Friday, September 19, 2008

February 2003

OKLAHOMA! (1955)
This movie adaptation of the groundbreaking Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is a big-budget, wide-screen bore. The film’s only saving graces are the nicely shot Agnes de Mille ballet scenes, the fine singing of Shirley Jones and the quirky presence of Gloria Grahame as the girl with the bad reputation. Grahame seems like she walked onto the set from another film. And, in a bad way, so does Rod Steiger, as a lecherous farmhand. Though Fred Zinnemann (“High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity”) is at the helm, the film bears no mark of the great director. (2/03)

I tried to think of this as the middle three hours of what will be a nine-hour masterwork. On its own, “Two Towers” doesn’t hold a candle to “Fellowship of the Ring.” While Frodo continues his journey through Middle Earth, troops gather for a giant battle at Rohan. Not much else happens. Gandalf (the regal Ian McKellen) returns, having survived the incredible fall he took in “Fellowship of the Ring,” but is only a bit player in this act. A disturbing creature, called Gollum, who looks like E.T.’s slimy cousin, dominates too much of this film as he serves as guide to Frodo and Sam through mountains and swamps. Elsewhere in the tale, a talking and walking tree comes off as an outtake from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Of course, the production is amazing and the cinematography stunning. And who doubts that Part III will bring the trilogy to a rousing, breathtaking conclusion? (2/03)

I’m not sure why this didn’t do better in the Oscar race, it has all the ingredients: The true story of minority youth who is smart and good looking who overcomes his problems with the help of a father-figure played by last year’s best actor winner, who also is making his directorial debut. Wow. If I had to make up the perfect Oscar candidate, I couldn’t do much better. Needless to say, “Antwone Fisher” is chock full of cliches and predictably weepy hugging scenes and, like most true stories, doesn’t make for very compelling cinema. If anything, that usually encourages Oscar anointment.

What this film does offer is two exceptional performances. Denzel Washington gives his usual remarkable performance as the therapist who shows the title character the road to salvation and, along the way, finds the answers to his own problems. Giving this character marital problems gives the film an anchor that nearly sinks it, but Washington is such a great actor that he overcomes the over-used plot device.

Derek Luke as Fisher, whose horrific childhood left him angry, confused and a Marine, holds his own with Washington and handles some tricky emotional scenes beautifully. I liked this film more than I expected---basically it is a superbly acted TV movie. (2/03)


       Put this on a double-bill with “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) and call it: Love Stories for the Mentally Unbalanced. In “Punch-Drunk Love,” Emily Watson plays a reasonable normal young woman who falls for a very odd and volatile character played by Adam Sandler. Nothing happens but the critics loved it because Sandler has made a career of playing in sophomoric comedies and this was a first-class “serious” picture written and directed by P.T. Anderson (“Boogie Nights”). The film never attempts to explain why Watson would fall for such an idiot (I assumed it was a commentary on the state of available men). “Secretary” makes it very clear that masochistic sexual pleasure is what brings the characters portrayed by James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal together.

Director Steven Stainberg seems to think that all he needed to do was show some unpleasant scenes of self-mutilation or domination and that would be all we’d need to understand the characters. False. Both these talented actors do their best with what they’ve been given but this is one of those indie films that knows it audience: quirky and kinky are all the characteristics needed to satisfied viewers raised on TV characters defined by jokes.

The day after I saw this film I watched about 20 minutes of “sex, lies and videotape” (1989) on TV. At that point, Spader looked like he was going to be one of the top actors of his generation. Fourteen years later, he’s stuck in a B-movie/off-beat indie career. He’s given some good performance since “sex, lies,” in “White Palace” (1990) and “Music of Chance” (1993), but he’s never found a niche in Hollywood films. Some actors, no matter how talented, never secure a place in Hollywood. Val Kilmer, another very engaging actor of the same generation (both actors are 43, born a month apart), couldn’t even sustain a career after playing Batman. (2/03)


I don’t believe there were many biographical documentaries made before “American Masters” on PBS and I’m almost certain that “The James Dean Story” is the earliest one I’ve seen. Co-directed by George W. George (I’m not making this up) and Robert Altman (that’s why I watched it), the film does a decent job of digging into Dean’s psyche. It is actually a helluva lot more insightful and critical than anything A&E would do today. The strangest aspect of the film is that the interviews, with relatives and old friends of Dean’s (but, noticeably, no famous actors or directors), are done by the narrator. So you have this deep, god-like voice asking questions to very uncomfortable people, who stare into the camera like deer in headlights.

