Monday, September 29, 2008
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (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.
FROZEN RIVER (2008)
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.
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.
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (2008)
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.”
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (2008)
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.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The central problem with the first series of “Batman” movies (1989-97)----beyond the constant recasting of the role of Bruce Wayne----was the filmmakers’ obsession with making the villains more outrageous with every film. Each successive film added more tents to the carnival freak show, slowly marginalizing the superhero star.
Recharged and retooled in a more serious mode, “Batman Begins” (2005) was maybe the best film ever made from a comic book, exploring the evolution of Wayne to Batman as it focused on the psychological burden weighing on Wayne as he cleaned up Gotham City. This was a wrenching, character-driven drama (featuring an excellent performance by Christian Bale as Batman) that also found time to be one of the best action-thrillers of recent years. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan, fresh from his art-house success of “Memento” (2000), turned a lackluster franchise into quality cinema.
Now, with all the money in the world and total control, Nolan has created exactly what Hollywood loves: a shapeless, bloated, over-the-top jumble of mayhem in which motivations and character development are kept to a minimum and the villain is out-of-this-world nuts. It’s almost as if the Joker, not Nolan, directed the film.
Much has been written about the frighteningly twisted portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” but I wonder how much of this reaction is connected with knowing that Joker actor Heath Ledger died not long after completing the film. While Ledger has his moments, overall, it’s a performance in bad need of direction. Sounding oddly like Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, Ledger’s Joker is more than just a psychotic, he’s an all-knowing, fearless crime boss who seems to control everything that happens in the city, with the ability to trick both fiendish thugs and the city’s best and brightest. And he knows exactly what Batman will do before even Batman knows.
The overly detailed plot involves Batman and his trusted man on the inside, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) deciding to let the city’s popular district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), in on their plan to crush the mobs running Gotham. Complicating matters, but only slightly, is the fact that Dent is dating Bruce Wayne’s old flame Rachel (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). But it’s all for not because it takes the Joker about 10 minutes to take over the city’s organized crime and turn Batman’s life from bad to worse.
The script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, does little beyond moving the plot forward toward its next vehicle chase. There are at least a half-dozen subplots that needed to be cut; it plays like every idea the brothers came up with was thrown into the picture, including more “endings” than I could count.
The acting, so good in “Batman Begins,” is hard to watch in the new film. Beyond Ledger’s mannered, irritating Joker are lifeless performances by Eckhart, Oldman and the usually brilliant Gyllenhaal. As Wayne ’s support team, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are given little to do or say. Bale also has a less interesting role in this film as Batman continues to struggle with his role as a superhero. The most interesting idea in the film (stolen, I believe, from “Superman”) is how the public comes to see Batman as a menace rather than a blessing. But like everything else in “The Dark Knight,” it gets pushed aside by something less interesting and more explosive.
THE CRY BABY KILLER (1958)
and THE BUCKET LIST (2007)
Within a week, I saw Jack Nicholson’s first film performance and his most recent. Both movies are rather forgettable and Nicholson’s performances give little clue to the great career he had between, but it was fascinating seeing a razor-thin 20-year-old neophyte turn into a hefty, confident 70-year-old legend.
After a few years of making television appearances and studying acting with Jeff Corey, Nicholson was cast as a teen who panics after shooting a boy during a tussle over a girl. The actor has little to do in the Roger Corman production, which plays out like an episode of a TV series. He manages to look confused and frantic after he holes up in the storeroom of a restaurant, holding the custodian and a woman and her newborn at gunpoint. Most of the movie involves the police interviewing witnesses and relatives of both boys and trying to convinced Nicholson’s Jimmy to give himself up. I doubt that anyone who saw “The Cry Baby Killer,” shot in the fall of 1957 and released the next summer, thought that Nicholson would ever be heard of again.
He showed more potential, and a peek at his crazy persona, as the masochistic dental patient in “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960) and then gave his first legitimate lead performance that same year in “The Wild Ride.” A D-level “Rebel Without a Cause,” the movie follows the adventures of a group of “troubled youths” led by Nicholson’s cocky Johnny. When his best buddy turns out to be a nice guy, influenced by his new girlfriend, Johnny takes it personally (I think you had to be a ‘50s teen to understand the motivations), reacting like a spoiled child. Nicholson makes no attempt to make this character likeable; it’s an excellent portrayal of an angry youth who expresses his frustrations through violence.
The most important result of “The Wild Ride” was Nicholson meeting Monte Hellman, one of Corman’s production assistants on the film. They became fast friends and writing partners, working together on two 1964 war films set in the Philippines, “Back Door to Hell” and “Flight to Fury” and the atmospheric Westerns “Ride the Whirlwind” (1965) and “The Shooting” (1967).
While his role in “Easy Rider” (1969) was his official breakthrough, earning an Oscar nomination, the actor was just as good two years earlier in a very similar role in “Hell’s Angels on Wheels.” Walking away from a job at a gas station, Nicholson’s Poet joins the motorcycle gang as they cruise up the coast. While they eventually accept him as part of their group, despite his sensitivity, it’s always a tentative relationship. Nicholson offers a very subtle, mature performance as a young man struggling to establish his identity.
Three Oscars and 12 nominations later, Nicholson is still a major star and occasionally delivers superb performances, but “The Bucket List” is nothing more than a high-concept package for the masses (and it did well at the box office.) Nicholson plays the arrogant owner of a company that runs hospitals who lands in the same hospital room as a humble car mechanic played by Morgan Freeman. Both have been given little time to live and before you can say, hey what’s that crazy look in Jack’s eyes, the pair set out on a world tour to see and do everything they’ve dreamed of.
The movie, directed by veteran hack Rob Reiner, is enjoyable when these two great actors are getting to know each other across the hospital room. But the rest of the film is just a collection of clichés and stereotypes----lonely rich man; a smarmy assistant; loving African-American family; endless old guy jokes---unworthy of both Nicholson and Freeman.
Every year, there’s an animated film that everyone goes nuts over and most of the time it’s a Pixar creation. Last year it was “Ratatouille,” preceded by “Cars” (2006) “The Incredibles” (2004), “Finding Nemo” (2003) and “Toy Story” (1995). It’s a record that matches the great years of Disney as judged by popularity and ambition but certainly not in terms of art.
This year, Pixar’s computer creation is a sci-fi tale set on Earth after humans have deserted the now-unlivable planet. Left behind are a robot-like garbage compactor and his friend, an enduring roach. Wall-E is a robot with a heart, who has a vast collection of odds and ends saved from the trash back at his living quarters, including a videotape of the 1969 musical film “Hello, Dolly!”
The set-up and first 20 minutes of the movie made me think I was watching a classic: The stark, grotesque landscape of a planet destroyed and then abandoned; a machine, on autopilot, condemned to clean up their mess for eternity; his lovingly preserved collection of the artifacts from that long-gone society. Then, like every other movie desperately seeking a large slice of box office bucks, it becomes a high-spirited adventure as our heroes (Wall-E is joined by a space colony probe named Eve) attempt to “save” the world.
While I appreciated the sarcastic commentary on the wasteful, indulgent, pampered lifestyle of Americans, I quickly lost interest in this pair of robotic romantics as they are chased through the mall-like space station by a security force made up of their fellow robots. The pampered humans, without much brainpower after seven hundred years away from Earth, are just bystanders as their fate is determined.
I’m probably being too hard on “WALL-E” because I thought it could have been so much more. And I’d recommend seeing the film if only to catch the 10-minute cartoon shown before the feature. “Presto” is a masterful piece of animation, as a very hungry magician’s rabbit (he clearly must be the grandson of Bugs Bunny) turns the tables on the magician with a pair of magical hats. It was reminiscent of those incredibly fast-paced Chuck Jones classics in which five great gags are pulled off in a matter of seconds. Don’t miss it.
There’s plenty to enjoy in writer-director John Sayles’ latest film, set in a poor, Southern black community in the 1950s, but it’s ultimately done in by its predictable, cliché-filled story. Not only does the plot play out exactly as you expect, but Sayles’ usually sharp dialogue falls into the trap of turning everything said by the uneducated poor into a wise parable. Hollywood has long used this crutch in an attempt to offer a positive portrayal of minorities; it’s as if everything they say comes from a book of famous quotes, meant to be carved in granite and placed in the town square.
The story of “Honeydripper” centers around a blues roadhouse of the same name run by one-time pianist Pinetop Purvis (Danny Glover) and his plan to bring a famous blues performer named Guitar Sam to the club. Predictably, it’s Pinetop’s last chance to save the club and, of course, nothing goes as planned. The biggest hole in the film is how Pinetop expects to keep paying the bills after this one-night gig by Sam.
