Sunday, September 28, 2008
STORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR (1950)
and AUTUMN SONATA (1978)
The deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni on the same day last month were reminders of the days when filmmaking artists from around the world were an essential part of the American film-going experience. While a handful of foreign directors currently have a following in this country (Pedro Almodovar, Zhang Yi-mou, Wong Kar-wai, Werner Herzog and a few others) their films have been marginalized by independent films, which have become the staple of art house theaters, and the increasing expectation of U.S. audiences for action and special effects.
The idea of being intellectually challenged on a regular basis---even baffled---by a visit to the movie theater, a movement that began in earnest soon after the end of World War II, seems beyond the imagination today.
The Swedish Bergman was at the forefront of that era with such landmark films as “The Seventh Seal” (1957), “Wild Strawberries” (1957) and “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), all heavy with symbolism, philosophical debates and big-issue themes that rarely can be found in movies today. Italian director Antonioni made films even less accessible than Bergman, including “L’Avventura” (1960, “La Notte” (1961) and the English-language “Blow-Up” (1966), which became one of the most popular “art” films of all time.
“Story of a Love Affair,” Antonioni’s first feature after writing scripts for others and making documentaries in the 1940s, is much more conventional than his work in the 1960s and ‘70s. A successful businessman hires a detective agency to look into his much younger wife’s past, which reunites wife Paola (played by the delicate beauty Lucia Bosé ---Miss Italy of 1947) with Guido (Massimo Girotti), her former lover from her school days.
While the film plays out as expected---the secret these two share both binds them and ultimately dooms any long-term relationship---it’s filled with the elements of what a decade later would make the director famous. He’s constantly shifting the film’s perspective from one character to another, all of whom are deeply unsatisfied with their lives and seemingly overwhelmed by fate. Antonioni’s inclination to show his characters as secondary to their physical surroundings, whether it’s the cold architecture of this film, the rocky beach of “L’Avventura” or the deadly desert of “The Passenger” (1975), adds to the sense that they’re fighting a hopeless battle to find themselves.
Unlike most of the Antonioni movies I’ve seen, there’s an emphasis on acting in “Story of a Love Affair,” with Bosé and Girotti superbly capturing the guilt, passion, anger and frustration of this complicated couple.
“Autumn Sonata” brought together two Swedish legends as American movie star Ingrid Bergman ventured into the intensely emotional world of her namesake, Ingmar Bergman. Both director and actress were near the end of their illustrious film careers; Ingmar, after directing two more features, would spend the last 25 years of his life focused on stage work and the occasional Swedish television production; Ingrid, who was being treated during “Autumn Sonata” for the cancer that would take her life in 1982, made the 1981 TV movie “A Woman Called Golda,” but this was to be her final feature film.
She plays an energetic, self-centered concert pianist who hasn’t seen her daughter in seven years when she arrives for a visit at the home of Eva (Liv Ullmann) and her pastor husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork). The visit starts uncomfortably when Eva reveals that her disabled sister Lena (an astonishing performance by Lena Nyman) is now living with them after spending most of her life in a nursing facility. Bergman’s Charlotte truly believes that she’d done her best to balance her career with caring for her family, but as the timid Eva begins to open up, she paints a picture of neglect and deep-seated resentment.
Director Bergman had long left behind the films he filled with evocative, unforgettable images along with his deeply troubled characters. In the mid-1960s, his films became intimate, even claustrophobic chamber dramas usually contained with the walls of an immaculate home and dominated by long takes of characters, in close-up, revealing their darkest truths. While “Autumn Sonata” is rarely mentioned with his best of this period----“Persona” (1966), “The Shame” (1968), “Cries and Whispers” (1972) and “Face to Face” (1976)----it’s as complex a study of a mother-daughter relationship you’re likely to see on film. While you can’t help but sympathize with the daughter, the director gives the mother her due----as a man who neglected his own children in favor of his film career, he has a strong stake in this debate.
