Monday, September 29, 2008

April 2008

In an odd alignment of fate, Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin, the star and director of this underappreciated film noir, died within a week of each other in March.

Widmark was an intense, engaging actor when he worked in crime thrillers in the 1940s and ‘50s, and then continued as a more amiable leading man and character actor into the 1990s. He was 93 when he died.

At his peak----in his startling debut as a wise guy in “Kiss of Death” (1947), as a crooked nightclub owner in “Road House” (1948), as a racist in “No Way Out” (1950), the hustler in “Night and the City” and as the pickpocket in “Pickup on South Street” (1953)----he was as good as anyone in Hollywood in portraying the slimy, amoral criminal who stalked the shadowy alleyways where post-war evil seemed to reside. His piercing eyes and high-pitched laugh distinguished him from countless other noir stars.

Widmark could also be effective as a hero; his best work in that type role was as public health official in Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950) and as a no-nonsense police detective in Don Siegel’s “Madigan” (1968), his last important role. He also played Jim Bowie in John Wayne’s epic “The Alamo” and was a lawyer in “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961).

Dassin was a director on the rise, having made the two realistic crime pictures, “Brute Force” (1947) starring Burt Lancaster and the gritty “The Naked City” (1948) before making “Night and the City,” his best film. The next year his membership in the Communist Party during the 1930s caught up with him as blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk named him before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Blacklisted by Hollywood, he moved to France where he directed the heist picture “Rififi” (1955), which became an international critical favorite, in part because of his exile status. His celebrity level rose again when he married Greek actress and political activist Melina Mercuri, elevating their unwatchable, cloying Greek-language travelogue “Never on Sunday” (1960) into a world-wide box-office hit. Inexplicably, it earned him Oscar nominations for directing and writing.

Dassin returned to Hollywood to make a pleasant, but forgettable caper film “Topkapi” (1964). He died in Greece at age 96.

“Night and the City” appropriately opens at night with Widmark’s Harry Fabian running through the back streets of London to escape a creditor. Fabian ducks into the apartment of his loyal girlfriend (Gene Tierney) and rifles through her purse for cash. Always looking for the angle, gambling with other people’s money and taking advantage of friendships, Harry thinks he’s found a winning ticket when he overhears an argument between Kristo (Herbert Lom), the top wrestling promoter in London, and his father, a legendary Greek wrestler. He partners with the father to promote a more classic style of wrestling much to Kristo displeasure.

Harry’s downfall comes when he puts his trust in the nightclub owner he works for (tricking big-spending tourists into the club), who is backing him in the scheme. The rotund Francis L. Sullivan (the Sidney Greenstreet of the story) gives a memorable performance as the club owner, who believes his wife and Fabian are involved and playing him for a sucker. He ruthlessly takes vengeance.

This dark, brutal picture (the bone-crushing wrestling scenes are hard to watch) hasn’t lost a bit of its impact more than a half-century after its release. Dassin and cinematographer Max Greene make every shot a study in corruption and deceit and Widmark and Sullivan and the rest of the superb cast deliver each of screenwriter Jo Eisinger’s lines as if their life depended on it.

I had completely forgotten that Don Rickles has a supporting role in this World War II submarine thriller until I saw a clip of it in a Rickles’ documentary (more on that next month). I’d watched bits and pieces of the film over the years, but never seen it from start to finish. While its theme---a seemingly over-the-hill commander earns the respect of the younger, ambitious officer----is as old as fiction itself, the film’s offers a pair of fine star performances by Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, vying for the loyalty of the crew, and exceptional direction by Robert Wise, capturing the claustrophobic, nerve-racking intensity of sea battles fought from a submarine.

Rickles is quite good as the crew member who serves as the much-needed comic relief after task-master Richardson (Gable) takes over the ship that the crew assumed would be commanded by Bledsoe (Lancaster). Questionable maneuvers by Richardson spur a very unhappy crew to talk of mutiny, as he leads them into the dangerous Bongo Straits, where a Japanese destroy has been knocking out every U.S. sub (including one previous commanded by Richardson) within earshot. Gable, looking older than his 57 years (he would died of a heart attack two years later), remains a dynamic screen presence and dominates every scene he’s in. Lancaster, in the less interesting role, delivers a solid performance as the tough but fair officer.