Seeing these “real” people talking on camera reminds me of how lacking in media savvy most people from the pre-television generation were. Virtually anyone you see on TV today—a neighbor talking to a reporter after someone next door went nuts or the thousands of reality-show participants--has more screen presence than even a pair of nightclub owners do in this 1957 time capsule.

The documentary also makes use of still photos in the same way Ken Burns “invented” 30 years later.

Even with Dean’s popularity, the film didn’t do well. But it did result in Altman getting a steady directing gig on “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” (2/03)

This was the art-house version of “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” Or the comedic version of “The Hours,” which makes it sound better than it is. Two adult sisters lead frustrating lives while their mother has cosmetic surgery done. It’s so LA, it makes one embarrassed to live on the left coast.

Even Catherine Keener, who usually manages to create compelling characters even when the script is lacking, can’t overcome this pretentious sap from writer-director Nicole Holofcener. (2/03)


This wasn’t Keener’s year. (Her best work was probably in the disappointing Al Pacino film “Simone.”) In this home-movie lark by Steven Sodenbergh, she plays an H-R supervisor who asks idiotic and embarrassing questions of employees before she tells them they are fired. She hates her life and her job and never stops whining. And she’s the most appealing character in the film.

Everyone else is an egotistical movie type who is either talking about movies or acting in movies or writing movies. The stars of the film are Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood, who are also the stars of the film within the film. It’s clever and obscure—in a bad way.

No one says or does anything of any importance. This may be the first busman’s holiday put on film. (2/03)

ABOUT A BOY (2002)
I didn’t think much of this film: Is there a bigger movie cliché than cute kid and down-to-earth woman turn selfish bachelor into well-rounded human? But I’ll say this: everyone has underrated Hugh Grant for way too long. Just like his namesake, Cary Grant. Critics took little notice of Grant in the 1930s and ‘40s—after all, he was just a matinee idol. Now he is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest of all film actors.

I don’t think Hugh’s career will turn out quite as rich as Cary’s but he has defined a type and captured it with perfection film after film.

Among his better efforts that I’ve seen were in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994), “Small Time Crooks” (2000) and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001). Though always the well-heeled bachelor, Grant manages to bring out the soft human underbelly of these usually superficial characters. And no comic actor working in film today has the timing of Grant.

I don’t doubt that someday he’ll win an Oscar. If he does, he’ll be one up on Cary. (2/03)

You don’t have to believe that Chuck Barris, the creator of “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show,” was working as a CIA hit man while chaperoning “Dating Game” winners on foreign trips to enjoy this fast-paced, episodical comedy.

George Clooney, making his directing debut, captures the look and attitude of the late ‘60s and early 1970s to the point that the film feels more like a product of that era than 2002. Both Sam Rockwell (as Barris) and Drew Barrymore (as his longtime girlfriend) give performances that at first seem so offhanded and indulgent that I wondered if director Clooney was out to lunch. Halfway through the picture, I realized the acting and goofball style worked in perfect sync with this shaggy-dog tale.

Too often films today look like they’ve all been directed by the same guy. As much as I love movies from the 1930s and ‘40s, most of them display no personal style--a crime film is directed the same as a love story. This is the legacy of the studio system. The end of studio control ushered in an era of the director as the “author” of a movie, sending style all over the place from the 1960s through the mid-1980s.

Studios didn’t get control back, but producers did. And by hiring directors of music videos and television ads, they have created a sameness in style that has become numbing.

I’m not sure if Clooney has a real directing career ahead of him, but he was the right guy for “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” If this had been made as a typically slick Hollywood product, the film would have been utterly forgettable. (2/03)

TALK TO HER (2002)
All the glowing reviews and end-of-the-year awards bestowed upon Pedro Almodovar’s latest exploration into offbeat sexuality has left me baffled. Unquestionable, this is a superbly made, well acted and cleverly plotted melodrama, but the point of this story of two men in love with women in comas eluded me.

At the heart of the problem with “Talk to Her” is the character Benigno, a nurse who obsessively cares for a young woman who has been in a coma for four years. He goes from a simple-minded caretaker to a stalker when flashbacks reveal that he knew the woman before the accident. Their “relationship” culminates when he impregnates her. Though Benigno goes to prison, the fact that soon after the incident the woman full recovers from the coma left me wondering what Almodovar was thinking. If this was simply a tale of good coming of evil, that’d be fine, but it’s not that clear. More directly, the director seems to be trying to make the point that men can be just as emotionally needy as women and that a man’s devotion to a woman trumps all else in his life. Who knew?

