Friday, September 19, 2008

April 2003

I think I saw a chopped-up version of this follow-up to the first Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, “Fistful of Dollars” (1967) years ago when old movies dominated late-night television. But I never saw it uncut and without commercials until recently when I watched it back-to-back with “Fistful.”

Both are marvelous pieces of filmmaking and well ahead of their time (they were filmed in 1964-65 and released in 1967 in the U.S.) in their presentation of a cold-hearted antihero and ruthless violence. Eastwood doesn’t act much (his “Few Dollars More” co-star, Lee Van Cleef, in a rare good-guy role, gives the best performance in the film) but Clint is the perfect stoic gunslinger and the right fit for Leone’s minimalism.

My one caveat on these two films is the incessantly irritating Ennio Morricone score. Much lauded for his offbeat, distinctive music, I find it weird and diverting. His score works much better in Leone’s masterpiece, “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969). (4/03)

If this was the only Montgomery Clift movie I ever saw, I would be convinced that he was the worst famous actor of all time. In fact, most of his work after his car accident in 1956, which broke his jaw and left him with an addiction to pain killers and a reliance on alcohol, is hard to watch. He seemed to be either in incredible pain or totally stoned. Maybe both. The jaw injury, which required surgeons to rebuild part of his face, left him unable to enunciate his words, turning him into more of a mumbler than before. He also always seemed emaciated; his clothes just hanging on him.

Clift’s most memorable performances during the last part of his career was as a government engineer in “The Wild River” (1960) and on the witness stand as a victim of the Nazis in “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), where the actor’s obvious pain match his character’s.

Before the accident, he was one of the best young actors in American film, working with the best directors in Hollywood. He played John Wayne’s defiant adopted son in Howard Hawks’ “Red River” (1948), the seemingly sincere fortune hunter in William Wyler’s “The Heiress” (1949), the fatally ambitious young man in George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” (1951), and the sensitive soldier in Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity” (1953).

In “Lonelyhearts,” based on the Nathanael West novel “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Clift plays a unemployed writer hired to pen a Dear Abby-type column by the most cynical, bitter editor in the history of journalism, played with teeth-clenching glee by Robert Ryan.

The banter in this film sounds like it was cribbed from a Psychology 101 class. At points, the Clift-Ryan debate over the merits of humanity would fit perfectly into a Monty Python satire.

In her film debut, Maureen Stapleton plays an unhappy wife who lures Clift into her messy life. It’s the standout performance in the film and earned her an Oscar nomination. Also holding her own is Myrna Loy, miscast as Ryan’s scorned wife, who brings some needed kindness to this manly battle royal between Clift and Ryan.

At times, Clift seems to struggle just to keep his head upright and delivers each line as if it is his last. It’s sad to watch. He lived another eight years, making six more films. (4/03)

This is one of the many genuinely creepy horror movies released by Universal during the 1930s, the most famous being the “Frankenstein” pictures, “Dracula” (1931) and “The Invisible Man” (1933). “The Black Cat,” loosely based on a Poe story, is very odd and a bit slow and clunky. But the star pairing of Boris Karloff (billed simply as “KARLOFF”-I guess at the time he was the male equivalent to “GARBO”) and Bela Lugosi is an experience not to be missed.

Lugosi plays a good guy, an Hungarian (which he was) returning to his homeland after a long stay in a prison camp that followed some disastrous Eastern European war. While no time period is hinted at, the film seems to be set in the future. Lugosi and a honeymooning pair of innocents-a Hollywood staple in nearly every horror flick-visit the modernistic home of Karloff, who not only was a traitor during this unnamed war but stole Lugosi’s wife while he was a prisoner.

A battle of wits ensues between these two strange men. Karloff has never looked more menacing (even as Frankenstein’s monster he retained a shade of innocence) and sports a V-cut, Mohawk-like haircut.

Even at just 66 minutes, the film has plenty of dead spots, but by the end, when Lugosi is ready to skin Karloff alive, it lives up to expectations.

Edgar G. Ulmer, most famous for the film noir favorite “Detour” (1945) and a hand-full of other critically lauded B films, directed “The Black Cat.” It was one of his first assignments behind the camera and probably his most high-profile picture in his 34-year career.

Karloff repeated his unforgettable performance as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1935 sequel “Bride of Frankenstein” and then co-starring with Lugosi again in the underrated third edition of the series, “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), in which Lugosi plays the weaselly humpback Igor. Karloff continued to work in film until his death in 1969.