Typically of a Sayles film, there are many other story lines going on---including Pinetop’s wife struggle with her faith, a young musician (Gary Clark Jr.) passing through town who has eyes for Pinetop’s step-daughter, and a corrupt sheriff (Stacy Keach) who helps keep a form of slavery going strong nearly a century after Emancipation. There’s also a philosophical blind guitar player (it’s as if Sayles didn’t want to leave out a single cliché of the poor South) played by blues musician Keb’ Mo’.
The sense of community, the unbridled racism of the 1950s and the way music can make one forget a troubled life are nicely captured by the director, but he needed to spend a little time on coming up with a story we hadn’t seen and heard dozens of times.
Sayles has always put more emphasis on character than story, but in recent years----“Casa de los babies” (2003) and “ Silver City ” (2004)----his stories have been so flimsy that it was hard to maintain interested in the film’s people. At his best, in “Matewan” (1987), “City of Hope ” (1991), “Lone Star” (1996) and “Limbo” (1999), the writer-director melds original characters, offbeat locales and simple, truthful stories that make a typical Hollywood film look like a cartoon.
THE KITE RUNNER (2007)
This movie doesn’t do a very good job of integrating its two very different parts. The first, more successful, section tells a poignant, if shopworn, tale of a fractured childhood friendship; the second is a hard-to-believe adventure in which the now-grown child attempts to redeem himself.
Set in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan in the late 1970s, on the cusp of the Soviet invasion, Amir is a privileged child, raised by his secular father, whose best friend is Hassan, the son of the family servant. They bond over their love of kite flying (a competitive activity in Afghanistan) but are clearly on different paths. Amir (played by Zekiria Ebrahimi) is a born storyteller but unprepared for the tough life of the streets, while Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmodzada) stands up to the bullies and puts loyalty to his friend above all else. Both young actors create endearing, memorable characters.
In a plot turn very similar to what happens in the French film “Caché” (2005), Amir abandons his friend at a crucial moment and then tells a lie that leads to Hassan and his father leaving the household. Not long after, Amir and his father leave the troubled country for America. (The script by David Benioff comes from a novel by Khaled Hosseini.)
Director Marc Forster, who quickly became an A-list filmmaker after the back-to-back successes of “Monster’s Ball” (2001) and “Finding Neverland” (2004), loses his focus once Amir is an adult. While passivity in a child is interesting, it becomes dull and irritating once he grows up and feels more like a plot contrivance. On the day that Amir (now played by Khalid Abdalla) receives the first copies of his novel based on his childhood in Afghanistan, a relative he hasn’t heard from in years calls to ask him to visit him in Pakistan. What follows is a guilt-ridden man’s fantasy redemption.
Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer turn kite flying (I’m guessing with the aid of special effects) into an exciting event, but fail to pump any energy into Amir daring return to his homeland.
THAT KIND OF WOMAN (1959)
Sophia Loren, other than her Oscar-winning performance in “Two Women” (1961), had a rather undistinguished film career, but she has remained a beloved international star for over 50 years. The combination of her exotic, high-class beauty and the publicity machine of her powerful producer/husband Carlo Ponti turned her into a more serious Marilyn; an enduring sex symbol whose fame seems beyond mere measures of good or bad movies.
Loren gives a good performance in his clichéd wartime romance, playing a kept woman who falls for a fresh-faced, romantic soldier (an overmatched Tab Hunter) during a train ride from Florida to New York. There isn’t much to the picture ---director Sidney Lumet’s third film----as it follows the on-again, off-again romance and finds just the right angle to display Loren’s glowing beauty. Jack Warden, who, starting with “12 Angry Men,” appeared in five Lumet films, gives the movie’s best performance as Hunter’s fun-loving buddy who hooks up with Loren’s friend (Barbara Nichols) but isn’t much interested in “love.” He also has the film’s best line when he and Hunter follow Loren into a fancy New York restaurant: “Now I know what we’ve been fighting for….eight dollars for a lamb chop!”
George Sanders (who else?) is the smooth-talking millionaire who keeps Loren on a leash with extravagant gifts, but, when it comes down to it, shows he has deeper feelings for her.
Lumet puts his stamp on the film by shooting it on location in New York City, but we’ve seen this story too often---a woman must choose between love and money----so “That Kind of Woman” ends up being yet another forgettable vehicle for Loren.
MONGOL (2008) One of the nominees for the 2007 foreign-film Oscar (losing to the German film “The Counterfeiters”), this Russian movie chronicles the events that transformed Temudgin, a rebellious 12th Century Mongol into the infamous warrior leader Genghis Khan. While it’s light years better than the embarrassing 1956 John Wayne vehicle “The Conqueror” (1956), “Mongol” never gets out of first gear, plodding along as it tells a story that should be an exciting, thrilling history lesson.
Director Sergei Bodrov succeeds in showing the motivations and philosophy of Temudgin, humanizing him through his unfailing devotion to the bride he took at age 9. Tadanobu Asano, a stoic Japanese actor, convincingly turns a legend into a man, yet too much of the story is either repetitive or unexplained. Especially baffling is why Temudgin’s enemies continue to capture him but let him live. These tribal warriors seem more than willing to butcher women and children, but not their most hated rival.
In one of the most unconvincing plot turns, Temudgin is sold to a slave owner, who locks him up for no good reason. And then, with the help of his ever-faithful wife, he escapes with all the difficulty of checking out of a vacation resort.
The appropriately bloody battlefield scenes, and the stark landscape of Mongolia, are the highlights of “Mongol,” but they can’t save what turns out to be less-than-compelling character study.
ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED (2008)
Shown originally on HBO and now in theaters, this compelling documentary details the legal proceedings that followed a 13-year-old Los Angeles girl accusing the Polish director of rape.
Most people know the basic facts of the case, which ended when Polanski, a day before he was to be sentenced in February 1978, took a one-way flight to Paris and hasn’t return to America in 30 years. The focus of this film are the legal games played by Santa Monica Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, the now-deceased jurist who presided over the case. Mixed in with TV footage from 1977-78 are extensive interviews with the prosecutor from the district attorney’s office, Roger Gunson, and Polanski’s lawyer, Douglas Dalton.
In addition to a judge more interested in public opinion than justice, Polanski also faced a media that still harbored suspicions about his “blame” for the death of his wife, Sharon Tate, in the infamous “Helter Skelter” murders.
The documentary, directed by Marina Zenovich, plays it right down the middle in its judgment of Polanski; it’s more interested in the manipulations of the legal system by publicity-hound Rittenband. Even Polanski never argued about his guilt: he pleaded to “unlawful sexual intercourse” and served 42 days locked up in Chino Men’s Prison for psychological evaluation. What the film most clearly illustrates is that celebrity justice----as we’ve seen recently with O.J., Michael Jackson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector----has always been played by different, and very questionable, rules.
IRON MAN (2008)
I’ve wasted way too many hours in the past decade watching brainless comic book-based movies. So, despite the good reviews, I went into “Iron Man” reluctantly.
Turns out that actor turned director Jon Favreau, who had a hit with “Elf,” not only provides the required over-the-top special effects and snarling bad guys, but also spent some time making sure he had an interesting script (from a quartet of writers) with complex characters. And because the script is a step up from your typical action picture, the director was able to attract an impressive cast, led by the brainiest of superheroes, Robert Downey Jr.
Downey plays Tony Stark, the CEO of a hot arms manufacturer, who, after taking over the company after his father’s death, has become one of the world’s leading playboys. On a trip to Afghanistan to show off the firm’s latest rocketry, he’s captured by a group of terrorists and told to create a rocket under threat of death. Instead, he creates the suit/weapon that transforms this engineering genius into a killing machine.
Back home, Tony’s newfound social conscious doesn’t play well in the board room, led by his father’s old partner, played by Jeff Bridges, who with his head shaved looks more menacing that he ever has. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Tony’s devoted assistant Pepper Potts and Terrence Howard plays an Air Force colonel who advises the company. Four Oscar nominees in one comic-book film----not bad.
While the creation of Stark’s Iron Man outfit is entertaining and fascinating, the plot quickly becomes predictable, leading to the kind of overblown finale I’d expect to see in “Spiderman” or “The Hulk.” Yet, overall, “Iron Man” doesn’t play down to its audience, showing, as “Batman Begins” (2005) did, that fantasy heroics don’t necessarily have to be attached to a dumb script.
