Friday, September 26, 2008

August 2006

This excessively extravagant, unwieldy diatribe against the way America turned a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s overflows with moral indignation, intense emotions and high-minded philosophizing. Even at nearly six hours (originally shown in two parts on HBO), this adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play never drags, but it does become repetitive, in large part because there are just five major characters. Kushner’s epic, as directed by veteran Mike Nichols, gives you a novelistic insight into each of these five but it also limits the view of the problem and puts a heavy burden on each of the actors. I think it could have been a much stronger work at half the running time.

Before we are given much information about Prior and Louis, beyond the fact that they are a gay New York couple, Prior (Justin Kirk) reveals that he’s sick and Louis (Ben Shenkman) quickly bails out of the relationship. In another part of the city, infamous lawyer Roy Cohn (who was the bulldog-like legal advisor to Joe McCarthy during his rampage against Communists), played by Al Pacino, also is diagnosed with the disease though he vehemently denies he’s gay.

Also in New York, Joe and Harper (Patrick Wilson and Mary-Louise Parker) are young Mormons in a troubled relationship; she’s mentally unstable, he’s a closeted gay.

All these character end up involved with one another, along with supporting characters that include the gay Mormon’s mother (Meryl Streep), the best friend of the HIV-positive man (Jeffrey Wright) and a very aggressive angel (Emma Thompson).

Many scenes are both visually and emotional memorable, especially a long segment between Wright’s nurse and his unpleasant patient Cohn, but a pair of long scenes involving Prior and the angel and a heavenly dream sequence just left me confused.

And I have no idea why Streep, Thompson and Wright played multiple characters; it might have been amusing in a comedy but it seems to be just a stunt here. But all three give outstanding performances, especially Wright, who followed up “Angels in America” with standout work in last year’s “Broken Flowers” and “Syriana.”

Pacino, not surprisingly, is a bit overheated as Cohn, but his bluster and vile builds into a performance that’s hard to forget. But he (and the script) fails to offer any evidence that the celebrity lawyer had even a sliver of humanity; Cohn is so easy to hate that it stops being fun.

For all its faults, including its cloyingly upbeat ending, “Angels in America” is American television at its most ambitious and daring. For a drama that sets out to show how important it is to have faith in others, it never turns away from difficult situations or relies on simple answers.

SCOOP (2006)
While this feather-weight comedy isn’t likely to earn Woody Allen another screenplay nomination---in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he wrote it on the plane trip to London---I never stopped laughing at the film’s goofy predicaments and throw-away jokes.

This may be Allen’s ultimate Bob Hope role: an out-of-touch entertainer (both on and off the screen) who’s telling timeless jokes to his loyalists while an idiotic plot plays out around him. He’s found the perfect running mate in Scarlett Johansson, who played an intense object of desire in his 2004 film “Match Point.” Here, as Sondra, a college journalism student on vacation in London, she’s dumb and sexy (the way Hope’s co-stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s were) but plucky and determined. Allen plays Sid Waterman (aka “Splendini”), an inept magician whose magic-box trick introduces Sondra to a recently deceased British journalist (Ian McShane), who tells her who he thinks is the Tarot card killer.

After she meets the suspect, upper crust Brit Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the mystery is on, with Sid as the reluctant partner, pretending to be her father.

It’s all rather silly but who cares. It’s Woody acting like a castoff from the 1950s Catskills circuit, embarrassingly bumbling through conversations with the rich and powerful at cocktail parties and sneaking around houses to discover clues.

It’s still possible that the 70-year-old Allen has that one last great film in him. But I’d be happy if he’d just deliver movies on the level of these last two British-set stories for the next 10 years or so.

GIGLI (2003)
Considering that I’ve compiled a list for virtually every movie topic imaginable, I’m surprised I haven’t ranked the all-time worst movies. Certainly, the research would be painful, but one of these days I’m going to get around to it. I bring that up because when this odd mixture of romantic comedy and gunplay was released many critics immediately placed among the worst movies they’d ever seen.

I’m guessing it was a backlash against the nonstop, foaming-at-the-mouth coverage tabloid TV was giving to the romance between co-stars Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Not that this isn’t a very bad film. The dialogue, if there even was a script, could have been improved upon by anyone with a high school diploma and Affleck’s performance reminded me of a frightened child struggling to get through his lines in a school play.

