Monday, September 22, 2008

December 2003

Watching this film reminded me of how much I miss the TV show “Lucky,” an intoxicating look at compulsive gamblers and the various hangers-on that populate Las Vegas, which ran for about 12 weeks earlier this year on the FX channel. It starred John Corbett (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and the TV series “Northern Exposure”) as the winner of the World Series of Poker whose luck turns south very quick and, for my money, wonderfully captured the lunacy of Vegas. I still don’t know why it was canceled; FX just doesn’t have that much to be proud of to dump what was one of the funniest shows on TV.

“The Cooler” has much of the same atmosphere: the tough-talking hustlers, down-on-their luck working girls, amoral debt collectors and the sleazy, side-street residential motels, all lurking in the shadows behind the neon. William H. Macy plays the title role, an ex-gambler whose luck is so legendary bad that a small, downtown casino hires him to cool off hot gamblers. The whole premise sounds ridiculous, but it’s just a way to get into the world of a man who constantly reaffirms this self-fulfilling belief in himself as a loser.

Then Natalie (Maria Bello), a cocktail waitress at the casino, enters his life and suddenly he’s in love and a winner. This doesn’t sit well with Shelly (Alec Baldwin), the head guy at the Shangri-La, who needs the Cooler to spread his bad luck more than ever, as the mobster owner of the joint is putting the screws to him.

This shaggy dog tale has a fantasy ending and a bunch of giant leaps of believability throughout, but what keeps the movie interesting is Baldwin’s Shelly. As a profane, heartless relic of the old Vegas (he gives a classic speech assailing Steve Wynn and the family-oriented strip), Baldwin provides the punch of the film and his performance dominates every scene he’s in. While Macy and Bello make you believe in their unlikely emotion bond, it’s Baldwin who makes this show worth paying for.

This classic George S. Kauffman-Moss Hart comedy seems like a perfect candidate for an updated remake. The story of a famous literary figure who breaks his hip while visiting a family in a small town and then takes over their house while he recovers pulls few punches in making fun of the pampered, egotistical celebrity.

Today, when fawning over the famous has become a worldwide religion, the subject has never been more relevant. I can just imagine the possibilities of a Britney Spears-like star intruding on the lives of a working-class family-then again, maybe we’ve already seen too much of that crap on reality TV.

Monty Woolley reprises his famous stage performance as Sheridan Whiteside, a popular writer and commentator who sees himself as a man of the people; until he actually has to deal with them. Then he orders the family to their upstairs rooms, treats everyone like they’re his servants and does his best to break up a romance that might deprive him of his trusted assistant. Bette Davis gives one of her better, un-nominated performances as the assistant who emerges from Whiteside’s shadow when she falls for the local newspaper publisher (Richard Travis).

By the end, of course, Whiteside get his comeuppance and, against all odds, his humanity shines through. In the remake, we’ll avoid that kind of out-dated sentimentality and conclude the visit with gunfire (I hope).


Only a Robert De Niro completist would dare sit through this terribly acted and directed attempt to make a comic mob film.

The actual star of this embarrassment is Jerry Orbach, at the time a star on Broadway,
who barks his way through the role and looks very uncomfortable on screen. He also wears what looks like a $10 hairpiece, but it just may be his real hair. (If you go by movies of the era, everyone’s hair in the ‘70s was a disaster, but it didn’t seem like it at the time.)

Orbach, now one of the best actors on television as a homicide investigator on “Law and Order,” did eventually do some decent film work, including another mobster turn in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) and as a cop in “Prince of the City” (1981).

De Niro plays Mario Tarntino, an Italian bicyclist turned assassin, who falls for Orbach’s sister, played by the always lovely and vacuous Leigh Taylor-Young. De Niro has an advantage over the other actors in that he speaks broken English; the lines don’t sound as idiotic as they do when spoken in clear English. Considering the source material (a Jimmy Breslin novel) and the credited screenwriter (Waldo Salt, who scripted “Midnight Cowboy” and “Serpico”), most of the blame has to go to director James Goldstone, a longtime TV director.

Sadly, the highlight of the film turns out to be Herve Villechaize as Beppo, one of Orbach’s henchmen. To make him seem more like a mobster, I guess, his familiar high-pitched tones that he later made famous as Tattoo on “Fantasy Island,” have been dubbed over with a deep, generic voice. It only serves to make Herve seem even more out of place.

And, for “Godfather” fans only, Michael V. Gazzo can be spotted standing around in the background, but has no lines. A few years later, along with De Niro, he was one of the stars of “The Godfather, Part II,” playing a Corleone lieutenant Frankie Pentangeli.

