Sunday, September 21, 2008

August 2003


NORTHFORK (2003)
I have absolutely no clue as to what this movie is about. From what I could figure out from the disjointed storyline and elliptical dialogue, a Midwestern town, named Northfork is about to be flooded over and the residents are in the process of relocating.

The film focuses on a group of “evacuators”; government workers who go house to house to make sure everyone gets out. And if they need assistance, the residents are offered a pair of angel wings. That’s right, angel wings. Apparently, this part of the country is just flush with angels.

In fact, the other strain of plot involves an ill young boy, under the care of a minister, who dreams that he meets a group of angels in one of the town’s abandoned houses. At least, I think he dreams it. Maybe they’re actually there.

I went to this movie with high expectations. I had enjoyed “Twin Falls, Idaho,” the 1999 film made by Mark and Michael Polish, twin brothers who write, direct and act. In that movie, the brothers play conjoined twins who are befriended by a sympathetic prostitute as they face the possibility of the death of one twins.

“Twin Falls, Idaho” is a well made, smartly written look at a group of outsiders who find something to live for. The brothers also wrote, directed and acted in “Jackpot” (2001), which I haven’t seen.

“Northfork,” which features such name actors as Nick Nolte, James Woods, Peter Coyote and Daryl Hannah, is a stupefying mess that is so clever and hip that it went right over my head. What I kept thinking as I was watching this disaster was whether Nolte or Woods had any more clue as to what was going on than I did. I doubt if they knew what half the lines they said even meant. Of course, that’s assuming they meant anything.

There are some impressive images in the film, and maybe that’s what critics like Ebert and other respected writers are responding to as they write positive reviews. But when the story and dialogue range from muddled to nonsensical, all the pretty pictures in the world can’t win me over.


MASKED AND ANONYMOUS (2003)
You’ll go a long time before you see a stranger dude as the star actor of a movie than Bob Dylan. At age 62, the legendary singer-songwriter remains a vital force in rock ‘n’ roll. His last two albums are among the best he’s produced in the past 20 years and his stage shows remain memorable. As an actor, Dylan shows the screen presence of a worn-out old man slipping into senility. The slight, tilting, pasty Dylan makes Woody Allen look like a matinee hunk.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this overwrought 1960s throwback that is part social criticism and part pseudo biography of the songwriter. He plays Jake Fate, a has-been living legend who is sprung from jail to perform at a benefit concert. Oh, and by the way, the United States has become a third-world dictatorship run by a strange combination of Asians, Mexicans and Fate’s father and brother. If you’re going to see this movie (though I’m sure it’s closed by now almost everywhere), don’t read further because the stunt casting is half the fun. But just for starters, Dylan’s twin (huh?) brother is played by an almost unrecognizable Mickey Rourke.

The real stars of this circus-like movie are Jeff Bridges as a cynical journalist (are there any other kind in the movies?) and John Goodman as a sleazy concert promoter. Bridges and Goodman are great together (old bowling pals from “The Big Lebowski”) but the best scenes are when Bridges begins ranting to a silent Dylan about Woodstock and Hendrix and the social responsibility of rock ‘n’ roll. The script, by director Larry Charles (who wrote for the TV series “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld”) and Bob Dylan, soars as Bridges’ character lovingly recalls Jimi’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“Masked and Anonymous” is so far over-the-top that it barely qualifies as a movie. But it’s worth seeing just for Bridges, a tempestuous Jessica Lange and a very weird cameo by Ed Harris as a long-dead vaudevillian who appears in blackface.

Ironically, Angela Bassett, who criticized Halle Berry for playing “a prostitute” in “Monster’s Ball” and claimed she would never play that type of role, plays a prostitute.

Of course, in the handful of performance scenes, Dylan and his band are exhilarating as they rework a couple of Dylan classics and do a moving version of “Dixie.”

Part Terry Gilliam, part Coen brothers, “Masked and Anonymous” is a cluttered, bleeding-heart art film and probably would have been a big hit in 1974. Now it’s just an odd, rambling curio, but for those of us who wish it was still 1974, this movie is quite an enjoyable ride.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:
THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)

It’s hard to take seriously a movie based on a Disneyland ride. (During the interminable trailers before the film, clips were shown of Eddie Murphy starring in “The Haunted Mansion.”) This standard-issue pirate yarn is full of stiff-upper-lipped Brits, cursed gold, one-eyed seamen and enough blarney to bury the Spanish fleet.

