since then, notably as Bootstrap Bill in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and a very frighten businessman in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” but “Our Kind of Traitor” is the highlight of his English-language screen work.
     A breakout performance is also at the center of the mini-series “The “Night Manager.” Tom Hiddleston, best known as the unstoppably evil Loki in “Thor” and “The Avengers,” is cool personified as Jonathan Pine, a Brit working as a hotel manager in Egypt when he ends up in the middle of some ugly business.
     This globe-hopping, Bond-like thriller, one of the most impressive productions I’ve ever seen on television, follows the revenge-based mission of Jonathan (he actually goes by many different names) after he finagles his way into the inner-circle of international arms dealers Roger Roper (an equally impressive Hugh Laurie).
      Pine is unofficially working for a rogue branch of British intelligence, led by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, recently in “The Lobster”), a whip-smart pregnant woman who refuses to hear the word “no,” even when it comes from 10 Downing Street.  
     The 1993 novel is one of le Carré more literary works (and his first post-Cold War tale), with its non-professional protagonist and his non-political motives to bring down the bad guys. There’s a hint of a Graham Greene character in Pine, a repressed, damaged drifter who finds meaning in his new-found role as a British spy. Hiddleston could end up being the next Bond, but seems destined for more serious fare. He has both a strong cinematic presence and the acting chops honed on the British stage.
     Director Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker best known for her Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding” and “In a Better World,” which won the 2010 foreign film Oscar, maintains an intense, edge-of-your-seat mood throughout the six-part series, even as it globetrots from Egypt to Switzerland to  Spain and Morocco (all stunningly shot by Michael Snyman).
     The supporting cast is just as impressive as the scenery, with Elizabeth Debicki as Roger’s seek, blonde companion, who, of course, falls for Pine and Tom Hollander as Roger’s bulldog right-hand man who, from the start, is both jealous and suspicious of Pine.
     Of course, this being television, the ending gives the viewers a greater sense of justice than the author, who knows that the bad guys almost always get away with it, ever would in his novel. But that doesn’t diminish the cat-and-mouse games and father-and-son like relationship between Pine and Roper that kept me glued to the screen for more than six hours.   


GENIUS (2016)
    There’s probably a great film to be made about the American literary scene of the 1920s and ‘30s, but until then, this will do. Instead of focusing on the era’s stars—Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (they play supporting roles in “Genius”)—the film fleshes out the relationship between legendary book editor Max Perkins and the nearly forgotten, comet-like novelist Thomas Wolfe.
    Perkins (played by Colin Firth as a circumspect workaholic) served as the principle editor at Scribner’s, guiding the early novels of the great writers of the time and then spotting the potential in Wolfe’s epic, unwieldy first novel after others had rejected it.
    Wolfe (Jude Law, at 43, more than a decade too old for the role) goes from excitable and eccentric to overbearing and egotistical, especially after “Look Homeward, Angel,” his autobiographical debut novel, is hailed by critics and readers. Yet somehow, Perkins takes to him (while they cut nearly 100,000 words from his draft) and Wolfe becomes an unlikely family friend, a constant amusement to Perkins’ five daughters.
    Even if you know nothing of Wolfe, the screenplay by three-time Oscar nominee John Logan leaves little doubt that this brilliant yet tormented writer has but a short time to shine, destined for a downfall. I guess no one wants to see a film about a relatively stable person who happens to also be a great writer.
     I wish director Michael Grandage, making his film debut after great success as a British stage director, could have toned down the performance of Law by a level or two. The performance might have worked on stage, but on the big screen it comes off a way too broad.
    The director isn’t afraid of spending screen time showing the editing process; in fact, Perkins and Wolfe culling the first novel and its follow-up “Of Time and the River” are the best parts of the film.
    Otherwise, there isn’t much to this mismatched pair, with too much time spent on the men’s domestic situations (both put work ahead of family). Most curious is the role of Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s married mistress, who fluctuates between shrew and victim. Strange indeed, is seeing Kidman, who just a few years ago was the most acclaimed Hollywood actress, playing a supporting role.
    Maybe it was the topic; it seems as though the pre-war literary world is a favorite topic of hers. Before “Genius,” she won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (2002) and played Hemingway’s mistress in an HBO film in 2012.
