PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973)
This film may not contain a single scene or character bearing any resemblance to the history of these two Western legends, but director Sam Peckinpah explores bigger truths in this story of an inconvenient friendship.
Episodic, freewheeling and occasionally incoherent, this picture isn’t on par with the Peckinpah’s best---“The Wild Bunch” (1969), “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970) and “Junior Bonner” (1972)---but it contains scenes written, acted and staged as well as anything this great filmmaker ever put on film. And it features an intense, knockout performance by James Coburn as Pat Garrett, the one-time running mate of the famed outlaw who now wears a badge and has been ordered by the New Mexico governor (Jason Robards) to execute Billy. Coburn’s laconic, scowling Garrett hates his job, hates his bosses and longs for the glory days when the West was an untamed, lawless frontier. Yet he knows Billy’s (and his) time is past and he might as well be the one to see it through. Coburn, an underrated actor who brought sarcastic wit and a casual presence to nearly all his roles, also gave a powerful performance as a Nazi soldier in Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron” (1977) and was memorable in films ranging from satire in “The President’s Analyst (1967) to tough-guy action in “Hard Times” (1975) to intense family drama in “Affliction” (1997).
Kris Kristofferson, in just his second substantial screen role, plays Billy as a moody, rambunctious hippie who takes nothing very seriously except his insistence on being left alone. There isn’t a hint at the crazy Billy seen in most film depictions and that he’s a murdering thief is all but ignored. Equally low-keyed and bohemian, Bob Dylan plays “Alias,” a mysterious dude who Billy takes a liking to and ends up hanging around with after the rest of his crew is gunned down by Garrett.
One of the real pleasures of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is the endless stream of colorful sidekicks that make appearances, including Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Chill Wills, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Richard Jaeckel, Paul Fix, Gene Evans, Elisha Cook Jr. and Dub Taylor. I don’t think any film has featured a greater collection of first-rate character actors.
Peckinpah and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer go beyond the obvious “dying West” theme and tackle the issue of identity and how that changes once you put on a badge and the timeless issue of landowners vs. the working poor, who see Billy as a hero in this version of the legend.
GOING SHOPPING (2005)
Independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom has spent much of his fascinating career making movies about women. Maybe his biggest success was the art-house hit “Eating” (1990), that examined the integral part food plays in many women’s lives. Since then he’s tackled “Babyfever” (1994) about giving birth, and “Going Shopping,” about the female obsession with buying clothes. All these films rely heavily on short takes of actresses addressing the camera directly on these issues, often relating real stories about their real life.
Jaglom’s more successful and straightforward films, including “Venice, Venice” (1992), “Last Summer in the Hamptons” (1995), “Déjà Vu” (1997) and “Festival at Cannes” (2001), are among the most interesting relationship films made in the past 25 years. The issue films are an acquired taste and “Going Shopping” is one of his worst.
Victoria Foyt, Jaglom’s wife and co-writer, who gave a superb performance in “Déjà vu,” is gratingly shrill as Holly, a Beverly Hills clothing boutique owner who must quickly find money because her boyfriend/accountant has squandered away the rent money. As she prepares for the sale to end all sales on Mother’s Day, she arranges a loan from a wise guy friend of her mother’s boyfriend. It’s all very tedious and mostly reveals Holly to be a incompetent businesswoman.
More interesting is Holly’s dealings with her free-spirited mother (broadly and entertainingly played by Lee Grant) and a man she meets (Rob Morrow) in the midst of her financial crisis.
Had Jaglom stuck with the basic story, this would have been a more tolerable picture, but he just adds to the already hysterical nature of the movie by inserting the overwrought talking heads who whine repetitively on the burdens of being a shopaholic.
The director’s most recent film, “Hollywood Dreams,” a look at the obsession with fame completed last year, has yet to be released and another film, “Irene in Time,” about the relationship between fathers and daughters, is scheduled to be released this year.
