Wednesday, September 24, 2008

August 2005

It’s easy to forgive the many faults of this unoriginal black comedy every time Joan Allen and Kevin Costner are in a scene together. The other characters in the film (even Allen when not acting with Costner) are hopelessly irritating.

Written and directed by longtime cable filmmaker Mike Binder, “The Upside of Anger” chronicles the decent into alcoholism of a wife and mother after her husband suddenly deserts the family, apparently running off with his Swedish secretary.

Way too often this movie plays like a pilot to a cable series that promises to deal frankly with a family coping with an alcoholic, substituting for insight with predictable squabbles between Allen’s Terry and her four teenaged daughters.

But Costner, in his best role since he played the slacker golfer in “Tin Cup” (1996), brings an authentic, lived-in feeling to Denny, an ex-baseball star who won’t talk about baseball on his radio talk show and arrives uninvited for drinks and/or dinner.

Binder has starred in and directed the straight-to-video romantic comedies “The Sex Monster” (1999) and “Londinium” (2001), both co-starring Mariel Hemingway, and wrote and starred in a short-lived HBO series, “The Mind of a Married Man.” In most of his films, he comes off as a third-rate, less inhibited Woody Allen. In “Upside of Anger,” he cast himself as Costner’s radio producer who flaunts his relationship with one of Terry’s daughters, a contrived plotline that adds nothing to the film.

This lovely to look at trifle by Alfred Hitchcock takes full advantage of the gorgeous beaches of the French Riviera and the glamorous pairing of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

Grant plays John Robie, a hero of the French resistance now accused of resuming his career as a jewel thief. While trying to clear himself of the crimes, he falls in love with Kelly’s bored American heiress and she, despite all her protests, for him.

Even in this slight entertainment, Hitchcock’s instincts for placing the camera in the ideal spot and constructing a scene in ways you don’t see in other films stands out. This is such a superbly made and finely acted picture that it’s easy to overlook the pedestrian story.

Kelly made just two more films—“The Swan” (1956) and “High Society” (1956)—before returning to the locale of this film to become the princess of Monaco. But she didn’t meet Prince Rainer during the shooting of “To Catch a Thief”; they met the next year at the Cannes Film Festival.


I’ve been looking forward to seeing this archetype of disaster pictures for at least 20 years. This big-budget CinemaScope production starring film legend John Wayne earned six Oscar nominations and was among the top box-office attractions of 1954. For some unknown reason, the Wayne estate had been holding off re-releasing the film (along with many other pictures made for Wayne’s Batjac company) for years. Now, about to be made available on DVD, AMC aired it after nearly a month of promotion.

To say I was stunned by this film would be an understatement. Sloppily constructed, written on a third-grade level and acted with the subtlety of a convention of used car salesmen, “The High and the Mighty” is a laughable excuse for a major motion picture. Not one aspect of this 147-minute attempt to personalize the drama of an airline flight from Hawaii to San Francisco facing mechanical problems comes off as believable.

The inspiration for the much-better “Airport” (1970) and one of the sources for the parody “Airplane!” (1980), “The High and the Mighty” begins with the passengers checking in at the Honolulu airport, all greeted by the ticket agent by name and then discussed by the agent after they walk away. Even in the early days of commercial flight I doubt the ticket agent knew which passenger’s marriage was in trouble and who had just got stuck with a bad investment. After an attractive woman walks away, he offers this appraisal: “She may be put together with paste and flour but that woman has something. What would you say it was?” The stewardess responds: “Practice. Plenty of practice.” That’s about as complex as this melodrama ever gets.

Once on the plane, the trite, troubled lives of each passenger (often shown in flashback) are revealed while we anxiously await the inevitable “Oh, my god, the plane’s on fire!” There’s an aging bride-to-be (Jan Sterling), a dying man (Paul Fix), a Broadway producer (Robert Newton), a self-described “broken-down broad” (Claire Trevor), a Korean woman (Joy Kim) bursting with pride that she’s now an American, a humble fisherman (John Qualen), an alcoholic rocket scientist (Paul Kelly) and an unflappable stewardess (Julie Bishop) among this collection of uniformly uninteresting characters. Trevor and Sterling both earned Oscar nominations in the supporting actress category for essential playing the same 1950s cliché: an aging single woman struggling to maintain her dignity.