The only thing that elevates this slick and sanitized Disney product is an outrageous turn by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a legendary pirate who finds himself without a ship or crew. He sashays through the film as if no one informed him that this was a by-the-numbers, lifeless entertainment, spitting out his lines like a slumming Shakespearean stuck in a road show of “Mame.” I can’t say it’s a great performance, but it’s as distinctive and entertaining as you’re likely to see this year.


 I’ve read that Depp drew his inspiration for his heavy makeup and half-drunk demeanor from rocker Keith Richards. That’s admirable. While Dylan and Jagger have attempted to make their mark in movies, Richards should have. He’s one of the most bizarre characters of our time and, I have no doubt, under the right director, could have turned in at least one memorable film performance. But until that happens, we have Depp’s version.


THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (2003)
Alan Rudolph, who has made a career directing movies about quirky unattached men and woman, usually lonely, drifting and in search of something they’ll likely never find, would be the last candidate to be behind the camera for a domestic comedy. But this isn’t your typical domestic comedy. The script, by Craig Lucas from a novella by Jane Smiley, beautifully straddles the real and the surreal, the comic and the poignant, and manages to present the chaotic hell of family life while at the same time showing why it’s so central to these people’s lives.

I usual can barely tolerate movies with children as the focus, but that’s because American movies invariably use them in a family setting as either forgettable props, comic distractions or sentimental clich├ęs. All three of these young girls, whose parents, David and Dana Hurst share a dental practice, are written and acted as individuals, with different needs and problems that must be handled in separate ways by their parents. Every screenwriter that cares about writing real juvenile characters should watch this film over and over again.

Both for the depiction of the children and the subtle and perfectly acted conflicts between the parents, Rudolph’s film most resembles the underrated Alan Parker film “Shoot the Moon” (1982), which stars Albert Finney and Diane Keaton.

Campbell Scott and Hope Davis star as the dentists, who seem to have a typical married-with-three-kids life, until, early in the film, David sees his wife passionately kiss another man. The rest of the film is about him coming to grips with this tragic turn in his marriage without confronting his wife about it. The centerpiece of the picture is five long days during which each member of the family falls ill to the flu. The sequence is a model of superb filmmaking; Rudolph uses this most mundane of life’s travails to show how the power the family as a collective unit overcomes the troubles of the couple.

Yet as well drawn as the daily interaction of this family is, what elevates “The Secret Lives of Dentists” to among the best movies of 2003 is the presence of David’s imaginary alter-ego character, played with sneering verve by Dennis Leary. The script allows Leary to spit out the wise-ass comments from a thousand standup routines about marital life, but his interaction goes much further. He gives voice to the darker side of the passive David, providing a novel presentation of his interior thoughts.

Rudolph’s last few films has been straining too hard to recapture the quirkiness of his early works, such as “Welcome to L.A.” (1977), “Chose Me” (1984) and “The Moderns” (1988). With “Dentists,” he offers a different strain of his offbeat sensibilities, not a tired retread, while rediscovering his pitch-perfect ear for pointed dialogue.


SOYLENT GREEN (1973)
It’s hard to believe that Charlton Heston was the star of a movie that offers dire warnings about overpopulation and environmental abuse and features as the bad guys a heartlessly corrupt corporation. His current GOP buddies would be very disappointed.

I’d seen this sci-fi classic years ago on commercial television, sliced and diced to fit into a time slot and accommodate dozens of ads, so I felt like I was seeing it for the first time. This 1984-like look at New York City in the year 2022, with homeless people crammed every inch of space, self-generated electricity and the availability of meat, vegetables and fruits limited to the very rich remains both believable (if unlikely) and fascinating in its focus on details. The masses survive on small square wafers that come in different colors, manufactured from soybeans and lentils, according to the food company. The most popular variety is Soylent Green.

The plot revolves around the killing of a Soylent company executive (Joseph Cotton) and detective Thorn’s (Heston) investigation into the case.

It actually is one of Heston’s better performances, but the best reason to watch the film is for Edward G. Robinson’s final screen appearance. He plays Heston’s roommate and assistant who serves as the moral center of the film, reminding his friend of the beauty of a world long lost. It’s a touching performance especially knowing that the legendary actor died just days after filming was completed.

WITNESS TO MURDER (1954)

As great an actress as Barbara Stanwyck was, her stock in Hollywood fell quickly once she reached her early 40s. You hear current actresses complaining about the lack of good roles for “older” women, but it’s always been the same. Most of the great actresses of the 1930s and ‘40s were given little to do in the 1950s while most of the era’s lesser lights retired or moved on to television.

