Tuesday, September 23, 2008

August 2004

Made famous by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, which was a staple of literature classes in the 20th Century, the disastrous charge by British cavalry into the cannon fire of Russian troops in 1854 serves as the climax of this strange combination of romantic epic and anti-war satire.

Despite the impressive array of talent involved-director Tony Richardson and a cast that includes John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, at the time the director's wife-the film has all the vigor of a cold cup of tea. David Hemmings stars as a seasoned soldier just back from India who falls for newlywed Redgrave, while he and her husband (Mark Burns) train for war under iron-fisted commander Trevor Howard. The film becomes vaguely interesting when Hemmings becomes the focus of Howard's wrath over the presence of a beer bottle during an officers' dinner.

The romance of this film fails because both Hemmings and Burns are deadly dull-it's just not believable that a woman that looks like 31-year-old Redgrave could be interested in either of them. The satirical aspect of the film comes in small doses and doesn't pack much of a punch. Howard is insane and Gielgud, playing the supreme commander of the British troops, is a bumbling fool, but that doesn't become the movie's focus until the final battle scenes. Beautifully shot (by David Watkin), but directed without much clarity as to why the British are failing, the open field engagement with the Russians ends with 247 Brits dead or wounded out of the 637 in the charge.

The English and its allies Turkey and France eventually prevailed in the Crimean War and stopped the Russian takeover of Turkey and Palestine, among other lands. How that finally happened might have been a better movie.

This was a rare failure for Richardson, one of the finest filmmakers of the 1960s. His movies during the decade include "The Entertainer" (1960), featuring one of Laurence Olivier's greatest performances as a broken down vaudevillian; "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1962), a moving story of youthful rebellion; the sex romp "Tom Jones" (1963), nominated for 10 Academy Awards and winning Oscars for best picture and best director; and a classic comedy about death, "The Loved One" (1965). His film career in the 1970s and beyond never matched his early work but his final film, "Blue Sky" (1994), released posthumously, earned Jessica Lange an Academy Award for best actress.

Yet another boring epic from 1968 (there were so many in the 1960s), this adaptation of Morris West's best seller tells the unlikely story of a Russian priest who, soon after his release following many years in prison camps, becomes pope. That aspect of the film, filled with philosophical discussions about the meaning of the church and Christ in modern society, is engaging and might have been a good movie.

But intermingled with theological debates are ridiculous storylines about China threatening to nuke the Soviets so they can feed their starving masses and the love life of an American reporter covering the Vatican. Lumberingly directed by Michael Anderson, the film gives both issues equal weight. Whether reporter David Janssen chooses his wife or mistress comes off as just as worrisome as the Communist superpowers lobbing nuclear bombs at each other.

The only saving grace-other than the endless shots of the architecture of Vatican City-comes from the performance of Anthony Quinn as Pope Kiril I, an intellectual Catholic who is also a humble everyman (a few winters in the Gulag will do that to you) capable of saying prayers with a Jewish family and negotiating with Soviet and Chinese leaders. Quinn, one of the most prolific actors of the 20th Century, who appearing in over 150 films in a 66-year career, gives a quiet, dignified, occasionally moving, performance. He makes you believe he is both a survivor of Soviet work camps and a man capable of being pope.

The two giants of the British stage-Laurence Olivier playing a Soviet leader and John Gielgud as the pope Quinn succeeds-lead the supporting cast. Yet even the presence of these two legendary actors doesn't do much to relieve the tedium of "Shoes of the Fisherman."

Anderson, best known as the director of the 1956 Oscar-winning best picture, "Around the World in 80 Days," last directed in 1999 at age 79, helming a German production of "Pinocchio" after regularly making TV movies in the 1990s.

SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
If it wasn't for the supporting performances in this second installment of the series that will make Tobey Maguire very rich I'd rate it as even worse than the original.

Peter Parker's (aka Spider-Man) continues to deny his love of Mary Jane, again Kirsten Dunst, who has become, at age 22, a really bad actress, and maintain his friendship with avowed Spider-Man enemy Harry, who is played by James Franco as if he's on drugs. And, by the way, if you didn't see the first film, you'll be completely lost.

Thankfully, Rosemary Harris gives another touching performance as Peter's grandmother; Alfred Molina hams it up as a mad scientist and J. K. Simmons (who plays psychologist Skoda on "Law and Order") all but foams at the mouth as the newspaper editor who hates Spider-Man. Only Molina and Simmons seem to realize they are portraying comic book characters.