     Based on A. Scot Berg’s well-received 1978 biography of Perkins, “Genius” shines a light on a writer who more should be aware of and the complex relationship between editor and writer—at one point, Perkins worries that he’ll be accused of gutting a genius’ work. Despite its excesses and clichés, I’ll take a film like “Genius” over another movie about a preposterous superhero.


PURPLE RAIN (1984) and THE HUNGER (1983)
     This year, the music world has lost two of its most creative and influential artists, both of whom having left their mark on the cinema as well.
    With its mix of live performance and melodrama, Prince’s “Purple Rain” was the perfect film for the MTV ‘80s, as shallow and as addictive as the best of music videos. The film, and the album of the same name, confirmed the Minneapolis rocker as the most ambitious and innovative pop musician of his generation and the only person on Earth who could be taken seriously while wearing purple Louis XIV garb.
    The movie never gets any better than its scorching eight-minute opening performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince (here “The Kid”) and the Revolution on stage at Minneapolis nightclub, First Avenue, the actually venue he first performed at. The song typifies the best of Prince, as it combines the heavy beats and soaring vocals of R&B, the guitar-jamming of classic rock, 80s synthesizer and the songwriter’s uncensored thoughts on romance.
      Cutting back and forth from the stage, filmmaker Albert Magnoli sets up the film, showing the arrival of wannabe singer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) and introducing The Kid’s musical rival, the comically egotistical Morris Day (another Minneapolis musician, playing himself).   
    A recent viewing of the film reveals, not surprisingly, that Prince’s musical performances are as dynamic as they were when the film premiered more than 30 years ago, capturing, as movies rarely do, the emotional sweep of a live show. In sharp contrast, the plot and dialogue of “Purple Rain” are so clogged with cob webs that they can’t be taken seriously. I’ve seen silent films that are less dated than this story of dysfunctional family, showbiz double-dealing and musical jealousy.
     Smartly, Prince speaks as little as possible but generally comes off as sincere, sounding like a knighted actor compared to Apollonia, a hopelessly unprepared last-minute substitute for Vanity (who had a pretty good career as a femme fatale in the 1980s and 90s). And the comic interplay between Day and his sidekick Jerome is slightly amusing—they do a clever rift on “Who’s on First.”
    But it’s the music that drives the film, with Prince simply soaring on “The Beautiful Ones,” “When Doves Cry” and the title track.  
    Unfortunately, Prince starred in two more films, “Under the Cherry Moon” (1986) and “Graffiti Bridge” (1990), both unwatchable blemishes on this great artist’s legacy.
    David Bowie never starred in a film like “Purple Rain”—imagine a cinematic version of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”—but he had one of the better movie careers among rock ‘n’ roll stars. In fact, the only pop artists of the post-Elvis era who can compare on film are Barbra Streisand, Cher, Jennifer Lopez and singers-turned-actors (really a different category) Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube.
     His debut, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” plays off Bowie’s otherworldly looks. He’s an alien who takes the shape of a human, calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton, who becomes a multi-millionaire businessman. But the rest of the plot, involving a college professor played by Rip Torn, is almost incomprehensible. The ambiguous film, directed by Nicolas Roeg in his usual time-and-space challenged rhythms, has not aged well.
    “The Hunger,” the debut feature film by director Tony Scott (who went on to do “Top Gun” and “Enemy of the State”) has actually improved with age, or at least my appreciation of it has.
   Bowie plays John Blaylock, the companion of Miriam, an ageless vampire (played with a regal perfection by Catherine Deneuve), who wakes up after a night of devouring a couple (picked up at a disco) to find himself rapidly aging.
   Despite no background information about him or how he fell under Miriam’s spell, (the film seductively offers more questions than answers), his Blaylock seems to anticipate the AIDS crisis that was just beginning to become known to the public in 1983. He is especially compelling as an ancient-looking man, just days after looking like he was in his 30s, though one assumes he is, in fact, hundreds of years old.
   Susan Sarandon plays a clinical scientist studying aging in baboons who, at first, ignores Blaylock’s complaints about aging and then tries to seek him out, instead falling into the alluring clutches of Miriam.