By the 1940s, both Karloff and Lugosi were playing parodies of their earlier roles, especially Lugosi, whose sad demise is chronicled in the film “Ed Wood” (1994). Martin Landau won an Oscar for his sympathetic portrayal of Bela, who died during the filming of director Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959). (4/03)

The winner of the 2002 Oscar for best foreign-language film isn’t a great film, but it’s a very good one. The film examines how each member of a young Jewish family that has fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s for the wilderness of Kenya adapts in their own way. The daughter quickly becomes enamored of the country as their stoic cook (beautifully played by Sidede Onyulo) becomes a father figure for her.

It is the mother’s journey that is the focus of the movie. Juliane Kohler gives an underplayed, but complex performance as an upper-class woman who finds her new life unacceptable and, blaming her husband, loses interest in their marriage. But as time passes she takes on more responsibility in running the farm they are homesteading, and by the end of the war has no interest in returning to Germany. This thoughtful and beautifully photographed look at a little-known slice of history was written and directed by Caroline Link, a young German filmmaker.

While “Nowhere in Africa” is a deserving winner, I find the process for selecting the best foreign-language film idiotic. That the films don’t have to be released in the U.S. during the year they are nominated is ridiculous enough. On top of that, the Academy allows each country to offer up its own possible nominee. From that group, Academy members select the five nominees. Thus, very few politically or culturally sensitive films get a shot at the prestigious award.

Not to sound xenophobic, but shouldn’t the American film community be allowed to select whichever foreign films they believe are most deserving each year, rather than the best of what each country submits? If there are two films from Croatia worthy of nominations, they should both be nominated. What sense does it make when two of the years most critically acclaimed foreign-language pictures, the Spanish film “Talk to Her,” and the Mexican film “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” earned nominations for original screenplay (“Talk to Her” won) but didn’t qualify for a foreign film nomination. It’s just stupid.

It also makes no sense to me that a film nominated for best foreign film in 2002 isn’t released in this country until late in 2003. As has happened in the past, a film could get a nomination in the foreign-language category one year and earn another nomination in one of the other categories the next year. A film like “Nowhere in Africa” could be a best picture nominee for 2003. Though that scenario is unlikely, it happened a few times in the 1970s.

Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night” won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1973; the next year Truffaut was nominated for his direction of the film. Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” was named best foreign film of 1974; in 1975 Fellini was among the five nominees for best director for “Amarcord.” One of the strangest foreign screwups happened in 1972, when the Swedish film “The Emigrants” was nominated for best picture and best director (Jan Troell), the year after it lost the foreign film Oscar. I just hate things that don’t make any sense.

On the positive side, the recent winners have all been highly praised and superbly directed films-“No Man’s Land” in 2001, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000 and “All About My Mother” in 1999.

It could be a lot worse. No doubt most moviegoers thought “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was last year’s best foreign film. (4/03)

Raoul Walsh, one of the finest filmmakers of the first half of the 20th Century, who continued directing films until 1964, made 15 movies in 1915. “Regeneration” may be the only one that has survived nearly 90 years later, but it is also more than just a very bad print of an ancient era of filmmaking. The picture is one of the best pre-1920s silents I’ve seen, with Walsh bringing some real style to the melodramatic story. The influence of D.W. Griffith is everywhere, which is understandable since Walsh worked in the pioneering director’s company both behind and in front of the camera--most memorably playing John Wilkes Booth in “A Birth of a Nation” (1915).

The film’s most memorable scene is staged on a docked boat, during an afternoon dance for young adults from a poor neighborhood. Walsh utilizes both fluid camera work-unusual for its time-and fast cutting to bring out the great time everyone is having and then the same directorial skills to capture the panic when a fire breaks out. Near the end of the film, as two crucial events are taking place in different locales, he cross cuts between them to show just enough of each to maintain the tense atmosphere.

Large-jawed leading man Rockliffe Fellowes (an heroic name if there ever was one) gives a reasonably subtle performance as the orphan-turned-gangster-turned-good guy in this morality tale.

Among the highlights of Walsh’s 52-year directorial career (maybe a record) was giving John Wayne his first starring role, in “The Big Trail” (1930), a superbly made epic Western; directing Humphrey Bogart in his breakthrough role of psychotic criminal Roy Earle in “High Sierra” (1941); and guiding James Cagney’s amazing performance in “White Heat” (1949). (4/03)


      I had never heard of this film when I saw in the TV listings this month. I noticed it but wasn’t going to record it when I saw that it starred George Raft, but for some reason I investigated further and found that co-starring with Raft were Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. (I would have bet good money that the pair had never appeared together before “Sabrina.”)