What keeps “Gigli” from entering the hallowed ground of bad movies occupied by “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1956) and “Cabin Boy” (1994) is that so little goes on that it hasn’t a chance to be magnificently awful.

Affleck is Larry Gigli, a witless goon who is ordered by his small-time mobster boss to kidnap the mentally retarded brother of a federal prosecutor. In the first of a series of idiotic plot turns, Jennifer Lopez as Ricky, another stooge of the mobster, is sent in to make sure Gigli does his job. But what is his job? Once he’s kidnapped the young man (embarrassingly played by Justin Bartha, in a bad rip-off of “Rain Man”), there’s nothing to do. But Lopez helps him do it. Of course, it gives them time to bond and become romantic (even though Ricky is a lesbian). One-scene appearances are made by Christopher Walken, playing a cop who doesn’t even search the apartment, and Al Pacino, who rants on like a madman but makes no sense whatsoever. I will admit that it has one of the better casts in the annuls of awful films.

Lopez actually gives the best performance in the film (which isn’t saying much). She’s made the most of her ability to read lines with quiet confidence while looking great. In most the movies she’s in, that’s good enough.

What’s most amazing about “Gigli” is that it wasn’t directed by some recent film school graduate or some hot-shot video maker, but by movie veteran Martin Brest, who helmed the hilarious comedy chase picture “Midnight Run” (1988) and guided Pacino to his Oscar in “Scent of a Woman” (1992). He either wasn’t paying attention or just didn’t care, because “Gigli” shows no sign of even basic direction.

As predictable as the super hero movie, a remake of a TV series and a 19th-Century period piece, every year one dysfunctional family film emerges as the critical darling and often ends up with a supporting actor/actress nomination and an original screenplay nod. The roster of recent entries include “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), “About Schmidt” (2002), “The Station Agent” (2003), “Pieces of April” (2003), “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and last year’s “The Squid and the Whale” and “Junebug.”

They all follow the same model: Assemble characters who struggle with the basic day-to-day duties of life, have eccentric personalities and lead unconventional lives and let them go at it. “Little Miss Sunshine” is better acted than most and has some wonderful moments of group comedy, but it never finds its focus. I never could figure out if Michael Arndt’s script was against conformity or against dreamers or if it was just using the characters’ failings to set up the film’s version of a group hug.

Greg Kinnear plays a obnoxiously optimistic success marketer who’s hoping to hit the big time with his nine-step program. He’s father to a precocious 7-year-old who dreams of competing in a beauty pageant and a teen son who has taken a vow of silence. Toni Collette’s mother/wife is (as always) the one who holds the family together no matter how scattered everyone seems. Also part of this brood that heads off for a Redondo Beach pageant in a worn-out VW wagon is a drug-snorting senior citizen (Alan Arkin) and the wife’s professor brother (Steve Carell), fresh from a suicide attempted.

Everyone gets their chance to lament their horrible life, except the daughter (charmingly played by Abigail Breslin) who is just bubbling over with excitement at the chance to strut her stuff on stage. And, of course, everything that can go wrong does.

The inevitable Oscar nomination for “Little Miss Sunshine” will surely (and deservedly) go to Arkin, one of the truly brilliant actors of our time who rarely gets the chance to really rip into a character. His grandpa retains a rebellious, hippie heart, swears like a sailor and pretty much says whatever he feels like. And when it counts, the character shows a keen understanding of his family’s emotional needs.

There’s plenty to enjoy in “Little Miss Sunshine,” including the assured direction by first timers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (a married couple), but by the end it felt a little too pleased with itself for a film mostly filled with cynicism.


After Elvis Presley became a box-office sensation, Hollywood became transfixed with the idea that pop singers could be transformed into a movie stars. But it wasn’t that easy. Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Nancy Sinatra were just some of the singers who graduated to movies in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but never reached silver screen stardom. Maybe the worst example of this trend was Roy Orbison, the emotional crooner whose one shot at movie fame was the forgettable “The Fastest Guitar Alive.”

As Johnny Banner, Orbison dispenses with his trademark dark glasses and instead wields a guitar that, by hitting the right strings, turns into a rifle. He’s riding (and playing) shotgun for a group of Confederate Army spies planning to steal some Northern gold for the war effort.