Stanwyck, who became a star in the early 1930s, was well into her declining years when she starred in this B-level thriller at age 47. In a plot with similarities to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” released the same year, Stanwyck’s Cheryl, awakened from her sleep, witnesses a murder in an apartment across the street.

The cops investigate and find no evidence, but Cheryl refuses to give up, setting up a battle of wits between her and Richter (George Sanders), the man she saw strangle a woman. The only pleasure of the movie is watching Richter play his mind games with the police and Cheryl, which eventually send her to an asylum. The plot becomes increasingly melodramatic, especially after Richter starts shouting, in German of course, his superior-race philosophy. Stanwyck doesn’t give a bad performance, but the plot-heavy script offers her little opportunity to do much more than look confused while everyone else stands around talking about how crazy she is.

YELLOW SKY (1948)

Few of the Gregory Peck obits even mentioned this Western as being among his top films and until recently I only knew it as a title I had yet to see in director William A. Wellman filmography. Then a friend cited it as among the best Westerns of the late 1940s and urged me to track it down. Finally, after more than a year of waiting for it to show up on TV, I recorded it off AMC.

“Yellow Sky” is just as good, maybe better, than “The Gunfighter” (1951), the film regularly cited as Peck’s best Western. This is an extremely dark, unsentimental tale; as cynical as any Budd Boetticher or Sam Peckinpah horse opera.

Peck’s Stretch leads a deceptively low-key group of five men that casually ride into a small town and rob its bank, barely breaking a sweat. But when a posse takes chase, the gang is forced to escape across a seemingly endless stretch of desert. As the sheriff says as the posse watches them ride off into the arid flat, “Let ‘em go. Save us the trouble of hanging them.”

Shot in Death Valley, the mostly wordless journey across the parched flatland quickly establishes the film as something out of the ordinary. No clever jokes or words of support for one another are offered to ease the intensity of this life-and-death struggle. When they arrive at a dilapidated, gold-rush ghost town and collapse in a heap on the town’s main street you’d think they’d be overjoyed that there’s water to be had. But very quickly they are plotting against the two lone residents of the town, an old man and his granddaughter (Anne Baxer) and eventually turn on one another.

In addition to Peck, excellent performances are delivered by Richard Widmark as Dude, the snarling, weaselly rival to Stretch and John Russell, whose interest in “romancing” Baxter is blocked by the more gentlemanly Stretch.

Wellman--behind the camera for the first Academy Award best picture, “Wings” (1927) and such landmark films as “A Star Is Born” (1937), “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) and “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945)--turns what could have been a pedestrian cowboy picture into a memorable study of bad men under extreme duress. The scenes on Death Valley and the final shoot-out inside a deserted saloon are especially impressive.

The film’s superb writing was the combination of two of the most important wordsmiths of the American cinema: Lamar Trotti, whose writing credits include “The Ox Bow Incident” and “The Razor’s Edge” (1946) and novelist W.R. Burnett, who also wrote the novels “High Sierra” and “The Asphalt Jungle.”

TORRENT (1926)
Greta Garbo’s first American silent is a well-made, economically told story of a Spanish peasant girl who goes to Paris and becomes a famous opera singer. Despite her many affairs, she still carries a flame for her hometown love, an aristocrat (Ricardo Cortez) who was stopped from seeing her by his snooty mother. Returning home just in time for Cortez’s election to mayor and on the eve of his marriage to the daughter of a rich pig farmer, Garbo flaunts her success and beauty in an attempt to win him back.

Even before censorship codified plots in Hollywood, the idea that a woman could live an independent life AND be happy went against all prevailing sensibilities. In so many Garbo pictures, she is seen as proud and successful and laughing on the outside while remaining unfulfilled because she remains alone. The concept of having it all was a half century away.

The other consistent characteristic of Garbo films is the presence of monkeys. What was the deal with pet monkeys in the early part of the century? I’ve also seen Dietrich films in which she keeps monkeys as pets. Seems like any rich, flamboyant, artistic-inclined woman of the era immediately went out and acquired a pet monkey. Clearly it was some type of status symbol that, thank God, quickly went out of fashion.

SEABISCUIT (2003)
This film marks a curious first: Seventy years from the midst of the Great Depression, Hollywood has made a movie that assumes the audience doesn’t know the basic facts of this era. Director Gary Ross chose to not only hit the audience over the head with a history lesson, but instead of doing it in the context of the film, inserts Ken Burns-like black-and-white photo assemblages, replete with David Attenborough narration, jarring the flow of the story. It’s shameless filmmaking, as it plays to the easiest, tear-jerking emotions and does it without working those scenes into the script.