THE HOAX (2007)
One of the great stories of the 1970s was Clifford Irving’s nearly successful scam in which he convinced McGraw-Hill to buy and publish an autobiography of recluse Howard Hughes (as told to Irving) even though he had never met or talked to the man. As chronicled in this amusing mixture of fact and fantasy, Irving is a smart, resourceful, overconfident raconteur, who keeps concocting bigger and more extravagant lies to keep his hoax going.
Richard Gere, at his best when playing charismatic scoundrels (“American Gigolo,” “The Cotton Club,” “Primal Fear,” “Chicago”), finds the perfect balance of amoral con man and first-rate writer-reporter as he and his writing partner Dick Susskind (a very sweaty and amusing Alfred Molina) create a autobiography that Harold McGraw calls brilliant while maintaining the allusion that Hughes is cooperating. Gere’s Irving is a nonstop hustler who had boundless energy and enthusiasm long after most men would have cracked under the pressure.
Smartly, director Lasse Hallstrom (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Cider House Rules”) and screenwriter William Wheeler toss reality aside and dig into Irving’s over-active imagination, depicting spooky meetings with Hughes and Hughes’ henchmen and find a way to connect the book with the Nixon White House and the Watergate burglary. The picture is filled with over-the top, twitchy performances from Hope Davis as Irving’s nervous editor, Stanley Tucci as her imperious boss, Marcia Gay Harden as Irving’s forgiving wife, and the ageless Eli Wallach as retired Hughes confident Noah Dietrich.
Gere’s fearless Irving and Molina’s nervous-nelly Susskind are a perfect pair as they galavant across the globe tracking down Hughes nuggets while defrauding America’s most successful book publisher.
There’s nothing slick or artful about this film, there’s a thrown together quality about it that fits its subject perfectly. It’s rambling, off-beat, episodical, outrageous, and, even in its nuttiest moments, totally believable. “The Hoax,” like the equally crazy story told in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002) about Chuck Barris, portrays a character who convinces himself he can pull off the impossible and nearly does.
The re-teaming of Richard Dix and Irene Dunne, the co-stars of “Cimarron,” one of the first epic action films of the sound era and winner of the 1930-31 best picture Oscar, made “Stingaree” a big deal in 1934. “All the glamorous qualities of a Robin Hood may be found in a character named “Stingaree” now riding and romancing on the RKO-Hillstreet Theater screen” wrote the Los Angeles Times reviewer when it opened, also calling it “impossible but interesting.” The film opened in June and continued to play in Los Angeles theaters all summer.
But the film all but disappeared after that, becoming just minor title in the filmographies of the stars and director William Wellman. Now, Turner Classic Movies, at the suggestion of a viewer, did some detective work and dug up a print of this long-forgotten romantic comedy. The sparkling chemistry between Dix and Dunne, Wellman’s usual superbly paced, uncluttered direction and the excellent use of music (Dunne plays a budding operatic singer) combine to make this more than an historical find; it’s a marvelously entertaining film worthy of repeated viewings.
Dix’s hammy acting is a perfect fit for his role as “Stingaree,” a legendary Australian robber who parlays his love of music by kidnapping and then impersonating a visiting operatic impresario to gain entrance to a rich family’s home. Once there, he becomes entranced by Dunne’s Hilda, the ward of the landowners (Henry Stephenson and Mary Boland, whose belief in her singing ability is the film’s running joke.)
After some derring-do and escapes from authorities, Stingaree forces, at gunpoint, the real music scout (a dour Conway Tearle) to listen to Hilda sing. The last part of this 73-minute picture chronicles Hilda’s rise in Europe as a great opera singer, circa 1870, and her inability to forget her love of Stingaree.
