Wednesday, September 24, 2008

April 2005

It’s probably no coincidence that Zach Braff, when he was 18, played the son of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993). Braff, now a regular on the TV show “Scrubs,” makes his debut as a writer-director-actor in this deep-dish comedy-drama about a depressed young man returning to his hometown for his mother’s funeral. In almost every way possible, Braff is venturing into Woodyland.

While the picture suburban setting (a small town in New Jersey) sets it apart, it’s hard not to be diverted by the unending evidence of Allen’s influence. Yet in today’s movie market that’s hardly an issue (most of this film’s target audience have probably never seen a Woody Allen film) and taken on its own it’s an admirable debut.

Andrew, played by Braff, suffers under an impossibly bleak childhood in which his mother was institutionalized and his father (the always perfect Ian Holm) served as his psychologist. A moderately successful actor, he’s both embarrassed and flattered by the attention it brings when he’s back home. Between parties with a high school friend (smartly played by Peter Sarsgaard), he falls for Sam (an engaging Natalie Portman in her best performance yet), who matches him neuroses for neuroses. The film has more than its fair share of poignant moments but it adds up to something less. After awhile, all the minor tragedies in these peoples lives start to cancel each other out.

But as a first film, it’s not bad; Braff’s ability to attract such a stellar cast to this small film is reason enough to expect big things from him in the near future.

His best decision was casting Sarsgaard, who is quietly becoming one of the best supporting actors in American movies. His breakthrough role was playing one of the scary dudes that Hilary Swank’s Brandon pals around with in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999). There was talk of an Oscar nomination after his performance as the magazine editor dealing with an unethical reporter in “Shattered Glass” (2003) and he was equally compelling as the bisexual research assistant who becomes involved with Alfred Kinsey and his wife in “Kinsey.” In “Garden State,” he encapsulates the smart, but unambitious youth who finds adulthood a bore and prefers to hang on to his partying days from high-school. It’s Braff’s best written character in the film.

You won’t read about this rarely shown gem when critics are raving about the great screwball comedies of the 1930s. It doesn’t star an actress or actor associated with the best of the genre and it wasn’t directed by an acknowledged great director, but this showbiz comedy has stood the test of time much better than such dusty “classics” as “Twentieth Century” (1934), “Nothing Sacred” (1937) and “Bringing Up Baby” (1938). As fine as the performances are in those three acclaimed screwballs, the movies are just not that funny; “The Half Naked Truth” is nonstop laughs.

Lee Tracy plays an ambitious, fast-talking publicity man whose ploy to lure locals to attend a carnival show ends disastrously, but sends him, the carnival’s “hoochie dancer” (Lupe Velez) and another carnival performer (Eugene Pallette) to Broadway.

Foisting Velez off as a Turkish princess, Tracy manages to trick a befuddled Broadway producer (Frank Morgan) and before you can say “Hey, Rube” this carnival girl is the toast of New York. The half-naked truth of this picture (in addition to Velez’ skimpy outfit) is that sophisticated Broadway audiences aren’t much different from the hicks from rural Pennsylvania paying 10 cents for a hoochie show.

The movie also offers an incredibly cynical view of stardom: as easily as Valdez becomes the hottest name on Broadway, Tracy turns a hotel maid into her replacement.

Velez, who became known as the “Mexican Spitfire” later in her career, was best known for her personal life, which included an affair with Gary Cooper and a volatile marriage to Johnny Weissmuller. In 1944, with her movie career on the wane, the 36-year-old actress took her own life with an overdoes of pills.

She gives a wonderful performance in “Half Naked Truth,” going from a slutty, low-class carnival attraction (as could only be portrayed in pre-Code Hollywood) to a snotty mistress of a Broadway producer, holding her own with two of the best actors of the era, Morgan and Pallette.

But what really makes “Half Naked Truth” memorable is Tracy’s unbounded energy; he’s like Bugs Bunny with a fedora, clearly smarter than everyone else in the room and constantly looking for another challenge. In any five minutes of this movie, Tracy’s character tosses out more funny lines (from screenwriters La Cava and Corey Ford working from a novel by David Freedman) than you could expect to hear in an entire 2005 comedy.

Tracy was very busy in the early 1930s after starring on Broadway as Hildy Johnson in “The Front Page.” He did similar turns as a fast-talking man-on-the-make in “Blessed Event” (1932), “Clear All Wires!” (!932) and the Jean Harlow-vehicle “Bombshell” (1933), but he was doing B-level pictures by the late ‘30s and his movie career was all but done by the early 1940s. After years in television, he reappeared as the ex-president in “The Best Man” (1964), earning an Oscar nomination in what turned out to be his final film role.