Otherwise, the film goes from one computer-generated special effect to another. As live-action comics go, I'd rather re-watch a re-run of George Reeves as "Superman."

DOLLAR (1938)
Having seen about half of Ingrid Bergman's pre-Hollywood films, this is by far her best. As beautiful and vivacious as she ever was in her later studio films, Bergman plays the flirty wife of a serious businessman who causes a slight scandal when she uses stock profits to pay off a friend's gambling debts. It's one of her best performances; even at age 23 she's full of confidence and knows exactly how to play to the camera.

At the heart of this film is the nonstop flirtation between the three couples who are best friends, but seem more interested in another's partner than their own. Basically, it's a Swedish version of a typical Noel Coward play.

The last part of the film takes place in a ski resort, where Bergman and her friends have gone to meet an American woman (played by Swedish actress Elsa Burnett) they hope will invest in their business. Of course, the American immediate wants to tell everyone what their problem is and how to solve it. Surprisingly, she turns out to mostly be correct and in the meantime falls in love with the local doctor.

"Dollar" reminds me of what Hollywood films would have been in the late 1930s and 1940s without the strict production code. Not that there is anything risque in the movie, but it deals with adult situations and adult feelings without the vagueness Hollywood scriptwriters were forced to inject into studio movies.

It's been a while since I've seen the one of the other six "Road" pictures, but this one may be the weakest of the series. Shot in garish color and set in Hollywood's version of Australia and Bali (where the natives are as pale as someone from Milwaukee), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby exchange one-liners as they both try to win the affections of Princess Lala (Dorothy Lamour) while trying to escape from her wicked cousin.

Compared to the others, there seems to be less effort in "Road to Bali" to make any sense of the plot-it's directed by Hal Walker, who had also helmed "Road to Utopia" (1946) but never made another film after this.

There's some funny inside-Hollywood cracks-at one point Bob finds Humphrey Bogart's Oscar (which he won for "The African Queen) in the jungle and the long-time host of the award's show immediate launches into his own acceptance speech.

Also, both actors' involvement in baseball (Bing was a part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates; Hope of the Cleveland Indians) is weaved into the script. Crosby, telling Lamour he hopes to get back to America to "catch some ballgames," assures her the Pirates are nothing to be afraid of and that they're "probably hiding in the cellar somewhere."

One of my long-standing problems with the "Road" series is believing Lamour as an exotic romantic interest. Though she was just 38 when this film was made, she looks like she's 50 and in need of a considerable wider sarong than she did in the first "Road" picture in 1940. In the film's "Bali," she looks like the den mother to all the young, beautiful "native" girls that Bob and Bing ignore. After this film, Lamour didn't make another screen appearance for ten years-a cameo in the final "Road" film, "The Road to Hong Kong."

Even better than Hope and Crosby at making something out of nothing are the Marx Brothers. While this hotel-room comedy doesn't match their best works-"Duck Soup," "A Night at the Opera," "A Day at the Races"-there are still plenty of funny moments. Just the scene of Groucho, Chico and Harpo shoving food in their mouths as fast as you've ever seen anyone eat makes the film worth seeing. That happens right after they chase a turkey around the room, but it escape out the window. As they lament the lost meal, Groucho remarks, "We didn't have any cranberries anyway."

The plot, if you can call it that, has the brothers trying to finance a Broadway play without any money-and trying to hold on to their hotel room with the same creative finances. What's amazing it how much running around the three of them manage in the confines of the room.

Lucille Ball plays a secretary/actress who tries to help Groucho and the boys pull their schemes, but doesn't get involved in any of the comedy. She was still years away from tapping into her comic gifts.

In such films as "The Narrow Margin" (1952) and "Armored Car Robbery" (1953)-reviewed here last month-Charles McGraw, a square-jawed, no-nonsense kind of actor stands for truth and justice. This low-budget crime picture gives McGraw a chance to play a morally ambivalent character, an insurance investigator who is lured into the dark side by his love of a woman.

A nice change for the actor, but the flatly acted, by-the-numbers drama doesn't rise to the level of those earlier McGraw movies and never digs very deep into the character's inner struggles over his choices.

The highlight of the film turns out to be the opening sequence, in which McGraw and his partner (Louis Jean Heydt) stage a murder for the benefit of a bystander who turns out to be a thief they are pursuing. The direction (by Harold Daniels) and shadowy lighting at the beginning made me think I was about to see a well-made film noir, but it went down hill from there.

For no good reason, except to satisfy the filmmaker's "vision," the final scene is a car chase through the concrete gantlet of the Los Angeles River, the site of way too many movie endings.