While Dix’s popularity was beginning to wane and he was soon relegated to B-movies, Dunne’s career was peaking. In 1936, she again showed off her singing ability (she was a musical star of Broadway in the 1920s) in “Show Boat” and her comic skills in “Theodora Goes Wild.” She starred opposite Cary Grant in two classic screwball comedies “The Awful Truth” (1938) and “My Favorite Wife” (1940), was Charles Boyer’s lost love in “Love Affair” (1939) and later gave a heartbreaking portrayal of an immigrant matriarch in “I Remember Mama” (1948).
BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS (2005)
The tragedy of China’s Cultural Revolution, during which the nation’s best young minds were taken out of school and sent to the countryside to learn the ways of the peasants and indoctrinated into the truths of communism, seems an unlikely backdrop for an uplifting movie. But writer-director Dai Sijie (adapting his own French novel) manages to show the utter foolishness and pointless waste of Mao’s policy while focusing on the boyish antics of the two young city men sent to a mountain village and their devotion to a spunky local girl.
Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen), assigned to trudge buckets of human waste up the mountain, find some light in this stunning beautiful but intellectually dark part of the world when they swipe some banned Western books from the town’s prized student. As much as they missed absorbing the knowledge of literature, their true inspiration for snatching the books is their hope to educate the Little Seamstress (an enchanting Xun Zhou), who becomes the constant companion of the pair and gets involved with Luo. Balzac’s story of a freethinking, rebellious woman in “Cousin Bette” slowly changes her life.
Dai, who spent his re-education in the village where the film was shot, doesn’t candy coat the anti-intellectual, regressive era but he doesn’t turn the locals into fools even as the pair take advantage of their general lack of schooling. In fact, in the film’s final scenes, set years after the main action, there is a sense of loss of a simpler, rural lifestyle that is quickly being erased by a modernizing China.
Banned by the Chinese government, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” offers an insightful history lesson and rich character studies of three memorable individuals.
BLACK BOOK (2007)
Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven emerged on the international film screen with “Soldier of Orange” (1979), his heroic portrait of upper-class young men who join the Dutch resistance movement in the face of Nazi occupation during World War II. He followed that success with two more art-house hits, “Spetters” (1980) and “The Fourth Man” (1983), both featuring plenty of sex and violence artfully rendered by Verhoeven’s slick, visually stunning filmmaking skills.
He parlayed his European credentials into a Hollywood contract and his career became the ultimate cautionary tale of foreign talent selling their soul to the studio machine. Verhoeven became a first-rate schlockmeister, scoring vacuous, monster hits with “Robocop” (1987), “Total Recall” (1990) and “Basic Instinct” (1992). His smart, subtle approach to filmmaking was replaced with over-the-top violence and silly melodrama.
Then came “Showgirls” (1995), as idiotically bad as any film made in the last 20 years.
With “Black Book,” Verhoeven returns to Holland and the resistance movement he chronicled in his breakthrough film. And while it doesn’t reach the dazzling levels of his pre-Hollywood work, it certainly is the best film he’s done since cashing in. Not surprisingly, the film centers on a sexy, aggressive woman (following predecessors Renee Soutendijk from “Spetters” and “The Fourth Man,” Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” and Elizabeth Berkeley in “Showgirls”), played by Carice van Houten, who transforms herself from Rachel Stein, a Jewish singer on the run, to a central player of a cell of resistance fighters. By seducing a high-ranking Nazi (played by Sebastain Koch, the playwright in “The Lives of Others”), she is able to uncover a scheme, aided by Dutch collaborators, to rob and kill Jews seeking asylum.
Van Houten is part showgirl and part Mata Hari and, in one of the film’s most complex aspects, falls in love with her Nazi officer, who, in many ways, comes off as the most heroic character in the film. It’s a dangerous ploy---the sympathetic Nazi---that nearly undoes the film by the end, but Verhoeven keeps the action going at such a breakneck pace (for a solid two and half hours) that it’s easy to forgive, especially when most of the Nazis are portrayed as backstabbing, paranoid, sex fiends.