Gregory La Cava, who directed “What Every Woman Knows” and “The Half Naked Truth,” had one of the more unusual careers of the early American filmmakers. He started out working for animator Walter Lantz and then went on to direct over 100 cartoon shorts from 1916 until the early 1920s. In the 1920s, he helmed comedies starring Richard Dix and W.C. Fields among other stars.

In addition to the two excellent comedies mentioned above, La Cava directed Carole Lombard and William Powell in “My Man Godfrey” (1936), one of the true comic masterpieces of the era, and two superb dramas, “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933) featuring Walter Huston and “Stage Door” (1937), one of the greatest showbiz movies ever made, with Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball as struggling actresses.

He continued to direct high-profile films until he was fired off the film “One Touch of Venus” (1948), a romantic fantasy featuring Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. He never directed again and died of a heart attack four years later.

“What Every Woman Knows,” based on a play by “Peter Pan” author James M. Barrie, stars stage legend Helen Hayes as a Scottish old-maid (she’s 26!) whose family is desperately trying to marry her off. Donald Meek plays her very serious older brother who brokers a deal with a local egghead (Brian Aherne) to pay for his education if he’ll agree to marry his sister in five years.

What at first seems like a too-cute-to-believe scenario ends up as a smart, progressive comedy about how wives aide their husband’s career more than they ever know. This may be Hayes’ best film performance; she’s the quiet center of all the action and then takes over the scene once she speaks. Hayes gave memorable performances as nurse Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms” (1932), as a debutante turned nun in “The White Sister” (1933) and as the mother who turns to crime to help her son in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” (1931), which earned her an Oscar, but La Cava does the best job of taping into the charisma that made her Broadway’s top actress for decades.

I can just imagine a filmmaker taking the idea for this movie to a Hollywood executive today:

Filmmaker: “It’s about a couple of Depression-era hobos who are determined to ride a train patrolled by a vicious conductor. You really get the sense of what life was like during the Depression and it features three great roles.”
Executive: “When you say Depression-era, you’re talking about the 1800s?
Filmmaker: “No, that would be the 1930s. Food lines, unemployment, FDR, you’ve read about that, right?”
Executive: “We don’t really like period pieces here….except when there’s a romance involved. Is there a role for Gwyneth Paltrow?”
Filmmaker: “Sorry, no roles for women, but it’s filled scenes of these men beating on each other.”
Executive: “Well, that’s a start. What kind of special effects budget are you thinking about?”
Filmmaker: “Actually there aren’t any special effects. The actors will ride on the train and interact on the moving train.”
Executive: “Hmmm, I’ll check with our lawyers on that. OK, so who do you see in the main roles?”
Filmmaker: “For the conductor, we need a real physical presence, someone who can scare the crap out of the audience—maybe De Niro?”
Executive: “Bobby’s no longer hot. How about Jude Law? Wasn’t “Cold Mountain” set in the Depression?”
Filmmaker: “Not exactly what I was imagining and he’s a bit young for the role.”
Executive: “Maybe Oprah Winfrey? But we’d need bigger stars in the other roles.”
Filmmaker: “I don’t really see Oprah working in the role, but the real star of the picture is the older hobo. He’s the Emperor of the North who must fight off the young upstart.”
Executive: “How about Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick?—they’re just finishing up “The Producers.”
Filmmaker: “Well, it’s not exactly a comedy.”
Executive: “But you have funny lines in it, right? This is an action film, right?”
Filmmaker: “Maybe it’s a little more serious than most action films.”
Executive: “We can fix that in rewrite. How about Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher? Now that’s a publicist’s dream, eh?”
Filmmaker: “Maybe I should try another studio…..”
Executive: “I was just joking! What if we made the younger hobo a girl? Pitt and Paltrow! I think we have it! And instead of Oprah we can cast Dr. Phil as the conductor. He can bring them together. I’ll have my secretary get their agents on the line.”
Filmmaker: “I really didn’t see the film as a romance…..”
Executive: “Don’t worry, I do. Maybe the train they ride is going through the south of France?”
Filmmaker: “In the Depression?”
Executive: “I’ve already forgotten about the Depression. I see this as a great contemporary romantic adventure between two down-on-their-luck Americans who end up getting married at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Son, I think you have a huge hit on your hands!”
Filmmaker: “Really?….”

Just be thankful it was made in 1973 when director Robert Aldrich was allowed to cast Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Keith Caradine and make a film that’s both entertaining and a serious look at the life of homeless men in the 1930s. If you haven’t seen it, rent it now before someone remakes it.