Despite the star power, this is the director’s movie. Wise, before he became the helmer of overblown Hollywood extravaganzas---“West Side Story” (1961) “The Sound of Music” (1965), “The Hindenburg” (1975)---was one of the best filmmakers of the 1940s and ‘50s. After working with Orson Welles as an editor on “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), Wise made interesting pictures in almost every genre, including “The Body Snatchers” (1945), “Born to Kill” (1946), “Blood on the Moon” (1948), “The Set-Up” (1949), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Executive Suite” (1954) and, even after he started collecting his Oscars, “The Haunting” (1963).

The best thing about this plodding, cliché-riddled romantic comedy is a subplot involving Eli Wallach, 91 when the film was released, who plays a long-retired screenwriter living alone in a Beverly Hill mansion. Wallach, who had been acting for 25 years before any of the stars of this film were born (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslett and Jack Black), steals every scene he’s in as his curmudgeonly Arthur Abbott takes a liking to Winslett’s Iris, a Brit who’s spending Christmas in Beverly Hills.

Arthur, a feisty and fascinating tribute to the great screenwriters of the past, schools Iris on the classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Era, tells stories about Louis B. Mayer and trades jokes with his buddies, played by comic Shelley Berman and Bill Macy, of “Maude” fame. It would have been a much better film if the story had been about Wallach and Winslett, a great actress who finds a way to make her character believable despite the wordy, meandering script. Instead, most of the film’s indulgent 138-minutes go back and forth between Diaz’s L.A.-based movie trailer maker and Winslett’s journalist who lives in Surrey, England, who have traded houses for two weeks after traumatic breakups. Immediately, Law, for once playing a sensitive guy, falls for Diaz and Jack Black starts hanging out with Winslett and Wallach. (Black, playing a film composer, does a funny bit in which he sings classic music scores in a video story, but mostly he’s wasted.)

Writer-director Nancy Meyers used a different set of clichés in her 2003 film, “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), but that picture was saved by charismatic performances by Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. In “The Holiday,” she had another old pro on hand in Wallach but she was too interested in the foolishness of young love.

You don’t usually look to a Bob Hope comedy for social commentary, but this simple-minded sex romp set in a planned community in the San Fernando Valley makes a stab at examining the ramifications of suburban living. The silly setup has A.J. Niles (Hope), the author of books about the sex mores of various countries, returning to the U.S. to find that his manager has swindled him and he owes thousands to the IRS. Deciding to focus his newest study on life in the suburbs, he rents a home in “Paradise,” a state-of-the-art housing development that caters to young families.

Even though he hides his true identity, the developer of the community (Don Porter, the dad from “Gidget”) immediately senses trouble because Hope is a “bachelor.” I guess in 1961, a 58-year-old bachelor (Hope age at the time, though he’s playing a decade younger) was seen as a corrupting force. Of course, no one ever suggests that he might be gay---now that would have made for a helluva Bob Hope movie.

Lana Turner, as Porter’s assistant, plays the stereotypical working woman who can’t be seduced while Janis Paige, wearing low-cut dresses in the afternoon, plays Porter’s unhappy wife who throws herself at Hope. Typical of movies from that era, the leading man, no matter how much of a rogue he’s portrayed as, is really an upstanding gentleman who rejects any opportunity for one-night stands. Instead, Hope’s Niles holds afternoon cocktail parties for the neighborhood wives and gives them suggestions on spicing up their marriages.

He becomes especially chummy with the next-door neighbor played by Paula Prentiss, to the point where her husband (Jim Hutton) assumes she’s having an affair with Hope. (Hutton becomes so distraught when his wife dyes her hair that he goes on a drunken bender).

