Monday, December 1, 2008

November 2008

       The problem with real life is that it doesn’t divide easily into three acts or have a smoothly defined dramatic arc. In Clint Eastwood’s latest film, the director sacrifices drama in an effort to recreate every aspect of this sensational child-abduction case from 1928.

     Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother working as a telephone company supervisor in Los Angeles, who comes home from work one Saturday to find her nine-year-old son gone. Five months later, the LAPD make a big to-do when they claim to have found the boy in the Midwest and reunite him with his mother. The only problem is that Christine tells the police right off that this isn’t her son. They’ve brought her another boy claiming to be her son and despite her continued protests, the police refuse to admit to the mistake.

     This nightmarish scenario, along with the portrait of a thoroughly corrupt police department, is superbly told by Eastwood and his screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, as is the other aspect of this story---a series of murders that took place on a chicken ranch in the Riverside County community of Wineville (now Mira Loma). At the same time Jolie’s Christine is fighting to get the police to look for her real son, information comes to light about these murders of young boys 50 miles away.

     Jolie doesn’t allowing Christine to be reduced to just a collection of screaming and crying scenes, instead creating a believably strong, independent woman in an era when those weren’t admired female qualities who refused to give up on her child.

     But too many of the other characters---a publicity-conscious police captain (Jeffrey Donovan), an anti-police radio preacher (John Malkovich), a mental institution doctor (Denis O’Hare)---are either completely evil or saints. In the last third of this overly long picture, the drama grinds to a halt as Eastwood shows us the conclusion to each aspect of the case. As interesting as it is to know how it all turned out, that approach doesn’t make for compelling cinema and most of the actors just go through the motions. What the film spends close to an hour on could have been artfully wrapped up in 15 minutes.

     The last part of the “Changeling” (referring to folktales of children being switched by mystic creatures) is partially salvaged by a fabulous performance by Jason Butler Harner (who’s mostly working in television) as the disturbed Wineville mass murderer. Though he doesn’t have much screen time, his twitchy, wild-eyed performance is one of the year’s most memorable. Also quite impressive is Eddie Alderson as the boy who first alerts the police to this horrid series of murders.

    Eastwood remains in the midst of an incredible creative run that has produced three great films, “Mystic River” (2003), “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), and two very good ones, “Blood Work” (2002) and “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) in the past seven years, but this time he’s faltered a bit by not being tough enough on himself in the editing room. Still, for an hour and a half, “Changeling” is a heckuva film. And, on top of that, his second 2008 picture, “Gran Torino,” opens in a couple of weeks.

TANNER ‘88 (1988, TV) and TANNER ON TANNER (2004, TV)
      Robert Altman’s acclaimed HBO series about a Michigan congressman running for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination hasn’t aged well.

     Written by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau and starring Michael Murphy (“Nashville,” “Manhattan”), “Tanner ‘88” is a behind-the-scenes look at the ugly side of the campaign trail, where over-caffeinated, win-at-all-cost politicos do their best to manipulate the press, the public, even the candidate in search of the ultimate prize.

    Twenty years later, it plays like a film-school student’s project, filled with enthusiastic, but amateurish performances (save for Murphy, who is the calm, steady center of this 11-part series), unresolved story lines, one-note characters that quickly become tiresome and totally lacking original insight into the process.

      Altman’s films and Trudeau’s comic strip had been mining this territory for years before “Tanner ‘88” with more insight and humor. And this series looks awful, having been shot on videotape rather than film to make it look more immediate.

    The key players are Tanner’s savvy campaign manager T.J. (Pamela Reed); Tanner’s girlfriend (Wendy Crewson) who works for Michael Dukakis’ campaign; NBC reporter Molly Hark (a constantly panicked Veronica Cartwright) and Cynthia Nixon as Tanner’s daughter Alex, his biggest supporter.

     “Tanner ‘88” earned its hype from Altman’s willingness to shove his fictional candidate into real situations, meeting other candidates and working the delegates on the convention floor.  Those are the best scenes, but there aren’t enough of them. The shenanigans of the Tanner campaign staff get old quickly.

      Altman presents Tanner as too smart and too honest to ever get the nomination, but what chance did he ever have when he calls for legalizing drugs and gets arrested protesting for change in South Africa.

     The director and screenwriter returned to the subject with a four-part series set during the 2004 Democratic convention. Tanner’s daughter (still Nixon) is now a struggling documentarian working on a film about her father’s 1988 run for the presidency.

      I actually enjoyed this new “Tanner” more than the original, as it focuses on the hurdles and frustrations faced by documentary filmmakers rather than the same old political infighting. Nixon gives a striking performance as she and her production crew keep losing out on key interviews at the convention, all captured not only by Altman but in the show itself by one of Alex’s film students who follows her around with a video camera.

     The best scene in the series occurs when Ron Reagan Jr. accidentally schedules interviews with Alex Tanner and Alex Kerry at the same time, causing a bit of a tiff between the two political daughters. There is also an amusing scene at Elaine’s (the famed New York eatery) featuring Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi and Mario Cuomo mingling with the fictional cast.

     While neither of these series come close to ranking with Altman’s best works, there is still a sampling of Altmanesque moments (the occasional appearances by E.G. Marshall as Tanner’s estranged father; reporter Hark’s battles with her cameraman), all reminders of the brilliance of this one-of-a-kind filmmaker.

      I watched these two badly dated sex comedies in my annual attempt to understand Jerry Lewis. My quest, as impossible as it is unpleasant, has revealed little beyond the fact that Hollywood knew how to make embarrassing, unwatchable comedies long before “SNL” alumni became the go-to guys for laughs.

     In “Three on a Couch,” Lewis makes fun of his loyal following in France by having his character, Christopher, a commercial artist, win a prize given out by the French government. When his girlfriend Elizabeth (Janet Leigh), a psychiatrist, says she can’t join him in France because she can’t leave three troubled female patients, you don’t need a French passport to know what Christopher’s next move is. He disguises himself as the perfect man for each of the girls, wooing them in hopes of ridding them of their anti-man fears. It’s pop psychology at its most demeaning: The women, all gorgeous but portrayed as gullible as children, fall for Christopher’s bizarre characters in a matter of days.

     There isn’t a moment in this Lewis-directed mess that rings true, even under the parameters of a nutty comedy.

    “Boeing Boeing” is equally sexist (the opening credits include measurements of the actresses) as playboy-journalist (isn’t that an oxymoron?) Tony Curtis shuffles three stewardesses in and out of his Paris apartment with the help of his put-upon housekeeper, amusingly portrayed by the great Thelma Ritter.

    Lewis, for once under control and playing his character relatively straight (TV veteran John Rich, not Lewis, directs), shows up uninvited---he’s also a foreign correspondent---and must play the sensible one to Curtis’ frantic neurotic. Originally a stage play, the comedy is primarily an unending opening and closing of doors as Curtis does his best to keep the women from running into each other, which was funny in the 1930s and ‘40s, but feels mean-spirited and tiresome in the bright colors of the 1960s.   

     The abiding rule in both of these films (ah, those innocent ‘60s) is that for all the winking and innuendo and leering at cleavage and too-tight skirts, no one ever sleeps with anyone. The movies were still living in a PG world, but bursting at the seams to become an R.

     In recent years, no filmmaker has created as many unforgettable characters as Mike Leigh. David Thewlis’ Johnny in “Naked” (1993), Brenda Blethyn’s Cynthia in “Secrets & Lies” (1996), Jane Horrocks’ Nicola in “Life Is Sweet” (1991) and Katrin Cartlidge’s Hannah in “Career Girls” (1997) are just a few of the confused, often troubled and usually quite blunt individuals this insightful British writer-director has centered movies around.

      His latest protagonist is also quite unforgettable, but not in the way Leigh’s past characters have been.  Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins, is a high-energy, positive-thinking grade-school teacher whose nonstop, chipper, jokey conversation is alternately irritating and endearing. As a movie character, she has unlimited potential. But Leigh doesn’t do much with her. The most interesting relationship in the movie develops between Poppy and her driving instructor  (Eddie Marsan), a nervous, angry, bigoted man who, for no good reason, falls for her.

     Another relationship---a mysterious encounter Poppy has with a disturbed homeless man---turns out to be just an odd little incident unconnected to anything else that happens in the film. Had Leigh developed this intense meeting, it might have opened up a fascinating new aspect to Poppy, but it comes and goes like it’s an outtake from another film.