If the second half of “Black Book” fails to live up to the dramatic first hour that follows Rachel’s journey to escape the Nazis, it’s still quite a film and gives one hope that the undeniably talented Verhoeven, who’ll turn 70 next year, will return to his roots for the final act of his career.
SOPHIE SCHOLL---THE FINAL DAYS (2006)
A less cinematic, but even more heartbreakingly powerful story of fighting back against Nazi oppression than “Black Book,” this German film chronicles the interrogation and “trial” of a member of the famous White Rose student resistance group based in Munich. Using transcripts left by the Nazis and interviews with survivors, director Marc Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer, instead of focusing on her and the group’s rebellious actions, offer up a debate of sorts.
Sophie Scholl, played with a cool, steely righteousness by Julia Jentsch, under the tenacious, angry questioning of Robert Mohr (a very intense Alexander Held) goes from denying her involvement in distributing anti-war leaflets at a university (her brother was also nabbed) to engaging her captor in a verbal fist-fight over the state of 1943 Germany.
After the 21-year-old Sophie is arrested, the film’s setting remains in the rooms and cells of the Munich detention building. The claustrophobic environment and the camera’s focus on Jentsch’s face reminded me of one of the great silent pictures, Carl Dreyer’s bleak, unforgettable “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928). Both movies portray a woman so convinced of the importance of her beliefs that she refuses to deny them even when it means her life.
This modest, straightforward film, among the 2005 Oscar nominees for best foreign film, does justice to Sophie Scholl’s extraordinary last stand.
THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD (1995)
Andy Garcia was on the cusp of becoming a first-rate movie star in 1990 when he gave two superb performances, first as a police investigator facing off with dirty cop Richard Gere in “Internal Affairs” and then as Vincent Mancini, the slick tough guy who is anointed as Michael Corleone’s successor in “The Godfather, Part III.” It seemed inevitable that the 34-year-old would be one of the important actors of the next 20 years.
What happened? It’s 17 years later and not only has Garcia failed to match his 1990 performances, but he goes from one second-rate film to another, nailing box office success only as a supporting player in the smarmy “Ocean’s Eleven” series. In Hollywood, it all comes down to the choices you make and he’s made some bad ones, including the pretentiously dumb “Things to Do in Denver.”
Garcia plays Jimmy the Saint (which probably tells you everything you need to know about this second-rate attempt to venture into cool, bloody Tarantino country) who has gone straight but is drawn back in to do a favor for Denver’s paraplegic mob boss played by Christopher Walken. Walken seems to be the only one who understands he’s in a very bad film.
Jimmy and his crew (William Forsythe, Treat Williams, Christopher Lloyd and Bill Nunn) screw up big time and Walken sends Mr. Shhh (Steve Buscemi) to take them out. Garcia recycles his “Godfather III” performance but offers all style and no substance.
Veteran character actor Jack Warden, who died last year, offers the only moments of amusement in this clumsily titled movie as an old-timer who hangs out in a diner explaining what’s going on in the plot. I would rather have listened to Warden wax about mob life for 90 minutes than endure the non-stop bloodletting that makes up much of this film.
The only quality film Garcia has starred in since 1990 has been “Night Falls on Manhattan,” the Sidney Lumet drama about a DA (Garcia) who digs into the mysterious past of his cop father (Ian Holm). One good film in 17 years doesn’t make for much of a career.
BED OF ROSES (1933) and MERRILY WE LIVE (1938)
Constance Bennett, one of the best comic actresses of the 1920s and ‘30s, is remembered today, if at all, for her role as the ghostly wife opposite Cary Grant in “Topper” (1937). But the blonde, slight actress, who looks very similar to Carole Lombard, was among the performers who defined the independent, morally challenged post-flapper women who filled the screen in the pre-censorship early ‘30s.