Hope, as usual, delivers his sarcastic commentary as if he’s alone on stage, but his one-liners about cookie-cutter houses, snarled California freeways, humdrum jobs and the sterile atmosphere of this “Paradise” cut out of a side of a hill add some bite to an otherwise dated movie.

Director Jack Arnold, who helmed such sci-fi classics as “It Came from Outer Space” (1953) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), does little more than keep Hope in the middle of the frame and fails miserable to make 40-year-old Turner look the least bit glamorous.

Just when you thought that every possible story line of the Nazi concentration camps had been tapped, a fresh, memorable and heartbreaking tale makes it to the screen. This German picture, winner of the 2007 best foreign film Oscar, follows a notorious Jewish counterfeiter after he’s sent to the death camps in 1936 and then used by a Nazi commandant to head an elaborate operation to forge both British pounds and American dollars in hopes of damaging the allies’ economy.

Karl Markovics stars as the intense, morally conflicted forger Sally Sorowitsch who takes pride in his work even as he’s helping his oppressors; his philosophy is to do whatever allows him to survive another day. That thinking is challenged by one of his fellow counterfeiters as the pressure to deliver fake dollars increases as the Germans begin losing the war.

One of the strengths of the film is its depiction of the closed society created by the Nazi for the counterfeiter experts. Even as the threat of death hangs over them, they are treated a thousand times better than the rest of the interned Jews. Writer-director Stefen Ruzowitzky is able to show both the horrors of the Holocaust and a group of men who have a choice about their role in these traumatic events.

Markovics, one of the stars of a long running crime show on German TV, is able create a character that is both an everyman caught up in extraordinary circumstances and a sly, ruthless criminal who in many ways fits in well with the Nazis. Matching his performance is August Diehl, one of Germans biggest stars, who plays Burger, a prisoner who questions Sally’s motivations and morality. The film is based on a book by Burger.

I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing when a film shifts back and forth between documentary and mockumentary, but that’s the only way to explain this oddball, straight-to-cable project by Jeff Goldblum.

It feels bogus from the start when the actor announces to his stunned agent that he’s planning to return to his hometown of Pittsburgh to star in a local production of “The Music Man.” Goldblum’s motivation is equally suspect; his latest girlfriend (Catherine Wreford) is a Canadian dancer-singer trying to secure her green card and co-starring in this musical will help her immigration status.

Along the way, Goldblum recruits a pair of Hollywood friends, Ed Begley Jr. (poking fun at his “green” persona) and Illeana Douglas, who, at least in Goldblum’s version of things, was having an affair with rock singer Moby, as co-stars. We also meet Goldblum’s mother and step-father (who looks to be just a few years older than Jeff), but the whole time you’re wondering: are these the real people or actors playing them?

If I hadn’t grown up in a town not far from Pittsburgh, I doubt I would have stayed with this strange vanity project, though the city turns out to be little more than a bit player.

At the heart of the documentary is Goldblum, looking like a fish out of water but ever the trooper, as he rehearses for his role of Harold Hill, struggling to please the group’s less-than-impressed director. While there’s no question that Goldblum, Begley, Douglas and Wreford performed in a Pittsburgh production of “The Music Man,” everything else that happens is up for debate, especially the actor’s persistent agent who keeps telling him what a mistake he’s making. Even Goldblum’s and Wreford’s relationship is hard to buy as they show little chemistry on screen and no effort is made to show her talent or personality (apparently, soon after the play closed they parted ways).

Director Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBranche----better know for their documentary “Fired!” about an actress dumped from the cast of a Woody Allen movie----keep things interesting by never lingering on one scene for very long. And, in a roundabout way, the film does make some good points about how the trappings of stardom limit what an actor can do. But most of “Pittsburgh” is just Jeff Goldblum pulling our legs and having a grand time doing it.

Another famous entertainer from Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol, is center stage in this tawdry, gossipy movie about one of his supporting players, model-heiress Edie Sedgwick. As an art student anxious for the glamorous life, Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) heads for New York City and, seemingly, within weeks is part of Warhol’s infamous “Factory,” where the young and beautiful do drugs, make movies, create art, but, most importantly, suck up to Warhol’s fragile ego.