    Hawkins, who has appeared in smaller roles in Leigh films, works hard to create a character who isn’t just a one-note smiley face, but someone who has found a way to deal with life’s disappointments and, at the same time, shed light on those with more gloomy lives. I kept waiting for Leigh to take this character where she’d encounter more than everyday life. But the director had something else in mind, and for me, it didn’t make for a successful movie.

        Sadly, this minor pre-Code movie isn’t remembered for the performances of two up-and-coming stars, Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, or for its lurid topic of female murder. All that was swept away, when, two days after the premiere, a supporting player in the picture, 24-year-old British actress Peg Entwistle, jumped to her death off the Hollywood sign. Despondent over being dropped by RKO and other matters, this promising stage actress who made her film debut in “Thirteen Women” committed suicide in an eerie reflection of the movie’s storyline.

      The movie stars Loy as Ursula Georgi (described by police as a “half-breed”), an exotic, intimidating woman who uses her hypnotic skills to enact revenge on the women who rejected her from their school sorority many years ago.

      Because the studio wanted to give more screen time to Dunne, who had starred in the best picture winner “Cimarron” the year before, thirteen women are cut back to seven women. Entwistle’s Hazel appears in the opening scenes when she visits her friend May, who is part of a circus aerialist duo with her sister. She confides to Hazel that the horoscope predictions they all received from Swami Yodadachi (a confidant of Ursula) forecast the death of someone close to her. Predictably, her sister falls to her death during their act.

     Hazel is then seen killing her husband (another prediction by the Swami) as the scene fades to a newspaper headline about her being sent to prison.

      The last part of this 59-minute thriller focuses on Ursula’s attempt to kill Dunne’s young son. Again, she allures another man to aid her in her sinister plot, but you understand how they fall to her charms; Loy has never looked sexier playing this Eurasian vamp. The cast also features Jill Esmond, then Mrs. Laurence Olivier, and Florence Eldridge, then Mrs. Fredric March.

     At its full length, this might have been an interesting picture, but little is left other than its part in a promising actress’ pointless death.

      Most great film performances are given by actors playing charismatic, energetic, bigger-than-life characters. Which makes Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in this film all the more remarkable. Working in her second language, the British actress is mesmerizing as a sullen, broken, almost lifeless woman adjusting to freedom after years in prison.

     This French film unfolds at a leisurely pace, letting the back story emerge naturally as Juliette (Scott Thomas) moves in with her sister’s family and gradually comes out of the protective shell she’s built around herself. With very few words Scott Thomas creates a character so depressed and self-hating that it’s almost impossible to connect with her, yet you root for her as she quietly finds reasons to keep living.

    Nearly matching Scott Thomas’ work is veteran French actress Elsa Zylberstein as Lea, the younger sister who juggles work, her two daughters and her husband, while doing what she can to reconnect with Juliette. This is as moving and complex a portrayal of sisters you’re likely to see on film. It’s a tribute to writer-director Phillipe Claudel, making his first film behind the camera, that every emotional revelation is earned and feels true.

       Scott Thomas, married to a Frenchman and living in the country, gave a first-rate performance in the French film “Tell No One” earlier this year, but here she goes to the next level. Her Juliette has the deep inner sadness that reminded me of Meryl Streep’s brilliant performance in “Sophie’s Choice”; both actresses convey the pain their characters carry inside even when smiling. Scott Thomas gives a dark, searing performance that’s heartbreaking and unforgettable.


GOYA’S GHOST (2008) and THE DUCHESS  (2008)
     There’s not much connecting these two unsuccessful period pieces other than they both are set in the late 18th Century and star similar looking leading ladies, Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.

     “Goya’s Ghost,” directed by two-time Oscar winner (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus”) Milos Forman, is the more interesting picture if only because it’s about an important world event, the end of the Spanish Inquisition after the country was invaded by Napoleon. Portman, playing the daughter of a well-to-do family, is targeted by vigilant Catholic monk Lorenzo after he sees her portrait as painted by the country’s leading artist, Francisco Goya.

    The great painter, rather dull and soft-spoken as portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard, tries to help the girl over the years as circumstances change---Napoleon takes over and jails the clergy---but is shockingly ineffective. She remains the pawn of Lorenzo (Javier Bardem, almost as scary in robes as he was in “No Country for Old Men”) and the story turns out to be just another sad tale set during a terrible chapter of history. But Forman uses the story to assail America’s actions in Iraq and the country’s use of torture. Even for someone sympathetic to his viewpoint, the parallels he makes aren’t nearly enough to enliven this creaky story.

     “The Duchess” plays out like so many other English upper crust arranged marriages gone-wrong films that I kept thinking I’d seen another version of the same story. Knightley becomes the Duchess of Devonshire when she’s wed to the much older, passionless Duke (Ralph Fiennes) and soon after, having failed to produce a male heir, becomes a society star. The film bears similarities to the Marie Antoinette story, except that it doesn’t end at the guillotine. Maybe it should have.

      The marriage takes a strange turn when Knightley’s Georgiana brings a voluptuous divorced mother (Hayley Atwell) into their home and---who would have guessed?---she quickly schemes her way into the Duke’s bed. Just as quickly, my interest in the film fizzled.

      Fiennes gives an intense, uncompromising portrayal of a strident, self-centered 18th Century man more interested in his dogs than his wife; if it wasn’t for his performance there would be no reason to see “The Duchess.”

SYNECDOCHE, N.Y.  (2008)
     This film seemed reasonably normal, especially for a Charlie Kaufman-written picture, until the scene in which a real estate agent successfully sells a house that’s on fire. And the buyer continues to live in the house the rest of her life as small fires burn throughout the home.

      As he did in his scripts for “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “Adaptation” (2002) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), this astonishing writer bends reality nearly to the breaking point as he examines the very real barriers people face as they attempt to carve out a life.  Kaufman was an actual character in “Adaptation” and he might as well be here: Caden Cotard is a fidgety, hypochondriac stage director who attempts to recreate his messy life in an ambitious, never-ending rehearsal with a cast and crew of hundreds.

    Beset by real and imagined ailments, Caden (played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman) loses all sense of time and his grasp on reality after his painter wife (Catherine Keener), with their young daughter, moves to Germany. But after winning a MacArthur grant and screwing up his relationship with Hazel, a vivacious theater employee (Samantha Morton), Caden buys an abandoned airplane hanger and starts mounting a theatrical production based on his life.

       As confusing as it is brilliant, this movie reminded me of Federico Fellini’s “8 ½,” Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” and Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” all attempts by the directors to understand their lives as both artists and men. Kaufman’s version (his directing debut) is messier and less visually interesting, but it overflows with fascinating ideas on balancing art and real life and discerning the difference between the two; it’s about the unexplainable, unpredictable nature of relationships and ever present shadow of mortality.

     The film is jam packed with extraordinary performances. No one working in film can portray unstable, obsessive loners better than Hoffman and he delivers again here, turning Caden into a pathetic but sympathetic character whose failures in life are balanced by his insatiable desire to understand those mistakes.

       Morton, another actor who gets better with each role, is hilarious and heartbreaking as Hazel, who becomes Caden trusted assistant after their affair ends. Emily Watson, as the actress who plays Morton in the stage version of Caden’s life, manages to be both a real person and a convincing doppelganger of Morton (to whom she bears a close physical resemblance).

      Also doing impressive work with complex, confusing roles are Michelle Williams as an actress playing Hazel who ends up marrying Caden; Hope Davis as a very aggressive therapist; Dianne Wiest as an actress who ends up playing Caden; Keener as his artist-wife and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her angry, man-hating friend. 

       Maybe the weirdest role in a film filled with weirdness, is that of Sammy, a man who, for some unknown reason, has followed Caden most of his life. When Caden is interviewing actors to play himself, Sammy reveals himself as the perfect guy to play him. Tom Noonan, a tall, thin actor with no resemblance to Hoffman, gives a memorable performance as a man attempting to live the life of someone else, who usually has more insight into Caden than Caden does.

      The odd title refers to both the setting of the film in Schenectady, N.Y., a community that has long been a center of the arts, and the word synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a word for a small part of the whole is used to indicate the whole or vice versa. Confused? Kaufman’s film is just as confusing, but well worth the effort spent figuring it out.

       Michel Gondry, who directed the Charlie Kaufman-penned “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), among the finest films of the past decade, hasn’t had much luck on his own. Like Kaufman, he portrays reality as fluid and unreliable; unlike Kaufman, he doesn’t have much of interest to say.

