Thursday, September 25, 2008

April 2006

This wide-ranging, episodical satire plays like a time capsule of social issues from the 1960s, but like so many of that era’s artifacts, you had to be there. As a film, it’s of interest only as the launching point for director Brian De Palma and actor Robert De Niro.

De Niro, having quit high school at age 16, was studying with famed acting coach Stella Adler and working the dinner-theater circuit when he auditioned for De Palma in 1963 for “The Wedding Party” (which went unreleased until 1969). De Niro has but a walk-on in the Jill Clayburgh-starring film, but it led to the attention-getting collaboration in “Greetings” and the more ambitious “Hi, Mom!” (1970). According to De Niro, he was paid $50 for his work in “Greetings.”

In a series of mostly unfunny, improvised vignettes, subjects such as the Vietnam War (the film opens with a TV news report on the war), the draft, the Kennedy assassination, free love, “computer” dating and pornography are lampooned by three young, surprisingly clean-cut layabouts, played by Jonathan Warden, Gerrit Graham and De Niro. In the first half of the film, Warden and Graham are the focus, but the second half is all De Niro’s, for better or worse.

But after the offensive segment about the boys trying to coach Warden to feint being gay to get out of the draft and Graham’s tedious obsession with Nov. 22, 1963, it’s a relief when De Palma turns the camera toward De Niro. The only completely successful piece in the film is a hilarious improv between De Niro and iconoclastic actor Allen Garfield in which Garfield tries to sell De Niro a stag film. Throughout Garfield’s rant, you can see De Niro struggling to avoid breaking up in laughter.

Warden, not surprisingly, never worked in movies again, at least according to IMDb, while Graham has fashioned a successful career playing psychopaths in television and film.

STAY (2005)

If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed this over-wrought psychological thriller was a calling-card movie (recent film school grad shows off his directing skills in a throw-away picture to earn Hollywood attention). But director Marc Forster has already established himself as an up-and-coming talent with the gritty “Monster’s Ball” (2001) and the magical “Finding Neverland” (2004).

The fine cast of “Stay” tries hard to sell the purposely confusing, fast-paced tale of a therapist (Ewan McGregor) trying to understand Henry (Ryan Gosling), an angry, somewhat mystic patient, and stop him from carrying out his stated intent to commit suicide Saturday at midnight.

Not much of anything makes sense, as dream and reality, past and future, merge into a series of frantic, but fruitless adventures by McGregor to solve the mystery of his patient. Even the safe haven of his apartment and the love of his live-in girlfriend (Naomi Watts) begin to slip from his grip.

In smaller roles are Bob Hoskins, as a blind man who Henry believes is his dead father, and Janeane Garofalo as a depressed psychologist.

All is explained in the final scene, (with an idea stolen from a classic film) but it doesn’t make the previous 90 minutes any less ridiculous.

If you have no interest in the history of boxing, you’ll find this standard-issue romance starring Myrna Loy as a mobster’s moll who falls for thick-headed, immature prizefighter on the rise a waste of time. Max Baer, future heavyweight champion of the world, makes this W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke picture fascinating. He plays a young boxer who, under the tutelage a trainer-promoter played by Walter Huston, gets a shot at the title in the film’s thrilling finale set at Madison Square Garden.

Baer, who was among the most flamboyant athletes of his time, doesn’t have a clue about acting, even in this role that’s, at least in part, based on his life. In some of the boxing scenes, he looks like an amateur. One of the highlights of the film is a long musical number featuring Baer’s Steve Morgan in an appearance on Broadway. It’s beyond bad, but that’s intentional, I think.

The picture becomes a priceless remembrance of great boxers from the past in the concluding fight between Baer and Primo Carnera, who actually was the heavyweight champ at the time the film was made. Ironically, in 1934 Baer defeated Carnera and became the champ. The following year, James Braddock (see “Cinderella Man”) took the belt away from Baer.

Before the match, the flamboyant ring-announcer (surely the Garden’s actually announcer) introduces the match’s referee, former champ Jack Dempsey (1919-1926), at the time one of the most revered figures in the country, along with two more ex-champs, Jess Willard (1915-1919) and James J. Jeffries (1899-1905).

The actual match starts out like gangbusters; the first round, I swear, is as compelling as any real-life fight. And the crowd is simply out of control: fisticuffs among the fans, open gambling and fainting women are part of the frenzied atmosphere. The film offers a glimpse at what a championship match was like in the 1930s, when boxing’s popularity was at its height and the heavyweight champ was as well-known as Tiger Woods is today. The lengthy sequence more than makes up for the tedious melodrama that came before it.

Baer went on to appear in about 20 B-movies before his death in 1959.

I’ve listened to very few of the commentaries that have become required extras on nearly every DVD release. I’d rather spend my time watching another movie. But I can’t say enough about the commentaries offered by Martin Scorsese on his films “Raging Bull” (1980) and “New York, New York” (1977).