THE WALKER (2007)
Paul Schrader’s scripts have been the foundation of some of the most compelling and adventurous films of the last thirty years, including “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” “American Gigolo” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” And while “The Walker” falls well short of those films, it’s a crackling social commentary on Beltway politics that manages to amuse at the same time as it sticks daggers in the (unnamed) Bush Administration.
The writer-director took a chance by casting Woody Harrelson as the son and grandson of Virginia political legends who has found a place for himself in Washington as the center of a gossip circle that includes the wives of some of the country’s most powerful men. Harrelson’s Carter Page III is a gay Southern gentleman, with perfect manners, impeccable tastes, an unmatched knowledge of politics and a nose for dirt.
But when he finds himself in the middle of an untidy mess----his best gal pal (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of the Senate majority leader discovers the dead body of her lobbyist lover----he finds that his perfectly ordered life is built on very shaky ground.
Harrelson’s thick Southern accent takes a bit getting used to but he digs pretty deep into this character (aided by Schrader’s excellent script) and ends up giving a very good performance, probably his best since he played Larry Flynt. The highlights of “The Walker” (which refers to his role as an escort to married women) are the scenes between Carter and Natalie Van Miter, the grand dame of his group beautifully played by 83-year-old Lauren Bacall. She’s a tough old bird who isn’t afraid to let Carter know where he stands.
Ned Beatty, as power broker Jack Delorean, has a great scene near the end in which he channels Dick Cheney while he schools Carter in the ugly realities of Washington.
The film got lost in the quagmire of high-profile releases in December (this would have been a perfect March 2008 release, in the midst of primary season) but deserved a better fate. Schrader’s deliberately paced, studious story and eloquent script finds the perfect balance of murder plot and character study. This is the rare film in which the lead character can offhandedly lament, “I have had some illusions shattered... I thought we weren't an aggressor nation. I thought there was a separation between church and state. Hell, I even thought that the people elected the president” without sounding like he’s mouthing the words of the writer.
“The Walker” never stops talking about politics (reflecting the city where it’s set) but it also never stops being about real people.
MAN OF THE YEAR (2006)
This odd mix of political potboiler and satire is a lightweight cartoon when compared to “The Walker,” but a top-flight cast and a paperback novel-like melodrama hold it together.
Robin Williams is unusually stiff as popular TV talk show host/comic Tom Dobbs, who, clowning around on his show one night, suggests that he should run for president. The stunt turns serious and he’s soon campaigning across the country, encouraged (thought it’s unclear why) by his longtime manager, played by the scene-stealing Christopher Walken.
The plot turns crazy after the election when an employee (Laura Linney) of the electronic voting company that ran the election starts to question the results. She seeks out Dobbs and, in an unnecessary twist, they quickly hit it off romantically. Meanwhile, she’s dodging bad guys sent by her employer. It’s about as believable as a candidate’s campaign pledge, but works as dumb fun. Linney and Walken can make any character compelling and they do it again here, keeping the story moving while Williams stands around looking out of place.
Writer-director Barry Levinson, who hasn’t had a critical success since “Wag the Dog” (1997), a much sharper political satire, never really figures out what kind of movie he’s making: a Robin Williams yuk-fast or a D.C. thriller. Instead, it ends up being an occasionally interesting failure.
ROMAN DE GARE (2008)
This intriguing French film about confused identities and the power of deception never quite gels into the highbrow mystery it aspires to be. But the pieces are so interesting that it makes the ride worth taking.
When you see Pierre, played by veteran French actor Dominique Pinon, offer to give a ride to Huguette, a woman ditched at a service station by her fiancée, the narrative has already hinted that he may be an escaped pedophile, an unhappy husband on the run or someone completely different. Either way, he’s very suspicious, especially after he claims to be the ghostwriter for a popular novelist.
But the unsteady Huguette (wonderfully played by Audrey Dana) trusts him enough to ask him to pose as her fiancée for a visit to her farmer parents and her teenage daughter.
Veteran director Claude Lelouch, best know for the popular love story “A Man and a Woman” (1966), starts to lose his grip on the story when Pierre leaves Huguette and her warmhearted family and joins his employer, the famous writer played by Fanny Ardant (best known for her work with Francois Truffaut in the early 1980s) on her yacht. He says he has a great idea for a novel: a man pretends to be the fiancée of a woman he picks up at a service station…..well, you get the idea. And, of course, this time he wants credit for himself.
The director and co-writer Pierre Uytterhoeven wrote a very clever half a script, but the second half is in bad need of a rewrite. And what started out as an oddball slice of life turns into a series of convoluted plot twists you’d expect to find in a bad novel.
RUSH HOUR 3 (2007)
The disadvantage of having a couple dozen pay cable channels (I’m still on the introductory package) is that you end up watching badly made, insultingly stupid trash like the third installment of this Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker franchise.
They repeat the same jokes, the same plotline and the same stunts from the first two films, and to top that off, they both get a chance to sing.
What made “Rush Hour 3” particularly jaw dropping for me was the appearance of Roman Polanski, playing a clueless French police chief. Roman Polanski. “Rush Hour 3.” I’m still trying to get my mind around that pairing. It’s like Martin Scorsese showing up on “Dancing With the Stars.”
YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW (1964)
Unlike recent years, the Oscar selections for best foreign-language film during the 1960s mostly turned out to be classics. Among the winners in that decade were an Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), Federico Fellini’s greatest film “8 ½” (1963), the heartbreaking World War II film “The Shop on Main Street” (1965) and one of the most admired Russian films ever made “War and Peace” (1968).
Considering this superb track record, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” has long been on my must-see list, having topped the landmark Japanese film “Women in the Dunes” and the beloved French musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” to win the 1964 Oscar. Despite the presence of Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren and the direction of Vittorio De Sica, this trilogy of short films, with the Italian stars playing different characters in each, is nothing more than occasionally amusing.
The one-joke opening segment is a fable about a couple eking out a living in a small village, unable to pay for the furniture in their house. But a local law prevents the jailing of a pregnant woman, so Mastroianni and Loren make sure she’s with child whenever the police come around each year to make the arrest. It’s very much in the style of De Sica’s postwar neorealism pictures (“The Bicycle Thief,” “Umberto D”), but without the gravity.
In the short middle section, the stars play very different characters. She’s a pompous, wealthy married woman who goes on a drive with a middle-class man (Mastroianni), who she’s just met and seems about to start an affair. This not very subtle assault on the bourgeoisie is completely forgettable.
Loren plays a high-priced prostitute in the last segment, who keeps delaying sex with her most devoted customer (Mastroianni) as she tries to discourage a young man studying for the priesthood from giving it all up for her. There’s much crying and shouting, playing out in the ridiculous way so many sex farces of the era did.
Throughout it all, Loren is at her loveliest and Mastroianni, especially in the final story, is clownishly hilarious as a man at the mercy of this beautiful woman. I guess that was enough for the Oscar voters: more often than not, star power takes the prize over art.
CASSANDRA’S DREAM (2008)
A weaker version of both “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) and “Match Point” (2005), Woody Allen’s latest starts off well enough but sputters to an end, failing to deliver a resolve with even a bit of a punch.
Its film noir plot---brothers in need of quick cash agree to take on an unsavory job----is mostly played out in a surprisingly sunny London and shot (by legendary cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond) and directed without any sense of dread or fear. Even the writing seems thin and repetitive; brothers Terry and Ian say the same thing to each other about a half dozen times and have the same argument at least four different times. There’s barely a twist or turn in this story of life-changing moral choices.
Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor play the brothers who seem to be on their way out of their dull lives. Farrell’s Terry, an obsessive gambler, has a winning streak going at the dog track and at his poker games, while McGregor’s Ian, unhappily working at his father’s restaurant, has met a vivacious, ambitious actress and plans to invest in a hotel project in Los Angeles. But the money that Terry seemed to be swimming in soon turns into a big debt he can’t begin to pay and that’s when they turn to their beloved Uncle Howard.
And, as luck would have it, the uncle shows up unexpectedly in London. But it turns out the reason he’s back in England is because he’s about to face prison if an associate testifies at an upcoming trial. Sure, he’ll bankroll their plans, but he there’s a nasty quid pro quo involved.
Tom Wilkinson, as usual, does a fine job as the less-than-admirable Howard, but the character never comes off a real, in part because so many details are left out. If he’s such a financial star, shouldn’t the news of his impending indictment have been known by the family? And never does he explain, or does anyone wonder, what he did or why he’s been targeted.
Farrell gives a strong performance as Terry, who is very conflicted over the job Howard requires of them, but McGregor’s Ian is another story. While the script wants to portray him as singularly focused on his own needs, he never acts the same way twice. Ian might as well be a different character as he inconsistently deals with his girlfriend, his brother, his parents and Howard. When the central character of your story doesn’t have any real character, you’ve got a problem.