      “Be Kind Rewind” is more entertaining than his last, dreary romance “The Silence of Sleep” (2006), but falls apart when it turns into a typical feel-good Hollywood film. Jack Black, wild-eyed and acting with no reasonable restraint, plays Jerry, a paranoid, conspiracy theorist slacker who spends his days hanging out at a neighborhood video store. It seems to be the last business still renting tapes until Jack’s body becomes magnetized and he accidentally erases the store’s entire inventory.

      In true Jack Black fashion, he convinces the store’s clerk Mike (a gently goofy Mos Def) to shoot short versions of the films and rent those. They start with “Ghostbusters” and “Rush Hour 2” and before you can even figure out how they’re paying for all this, customers are lining up for these offbeat videos (they called them “Sweded”).

      The film is wacky and energetic when the making of these videos is front and center (including “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Robocop” and “The Lion King”) but when the plot turns to the plans by the owner (Danny Glover) to save the dying store, Gondry seems to have fallen under the spell of the spirit of Frank Capra.

    It’s not a pretty sight when born anarchists like Gondry and Black slip into Hollywood sentimentality.





Sunday, November 2, 2008

October 2008

W. (2008)
When it comes to the critics, Oliver Stone can’t win. If he had pulled out his sledgehammer and made a no-holds-barred, political attack film, he would have been dismissed as taking on an easy target and showing no restraint. Instead, he made a funny, thoughtful and balanced look at George W. Bush’s rise to the presidency and critics say he’s gone soft and should have shown no mercy in depicting the sitting president.

To me, certainly no fan of Mr. Bush, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (“Wall Street”) have done a superb job of dramatizing the unlikely path “W.” took to the White House and how those around him used him to promote their own agendas. He’s certainly taken plenty of liberties (as he is want to do) in showing Bush’s relationships with his wife, father and mother, but everything rings true and helps explain the man we see in public. What really makes this a standout picture is the phenomenal performance by Josh Brolin as the president. He’s made up to slightly resemble Bush, but he’s really nailed his odd speech pattern, his body language and that irritating half-laugh. Just about the time President Bush is moving out of the White House, Brolin should be collecting an Oscar nomination for playing Stone’s version of Bush.

Few presidents have lived such an unsettled, wild life well into the 30s, when he finally turned his life around after becoming a reborn Christian and accepting his place in the family business. The film depicts these years fairly, I think, avoiding the easy route of making Bush look like a buffoon; he comes off as no different than thousands of other sons struggling to live up to a father’s fame. It’s that relationship, between Bush and his father (superbly portrayed by James Cromwell), that is the film’s most fascinating. You can understand how Bush takes on an attitude when you see his father and mother (Ellen Burstyn) get upset when he tells them he’s running for governor. They were more concern with not causing any problems for Jeb, who was running for governor in Florida that year.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally convincing: Toby Jones as Bush’s alter-ego Karl Rove, Richard Dreyfuss as the manipulative Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as the cautious Colin Powell and Elizabeth Banks as a perky, devoted Laura Bush. Thandie Newton does a very funny imitation of Condoleezza Rice, but it plays like something from an “SNL” routine rather than a feature film.

Whether Stone is taking us inside the Oval Office during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq or to a Texas barbeque where bourbon and politics flow freely, “W.” offers a smart, believable take on the making of our 43rd President.

SLEUTH (2007)
I’ve never been a big fan of the 1972 version of Anthony Shaffer’s play; as enjoyable as the acting battle between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine can be, the ridiculously overwrought dialogue takes all the fun out of the game. This updated, even slicker version----a virtual total rewrite by the great playwright Harold Pinter---pushes the hyper-reality of the original right into camp territory.

The most interesting part of this film is the clever casting of Caine, this time in the older role of Andrew Wyke, and Jude Law, who remade Caine’s signature role in “Alfie” (2004), as Milo Tindle, the role Caine played in 1972. This time around, Wyke, still a mystery novelist, lives not in a cozy, game-filled old mansion, but in a sleek, ultra-modern glass-and-steel museum of a house. (The room where Wyke keeps copies of his novels is the most outlandish depiction of a writer’s ego you’ll ever see).

Milo, the young lover of Wyke’s wife, arrives at the famous man’s house, to persuade him to divorce the unfaithful Marguerite. Instead Wyke offers a plan to help Milo keep her in a fashion she’s accustomed to. From that point on, “Sleuth” is one double-cross, con game after another as Wyke refuses to accept the idea of losing his wife.

Director Kenneth Branagh, who has yet to make a satisfactory contemporary film, must have thought that shooting through glass, from behind furniture, from the ceiling and every odd angle imaginable would somehow invigorate this two-character story, but it’s just distracting. By the final act, when Pinter’s screenplay goes off the deep end of believability, even a fine performance by Caine and a game one by Law can’t save this foolish film.

Veteran independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom has spent much of his career exploring characters who struggle with identity and image issues. In two of his best recent films, “Last Summer in the Hamptons” (1995) and “Festival in Cannes” (2002), and again in this new film, he’s looking at those issues as they apply to actors.

Where “Hollywood Dreams” falls short is with the casting of newcomer Tanna Frederick as the flighty, unstable Margie, just off the bus from Iowa who is determined to become a movie star. To make this film work, viewers have to be rooting for Margie as she embarrasses herself over and over in pursuit of stardom. Maybe it was just me (it did have a long run last summer in a theater in Santa Monica), but I found this woman so irritating and truly disturbed that I was wishing she’d find a good therapist rather than a starring role.

This being the movie capital of the world, when Margie is walking aimlessly in Santa Monica she meets a movie producer (Jaglom veteran Zack Norman), who promptly invites her to stay at the Hollywood Hills mansion he shares with his lover. Also staying with the “producers,” is a somewhat successful young actor (Justin Kirk) who is pretending to be gay to get ahead in the business. When Margie and the supposively gay Robin fall for each other, it becomes such a big deal that his mentors worry it will ruin his career. Jaglom not only makes fun of Hollywood’s obsession with keeping all homosexual actors or actresses in the closet by turning the tables on the issue, but also shows how far people will go for their dreams of stardom.

This is Frederick first leading role and while she does have some nice moments in “Hollywood Dreams,” mostly in the scenes she has with Melissa Leo (star of “Frozen River”) who plays her beloved aunt, but she just isn’t ready carry a feature film. Unless that’s the joke Jaglom is playing----casting a novice to play a novice. But even in a low-budget Henry Jaglom film that doesn’t fly. And to make matters worse, she stars in Jaglom’s yet to be released next film “Irene in Time.”

I can’t resist watching anytime TCM shows one of the movies re-packaged from two-part episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” television series, my favorite show when I was a kid. During its four-year run (1964-68), I anxiously awaited Monday nights for the next episode, completely enthralled by every tidbit of information about Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin and their mysterious organization. I even set up my own “U.N.C.L.E.” headquarters in the basement of our house.

Their escapades in “The Spy in the Green Hat” (originally titled during the run of the series as “The Concrete Overcoat Affair”) play out like nearly every episode----a scientist gone bad is lured by “THRUSH,” the diabolical (and seemingly better manned) enemy of “U.N.C.L.E.,” to create some world-threatening weapon. I didn’t even notice who the spy wearing a green hat was, but Jack Palance plays the “THRUSH” henchman who has plans to warm up Greenland at the same time he send the rest of the world into a long freeze. It plays more like a plot out of “Batman,” and Palance acts as if he’s one of the cartoonish villains of that comic series. He seems to be doing a bad Peter Lorre imitation and moves around like he’s in pain.

Coming off better is his knife-wielding assistant played by Janet Leigh, who tortures Illya (David McCallum) even though she has the hots for him. The most amusing part of the movie involves three elderly Italian-American mobsters who are after Napoleon (Robert Vaughn) to marry their niece after he’s found in her room. Played by veteran character actors Allen Jenkins, Eduardo Ciannelli and Jack La Rue---familiar faces from the 1930s and ‘40s----the three Stilletto uncles (get it?) help out in the battle to stop “THRUSH,” reliving the old days of the Prohibition mob wars. If veteran TV director Joseph Sargent had been able to get Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney for the Palance role these episodes would have been memorable. Instead, it’s only of interest to those of us who still have our three-cornered, yellow “U.N.C.L.E.” badge.

This continuation of the acclaimed television series about the lives of four women in search of love in Manhattan isn’t so much a movie as pornography for shopaholics. Shoes, dresses, hats, bags, apartments, restaurants, vacations and everything in between are the measures of success in this film that feels like a remnant of the 1990s.