At least I can report that Ross’ foolish use of the historical photos doesn’t ruin what would have been a good film. There was nothing to ruin. There isn’t a single line of original, sincere dialogue in “Seabiscuit” or a character we haven’t seen in dozens of films. Every plot turn is signaled with leaden dialogue and obvious setups. I kept waiting for Jeff Bridges (who plays the horse’s owner) or Chris Cooper (the horse’s trainer) to say anything that didn’t sound like it had been engraved on a gold plate and prepared to hang over a mantle.

If you don’t know the plot of “Seabiscuit,” welcome back from your six-month safari in the African jungle. Basically, it’s the true tale of a race horse that was popular in the 1930s.

This film should have been made in 1940--about the last year it would have come off as slightly original--starring Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan and Mickey Rooney. And, trust me, no one would have been talking about Academy Awards for it. But in 2003, this well-acted, golden-lighted production is a prestige movie and as of Sept. 1, the odds-on favorite for best picture.

The horse racing scenes are beautifully choreographed and photographed and deserve to be surrounded by a much better movie.

CROSSROADS (1942)
Amnesia may be the most overused dramatic device in the history of film. Here, a French diplomat is accused of having been a criminal before an accident erased any memory of his former life.

The strength of this Jack Conway-directed film is that as the film nears the end you will probably be as unsure as I was about the diplomat’s guilt or innocence. The only reason it works is William Powell.

Though he rarely ventured far from his screen image as a quick-witted sophisticate who knows the difference between a gimlet and a greyhound, Powell was among the most skillful actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In movies since 1922, Powell was 40 when “The Thin Man” (1932) made him a major star. He had his best year in 1936 when he starred as the famed Broadway showman Flo Ziegfeld in “The Great Ziegfeld” (Academy Award best picture winner), made another romp with Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in “Another Thin Man,” gave his finest performance as a rich man turned butler serving Carole Lombard (an ex-wife) in “My Man Godfrey,” and as part of the scheme, with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow (Powell’s real-life fiancee), to trick an arrogant heiress (Loy) in “Libeled Lady.”

Among the lesser-known highlights of his career are “Jewel Robbery” (1932), “One-Way Passage” (1932) and “The Kennel Murder Case” (1933). With his breezy acting style and commanding screen presence, he makes nearly every film he appeared in an entertaining experience.

Powell’s best late-career role was as the imperious matriarch in the classic family comedy-drama “Life With Father” (1947). His final role was in “Mister Roberts” (1955), as the ship’s doctor and Robert’s confidant.


DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (2003)
By focusing on believable stories about believable people and not on big action that captures big audiences, three Brits have moved to the top of the filmmaking heap. Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, over the past 10 years, have consistently produced interesting, provocative, emotionally truthful films while their American counterparts worry about the weekend box office results.

Frears, who directed “Dirty Pretty Things, has been the most diverse of the three. This multi-layered tale of immigrant workers at a London hotel follows his hilarious and poignant film version of Nick Hornby’s romantic-comedy novel, “High Fidelity,” the best movie of 2000; a live production of “Fail Safe” for American television the same year and “Liam” (2001), a memorable look at a poor family in 1930s England and the church’s complicity in their suffering.

The director has long been interested in Britain’s multi-culturalism, having first made his mark in features with “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985). His new film goes deeper into the unending travails faced by those hoping to go from illegal to citizen in good standing. At the center of “Dirty Pretty Things”--the title refers to how those in the service industry help make the dirty things done by the natives pretty again--is Okwe, a Nigerian working nights as a hotel clerk and days as a taxi driver, and Senay, a pretty Turkish illegal who works as a maid at the hotel. While the plot involves the selling of kidneys for passports, the focus is on the evolving relationship of Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Senay (Audrey Tautou, who starred in “Amelie”) and the complex, corrupt world of London immigrants that exists like a parallel universe.

A great script by Steven Knight (part of the team of writers that invented “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”), moody cinematography by Chris Menges, movie newcomer Ejiofor astonishing performance and crisp direction by Frears combine to make this something very alien to Hollywood: an intelligent, realistic portrayal of people near the bottom of the social stratum.





AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003)
Journalists are taught to never use the word unique; it signifies such exclusivity that as a description the word is invariably an exaggeration. But I’m willing to go out on limb and say that among the thousand of movies I’ve seen, spanning more than 100 years of cinema, “American Splendor” is truly unique. In telling the story of Cleveland comic book writer Harvey Pekar, documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have combined elements of the standard movie bio-pic, animated drawings of Pekar from his comic series “American Splendor” and interviews with the real-life Pekar, including clips from his combative appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman” in the 1980s. Their accomplishment of turning these divergent techniques into a coherent movie can’t be overstated. I’m not sure if they’ve made a very good movie, but they’ve made an amazing one.