While the similarly titled "Roadblock" features elements of film noir, "Railroaded!" is about as noirish as you can get (and more than earns that exclamation point!).

John Ireland plays Duke Martin, a brutal gunman for a mobster casino boss, who get greedy and pulls a heist at one of his boss' bookie joints. Conveniently, Duke's girlfriend Clara runs the backroom book, so when a cop gets shot during the robbery, she plays the innocent victim and misidentifies the shooter.

The bad guys conspire to frame an innocent guy who they had trouble with in the past and the cops (led by Hugh Beaumont, who went on to TV fame as Ward Cleaver) take the bait.

The acting exceeds what one usually finds in low-budget crime pictures, especially by Ireland, who had key roles in some of the best pictures of the era, "My Darling Clementine" (1946), "Red River" (1948) and "All the King's Men" (1949), and Jane Randolph as his tough-talking floozy. Just in case it's not clear how much Duke enjoys killing, he perfumes his bullets before jobs!

This is one of the handful of noirs directed by Anthony Mann before he rose to fame as a masterful maker of Westerns, most memorably in a series of gritty adventures starring James Stewart, including "Winchester '73" and "The Naked Spur."

Often ignored when praising these snappy B-movies are the screenwriters. John C. Higgins, who wrote "Railroaded!" also had a hand in crafting the scripts for "T-Men" (1947) "Raw Deal" (1948)-both directed by Mann-and one of the best of all film noirs, "He Walked by Night" (1948).

Michael Mann has been mining the world of crime for great stories since he wrote for the TV series "Police Story" and "Starsky and Hutch" in the 1970s. Later, he created the slick, popular crime shows "Vega$" and "Miami Vice," the more gritty, but short-lived series "Crime Story" and two feature films that continue to have an avid cult following, "Thief" (1981) and "Manhunter" (1986).

It wasn't until 1992, when "The Last of the Mohicans," starring Daniel Day-Lewis, hit the screens that Mann became an A-list Hollywood director. While that box-office smash gave him carte blanche, he's made just four films in the past 12 years. But three of them, including his latest, combine the kind of superb direction, acting and writing that rarely shows up in Hollywood movies.

"Heat" (1995) and "The Insider" (1999) succeed as both thrillers and character studies, jumping off the screen with Mann's kinetic direction while giving great actors plenty of time to deliver sharp, insightful dialogue. Both of those films star Al Pacino and 20 years ago he would have been perfect for the role of Vincent in "Collateral."

Tom Cruise, who plays the calculating, seemingly heartless killer-for-hire, will never be the actor Pacino is, but this box-office superstar never shies away from difficult, challenging roles. In the past five years, Cruise has tackled as impressive a range of roles as anyone in Hollywood: "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), "Magnolia" (1999), "Vanilla Sky" (2001), "Minority Report" (2002) and now "Collateral." The new film may offer his finest performance since "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989) and certainly his darkest.

Commandeering Max Durocher's cab for the evening, he regally rides in the back, compulsively talking with the cabby (Jamie Foxx) as they glide across Los Angeles toward Vincent's next killing. What Mann did with Pacino and Robert De Niro, the cop and crook who respected each other's work in "Heat," he does in a different way with Cruise and Foxx. They become an entertaining duo-I never tired of hearing their vocal sparing that grows more intense as the stakes rise-without turning Foxx's Max into a collaborator or a sympathizer to Cruise's crimes. Foxx, who first showed what a talented actor he was in Mann's "Ali," playing the famous boxer's handler Bundini Brown, finds the perfect balance of panic and determined bravery in Max.

There's a moment near the end of their long night's journey into doom when Max finds a chink in Vincent's armor and suddenly Cruise looks old and sick; he's run out of clever comebacks and he's face to face with his own twisted life. It's the kind of depth of acting that few ever thought the star of "Cocktail" was capable of; a performance that turns a movie star into a great actor.

I find it amusing that nearly a century after "The Birth of a Nation" was released, any attempt to screen D.W. Griffith's landmark movie is met with cries that it will inflame racists and spur hate crimes. As anyone who has seen the picture knows, which probably doesn't include those community leaders looking to protect us, the portrayal of blacks is so broad and ridiculously stereotyped that no one with an IQ over 75 could mistake it for reality. Considering the crowd that frequents art houses showing three-hour long silents I don't think society has much to fear.

You can make your arguments that "The Birth of a Nation" isn't a great film because the director was an out-and-out racist who filled his picture with idiotic caricatures of blacks and glorified the Ku Klux Klan, but don't deny people a chance to see it. Once you start down that road, there's no turning back.