The razor thin plot hovers around the upcoming (and then delayed) nuptials of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), whose column on relationships serves as the film’s (and TV show’s) narrative base and longtime, very rich beau Big (Chris Noth). At nearly two and half hours, the film has plenty of time to chronicle the ups and downs of Carrie’s trio of friends----Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon)----but the story never veers far from Carrie’s emotional travails.

This film doesn’t do justice to the television series, which was clever and sexy but also could be insightful and poignant. Like so many TV-based movies (“The Simpsons,” “Bewitched,” “The Hulk”) it just cashes in on the name and characters to make more money.

This high-profile Ridley Scott-directed movie has a problem: It’s an action film, but it’s mostly just talk and, despite all the talk, the film doesn’t have much to say.

Russell Crowe, who starred for Scott in “The Gladiator” (2000) and “American Gangster” (2007), plays Ed Hoffman, a high-ranking American intelligence official and the only contact for fearless, spy on the ground Roger Ferris (a grungy Leonardo DiCaprio) as he pursues Middle East terrorists. While Ferris goes headfirst into danger, Hoffman is shown giving orders on his Blue Tooth phone while at his home surrounded by his family. So blatantly a stand-in for a thoughtless, self-centered, imperious foreign policy, Hoffman is barely a character. Crowe doesn’t have a chance to breath life into this miserable man, who seems to do everything in his power to keep Ferris from succeeding.

Screenwriter William Monahan, as he was in his Oscar-winning script for “The Departed,” is more interested in the behind-the-scenes plotting than the typically disappointing results. As much as I appreciate the realism he brings to the story, this is an action film and way too much screen time is spent on petty, pointless arguments.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the relationship between Ferris and the head of Jordan’s undercover police (played by charismatic British actor Mark Strong) and how difficult Washington/Hoffman make it for cooperation. It’s certainly not a news flash that America, especially during the past eight years, has all but refused to be a team player when it comes to intelligence matters. But seeing how that stubbornness plays out is this film’s greatest strength---along with DiCaprio.

In “Body of Lies,” the actor, as he was in “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed,” is the perfect action star: tough and determined, defiant and cynical, yet vulnerable when an attractive woman arrives on the scene. Along with being the biggest star of his generation, DiCaprio is becoming one of the best actors of his era.


Trevor Howard never reached the movie stardom of fellow English actors Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness or Claude Rains, yet for about 20 years he was one of the most interesting performers in film, regularly taking on challenging, complex roles.

After his breakthrough performance as the sympathetic married man falling in love with a stranger he meets at a train station in David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” (1945), Howard developed a tougher, more cynical screen persona, often playing intelligent, but rarely happy, authority figures.

He seems miscast in Lean’s attempt to recapture the magic of “Brief Encounter” in “The Passionate Friends,” a star vehicle for Lean’s wife Ann Todd. Looking younger than his age, the 32-year-old Howard plays the ex-lover of the now-married Todd (to a passionless Claude Rains) who resumes the affair when they run into each other at a resort. But when she decides to stay with Rains, Howard’s character gets on with his life. As strange as it sounds, the actor isn’t believable as a content, adjusted man. The film never comes close to having the impact of “Brief Encounter,” even when the Todd-Rains relationship grows more volatile as she continues to obsess over Howard.

The next year, he played the sensible English policeman standing between a pair of emotional Americans, (Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles) in a thrilling tale of post-war Vienna, “The Third Man,” one of the true masterpieces of 20th Century filmmaking. Howard and “Third Man” director Carol Reed collaborated again in “Outcast of the Islands,” a Joseph Conrad story of an ambitious Brit corrupted by life on a Pacific island. This rarely seen and under appreciated picture is both a damning critique of British imperialism and a daring take, for its time, on sexual obsession between a white man (Howard) and a manipulative native girl (the sultry Algerian actress Kerima).

Howard’s Willems is an over-dressed, back slapping con man who, after being fired by his Singapore boss, is hired back by his old mentor, Capt. Lingard (the always superb Ralph Richardson) to help him at his island trading post. Willems becomes the burden of the Captain’s sanctimonious son-in-law (Robert Morley) ultimately upsetting the tentative relationship between the natives and the Brits when he takes up with Aissa, the daughter of the tribe’s elderly leader.

Reed’s treatment of the island’s people, seen more than 50 years later, avoids being either too sanctimonious or racist, showing them to be just as smart and conniving as the white men. And even though the allure of the exotic girl is a classic Western cliché, the smoldering sensuality of Kerima makes Willem’s wild-eyed lust perfectly believable.

Over the next ten years, Howard continued doing first-rate work in “The Heart of the Matter” (1953), playing another man in a moral struggle in a foreign land, this time Sierra Leone, in this powerful Graham Greene story; “The Stranger’s Hand” (1954), as a spy in Venice in another Greene story; “Run for the Sun” (1956), as a twisted plantation owner in Mexico; “Sons and Lovers” (1960), earning an Oscar nomination as the domineering coal-mining father; and in “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962), as a commanding Captain Bligh in this otherwise overblown remake.

Just as his profile peaked with his Oscar nod and a role in the much-publicized “Mutiny,” he became a supporting player in less interesting films, but he continued working up until his death in 1988. The best of his later roles includes another turn for Lean in “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970), playing the dying doctor in the Jane Fonda-version of Ibsen’s “The Doll House” (1973) and, in one of his most surprising roles, as an American-Indian chief trying to save his tribe in “Windwalker” (1980).

Last month I roasted Robert De Niro for phoning in performances in a series of second rate movies (most recently with Al Pacino in “Righteous Kill”) so I’m pleased to report that he gives an involving, complex, amusing and very truthful performance in this Hollywood satire.

He plays mid-level movie producer Ben, about to bust a vein as he juggles a daily schedule filled with as many problems as phone calls. In addition to trying to calm a volatile young director battling against the heavy hand of Hollywood executives, Ben faces the cancellation of a project because Bruce Willis won’t shave his “Grizzly Adams” beard, tries to keep tabs on an ex-wife he still has feelings for and maintain a relationship with his children from two marriages. In a role modeled after Art Linson, longtime producer of such films as “The Untouchables” (1987) and “Heat” (1995), who wrote the script and the book it’s based on, De Niro, utilizing his sly smile and tired eyes, makes you root for this guy even when he’s doing those slimy things Hollywood producers do.

The problem with this Barry Levinson-directed movie is that it plays like yet another TV reality shows pitting “the talent” against “management.” In many ways it also resembles “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in its unfiltered portrayal of the unapologetic arrogance that rules the entertainment industry.

Good performances abound in this picture, starting with Robin Wright Penn as the ex-wife Ben can’t quite break away from; Sean Penn in a smaller role as himself, the star of one of Ben’s films; Catherine Keener as the cold-blooded studio chief; Stanley Tucci as a nagging screenwriter; and Michael Wincott as the overly medicated British director who is appalled by the crass commercialism of the studios.

The film is entertaining if you’re interested in the movie business, but it doesn’t have enough real laughs to qualify as a success. The filmmakers should have been worried when the funniest thing in their comedy is the beard sported by Bruce Willis, who, it must be noted, does a great job playing himself as a complete ass.

If you’re a fan of the fast-paced screwball comedies of the 1930s, which often featured a wise, world-weary domestic offering straight talk to their irrational, heedless rich and famous employers, this film is a pretty good imitation.

Frances McDormand plays Miss Pettigrew, a set-in-her-ways, out-of-work governess who tricks her way into a job as nursemaid to a screwy young singer/actress Delysia Lafosse (perfectly captured by the feisty Amy Adams) in pre-war London. Right off the bat, Miss Pettigrew gets Delysia’s last-night lover out the door before another boyfriend shows up and then disposes of him so she can head out to another appointment.

Set during one, incredible hectic day, the story pits Delysia’s career ambitions against a chance for true love, as Miss Pettigrew does her best to maneuver the confused but sympathetic debutante in the right direction. Along the way, even Miss Pettigrew acquires an admirer (“Masterpiece Theatre” veteran Ciaran Hinds).

Director Bharat Nalluri, who has worked mostly in television, does a first-rate job of capturing the era and the underlining economic gap between the domestic worker and the smart set she falls in with. Superbly written by Oscar-nominated screenwriters David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty”), based on a 1938 novel by Winfred Watson, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is a slight puff pastry, but enjoyable none the less.

APPALOOSA (2008) and

The elements of a Western don’t change that much from picture to picture. There are the good guys, the bad guys, helpless town leaders and the innocent civilians caught in the middle when the trouble explodes, all doing and saying pretty much the same thing from film to film.