The role of Charlotte also had to hit home with Ingrid Bergman, who deserted her American family in 1949 to marry Italian director Roberto Rossellini and then later deserted that family (which included future actress Isabella) to return to her Hollywood career. “Autumn Sonata” earned the actress her seventh Oscar nomination (she had previously won three times) while the writer-director was nominated for best original screenplay.
Bergman and Antonioni had little in common as filmmakers, but as writers they both were interested in how people affected and communicated with those around them and continually explored how painfully elusive happiness can be. They directed films to express their own questions about life and the results were a half-century of timeless, thought-provoking motion pictures.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
I hadn’t watched this comedy classic in decades, but I couldn’t resist the two-disk special edition, released in 2006, after seeing the stage musical version earlier this year at the Wynn in Las Vegas. The musical, starring John O’Hurley (the J. Peterman of “Seinfeld”) as King Arthur, perfectly captures the absurd hilarity of the original as it recreates such classic bits as the bloody battle with the Black Knight, the “bring out your dead” scene, the killer rabbit, the baffling confrontation with the knights who say “Ni” and the French guards pelting the knights with dead farm animals---now all punctuated with song. The stage version adds a romantic interest----a voluptuous, scene stealing Lady of the Lake (she’s only mentioned in the film) played by Nikki Crawford, and also features a real ending. The end of the film, in true Python fashion, turns into something complete different.
The DVD has tons of extras, including an pseudo instructional video on the uses of coconuts (in the film, coconut halves are clapped together to create the sound of trotting horses), alternate subtitles using the text of “Henry IV, Part II” and commentary tracks by co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones and another by the remaining Pythons, Eric Idle, John Cleese and Michael Palin. (Graham Chapman, who gives the film’s Arthur a Shakespearean heft as anarchy spins around him, died in 1989.) One of the best extras is the cast directory that allows you to see each performer in the many roles they play in the film; it makes you appreciate what protean performers all six of the Pythons were.
I found “the Holy Grail” had more than weathered it’s 32 years; not only in its timeless physical comedy bits, but the brilliantly written and delivered verbal exchanges, highlighted by the litany of insults delivered by John Cleese’s French guard, Arthur’s debate over the legitimacy of his rule with a pair of mud farmers and the detailed discussion of how coconuts found their way to England. Hilarious bits fly-by so fast that watching the film with the script on screen (one of the DVD extras) is a must at least once.
It’s easy to forget that back in the ‘70s, they actually made comedies for adults. What a concept.
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007)
Last we saw Jason Bourne (the still boyish Matt Damon), he seemed to have cleared his name with the CIA and was working on facing up to his identity. Not only does he get to confront his dark past in “Ultimatum,” but a new enemy arises at “the company.” David Strathairn, who earned an Oscar nod for his cool portrayal of Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005), is equally superb as Noah Vosen, head of the CIA’s black ops, who fears Bourne knows more about a secret program than he should.
This cat-and-mouse plot is played out in three extraordinary complex and intense chases, the first through the crowded Waterloo Station area in London, then up and down the narrow streets of Tangiers and finally along the streets of Manhattan, where Bourne displays NASCAR-like driving skills. Paul Greengrass, who directed “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004) and the terrifying 9/11 docudrama “United 93” (2006), utilizes hand-held camera and an editing style that lingers over a shot maybe three seconds----if its really important----to create the film’s breakneck pace and adrenalin-pumping energy. This kind of in-your-face filmmaking can be oppressive, but Greengrass is not your average director, not to mention his editor Christopher Rouse (nominated for “United 93”) and his cinematographer Oliver Wood (who’s done all the “Bournes”), and the result is the action genre at its best.
Damon is properly intense as he displays the resourcefulness of a dozen James Bonds and the ability to anticipate his enemies’ next moves as if he’s clairvoyant. In addition to Strathairn’s excellent performance, the always superb Joan Allen is back as Pamela Landy, the one person inside the CIA who has sympathy for Bourne and takes on her bosses in his cause. In smaller roles, Paddy Considine, star of “In America” (2002), is excellent as a naïve newspaper reporter and Albert Finney, the grand old man of British acting, plays an unrepentant, sinister doctor who’s part of a very secret training program.