"Hearts of the World" is a lesser Griffith that was his attempt to spur America into World War I. The story chronicles the invasion of a small French town by German soldiers (one played by Erich von Stroheim) and the impact the war has on two American families living there. There are some heartbreaking moments, including a scene in which three little boys must bury their mother, but I can't imagine it would have changed U.S. foreign policy. Before the film was released, American had entered the war against Germany.

Like the battle scenes in "The Birth of a Nation," Griffith creates an amazingly realistic war that includes shots in trenches that he actually filmed on the western front in France.

But the real reasons to watch this film are the Gish sisters. Lillian plays the good girl whose marriage to the boy next door is delayed by the war while Dorothy has the more showy role of a trouble-making homeless girl who eventually befriends Lillian's character. Yet you can't take your eyes of Lillian. She gives yet another sublime performance; watching her face change from puzzlement to relief to utter joy when her fiance returns home is to experience acting as its highest form.

There are probably plenty of films that would fit this bill, but it struck me, as I watched the DVD of Francis Coppola's 20th anniversary edition of "One From the Heart," that this box office and critical flop marked the true end of the 1970s.

Many critics have pinpointed the last gasp of the era of personal filmmaking at the release of "Star Wars" in the summer of 1977. That seems a bit early to me-"Annie Hall" went on to win that year's best picture Oscar.

Certainly, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," released four months after Coppola's film, was most clearly a product of the box-office conscious 1980s.

There are numerous factors that make "One From the Heart" an excellent candidate for this dubious honor. First, it marks the beginning of the steady decline of Coppola, who was the most accomplished filmmaker of the 1970s. Second, the film is all about technical know-how and filmmaking tricks, used in the service of hackneyed characters and story. And finally, it concludes with such a pat, happy ending that I cringed at the thought that it was made by the same man who helmed "The Godfather" (1972), "The Conversation" (1974) and "Apocalypse Now" (1979). This most cynical of directors was suddenly making a feel-good picture.

Even looking forward, how could the director of "Rumble Fish" (1983), "The Cotton Club" (1984) or "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (1988) create such a flimsy, pointless movie?

"One From the Heart," while telling the story of Hank and Frannie (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr), a bickering Las Vegas couple who break up for a night of infidelity, was really about Coppola attempting to recreate a classic Hollywood studio. As he explains in pained detail in the DVD commentary, Coppola hoped to turn his Zoetrope Studio into an old-fashioned moviemaking factory that would produce dozens of pictures each year. That dream died with the financial failure of "One From the Heart," soon after his ambitious plans for shooting "One From the Heart" fell through.

Coppola had hoped to shoot continuously, creating a filmed-live theater piece in which the actors moved from one set to another without cuts. He does achieve some of that by using see-through curtains that allow him to shift from one scene to another seamlessly, all stunningly lighted by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. But there were too many technical glitches, even on his elaborate recreation of downtown Vegas, to make the film he really wanted.

Even if he had, the film would still be little more than an interesting failure. Forrest and Garr are fine to a point, but eventually I found their characters whiny and overly self-indulgent and that was in 1982. It hasn't improved in 22 years.

Their night of bliss-he with a circus girl (Nastassja Kinski), she with a lounge singer (Raul Julia)-doesn't seem to give them more insight into their relationship or themselves. It just makes for more shouting.

When Frannie gives up her dream trip to Bora Bora to return to unadventurous Hank, it's not moving, it's sad. You just know she'll leave him again in a month or so, maybe ending up alone. But this film has so little depth and Coppola makes so little effort to create sympathy for these characters that you really don't care that much about their fate.

The only thing worth caring about in "One From the Heart" is the music. Songs from iconoclast singer-songwriter Tom Waits play continually behind the dialogue (sung by Waits and Crystal Gayle) and shine as the richest element of the film. But it's difficult to appreciate the music and lyrics while trying to follow the movie. It's a crime that Waits' sparkling lyrics are drowned out by such pedestrian dialogue.

Coppola has never fully recovered from the failure of this film and the resulting collapse of his studio dreams. In the 14 years since "The Godfather, Part III" (1990), he's directed just three films----"Dracula" (1992), "Jack" (1996) and "The Rainmaker" (1997)----all of them, to varying degrees, unremarkable works. Coppola remains an entertaining personality (as evidenced by his DVD commentary) and hopefully, at age 65, still has a few movie gems left in him.