What elevates a Western above the pack are its characters. Because these roles have been done so many times, it’s easy to fall back on the clichés, creating another stock version of a lawman or a horse thief or a saloon keeper or a whore. As appealing as the setting is---especially now when Westerns are so rare---without interesting, original characters all the Southwest scenery, old-fashioned gun fights and saloon fistfights are wasted.

That’s the problem with Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa.” If you’ve seen many Westerns, you’ve seen this story and these characters a hundred times and the four star-actors don’t do very much to make them memorable. Director and co-writer Harris stars as Virgil, a gunslinger/lawman-for-hire who, with his partner Everett (Viggo Mortensen), agrees to put a stop to a band of bad guys (led by an unlikely rancher Jeremy Irons) causing havoc in a small New Mexico Territory settlement.

This slow moving film doesn’t feature anything close to a spectacular set piece and the actors seem to be walking through their roles. Worst of all is Renée Zellweger, playing a mysterious woman who shows up in town and immediately falls for Virgil. It’s actually the film’s most complex and interesting role, but she fails to bring any depth to it, giving flat line readings and smiling at the most inappropriate times.

Harris and Mortensen, two of the best actors working in Hollywood today, have an easy-going chemistry (they worked together in “A History of Violence”) that should have been a solid foundation for “Appaloosa,” but instead it’s the only positive aspect of this very disappointing film.

“Welcome to Hard Times,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s simple but unforgettable novel about a harsh, desolate world, tells an appropriate story for a film released as the era of movie Westerns was ending. A psychotic gunman (a demonic-looking Aldo Ray) has decided, for no particular reason, to victimize this slight settlement of a few dozen people, shooting dead anyone who looks at him the wrong way, raping and killing a saloon prostitute and then, the next morning, burning down the town.

Among those left alive, only Blue (Henry Fonda), who ran rather than confront the “Man from Bodie,” decides to stay in the destroyed town he calls “Hard Times,” caring for the prostitute Molly (Janice Rule), who was raped by the bad man and badly burned in the fire, and Jimmy (Michael Shea), the young son of the town’s now-dead founder.

The next day, Zar (Keenan Wynn) rides in with his wagon full of prostitutes and a new town slowly emerges.

This cynical telling of the founding of the West reveals the “pioneers” to be selfish money grubbers and unapologetic cowards who lack any morals, loyalty or concern for their community. During the opening rampage of the bad man, the saloonkeeper (Lon Chaney Jr.) won’t go into his place but tries to convince one of his whores to go into the bar and stab the guy. He’s worried about his liquor stock and cash under the bar.

Though Fonda’s Blue cares for Molly, she hates him for not killing the bad man and over time, she trains Jimmy for the day she knows the man will return. The twisted relationship between these three serves as the uncomfortable center of a story that seemingly can’t end well.

Director Burt Kennedy, who also adapted the novel, made some of the most interesting Westerns of the era, including “The War Wagon” (1967) and “Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969). Yet this may be his best work, as he manages to bring out the town’s assorted characters----played by a fine collection of actors including Warren Oates, Paul Fix, Elisha Cook Jr., and Royal Dano----while never losing the feeling of doom that surrounds this little piece of desert. For the most part, he’s very faithful to Doctorow’s book, though he alters the ending to add some Hollywood hopefulness.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

September 2008

Paul Newman was better than anyone at playing the kind of heartless cad you just can't help but root for. It didn’t matter how badly his characters treated those around him or what deceitful methods they used to get what they wanted, this slyly brilliant actor managed to convince us that they were, at heart, just misguided, misunderstood innocents. Maybe it was that always-at-the-ready boyish smile or those otherworldly blue eyes (even in black-and-white) under that heavy, brooding brow that earned him our sympathy, but to me it was Newman’s uncanny ability to free his characters from the easy trappings of their film.

Starting with Eddie Felson in “The Hustler,” through the title characters in “Hud” (1963), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) (he was Butch), and as Reg Dunlop in “Slap Shot” (1977), Frank Galvin in “The Verdict” (1982) and Sully in “Nobody’s Fool” (1994), Newman inhabited characters than transcended what they did and said in their movie; they were fully realized individuals who could show up anywhere----in another film or at your local hardware store looking for a screwdriver. As devoted as Newman was to the Method and his place as the successor to Marlon Brando and James Dean, he also provided a crucial link back to the larger-than-life classic movie stars. He had the same kind of charismatic screen persona that made actors such as Gable, Grant, Stewart and Bogart unforgettable.

After working in television since the early ‘50s, Newman got his break in 1956 (at age 31) when he portrayed boxer Rocky Graziano, a role originally tailored for Dean, in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” It’s not a great performance by any means, but it led to three 1958 pictures that established Newman as both a star and a first-rate actor. In Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” he plays the repressed homosexual Brick married to Elizabeth Taylor’s hungry Cat, earning the first of 9 Oscar nominations, but was equally impressive as the barn burning Faulknerian rogue in “The Long, Hot Summer” and as a Beatnik-like Billy the Kid in “The Left Handed Gun.”

When I heard that Newman had died, the movie I immediately pulled out to watch again was “The Hustler.” It’s a great movie, beautifully directed by Robert Rossen and featuring three nearly perfect supporting performances by Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie, yet you just can’t take your eyes off Newman. His “Fast” Eddie Felson isn’t a nice guy, but he’s supremely confident in his ability as a pool hustler, cocky even when walking into the pool hall home of the country’s best shot maker, Minnesota Fats (a stoic Gleason).

In the marathon pool competition with Fats, which sets up the rest of the movie, Newman’s Eddie goes from impressed fan to crowing winner to drunken, obsessive loser, utilizing the kind of physical acting that was the signature of Marlon Brando or James Dean, But Newman never lets it become mannered or stagy and Eddie always comes off as a guy we’ve all known: in over his head but determined to never give up.

His relationship with the crippled, alcoholic Sarah (Laurie) is among the most unflinchingly harsh ever put on film up to that time, with Newman making believable a character who is both cynical and cold, and romantic and loving.

It’s a great performance, arguably his best, and, in my mine, established Newman as the best actor in American film (replacing a disinterested Brando), a title he held until Jack Nicholson came into his own in the early 1970s.

My other favorite Newman film is “Slap Shot.” He was 52, when he played the foul-mouthed player-coach of a minor league hockey team, struggling with relationships, aging and the out-of-control Hanson brothers.

Newman never stopped giving interesting performances. Just shy of his 70th birthday, he remained at the top of his game, delivering a wonderfully comic turn as the arrogant CEO in “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) and as the small-town curmudgeon reconnecting with his son and grandson in “Nobody’s Fool” (1994). And he gave a towering performance as the stage manager in the 2003 Broadway production of “Our Town,” filmed for PBS.

In the 2005 cable movie “Empire Falls,” Newman is quite amusing as an irresponsible, small town nut, showing no signs that he wasn’t anything but a still vital, commanding performer. It was to be his last performance.

A great star and a greater actor (certainly, among the ten best in American film history), Newman has been equally remembered for his selfless contributions to charitable causes, his fascination with auto racing and his longtime marriage to Joanne Woodward. And I think all those had something to do with making him such an enduring and appealing performer. How can you not love a guy who after 50 years of international fame, would regularly show up on David Letterman’s show for a two-minute gag appearance?

Paul Newman was among the few performers who by sheer talent and the ability to just be himself---not as easy as it sounds----made us all feel as if he was part of our lives.

and 88 MINUTES (2008)
Dermatologists and others interested in studying the sixtysomething faces of a pair of movie legends should rush out to see “Righteous Kill.” I can’t remember a film in recent years that relies so heavily on close-ups. Robert De Niro, 65, and Al Pacino, 68, both have very distinctive looks, but I want to see them act not count the layers of skin under their eyes. (For the record, Bob has aged more gracefully than Al, but who really cares?)

The script, by Russell Gewirtz, doesn’t offer these acting giants much to do in this melodramatic cop thriller about long-time partners on the trail of a serial killer. The heavy-handed dialogue and turgid direction by Jon Avnet (who also directed Pacino in “88 Minutes”) would have sent this picture straight to the DVD bin at Big Lots if two of the cinema’s greatest actors hadn’t decided that this was a worthy vehicle to re-unite. They had worked together in the vastly superior “Heat” (1995), but that film featured only one scene of the pair together.

Recently, Los Angeles Times movie industry columnist Patrick Goldstein took De Niro and Pacino to task for seemingly abdicating the artist aspirations they once had, instead accepting second-rate roles for a paycheck.