Miller’s Sedgwick lives life as if there’s no tomorrow, full of energy and a sense of adventure, which, for about 15 minutes, makes her a star of the New York social scene. Inevitably, she attracts attention (in the form of a smarmy Hayden Christensen as a Dylan-like pop star), which doesn’t meet with the approval of her mentor and her downward spiral begins.

Just as he was in the more interesting “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996), the pop artist is portrayed as a cruel, self-loathing, insecure dictator who demands 100% loyalty while offering none. An unrecognizable Guy Pearce, the Australian actor best known for playing the good cop in “L.A. Confidential,” is very convincing as this film’s Warhol. Yet I have no idea how close to the truth this portrayal is.

Miller, as beautiful as the real Sedgwick, creates some touching moments as drugs and rejection take their toll on the one-time glamour queen, but the role is such hoary cliché of the spoiled, entitled debutant gone bad that you’re never surprised, or care, about Edie’s fate. Sedgwick’s lasting contribution to pop culture was, reportedly, inspiring the Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” a milestone of the rock era. But in “Factory Girl,” she seems to be nothing more than a star-struck spoiled child.

While not as ambitious as his state-of-the-art concert film “The Last Waltz” (1978) or his definitive documentary of Bob Dylan’s early years, “No Direction Home” (2005), Martin Scorsese’s latest rock entry offers audiences the best seat in the house for an energetic, free-wheeling concert by the amazing Rolling Stones. Scorsese films the performance (a two-night charity gig at New York’s intimate Beacon Theater) as if it’s musical theater, exploring every angle of the stage and capturing the playful interaction between 64-year-old Keith Richards and 60-year-old Ronnie Wood, the stoic professionalism of 66-year-old Charlie Watts and the incredible presence of the razor-thin, charismatic 64-year-old leading man, Mick Jagger. (While writing those ages makes me feel old….watching this performance made me feel young.)

Before the concert, we’re given a glimpse of the “making of” as long-distance negotiations go on between the frantic director and the reluctant star. Jagger seems intent on offering as little cooperation as possible, to the point that Scorsese struggles to even get a set list before the night of the show.

The performance is interspersed with old clips of TV interviews with the Stones, which basically serve as a reminder that these wrinkled old men once were the bad boys of the music world.

If you’re a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, this is first rate entertainment. But other than being the most impressively photographed concert ever (director of photography Robert Richardson along with fellow Oscar-winning cameramen John Toll, Andrew Lesnie and Robert Elswit are among the film’s all-star crew), I did wonder why one of the world’s greatest filmmaker was making concert film, especially of the much-filmed Stones.

Scorsese has always been a rock fanatic and has used the music in his movies as well as anyone (remember Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy walking into the bar as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” blares on the soundtrack of “Mean Streets”?), but wouldn’t I rather see him use his time to create another scorching drama? Or maybe he sees these musical forays as a break from the intensity of fictional filmmaking (among his upcoming projects is a documentary on George Harrison). After all the bloodletting in “The Departed,” he probably needed to film something in which no one dies.

Clearly, the music of the last half of the Twentieth Century has been a major influence on our best filmmakers as they keep paying homage to those artists.

Jonathan Demme, who earlier did the Talking Heads’ concert film “Stop Making Sense,” filmed a Neil Young performance in “Heart of Gold” (2006), Peter Bogdanovich this year chronicled Tom Petty for cable and Rob Marshall (of “Chicago” fame) helmed the 2006 TV special, “Tony Bennett: An American Classic.” Among the directors, Scorsese recruited for his PBS series “The Blues” were Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders and Mike Figgis. And Oscar-nominated Julian Schnabel has directed a Lou Reed concert film expected to be released this year.

     While seeing a concert on film can’t come close to the experience of seeing a performer live, it does preserve the performance and offer a glimmer of what made it so unforgettable for those who were there. Scorsese does that superbly in “Shine a Light.”

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