Tuesday, September 23, 2008

February 2004

I'm not sure if you'd categorize this movie as a feature or a documentary, but either way, it's as dated as a 50-year-old piece of fruit. A filmed record of Phil Silvers' Broadway hit, complete with occasional shots of the applauding audience and short comic bits in front of the curtain while the sets are changed, "Top Banana" plays like a remnant from a time before the discovery of funny jokes.

Silvers, a year away from becoming a major TV star as Sgt. Bilko in the "The Phil Silvers Show," plays a Milton Berle-like, egotistical star of a television variety show who falls for a young dancer who's actually in love with the show's singer. It's 84 minutes of flat one liners and more overplayed double-takes than anyone should have to endure. Tellingly, despite being shot in front of an audience, you never hear any laughter.

Among Silvers' co-stars are Jack Albertson, Rose Marie (long before she became a household name as Sally Rogers in "The Dick Van Dyke Show") and Herbie Faye, one of the star of "The Phil Silvers Show."

According to Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, the picture was original shot in 3-D. I can only guess that these awful jokes were funnier in another dimension.

How bad can a film be that co-stars two of 2003's Oscar nominees, Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron? Very, very bad.

Depp plays a serious, soft-spoken astronaut who has a mysterious encounter while on a space walk with another astronaut. Dedicated wife Theron starts to get worried about what went on out there when the other astronaut dies suddenly and then his wife commits suicide. The story grows more ridiculous with every plot turn, especially when it ventures into "Rosemary's Baby" territory.

Depp doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to portray a regular guy; he clearly needs an offbeat edge to be an effective actor. As the astronaut, he mumbles his lines and displays so little chemistry with Theron that you wonder how they ever got together. Theron tries to make up for Depp's virtual invisibility by giving a horror-flick style over-the-top fearful female performance. That's what the film calls for and she carries the picture as far as possible. But Rand Ravich's direction and script fall so short of what should be considered acceptable for a Hollywood-made movie that it's just baffling how Depp and Theron got involved in the project.

KIND LADY (1951)

Ethel Barrymore delivers one of her best screen performances as Mary Herries, a wealthy, but unpretentious and generous woman whose friendship with a fast-talking painter (Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans) proves disastrous when he makes her a prisoner in her own home and begins selling off her possessions.

Beyond the fascinating cat-and-mouse games smartly played out by Barrymore and Evans, the movie is filled with wonderful supporting performances, including Keenan Wynn and Angela Lansbury as a very strange married couple who are Evans' partners in crime, Betsy Blair as Evans' truly disturbed wife and the proper Englishman John Williams, playing a financial adviser who saves the day. Fans of John Sturges' macho Westerns and action films such as "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) and "The Great Escape" (1963) will be surprised that this very-British picture is part of his filmography. But the film contains elements that continued to mark the director's best work, including his sharp, subtle storytelling skills and the inclusion of complex, not easily identified bad guys.

This Edward Chodorov play was previous filmed in 1936 starring Aline MacMahon and Basil Rathbone and seems ripe for another remake.

I usually try to see at least one Elvis movie a year. I'm not sure why, because they all stink, and the movies inevitably depress me as I'm reminded of all the great music that didn't get made because Presley was wasting his talent on idiotic musicals.

After watching "Viva Las Vegas" again--probably the best of the King's film work--I imagined it was among the most popular movies of 1964. In fact, it was 13th in box office receipts for the year. Not bad, but not the overwhelming hit I assumed. "Tom Jones," "The Carpetbaggers" and "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" were the year's biggest hits. Even more surprising, as I reviewed the box office champs of the 1960s and late '50s, was that "Viva Las Vegas" was the most successful of all the Elvis pictures, topping "Jailhouse Rock" that was 15th in 1957. No wonder he started popping pills--after tossing away his rock 'n' roll career, he couldn't even crack Hollywood's Top Ten.

At least "Viva Las Vegas" does include some good music, including the iconic title track and a great version of Ray Charles' signature tune, "What'd I Say?" But what's most memorable about the film is the undivided attention director George Sidney pays to Ann-Margret's butt. Whether she's wearing very short shorts or a swimming suit or a skin-tight showgirl's get-up, the camera's focus is never unclear.

In fact, the most amusing sequence in the film takes place near the beginning when Elvis and his fellow race car driver, played by Italian actor Cesare Danova, hit the strip in search of the sexy girl they met earlier in the day. They go to one showgirls' revue after another, walking right in and sitting in the front tables and checking out the girls' behinds in hopes of recognizing Ann-Margret's. With all the media hype about the rise of offensive movies, led by the Farrelly brothers, in the 1990s, it's easy to forget how sleazy moves and television of the 1960s could be.