I believe I read that in Japan, this film carries the subtitle: “A Kurosawa Film Simplified for Foreign Devils.” Just joking, but that’s what kept going through my mind as I endured this soft-minded story of an American soldier recruited to help the Japanese government in the 1870s.

Despite incredible, Kurosawa-like battle field scenes, featuring some of the most ferocious hand-to-hand combat you’re likely to see and sensational cinematography by John Toll of both the bloody combat and the serene beauty of the Japanese countryside, “The Last Samurai” never amounts to more than a formulaic, disposable Hollywood blockbuster. It’s saddled with simplistic dialogue, one-note, cliched characters and the kind of earnest plot that is engineered to make grown men weep.

Tom Cruise, in the right role, is among the best star-actors working in film, but he never gets a handle on his portrayal of the hard-drinking burn-out case, Capt. Nathan Algren. Captured by the rebellious samurai fighters, Algren bonds with both the samurai leader (Ken Watanabe) and his widowed sister as the rigorous traditions of the Japanese win over this disillusioned American. Eventually, he joins them in battle against the Japanese government troops, led by Algren’s American rival. There is hardly a scene in the film that you haven’t seen a dozen times in better movies.

Director Edward Zwick, who made the excellent Civil War film “Glory” (1989) and the well-acted Desert Storm war picture, “Courage Under Fire” (1996), has been more successful as a producer (“Shakespeare in Love” and “Traffic”) than a director (“The Siege” and “Legends of the Fall”) in recent years. In those other war-related picture Zwick made, the characters, not the battle, were first and foremost. He somehow forgot that element here.

For those who haven’t experienced the real thing: rent Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954), “Throne of Blood” (1957) or “Ran” (1985).

BAD SANTA (2003)
In the hands of most directors, this black comedy would have sunk under the weight of the morose, obsensity-filled rants of the title character. Instead, Terry Zwigoff, who previously helmed the documentary “Crumb” (1994) and the offbeat comedy “Ghost World” (2000), delicately balances the outrageous bad behavior of this department store Santa with a softhearted tale of a lonely, misfit boy who bonds with this utterly repulsive man.

Billy Bob Thornton was born for this role: looking like he just fell off a barstool after a three-day drunk, he leers at any woman in his vicinity and snarls at the youngsters who dare to line up to tell Santa their Christmas wishes. The bizarre plot follows a unlikely robbery scam that Thornton and his elf sidekick (played by African-American dwarf Tony Cox) pull off each Christmas, an attractive bartender who has a thing for Santas and Thornton’s relationship with the incurably innocent boy who you’d think drifted onto the set from a Disney movie.

Even at just 94 minutes, the film goes on a bit long, but how can I complaint about a film that shows a Santa so loaded that he pees in his pants. That’s a holiday memory to be savored.

This is the film that “MASH” would have been if Hollywood hadn’t turned radical in the late 1960s. Set near the end of World War II in a psych unit of a military hospital located somewhere in the West, the film combines, like “MASH,” wacky patients and an offbeat medical staff with serious medical issues.

Gregory Peck gives one of his looser performances as Capt. Newman, who runs the unit. He spends his time battling with the brass, creating good cheer among the less-severe patients and showing great understanding of the most shell-shocked, making time with nurse Angie Dickinson and getting falling-down drunk at the officer’s club. Overall, Peck does a nice job of pulling all the divergent elements of this episodical film together.

Directed David Miller, who had previously directed “Back Street” (1961) and “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), doesn’t add much to the mix other than to make sure all the plotlines get resolved.

The most prominent patients are played by singer Bobby Darin and Eddie Albert. Both are way over the top-Darin gives what may be the worst performance ever nominated for an Oscar-while a unknown actor named Robert Duvall gives the movie’s most memorable performance as a pilot whose guilt has swallowed up his personality.

Ted Bessell, later the boyfriend on the television sitcom “That Girl,” has one scene as a patient, while other famous TV faces, Dick Sargent, who went on to “Bewitched” and Larry Storch, who became a legend on “F Troop,” have small roles. Even with his short amount of screen time, Storch demonstrates once again that he’s one of the worst actors anyone has ever heard of.

Tony Curtis is the co-star of the film, playing a resourceful, anti-establishment orderly who comes closest to capturing the spirit of “MASH” and the kind of off-the-wall craziness this film should have embodied.

I’m not sure why, but I was unable to connect with this well-made, heartfelt study of a young Irish family’s struggles to make it in New York City in the early 1980s. I haven’t read how much of this is autobiographical, but clearly, “In America” is very personal project for director Jim Sheridan.