There isn’t a moment in the film that isn’t foolish and even the musical intervals are pretty lifeless. The Indians have Brooklyn accents and the lawman chasing Johnny and his cohorts couldn’t be more inept. But it’s Orbison truly awful performance that keeps you watching. He struggles with every speech longer than a sentence and looks as much like a Western gunslinger as Shirley Temple. Though he was 31 at the time, he looks about 15 and acts like a clumsy teenager on his first date. I felt sorry for all involved when Orbison, pointing his guitar-rifle at a bad guy, says, “I can kill you with this and play your funeral march at the same time.”

In a morning of rock ‘n’ roll flicks, TCM followed that dud with the lively and musically superior “Get Yourself a College Girl.” Mary Ann Mobley, a former Miss American, made her film debut as a college girl pursuing a songwriting career, singing the scandalous title song in-between sets by the Dave Clark Five and the Animals. What’s amazing is how clean cut these so-called corruptors of America’s youth look in retrospect.

Later, when the girls head off for winter break at a ski resort, jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, looking very hip in a turquoise button-down sweater, and Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto do their hit, “The Girl From Ipanema.”

Beyond the music, this movie’s main mission is spotlighting the gyrating girls on the dance floor, wearing bikinis or tight dresses. There’s nothing subtle about what the movie was selling.

Nancy Sinatra has a small role as a co-ed who hooks up with her husband at the ski resort. That they never leave the room and her friends can’t get her to join them during the stay becomes the film’s running joke. That’s right, in 1964, they only people having sex at a ski resort were married couples.

This well-written, amusing satire of the leisure class might not be adapted from a Shakespeare play but it certainly was inspired by such comedies as “Much Ado About Nothing” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Richard Dix, a neglected star of the early sound era, plays an electrician whose house call to wealthy man’s home lands him in the middle of a philosophical bet.

The bored rich guy (Allen Kearns) wagers that under the right circumstances he can make any couple fall in love. He offers the electrician $2500 to follow his instructions and win the heart of a rather placid member of the rich set.

Much is made of the fact that Dix and the house’s butler (Anthony Bushell) are the only well-read intelligent characters in the group. As the butler says to Dix after he’s been fitted for a tuxedo, “If I didn’t know you were an intelligent man, I’d think you were a gentleman.”

Just as would happen in a Shakespeare’s play, the electrician falls for another woman and the woman he’s paid to seduce falls for the butler and everyone acts foolishly in the pursuit of love.

At 65 minutes, the film is breezy and well-paced, despite the technical limitations of filmmaking, circa 1930. Dix, who was mostly cast in tough, no-nonsense roles such as “Hell’s Highway” (1932), does a nice job as a love-struck everyman thrown in among the upper class. Dix worked steadily until he died of a heart attack in 1949.

USED CARS (1980) Jack Warden, who died in July, was among the last of a long line of star supporting players who enriched movies from the 1930s into the 1980s. Especially during the late ‘30s and through the war years, a team of secondary actors and actresses filled the roster of every major studio and were as responsible as the stars for making movies of that era so memorable. Some directors used the same performers over and over again, including Preston Sturges (William Demarest, Brian Donlevy) and John Ford (Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen), but every notable movie during that Golden Age featured two or three familiar character actors. Was there a great movie that didn’t include either Walter Brennan or Thomas Mitchell in the cast?

Even if the plot was lame and the stars miscast, the appearance of such live wires as Agnes Moorehead, Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter guaranteed there’d be at least one character worth watching. Even as late as the 1970s and early ‘80s, when Warden did his best work, there remained a cluster of superb supporting regulars, including Martin Balsam, Bruce Dern, Maureen Stapleton and Lee Grant.

Since the mid-‘80s, with skyrocketing salaries of the top stars and an emphasis on special effects and action over characters, the supporting players in most films are either older actors on the decline (if it’s a big-budget film) or unknown young actors who soon will either disappear or advance to leading roles. Forging a career as a character actor (Ving Rhames and Peter Sarsgaard are two current ones who come to mind) is rarely a viable option these days.

Warden’s breakthrough film role came in Sidney Lumet’s feature debut, “12 Angry Men” (1957), in which he played the juror more concerned about getting to a baseball game than his responsibility in deciding the fate of the accused. But he didn’t become a actor in demand until his Emmy-winning performance as legendary football coach George Halas in “Brian’s Song” (1971).

Two of his best performances were in support of Warren Beatty, first in “Shampoo” (1975), playing the politically connected businessman whose wife and mistress are both sleeping with Beatty’s hairdresser George, and then in “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), as a football coach who recognizes his deceased friend despite his new physical appearance. Both roles earned Oscar nominations for Warden.