Both actors have been in a bunch of bad movies going back to the 1990s: De Niro’s last good role was in “Ronin” (1998), but Pacino gave a great performance in “Insomnia” in 2002, not to mention his impressive work in the cable movie “Angels in America” (2003). As much as I admire Goldstein’s nerve in calling out these legends, I wonder exactly how many good roles are being offered to actors their age---I don’t care if your name is De Niro or Harrison Ford, Pacino or Michael Douglas. All we can really do is judge the work they take and hope the next one is better.

In “Righteous Kill,” Pacino’s Rooster is the more cerebral, steady detective who spends most of the movie trying to calm down the volatile Turk (De Niro), the more interesting character. Not only is Turk involved in a kinky, violent sexual relationship with another detective (Carla Gugino), but also early in the film, he plants a gun to nail a despicable murder suspect. Because he has the better role, De Niro comes off best, but neither of these performances will make either actor’s Top 10.

Pacino’s work in “88 Minutes,” released earlier this year, makes “Righteous Kill” look like Oscar bait. He plays a strutting college professor/forensic psychologist whose life is being threatened on the day a serial killer he helped convict is schedule to be executed. What’s next for Avnet, the Ted Bundy story? Pacino barks orders at his assistants and students like he’s directing a road show of “Hamlet” while others are killed around him. It’s a ridiculous film that should have starred Eric Roberts, not a film legend.

For more than 20 years, Joel and Ethan Coen have been assembling a collection of cinematic goofballs unmatched since the screwball mastery of Preston Sturges.

From Nicolas Cage’s family-loving robber in “Raising Arizona” (1987) to the Dude in “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and George Clooney’s wide-eyed crooner in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), along with a host of nutty supporting players, the brothers have peopled their films with three-dimensional cartoons. Irrational innocents who are harmlessly self-obsessed, these characters are likely to do anything, yet retain just enough human traits to maintain our sympathies.

Their latest comedy---a far cry from their deadly serious 2007 best picture winner “No Country for Old Men”----has the required allotment of crazies, but not much else. Brad Pitt’s spastic personal trainer Chad, dumb as a doorbell but possessing the energy of a newly adopted puppy, and his gym co-worker Linda (Frances McDormand), not much brighter and determined that having her body redone is the only way she’ll find the man of her dreams, get their hands on a disk they believe contains CIA secrets and set out to make the most of it.

In hopes of a reward, they contact the author, an ex-CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, portrayed by a ghoulish-looking John Malkovich, who has just lost his job, is drinking too much and is being cheated on by his tightly wound, controlling wife (last year’s Oscar winner Tilda Swinton). All the parts of this screwy tale are individually amusing, but the brothers’ surprisingly flat dialogue and the odd side trips the plot takes keep the film from ever taking flight. Most surprising is the meandering performance by George Clooney, whose role as a serial philanderer (he’s involved with Osbourne’s wife among others) never makes much sense or gets many laughs, creating long periods of tedium in this otherwise fast-moving picture.

The highlights of this disappointing film for me were the CIA scenes, with David Rasche, as Osbourne’s former boss, keeping his boss (the always unflappable J.K. Simmons) updated on the goings-on of these insane characters. Simmons sums it all up at one point when he tells Rasche, “Report back to me when it makes sense.”

TROG (1970)
This unintentionally comic sci-fi tale is best known as the final film of screen legend Joan Crawford. While her choice for her last appearance is embarrassing, she doesn’t give a bad performance. She’s actually very convincing as a scientist running a clinic in rural England who rescues a cave-dwelling creature who may be the missing link and tries to civilize him.

The monkey-man looks like the half-wit cousin of the gang from “Planet of the Apes” and about as believable as a grade-schooler’s Halloween costume.

The plot follows the well-worn “Frankenstein” model: sympathetic, forward-looking scientist battles the frightened masses (in this case just one loud-mouthed businessman) until the “monster” escapes and goes on a rampage.

Freddie Francis, a two-time Oscar winning cinematographer----“Sons and Lovers” (1960) and “Glory” (1989)----who as a director made two dozen horror flicks, brings professionalism to this half-baked story, which is probably the last thing it needed.

This intense coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of student unrest in China during the late ‘80s, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square confrontation, is a compelling character study despite occasionally being confusing and politically ambiguous. In fact, I suspect the government of China, which banned the film and prohibited director Lou Ye (best known for “Purple Butterfly”) from making films for five years, was more upset about the film’s explicit sex than its political content.

Yu Hong (played by the impressive, fearless Lei Hao) leaves her small town along the China-North Korea border to attend Beijing University and quickly finds the smart, politically aware and rebellious crowded at the school. Yu befriends the sexy, outspoken Li and, through her, Zhou Wei, a popular upper classman who embarks on a love-hate relationship with Yu. Acting like Western students of the 1960s and ‘70s, they show equal passion for sex and politics. The eroticism, as in Ang’s Lee “Lust, Caution” (2007), borders on soft porn but marks an important step in the evolving cinema of China, knocking down another barrier.

When it opened in theaters in February, most reviews of “Summer Palace” seemed to miss that director Ye makes a point of never showing the militia shooting at students during the sit-in at Tiananmen Square. You only see them shooting in the air to disperse the crowd; the film seems to buy into the official line that no students were killed and that the students were the cause of the trouble.

Yet Yu and her friends seem more interested in the intoxicating talk of revolutions than the real thing. The film loses some of its steam as the students go their separate ways after college and their definition of a relationship changes. The director is clearly at his best in the cramped environment of dorm rooms and nightspots, utilizing hand-held camera work and rapid cutting.

It’s the performance of Lei Hao, a Chinese television actress, who makes the film worth watching. In nearly every frame of this 2 hour and 20 minute film, she portrays an unfocused girl-woman struggling to find herself and her place in a society whose long-held rules are suddenly being tossed aside.

Mixing docudrama tales of minorities struggling against all odds to find success with sweeping shots (it was shown at IMAX and regular theaters) of American landmarks, rousing music and heavy-handed narration, this movie could pass as a production of the U.S. State Department.

Opening with a routine about living in America by 1990s comic Yakov Smirnoff, “Proud American” at first seems like it’s going to be about immigrants and minorities finding their place in society, but pretty much anything that makes you feel patriotic gets a few minutes. Writer-director-producer Fred Ashman (who has made other IMAX features) also throws in highlights from the dramatic episodes throughout the film as if we need reminded of what was on the screen 20 minutes before.

The dramatizations, though strangely under-lit, are the highlights of this disjointed presentation, which seems more suited to a Fourth of July television special than a theatrical release.

and NIGHTFALL (1957)

      Until I saw these two entertaining crime films, my impression of Brian Keith was that of the sleepy, witless Uncle Bill on the TV series “Family Affair.” I had seen him in a few movies---“The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming” (1966), “Reflections of a Golden Eye” (1967), “The Wind and the Lion” (1975)---but he inevitably came off as a forgettable, colorless actor.

But he shines as a heavy in both of these films: he’s a calmly determined murderer pursuing an innocent victim in “Nightfall” and in “5 Against the House” he plays a disturbed Korean War-vet who joins his college chums in a casino heist. In these films, made when he was in his mid-30s, Keith comes off as a very promising actor, bringing subtlety to roles that could easily have been over-the-top clichés.

“5 Against the House,” directed by Phil Karlson, a well-regarded maker of B-movies best know for “Kansas City Confidential (1952) and his late-career hit “Walking Tall” (1973), is interesting in the way it depicts the Korean War veterans now trying to adapted to college life. More than in most movies of the era, the characters are consistently sarcastic in their conversations and cynical in their outlook for the future. They seem more like characters from the ‘70s.

Guy Madison, a second-rate William Holden, plays Al, who has the job of calming down his best buddy Brick (Keith) when his temper gets out of control. But as Al starts spending more time with his girlfriend (Kim Novak at her sexiest, in just her third film) Brick and two other friends (including Alvy Moore, who went on to play Hank Kimball on “Green Acres”) come up with a hair brain plan to rob a Reno casino. When the plan begins to fall apart, Brick flips out.

In “Nightfall,” Aldo Ray plays an advertising artist who finds himself on the run after his camping buddy is killed during an encounter with Keith and his trigger-happy partner after a holdup. It’s a game of cat and mouse as Ray, with help from a girl he meets in a Hollywood Boulevard nightspot played by Anne Bancroft, eludes Keith and an insurance investigator (James Gregory). This is a real battle of low-key tough guys as Ray and Keith both whisper their way through the roles.

Film noir veteran Jacques Tourneur, though past his best years that produced “Cat People” (1942) and “Out of the Past” (1947), does a nice job of maintaining the dark mood and threat of violence, working with a first-rate script by Stirling Silliphant.