Sometimes Sheridan, who previously, with his favorite actor Daniel Day-Lewis, has delivered the excellent “My Left Foot” (1989), “In the Name of the Father” (1993) and “The Boxer” (1997), pushes for life-affirming emotions in a less-than-subtle manner. Here, more than in his previous films, he’s really trying hard.

Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton play the couple who slip into America illegally with their two children and set up housekeeping in a slum apartment. At the core of the film is the couple’s inability to deal with the earlier death of their young son and the coming birth of another child. Superb acting, especially by the two bubbly girls playing the children and Djimon Hounsou (who played the rebellious slave in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad”) as an imposing neighbor who is drawn to the Irish family, and Sheridan’s sure hand at capturing New York at its sweatiest, should have won me over but it never did.

Morton gives a typically superb performance, getting to the heart of a mother who can’t overcome the death of her child. She has quickly become one of the best actresses working in film. One of her most amazing performances can be seen in the 1997 British television production of “Jane Eyre,” which often shows on the A&E channel. Her other movie work includes her turn as a mute in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999), a junkie in “Jesus’ Son” (1999), a lost soul in “Morvern Callar” (2002) and a living-dead soothsayer in Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002).

I’ve had high hopes for director Susan Seidelman since I saw her wonderfully offbeat, gritty punk film, “Smithereens” (1982). The funny and poignant tale of a teenage girl obsessed with become part of the punk scene, gave Seidelman a golden ticket to Hollywood.

She cashed in immediately with the box-office hit “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), an attempt to mainstream the energy of “Smithereens,” which also helped fuel the Madonna hysteria of the 1980s. The director followed that with two good, but more mainstream films: John Malkovich vehicle, “Making Mr. Right” (1987), and the Rosanne Barr-Meryl Streep film, “She-Devil” (1989). Since then it’s been straight-to-video or TV work for Seidelman. For whatever reason, Hollywood seemed to have turned its back on this excellent director.

I stumbled upon “Gaudi Afternoon,” a straight-to-video movie (can a movie go straight to DVD?) she directed. Considering the cast-Judy Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Lili Taylor and Juliette Lewis, all in major roles-this should have been much better.

Davis plays Cassandra, a writer holed up in Barcelona, who is enlisted by an odd, cartoonish femme fatale character, played by Harden, to find her husband. It doesn’t make much sense, but Davis needs the money and takes the assignment. As a result, she’s thrown into the middle of a very loud, confusing group of people who are playing out melodramatic relationships as if they just stepped off the set of “The Days of Our Lives.”

While the film focuses on Seidelman’s favorite theme of identity confusion, it is played so broadly that it’s impossible to believe these are real people. This definitely isn’t the film that will get Seidelman another shot at the big time.

Nothing pisses me off more than when you think you’re watching a realistic film and it turns out to be supernatural. And I don’t think that’s giving away too much about this overheated thriller; in fact, it’s fair warning.

The plot is classic horror: a group of strangers end up in a desert motel, all under weird circumstances, and then they start to get killed. The surprisingly well-heeled cast, considering how weak the script is, features John Cusack, Ray Liotta and Amanda Peet. What bothered me the most about this film was that it actually did a good job of making me concerned about the killings and anxious as the characters played “whodunit.” Then when all is revealed, about 4/5 of the way into the film, I wanted to find the filmmakers and do some killing myself.

This quirky Thanksgiving tale is everything that was great about independent films before the term became a marketing tool for big studios to promote movies not expected to be blockbusters. It looks cheap, shot on digital video, overflows with offbeat characters and doesn’t rely on an overwritten plotline. The story is sitcom simple--a high-strung young woman prepares her first Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family--but first-time director Peter Hedges, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for his screenplay for “About a Boy,” finds much to say about not giving up on relationships; on making that extra effort to connect with people.

As everything goes wrong for April (Katie Holmes) as she attempts to prepare a turkey--a broken oven forces her to beg help from her strange collection of neighbors--her family drives in from the suburbs, a trip complicated by the mother’s tentative mental state, a result of a severe health condition. It’s the kind of role that easily could have become pretentiously loony, but as played by Patricia Clarkson the character is both aggravating and heartbreaking, outlandish and insightful.

Hedges smartly keeps April and her mother apart until the very end of the film; learning about their relationship in bits and pieces, through their discussions with other characters, plays out like real life. Too often Hollywood movies rely on those melodramatic head-to-head confrontations that offer great acting and quick resolution but little truth.