While, in a vague way, this film completes the introduction of Bourne, it clearly leaves the door open for more adventures, as long as Damon is willing.
ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006)
Starting with his 1994 breakthrough documentary, “Crumb,” Terry Zwigoff has directed three very different, but equally watchable pictures. He followed his study of the iconic ‘60s cartoonist Robert Crumb with his fiction feature debut, “Ghost World” (2001), an off-beat coming-of-age tale centered on a pair of unconventional teens (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) and the influence a lonely, middle-aged beatnik (Steve Buscemi) has on them. Slightly more commercial, but in fact even more anti-social was “Bad Santa” (2003), a character study of the most offensive department store Santa (Billy Bob Thornton) on Earth, his equally foul-mouthed partner (Tony Cox) and what turns out to be their final robbery scam.
Zwigoff’s latest doesn’t match those three, but it sticks with his favorite theme, that of the outsider who refuses to conform no matter what the costs.
Max Minghella plays Jerome, an incredibly sincerely art student who heads to college determined to be a “great artist.” What he finds is a full-of-himself painting professor (a fey, petulant John Malkovich)----who spent years perfecting his paintings of triangles----and a collection of stereotypical fellow students who wouldn’t know a quality piece of art if it hit them on the head.
Screenwriter Daniel Cloves script, adapting his own comic book (as he did with “Ghost World”), feels like it was written by a bitter, failed student determined to paint the other students as talentless idiots. Nearly every plot thread is tied up in the most cynical way possible; in fact, the film’s most appealing character turns out to be a murderer stalking co-eds.
Good performances keep the film from being unbearable, include Minghella (the son of director Anthony Minghella); the always entertaining Malkovich; Sophia Myles as Jerome’s dream girl, an artists’ model who is also the daughter of a famous painter; and Buscemi as the arrogant owner of the art gallery-coffee shop just off campus.
Zwigoff and Cloves started out with a good idea, but at some point they lost their sense of what was funny and what was just mean-spirited.
CUSTER OF THE WEST (1968)
This epic biopic of legendary Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer, who famously died at Little Big Horn, paints a more complex, possibly more truthful, picture of the man than the heroic treatment he received in the 1941 movie, “They Died With Their Boots On” (with Errol Flynn as Custer). The much underrated British actor Robert Shaw does a fine job of carrying this 143-minute movie as he portrays the general as a obsessively controlling taskmaster who is deeply conflicted about his role in the opening of the West by killing Indians.
Overall, the film, reflective of its time, is very understand of the Indians’ plight even as the story is all told from the white man’s point of view. Numerous times, Custer admits to his commander (a blustery Lawrence Tierney) his sympathy for the Indians’ position, especially when he had to do the bidding of the railroads.
Robert Siodmak, best known as the director of such moody film noirs as “Phantom Lady” (1944), “The Spiral Staircase” (1945) and “The Killers” (1946), creates some impressive set-pieces, highlighted by a soldier’s ride down a lumber canal to escape an Indian attack that ends when he’s spilled out into the river. He then tries to warn a on-coming train of the attack but before he can a railroad bridge over a deep canyon is torched by the Indians and the train plunges into the canyon. But most of the film is less exciting----even at Little Big Horn, where Custer’s ego dooms his company of soldiers, isn’t very dramatic as Western war scenes go----and focuses on Custer’s up and down career.
German-raised Siodmak was a well-established filmmaker when he arrived in Hollywood, like many other European filmmakers, in the mid-1930s. He became one of film noirs finest practitioners in the 1940s but following his marvelously entertaining swashbuckler “The Crimson Pirate” (1952), with Burt Lancaster at his acrobatic best, he return to Europe, where he worked until his death in 1973. “Custer” was one of the few English-language pictures (though it was shot in Spain) Siodmak directed in the last 20 years of his life.