Constance’s father, Richard Bennett, was a matinee idol of the 1890 who years later appeared in some films, including playing Major Amberson in Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), while both of her sisters, Barbara and Joan, were also film actresses.
Joan had the best film career of the family, a popular star from the early days of sound through the 1950s in both mainstream hits---“Little Women” (1933), “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1939), “Father of the Bride” (1950)---and offbeat film noirs---“The Woman in the Window” (1944), “Scarlet Street” (1946) and “The Reckless Moment” (1949).
Constance’s film career fizzled out in the mid-1940s and she return to the stage in the years before her death in 1965. I recently saw two films that represent the best of the eldest Bennett girl.
“Bed of Roses” opens with Bennett’s Lorry being released from prison (and it’s clearly not her first stop at the Big House) with her friend Minnie (Pert Kelton). The pair of con women scam a ride on a boat headed to New Orleans, where Lorry tricks a business man into becoming her sugar daddy (how she does it is a tribute to a time when men’s lofty morals made them easy marks for those with no morals) but then falls in love with a tug boat captain, played by Joel McCrea. Bennett pulls off the transformation of Lorry from wisecracking, gold-digging party girl to an upstanding, humble working girl hoping to be worthy of McCrea’s love. Kelton, as her best friend, keeps things lively throughout doing a not-too-subtle takeoff of Mae West’s schtick.
“Merrily We Live” is a screwball comedy that falls just short of classic status, in part because it seems to have pilfered so much from “My Man Godfred” (1936), “Holiday” (1938) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938). Bennett plays the daughter in a family of eccentrics, lead by her ditzy mother (Billie Burke, who scored an Oscar nomination for her hilarious performance) and exasperated father (Clarence Kolb). Mother’s incorrigible penchant for hiring homeless drifters as servants, the family running joke, turns out to be fortuitous when Brian Aherne’s Wade Rawlins is mistaken for a penniless man in need. Of course, he’s not and Bennett falls for him as he tries his best to straighten up the family.
The film, directed at a gallop by Norman Z. McLeod (“It’s a Gift,” “Topper”), is funny and romantic and Bennett, even as Burke steals scene after scene, gives a vibrant, smart performance that should have led to similar roles but didn’t.
This collection of clichés about a young, ambitious prosecutor and a brilliant, psychotic killer fails in nearly every way a movie can. Watch any episode of “Law and Order” (and you can, right now, whatever time it is) and you’ll see a more emotionally engaging and dramatically intense story, better written, acted and directed, than this flat, by-the-numbers police procedural.
The appeal of “Fracture” is the pairing of the legendary Anthony Hopkins, playing an evil psychopath who outsmarts everyone (remind you of anyone?), and one of the best young actors in Hollywood, Ryan Gosling, who scored a 2006 Oscar nod for his turn as a drug-addicted school teacher in “Half Nelson.” Sir Tony can do this kind of role in his sleep and might as well have---he doesn’t bring anything new to this party. Gosling, on the other hand, seems to be trying too hard to impress, unnecessarily giving his character so many tics and affectations that he made me nervous and offering an unchecked number of actorly attempts to show this attorney in deep reflection.
Central blame on wasting these two fine actors in a plotline that goes nowhere (Hopkins shoots his wife then uses the presence of her lover---a policeman---to weasel out of any legal blame) has to go to Gregory Hoblit, who was much more successful directing the similar-themed “Primal Fear” (1996). The director manages to find the most undramatic ways to film nearly every scene while the Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers screenplay offers little of interest for either character to say. Puncturing even more holes in this sinking ship is the film’s lame attempt to create a romantic relationship between Gosling’s lawyer and his soon-to-be boss (Rosamund Pike) at the high-powered firm he’s signed up with. Their love affair, along with everything else in this film, never rises above being a mere plot device.
The only thing “Fracture” does well is show off the shiny, modern architecture of the high rises in downtown Los Angeles. The camerawork of Kramer Morgenthau deserved to be supported by a much better movie.