Wayne portrays a long-in-the-tooth co-pilot who is still haunted by memories of being behind the controls in a plane crash that killed his wife and child. Even with that baggage, he’s the sanest guy in the cockpit. At one point, he (literally) has to slap some sense into the sweaty and irrational pilot, played stiffly by Robert Stack.

What’s most surprising is that the cheap theatrics that make up the bulk of this movie (there’s little action in this thriller) are staged by one of Hollywood finest filmmakers William A. Wellman, who helmed not only the first best-picture winner, “Wings” (1927) but such film classics as “The Public Enemy” (1931), “A Star Is Born” (1937), “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) and “Battleground” (1949). Nothing that made those movies memorable is evident here, but he scored an Oscar nomination for his direction.

The absolutely worse moment in this film (and that’s saying something) comes when an enthusiastic passenger played by Phil Harris butts into a conversation between a married couple. In an attempt to comfort the troubled man, Harris gives what amounts to a sermon on the bright side of life, with Dimitri Tiomkin’s oppressive, Oscar-winning score swelling at the appropriate moments. That’s followed by a long, comic flashback on the mishaps Harris and his wife encountered during their Hawaiian vacation—narrated by Harris as if he’s the emcee at a USO revue. Among all the incredibly dull back stories delivered in this film (I assume taken from the popular novel by Ernest K. Gann) this one takes the prize as the most annoying.

While I was amazed to find out that in 1954 a flight from Hawaii to San Francisco took 12 hours, I can’t believe the trip felt any longer than sitting through this wreck of a movie.

“Island in the Sky,” another rarely shown Wellman-Wayne collaboration (and based on a Gann novel), aired on AMC along with “The High and the Mighty.” This earnest story of a search by a team of military and commercial pilots for a plane that made an emergency landing in the wilds of Canada would be totally forgettable if not for Wayne’s solid performance.

The scenes in the air and inside the search planes (which clearly is what Wellman loved filming), quickly become repetitive and uninteresting. Like a bad war film, “Island in the Sky” fails to develop memorable characters, instead turning the men into a brotherhood of single-minded loyalty to one another. In a turn closer to a bad comic’s bit on a wild-eyed hillbilly than a performance, James Arness, as one of the pilots participating in the search, is way over the top. And did we really need to see Andy Devine in his swimming trunks?

Yet the scenes on the ground, with pilot Wayne and his crew trying to survive in minus 70-degree temperatures and become more despondent as the days pass are very intense and well played. Wayne’s Capt. Dooley is one of his more complex characters, giving him a rare chance to portray a man who can no longer hide his deepest fears.

Don Roos needs an editor. Maybe because he ruminated for seven years following his fascinatingly offbeat debut as a writer-director, “The Opposite of Sex,” Roos seems to have tossed in everything but a butler into this overflowing story of finding one’s identity.

But even as I wished the director had ordered a rewrite for his script, I was completely engrossed and entertained by most of the film’s characters.

Lisa Kudrow, who was superb in Roos’ first film, gives another nuanced performance as a woman completely without a sense of herself who becomes obsessed with a ruse to fool a wannabe filmmaker (Jesse Bradford channeling Jack Black) so that he’ll lead her to her to the son she gave up as a teenager.

Tom Arnold, who previous gave his best performances on talk shows, perfectly captures a man who has everything money can buy except, of course, love. And he finds that when he takes up with a young girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal) after her one-night affair with his gay son (John Ritter’s son Jason).

The less successful aspect of the film deals with a gay couple (David Sutcliffe and Steve Coogan) and their attempt to uncover the biological origins of the son of their lesbian friends (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke). While this aspect of the film folds perfectly into Roos’ theme and is a refreshingly realistic portrayal of homosexual relationships, it grows tedious with its back-and-forth squabbling.

Yet even if all of the above sounds totally unappealing to you, there’s a reason to see this film: Maggie Gyllenhaal. The daughter of veteran TV director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner and the sister of Jake Gyllenhaal (star of “Donnie Darko” and “The Day After Tomorrow”), she gives the kind of “a star is born” performance that I haven’t seen in years. Like Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets” or Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Gyllenhaal’s Jude is a career launching role; she’s mesmerizing every moment she’s on screen as her Jude manipulates and cajoles her way through life, moving from one way-station to another with little concern about others’ feelings or her own morals.