The great director offers detailed explanations of how individual set-ups were shot, how the performances evolved (he gives Robert De Niro most of the credit for eliciting Joe Pesci’s explosive performance in “Raging Bull”) and how he builds a film scene by scene. In his familiar clipped, excitable staccato voice, Scorsese also provides a history of the genre he’s working in (boxing pictures, musicals) and reminisces about the pictures that have influenced the way he makes films.

At one point during the elaborate (and way too long) opening sequence of “New York, New York,” Scorsese launches into a comparison of the look of musicals of the 1940s and ‘50s as made by different studios. As an example of the look of a Warner Bros. musical, he mentions “My Dream Is Yours,” a rather obscure Doris Day picture, and admits its influence in the way he shot “New York, New York.” The next week—just like when you read a word you’ve never seen before and then encounter it again within days—the 1949 musical was shown on TCM.

Not only are there plot similarities between “My Dream Is Yours” and “New York, New York,” most notably both Day’s Martha and Liza Minnelli’s Francine struggle to balance career ambition and matters of the heart, but clearly Scorsese borrowed some stylistic touches from this Michael Curtiz-directed film.

Veteran character actor Jack Carson plays a Hollywood talent agent who, after getting dumped by a pompous radio singer (Lee Bowman), heads to New York to find the next big thing. It turns out to be Doris Day. Carson spends the rest of the movie devising schemes to get her discovered and, of course, falls in love along the way. (A dream sequence featuring Warner Bros. animated stars Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird is the highlight of the film.)

There’s a scene early in the film that Scorsese pilfered for “New York, New York,” in which the neon signs of Manhattan’s nightclubs flash on the screen over the face of Carson as he searches for an undiscovered singer. The striking Technicolor of the film is a look Scorsese tried to duplicate 30 years later.

The frustrating audition process that Day and Carson endure is also similar to the one portrayed in Scorsese’s film.

Neither “My Dream Is Yours” or “New York, New York” are among the great film musicals, but they both play out the “star is born” fantasy that is part of the American dream and now has found a home in cheesy reality television.

As the trial of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling moves into high gear, this Oscar-nominated documentary offers a thorough and mostly understandable chronology of how the executives of Enron deceived the business world, its employees, stockholders, lenders and Wall Street journalists into believing their company was incredibly successful.

When explained by former employees and those who have written books on the company’s downfall, it seems rather simple—if you lack any morals—to present a money-making image even as the firm sinks deeper and deeper into the red. I wish the filmmakers had pushed those in positions of oversight (banks, accountants, SEC) to defend their failure to expose this deception, but the focus is on the pure greed of Lay, Skilling and Andy Fastow.

The talking-heads format is dressed up with some recreations, silly props (when someone mentions that an executive pulled a rabbit out of his hat, do we really need to see a rabbit?) and hip music (Tom Waits, Billie Holiday) but it’s essentially a typical television behind-the-scenes news report you’d expect to see on PBS’ “Frontline” or A&E’s “Investigative Reports.”

I’m not sure why it deserved an Oscar nomination, especially when a truly original documentary, “Grizzly Man,” was overlooked, but it’s a perfect Enron primer.

We’ve all seen too many robbery movies to be satisfied with an elaborately planned break-in and attempted getaway that ends with the bad guys dead on the street or being dragged away in cuffs. So wisely, following in the tradition of “Dog Day Afternoon,” Spike Lee, in the rare role as director-for-hire, and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, have fashioned a bank heist movie that’s really about something else.

Heading the film’s all-star cast is Denzel Washington as Det. Keith Frazier, a hostage negotiator, who gets the call when four people in painters’ overhauls, led by Clive Owen, take over a Manhattan bank. While the nuts-and-bolts of the film gives us the usual police procedural and terror among the hostages, it quickly becomes clear, to both the audience and Frazier, that this is no ordinary holdup and that Owen’s robber is playing with the cops.

The oddest, and least successful, aspect of the film is the appearance of a behind-the-scenes powerbroker, smarmily played, in a one-note performance, by Jodie Foster, representing the bank’s president (Christopher Plummer).

The well-structure script and Lee’s understanding of how to pace this kind of film go along way to making “Inside Man” a top-notch entertainment, but most of the credit goes to Washington.

The actor has done some of his best work under the direction of Lee—as the romantically confused musician in “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990), as the doomed religious leader in “Malcolm X” (1992) and as the ex-con trying to do right by his son in “He Got Game” (1998)—and “Inside Man” continues their artistically rich partnership.

Like the great stars of the past, Washington possesses a screen persona that immediately connects the audience to his character. Embedded in nearly all of his roles is a calming confidence and humble intelligence that’s hard not to trust. Here, he’s no supercop; just a guy doing his job, worrying about his relationship and job security. I doubt he’s been compared to James Stewart very often, but I think they’re similar in that audience can’t help but root for them whether they’re playing lightweight romantics or tough, angry characters. At 51, Washington is just entering the period where actors either reinvent themselves and flourish in older roles or recede into lesser stars. The next 10 years will determine if Washington is worthy of a place in the acting pantheon that Stewart sits at the top of.