The film isn’t very good: Raft and Bogart play ex-cons who go their separate ways after their release--Bogart back to robbery while Raft tries the straight and narrow. Holden plays Raft’s frustrated younger brother. You can guess the rest. Raft is blocked at rejoining society, forcing him back into a life of crime and, inevitably, Holden gets entangled.

Why Raft was ever cast in a starring role is beyond me. He looks and acts like the second-rate mobster many believed he was. His perfect posture and flat line readings and young Holden’s shrill acting make the reappearance of Bogart about two-thirds into the film a great relief.

This was Holden’s fourth movie and one of the last pictures that saw Bogart playing second fiddle to anyone (though the next year he also supported George Raft in Raoul Walsh’s truck adventure “They Drive by Night”). (4/03)

I’ve never seen the critically beloved Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le Flambeur” (1955), but after seeing Neil Jordan’s atmospheric remake I know I’ll love it. This is the kind of film-a rarity these days--that treats its audience as smart adults; characters, relationships, situations aren’t explained, they just emerge from the acting and writing.

The plot is about a gang of thieves in the south of France who plan a fake heist to cover up a real one, but that’s not really the point. The film is really a study of Bob Montagnet, a down-on-his-luck gambler/convict trying to make sense of his life, beautifully brought to life by Nick Nolte. Conniving and caring, charismatic and aloof, Bob is a collection of contradictions (and lies) that add up to a doomed character. But in the sliver of time that we get to experience Bob’s life, he’s a survivor who knows just the right move to make at just the right time. Nolte is one of those actor who can be annoyingly awful or simply perfect, but rarely average. This is one of his best performances.

Easily Jordan’s most accomplished film since “The Crying Game” (1992), “The Good Thief” is enhanced by soft, dark hues-the perfect reflection of the Old World elegance of Monte Carlo and the environs-as seen through the lens of the great cinematographer Chris Menges. (4/03)

I never completely bought into “Bull Durham” because I found the relationship between young pitching sensation Nuke LaLoosh and baseball groupie Annie Savoy utterly ridiculous. Then Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon became a couple in real life. And have stayed together longer than 90% of acting couples. I still have my doubts about the movie relationship, but “Bull Durham” has certainly passed the test of time by remaining a much-loved film 15 years after its release. The record of writer-director Ron Shelton, on the other hand, remains decidedly mixed.

Shelton certainly knows how to create interesting characters, but too often doesn’t know what to do with them. That was true with “Blaze” (1989) and “Cobb” (1994)--both about fictionalized real people--and “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992) and “Tin Cup” (1996). Again, with “Play It to the Bone,” Shelton starts off with a pair of wacky characters: Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas as second-rate boxers; bickering best friends hired at the last minute to fight one another in the opening bout of Mike Tyson extravaganza in Las Vegas.

What makes this film even worth writing about is the extraordinarily compelling boxing match between Harrelson and Banderas. But the epic struggle, featuring the best directing Shelton has ever done, comparing favorably with the best boxing scenes ever filmed, doesn’t make up for the first two-thirds of this movie--the most insipid and unwatchable road trip in movie history.

Not only does Shelton capture the ferocious, bloody boxing action in intense close-up, but he keeps it up, round after round, so you really feel the endlessness of 15 rounds of punching. On top of the exhilarating boxing, Shelton ups the ante by making the celebrity-filled crowd at Mandalay Bay part of the excitement. At first, the boxing fans--including Rod Stewart, James Woods, Times sports editor Bill Dwyre--are either watching the celebrities or talking about the Tyson fight. Soon this unimportant fight draws their attention. By about the sixth round and after a half-dozen knockdowns, the crowd is on its feet, totally engrossed in this all-out brawl between two unknowns.