Gyllenhaal’s previous work in such films as “Secretary” (2002) and “Mona Lisa Smile” (2003) showed she had great promise, but she takes her acting skills to a new level in “Happy Endings.” It’s easy to forgiven Roos’ excesses when he creates such a memorable character and captures on film such an unforgettable performance.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the leading filmmaker of Taiwan and a critical favorite whose movies have won numerous film festival awards, has yet to connect with Western audiences. Since 1980, he’s been making movies about the changes the nation and its people have experienced since the Nationalists (including his parents when he was an infant) fled to the island after being defeated in China by Mao’s Communists in 1949.

His autobiographical film, “The Time to Live and the Time to Die” (1985) won a critics award at the Berlin Film Festival and “City of Sadness” (1989), a chronicle of post-war Taiwan, won the top prize at Venice. At Cannes, where nearly all of his films have been in competition, he won the jury prize for “The Puppetmaster” in 1993.

“Millennium Mambo,” which was made in 2001 but didn’t reach theaters in Los Angeles and New York until late 2003 and early 2004, seems to be an attempt to attract young Western audiences with its pointless, colorfully lit disco scenes and its disaffected, alcoholic and, of course, drop-dead gorgeous protagonist (Qi Shu).

Hou manages to make a dull plot, mostly consisting of arguments between the young woman and her abusive boyfriend (Jack Kao), less interesting by having her narrate what’s going to happen before it’s acted out on screen. I never did figure out what the point of that was; too often this feels like a technically impressive work of a 25 year old, not the latest from an acclaimed 58-year-old filmmaker.

This strange combination of gangster picture and horror film is saved from its ludicrous plot by an intense performance by Boris Karloff and flashy direction of Michael Curtiz. Karloff plays an introspective, piano-playing ex-con who gets framed for the murder of a judge by the mob and is sentenced to death.

Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr create an eerie, nightmarish look for the first half of the movie, culminating with one of the most memorable death-row walks. The second part of the picture feels studio supervised; it’s clearly trying to cash in on the success of Karloff’s “Frankenstein” (1931).

The film shifts gears when just as Karloff is being electrocuted, an irritatingly wimpy young couple—who just happen to work for a research scientist—finally alert authorities that they can provide the condemned man an alibi.

The scientist (Edmund Gwenn), in scenes ridiculously similar to the creation scenes from “Frankenstein,” brings Karloff back to life. (He even sports a streak of gray in his hair like his mate did in “Bride of Frankenstein.”)

Nearly catatonic, Karloff’s “dead man” enacts revenge on those responsible for his execution, basically scaring them to death.

Even with its incompatible halves, “The Walking Dead” offers enough German-influenced, odd-angled camerawork, Warner Bros.’ trademark hyper-reality and one of Karloff’s finest performances (using his sad, deep-set eyes to elicit more sympathy than fear) to make for an extremely entertaining 66-minute picture.

It’s been 20 years since iconic indie director Jim Jarmusch became an art house favorite with the still cutting-edge and wonderfully wacky “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984). Combining an ability to nurse comedy out of the most mundane circumstances and the most judicious use of silence since the sound era began, Jarmusch, even after his less-successful but still entertaining “Down by Law” (1986), seemed headed toward an important filmmaking career. But he never got there.

He has directed just six features since 1986 and not one of them, including “Broken Flowers,” has come anywhere close to his first two movies. Jarmusch’s films are never bad or uninteresting, they just never completely hold together. He’s failed over and over again to turn his quirky plots and off-kilter view of the world into entertaining cinema.

His new film arrives with more fanfare and a glimmer of hope for a slice of mainstream success since it stars Bill Murray, suddenly one of the hottest actors in Hollywood. It seems like a match made in movie heaven: both Murray and Jarmusch are able, at their best, to find humor in the strangest of places. Here Murray plays Don Johnston (not, he forever repeats, Don Johnson), a lost soul who’s made tons of money in computers but has never been able to maintain a relationship. After receiving an anonymous letter informing him that he has a 19-year-old son, Don sets out on a road trip to visit the possible mothers.