    While it’s easy to dismiss “The Hunger” as nothing more than a stylish vampire flick, the performances of Bowie, Deneuve and Sarandon elevate the film.   
     That was really the start of the cinema side of Bowie’s career. That same year he played a British officer held prisoner in Japan in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) and then, three years later, he was the non-Muppet wizard in the popular sci-fi film “Labyrinth.”
     Over the years, he’s mostly had small  but high profile roles such as Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Andy Warhol in “Basquiat,” Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige” and an oddball character in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Surprisingly, he had the lead role in a screwy 1991 comedy, “The Linguini Incident.”
      While what Bowie or Prince did on screen can’t compare to their musical artistry, they both recognized the cinema as another way to express themselves and, in Bowie case, sustain a profile after music popularity has faded.


HARPER (1966)
     This private eye picture wasn’t in the running for the best film of 1966; that honor would fall to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” the adaptation of Edward Albee’s explosive stage play; “Alfie,” the chronicle of a London playboy that made Michael Caine a star; or “A Man for All Seasons,” the Henry VIII-Thomas More historical pageant. But this Paul Newman vehicle remains an entertaining, well-acted entry in the crime-mystery genre, worthy of revisiting 50 years after its release.
       Maybe the finest practitioner of the PI novel of the post-Chandler era was Ross Macdonald, whose detective, Lew Archer, usually sought missing persons up and down the California coast, finding corruption and discontent not far from the pristine beaches along the Pacific. For this film, based on his novel “Moving Target,” the protagonist’s name was changed to Harper, supposedly at the insistence of Newman, who had already had hits with “The Hustler” and “Hud.” I never quite believed that story, but crazy demands have always been a hallmark of stars.
      Under whatever name, this detective is a worthy successor to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe with Newman capturing the laconic, sarcastic and highly efficient manner of Harper.
      After rolling out of his pull-out couch bed—he lives out of his office as he goes through a divorce—Harper drives up the coast to investigate the disappearance of a multi-millionaire, meeting the barely interested wife (Lauren Bacall), his laid-back driver (Robert Wagner) and his flirty daughter (Pamela Tiffin). As the case progresses, Harper deals with a washed up movie star (Shelley Winters), her tough-guy husband (Robert Webber), a drug-addict pianist (Julie Harris), a loony religious leader (Strother Martin) and the missing man’s lawyer (Arthur Hiller), who lusts after the much-younger daughter. And just in case he’s not diverted enough, Harper keeps trying to win back his estranged wife (Janet Leigh).
       This all-star cast of supporting players, along with the crisp Macdonald dialogue (as transferred to the screen by William Goldman) makes up for the sometimes clunky plot turns. Jack Smight, by 1966 one of the most respected directors in television but just starting to work on the big screen, is hardly a stylist but he makes good use of the half-dozen or so bars and restaurants where most of the action takes place. The great cinematographer Conrad Hall brings a noirish tint to the California locales.
     Newman’s gum-chewing, evasive Harper seems happiest when he’s creating characters and doing accents on the spot to elicit information from unwitting sources. He certainly amuses himself, if no one else. I can imagine a very different film had the actor originally cast—Frank Sinatra—taken the role.  
      Newman revisited the character almost a decade later in the equally entertaining “The Drowning Pool” (1975) and then returned to the genre when he was 73, playing a retired detective taking on one last case in “Twilight” (1998).
       Needless to say, Newman was both a great star and a great actor, who combined realistic Method style of acting with the likable presence of a classic Hollywood leading man throughout his long, interesting acting career.


EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2016)
    As regular readers of this post know well, I’m a sucker for movies about anything to do with the film industry. While I’m usually disappointed, I don’t think I’ve seen any “movie” movie quite as ridiculous and pointless as this slice of the pioneering Russian filmmaker’s life.
      British director Peter Greenaway, best known for “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Love” (1989), doesn’t show any interest in depicting Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt, in the early 1930s, to make a film in Mexico, instead focusing on the director’s affair with the Mexican guide assigned to aid him during the shoot. I don’t have a clue if Eisenstein was gay or if this part of the story is true (and I don’t really care), but I am interested in the film he tried but failed to make and what went on during filming.