Having said all that, this drama is more engaging that most of the comedies the writer-director has made since the turn of the century, including “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001), “Anything Else” (2003) and “Melinda and Melinda” (2004). And “Cassandra’s Dream” (the name of a boat the brothers buy) features solid acting from most the cast, especially Farrell, John Benfield as the brothers’ worn-out father and newcomer Haley Atwell as Ian’s flirty girlfriend.
Allen has absorbed quite a critical backlash in recent years, yet as recently as the late ‘90s he directed three excellent pictures, “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996), “Deconstructing Harry” (1997) and “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999). Of course, in Hollywood, eight years is a lifetime, even longer if you don’t deliver a hit or an Oscar winner.
Yet, his biggest crime seems to be his productivity----“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” to be released in a few months, a romantic comedy with Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Scarlet Johansson, will be his 9th film since 2000. Only Cate Blanchett works so often.
PIERROT LE FOU (1965) and NOTRE MUSIQUE (2004)
“Breathless,” Jean-Luc Godard’s off-handed homage to American film noir, which managed to look and sound like a documentary (shot on the streets of Paris) while creating pure movie fantasy, made him an instant star in 1960. Forty-eight years later, his first feature remains his best.
In the ‘60s, he became the critics’ darling as virtually every film he made was lauded as a landmark. But like so much of political-themed art, Godard’s work hasn’t aged well. Not helping matters are his attempts to re-invent the conventions of the cinema, with jump-cuts, fantasy scenes stuck in the middle of reality-based sequences, and the de-emphasizing traditional acting.
“Pierrot le Fou,” which generally translates to “Crazy Pete,” is a perfect example of a movie that was once considered a masterpiece and now is a total bore. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the witty, likable star of “Breathless,” plays a well-to-do businessman who runs off with his best friend’s mistress (another Godard regular and his one-time wife, Anna Karina), but what follows is far from a romantic adventure.
Karina’s Marianne turns out to be a former revolutionary who is being pursued by bad guys (the first clue that something is wrong is when a dead body is seen on her bed and a pile of automatic weapons are lying around her apartment) while Belmondo’s Ferdinand (who Marianne insists on calling Pierrot) seems content to ignore all the chaos and read paperback novels.
The highlight of “Pierrot le Fou” is a short appearance by cigar-smoking, gravelly voiced man at a party who introduces himself as such: “My name is Samuel Fuller. I’m an American film director in Paris making an action picture.”
But most of the film comes off as an episode of “The Monkees” with a political agenda. American values, along with wars in Algeria and Vietnam are Godard’s main targets.
Little has changed in 40 years for Godard. His latest feature, “Notre Musique” is another assault on the insanity of war, opening with a 10-minute montage of photos and clips showing horrific scenes of war (part real, part cinema). The main narrative follows various professors and writers (including a filmmaker played by Godard) holding a conference on war and peace and the fate of the world in Sarajevo. As interesting as some of the arguments are, I would have gotten just as much out of an hour of the “Charlie Rose Show.”
The last section of the film turns surreal, with American Indians showing up in Sarajevo and a journalist from the conference contemplating life along a waterfront guarded by Marines.
Godard’s earliest movies dealt with people---after “Breathless” there was “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961) and “My Life to Live” (1962), both starring Karina----but soon characters became stand-ins for big ideas and political stances. And while his devotion to his causes is noble, it’s been an anchor around his filmmaking neck. There are filmmakers all over the world with all manner of political causes who manage to make forceful films about those issues, but Godard would call them sell-outs (as he did Francois Truffaut). Yet, no matter how important your message is, it soon gets lost when it’s stuck in the middle of an unwatchable movie.
EMPIRE FALLS (2005, TV)
There’s plenty to enjoy in this HBO miniseries, adapted from Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a small Maine town, but its constantly changing tone and a very passive lead character keep it from completely succeeding.
In Empire Falls, the plant has closed and the remaining businesses are either owned or under the thumb of the city’s matriarch---all seems hopeless. Ed Harris plays Miles, who runs the dinner and dreams of breaking free of the oppressive town, but for now has his hands full with his teenage daughter (Danielle Panabaker), an ex-wife (Helen Hunt) about to remarry, her overbearing, gym owning fiancée (Dennis Farina), a chummy waitress (Theresa Russell), his mooching, shifty father (Paul Newman), the heartless, controlling city boss (Joanne Woodward), a confrontational deputy (William Fichtner) and the memories of his long-dead mother (Robin Wright Penn). And that’s just the major characters.
The three-hour plus miniseries jumps from screwball comedy to “Mayberry”-like folksiness to life-and-death intensity, shifting from one issue to another without ever finding its focus. If Harris’ Miles had been a more charismatic figure, he might have been able to pull it all together, but he’s mostly a cipher, reacting as trouble comes tumbling at him.
Director Fred Schepisi, who has done some exceptional film work, including “A Cry in the Dark” (1988), “The Russia House” (1990) and “Six Degrees of Separation” (1993), creates some enjoyable set pieces, highlighted by the flashbacks to the affair Miles’ mother had with a mysterious stranger, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. But overall the miniseries never displays the playful vitality of the similarly themed, Russo-penned “Nobody’s Fool” (1994).
Newman, who announced his retirement from acting soon after this performance, is thoroughly entertaining as the grizzled, unshaven, half-nuts old man who does and says whatever comes into his head. His trip to Key West with stolen church funds and a priest with Alzheimer’s in tow could have been a movie on its own. Instead, it’s just another ill-fitting piece to this rambling tale.
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1990)
This is a decidedly minority opinion, but I believe Sydney Pollack, if he had made it his full-time pursuit, would have been a better actor than he was a director. Not that I don’t admire many of his pictures (“Tootsie” is a great film, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Three Days of the Condor” are very good ones) but he was better at assembling casts and coaching actors (12 earned Oscar nominations) than he was in visualizing a story. Pollack, who died a week ago, was a safe, predictable director who rarely took chances; as an actor he stole nearly every scene he was in.
No better evidence of Pollack’s acting nerves is his performances in this Woody Allen film, which failed to get the attention it deserved because its release came on the heels of Allen’s scandalous breakup with Mia Farrow.
Pollack plays Jack, who, with his wife Sally (Judy Davis), tells their best friends (played by Allen and Farrow), in the movies opening scene, that they have mutually agreed to break up.
Pollack’s natural charisma and unaffected line reading contrasts well with Davis’ more frantic, theatrical performance. Pollack is clearly comfortable playing the smart, confident professional (as he does in “Tootsie” and “Michael Clayton”) but here his character is more complex and conflicted as he takes up with a younger woman and then feels the pangs of jealousy when he learns of his wife’s boyfriend. In the crucial sequence of the movie, Jack abuses, both physically and verbally, his young girlfriend after a party, then drives to Sally’s house and confronts her. He’s both scary and pitiful as his pent up frustrations come out as he screams at both women; it’s one of the best portrayals of a middle-age crisis ever put on film.
Pollack made his film acting debut as a Korean War soldier in “War Hunt” (1962), best remembered as the start of Pollack’s long association with Robert Redford, who also played one of the soldiers. It’s a forgettable movie, but Pollack’s performance is the best thing in it. He comes off as the guy with the future in acting, not Redford.
Since 1959, Pollack had been acting on television, but after 1962 he stayed behind the camera until Dustin Hoffman convinced him to take the “Tootsie” role in 1982.
That would have been the perfect time for Pollack to start working regularly as an actor, but instead he waited another ten years before taking a role in Robert Altman’s “The Player.” He worked more often after that, both in films and on television, giving his only bad performance in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” in which he’s required to explain the unexplainable mystery of the film to Tom Cruise’s character. (How many actors can say they worked for Kubrick, Altman and Allen? Believe it or not, Shelley Duvall is the only other one I could find.)
Director Pollack’s best film in years, the documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” in which he chronicles the career of the famed Los Angeles architect and his close friend, succeeds in large part because of Pollack’s on-screen presence. Whether playing himself or a character, he was a welcomed addition to any picture.
He gave yet another memorable performance as the head of Michael Clayton’s law firm, a veteran lawyer uninterested in ethics or truth, just the best interests of the firm. I’d rather remember Pollack for his acting in that film and others than for some of his recent directorial efforts (“Sabrina,” “Random Hearts,” “The Firm”), but in both roles, not to mention his impressive work as a producer, he was one of the most interesting and admired men in Hollywood over the past 40 years.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)
Last month I questioned the point of Martin Scorsese spending his time directing a Rolling Stones concert film. The same question applies here: Do we really want Steven Spielberg directing another “Indiana Jones”? It could be worse, I guess: he could be wasting his time on another “Jurassic Park” sequel (or is that next year?)
