Wednesday, September 24, 2008

December 2005

I had high hopes for this film. Harold Ramis has made a bunch of bad movies, but he’s also the director of two Bill Murray comedy classics, “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog’s Day.” John Cusack, who stars, never fails to create a character you feel like you know or wish you did. And could you ask for a better supporting trio than Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt and Randy Quaid?

Toss in a poorly conceived embezzlement scheme, a bad marriage, a couple of strip joints and a trigger-happy mobster and we should be talking about a Christmas film for the ages.

Then, about 20 minutes into the film, I realized it wasn’t a comedy. Or, if it was, the screenwriters had no sense of humor. But that can’t be; the screenwriters were Robert Benton, the legendary writer-director of “The Late Show” (1977) and “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) and Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Empire Falls” and the Benton-directed “Nobody’s Fool.” No matter how little I think of this script, I have to believe that between these two pros and veteran Ramis, they realized they weren’t making a comedy.

There are scenes you want to laugh at but the lines aren’t there and the acting is so broad that it could only work in a comedy. Everything about this film screams comedy, except that it’s not funny.

The problem with turning an actor’s life into a film is that if they’re interesting, everyone already knows about them; if they’re dull, what’s the point. Peter Sellers provides the worst of both worlds. Not only was he well-known for his battles with directors, producers and wives, but his repetitive bad behavior becomes dull very quickly.

Geoffrey Rush does a superb job imitating Sellers, but the episodical script offers almost nothing even the most casual movie fan hasn’t been aware of since his death in 1980. The behind-the-scenes glimpses during the making of some of his films aren’t very enlightening and the made-for-cable movie never makes an effort to show the ups and downs of his inconsistent career.

As is the bane of most bios of famous people, an over-protective mother gets the blame for his insufferable personality. And what a personality it is. Sellers manages to treat everyone he comes in contact with equally disdainful. Despite knowing that he died young, it’s hard to root for this guy. Even his longtime collaborator in the “Pink Panther” series, Blake Edwards could barely stand the man.

Director Stephen Hopkins, clearly seeing that he needed to do something more interesting than just catalog Sellers’ tantrums, has Rush break the third wall and speak directly to the camera, while imitating real characters in his life—his mother, father, wives, directors. It’s very theatrical and gives Rush a chance to show off, but it adds little to the movie.

In addition to Rush, Miriam Margolyes is quite effective as Seller’s mother and John Lithgow clearly has fun playing Edwards. Both Emily Watson, as his first wife, and Charlize Theron, as his second, actress-model Britt Ekland, serve as attractive recipients of Sellers’ vitriol.

Maybe, for those who know little more than his on-screen persona, this bio will be of interest, but, then again, if you’re a fan of Inspector Clouseau, you’re probably better off not knowing about the real Peter Sellers.

Ridley Scott has made a career of taking stories more suited to low-budget, straight-to-video knockoffs and turning them into smart, entertaining genre pictures. From “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982) to “Gladiator” (2000) and “Black Hawk Down” (2001), he’s shown himself to be an impressive stylist who is willing to spend time on making characters believable and not letting them get lost in the special effects or epic action.

Then again, he’s also made “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (1992) and “G.I. Jane” (1997). His latest, a timely recounting of a 12th Century crusade and the attempts by Christian to drive Muslim armies from the Holy Land, falls somewhere between his successful films and his flops.

Orlando Bloom, a veteran of violent odysseys having been one of the stars of the “Lord of the Ring” trilogy, plays a thoughtful French blacksmith who agrees to join his long-forgotten father (Liam Neeson), the leader of the Christian armies. After proving himself in battle, he falls for the sister (Eva Green) of the leprosy-inflicted king of Jerusalem (played in a mask by Edward Norton). She also happens to be the wife of his father’s military rival.

There’s plenty of political backstabbing and debating of how to handle the Muslims who claim the area as their own. It’s sort of like the neocons versus the political realists. Yet neither the combatants nor the issues they’re fighting over ever come alive the way they did in Scott’s “Gladiator” or Peter Jackson’s “Ring” films.

Few filmmakers have ever been able to turn ancient wars into compelling movies: such stalwarts as Howard Hawks (“Land of the Pharaohs”), Anthony Mann (“El Cid” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire”), Robert Rossen (“Alexander the Great”) and Oliver Stone (“Alexander”) made valiant, but ultimately failed attempts.

Scott comes pretty close with “Kingdom of Heaven”—some scenes are quite impressive, especially the mammoth catapults the Muslims use to fling fiery explosions into the fortified city—but in the end it’s little more than one slaughter of humanity followed by another.

Surprisingly, there hasn’t been a big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s tale of cross-class romance and misunderstanding since the 1940 Greer Garson-Laurence Oliver version. While the Austen revival was going on in the late ‘90s—“Persuasion” (1995), “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), “Emma” (1996) and “Mansfield Park” (1999)—somehow her acknowledged masterpiece was left to television. The five-hour A&E-produced 1995 miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice” starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth can’t be supplanted as the definitive version; it’s a perfect model of literary adaptation.

How this new two-hour motion picture version excels is by injecting this 19th-Century setting with some 21st-Century energy and honing in on the central romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Propelling the action at a breakneck pace is Keira Knightley, who co-starred in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and could pass as a sister of Natalie Portman and Naomi Watts (depending on what angle she’s shot from), bringing a playful enthusiasm to the role of Elizabeth. Virtually in every scene, she’s clearly the smartest and most foolhardy, person in the room. The camera just loves her and first-time feature director Joe Wright lets her roam free.

Knightley also shines bright in contrast to a less-than-stellar Mr. Darcy. Matthew Macfadyen is barely a shadow of the screen presence of Oliver and doesn’t come close to displaying an understanding of the role that Firth did. Instead, he’s broods like a juvenile and looks more like he just walked out of a singles bar than a 19th-Century castle.

The adaptation by Deborah Moggach makes superb use of the comic aspects of the novel, mostly in the form of the hyper-nervous, constantly plotting bluster of Mrs. Bennet, played to perfection by Brenda Blethyn. She gives more than a one-note comic turn as you see her real concern for her girls and Mrs. Bennet, portrayed with quiet dignity (and with an uncommon streak of sensibility) by Donald Sutherland.

You’ll cry, you’ll laugh, you’ll know the dialogue before it’s spoken, but this timeless lesson in settling for nothing less than love is well worth repeating at least every generation.

I’m not sure why TCM scheduled this schlocky B-grade horror picture other than its footnote legacy of being Donald Sutherland’s first substantial film role.

I watched it because I remembered being frightened by the living dead images when I saw it as an impressionable kid on “Chilly Billy’s Chiller Theater,” a classic of local television that aired Saturday night in Pittsburgh during the 1960s and ‘70s (and later parodied by ‘burgh native Joe Flaherty on “SCTV”).

Horrormeister Christopher Lee plays the evil scientist who has a field day when a motley collection of traveling players arrive at his castle, allowing him to try out his deadly potion that turns the living into mummified statues.

But the incredibly young and skinny Sutherland steals the picture as a hunched-over, witch-like old woman who lives in the woods and eerily predicts the future. Sutherland also plays a slovenly soldier-policeman, but it’s this 29-year-old actor’s transformation into a soothsaying, decrepit old lady—only his distinctive sad eyes and prominent nose give him away—that makes the film worth watching.

Despite an impressive career of great films and performances, the 6-foot 4-inch actor has never been nominated for an Oscar or considered in the same class as contemporaries Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman or the slightly younger Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Few actors were more suited to the kind of offbeat, introspective films that flourished in the 1970s, but, like many actors and directors of the era, Sutherland never found a place in the 1980s. And he’s never been shy about taking roles in very bad films.

In the past 15 years, he’s remade himself as a supporting player and this fall has given a standout performance on the new television show “Commander in Chief,” playing Republican House leader Nathan Templeton, a suave, but maniacal rival to the first woman president, played by Geena Davis.

Here’s a look at ten of his best films (out of more than 100) in Sutherland’s career:

MASH (1970) As the original Hawkeye, Sutherland established, along with Elliott Gould as Trapper John, the anti-establishment, devil-may-care attitude that became one of the signatures of American movies of the era. While Alan Alda will forever be the face of Hawkeye because of the long-running sitcom, Sutherland plays the character as less a comedian and more a cynical doctor finding ways to cope with living-hell on a weekly basis.

KLUTE (1971) This is Jane Fonda’s movie, but Sutherland is John Klute, a rube cop searching for a friend in New York who falls for Fonda’s hard-edged prostitute. What the actor does here, and has in so many of his films, is express the common decency and naïve optimism that is so much a part of the American character. He’s the audience’s alter ego in this exploration of the vicious world of hustling.

DON’T LOOK NOW (1973) One of the most intriguing and underrated pictures of the decade, Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple trying to forget the death of their young daughter by escaping to Venice. There they come under the influence of a blind clairvoyant and the shadowy mystery of the watery city. Again, Sutherland serves as the touchstone of normalcy as the film goes deeper into the occult and supernatural frights.

1900 (1977) This Bernardo Bertolucci over-the-top epic (more than 4 hours) of an idyllic communist world disrupted by Italian fascism features an all-star cast of Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden. Sutherland stands out as a despicable fascist who uses his connections with the party to ruthless stomp over the locals. Playing so far against type, it makes this theatrically evil turn even more memorable.

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980) Sutherland is the calm in the middle of a dysfunctional family as he tries to protect his surviving son (Timothy Hutton) and maintain some semblance of family as his wife (Mary Tyler Moore) cracks up. Hutton and Moore received all the accolades but Sutherland’s performance as a man struggling to play referee in his own home is, in its quiet way, equally impressive.

JFK (1990) In a small but memorable role, Sutherland plays an assassination-obsessed ex-Pentagon official who promotes, in an ominous meeting on a park bench, his conspiracy theory to Costner’s Jim Garrison. Considering his left-wing politics, Sutherland is the perfect actor to portray the most intense and convincing inside source in this hypnotic journey into ‘60s paranoia.

RAILWAY STATION MAN (1992) This television movie, that debuted on TNT, reunited Sutherland and his “Don’t Look Now” co-star Julie Christie in a beautifully written story of two lost souls who come together in a remote Irish village. Sutherland plays a one-armed building restorer working on the local railway station whose passion resurfaces when he meets Christie’s painter. While hovering in the background is Irish politics, the picture’s strength is the rare portrayal of a romance between middle-aged people.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (1993) As Flanders Kittredge, a wealthy art collector who is conned, along with his wife, by a smooth talking, erudite young man (Will Smith), Sutherland is at his regal best. For all his history of playing (and being) a hippie rebel, his height and carriage now suit a man of power and wealth. He’s perfect as this cliché of the white liberal elite, who still wears a tie when he’s at home and is so unsure of himself that he’s easily fooled by someone who knows just enough about art.

CITIZEN X (1995) This fascinating HBO movie examines how the Soviet Union handled a mass murder case and the two men—a determined forensic expert played by Stephen Rea and Sutherland’s stoic but sly colonel—who refuse to be defeated by idiotic bureaucracy. In one of his most difficult roles, Sutherland rarely breaks from his military demeanor while still portraying the humanity of Col. Fetisov. He won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance.

WITHOUT LIMITS (1998) I’m still baffled as to why Sutherland failed to score a supporting Oscar nomination for his on-the-mark portrait of legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, who tries to reign-in the prodigious running talent of Steve Prefontaine. Part psychologist, part drill sergeant, Sutherland’s Bowerman provides a sense of reality for the rebellious Prefontaine (Billy Crudup), both on and off the track. This underrated picture is one of the best studies of the delicate relationship between athlete and coach. Sutherland did earn a Golden Globe supporting nomination.


These early works of Alfred Hitchcock—his fourth and thirteenth pictures—offer evidence that long before he made his mark as the master of suspense thrillers, he had an impressive command of filmmaking. Even when the stories bog down, Hitchcock’s direction keeps the pictures interesting.

“The Ring,” a silent film, is a boxing picture with very little fisticuffs. Ian Hunter plays Britain’s boxing champ who wonders into a carnival exhibition and takes on “One Round” Jack Sander. The champ defeats Jack (Carl Brisson) and then hires him as his sparing partner, mostly as an excuse to stay close to Jack’s soon-to-be wife (Lillian Hall-Davis).

The film follows the rivalry between Hunter’s Corby and Jack. While Jack’s wife spends her free time with Corby, Jack becomes a ranked boxer with plans to dethrone the champ. The love triangle is handled with the kind of adult directness that would disappear from English-language movies in a few years. Hitchcock displays a keen eye for finding just the right image to express a character’s emotions.

Where he fails is in the few attempts to capture the intensity of a boxing match. The actors do more flailing at each other than anything resembling prize fighting.

“Juno” is a rather flat adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s beloved play set during the Irish Troubles. It all resolves around a possible inheritance coming to the Boyle family as they anticipate the upcoming marriage of their daughter.

Most of the action takes place in the cramped Boyle apartment as the old man and various nosey neighbors converse in scenes that now play like broad stereotypes.

Only Sara Allgood as Juno, the matriarch of this symbolic family, is memorable, giving an emotional, but controlled performance. As her world crumbles around her she corrects a sympathetic neighbor who blames God for deserting them. “What can God do against the stupidity of man.”

It would be another five years before Hitchcock directed “The 39 Steps,” the film that established him as a world-class filmmaker.

KING KONG (2005)
On the Spielbergian scale of scary beast movies, this remake of the 1933 special-effects landmark ranks well above “Jurassic Park” but can’t match the more realistic frights of “Jaws.” Because the film weighs in at over three hours, it’s easy to enjoy the thrills and effects and ignore a cornball script that utilizes every cliché in the English language. Part of the film’s appeal is the palatable affection director Peter Jackson has for the original and the enthusiasm he brings to this remake.

Jack Black, forever scowling and conniving, plays Carl Denham, a movie producer-director who hires a steamer ship crew to take him to the South Seas, along with his crew, a pair of actors and a literary-minded screenwriter. Before they slam their way into Skull Island, the writer (Adrien Brody) and the actress (Naomi Watts) have fallen in love and everyone is ready to kill Denham.

This journey takes way too long, as does most everything in this movie, but once they venture onto the island, the adventure quickly becomes more intense and exciting than I expect from a Hollywood popcorn movie. No one’s ever going to mistake this for “Lord of the Rings” but Jackson doesn’t embarrass himself. He clearly makes an effort to follow the basic outline of the original; he even avoids, as the 1933 film did, showing how the crew manage to transport this incredible beast halfway around the world.

But Jackson never forgets that Kong is the real star of this picture. Not long after he snatches Watts’ Ann and returns to his jungle hide-away, this giant ape becomes totally entrancing. Though his roars and pounding of his chest and his expressive eyes, Kong shows his passion and pride, his joy and anger as he becomes attached to Watts spunky heroine and she bonds with her protector. (This departure from the original, where Faye Wray’s Ann remained terrorized by the big ape from start to finish, is an improvement.) There are some shots of Kong, especially when he’s battling prehistoric rivals, that look like cartoon cutouts and, too often, he uses the same hand he’s cradling Ann to hold on to branches and cliffs, but overall it’s an astonishing creation.

Watts finds just the right mix of blonde girlishness and mothering protectiveness in her relationship with Kong. It’s never really clear what she sees in Brody’s character—it’s simply a plot device—but she finds her soul mate in the doomed Kong.

The famous Empire State building scene goes on forever in this supersized version but it still works as the emotional topper to this 70-year old warning to not mess with mother nature.

This beautiful photographed and strongly acted story of two men who fall in love as young, struggling cowboys while working together in Wyoming in 1963 starts out like a well-told, tender love story. After a few months of intense bonding, Jack and Ennis go their separate ways, marry and have children. Then, after four years, Jack arrives for a visit and their passion is reignited. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone, but, after that, not much else happens.

At its worse, this is an epic version of “Same Time, Next Year” (1978), but instead of just dramatizing the time the lovers spend together, we see the predictably dull, sometimes agonizing, but rarely interesting lives they live apart from one another. It’s unfortunate that five years into the 21st Century, a major Hollywood film about two men in love remains controversial stuff, but for “Brokeback Mountain,” I’m afraid that’s much of its appeal. If either of these characters were played by a woman, the film would be dismissed as a hollow, forgettable romance.

Director Ang Lee previous ventures into romantic frustrations, “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) and “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), utilized comedy and benefited from much stronger storylines. Western writing legend Larry McMurtry, whose “Hud” and “The Last Picture Show” are both visually referenced in the film, and his longtime writing partner Diana Ossana, turn E. Annie Proulx’s short story into a chronicle of two bad marriages. Only the magnificent cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, capturing the jaw-dropping beauty of Wyoming’s pristine mountains and streams and the sad, dusty towns of both Wyoming and Texas, lends any emotional sweep to the picture.

Also worth seeing are the nuanced performances of Heath Ledger as the gravely voice, taciturn Ennis Del Mar, whose upbringing has clearly left him emotional damaged and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist, the more carefree and open of the two who never stops pushing Ennis to chuck his safe life for him. Both actors are completely believable as both tough-guy cowboys and gay men in love. Yet so many of their scenes together are so repetitive that about midway through the film I started losing interest in them.

There are so many missed opportunities in this film that I felt like I was watching a first draft. The impact on Jack, a one-time rodeo contestant who longs to be a rancher, finding himself stuck working as a tractor salesman and the poignant, but unexplored relationship between Ennis and his eldest daughter are just two of the plotlines slighted. And when the film finally comes to its end (it’s much too long at 2 hours and 14 minutes), it offers nothing close to a satisfying emotional resolve. It plays like the director kept trying out new endings and wound up going with them all.

SYRIANA (2005)

One of the most refreshing aspects of this fast-paced thriller about the connections between the oil business and Middle East politics comes from a script that treats its audience as well-informed, sophisticated world citizens who understand that one and one don’t always add up to two.

The scenario centers on the decision by an ill sheik of an oil-rich empire as to which of his sons will succeed him and how that choice will both influence and be influenced by U.S. business factions and the government. At the same time, an oil company merger that would greatly increase the power of a large corporation is under investigation by the government. The film seamlessly presents the case that these events and the people involved are closely intertwined; how a financial consultant or a over-the-hill CIA operative can be used to change a countries history or, just as easily, interfere with the aims of the American government just by doing their jobs.

On the surface, the film could be dismissed as a diatribe against America’s meddling into other nation’s affairs, but there’s little preaching or choosing sides going on here. If anything, the picture makes a case that American corruption and bribery is the only thing that allows us to be a player in world politics and business.

Stephen Gaghan, who scripted “Traffic,” a similar kind of film about the drug trade, takes a page from the Robert Altman handbook by weaving these different stories into a fast-paced drama that never stops to explain what’s going on. With nearly every scene ending about a minute before you expect it to conclude, “Syriana” doesn’t allow for daydreaming about where you’re going to eat after the movie. Like a dense mystery novel, it makes you work for your enjoyment.

The standout performance in this collection of character roles comes from George Clooney as the too-involved U.S. agent who finds himself deserted by a government he repeatedly risked his life for. There’s hardly a false note in the entire film: Chris Cooper, as usual, is funny and intimidating as an oil industry executive as is the regal Christopher Plummer. Matt Damon and Amanda Peet, as a couple whose personal tragedy has political consequences, give a civilian face to this complex film. Following his hilarious performance as Bill Murray’s neighbor in “Broken Flowers,” Jeffrey Wright is just as effective in a completely different role here, playing a tightly wound, unlikable corporate lawyer looking for an edge. Wright is one role away from becoming a major film star.

More than any newspaper or magazine article or “60 Minutes” investigation, “Syriana” shows the way business issues inform our foreign policy and how determined individuals can make a different in a world where they are no rules. Smart and entertaining, who would have thought it was possible.

MUNICH (2005)

“If history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anybody”—Michael Corleone, “The Godfather, Part II”
The don’s quote is at the heart of my biggest problem with Steven Spielberg’s methodical profile of an Israeli assassination squad formed to enact payback for the Jewish athletes murdered by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. By paying the right people enough money, these four men have no problem tracking down their targets and not much more problem in eliminating them. While I realize that Spielberg’s interest is with the effects the killing has on the hit squad—how murder begets murder, making it easier to do each time—the undramatic filmmaking style he utilizes left me cold. Even when the men are in jeopardy, the movie presents it so coolly that I never felt the kind of anxiety thrillers are suppose to create. As emotional as the issues involved were, I was never emotionally involved in this chilly, by-the-numbers film.

While Spielberg didn’t make the film the way I would have preferred, he found a solid leading man in American actor Eric Bana as the government security agent chosen to head the team. His beautifully shaded and intense work here all but wipes out my memory of his embarrassing starring role in “Hulk.” The always-fine British actor Ciaran Hinds is memorable as the member of the squad who questions the morality of their actions out loud. Award-worthy is Michael Lonsdale, a veteran French actor playing a dealer of information who has little concern of how it’s used. He’s the one supporting character in the film I wanted to know more about, everyone else did their job without much style.

What I find strange are the attacks on this film questioning Spielberg’s support of Israel and, in general, the fight against terrorism. How can a movie critic demand that a film’s politics line up with his own? Unless a filmmaker can be accused of misleading or misrepresenting, his viewpoint has to be respected. Half of what Oliver Stone and Spike Lee, just to pick two hot-button issue directors, espouse in their films I disagree with, but they’re both first-class filmmakers who deserve to be measured by the quality of their films not by how their politics align with yours.

Political commentators, of course, are free to assail the message, but inevitably they make fools of themselves every time they strike out at a motion picture. They never seem to understand that no matter what the issue, what makes interesting drama isn’t monolithic devotion to a cause or a person, but doubt. It’s when people question what and why they are doing or thinking or feeling something, that characters come alive on screen.

In “Munich,” the pro-Bush crowd objects to Spielberg even raising the issue of whether a nation, or individuals, lowers itself to its enemy’s level when it seeks revenge. I’m not sure Spielberg comes down strongly on either side of the issue, but how can anyone argue that it’s not even worth discussing?

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