There is also a homosexual aspect to Benigno’s character--he’s asked numerous times in the film if he’s gay--and he certain seems to be as attached to fellow coma-victim lover Marco as he is to his patient. Again, I think this is Almodovar attempt to portray men as emotional beings and aren’t all men who are sensitive suspected of being gay?

These are intriguing subjects but “Talk to Her” does more to skirt them than address them. Same with the critics who loved this film. The great Time magazine critic Richard Schickel named it his top film of 2002, saying the film’s subjects are love and death and that Almodovar “transcends those huge, enigmatic topics with the brilliant, utterly original structure of this sublime and humane film.” In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan said in his review that “This story...aims to both discomfort us and enlarge our horizons, to take us to the far shores of human emotions and make them look like the beaches at home.” He later mentions about the director’s fascination with finding the humanity in the outcast.

Neither offer me much to grasp to as I try to appreciate “Talk to Her.” Maybe I just took for granted that men had emotions and even the lowest creatures had humanity. (2/03)

This top-notch war action film, directed by Raoul Walsh, follows the adventures of a crew of a downed British bomber as they make their way across Nazi Germany and back to England. The superb cast features Errol Flynn as the group’s commander and Ronald Reagan, Arthur Kennedy and Alan Hale as his crew. As the American representative of the group (somehow Kennedy and Hale are Brits), Reagan gets all the smart-ass lines, including the wink-wink reference to his co-star in the 1941 film “Kings Row”: “I was dreaming I was on a date with Ann Sheridan,” he says when awaken in the middle of the night.

Alan Hale gives his usual big-eating, big-drinking, loyal-to-the-end sidekick performance, which is to say he was excellent. In a period of about two weeks I saw two other Hale performances, both as newspaper men in “The House Across the Street” (1949) and “Dust Be My Destiny (1939). He was perfect in both.

In “The House Across the Street,” a second-tier crime picture, he’s a publisher who buckles under when a local mobster demands that he take his star reporter off a story, while in “Dust Be My Destiny” he’s the editor who gives a wanted man (John Garfield) a chance to make a living as a photographer.

He started acting in films in 1911 and in the mid-1920s, actually directed a half-dozen pictures. But Hale is probably best known for his performance as Little John opposite Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), a role he also played in a 1922 silent version of the classic. He worked steadily, mostly in major Hollywood productions, from 1911 until his death in 1950.

Unfortunately, his fame has been overshadowed by his look-alike son, Alan Hale Jr., who, of course, was the skipper in “Gilligan’s Island,” but couldn’t act if his life depended on it. His father is the Hale deserving to be remembered as one of the most dependable character actors during the first half-century of cinema. (2/03)

SPIDER (2002)
I’m not sure if this is a sign of anything, but there have been an awful lot of movies about mentally unstable people in the past few years. There was the heartwarming Carl in “Sling Blade,” the artists gone nuts in “Pollack” and “Quills,” the genius John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” and the drug-induced dementia of a middle-aged woman in “Requiem for a Dream.” And that’s just the films that earned Oscar nominations.

Thus, it seems a natural that director David Cronenberg would weigh in. No director has delved into disturbed minds more frequently than Cronenberg, starting with his cult classic, “Videodrome” (1983). I haven’t though much of Cronenberg’s recent films--”Crash” (1996) and “Existenz” (1999)--but his “Dead Ringers” (1988), starring Jeremy Irons as twisted twins, is a great film, while “Naked Lunch” (1992) turns the nightmarish imagines of William S. Burroughs into an “Alice in Wonderland” kind of trip.

In “Spider” (recently released after a short, Academy-qualifying run in December, for not) the director tosses out all the Hollywood sentimentality and hokum to create a searing, heartbreaking peak into the mind of a truly damaged man. Ralph Fiennes plays Dennis Cleg, who is released from a mental hospital to a half-way house near the neighbor where he grew up. Cleg seems capable of taking care of himself, but little else. He rarely speaks any definable words and obsessively scribbles what seems like gibberish into a small notebook.

When he finds his family house, what we see aren’t flashbacks but this fortysomething year old watching the past: observing himself, called Spider as a boy, and his working class parents, played by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson. Cronenberg, and writer Patrick McGrath, who adapted his own novel, find the perfect balance between the dysfunctional life of Spider’s past and his state as an adult.