Not surprisingly, Spielberg has turned out a roller coaster of an adventure film. A bit more cartoonish and fanciful than the previous three---in part because it is no longer believable that the 65-year-old Harrison Ford is capable of the physical feats his character pulls off---the new “Indy” is still head and shoulders above the comic-book based superhero movies that dominate the usual summer fare.
Ford’s Jones makes a grand entrance when he’s dragged out of the trunk of a car, along with fellow explorer Mac (Ray Winstone), by a gang of Soviet soldiers who’ve taken over a U.S. military base in Nevada.
It turns out that the Commies, led by stern taskmaster Irina Spalko, a cross between Natasha of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and Emma Peel of “The Avengers,” and played curtly by Cate Blanchett (she was also in two trailers for upcoming films shown before the feature), are after a crystal skull supposedly from an ancient alien visitor.
As usual, Indy makes one escape after another in between leading the bad guys right to where the treasures are buried. He’s done more dirty work for the evil doers than any other American, but he always finds a way to thwart the bastards at the last minute.
The return of Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s romantic interest from the first film, spices up the proceedings, as does her son Mutt, played by Shia LaBeouf, a cliché of 50s teen (he’s first seen decked out like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”) who serves as Indy’s comic foil, providing way too many generational jokes.
In the summer of 1981, when Spielberg was 34 and Ford 38, they teamed up to make what is probably the most exciting and witty adventure movie ever made, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That they’re still doing the same thing 27 years later is a bit sad, but it probably speaks more to the state of the industry that encourages rehashing a character and plotlines from a generation ago because it delivers box office gold.
MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES
PROJECT (2007, TV) and SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC (2005)
Often, the best comedy goes right to the edge of being offensive. Both of these comics often go beyond the edge in using ethnic and racial stereotypes to get a laugh, but with very different results.
Don Rickles, at age 82, is one of the legendary stand-ups of our time and has been doing his “insult” act for more than a half a century. A bit newer to this game is Sarah Silverman, a tall, attractive 37-year-old, best known as Jimmy Kimmel’s smarmy girlfriend. The difference between the two is that Rickles picks on audience members with the single purpose of making the rest of us laugh while Silverman attempts to offer social commentary by playing a character who’s seemingly clueless that her observations are offensive. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but for me Rickles remains one of the funniest men alive, a comic whose outdated riffs on blacks, gays, Asians, Jews and Latinos sound nearly nostalgic; especially when compared to Silverman’s act that essentially puts her in the role of a racist as she delivers one offensive riff after another.
“Jesus Is Magic,” the rare stand-up performance documentary to receive theatrical release, comes off as a college student’s idea of cutting-edge humor after watching the last 10 years of “Saturday Night Live” (Silverman wrote for the show in the early ‘90s).
Most of her “humor” revolves around her willingness to talk about graphic sexual matters as if she’s discussing the weather, but she finds the time to joke about the Holocaust, Martin Luther King Jr., AIDS and Jesus. I’d quote something from her act, but that’d be unfair; it all sounds ugly out of context. (And not much better in context.)
More recently, Silverman made a very funny video about having an affair with Matt Damon that was shown on Kimmel’s show, which was then followed by an even funnier video featuring Kimmel and Ben Affleck singing of their romance. For me, Silverman is best in small doses.
John Landis, director of such comedy classics as “Animal House” (1978) and “The Blues Brothers” (1980), served as a production assistant on “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970), an oddball war picture that stars Clint Eastwood and features Don Rickles as Sgt. Crapgame, maybe his best film role. Thirty-seven years later, Rickles agreed to sit for extensive interviews with Landis and allowed him to film his Las Vegas show, which make “Mr. Warmth” an intimate, heartfelt, and, not surprisingly, fawning, look at the man and his long career.
The documentary, not unlike Rickles’ stage show, jumps from one thing to another with little sense of chronology. The comedian tells colorful stories from his years as a struggling performer and his friends and admirers reflect on his impact on their careers.
After serving in World War II, Rickles attempted to make it as an actor (he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft), but instead turned to standup. After working second-rate clubs and strip joints, he scored his big break when he replaced a fired Lenny Bruce at a small New York club called “The Slate Bros.” Soon his put-down humor made the club the place to be, especially after he made fun of Frank Sinatra and his entourage when they showed up.
It wasn’t long that Rickles became a fixture in Las Vegas, playing the lounges before filling in for Johnny Carson one night in the main room at the Sahara. From then on, he was a headliner.
His many appearances on “The Tonight Show,” his work as an actor, his longtime friendship with Bob Newhart and his enduring popularity are well documented by Landis. But it is the live act that is the film’s centerpiece, displaying Rickles’ amazing charisma. He still has the ability to get a laugh with old standbys like “I spoke to the home---you’re going back.” Or by pointing at a Japanese man in the audience and commenting: “I spent three years in the jungle looking for your father.”
Just as I don’t get Silverman, I can’t imagine that many of recent generations have fallen under Rickles’ spell, but for those of us who grew up in the 1950s or ‘60s, “Mr. Warmth” has provided a lifetime of laughs.
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (2007)
In the past 10 years, Francis Coppola has supported his daughter’s directing career, executive produced for actors-turned-directors Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro and tended to his successful winery in the Napa Valley. What this filmmaking legend hasn’t done is direct a motion picture. In fact, since the released of “The Godfather, Part III” in 1990---his last important film----“Youth Without Youth” is just his fourth directorial effort.
This leisurely paced, offbeat story chronicles the very unusual life of 80-year-old professor Dominic Mattel (Tim Roth), who has just moved to Bucharest to complete a book on the origins of language, an impossibly epic project he’d been working on most of his life. One day as he walks in the rain, he’s struck by lightning, leaving him badly burnt and near death. As he heals under the care of a fascinated doctor (Bruno Ganz, the great German actor who struggles here with English), Mattel miraculously has transformed into a man in his thirties.
That’s interesting enough, but he’s also gained incredible intellectual powers, able to absorb the knowledge of a book just by passing it in front of his eyes. By the middle of the film---after he’s escaped the evil clutches of Nazis----he spends his time preparing messages for future generations in a language he’s invented. Even in the hands of a master filmmaker like Coppola, this part of the story is pretty dull.
Things pick up when Dominic meets a young woman who’s the double for the lost love of his youth, but also (believe me, I was lost by now) the reincarnation of a Buddhist goddess. They seem perfect for one another, but it’s not to be.
What starts out as a good idea (Coppola penned it from a story by Romanian Mircea Eliade), evolves into a convoluted, somewhat pointless puzzle book. Roth deserves credit for making an otherworldly character seem real throughout the many phases of his life, but he’s not a compelling enough person to hold this rambling tale together.
Unlike his three previous films---“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), the embarrassing Robin Williams vehicle “Jack” (1996) and the thriller “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” (1997)----“Youth Without Youth” could have been a great film. The film looks great, featuring Coppola’s trademark wide-angle establishing shots and his long takes of perfectly composed set pieces.
This story about a frustrated, creative man who gets a second chance at youth is certainly appealing (especially for Coppola as he nears 70), but the roads it takes turn out to be mostly dead ends. Let’s just hope that if we have to wait another decade for Coppola’s next film it makes more sense than “Youth Without Youth.”
LIONS FOR LAMBS (2007)
Robert Redford has been spending too much time reading liberal blogs. His white paper---I wouldn’t even call it a movie---on the litany of blunders by the Bush administration since 9/11 is presented as a pair of debates intercut with a military operation gone bad. You wouldn’t think a filmmaker as experienced and accomplished as Redford (“Ordinary People,” “Quiz Show”) would need to be told that if you want to make a political statement you don’t do it by shooting a couple of actors in a room (even if they’re Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise) arguing with one another.
Barely a line in this movie sounds as if it was being said by a human being. This is a static, talky polemic that not only is preaching to the choir, but putting the choir to sleep.
Redford plays a political science college professor who gives a sermon on the merits of education in a meeting with a smart, but disillusioned student. Meanwhile, Streep’s TV reporter is spoon-fed a scoop by an ambitious senator (a badly miscast Cruise) about a new military push in Afghanistan, while those maneuvers are in motion on the ground. The Afghan scenes are the closest this film comes to being cinematic, but even in that part of the movie not much happens.