KITCHEN STORIES (2004) Without the benefit of a single joke, this Norwegian film was one of the funniest pictures released last year.

In one of oddest storylines you’re likely to encounter (reportedly based on a real study), a Swedish research group in the 1950s sets out to determine the pattern of movement by housewives in their kitchen. Amazingly, people in a small Norwegian town agree to be observed (the researcher sits in a high-chair situated in the corner of the kitchen) while they go about their day-to-day food preparation.

The bulk of the movie is set in the kitchen of Isak, a sullen, somewhat cranky bachelor farmer, who is being observed by Folke, a very disciplined, organized Swede. One of the key tenants of this study is that the researcher is not to interact with the subject. That soon breaks down and the film turns into a portrait of an unlikely friendship between these two middle-aged men.

The simplicity of the film is one of its strength, as is the performances of the two men. Norway’s Joachim Calmeyer (as Isak) and Sweden’s Tomas Norstrom (as Folk) are regarded as being among the finest stage actors of their country. Their beautifully measured acting in “Kitchen Stories” makes you care about characters that at first seem bland and inscrutable.

Writer-director Bent Hamer (co-written with Jorgen Bergmark) never pushes for a laugh or a sentimental moment, he just let’s it happen naturally as the characters connect with one another. It’s nice to know that not every filmmaker’s sense of humor has been lost in the shouting and cliches of TV sitcoms.

THE KNOCKOUT (1914) and LEAP YEAR (1921)
I’d seen clips of his films and read about the scandal that all but ended his career, but I don’t think I’d ever watched a Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle silent until seeing these two recently on TCM.

While much of his act amounts to just standing around being incredibly fat and acting stupid, Arbuckle shows himself to be an impressive physical comedian in both of these shorts. The 1914 picture, just Arbuckle’s second full year in movies, centers around a boxing match between Fatty and a guy impersonating a famous boxer. When the real Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy) shows up at the last minute, the match becomes a bit one sided. Charlie Chaplin appears for about five minutes in a hilarious bit as the referee of the match, and, in a performance that equals Chaplin, a front-row fight fan (I believe it’s Ford Serling, a veteran of over 200 silents) nearly has a seizure as he cheers on the fighters

The picture turns completely absurd when a steamed off Fatty grabs a pistol and begins firing aimlessly from the ring. The chase that ensues, with the hapless Keystone Cops in pursuit, is about as funny as any chase you’ve ever seen. The creative ways the Cops find to all tumble to the ground at once is simply phenomenal.

The supporting cast is a virtual hall of fame of silent stars: Mack Sennett, Mack Swain, Charlie Chase, Slim Summerville, who went on to a long career as a supporting player in talkies, along with Chaplin and Kennedy.

In “Leap Year,” a more sedate Arbuckle, now 34 years old and one of the biggest stars in pictures, plays a spoiled heir who falls for every girl he encounters (and they with him), culminating in a door-slamming roulette as he attempts to avoid his many fiancees. This fast-paced farce was directed by James Cruze, remembered mostly for his Westerns, including “The Covered Wagon” (1923), one of the most influential of the silent era. He also directed the bizarre Erich Von Stroheim ventriloquist picture, “The Great Gabbo” (1929).

The same year “Leap Year” was released, Arbuckle’s career came to a screeching halt when a young woman accused him of sexual assault days before she died from complications resulting from the attack. He was charged with manslaughter and after two mistrials was acquitted. But the damage was done. Not only was Arbuckle essentially banned from films but the publicity from the trial (adding to the growing controversy surrounding the lifestyles of Hollywood stars), forced the industry to create the Hays Office, which began a gradual move toward the draconian censorship rules filmmakers worked under from the mid 1930s until the late 1960s.

After the trial, Arbuckle directed more than 30 pictures under the name William Goodrich and starred in a handful of talkie shorts in the early 1930s before dying of a heart attack, at age 46, in 1933.


Before seeing this American silent, Max Linder was just a name I had a faint memory of reading about in a Charlie Chaplin biography. He starred in just six American films, near the end of his career, but his work in France was influential on Chapin and Hal Roach and made him one of the first international movie stars. And, like Arbuckle, he died young and under unusual circumstances.

Entering films in 1905, he was France’s top movie comedian by 1910, using his acrobatic skills in creating a self-absorbed, upper-class man of leisure who finds ways to make his life complicated. At the height of his fame, while serving his country in World War I, he suffered from gas poisoning. Despite his declining health, he continued to work (including two stints in the United States that resulted in six films) until 1922.

He married in 1923 and two years later the couple took their own lives in a suicide pact. He was 42.