The early scenes of this film—mostly Murray sitting wordless on his couch—are so lifeless that it’s a relief when he finally gets out of the house, but his encounters with his ex-girlfriends (save for a sassy turn by Sharon Stone as a NASCAR widow and mother to a slutty teen named Lolita) don’t make for very compelling cinema either.

The most interesting character in the picture is Murray’s Jamaican neighbor played by Jeffrey Wright, who also gave the most compelling performance in last year’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” He’s the instigator of Don’s trip and is the only person in the film who comes off as having lived a life.

Jessica Lange, who plays an ex-lover of Don who’s become an animal communicator, doesn’t add much to the film but seeing close-ups of her cosmetically altered face was depressing. In the 1980s, she was among the most beautiful women in Hollywood and I have no doubt she would have aged wonderfully. Instead, while appearing much younger than her 56 years, she looks freakish.

“Broken Flowers” ends strongly, with a long, touching scene, featuring an engaging Murray. It made me wonder why the previous hour and a half didn’t display at least some of that energy.

While I’ve long considered Sam Fuller to be among the most underrated of all American filmmakers, I never was impressed with his most personal work, “The Big Red One” (1980). The film, based on the director’s experiences serving in the First Infantry Division (known as the “Big Red One”) during World War II, follows a no-nonsense, grizzled sergeant, played by Lee Marvin, and the four members of a platoon—Mark Hamill, Fuller stand-in Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward—who survive the war.

The film always felt too choppy, haltingly edited and confusing: half the time I couldn’t figure out how these soldiers got from one battle to another or what exactly was the outcome of an engagement. Fuller, who had claimed the studio had butchered his 4½- hour version, was less than pleased with the 113-minute version that was released in 1980. Now, eight years after Fuller’s death, film critic and documentarian Richard Schickel has managed to repair much of what kept me from appreciating it. Schickel supervised the editing of an additional 50 minutes of film (much of it found on a promotional video), following Fuller’s original shooting script, releasing this new version early this year.

Despite the substantially longer length, Schickel hasn’t made any major changes to the film, instead adding a scene here and there and, most importantly, extending many scenes and transitions to create a smoother, more coherent narrative. Marvin benefits the most from the extra footage. This man of few words (who’s only identified as the sergeant) is a complex character who schools his charges in the difference between killing and murder while accepting flowers from a little girl. New scenes also improve the performances of Hamill, whose Griff is struggling to overcome his fears, and Carradine as Zab, the tough-talking writer who is having the time of his life. Though in many ways exact opposites, these characters exemplify how the experience of battle quickly becomes the most important aspect of their lives. Each has impressive moments in this film beyond anything else they’ve done in their acting careers.

In principal, I don’t believe art—for better or worse—should be tinkered with. Often even the original director doesn’t know best, most prominently in the unnecessary additions Francis Coppola made to “Apocalypse Now.” Yet this version is such a vast improvement over the original, turning a good film into nearly a great one, that it’s hard to argue with the tinkering. Schickel’s mission was to resurrect a film he loves and strengthen the legacy of a director he admires; he’s handily won both battles.

This curio features Sam Fuller revisiting the site of an abandoned movie project from the 1950s, accompanied by “Broken Flowers” director Jim Jarmusch.

It’s one of those films that is filled with obvious setup scenes that makes it more like reality TV than a true documentary. The 81-year-old Fuller, with his trademark cigar never out of his mouth, relates to Jarmusch, a longtime fan of this tough-guy filmmaker, why he came to this remote Brazilian village 40 years ago and why the movie never got made. It’s all chronicled by Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki.

The most interesting event of the film occurs when original footage Fuller shot in the village back in the ‘50s is shown to the villagers, who are clearly moved to see ancestors and even younger versions of themselves in a motion picture.

Jarmusch, who’s as restrained as his movies, doesn’t even pretend to be interested in Sam’s endless stories about what it means to be a filmmaker and his philosophy of life—no doubt he’s hearing them for the umpteenth time.

If you want to know more about Fuller—and he is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of American film—seek out “The Men Who Made the Movies: Sam Fuller” (2002), made by “Big Red One” restorer Richard Schickel and included on that film’s DVD, and “The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera” (1996), directed by Adam Simon.

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