I had a few problems with the film. As interesting a character as Pekar is, he’s unchanging. What you learn about the unhappy file clerk in the opening frames of the film is all you’ll ever learn over the next 101-minute movie. As played by Paul Giamatti, in what seems to be a brilliant imitation, this curmudgeon, who turns his dull life into a cult comic book, grumbles through life, unsatisfied by the love of a wife or his surprising national fame. That in itself is an interesting concept, but even his bitterness isn’t explored. Why he continues to hate life is never investigated, just illustrated.

And because there’s no arc to the character, every time the real Pekar appears on screen I wanted more of him. In the handful of documentary scenes, he’s twice as compelling as Giamatti playing him. And, seemingly, not near as nice a person as he’s portrayed in the film.

I expected a much funnier film than I saw, but that isn’t really fair criticism. That expectation came from seeing the trailer that has played in theaters for the last couple of months. Most of the laughs come from two characters as original as Pekar: his hypochondriacal wife Joyce, wonderfully played by Hope Davis; and oddball co-worker Toby, hilariously portrayed by Judah Friedlander.

Despite my reservations, you’d be crazy to miss this movie. How can you pass up anything that can honestly be called unique?

ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003)
If I was 22 years old, I’m sure I’d just love this film. Spare, unstructured and with dialogue that half the time feels improvised, this slight, doomed romance between a young man with numerous conquests and the virginal sister of his best friend is at its best when capturing the frustrating limitations of a small town and the people that are stuck there.

This is the second film by writer-director David Gordon Green, whose first film, “George Washington” (2000) made more than a few Top 10 lists (I’ve yet to see it). The find of this movie is Zooey Deschanel, playing the inexperienced Noel. The actress gave an hilarious performance in the Jennifer Aniston film “The Good Girl” as the clerk who said outrageous things over the store intercom. Here she’s the star and manages to capture all the hot-and-cold aspects of young love and the sincere confusion of youth.

OPEN RANGE (2003)
Like many star actors of the past 20 years, Kevin Costner has made a bunch of bad movies. He’s not the kind of actor that can carry a film, but used properly his aloof , abrasive nature can be an asset. Costner was perfectly cast in “Bull Durham” (1988), JFK (1991), “A Perfect World” (1993) and “Tin Cup” (1996) and he’s just as good in this self-directed Western.

The best news about “Open Range” is that it’s a complete different type of Western than “Dances With Wolves,” Costner’s Oscar-winning revisionist look at cowboys and Indians. Though way overrated, I thought “Dances” was a good film, but his new film, at least until the final 15 minutes, is much better. You never feel, despite the presence of as many clich├ęs as “Seabiscuit,” that these are characters you’ve seen before.

Costner plays Charley Waite, the right-hand man of Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), who with two other cowboys, move their cattle through the open range of the West, circa 1882. When one of their hands doesn’t return from a trip to a nearby town, Charley and Boss investigate. What they find is a town run by Irish rancher (the great Michael Gambon), who is used to having his own way and hates those who make their living “open grazing.” The simplicity of the plot turns out to be one of the film’s strengths.

Costner’s decision to let Duvall carry the film separates “Open Range” from “Dances With Wolves.” The film doesn’t have the stench of a vanity project like so many Costner-directed (or controlled) movies. Of course, considering the overacting that Duvall has displayed in recent roles, that too could have spelled disaster. Instead, Duvall rises to the occasional, giving the kind of original, screen-filling performance he did in the miniseries “Lonesome Dove” and many other times in his long career.

This isn’t a great Western, but it falls in the reverend tradition of Ford and Hawks, both in the way the incredible landscape (along with its weather conditions) becomes part of the story and how the town’s citizens get involved in the fight. This gunfight means more than just two outsiders seeking justice from an unjust tyrant; it becomes a revolution by the town folks.

If “Open Range” had ended with its epic gun battle it would have been a much more satisfying experience. Instead, it goes on for another 15 minutes, needlessly, clumsily and obviously, wrapping up lose ends, mostly involving Charley’s romance with the doctor’s sister (Annette Bening). It plays like Costner took another hour of film and sliced it down to its coda length. Worst of all, it takes the focus away from Duvall’s Boss, who for the first 7/8 of the film is center stage.

Despite the sour taste I was left with, it was great to see a well-made, superbly acted Western, a genre that Hollywood (where it was invented) seems to have forgotten how to make.

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