This was the last picture in John Gielgud's early dabbling in film. He was already established as a giant of the England stage when he portrayed Benjamin Disraeli, the legendary prime minister of the 19th Century. The actor's melodious vocals, while reciting Disraeli's famous Parliament speeches, make the film worth a look, but otherwise it's not much of a movie.

Stagy and episodic, "Prime Minister" is a disappointment considering the reputation of its director, Thorold Dickinson. In his short movie career, he directed the original "Gaslight" (1940), superior to the Hollywood remake that starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and "The Queen of Spades" (1949), the story of Russian officer obsessed with card gambling that is considered one of the best British film of the era.

The important part of Gielgud's movie career (only Hitchcock's "Secret Agent" stands out among his early film roles) started with the 1953 version of "Julius Caesar," in which he's a memorable Cassius. I recently saw his turn as the father in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1956), opposite Jennifer Jones' Elizabeth Barrett, and it's not one of Gielgud's best. The film is awful, set almost entirely in the sickly poet's room. It wasn't the last bad film Gielgud was part of in his long career (he was still acting two years before his death at 96), but he also had his share of great roles.

His legendary acting technique and stage presence are at their best in his portrayals of King Louis VII in "Becket" (1964); the dying, unpleasant writer in "Providence" (1977); Hobson, Dudley Moore's sarcastic butler in "Arthur" that won him an Oscar; an equally smart-ass diplomat in "Plenty" (1985); and, in what is no doubt the most difficult role ever taken on by an octogenarian, Prospero in the bizarre "Prospero's Books" (1991), an experimental version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Gielgud gave one of his most memorable performances in the TV miniseries "War and Remembrance" (1988), the sequel to the acclaimed "The Winds of War" (1983).

SYLVIA (2003)

This smartly rendered, perfectly paced account of the short, unhappy life of poet Sylvia Plath brings understanding to the depression and frustration that led to this talent young woman's suicide at age 31. This film offers insight into an artist's suffering that was sorely lacking in the more acclaimed Virginia Woolf section of "The Hours." Much of the credit goes to Gwyneth Paltrow (also 31), who as Plath gives a much clearer and fully realized performance of this writer than Oscar-winning Nicole Kidman did of Woolf in "The Hours."

Paltrow, whose career had been stagnating since her Oscar-winning role in "Shakespeare in Love," manages to show the daring brilliance and the brittle emotions that made Plath's poems and prose so popular and her mental state so fragile. It may be the best work of Paltrow's career.

Daniel Craig is also quite convincing as the roguish, free-spirited poet Ted Hughes, the love of Plath's life who expedites her demise when he leaves her for another woman.

Written by John Brownlow, a British TV producer, and directed by Christine Jeffs, a New Zealand woman making her second film, the film is much more than a high-profile actress looking for a good role; it's one of the better examinations of a writer and a suicide. The one false step was the idiotic decision to release this film at the end of the year--it might have found an audience with a fall release.

This nifty little film noir stars Ann Sheridan as the title character, a San Francisco nightclub singer living a tawdry, depressing life until she meet a married doctor played by Kent Smith.

It doesn't take long before the straight-laced family man is straggling home in the middle of the morning and barely finding time for his patients. Nora's big eyes and sultry voice sends Dr. Talbot into a whirlwind he can never escape.

Before you can say, "hey, isn't that unethical," he's disposing of a patient's body that he has disguised as himself (not far from the Cliff House restaurant) and skipping town with Nora.

Director Vincent Sherman, one of Warner Bros. most reliable helmsmen, keeps the surprises coming at a rapid-fire pace, packing in enough "that only happens in the movies" plot turns to fill a half-dozen films.

Nora is one of Sheridan's meatiest and sexiest roles; instead of the typical femme fatale you'd expect in this kind of picture, she's a complex woman who admits she doesn't enjoy the life she's leading and remains true to the doctor long after anyone else would have left him flat.

The underrated Sheridan deserved betters roles; she was among the best actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age, but rarely was given a chance in major pictures. She enjoyed her biggest success between 1938, when she starred with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in "Angels With Dirty Faces" and 1949, when she played opposite Cary Grant in the Howard Hawks' comedy "I Was a Male War Bride." By far, her best performance was as the independent-minded woman loved by both Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings in "Kings Row" (1942). In some ways, she was the female version of Bogart; both worked for years for Warner Bros. and in too many crime films. But unlike Bogie, Sheridan never escaped that second tier of stardom she attained in the 1930s.

"Nora Prentiss" also provided long-time supporting player Smith with what may have been his most interesting role. He made a career of playing dull husbands and co-workers and later did the same in countless TV guest appearances.