Admittedly, I went into this update of the 1962 movie rather dubious about its chances of escaping the long shadow of the original. Certainly, the talent was on hand to make a great film: director Jonathan Demme, despite some recent failures, is still among the best Hollywood filmmakers, and two of the finest American film performers, Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. I began to sense a problem when I realized that Demme was attempting to following the original nearly scene by scene, even using snippets of the 1962 dialogue.

For those who haven't seen either film, you should probably stop reading, because seeing the 1962 version without much knowledge of its plot ranks as one of the great movie-going experiences. The John Frankenheimer picture has just the right amount of complexity and clarity, the perfect mix of chaos and quiet intimacy, as it tells the story of a Communist Party plot to take over the White House with the help of a brain-washed Korean War veteran. The movie became something of a mysterious legend when producer Frank Sinatra pulled it out of circulation after the assassination of JFK and it rarely was screened before its triumphant re-released in the late 1980s.

Sinatra plays Capt. Bennett Marco, who dreams of a war experience unlike the one he remembers when he's awake. At the center of his dream is Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the hero who apparently rescued Marco and his unit from an ambush and the son of a manipulative, power-hungry political operator (Angela Lansbury). While her lap-dog of a second husband (James Gregory) makes outrageous charges of communist infiltration in the Defense department and positions himself as a candidate for vice-president, Marco tries to convinced Shaw that he's a pawn in some devious plan.

As the main plot rushes to its tumultuous conclusion, George Axelrod's perceptive, scary, yet witty, script (from Richard Condon's novel) continues to take side trips to comment on television's growing influence, the scourge of the blacklist and the twisted relationship between Shaw and his mother (heightened by the casting of Lansbury, just three years older than "son" Harvey). Frankenheimer adds to the authenticity of the film by shooting in real New York settings including scenes inside Jilly's, Sinatra's favorite Manhattan bar, throughout Central Park and at the old Madison Square Garden, which, 40 years later, looks about as majestic as your typical small-town movie theater.

The film's two signature scenes, the pinnacles of Frankenheimer's great career, remain as breathlessly fresh and mesmerizing as they did at first viewing. Before you have a clear idea of what's going on, Frankenheimer muddies the waters with Marco's dream/flashback of the soldiers being exhibited for a collection of communist leaders. Having been brainwashed to believe they are attending a ladies' garden party, the scene flips back and forth between over-dressed middle age women and dangerous looking political thugs. The soldiers sit there quietly listening to the proceedings and watching without emotion as Shaw is directed to murder two of the men.

Later in the film, the director shoots an unremarkable press conference from the corner of the room so that we see not only the Secretary of Defense, but all the media covering him and a TV monitor showing the proceedings being watched by Lansbury. When her husband, the puppet senator, starts ranting about communists, a frantic media capture it all, as Frankenheimer's camera goes from the TV monitor to the actual scene and back again. Not only does the scene anticipate the power (and manipulation) of television will have in future of the country's political life, but it laughs at the anti-communist accusers and, maybe for the first time, examines the different between reality and TV reality.

Demme, wisely, doesn't attempt to duplicate those two unforgettable moments from the original, yet he fails to find interesting substitutes. In fact, he finds very little visual to spice up a story he's turned into a yet-another political thriller, not much better than similar stories of corrupt politicians such as "No Way Out" (1987), "Enemy of the State" (1998) or Clint Eastwood's "Absolute Power" (1997).

Some changes were made, most notably in the role of Shaw's mother. Just as manipulative and intimidating as the 1962 version, she now is a Senator herself and instead of hoping to make the White House a communist front, she just wants more influence for the Halliburton-like multinational called Manchurian Global. The stakes just aren't as high in Demme's version; let's face it, such giant firms have a pretty good grip on politicians already.

The performances by Washington and Streep are good but far from their best; Liev Schreiber as Shaw gives the most compelling performance.

What made Lansbury's performance superb was a trace of sweetness mixed in with her venom. Streep, one hundred times a better actress than Lansbury, comes off as a one-note bitch; Lady Macbeth without the kisses.

Since Demme's breakthrough with "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), he's made two ambitious failures-"Philadelphia" (1993) and "Beloved" (1998)-and two failed remakes-"The Truth About Charlie" (2002), from "Charade" and "The Manchurian Candidate." He had more success when he was directing small-canvas, original pictures such as "Something Wild" (1986) and "Married to the Mob" (1988). Demme is just too talented to be reworking other people's movies.

It was a fool's errand to tackle "The Manchurian Candidate." You wouldn't think filmmakers would need to be told, but it's probably best to avoid remaking one of the dozen or so finest American moves ever made.

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