Eerily deliberate and disturbingly frank, we see how this boy’s perceptions of his parents slowly change and how events turned his life upside down. “Spider” is a powerfully dark and depressing film, but compelling direction and acting never let it become morose. Richardson, playing two very different sides of the mother/wife, among other incarnations in Spider’s mind, gives an amazing performance. Fiennes, who has always looked a bit lost in himself, finds the perfect balance of confusion and understanding that allows the audience just a sliver of an opening into the causes of his breakdown. This is by far his best performance since his Nazi soldier in “Schindler’s List” (1993). (2/03)

ZOUZOU (1934)
This popular French film paired Jean Gabin, that country’s greatest pre-war actor, and American expatriate Josephine Baker. It’s amazing to see a movie made in the 1930s that presents a romance between a black woman and a white man without comment. Baker, who I had previous seen in the less effective “Princesse Tam Tam” (1935), has as energetic film persona, both as an actress and a singer.

The story is one cliche after another, but the presence of Gabin and Baker make it worth watching. The film also features a couple of topless scenes (not Baker), proving that there was a moment in time when Hollywood’s conservatism hadn’t swept the world.

Another reason I watched this film was alphabetical: I have a twisted mission to see all films that begin with the letter “Z.” According to Maltin, I still need to see about 30 “Z” movies. (2/03)

Twenty-nine. This is one of those pre-TV variety shows that MGM liked to assembly every few years. Vincente Minnelli is the credited director (another reason I watched it, being a completist on great directors) but each segment has its own director.

The highlights include a rare Gene Kelly-Fred Astaire dance duet and an all-black segment featuring singer Lena Horne. The introduction presents William Powell as the late Flo Ziegfeld (he played him as a living person in the 1936 Oscar winner “The Great Ziegfeld”) looking down from heaven, dreaming of doing one last show.

Most of the segments are either very dated comedy (I thought Red Skelton was hilarious when I was 10, but he does nothing for me now) or dull dance numbers presented as an excuse to trot out good-looking models. One comedy skit features the unlikely cast of Hume Cronyn, Fanny Brice and Bill Frawley, all fighting over a winning Irish sweepstakes number.

Most disappointing is the Judy Garland dance number, called “The Interview,” that falls totally flat. The film was made (in 1944) before Garland and Minnelli were married, but by the time it was released they were hitched and little Liza was born. (2/03)


One of Ernst Lubitsch’s best known movies, it stars Maurice Chevalier at his winking-to-the-audience best as a Viennese officer, in love with girl violinist Claudette Colbert, yeet forced to marry Miriam Hopkins’ Princess of Flausenthurm. There’s enough singing in the movie to nearly classify it as a musical, but more interesting is the pre-Code sexual innuendos that run rampant. Michael Medved would have a fit.

Colbert, very assured in her first major film role, sings about having lunch and dinner with a man before indulging in breakfast, but the next morning she and Chevalier are enjoying their eggs together. And, by the end, Colbert gives Hopkins a lesson in “Jazzing Up Your Lingerie” and transforms her into a sexy flapper that suddenly keeps Maurice interested.

“The Smiling Lieutenant” was one of eight best picture nominees at the 1931-32 Academy Awards, but it’s far from the great director’s best. For that you need to catch “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), “The Merry Widow” (1934), “The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and “To Be or Not to Be” (1942). (2/03)

Here’s the standard career arc for foreign-born directors: After a small-budget personal picture becomes an import hit in the U.S., the filmmaker is signed to directed a big-budget Hollywood picture, which leads to a series of well-made but increasingly impersonal movies. Usually about a decade into this financial lucrative, but artistically void career, the director returns to his roots and make a heartfelt, critically applauded low-budget picture in his native land.

Fulfilling the cliche last year was Australian director Phillip Noyce, whose two films released in 2002 lifted him out of a Hollywood quagmire he was stuck in for a dozen years. “The Quiet American” wasn’t that surprising from the director who helmed two Jack Ryan films, but “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is a 180-degree change from his bloated Hollywood productions.

For much of the 20th Century, Australia attempted to incorporate biracial Aborigine children into white society by taking them away from their families and raising them in work camps. Apparently, many in Australia still defend the practice as necessary to “protect” the children from other Aborigines.

Noyce focuses on a 14-year-old girl and her two younger cousins who escape the camp after their first day there and embark on a three-month journey back home. Based on a book by the daughter of the 14-year-old, the film is refreshingly old-fashioned in its straightforward presentation of the incredible determination and resourcefulness of the girls as they avoid government trackers. The one heavy-handed aspect of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is the rantings of Neville (played by Kenneth Branagh), the government overseer of the racist policy, who becomes obsessed with recapturing the runaways.

Will Noyce return to the Hollywood hit making treadmill? Probably. But the attention that his two 2002 films received should encourage him to occasionally attempt to make movies worthy of his filmmaking skills. (2/03)

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