Keith was primarily a TV actor and didn’t have his flirtation with movie stardom until the 1960s, during and after his popular series. Just before his death in 1997, he received good reviews for his portrayal of President McKinley in the John Milius-directed TV movie “Rough Rider.”

ELEGY (2008)
Based on Phillip Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal,” this impeccably acted film is a daring, refreshingly adult and ultimately honest examination of a May-December love affair between a gorgeous literature student and a famous writer-professor.

David Kepesh, another of Roth’s alter-egos who was also the subject of novels “The Breast” and “The Professor of Desire,” has enjoyed professional success but failure in relationships and now, in his late 50s or early 60s, moves from one sexual conquest to the next. When Consuela Castillo, a first generation Cuban, sits in the front row of his class, Kepesh bides his time until the semester ends and he can ethically make his move.

What he doesn’t expect is to fall head over heals in love with this much younger woman, completely with feelings of petty jealousy and anxiety when she doesn’t call. Kepesh acts like a schoolboy experiencing his first crush, yet burdened with his instinctual fear of a long-term relationship.

Roth’s writings in recent years have focused on the psychology of the aging male; his pining for youthful companionship, the regret of lost love and a youth misspent. This film, better than the other recent adaptation, “The Human Stain” (2003), shows a deep understanding of Roth and his characters. (Veteran screenwriter Nicholas Meyer wrote both adaptations.)

Spanish director Isabel Coixet does two things well in “Elegy” that American directors rarely do: portray intellectuals without making them into nerds or snobs and depict sexual relations without letting the sex dominate the story.

Much of the credit must go to Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz, both doing some of the best work of their careers, as Kepesh and Consuela. Kingsley, bald and not classically handsome, radiates a mature sexuality and tough-guy sensitivity that makes the unlikely relationship believable. Cruz, beyond looking stunning, has now mastered the language and delivers they kind of charismatic and emotionally complex performance she before seemed only capable of when speaking her native Spanish. Her work in both “Elegy” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” deserved Oscar consideration.

Nearly as memorable are two first-rate supporting performances, by the always interesting Patricia Clarkson, as Kepesh’s long-time, but only occasional bed-partner and Dennis Hopper, playing a famous poet and Kepesh’s best friend (“Horatio to your third-rate Hamlet,” he says sarcastically), who tries to get him to face reality. It’s Hopper’s best performance in years as he tosses out all those Hopperisms he has been falling back on since the late 1980s and provides some of the films most touching moments.

STOP-LOSS (2008)
Director Kymberly Peirce understands the dynamics of small-town life. Her debut, “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), chronicled narrow-minded, aimless teens in rural Nebraska who turn ugly when they can’t understand a girl pretending to be a boy. “Stop-Loss,” her second film, follows a group of soldiers from a small Texas town dealing with the aftermath of a harrowing tour in Iraq.

They return home as heroes not long after a bloody ambush that leaves one of their buddies severely wounded and another dead. Platoon commander Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) blames himself and is struggling with the guilty, while Steve (Channing Tatum) can’t wait to get back into battle and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has shut down emotionally, drinking himself into a stupor.

Brandon (the same first name as Hilary Swank’s character in “Boys Don’t Cry”) has hopes of trying to get on with his life when he’s told by an officer that he’s been stop-lossed and must return to Iraq for another tour. This back-door draft, extending those who signed up for a specific service time, has been used extensively in this war because of the lack of volunteers. While it’s a bit of a stretch that Brandon is surprised when it happens (he surely would have heard many soldiers complain of the practice in Iraq), his reaction is not surprising. Instead of reporting for duty, he goes AWOL.

Peirce and co-screenwriter Mark Richard don’t have a good idea of what to do with Brandon (and his friend’s girlfriend who goes along) once he’s on the run, but the film’s strength is in the small-town world that shapes each of the characters’ understanding of duty and patriotism and what that becomes after mixing in the intense, life-and-death experience of warfare.

Phillippe continues to grow as an actor, following up good work in “Crash” (2004) and “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), and showing he’s capable of carrying a movie. But giving the best performance in the film is Gordon-Levitt, maybe the best young actor in American movies. He delivers another intense, complex performance, matching what he did in the independent films “Mysterious Skin” (2004) and “Brick” (2005). He’s just one high-profile film away from becoming a star.

Monday, September 29, 2008

August 2008

Like a charming, sexy, insightful short story, this breezy entertainment chronicles the summer vacation of two American women staying with relatives in Barcelona. With much of the story told by a narrator with a matter-of-fact approach to the most surprising plot turns, this film is more literary than cinematic----almost like you’re reading it rather than watching it----yet still features some of the strongest acting I’ve seen film this year.

Scarlett Johansson plays the flirtatious, adventurous Cristina, along for fun, while Rebecca Hall’s Vicky is researching her thesis on Catalonia culture, attracted by the innovative Modernist buildings of Antoni Gaudi, a 19th Century Spanish architect. Not long after arriving they are approached in a restaurant by a smooth-talking, arrogant painter (2007 Oscar winner Javier Bardem) who invites them to fly off with him for a weekend of sight seeing and possible sex. Bardem’s Juan Antonio is a great character and Bardem delivers a first-rate performance as this artist who’s introduced as a boorish egotist and slowly grows on you. He turns out to be a down-to-earth, thoughtful romantic who can’t escape the emotional hold of his volatile ex-wife, wonderfully played by Penelope Cruz. Together, they are both hilarious and poignant, one of the most fascinating movie couples of recent years.

Not only does the film make interesting points about differing sensibilities of Europeans and Americans (we always seem to be living life as tourists) but asks the tough questions about what love really amounts to and its importance in our lives.

Oh, by the way, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is written and directed by Woody Allen. You know, that one-time great director who has become such an embarrassment to both critics and fans.

In a few more years, it might be designated a genre unto itself: independent movies profiling working-poor, troubled women. Not only do these films give adventurous actresses great roles but they offer a sympathetic entree into less than glamorous stories. Just off the top of my head, I can think of five recent films that fall into this category---“The Good Girl” (2002), “Monster” (2003), “Down to the Bone” (2004), “Sherrybaby” (2006) and “Come Early Morning” (2006)---and I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting.

“Frozen River,” the feature debut for writer-director Courtney Hunt, stands with any of those pictures and features a brilliant, unflinching portrayal of a struggling mother by Melissa Leo, best known as one of the detectives on the 1990s TV show “Homicide: Life in the Streets” and for her wrenching performance as an reformed addict’s wife in “21 Grams” (2003).

In this new film, she’s also the wife of an addict----he’s a gambler who has just split with the family’s savings as the film opens----just barely able to put food on the table let along make the payment on the double-wide trailer they’ve ordered. Leo’s co-star in this film is the bleak, snow-blanketed New York-Canadian border town, adjacent to the Mohawk Indian Reservation, where she lives. Unlike the typical Hollywood depiction of Eastern winter as a beautiful, storybook setting ringing with holiday cheer, “Frozen Winter” presents the weather as yet another burden. I know first hand the depressing, even oppressive effect those seemingly endless winters can have on someone.

Leo’s Ray falls in with a feisty Mohawk woman (an imposing Misty Upham) of few words who occasionally smuggles illegals across the border, using the protection of the reservation as her safeguard against the federal agents. It’s the frozen St. Lawrence River that they must drive over that gives the film its title and also a metaphor for the fragile circumstances of these women’s lives.

Looking older than her 47 years, Leo digs deep into this uneducated, frustrated but determined woman, giving a glimpse at the difficulties faced by millions of families that most of American would rather forget about.

RECOUNT (2008)
As frustrating and embarrassing as it was to watch and read about the recount battle in Florida in the days following the 2000 president election, seeing it dramatized in this HBO movie can’t help but make you mad. At the time, I was steamed that Al Gore (the candidate I voted for) was getting screwed out of Florida’s electoral votes. Eight years later, the results are history, water under the bridge; what this movie shows is that after 218 years of elections, this country is just making it up as we go along. If this happened in a Third World country, we’d be lamenting their laughable version of democracy.

What’s clear from “Recount,” a mix of fictional dialogue and documented events, is that George W. Bush won the election because his party’s lawyers were smarter and more politically savvy than the Democrats. The GOP, lead by James Baker, understood right from the start that it wasn’t about who had the most votes but who was the best at playing cutthroat politics. Meanwhile, Warren Christopher, representing Gore, was talking about finding a “fair” solution to the standoff.

