Tuesday, September 23, 2008

April 2004

To say the least, director Peter Greenaway is an acquired taste. Most filmgoers know his "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover," which became the talk of the art-house crowd in 1989 for its scene of cannibalism. A beautifully shot, intensely acted tale of infidelity, it remains the most coherent and accessible of the Greenaway pictures I've seen.

"Prospero's Books" (1991), a strange adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" features an amazing performance by 87-year-old John Gielgud, but I never had a clue as to what was going on or what the film's point was. I've seen a couple of versions of "The Tempest" and was still baffled. For some godawful reason, very realistic looking human organs emerge from the pages of the books Prospero is studying.

"The Pillow Book" (1996) ranks as one of the silliest I've ever seen. A young woman (Vivian Wu), distinguished by the calligraphy painted all over her body, plans revenge for some dishonor against her family but spends most of her time getting intimate with Ewan McGregor. Greenaway's camera lingers on Wu's lovely body but even that gets boring after awhile and the film drifts from scene to scene without any perceivable purpose.

"The Draughtsman's Contract," one of this British filmmaker's first features, follows the rather dull goings-on at a 17th Century British mansion while a young draughtsman sketches the house and its surrounding property. Playing like rejected outtakes from "Barry Lyndon," this film is so low-keyed that scenes of sex and murder are barely distinguished from dinner-table debates. It boasts a smartly written script by Greenaway that I'm sure would be a better read than you'd ever know from watching Greenaway's film.

I keep trying to understand, but it's hopeless. What makes this irritating movie so frustrating is that the only change that takes place after Jerry's Prof. Kelp takes his magic potion is that he speaks in a deeper voice and slicks his hair back. Clearly, Lewis savors this chance to make fun of his ex-partner's (Dean Martin) imagine as a smart-ass, heavy-drinking ladies man. And if Lewis had turned Buddy Love into the joke he obviously is, the film might have amounted to something.

Instead, Buddy acts belligerent and superior to everyone and is admired for it.

For all its overindulgences and flatulence, Eddie Murphy's 1996 version is ten times better than this relic of the 1960s.

I'll never comprehend the desire to remake classics. When the original work is such a success, there's no place to go but down. Despite some nice touches and very funny set pieces, the Coen brothers' version of the British crime comedy is just a shadow of the 1955 gem.

"The Ladykillers," one of a series of memorable comedies from the Ealing Studios from the 1940s and '50s, isn't some long-forgotten British relic; it may be the finest British comedy ever made. Starring Alec Guinness, written by William Rose and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, the film follows a motley crew of thieves (including Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom-future "Pink Panther" adversaries) who set up shop in a room rented from a meddling little old lady. Eventually she figures out that they're up to no good and the gang attempts to eliminate her.

The new version, set in the Mississippi delta, employs the same set-up but the crime involves tunneling from the elderly woman's home into the room where the winnings from a casino gambling boat are kept. Tom Hanks plays Prof. G.H. Dorr, an over-educated thief who sweet-talks Irma P. Hall, who plays the Bible-reciting, church-devoted landlady, while his less-than-stellar crew digs the tunnel. Hanks is fine but he's forced to do the same shtick one too many times. Among the crew, Marlon Wayans (of the once-promising Wayans family of comics) stands out, but mostly because of the out-of-place, nonstop profanity that he's given to say.

There are some laugh-out-loud scenes in this remake (including some classic stuff as the gang has breakfast at a place called the Waffle Hut) and, overall, the film succeeds as a lightweight diversion. But when the filmmakers try to stay true to the original and the story turns dark, the results are forced and jarring and all but guts the lightweight comedy it offered in the first 90 minutes.

The Brothers Coen do deserve props for featuring such an array of African-American characters in the film. Frankly, it's a rarity that a white filmmaker write roles for blacks unless they have a major star in mind. In addition to Hall's landlady and Wayans, "Ladykillers" features an always-welcomed appearance by the great standup comic George Wallace (as the town's sheriff) and the enthusiastic congregation and choir of the local black church. Of course, they're all playing stereotypes, but this is a comedy.


The entire plot of this minor Stanley Donen-directed musical is about the selection of a replacement for the female star of a Broadway musical. After the petulant headliner quits, the director (the great dancer Gower Champion) must choose between his old girlfriend-partner (Marge Champion), an ambitious, but conflicted dancer (Helen Wood) and the unpretentious, high spirited country girl (Debbie Reynolds, of course).