SAFE MEN (1998)
This quirky comedy was recommended to me after I wrote about Sam Rockwell in “Jerry and Tom” a few months ago. While I had a hard time getting around the ridiculously stupid plot of “Safe Men,” the film’s collection of actors, all giving weirdly watchable performances, more than make up for the throw-away story.
Rockwell and Steve Zahn are a pair of geeky, effeminate (I incorrectly thought they were gay for much of the film) friends trying to make a living as lounge singers. They’re as clueless as they are talentless and the last guys you’d ever mistake for a pair of professional thieves. But that’s what happens when they unknowingly go to the same bar as the real safe crackers (Mark Ruffalo and Josh Pais) and order the same sloe gin fizzes and are mistaken by a mobster’s flunky known as Veal Chop.
Veal Chop (hilariously played by Paul Giamatti) is the right-hand man to Big Fat Bernie Gayle (the always outrageous Michael Lerner), a Jewish crime boss who dotes on his over-weight, spoiled son, Bernie Jr., and likes to wear multi-colored exercise stretch outfits. Big Fat Bernie forces the frightened lounge singers to rob some safes for him, which leads them to another crime figure, played by Harvey Feirstein and his daughter (Christina Kirk), who has a thing for criminals.
It’s all very foolish, concluding in the most outrageous bar mitzvah celebration you’re likely to witness. As enjoyable as it is to watch the comic chemistry between Rockwell and Zahn, Giamanti steals the show, as he bonds with Bernie Jr. and does his best impression of a guy trying to be a wise guy and falling well short.
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)
and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)
The fourth installment, directed by veteran British filmmaker Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Donnie Brasco”) feels like a thrown-together transition piece that barely stands on its own. Fourteen-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), looking like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is forced into the very dangerous Triwizard Tournament with students from other schools that inevitably leads to a rather uninvolving confrontation with arch enemy Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Even after seeing five very long movies about these characters, I still don’t understand why Voldemort just doesn’t kill Harry and be done with all this grand wizardry and melodramatic rantings. But what does a mere muggle know of such things?
More interesting, but less developed, is the growing interest by Harry and his school pals Ron and Hermione in the opposite sex, culminating in a elaborate, full-dress ball at Hogwarts. Among the gallery of British acting royalty, Michael Gambon shines again as headmaster Dumbledore, but in “Goblet of Fire,” Brendan Gleeson steals the show as a strange, one-eyed new professor whose identity is as mysterious as the reasons for him taking Harry under his wing.
Yet overall, “Goblet of Fire” is a chapter all but the devoted can easily skip.
I don’t know if author J.K. Rowlings’ has admitted to being influenced by George Lucas’ “Star Wars” sage, but “Order of the Phoenix” brings into focus the similarity between the Yoda (Dumbledore), Darth Vader (Voldemort) and Luke Skywalker (Potter) relationship and those playing out in Britain’s community of wizards and witches.
The new movie raises the stakes considerably as Harry moves to the center of a witch-world controversy: Has the dark force really returned or was Harry’s confrontation (at the end of “Goblet of Fire”) just a creation of the overactive imagination of a teenager? The battlelines are drawn as Harry’s godfather Sirius (Gary Oldman) and his followers in the Order of the Phoenix support Dumbledore and his teachers while the Ministry of Magic gets tough at Hogwarts, sending Dolores Umbridge (a scary Imelda Staunton), a Mary Kay saleswoman-like disciplinarian to take over the reigns.
There’s plenty of action and impressive special effects as Harry finally learns that this battle with Voldemort isn’t his alone to fight. It’s a very dark, ominous picture that offers little hope that this gifted boy has a bright future ahead.
Director David Yates, who mostly has worked in British television and is set to direct next year’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” brings the same kind of urgent pacing to this edition that Alfonso Cuaron did in what is still the best of the series, “Prisoner of Azkaban.”
THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (1983)
Steve Martin and his fumbling, smart-ass screen persona have left me cold since he first hit it big with “The Jerk” (1979). While he was the perfect guest host in the early days of “SNL,” there was something about his exaggerated, Jerry Lewis-like physicality and pseudo coolness in movies that undercut every funny line or gag he delivered.