Warden also played one of the Washington Post editors in “All the President’s Men” (1976), the gun-totting, volatile judge in “…And Justice for All” (1979) and the U.S. president in “Being There” (1979).

After those high-profile pictures, Warden was clearly slumming in “Used Cars” (1980), a shaggy dog of a film, written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (the team responsible for “Back to the Future”) about a rivalry between two used car dealerships.

Warden has a field day playing twin brothers, Roy and Luke Fuchs, who are on opposite sides of the feud. Luke is a down-to-earth mechanic who lets shady, but enthusiastic Rudy (Kurt Russell, sporting incredibly loud jackets and ties) run the lot, which looks more like a junk yard than a car lot.

Across the street, a slicker upscale dealership is run by Roy, who dreams that his brother will keel over and die so he can take over his lot because a new freeway ramp will provide it great exposure. Strutting around in his tacky leisure suits and white shoes, Roy keeps coming up with new schemes to take over his brother’s business.

About 20 minutes into the picture, the story takes a weird turn when Luke dies of a heart attack, forcing Rudy and his co-workers (the always bizarre Gerrit Graham and Frank McRae) to hide him before his brother finds out.

Russell, at his best playing this pitiful dreamer, and his outrageous antics (at one point employing strippers to allure customers) are the focus of “Used Cars,” but without Warden it’d be a forgettable comedy. Stepping away from his usual role as a world-weary father figure, Warden shows he can be just as funny as a corrupt, ruthless businessman. Even his red, wavy hairdo makes you laugh.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Warden had fewer juicy roles, but stood out in Lumet’s “The Verdict” (1982), playing an investigator for lawyer Paul Newman, and became a regular in Woody Allen films, giving a memorable performance in “September” (1987). Warden also starred in his own TV comedy, “Crazy Like a Fox,” from 1984 to 1986, playing private eye Harry Fox.

He continued to work steadily (20 films in his final decade) until 2000, when, at age 80, he played his final role, yet another coach, in “The Replacements.”

Two years earlier, he co-starred once again with his old friend Beatty in the actor-director’s outrageous political satire “Bulworth.” Warden doesn’t have a lot to do in the film, playing an aid to the senator (Beatty), but, like the many great character actors that came before him, his presense alone improves a movie. Just seeing Warden get a couple of chances to react to someone’s idiotic remark is like spotting an old friend as you walk into unknown surroundings.

Most of the reviews of this film I’ve read praise director Oliver Stone’s restraint in presenting this story of heroic police and their rescue on Sept. 11, 2001 without bringing politics into the picture. But if Oliver Stone is showing restraint, what’s the point of hiring him?

This by-the-numbers men-in-peril story might just as well been directed by any unknown talentless hack in Hollywood. Even if it’s a bad Oliver Stone film, I expect to see cutting-edge filmmaking, over-the-top characters and a strongly stated point of view. “World Trade Center” is about as edgy as a Ron Howard film.

Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena (who played the locksmith and single dad last year in “Crash”) are part of a team of Port Authority cops who are about to head into one of the Trade Towers when the first one collapses, killing most of the group but burying the survivors deep under a rubble of steel. As the trapped Cage and Pena talk each other through the ordeal, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal in thankless roles) deal with the news in their own ways. As much as you want to feel for these men because it’s part of the 9/11 tragedy, the drama is just too flat and predictable to become involving.

But what really made my jaw drop was the portrayal of Dave Karnes, an apparently real-life, wild-eyed office worker who, after seeing the events of the day unfold on television, put his old Marine uniform on, prayed with his minister and headed to ground zero. There are so many holes in this plot line that it made me question its truthfulness, but that’s beside the point. Stone presents this guy like some kind of heroic superman; a touched-by-God America who will put things right in the world. It’s the kind of character you’d laugh at in a 1945 Hollywood propaganda film.

Not only does Stone offer this character without a sliver of skepticism but he films the cross in the man’s church as if it’s the Holy Grail. I found it hard to read this aspect of “World Trade Center” as anything other than a call to Christians to stand up against the invading hordes. That could have made a helluva controversial film, but it’s buried under the weight of something much more conventional.

My only guess is that the director was desperate for a hit film (it’s been over 10 years) and he just shot the script (by first-time writer Andrea Berloff) without input. The result isn’t a worthy memorial to 9/11 or an interesting Oliver Stone picture.

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