The selling point is the dancing of Gower and Marge, Broadway legends who can dance up a storm but have no screen presence. Much more entertaining is the pairing of the exuberant Reynolds and the stage director's nerdy assistant, played by Bob Fosse. This is probably Fosse's biggest acting role before he moved into the choreography-directing stage of his career, and he makes the most of it. With his perfect crew-cut, tight sweaters, rolled up blue jeans and white socks, he looks like a character out of "Dobie Gillis." In fact, he probably did just walk out of that show, since both he and Reynolds appeared in the musical film version, "The Affairs of Dobie Gillis," that same year. Young, fresh and enthusiastic, they make a striking dancing duo, but Fosse's high, reedy voice doomed any hope he had of acting stardom.

The songs of "Give a Girl a Break" come from the estimable pairing of Ira Gershwin and Burton Lane, but the results aren't even close to those two greats' best work.

This slight film came between Donen's musical masterpieces, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954). He went on to make such classics as "Funny Face" (1957) and, with Fosse as choreographer, "The Pajama Game" (1957) and "Damn Yankees!" (1958).

If I had a nickel for every movie that starts out like gangbusters-filled with sharp dialogue, inventive staging and compelling action-and then settles into a run-of-the-mill melodrama for the next 75 minutes, I'd be running my own studio.

This John Garfield romantic adventure has him joining a wildcat oil drilling gang, led by Pat O'Brien, and falling in love with O'Brien's girl, played by the enigmatic Frances Farmer.

In the first 15 minutes, Garfield's Johnny bolts before he can land a job when he spots the cops, sweet talks O'Brien into hiring him for his crew and then saves O'Brien from being killed by a drunken employee. It's all downhill from there.

Farmer, whose life was portrayed on screen by Jessica Lange in "Frances," doesn't reveal much in the way of acting, but she does have memorable looks, with her prominent teeth and forehead and unruly blonde hair. (The same was said of Lange until she did "Frances" and "Tootsie" in 1982 and she's now considered one of the best actresses of her generation.)

Two years later, at age 29, Farmer was committed to an insane asylum and eventually given a lobotomy, all but ending her career. From all reports she did suffer some type of mental breakdown, but that her family approved of the lobotomy shows the ignorance of the times.

 Alfred E. Green, who also directed "Flowing Gold," has to be one of the least distinctive prolific filmmakers in the first half-century of cinema. The only two features among his 111 that get much play are "Disraeli" (1929), which earned a best picture nomination and won British stage actor George Arliss a best actor Oscar, and "Dangerous" (1935), for which Bette Davis won her first best actress Oscar.

In the silent era, he directed a couple of Mary Pickford vehicles, including her turn as both the mother and the son in "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1921). Later in his career, Green had a hit film with the bio-pic "The Jolson Story" (1946) and also directed baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who played himself, poorly, in "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950).

I always imagined Green was an Englishman-maybe because of his association with Arliss-but in fact he's a Southern California product, born in Perris.

"The Green Goddess" is a stagy melodrama that earned Arliss a best actor nomination in the same Oscar year (1929-30) that he won for "Disraeli." Here, he's a turban-wearing leader of a small tribe of people living in the Himalayans who keeps as prisoners three British explorers who have crash landed into the mountain side kingdom. Mostly Arliss shows off his ability to be witty and urban while wearing bejeweled turbans. Even in Green's lackluster filmography, this is not a film to seek out.

The least known of the five filmed versions of Eugene O'Neill's tortured study of his troubled family, this Canadian production gains authenticity by playing up the Irish roots of this tragedy.

It's all there in O'Neill's searing words, but these actors, with accents and manner and emphasis, bring the old country to the forefront, especially through the father, the Irish-born James, whose penny-pinching ways, unrelenting pride and love of the drink provide the dysfunctional foundation.

William Hutt, a veteran stage actor, plays the acting-legend father who bickers with his sons, the alcoholic Jamie (Peter Donaldson) and the sickly Edmund (Tom McCamus) on the day that he learns that Edmund has consumption and must go to a sanatorium and his wife (Martha Henry) has gone back to her morphine habit. O'Neill refused to publish this autobiographical work during his lifetime. The first production, which made Jason Robards a star in the role of Jamie, played Broadway in 1956.

The first filmed version, also starring Robards, was Sidney Lumet's 1962 movie that features Katherine Hepburn's greatest performance as the dreamy, drug-addled mother along with Ralph Richardson as the father and Dean Stockwell as the younger son Edmund (the character based on the author). It remains the gold-standard version of the play and one of the finest acted film ever made.