I was in the small minority in the 1980s as nearly every Martin film became a box-office smash and a critical favorite. It really was an impressive run of comedy hits---“The Jerk,” “Pennies From Heaven” (1981), “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), “The Man With Two Brains,” “The Lonely Guy” (1984), “All of Me” (1984), “Three Amigos!” (1986), “Roxanne” (1987) and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987).
With 1989’s “Parenthood,” Martin took a more serious turn and has been alternating straight and comic roles ever since, with mixed success.
Though most of the movies he made in the ‘80s were smartly written, often with his helping hand, and well directed (both factors in bringing me back year after year), the presence of Martin at the center of the films ultimately ruined them for me. I guess the idea of a man falling for a brain floating in a jar, was just more than I wanted to endure and I passed on “The Man With Two Brains”---until a few weeks ago, when the comedy was pressed upon me by a friend (on the occasion of co-star Merv Griffin’s death).
The script, by Martin and George Gipe, may be one of the funniest of the era as it pits the self-aggrandizing brain surgeon Dr. Hfuhruhurr (Martin, of course) with gold-digging tease Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner sending up for “Body Heat” persona) who marry after he saves her life on the operating table. Though it doesn’t make much sense, director Carl Reiner milks every last joke out of her refusal to consummate their marriage, even as she enjoys the company of house gardener.
Hoping a honeymoon will spice up their union, Martin takes her along to a brain surgeons convention in Austria, where he meets fellow researcher Dr. Necessiter (David Warner). His condo, decked out like a mad scientist castle from a 1930s Warner Bros. film, including a devoted butler wonderfully played by Paul Benedict, provides some of the movie’s best gags and is where Hfuhruhurr falls in love with one of the brains Dr. Necessiter has stored in jars with a special fluid.
As Martin falls for the gentle soul whose brain he’s stolen (voiced by Sissy Spacek) the film gets sillier and sillier (though James Cromwell as a real estate agent dressed like a member of an Oktoberfest brass band is quite a hoot) as it heads for its inevitable operating room finale.
Not a bad comedy, but I kept thinking how much funnier I would have found it if I could substitute Bill Murray or John Candy or Michael Keaton or Chevy Chase (oops, I went to far) for Martin.
TALK TO ME (2007)
Don Cheadle, here playing legendary Washington D.C. disc jockey Petey Greene, since his breakthrough role as Mouse in “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995), has become one of the best character actors in Hollywood. In films as different as “Boogie Nights” (1997), “Traffic” (2000), “Hotel Rwanda” (2004), “Crash” (2004) and his turn as Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1998 TV movie “The Rat Pack,” Cheadle, whether he’s playing a minor character or one that has to carry the film, portrays men who are one-of-a-kind, uncompromisingly real and always memorable.
Greene went from working at a prison radio station to becoming the morning D.J. at a small, R&B station, when the program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put his job on the line to give Petey a shot. When Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated and riots erupt in Washington, Greene takes to the airwaves and helps comfort the black community, giving them a public voice that didn’t exist before. As Greene’s fame grows, the more subdued but ambitious Hughes tries to live out his own showbiz dreams through his friend, culminating in a disastrous appearance by Greene on “The Tonight Show.”
While Cheadle’s foul-mouthed, exceedingly clever Greene dominates the screen, the film is as much about the way Hughes evolutes from a safe, uptight businessman into a successful on-air personality and the rise and fall of the pair’s friendship. The screenplay, in fact, was written by Hughes’ son, Michael Genet, along with Rick Famuyiwa.
Director Kasi Lemmons, who made the slick but cliché-filled “Eve’s Bayou” (1997), does a good job of balancing the playful craziness of Petey and his sexy, Afro-sporting girlfriend Vernell (played with full gusto by Taraji P. Henson) with the sober realities of the times. But it’s the pitch perfect portrayals by Cheadle and Ejiofor (also superb in “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Children of Men”) that make “Talk to Me” worth seeing.