In “Pieces of April,” the actors make the most of small moments and superbly balance the drama and the humor. Beyond Clarkson and Holmes, on-the-money performances are given by Oliver Platt as the father trying to bring his daughter and wife together; Alison Pill as the younger, attention-craving sister, Derek Luke (so good in “Antwone Fisher”) as April’s supportive boyfriend and Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as wonderfully festive and helpful neighbors.

Between this performance and her work in “The Station Agent,” Clarkson seems destined for an Academy Award nomination, having already been chosen by the National Board of Review as the year’s best supporting actress. Clarkson, 44, who made her film debut playing Eliot Ness’ wife in “The Untouchables” (1987), has most notably played Ally Sheedy’s lover in the indie hit “High Art” (1998) and Julianne Moore’s best friend in last year’s “Far From Heaven.” That performance earned Clarkson a supporting actress award from the New York Critics Circle.

This slight film about three lonely, drifting people who form an unlikely bond has been the surprise critically darling of the year. Nearly devoid of plot, the film is a low-keyed character study of a friendless dwarf who inherits a deserted railroad station in rural New Jersey, a depressed woman going through marital problems and an overbearing, talkative owner of a lunch wagon.

Despite good performances by Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale, the focus of the film is Peter Dinklage’s Finbar. He doesn’t do much acting, but he has an engaging presence and is perfect in this role of a man who only wants to be left alone.

But would anyone have taken notice of this film if one of the main characters wasn’t a dwarf? As much as I applaud a filmmaker for making a movie featuring a dwarf or an Asian American or a physically disabled person, or anyone who isn’t an attractive, physically perfect white person, the movie itself must be held to the same standards as any other film. In some way, it reminds me of the overpraise many films in the 1960s received because they starred Sidney Poitier. Then again, maybe I’m letting my head rule my heart too much. Should I be giving extra points to “Station Agent” because of its refreshing casting choices?

I enjoyed “Station Agent” for what it was, but when I see it showing up near the top of critics’ Top 10 lists, I can’t help but think that it has more to do with showing that you’re hip enough to love a film about a dwarf than the quality of the movie.

Despite the pretentious title, this adventure turns out to be a top-notch entertainment and a well-written study of the tough decisions a commander of men constantly faces.

Set in 1807, the film takes place on the HMS Surprise, part of the British fleet, as it pursues one of Napoleon’s war ships off the coast of Brazil. Russell Crowe portrays Capt. Jack Aubrey, an emotional, fearless, cultured and, of course, beloved captain who is determined, against all odds, to capture the French ship. It’s yet another great role for Crowe, who completely inhabits the character from the opening frames. Crowe isn’t the best actor in Hollywood but he has no equal in choosing parts. He’s gone from “The Insider” (1999) to “Gladiator” (2000) to “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) to this current film, which will no doubt earn him his fourth Oscar nomination in five years.

And while Crowe’s Jack holds the film together, the real star of this picture is director Peter Weir. I’ve been unimpressed with most of Weir’s films--“Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), “Witness” (1985), “The Mosquito Coast” (1986), “Dead Poets Society” (1989), among them--but “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982) was one of my favorite films of the ‘80s and “The Truman Show” (1998) was the best American movie of the 1990s. But for sheer bravura filmmaking, Weir reaches new heights in “Master and Commander.”

He and cinematographers Russell Boyd and Sandi Sissel capture the magnificent sweep of the ship as it steams through the ocean, guiding the camera seamlessly across the deck of the ship, up the masts and down into the hull. Weir keeps the fast-paced film understandable even when the seafaring details aren’t immediately clear and he never lets the focus move away from the seamen even as he lingers over every detail of the ship. Weir also co-wrote (with John Collee) the script, based on the novel of Patrick O’Brian.

While the film begins and concludes with astonishingly staged ship battles, the majority of the movie combines character study with a detailed examination of life of 19th Century seamen. And while it’s not devoid of cliches (the captain’s violin-cello duets with his doctor-friend feel stolen from a lesser film), “Master and Commander” is a rare example of an action film made for adults, leagues better than the simplicity of “The Last Samurai.”

For movie fans who came of age during the 1970s, the pairing of Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson is pretty much as good as it gets. And while this movie is not nearly as insightful or funny as that 1997 Nicholson film, the chance to see these old pros play off of one another, in roles that clearly resemble a slice of these actor’s real life, proves to be a delightful experience. At least for the first half of the movie.

As I’m sure everyone and their mother knows by now, the creaky plot manages to get playboy Harry and divorced playwright Erica alone together in her beach-side house after he suffers a heart attack while frolicking with Erica’s daughter (Amanda Peet).