A 1973 television version stars Laurence Olivier as the father, while the 1987 Showtime production films Jack Lemmon's turn at the role on Broadway. Also in the cast is Kevin Spacey as Edmund.

Ruby Dee stars in a black version of the play filmed for television in 1982. And hopefully, the most recent stage production of the play, starring Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave, which earned raves during its short Broadway run, was preserved on film and will be airing on cable or PBS soon.

All four principals won Genie Awards--the Canadian Oscar--for their roles in the 1996 movie, but it's Henry who is most memorable. While it's hard to compare her to Hepburn, she creates a more fragile and sympathetic Mary who makes the dark, hopeless ending less theatrical, and more gut wrenching, than the 1962 film. Henry has mostly acted in Canadian TV movies.

I don't think it's possible to make a bad version of, or give a bad performance in, this epic (most productions run just shy of three hours) tragedy. O'Neill's touching prose and emotionally complex characters make "Long Day's Journey Into Night" one of the supreme artistic accomplishments of the 20th Century.

Only the sixth film directed by the man I consider the greatest filmmaker of the 20th Century, this over-the-top, silent melodrama would have long been sliced up into guitar picks if the opening credits didn't end with: Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The story follows a scandalized (by a very ugly divorce) woman who tries to put the past behind her, but discovers that many will always see her as a fallen woman. Even by silent film standards, the acting is laughably histrionic while the plot turns are so predictable that it's surprising that its source is a successful Noel Coward play.

What makes "Easy Virtue" interesting is that Hitchcock opens the film in the courtroom during the divorce proceedings and then uses flackbacks to show the events that led to the scandal. The method was not uncommon by 1927, but rarely in that era would you see it used repeatedly as Hitchcock does here, moving back and forth from the court testimony to the real events. And certainly few filmmakers (or their editors) of the time made the flashbacks flow so gracefully from the present-time action.

Hitchcock's penchant for opening scenes with strange shots is already evident: The film opens with a full-frame shot of the top of the judge's wig. Not until he lifts his head do you realize what you're looking at. Later in the film, he photographs the start of a tennis match through the strings of one of the players' racket. Short moments of clever camera work show up throughout the picture.

Watching "Easy Virtue," or any of Hitchcock's silents, is like reading the early, unsuccessful short stories of a great novelist. There is something exhilarating in observing small slices of what later would grow into important art.

Hitchcock didn't emerge as Britain's best film director until the release of his 1934 thriller, "The Man Who Knew Too Much." His next film, "The 39 Steps" (1935), made him an internationally known filmmaker and five years later he moved to Hollywood to make "Rebecca" (1940).

KILL BILL, VOL. 2 (2004)
If I read one more review of the second half of Quentin Tarantino's indulgent masochistic fantasy of female domination that praises the director's "genius for pop iconography," I'm tossing out every last item of my "Man From U.N.C.L.E." collection.

Tarantino's love of 1960s pop kitsch (the above quote is from L.A. Times' reviewer Manohla Dargis) and his ability to recall and recreate scenes from movies he saw as a youth would make him a superb curator of an Upper Westside art gallery/revival theater but they fail to elevate the Bride's revenge-fueled journey to find Bill above a straight-to-video actioner. The director mingles second-rate noir, the bleak landscape and startling close-ups of spaghetti Westerns, the rituals of martial arts flicks and the flat exposition of TV cop shows to produce one of the most unoriginal bad movies of our time.

While Vol. 1 was short on story and long on blood letting, the second half of Tarantino's epic tells us more than we ever needed to know about these characters. The acting ranges from uninspired (Uma Thurman) to stiff (David Carradine) to simply awful (Michael Madsen), save for a entertaining turn by long-forgotten (except by Tarantino) TV actor Michael Parks as a Mexican whorehouse proprietor. (Parks played a different role in Vol. 1.)

The film is beautiful photographed (especially the early black-and-white scenes) by Robert Richardson and displays Tarantino's innovative camera movement and placement that made "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" such memorable pictures. What's sadly lacking here (and desperately needed) is Tarantino's previously proved talent to write sizzling dialogue. "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" is just as talky as "Pulp Fiction" but what these characters say doesn't possess half the smarts or audacity of what was said in the 1994 film.

The only thing missing from this film that would qualify it to play at 2:30 a.m. on HBO is that B-movie staple, female nudity. Tarantino has never been much for sex scenes (he clearly prefers the sword play) and that's too bad, because that leaves "Kill Bill" not even worth an early-morning cable slot. In fact, if Dave Tarantino instead of Quentin Tarantino had been the director, this film would be collecting dust on some production company's shelves.

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