The picture’s most idiotic character is the journalist played by Streep. She comes off at first as a giddy girl reporter taken aback by the attention of a senator and then turns into a political activist who can’t see a great story when it slaps her upside the head. Of course, the film’s caveat is that a major military action would be announced to a reporter, on the record, by a U.S. Senator and not by the administration.
Sadly, “Lions for Lambs” has as much a grasp on reality as the Bush Administration.
THE BACHELOR PARTY (1957)An argument could be made that other than writer-directors Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Woody Allen, the most literate and thoughtfully crafted film dialogue came from the pen of Paddy Chayefsky.
After serving in World War II, the New York native began writing radio and TV plays, culminating with “Marty,” an unassuming romantic tale about two shy, ordinary people who find love. He won an Oscar for the film version of the play. Chayefsky had his most productive period in the late 1950s, writing “The Catered Affair” and “The Bachelor Party” for TV, “Middle of the Night” for the stage and “The Goddess” for the big screen.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, his focus was on stage work, but he still wrote the script for “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), “The Hospital” (1971) and his masterpiece, “Network” (1976), winning Oscars for the last two. He had his name removed from his last script, the sci-fi thriller “Altered States” (1980), which he adapted from his novel. He died of cancer the next year at age 58.
For the film adaptation of “The Bachelor Party,” Chayefsky re-teamed with “Marty” director Delbert Mann. The ups and downs of married life are probed through the musings of five bookkeepers out on the town as they celebrate one of the men’s impending wedding. The movie pulls few punches (especially for 1957) as it addresses the loss of freedom, the fear and consequences of sex, financial and career sacrifices, the temptation of adultery and, ultimately, the importance of being loved.
As is Chayefsky’s way, these issues and my others are explored in one brilliantly written monologue after another as the characters argue with each other and themselves in trying to make sense of their life. When it comes to creating intelligent, perceptive, dramatic and, more often than not, pessimistic speeches (anchored in reality but not exactly realistic), Chayefsky is in the league of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.
Don Murray, who earned an Oscar nomination for “Bus Stop” (1956), his film debut, stars as Charlie, a young married man taking classes after work to improve his lot who has just learned that his wife is pregnant with their first child. His closest friend is Kenneth (Larry Blyden, who was a constant presence on TV until his death in 1975), a soft-spoken, conservative voice as compared to the loud, belligerent and self-styled wild bachelor Eddie (Jack Warden), who sees life as one long party. E.G. Marshall plays the nervous, frustrated middle-aged bookkeeper trying to face uncertainty while Philip Abbott plays the timid bridegroom, the least interesting and weakest acted role.
For all the testosterone of this film, the best performances are given by two women. Carolyn Jones, later famous as Morticia on “The Addams Family,” earned an Oscar nomination for one of those amazing Chayefsky rants, this one about a dispute with her landlord. Playing a very available Greenwich Village hipster, Jones has little more than five minutes of screen time but makes the most of it---rattling off her lines with an uninterested coolness (as Murray puts the moves on her), that sounds nearly exactly like Faye Dunaway’s TV executive 20 years later in “Network.”
An even more impressive performance, in only a slightly longer appearance, comes from Nancy Marchand, who played Marty’s date in the TV version and five decades later portrayed Tony Soprano’s coldhearted mother. Here she’s Murray’s sister who in a scene with her sister-in-law reveals her knowledge of her husband’s affairs and the ways she lives with it. As Chayefsky showed over and over again, great writing usually translates into great acting.
Not surprisingly, after 50 years many of the assumptions and expectations of these characters have badly dated. Yet Chayefsky’s insights into the human heart and the nearly musical resonance of his words are timeless.
THE VISITOR (2008)
Richard Jenkins, an unassuming 61-year-old character actor who has worked steadily in features since the mid-1990s, isn’t your typical leading man, even for an independent film. But writer-director Tom McCarthy isn’t your typical filmmaker either, having cast a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) as the star of his acclaimed first film “The Station Agent” (2003).
McCarthy, also an actor who has had small roles in “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), Syriana (2005) and “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) among many others, went overboard on the quirkiness in “Station Agent,” but, like “The Visitor,” it explored a recluse reluctantly opening up to strangers.
In “The Visitor,” Jenkins plays Walter, a bored college professor living alone in a large Connecticut house, who travels to New York City to present a paper he co-authored (but clearly contributed little to) at a convention. When he arrives at his apartment in the city, he finds an immigrant couple living there. After they pack their bags and leave, Walter has second thoughts and convinces the pair to stay temporarily. It takes awhile, but soon Tarek, the young Syrian man (charmingly played by Haaz Sleiman) draws out this taciturn, emotionally unattached professor and they form a friendship, bonding as Tarek teaches Walter to play the djembe (an African drum). His Senegalese girlfriend (a striking Danai Gurira) never completely warms up to Walter, but eventually she learns to truth him.
This energetic, feel-good film turns serious when Tarek is arrested and sent to a detention center for possible deportation. While McCarthy is clearly making a plea for a more reasonable immigration policy, you don’t necessarily have to share his opinion on immigration to enjoy this film. It’s a simple story of a lonely man who finds meaning for his life in the last place you’d expect.
Jenkins gives a quiet, but confident performance as an extremely smart professor who has withdrawn from any emotional attachment to the world. Walter bears no resemblance to a Hollywood hero; he’s uncomfortably real.
Sleiman is equally excellent as the exuberant Syrian musician who finds himself imprisoned, as is Hiam Abbass as his determined mother who arrives in New York City without a plan but a sense that her son is in trouble.
These characters could have all easily become stereotypes in a heartwarming tale of the American melting pot, but McCarthy and his actors have created very real people whose humanity and sincere emotions are all they have as they face the difficulties of a complicated world. And that’s not something you experience in a motion picture too often.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)
Last year’s 100th anniversaries of the births of film legends John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Laurence Olivier, was marked by numerous critical appreciations and remembrances of their great careers. But hardly noted was the 100th anniversary of James Stewart’s birth in the small Western Pennsylvania town of Indiana on May 20, 1908. In no small part, the greatest strength of Stewart’s acting----his ability to play the regular guy no matter what the role----has kept him from being remembered as a the larger-than-life cinematic icon.
In fact, like few others----Charlie Chaplin, Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson----Stewart's image played a key role in defining what Hollywood movies were all about, creating a film persona that was central to the history of the American cinema. Whether he was a stumbling boy-man who gets the girl, the innocent who brings some sense to the big shots in Washington, a down-on-his-luck businessman trying to understand his life, a disturbed man obsessed with the woman of his dreams, a lawyer demanding the truth under all circumstances or simply a drunk attempting to carve out a little happiness, Stewart brought a big chunk of the American experience to the screen. "Little pieces of time," was how Stewart liked to describe his film contributions.
By 1940, Stewart’s career was in high gear, having earned an Oscar nomination and critical acclaim for his 1939 performance as Jefferson Smith, the idealistic boys' club leader who finds himself in the U.S. Senate in Frank Capra’s "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and then winning the big prize for his role as reporter Mike Conner in the romantic comedy “The Philadelphia Story.”
Despite the Oscar, Stewart's best comic role in 1940 was in Ernst Lubitsch's charming romance "The Shop Around the Corner," co-starring Margaret Sullavan, whom Stewart had known since the early 1930s when they and her then-husband Henry Fonda were members of University Players, a Massachusetts theatrical company.
She had secured him one of his best early roles, as a foreign correspondent-husband in "Next Time We Love." They were husband and wife again in "Shopworn Angel" and in "Mortal Storm" they were German lovers attempting to escape the Nazi regime. But with "The Shop Around the Corner" the pair created a still-unappreciated romantic classic.
Stewart, as an ambitious assistant manager in a Budapest gift shop, has no interest in Sullavan's know-it-all clerk, but it turns out that the pair had been corresponding anonymously for months and both have fallen in love with their unknown pen pal. Under Lubitsch's magical direction, mistaken identities and misplaced trusts are invested with Shakespearean nuance as the pair slowly inch toward each other's arms.
Stewart had a nearly unequaled ability to make dialogue sound as if he’s making it up as he goes along (just like you and I do), never sounding rehearsed or stilted. He’s at his best in the final scene in “Shop Around the Corner” as he fabricates a story about Sullavan’s pen-pal fiancé. He tells the anxious woman that her overweight, out-of-work, unseen boyfriend came to see him and showed interest in her salary. Just as she’s about to burst into tears, Stewart admits that he’s actually her pen pal and he’s fallen in love with both her and her letter-writing persona.
Stewart's warm, witty, unaffected performance makes one wonder how many more gems like this film and "The Philadelphia Story" the actor would have made had he not lost 1942 through 1945 to the war. Serving as a bomber pilot, flying missions over Germany, Stewart left the big screen playing innocent, smooth-faced, boyish men and came back a cynical grownup.
He had contemplated quitting the business and claims he would have had it not been for Capra and "It's a Wonderful Life." He was just 38 but no longer would his characters be young romantics or struggling writers. Post-war Stewart was a professional, a man of experience who knew both the bright and dark side of life. George Bailey was the pivotal role in this transformation.
He never stopped being the Jimmy Stewart movie fans had come to love, but he expanded what that screen persona was all about. In the 1950s, he was the star of both the most interesting series of Westerns ("Winchester '73," "Bend of the River," "The Naked Spur," "The Far Country" and "The Man From Laramie") under Anthony Mann’s direction and a pair of masterful studies of the human psyche, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.” In between, he was Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” the big band leader in “The Glenn Miller Story,” and a country lawyer defending a murder suspect in “Anatomy of a Murder.” Few actors have ever played a more interesting and challenging set of roles over a ten-year period.
Despite his post-war performances, Stewart, who died in 1997, continues to be remembered as the slow-talking, stuttering innocent; either the handsome romantic youth or the wise old man. The conflicted, angry and tough Jimmy, the aspects of his post-war character that made him arguably the greatest screen actor of the century, seems to be forgotten by all except Stewart’s devoted fans.
NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)
In an odd alignment of fate, Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin, the star and director of this underappreciated film noir, died within a week of each other in March.
Widmark was an intense, engaging actor when he worked in crime thrillers in the 1940s and ‘50s, and then continued as a more amiable leading man and character actor into the 1990s. He was 93 when he died.
At his peak----in his startling debut as a wise guy in “Kiss of Death” (1947), as a crooked nightclub owner in “Road House” (1948), as a racist in “No Way Out” (1950), the hustler in “Night and the City” and as the pickpocket in “Pickup on South Street” (1953)----he was as good as anyone in Hollywood in portraying the slimy, amoral criminal who stalked the shadowy alleyways where post-war evil seemed to reside. His piercing eyes and high-pitched laugh distinguished him from countless other noir stars.
Widmark could also be effective as a hero; his best work in that type role was as public health official in Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950) and as a no-nonsense police detective in Don Siegel’s “Madigan” (1968), his last important role. He also played Jim Bowie in John Wayne’s epic “The Alamo” and was a lawyer in “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961).
Dassin was a director on the rise, having made the two realistic crime pictures, “Brute Force” (1947) starring Burt Lancaster and the gritty “The Naked City” (1948) before making “Night and the City,” his best film. The next year his membership in the Communist Party during the 1930s caught up with him as blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk named him before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Blacklisted by Hollywood, he moved to France where he directed the heist picture “Rififi” (1955), which became an international critical favorite, in part because of his exile status. His celebrity level rose again when he married Greek actress and political activist Melina Mercuri, elevating their unwatchable, cloying Greek-language travelogue “Never on Sunday” (1960) into a world-wide box-office hit. Inexplicably, it earned him Oscar nominations for directing and writing.
Dassin returned to Hollywood to make a pleasant, but forgettable caper film “Topkapi” (1964). He died in Greece at age 96.
“Night and the City” appropriately opens at night with Widmark’s Harry Fabian running through the back streets of London to escape a creditor. Fabian ducks into the apartment of his loyal girlfriend (Gene Tierney) and rifles through her purse for cash. Always looking for the angle, gambling with other people’s money and taking advantage of friendships, Harry thinks he’s found a winning ticket when he overhears an argument between Kristo (Herbert Lom), the top wrestling promoter in London, and his father, a legendary Greek wrestler. He partners with the father to promote a more classic style of wrestling much to Kristo displeasure.
Harry’s downfall comes when he puts his trust in the nightclub owner he works for (tricking big-spending tourists into the club), who is backing him in the scheme. The rotund Francis L. Sullivan (the Sidney Greenstreet of the story) gives a memorable performance as the club owner, who believes his wife and Fabian are involved and playing him for a sucker. He ruthlessly takes vengeance.
This dark, brutal picture (the bone-crushing wrestling scenes are hard to watch) hasn’t lost a bit of its impact more than a half-century after its release. Dassin and cinematographer Max Greene make every shot a study in corruption and deceit and Widmark and Sullivan and the rest of the superb cast deliver each of screenwriter Jo Eisinger’s lines as if their life depended on it.
RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958)
I had completely forgotten that Don Rickles has a supporting role in this World War II submarine thriller until I saw a clip of it in a Rickles’ documentary (more on that next month). I’d watched bits and pieces of the film over the years, but never seen it from start to finish. While its theme---a seemingly over-the-hill commander earns the respect of the younger, ambitious officer----is as old as fiction itself, the film’s offers a pair of fine star performances by Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, vying for the loyalty of the crew, and exceptional direction by Robert Wise, capturing the claustrophobic, nerve-racking intensity of sea battles fought from a submarine.
Rickles is quite good as the crew member who serves as the much-needed comic relief after task-master Richardson (Gable) takes over the ship that the crew assumed would be commanded by Bledsoe (Lancaster). Questionable maneuvers by Richardson spur a very unhappy crew to talk of mutiny, as he leads them into the dangerous Bongo Straits, where a Japanese destroy has been knocking out every U.S. sub (including one previous commanded by Richardson) within earshot. Gable, looking older than his 57 years (he would died of a heart attack two years later), remains a dynamic screen presence and dominates every scene he’s in. Lancaster, in the less interesting role, delivers a solid performance as the tough but fair officer.
Despite the star power, this is the director’s movie. Wise, before he became the helmer of overblown Hollywood extravaganzas---“West Side Story” (1961) “The Sound of Music” (1965), “The Hindenburg” (1975)---was one of the best filmmakers of the 1940s and ‘50s. After working with Orson Welles as an editor on “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), Wise made interesting pictures in almost every genre, including “The Body Snatchers” (1945), “Born to Kill” (1946), “Blood on the Moon” (1948), “The Set-Up” (1949), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Executive Suite” (1954) and, even after he started collecting his Oscars, “The Haunting” (1963).
THE HOLIDAY (2006)
The best thing about this plodding, cliché-riddled romantic comedy is a subplot involving Eli Wallach, 91 when the film was released, who plays a long-retired screenwriter living alone in a Beverly Hill mansion. Wallach, who had been acting for 25 years before any of the stars of this film were born (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslett and Jack Black), steals every scene he’s in as his curmudgeonly Arthur Abbott takes a liking to Winslett’s Iris, a Brit who’s spending Christmas in Beverly Hills.
Arthur, a feisty and fascinating tribute to the great screenwriters of the past, schools Iris on the classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Era, tells stories about Louis B. Mayer and trades jokes with his buddies, played by comic Shelley Berman and Bill Macy, of “Maude” fame. It would have been a much better film if the story had been about Wallach and Winslett, a great actress who finds a way to make her character believable despite the wordy, meandering script. Instead, most of the film’s indulgent 138-minutes go back and forth between Diaz’s L.A.-based movie trailer maker and Winslett’s journalist who lives in Surrey, England, who have traded houses for two weeks after traumatic breakups. Immediately, Law, for once playing a sensitive guy, falls for Diaz and Jack Black starts hanging out with Winslett and Wallach. (Black, playing a film composer, does a funny bit in which he sings classic music scores in a video story, but mostly he’s wasted.)
Writer-director Nancy Meyers used a different set of clichés in her 2003 film, “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), but that picture was saved by charismatic performances by Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. In “The Holiday,” she had another old pro on hand in Wallach but she was too interested in the foolishness of young love.
BACHELOR IN PARADISE (1961)
You don’t usually look to a Bob Hope comedy for social commentary, but this simple-minded sex romp set in a planned community in the San Fernando Valley makes a stab at examining the ramifications of suburban living. The silly setup has A.J. Niles (Hope), the author of books about the sex mores of various countries, returning to the U.S. to find that his manager has swindled him and he owes thousands to the IRS. Deciding to focus his newest study on life in the suburbs, he rents a home in “Paradise,” a state-of-the-art housing development that caters to young families.
Even though he hides his true identity, the developer of the community (Don Porter, the dad from “Gidget”) immediately senses trouble because Hope is a “bachelor.” I guess in 1961, a 58-year-old bachelor (Hope age at the time, though he’s playing a decade younger) was seen as a corrupting force. Of course, no one ever suggests that he might be gay---now that would have made for a helluva Bob Hope movie.