One final, odd note on this film: I watched it on TNT and though the station allows most obscenities to slip through, the film features some of the strangest dubbing I’ve ever heard. During an extended argument between Harrelson and Banderas about the sexual preference of Antonio’s character, Harrelson clearly uses the offensive label “faggot” repeatedly. Each time, Harrelson’s voice is replaced by a distinctively different voice that speaks the reworked line using the word “gay.” A vocal substitute also seems to be used when either character needs to say “freaking”--TV’s favorite word--but that’s barely noticeable. When you have this strange voice saying entire lines that come out of Harrelson’s mouth, it’s very weird. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a bad job of dubbing in an American movie (though I rarely watch movies on commercial TV). The all-time worst case was the entire dubbing out of Mel Gibson’s voice in “Mad Max,” which was done for its U.S. theatrical release and remained on the TV print for years after. (4/03)

Alec Guinness may have been the most immaculate actor in film history. You could never catch him “acting” even in his most outrageous roles, yet he could be so perfect that you wondered why he was hiding the character’s passion. This offbeat film isn’t near his best, but it’s an entertaining little picture of the type that Britain supplied in endless numbers in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

The clever, if implausible, plot kicks off when Guinness, a depressed British teacher on vacation in France, meets a man who could be his double (also played by Guinness, of course). By morning, the naive school teacher has been tricked into assuming the other man’s life, in a palatial estate with a needy , bed-ridden mother (a snarling Bette Davis), a depressed wife and a passionate mistress.

Without a better life to return to, Guinness the teacher takes to his new life, becoming a better version of the real master of the manner until murder interrupts his fantasy. Based on a Daphne du Maurier novel, the script was written by director Robert Hamer and American novelist Gore Vidal.

Hamer, no relation to the founder of the famed British studio (that’s with two Ms), had a short but memorable directing career, helming “The Haunted Mirror” episode from the British horror classic “Dead of Night” (1945) and the hilarious Guinness vehicle, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949). A drinking problem led to an early end of his career (he directed just one more film after “Scapegoat’) and he died in 1963. (4/03)

Because I’m so focused on watching movies I haven’t seen before, I miss out on re-watching good films. And if I do re-watch a film it usually is something from the 1930s or ‘40s that I haven’t seen since the days of black-and-white television. Except for regular viewings of “The Godfather” films or a couple of Woody Allen movie, I rarely revisit a picture from the past 30 years. That seems ridiculous. I think I’m missing out on something most movie lovers find great enjoyment in.

A co-worker suggested I rewatch “Primal Fear,” the Richard Gere court movie, and lent me a copy. I had liked the film when I saw it during its initial release and it hasn’t lost any of its edge. Edward Norton, in his first major role, is brilliant as the seemingly naive young man on trial for the murder of a beloved Chicago archbishop. Gere gives one of his best performances as an egotistical, media-loving, short tempered attorney who digs into the dirty underbelly of the Windy City to prove his client’s innocence.

The film, directed by TV veteran Gregory Hoblit, has all the seriousness and directness of an episode of “Law and Order” and is filled with superb suppporting performances. Frances McDormand is a manipulated psychologist, Alfre Woodard a combative judge and John Mahoney the corrupt district attorney. The film propelled Laura Linney into major roles, and she’s good here as the prosecutor, but the weakest part of the film is the interplay between her and Gere, ex-lovers and workmates, a cliche that should have been reworked by the third rewrite.

Hoblit has been less successful with his subsequent pictures: “Fallen” (1998), another cop film with Denzel Washington that did little box office and “Frequency” (2000), a Twilight Zone-like tale of a man who can talk with his long-deceased father, starring Dennis Quaid. (4/03)

A later, and decidedly lesser, work of Mitchell Leisen, one of my favorite directors of the 1930s and ‘40s, this simplistic comedy starring Glenn Ford feels long at 84 minutes.

The plot revolves around Ford’s attempt to pass the bar after moving his family to Los Angeles and how the women in his life leave him flustered and floundering. So many comedies of the 1950s and ‘60s revolved around men who were unable to talk or think straight once they saw a bare shoulder of a moderately attractive woman. You still see that cliché played out on TV sitcoms.

Another problem with this star vehicle is the star. Give Glenn Ford a gun and a mission and he’s a pretty good screen actor--“3:10 to Yuma” (1957), “The Big Heat” (1953)--but I’ve always found him inept at comedy and he proves it here.

Leisen was near the end of his run in motion pictures and spent most of the rest of his career in television. His best work was done during the Golden Age of Hollywood, in romantic comedies, “Easy Living” (1937) and “Midnight” (1939) and melodramas, “Remember the Night” (1940) and “To Each His Own” (1946). Leisen also directed Fredric March in one of his best roles, as the messenger of Death come to life in “Death Takes a Holiday” (1934). (4/03)

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