     Greenaway doesn’t show a single frame of any filmmaking, instead filling the picture with long, indecipherable rants by the wild-haired Russian. He’s played by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck, who reminded me of a less-thoughtful Larry Fine (of  Three Stooges fame), though I doubt Larry would have played so many scenes without his pants.
    Just as foolish is Greenaway’s use of split screen; when Eisenstein name drops (nearly every other sentence), a photo of the famous person is shown (James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Upton Sinclair, Charlie Chaplin, among many others). Is Greenaway giving us a social history lesson of the early Twentieth Century? Maybe I’m naïve, but I think most moviegoers know what Einsten and Chaplin looked like.
     There are plenty of clips of Eisenstein’s pro-revolution films—“Battleship Potemkin,” “Ten Days That Shook the World,” “Strike”—which kept teasing me into thinking I was going to see something (anything!) of the legendary, unfinished Mexican project. Nada.


LE PLAISIR (1952)
    The reputation of Max Ophüls as one of the finest filmmakers of the first half of the Twentieth Century rests almost solely on his output in the last 10 years of his life. Starting in 1948, first in Hollywood and then back in Paris, this German-born, France-based director made six films examining romantic complications and compromises with a clear-eyed honest that was new to the cinema.
     In America, he made “Letter from an Unknown Woman” (with Joan Fontaine), “Caught” (with Barbara Bel Geddes) and “The Reckless Moment” (Joan Bennett), three of the best films about women made in the era.
    “Le Plaisir” is the least known of the final four films he made in France before dying of heart disease at age 54, with “La Ronde,” “The Earrings of Madame de...” and “Lola Montés” all acclaimed as masterpieces of a type. While these three florid, women-centered extravaganzas are all admirable, the more down-to-earth “Le Plaisir” (shown recently on TCM under the coarser English title “House of Pleasure”) tops them for pure entertainment and filmmaking acumen.
    The film consists of three unrelated stories (from Nineteenth Century French writer Guy de Maupassant), all of which beautifully dissect the unfathomable desires of the human heart and the inevitable pain that follows passion.  
      The opening segment, “Le Masque,” begins with Ophüls’ usual directorial flourishes, as the camera takes us inside a crowded, opulently decorated Nineteenth Century French nightclub, moving from groups of partiers to the dance floor where a strange-looking man joins the can-can girls. After a few minutes of wild gyrations, Senior Ambrose (Jean Galland, an Ophüls regular) collapses to the floor. 
     The management acts quickly, finding a doctor among the attendees to care for the club regular. The camera work and direction in this seemingly simple sequence—Ambrose entering the club, dancing, collapsing, the doctor summoned and then taking the unconscious man to an upstairs room—is breathtaking, filled with asides, chaos, overlapping dialogue, offbeat angles and uncut movement back and forth across the club’s walkways. It unravels with an energy rarely seen outside an Orson Welles production.
    The segment ends with a poignant discussion between the doctor and Ambrose’s put-upon wife about the struggles we all face in accepting the realities of aging. Standing alone, I would rank “Le Masque” as one of the most affecting short films I’ve ever seen.
    The middle story, “La Maison Tellier,” which takes up the most of the film’s 97 minutes, follows a weekend visit by a group of prostitutes to the country, where the confirmation of a niece of one of the women is being celebrated. But first Ophüls establishes the central role the women and the house of ill repute where they work play in the life of many of the town’s men. (When they are out of town, the men are forced to talk to one another, creating nothing but disputes.)
    The filmmaker, playing both peeping Tom and discrete outsider, shoots the brothel from the outside, through windows and open doors as the women flirt with the patrons and the madam (legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux) runs the operation. Ophüls is a filmmaker who always manages to find a different, more interesting way to tell a story.
    Ironically, the sophistication of the prostitutes trumps their scandalous profession, making them welcome visitors to the farming village
    In the finale segment, “Le Modéle,” a painter (Daniel Gélin) falls for a model (Simone Simon, star of the horror classic “Cat People”) but soon tires of her, after she has become devoted to him. The story’s ironic conclusion is rife with the layers of love and hate that mark relationships, summarized by a bystander’s observation: “But, my friend, there’s no joy in happiness.”