The setup and the budding romance between the pair make for entertaining and occasionally moving cinema because Keaton and Nicholson bring so much of themselves--so much truth--to the roles. Keaton does some of her best work on film in conveying the exuberance that Erica feels at rediscovering love after believing that part of her life was over. During those scenes, I felt the film might turn into something great. Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from there.

Writer-director Nancy Meyers goes astray while trying to create the “boy loses girl” segment essential in a romantic comedy. What she ends up with are ideas taken from other films: a Neil Simon-like play that Erica writes about her experiences with Harry; a device from “High Fidelity” in which Harry seeks out his old girlfriends; and the cliche of all cliches, a kiss on a bridge across the Seine. Meyers was on to something in showing the difficulties of late-in-life romance and how older men fail to appreciate women in their own age group, but like so many screenwriters, she couldn’t find a third act.

While Keaton has deservedly received most of the acting accolades (and will likely receive an Oscar nomination), Nicholson once again shows why he’s the best actor of the past 30-some years. Not only is he one of the few actors who can believably play a 63-year-old who never dates women over 30, but he makes his character’s struggle to accept monogamy with an “older” woman ring true even when the writing is weak. Clearly, both Keaton and Nicholson remain among the most skilled performers in American film and constant reminders of an era when movies meant more than weekend box-office receipt records.


The title describes the star of this film, Eleanor Powell, but definitely not her skinny co-star, James Stewart. Just four years out of Princeton and in his second year in movies, Stewart firmly establishes that his future is not in musicals. You can see him struggling to keep up with the dazzling dancing of Powell and the impossibly long-legged Buddy Ebsen and when Stewart tries to sing, well, I’m sure Cole Porter was gritting his teeth.

But Stewart’s acting abilities, along with the antics of Ebsen and Sid Silver, who play his Navy buddies, help make the cliched plot amusing and the inevitably romantic complications tolerable. Of course, it’s when Powell dances that the picture really comes alive.

The greatest movie dancer in high heels, Powell has three extended tap dancing extravaganzas that are nothing short of astonishing. A Broadway legend by the time she made her 1935 movie debut at age 25, Powell appeared in just a dozen films before her retirement in 1944 (after marrying Glenn Ford). This is probably her best film, along with “Lady Be Good” (1941), the first in a series of musical-comedies she co-starred in with Red Skelton. With sparkling eyes and a lets-put-on-a-show enthusiasm, Powell combines the graceful movements of Fred Astaire with the kind of overcharged athleticism later made famous by Gene Kelly, while tapping faster than seems humanly possible. It’s a shame that she quit the business before the revival of musicals in the 1950s.

Among the other pleasures of this engaging movie is the always spunky presence of Una Merkel, Virginia Bruce as a bitchy stage star who gets to sing Porter’s classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and a bizarre turn by Reginald Gardiner as a cop who conducts an imaginary orchestra like a cartoon version of Toscanini.

And Silver not only plays a comic seaman, but also co-wrote the script. In fact, he fashioned stories and wrote screenplays for many musicals of the era (reported he worked on “The Wizard of Oz” without credit) and “Born to Dance” is one of his rare appearances in front of the camera.

I’ve stated my feelings about animated movies many times: The best animations are six minutes long, star Bugs Bunny and called cartoons. Seeing these two acclaimed animated pictures within weeks of one another reaffirmed that belief, but also confirmed another belief: the best art is sometimes the most commercial.

I found “The Triplets of Belleville,” hailed high and wide as one of the best films of 2003, dull and pretentious, filled with one-dimensional (no pun intended) characters and totally lacking in any emotional resonance.

And, worst of all for this supposedly artsy French film, it concludes with a long, predictable car chase. How’s that for clever originality?

“Finding Nemo,” delivering what it advertises, is an engaging kids’ film that features very funny characters and dialogue to match its colorful animation. Nemo, if you haven’t heard, is a young clown fish living in the ocean who is netted by a Sidney dentist for his aquarium. Nemo’s protective father (hilariously voiced by Albert Brooks) along with a memory-impaired sidekick named Dory (endlessly stealing scenes as voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) voyage through all manner of oceanic adventures in search of the young fish. Among the memorable character they encounter are Bruce, a reformed shark attempting to make friends with, not eat, other fish, and Crush, a surfer dude turtle who says things like “Rock on!”

Despite the resemblance, “Finding Nemo” isn’t quite “Pinocchio”-there is an inside-a-whale scene-but it’s one of the more entertaining feature animations in recent years.

No comments: