Sunday, September 28, 2008

December 2007

Despite the presence of two very entertaining character, this Mike Nichols’ political comedy-drama only tells half the story about the consequences of arming Afghanistan in its war against the Soviets.

Charlie Wilson, a congressman from Texas best known for his drinking and womanizing, and Gust Avrakotos, a hot-headed, low-level CIA man, took it upon themselves to funnel money and weapons to the rebels, unofficially of course, which eventually led to the Soviet pullout, the beginning of the end of Communist rule. But it also helped fuel a hotbed of terrorism in the region, which has come back to haunt this country in a big way. While it’s hard to blame Wilson and Avrakotos (who could have foreseen?) it doesn’t excuse Nichols or screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) for not emphasizing the irony of their “heroic” efforts.

But all that aside, watching Tom Hanks as the glad-handing, savvy Wilson and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the know-it-all, blunt-speaking Avrakotos exchange repartee is hard to resist. The long sequence in Wilson’s office when they first meet to discuss the Afghan situation is maybe the best acted and funniest scene of any movie I’ve seen this year.

I was less impressed with Julie Roberts’ performance as the wealthy, right-wing Texas fundraiser who encourages Wilson to take up the Afghan cause. She’s just one cliché after another, adding nothing to the story except star power.

As ridiculous as this sounds, Pierce Brosnan may be one of the most underrated actors working today in Hollywood. He was a superb James Bond, invigorating the franchise after Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton nearly killed it and since then has given three first-rate performances in movies no one saw.

In “The Tailor of Panama” (2001), he perfectly portrays one of John le Carre’s burnt-out cases, a British special agent stripped of his portfolio and shuttled off to an unimportant post where he tries to reestablish himself.

In the throw-away entertainment “After the Sunset” (2004), Brosnan channels Cary Grant to play a suave jewel thief who just wants to be left alone to enjoy his Caribbean retirement.

His performance in “The Matador” as Julian Noble, a mysterious hit man looking for a way out of the profession, might be his best. He’s tactless and a serial liar, but when an easily impressed businessman (Greg Kinnear) meets him while both are doing business in Mexico, his humanity shines through. As Kinnear’s Danny Wright bonds with Julian, and favors are done, you cringe at the manipulating orchestrated by the more worldly Noble but admire the smart performance by Brosnan.

The film, written and directed by Richard Shepard (who helmed this year’s “The Hunting Party”) tries too hard to be clever, but remains fascinating throughout mostly because of Brosnan, Kinnear and the always sparkling Hope Davis as Kinnear’s wife.

The 54-year-old Irish actor, who made a name for himself in the slick 1980s TV series “Remington Steele,” was quite good in “The Fourth Protocol” (1987) as a KGB agent opposite Michael Caine, and in “Mister Johnson” (1990) as a sympathetic Brit who befriends the Nigerian title character. In 1995, he made the first of his five Bond films, “GoldenEye.”

Judging by the film version, it was a great idea to turn John Waters’ genteel, rather forgettable 1988 film into a musical. A socially conscience, somewhat edgier “Grease,” this tale of a chubby, Baltimore girl, circa 1962, who just wants to dance comes alive as a musical, in large part because of the super-charged Judy Garland-like performance by 19-year-old Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad.

Her dream is to perform on the local version of “Bandstand” called “The Corny Collins Show.” Against all odds, and over the objections of the evil, bigoted station manager Velma von Tussle (a convincing Michelle Pfeiffer playing against type), she joins the show’s dancing regulars and soon is leading a crusade to integrate the show beyond its token “Negro Day.”

While most of the songs (by Marc Shaiman) are forgettable (save for the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore” and the Laura Nyro-like “Welcome to the ‘60s”) they boost what in the original was a by-the-numbers plot. Unfortunately, most of the attention was on the stunt casting of John Travolta as Tracy’s mother Edna, taking the role played by famous transvestite actor Divine in the original film. Divine, a man who regularly played women, worked perfectly as the forever ironing, overweight woman who never leaves her house. In the musical, you never forget that it’s John Travolta dressed as a woman (and in a very uncomfortable looking fat suit). It plays like a “Saturday Night Live” skit in the midst of a major motion picture.

All Travolta’s presence does is take away from the impressive debut of Blonsky, who dominates the film like a miniature Ethel Merman. Travolta’s best work is done when acting with Christopher Walken, who plays the gentle, wise husband. I think Walken might have been the better choice to play Edna.

“Hairspray,” directed by veteran choreographer Adam Shankman, is the kind of slight, entertaining musical they made 20 times a year in the 1940s and ‘50s, but today is a rarity and for that it’s worth seeing. If only for the trademark sarcasm of Waters, it’s a much better effort than last year’s overrated “Dreamgirls.”

This version of H.G. Wells’ influential sci-fi tale chronicling an invasion from Mars is an odd mix of impressive special effects, stark realism and an overt religious message. Yet it does a good job of depicting the story’s world-wide panic and hopelessness that would obviously ensue if such an attack took place (much like Orson Welles’ radio version did) and, unlike the Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise 2005 film, doesn’t turn the plot into another tale of American heroism.

Gene Barry plays an atomic scientist from Cal Tech who just happens to be fishing near the area where what everyone assume are asteroids smash into Earth. When it becomes clear that these are hostile spaceships, he becomes the main consultant as the military tries to stop the invaders.

Director Byron Haskin (a veteran special effects guy himself) and the Oscar-winning special effects team led by Gordon Jennings create a very real feeling of doom and fear, first in the small community where the aliens land and then, in the film’s best scene, when Barry and his romantic interest (Anne Robinson) encounter the creatures while hiding in a small house.

Later, when the battle moves to downtown Los Angeles, Barry finds his fellow scientists huddled with the masses in a church as their last hope for civilization comes down to divine intervention. That’s not exactly how the aliens are thwarted, but neither technical or military brilliance have much to do with it.

“The War of the Worlds” is often lumped in with other sci-fi invasion films of the 1950s as metaphors for the collective fear of Communism. But the movie’s stronger message is that a once hospitable world isn’t a very pleasant place for anybody.

I’M NOT THERE (2007)
As much as I admire filmmaker Todd Haynes attempt to make sense of the enigma that is Bob Dylan, the movie doesn’t amount to much more than a curiosity. Neither a biopic nor a coherent piece of fiction, the collage-like film presents the many side of Dylan with six different actors representing different stages of his career/life---an interesting idea, but it fails to provide any real insight into the songwriter. Any chapter of Dylan’s recent autobiography “Chronicles, Volume One” reveals ten times more about him than this movie.

The casting has gotten most of the attention, mostly because there’s very little else worth talking about. Cate Blanchett, unlike most of the “Dylans” in this film, tries to look the part, but I’m not sure why. The other “Dylans”---all with different names for legal reasons, I assume----include Marcus Carl Franklin (a young black boy), Heath Ledger and Richard Gere.

For those who don’t grasp the importance or greatness of Dylan (he belongs in the rock pantheon as an equal to Elvis and the Beatles), “I’m Not There” won’t help. Martin Scorsese’s brilliant 2005 documentary, “No Direction Home” covers that ground. In many ways, Haynes’ Dylan is closer to the image presented by the close-minded press of the ‘60s, leaving the impression (at least to this confused viewer) that he’s more a thoughtless self-promoter than a continually evolving musical genius.

For a much more entertaining, but equally screwy Dylan tale, rent “Masked and Anonymous” (2003), which stars Dylan as a singer on the comeback trail and features a wild performance by Jeff Bridges.


Acclaimed French director Louis Malle’s filmography has more than its fair share of bad movies. Though remembered for complex, insightful works such as “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958), “Murmur of the Heart” (1972) and “Au revoir, les enfants” (1987) and, his offbeat English-language films, “Pretty Baby” (1978), “Atlantic City” (1980) and “My Dinner With Andre” (1981), he also was responsible for the unwatchable fantasy “Black Moon” (1975), the dim-witted “Crackers” (1984) and the overheated melodrama “Damage” (1992).

“Lacombe Lucien,” a look at the tenuous state of France in the final days of World War II, is often cited as among his best French films (it scored a best foreign film Oscar nomination), but I found it unpleasant, slow-going and nearly pointless. The title character, a callow country boy, is recruited into the Nazi-run police force and immediately, and very casually, turns in the local leader of the French resistance who had rejected Lucien’s request to join up a few days earlier. While much of the film takes place at a hotel where the Nazi sympathizers’ congregate, the focus of the film is the relationship between Lucien and a cynical Jewish tailor and his attractive daughter.

Pierre Blaise plays Lucien as a blank slate who never evolves or seems to have any self-awareness. He’s clueless in the dullest possible way. Holger Lowenadler as the tailor and Aurore Clement as Lucien’s unlikely love interest give very realistic performances as Jews struggling to get through each day in a Nazi-controlled country, but neither are given much to do beyond treating Lucien’s unwanted attention with kid gloves.

In “Lacombe Lucien,” Malle fails to add much to the well-documented French chapter of the WWII or create characters worth watching.

My favorite Malle film is probably his little-seen final film (he died in 1995 at age 63), “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1994), an unusual fiction-documentary hybrid that films a rehearsal of a production of the Chekhov play. Malle seamlessly directs it so you’re never sure where the acting ends and reality picks up and elicits astonishing performances from the entire cast, with Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn and George Gaynes as the standouts.


The premise of this film had potential: A successful, but unhappy dentist tries to help his former college roommate out of the deep depression he’s been in since he lost his family in the 9/11 tragedy.

Don Cheadle, one of the most consistently excellent actors working today, plays Alan Johnson, the dentist, who runs into Charlie Fineman as he zips through Manhattan streets on his electric scooter and shutting out the world with his cranked-up iPod. Adam Sandler’s Charlie isn’t just living in his own little universe, much of it revolving around the classic rock music he loves, but this former medical professional has become emotionally and intellectually retarded. His grief has turned him into Rain Man.

Cheadle’s frustration as he commits himself to bringing Charlie back into society, while dealing with his own insecurities at home and work is the best thing about the film. But the scatter-shot portrayal of Charlie, and some inane secondary storylines (a patient of Alan’s tries to seduce him, then sues him for harassment and later becomes everyone’s friend; Charlie’s ex in-laws try to have him committed) doom whatever good intentions writer-director Mike Binder---who made the much better “The Upside of Anger” in 2005----started out with.

SHAME (1968) and THE PASSION OF ANNA (1970)
Catching up on Ingmar Bergman’s mid-career period, I saw these two similarly themed pictures that both, at their center, explore a tense, fragile relationship between a couple played by the director’s favorite actors Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann.

“Shame” combines the director’s trademark existentialism (represented so often by two faces aligned together and shot in extreme close up) and the real-world horrors of a country besieged by warfare. Jan and Eva, once orchestral musicians, now live a simple, rather dreary life on a small, remote farm on an island a ferry ride away from the nearest city. The couple is clearly under stress and it soon becomes clear why: the country is in the midst of a civil war. When an assault by the enemy (or liberators, depending on who you ask) takes place near their home it forever changes their lives.

Bergman never gets into the specifics of the war or clarifies the political details; he’s interested in the different effects war and killing has on individuals. Von Sydow’s Jan is a broken man, with heart trouble and overcome with fear, who can’t face their shattering reality, while Ullmann’s Eva, stronger and more realistic, finds herself constantly frustrated by her husband’s tentativeness. These one-time artists are ill prepared for a world in which the only quality worth having is self-preservation, where loyalties can change overnight and things such as truth and friendship are long forgotten.

Von Sydow and Ullmann rarely gave anything but astonishing performances under Bergman’s direction and here they are at their best as they fight with one another and the outside forces that seem determined to separate them. Shot in pristine black and white by Sven Nykvist, their sad and confused faces are as devastating as the exploding bombs.

Many films of the era took aim at the insanity of war (as the Vietnam War raged) but the power of “Shame” comes from its portrayal of the ways war can suck the humanity right out of a society.

The less successful “The Passion of Anna” takes place on a similar island off Sweden (Bergman also took refuge on such an island) where von Sydow’s Andreas lives alone in a simple house without electricity, seemingly happy in his isolation. But after meeting a well-to-do couple (Erland Josephson and Bibi Andersson) and their widowed friend (Ullmann), living in very modern home nearby, Andreas becomes intertwined in their complicated lives.

Before you have the idea that a relationship is forming, Ullmann’s Anna moves in with Andreas and much of the second half of the film is about their attempt to maintain a love that never seems earned. To me, the film’s most interesting characters are the other couple and when the emphasis shifts to Ullmann and von Sydow the story begins to drag.

The other questionable decision made by Bergman is breaking into the fictional story at four different points with short interviews with the actors discussing their characters. At first I thought I had somehow switched into an extras section of the disc, but in fact it was part of the original movie. It makes absolutely no sense.

Beyond the brilliant acting, especially von Sydow, who manages to convey the deep anguish going on inside Andreas through his extraordinarily blue, sad eyes, the highlight of “Passion of Anna” is Nykvist beautifully burnished color photography. His ability to compliment Bergman’s direction, creating the textures and shades, in both black and white and color, that help tell the stories is unsurpassed in the history of his craft.

Ullmann has described the making of this film as difficult for both her and Bergman as they were breaking up as a couple. Maybe that accounts for the film’s unevenness, but it also may explain the handful of confrontations that have an uncomfortable, realistic intensity beyond what this master of emotionally repressed characters usually offers.

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