Lana Turner, as Porter’s assistant, plays the stereotypical working woman who can’t be seduced while Janis Paige, wearing low-cut dresses in the afternoon, plays Porter’s unhappy wife who throws herself at Hope. Typical of movies from that era, the leading man, no matter how much of a rogue he’s portrayed as, is really an upstanding gentleman who rejects any opportunity for one-night stands. Instead, Hope’s Niles holds afternoon cocktail parties for the neighborhood wives and gives them suggestions on spicing up their marriages.
He becomes especially chummy with the next-door neighbor played by Paula Prentiss, to the point where her husband (Jim Hutton) assumes she’s having an affair with Hope. (Hutton becomes so distraught when his wife dyes her hair that he goes on a drunken bender).
Hope, as usual, delivers his sarcastic commentary as if he’s alone on stage, but his one-liners about cookie-cutter houses, snarled California freeways, humdrum jobs and the sterile atmosphere of this “Paradise” cut out of a side of a hill add some bite to an otherwise dated movie.
Director Jack Arnold, who helmed such sci-fi classics as “It Came from Outer Space” (1953) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), does little more than keep Hope in the middle of the frame and fails miserable to make 40-year-old Turner look the least bit glamorous.
THE COUNTERFEITER (2008)
Just when you thought that every possible story line of the Nazi concentration camps had been tapped, a fresh, memorable and heartbreaking tale makes it to the screen. This German picture, winner of the 2007 best foreign film Oscar, follows a notorious Jewish counterfeiter after he’s sent to the death camps in 1936 and then used by a Nazi commandant to head an elaborate operation to forge both British pounds and American dollars in hopes of damaging the allies’ economy.
Karl Markovics stars as the intense, morally conflicted forger Sally Sorowitsch who takes pride in his work even as he’s helping his oppressors; his philosophy is to do whatever allows him to survive another day. That thinking is challenged by one of his fellow counterfeiters as the pressure to deliver fake dollars increases as the Germans begin losing the war.
One of the strengths of the film is its depiction of the closed society created by the Nazi for the counterfeiter experts. Even as the threat of death hangs over them, they are treated a thousand times better than the rest of the interned Jews. Writer-director Stefen Ruzowitzky is able to show both the horrors of the Holocaust and a group of men who have a choice about their role in these traumatic events.
Markovics, one of the stars of a long running crime show on German TV, is able create a character that is both an everyman caught up in extraordinary circumstances and a sly, ruthless criminal who in many ways fits in well with the Nazis. Matching his performance is August Diehl, one of Germans biggest stars, who plays Burger, a prisoner who questions Sally’s motivations and morality. The film is based on a book by Burger.
I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing when a film shifts back and forth between documentary and mockumentary, but that’s the only way to explain this oddball, straight-to-cable project by Jeff Goldblum.
It feels bogus from the start when the actor announces to his stunned agent that he’s planning to return to his hometown of Pittsburgh to star in a local production of “The Music Man.” Goldblum’s motivation is equally suspect; his latest girlfriend (Catherine Wreford) is a Canadian dancer-singer trying to secure her green card and co-starring in this musical will help her immigration status.
Along the way, Goldblum recruits a pair of Hollywood friends, Ed Begley Jr. (poking fun at his “green” persona) and Illeana Douglas, who, at least in Goldblum’s version of things, was having an affair with rock singer Moby, as co-stars. We also meet Goldblum’s mother and step-father (who looks to be just a few years older than Jeff), but the whole time you’re wondering: are these the real people or actors playing them?
If I hadn’t grown up in a town not far from Pittsburgh, I doubt I would have stayed with this strange vanity project, though the city turns out to be little more than a bit player.
At the heart of the documentary is Goldblum, looking like a fish out of water but ever the trooper, as he rehearses for his role of Harold Hill, struggling to please the group’s less-than-impressed director. While there’s no question that Goldblum, Begley, Douglas and Wreford performed in a Pittsburgh production of “The Music Man,” everything else that happens is up for debate, especially the actor’s persistent agent who keeps telling him what a mistake he’s making. Even Goldblum’s and Wreford’s relationship is hard to buy as they show little chemistry on screen and no effort is made to show her talent or personality (apparently, soon after the play closed they parted ways).
Director Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBranche----better know for their documentary “Fired!” about an actress dumped from the cast of a Woody Allen movie----keep things interesting by never lingering on one scene for very long. And, in a roundabout way, the film does make some good points about how the trappings of stardom limit what an actor can do. But most of “Pittsburgh” is just Jeff Goldblum pulling our legs and having a grand time doing it.
FACTORY GIRL (2006)
Another famous entertainer from Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol, is center stage in this tawdry, gossipy movie about one of his supporting players, model-heiress Edie Sedgwick. As an art student anxious for the glamorous life, Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) heads for New York City and, seemingly, within weeks is part of Warhol’s infamous “Factory,” where the young and beautiful do drugs, make movies, create art, but, most importantly, suck up to Warhol’s fragile ego.
Miller’s Sedgwick lives life as if there’s no tomorrow, full of energy and a sense of adventure, which, for about 15 minutes, makes her a star of the New York social scene. Inevitably, she attracts attention (in the form of a smarmy Hayden Christensen as a Dylan-like pop star), which doesn’t meet with the approval of her mentor and her downward spiral begins.
Just as he was in the more interesting “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996), the pop artist is portrayed as a cruel, self-loathing, insecure dictator who demands 100% loyalty while offering none. An unrecognizable Guy Pearce, the Australian actor best known for playing the good cop in “L.A. Confidential,” is very convincing as this film’s Warhol. Yet I have no idea how close to the truth this portrayal is.
Miller, as beautiful as the real Sedgwick, creates some touching moments as drugs and rejection take their toll on the one-time glamour queen, but the role is such hoary cliché of the spoiled, entitled debutant gone bad that you’re never surprised, or care, about Edie’s fate. Sedgwick’s lasting contribution to pop culture was, reportedly, inspiring the Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” a milestone of the rock era. But in “Factory Girl,” she seems to be nothing more than a star-struck spoiled child.
SHINE A LIGHT (2008)
While not as ambitious as his state-of-the-art concert film “The Last Waltz” (1978) or his definitive documentary of Bob Dylan’s early years, “No Direction Home” (2005), Martin Scorsese’s latest rock entry offers audiences the best seat in the house for an energetic, free-wheeling concert by the amazing Rolling Stones. Scorsese films the performance (a two-night charity gig at New York’s intimate Beacon Theater) as if it’s musical theater, exploring every angle of the stage and capturing the playful interaction between 64-year-old Keith Richards and 60-year-old Ronnie Wood, the stoic professionalism of 66-year-old Charlie Watts and the incredible presence of the razor-thin, charismatic 64-year-old leading man, Mick Jagger. (While writing those ages makes me feel old….watching this performance made me feel young.)
Before the concert, we’re given a glimpse of the “making of” as long-distance negotiations go on between the frantic director and the reluctant star. Jagger seems intent on offering as little cooperation as possible, to the point that Scorsese struggles to even get a set list before the night of the show.
The performance is interspersed with old clips of TV interviews with the Stones, which basically serve as a reminder that these wrinkled old men once were the bad boys of the music world.
If you’re a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, this is first rate entertainment. But other than being the most impressively photographed concert ever (director of photography Robert Richardson along with fellow Oscar-winning cameramen John Toll, Andrew Lesnie and Robert Elswit are among the film’s all-star crew), I did wonder why one of the world’s greatest filmmaker was making concert film, especially of the much-filmed Stones.
Scorsese has always been a rock fanatic and has used the music in his movies as well as anyone (remember Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy walking into the bar as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” blares on the soundtrack of “Mean Streets”?), but wouldn’t I rather see him use his time to create another scorching drama? Or maybe he sees these musical forays as a break from the intensity of fictional filmmaking (among his upcoming projects is a documentary on George Harrison). After all the bloodletting in “The Departed,” he probably needed to film something in which no one dies.
Clearly, the music of the last half of the Twentieth Century has been a major influence on our best filmmakers as they keep paying homage to those artists.
Jonathan Demme, who earlier did the Talking Heads’ concert film “Stop Making Sense,” filmed a Neil Young performance in “Heart of Gold” (2006), Peter Bogdanovich this year chronicled Tom Petty for cable and Rob Marshall (of “Chicago” fame) helmed the 2006 TV special, “Tony Bennett: An American Classic.” Among the directors, Scorsese recruited for his PBS series “The Blues” were Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders and Mike Figgis. And Oscar-nominated Julian Schnabel has directed a Lou Reed concert film expected to be released this year.
While seeing a concert on film can’t come close to the experience of seeing a performer live, it does preserve the performance and offer a glimmer of what made it so unforgettable for those who were there. Scorsese does that superbly in “Shine a Light.”