“Seven Years of Bad Luck” is an episodical adventure in which Max finds bad luck wherever he turns after his bathroom mirror gets broken in the morning. While this film doesn’t match the ingenuity of a Chaplin or Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton short, it gives you a glimpse at an innovator who pre-dated all of those legends.

There is one masterful scene in which Linder shaves in front of his broken mirror, unaware that the glass is gone. One of his servants, played by Harry Mann, who bears a likeness to Linder, pretends to be his reflection. It’s a pretty amazing display of pantomime by both actors.


For most actors, even great ones, it takes a scene or two before the viewer understands what their character is about. It’s a gradual process during which the audience’s perception is altered: this isn’t a famous actor but a local mobster or a police detective or a boxer. What stuck me about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as an iconoclast fighting the encroachment of suburban sprawl is that he’s a fully formed, complex character from the first time you see him on screen. I’m not sure what it is about his look or the way he plays out the early scenes, but there’s never any doubt that Day-Lewis is this man.

The picture, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Day-Lewis, remarkably chronicles the final days of the uncomfortably close relationship between Jack and Rose, his teenage daughter who lives with him in an isolated, abandoned hippie commune. She’s perfectly content with the situation but as he grows sicker with an unnamed heart ailment, he invites a girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her teenage sons to move in. It’s about at this point that the film nearly collapses from its own weight. Miller, by bringing the outside world into Jack and Rose’s hermetically sealed life, takes the opportunity to explore so many “issues” you feel like you’ve landed in a child psychology class.

But the superb acting by Day-Lewis, reportedly the first actor directed by his wife in a film, and newcomer Camilla Belle as Rose make the plot’s rough spots more tolerable As does the serene island setting, beautifully photographed by Ellen Kuras.

Miller, a former actress, certainly has talent as a filmmaker (she previously made the equally intense “Personal Velocity”) and it’s refreshing to see a director tackle coming-of-age issue seriously, but she needs to avoid overloading her screenplay with metaphors; not every script can be “Death of a Salesman.”

Sydney Pollack is a superb craftsman, a smart producer and a pretty good character actor, but most of his work as a director has left me cold. Maybe it’s his attraction to sentimental romance (“The Way We Were,” “Bobby Deerfield,” “Sabrina,” “Random Hearts”) or his overly slick melodramas (“The Electric Horseman,” Absence of Malice,” “Havana,” “Out of Africa,” “The Firm”), but I can’t think of another director who has disappointed me more often.

Considering the popularity of his films, I’m clearly in the minority: “The Way We Were” (1973) remains one of the most beloved romances of the 1970s, “Out of Africa” (1985) earned a best picture Oscar, and “The Firm” (1993) was a monster hit. And, to confuse my opinion of Pollack further, he directed one of the great film comedies, “Tootsie” (1982), one of my favorite pictures of the 1960s, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) and contributed to the legacy of 1970s filmmaking with two underrated Robert Redford films, “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972) and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975).

So where does his latest (and first film in six years) fit in his fractured filmography? “The Interpreter” bears the Pollack brand proudly: a fast-paced smartly written thriller laced with paranoia (Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian), beautifully shot (by Darius Khondji) and perfectly acted (Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn and Catherine Keener).

The difference between this film and the Pollack movies that I couldn’t warm up to comes down to the believability of the characters. While the director has always attracted major stars (Redford many times, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand to name a few), here he’s allowed the stars to be people first and elements of the plot second. Even when I was picking through the coincidences and plot holes that litter “The Interpreter,” I was drawn back into the story by Kidman’s fragile, confused U.N. translator and Penn’s weary, impatient federal agent. These two actors, among the best working in Hollywood, are at the top of their game. You don’t expect to see this kind of complex characters or nuanced acting in a political thriller (Last year’s “Manchurian Candidate,” with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep fell flat because their characters had no depth).

The picture centers on an overheard conversation by Kidman at the U.N. that hints at an assassination plot against an African leader (from the fictional country of Matobo). CIA agents Penn and Kenner are assigned to ferret out the truth and keep the elderly leader from being killed while speaking at the U.N. That Kidman’s character is a native of Matobo and has a history with various warring factions in the country complicates things considerable.

One of the selling points of the film is that it’s the first to be shot inside the U.N. building, which certainly adds to the immediacy of the action. And on a political level, the film does a nice job of representing the troubles of many African nations, where too many a liberators turn into brutal dictators.

This is far from a great film, but Pollack manages to mix world politics, Hollywood action and superb acting while making a complicated story understandable (even if he sacrifices some reality along the way). For this on-again, off-again Pollack fan, it’s his best film since “Tootsie.”

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