When you put a picture puzzle together, you assume that all the pieces are there, you just have to make them all fit. This intricate Spanish film (original title, “Abre los Ojos”) seems to be a puzzle with more than a few missing pieces, yet it remains a fascinating journey into the mind of a young man who can no longer discern the difference between dreams and reality.

The impressive direction by Alejandro Almenabar (he went on to direct Nicole Kidman in the superb horror picture, “The Others”) and intricate editing by Maria Elena Sainz de Rozas are the real stars of this psychological study of beauty and how looks shape our personalities and the path of our lives. The American remake of the film, “Vanilla Sky” (2001), by director Cameron Crowe and starring Tom Cruise, doesn’t stray much from the original but it never achieves the original’s controlled confusion.

Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar, a rich, good-looking young playboy who falls almost instantly for Sofia (Penelope Cruz, who also played the part in “Vanilla Sky”) when she’s brought to his birthday party by his best friend. But before anything develops, Cesar foolishly gets in the car with an unstable woman he had a one-night stand with and she runs the car off the road, committing suicide. Cesar survives but is left horribly disfigured, forever changing his life and his relationship with Sofia.

Yet before even half of this plays out, Cesar is seen under a psychiatrist care at a prison, wearing a disturbingly generic facial mask while trying to get a grip on what’s become of his life. The constant question you ask yourself as the film progresses becomes: Was that scene just a dream or real life? Eventually, you realize the guessing game is pointless. It’s all part of Cesar’s chaotic world, be it his irrational obsession with Sofia or his self-hating guilt over his disfigurement.

The solution to the puzzle of “Open Your Eyes” isn’t as satisfying as the mixed up pieces and for all we know it’s just another figment of Cesar’s swirling, fertile imagination. But it’s a pleasure to see a film worth thinking about days afterwards.

HER CARDBOARD LOVER (1942) It’s not surprising that Norma Shearer ended her long run as the queen of MGM following this hideous comedy. Her over-the-top acting wasn’t anything new, but she looks more like 50 than her actual age of 40 in this film. It’s a bit sad watching her try to recapture the glamour that made her a star of the 1930s, looking uncomfortable in the slinky costumes and reciting the romantic dialogue.

Reportedly, she was ready to retire after the death of her husband, legendary MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, in 1936, but stuck it out for the sake of what had become the family business (Her brother was top MGM sound man Douglas Shearer).

This miscast adaptation of a French drawing room comedy from the 1920s keeps getting more ridiculous until its shamelessly predictable courtroom finale. As I endured the film’s pitiful attempt at clever dialogue and inept physical comedy bits, I was struck by what an amazing actor Cary Grant was. No, Grant’s not in this movie. Robert Taylor, a fine actor in most cases, plays a struggling songwriter who falls for Shearer’s imperious countess. Taylor does his best to make comedy out of goofy facial expressions, prat falls and generally acting like a love-struck teen (at age 31). Grant could have pulled it off and turned in a funny performance. He had the ability to make the silliest setups into memorable cinema.

The low point for Taylor, and the film, come when he and George Sanders (a heel Shearer can’t stop loving) end up in the hotel basement, throwing dishes and furniture at one another and then grappling on the floor. Grant, utilizing his acrobatic training and spot-on timing, certainly could have gotten a few laughs out of two grown men fighting like children over this woman.

Surprisingly, this forgettable bit of nonsense was directed by legendary director George Cukor, just after “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) and just before “Gaslight” (1944).

BRICK (2006)

Not many genres are older than the hard-boiled, violent crime picture, inevitably featuring a detective/protagonist who’s a tough, but sensitive loner who can’t understand why his girlfriend has deserted him. What makes “Brick” unusual is that the characters are all high school students (filmed around the Orange County beach city of San Clemente) with vocabularies typical of wise guys who hung out in 1920s speakeasies.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who first made his mark on the TV show “3rd Rock from the Sun” and became a movie star in the making after his astonishing performance in last year’s “Mysterious Skin,” plays Brendan, who goes into action after a vague plea for help from his ex-girlfriend. It leads him into the world of a nefarious drug dealer named the Pin (Lukas Haas, the little boy from “Witness,” here channeling Mickey Rourke in a truly creepy performance) and a risky game of playing enemies against one another.

The drama is played out on the alley ways and parking lots around their high school as Brendan follows clues by way of a femme fatale (Nora Zehetner), a slacker doper (Noah Segan) and Pin’s brutal enforcer (Noah Fleiss).

It’s not always clear how seriously writer-director Rian Johnson, making his feature debut, wants us to take his story. The cast plays it straight but you can help but be amused by the Dashiell Hammett-inspired slang. Impressively, the actors manage to be convincing both as high schoolers and the film noir types they play. The shorthand dialect they speak quickly becomes both understandable and what you’d expect of teens. And any time the film starts to lose steam, Gordon-Levitt’s impressive screen presence—cool yet unpretentious and more than willing to take a punch—keeps things interesting.

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