Kevin Spacey portrays Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Gore who had a falling out with the Vice President and then later returned to his team for the campaign. He leads the charge when the vote is so close that state law mandates a recount. It’s one of Spacey’s best performances in recent years as he butts heads with the overly deliberate Christopher (John Hurt) while trying to push for a full recount. As determined as Klain is, he can’t match the legal acumen and political ruthlessness of Baker, superbly portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. One of his best moments comes when he urges the lawyers to work toward moving the case to the federal courts because he sees the Supreme Court as favorable to Bush. These GOP loyalists who never stop preaching about states’ rights are aghast; this is clearly a state issue. Brady dismisses the party line; telling them to forget about GOP beliefs and concentrate on winning.

Also memorable is Laura Dern as the buffoonish Katherine Harris, Florida’s clueless secretary of state, who saw the fight as an excellent way to raise her political profile. Dern captures the arrogance and self-serving mentality we’ve come to expect from incompetent office holders.

While the sympathies of director Jay Roach (who replaced an ill Sydney Pollack) and screenwriter Danny Strong, are clearly with the Democrats, the manipulation of the system by both parties (not to mention what Florida officials did before the election) that is at the heart of “Recount” should upset anyone who still thinks every vote counts in this country.

I’ve always believed that a film should not be judged on how faithfully it translates its source. Just because a movie shares a title with a novel (or, on the other end of the spectrum, a television show) doesn’t mean the filmmakers are obligated to replicate every plot turn or characterization. Yet, I have to admit, my jaw dropped while watching this new version of Evelyn Waugh’s masterful novel when a love triangle is created when none existed in the book, changing the relationships and motivations of all the characters. Those who love the 1945 novel or the 1981 miniseries, which starred Jeremy Irons, may want to avoid this “Brideshead.”

But for everyone else this is a pretty good film. I gritted my teeth and did my best to watch it with fresh eyes and I must admit the plot changes worked, replacing the subtlety of the written word with an easier to follow path typical of mainstream movies.

Mostly set between the world wars, the story is told by Charles Ryder, a naïve, middle-class Oxford freshman, who becomes fast friends with flamboyant, hard-drinking and very wealthy Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son of a titled family. While Sebastian, whose sexuality remains cloudy, falls for his new friend, Charles, whose passion is painting, falls in love with Sebastian’s home, an ornate, countryside castle called “Brideshead.”

While it’s Charles story, Sebastian is the center of everything in both the book and the superb TV version, yet here he’s marginalized as the emphasis shifts to Charles relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia and mother, Lady Marchmain. It doesn’t help that Ben Whishaw, playing Sebastian, never seems to have a firm grasp on his character. He never becomes the kind of incorrigible rouge you can’t help care about.

Matthew Goode, who was excellent in Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” gives a thoughtful, well measured performances as Charles as he struggles to find something to give meaning to his life, while Emma Thompson brings a stern, unbending presence to Lady Marchmain, whose devotion to the Catholic Church affects everyone under her influence. Also doing good work are Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain and Hayley Atwell (“Cassandra’s Dream”) as Julia.

While I believe this would have been a better film had director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Andrew Davies (a “Masterpiece Theatre” veteran) and Jeremy Brock stuck to Waugh’s plot, “Brideshead” is worth a look, if only because it’s the rare movie that explores the conflict between faith and earthly happiness.

THE FAN (1996)
This bizarre, cartoon-like thriller stars Robert De Niro as a very angry man obsessed with the newest member of the San Francisco Giant baseball team. Imagine De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin (“King of Comedy”) combined with his Max Cady (“Cape Fear”) and you’ll get an idea of how out-of-control his performance as Gil Renard, a knife salesman (luckily, he isn’t a gun dealer) who loses his job and then loses what little mental stability he possessed.

Wesley Snipes plays the Barry Bonds-like (at half the size), self-obsessed superstar who is convinced that he can’t break out of his batting slump because he’s not wearing his lucky No. 11. The equally showboating Juan Primo (an underused Benicio Del Toro) won’t give up the number and once Gil finds out, he takes matters into his own hands.

The most ridiculous aspect of this misguided picture is the way Gil has access to the players’ area of the ballpark. He seems to go wherever he wants without anyone noticing and, on top of that, manages to get Snipes’ Bobby Rayburn to come to the phone during the game. Before you know it, he’s checking out Bobby’s home closet.

Ellen Barkin, trying to keep up with De Niro and Snipes, is irritatingly obnoxious as a sports radio host in a role that adds nothing to the film. Future star Jack Black has about 5 seconds of screen time as an engineer on Barkin’s radio show.

Despite his experience on the diamond, as Willie Mays Hayes in “Major League,” Snipes is still completely unconvincing as a baseball player. Equally unbelievable was the skinny, 30-year-old De Niro in “Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), but at least that was a movie about real people facing real tragedies.

IN BRUGES (2008)
When two Irish hit men are sent to Bruges, Belgium, to cool their heels after a blotched killing, they are told to lay low and wait for instructions. But Ray (a superb Colin Farrell) finds the quaint, touristy, medieval town pure hell and before his more sensible partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) can stop him, he’s involved in all sorts of trouble.

Falling for a local woman he spots working on a movie set, Ray ends up slugging a tourist in a restaurant, embarrassing the girl’s boyfriend, stealing their drugs and partying with a dwarf actor.

What makes this movie so appealing are these two fascinating killers. The younger, dumber Ray, haunted by his accidental shooting of a boy during a hit, is naïve, fun-loving but faces bouts of deep depression. The pragmatic Ken finds himself both frustrated and protective of his colleague as he falls in love with the beauty of Bruges. And their boss (a tightly wired Ralph Fiennes), who makes a late, but memorable appearance, is as odd a mobster as you’re likely to see.

“In Bruges” writer-director Martin McDonagh, whose 2004 short film “Six Shooter” won an Oscar, has made both a complex character study and a bloody thriller, reminiscent of the superb 1999 British crime film, “Croupier.”


       Part “Masterpiece Theater,” part teen sex melodrama, this telling of the ill-conceived union between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is a glossy, overheated entertainment that’s also completely forgettable.

In this version, based on Philippa Gregory’s best selling novel, Anne is offered up to the unhappily married king as a possible mistress by her repulsively ambitious father and uncle. But when Henry instead falls for the sweeter, more sensitive (and, if anyone cares, married) sister Mary, the father and uncle change plans and arrange for her to bed the king. It’s an understatement to say that Anne doesn’t take rejection well.

Natalie Portman seems an unlikely choice to play the manipulative, heartless Anne and never does succeed in being the bitch she needs to be. In contrast, Scarlett Johansson’s Mary, a caring, humble unpretentious beauty, falls right into the actress’ strength and she’s the best thing in the picture. Eric Bana is a smoldering love interest, but thoroughly unimpressive as the legendary king.

The soap opera-like movie gets a bit of a spark from “The Queen” scripter Peter Morgan’s dialogue, but British TV helmer Justin Chadwick’s direction is mostly by the numbers, never getting into the muddy truth of this dark tragedy.

TELL NO ONE (2008)
There’s a special art to constructing a movie that keeps the viewer in a constant state of confusion. Most importantly, the film needs a protagonist who the audience will stay with no matter how many stupid or illogical decisions he makes. The script also needs to provide good reasons as to why characters around the protagonist are withholding information. And, when the details are finally revealed, they can’t be so outrageous that the audience groans in disappointment.

The French-language film “Tell No One” succeeds on all three counts as it sends Alexandre Beck (sad-faced French star Francois Cluzet, best known in the U.S. as Dexter Gordon’s buddy in “’Round Midnight”), a pediatrician whose wife was murdered eight years ago, head first into a chase that he doesn’t really understand. He believes he’s receiving e-mails from his deceased wife at the same time the police (for very good reasons) have taken a renewed interest in him as a suspect in the murder.

There are plenty of suspicious characters hovering about and an unlikely ally: a rather brutish, low-life criminal who helps out Beck because the doctor had been kind to his sick child. Director Guillaume Canet, one of the country’s biggest movie stars (here he plays an arrogant playboy) behind the camera for just his second feature, does a top-notch job of keeping the action moving and the suspense at a high level. He clearly has a way with actors, getting first-rate performances from the entire cast, especially Cluzet as Beck and the multi-lingual Kristin Scott Thomas, playing the lover of Beck’s sister who never wavers in her support of him.

The one weak aspect of the script----by Philippe Lefebvre and the director from an American novel by Harlan Coben-----happens near the end of the film when too much of the plot is explained in one sitting. Having the secrets revealed in bits and pieces or, at least, in a more dramatic situation, would have made the revelations feel as shocking as they are to Beck.