CITY OF GOD (2003)
For all it's high-tech editing, hand-held camera shots and flashy direction, this Brazilian movie has much in common with the social dramas Warner Bros. made famous in the 1930s. Set in a suburban ghetto outside of Rio de Janeiro, named City of God, built to house the city's homeless in the 1960s, the movie speeds through 40 years of gang life in the projects. Scenes of pre-teen boys running through the streets, all waving guns that look comically large, randomly killing a rival to avenge some slight insult, is what gained the film its notoriety.

While it's both fascinating and heartbreaking to see a 10-year-old hanger-on rise to take over the drug trade and become a cold-blooded killer, the same sad story gets told over and over again. Somewhat mitigating the non-stop bloodshed are the choices Buscape (Alexandre Rodriguez) makes to escape the inevitable and earn himself a job as a photographer on a local newspaper.

Director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Braulio Mantovani, both earning surprise Oscar nominations, fall into the same trap as the Warner Bros. pictures did 75 years ago: turning ruthless killers into charismatic heroes. Most of the key figures in "City of God," like Cagney or Robinson or Bogart in their films, get their comeuppance at the end, but while they're living the high life and running the gang, they become alluring figures. In "City of God," the real victims of this culture of crime, the thousands of residents who are struggling to survive without resorting to gunplay, are barely glimpsed. Back in the 1930s, the socialist leanings of the filmmakers ensured that the plights of the common man would be well represented. In "City of God," that's not even an afterthought.

Like so many directors who rose to prominence in the 1970s, Bernardo Bertolucci hasn't lived up to his legendary status in the past quarter century. Some would argue that Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," that swept the 1987 Oscars, is the gem of the last half of the director's career, but I found it to be a beautiful but hollow visit to rarely seen environs. But even if you do think highly of "Last Emperor," that gives Bertolucci just one film since his sprawling, brilliantly tragic "1900" (1977) that anyone will ever remember.

He's made just eight films in that 27-year period and while "Stealing Beauty" (1996) and "Besieged" (1998) are good films, they're hardly what one expects of a world renowned director. His less successful films--"Luna" (1979) and "The Sheltering Sky" (1990)-point to a director with more ambition than dramatic sense. His work in the 1990s is more impressive for its cinematography and use of colors than its content.

"The Dreamers" arrives with the most buzz of any of his films since "Last Emperor" and, much to my dismay, delivers little beyond an enticing idea and as much nudity as a porn film.

Michael Pitt (from the TV show "Dawson's Creek") plays Matthew, a naïve American studying in Paris, circa 1968, who falls in with Isabelle and Theo, French brother and sister played by Eva Green and Luis Garrel. Within hours of meeting at a demonstration over the firing of the president of the city's Cinematheque Française they are an inseparable trio.

The film starts out as a charming remembrance of a time in Paris when rebellious students sat around discussing the films of Buster Keaton and the politics of Mao and occasionally took to the streets to rally for change.

The charm wears off quickly as the film turns inward, all but forgetting about the outside world, and focusing on the growing intimacy between these three. Not only do Isabelle and Theo have no qualms about parading around the house naked (the parents conveniently leave for a week or so), but they also sleep in the same bed. Then, prodded on by Theo, Matthew deflowers Isabelle. Suddenly, it's "Last Tango in Paris, Part II"; as disarmingly frank as the original but without the intellectual underpinnings. These youngsters are as insipid and petulant as you'd expect them to be. It takes a lot more than nudity to make up for having to spend time listening to this trio drone on. They don't even hang out with their friends; listening to other insipid and petulant kids would have been a relief.

Bertolucci waged a public relations war to get the film released in the U.S. without editing it into an R-rated film. That's admirable and I applaud Fox Searchlight Pictures for releasing it as an NC-17. But even as someone who feels there isn't enough nudity in current American films (as one writer recently pointed out, only in Hollywood movies do women have sex with their bras on), I felt the numerous shots of genitalia (male and female) in "The Dreamers" were unnecessary. But without it (and the controversy surrounding it), the film would have opened and closed without a whimper.

The film attempts to explore what it means to be involved in a movement and how beliefs turn into actions, but Gilbert Adair's script spends about 10 minutes on that topic. The rest is an endless stream of sophomoric rants and sexual game playing. With its all-too-clever use of film clips and rapturous interest in these young bodies, the film plays like the work of a director not long removed from his student days, not a 63 year old.

Appraising Bertolucci grows more problematic with each new film. While he's still the extraordinarily talented filmmaker who made "The Conformist" (1970) and "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), landmark works and irreplaceable parts of the great leap forward made in cinema during that decade, he doesn't seem to have much of interest left to say.

For all the brilliantly composed images and fascination with why people sleep with each other, Bertolucci has become a marginal director; still interesting but losing his place among the greats.

I was even more impressed with this emotionally draining movie after seeing it a second time. Freed from focusing on the whodunit aspect of the story and knowing from the start truths the characters can only guess at, I found the performances of Sean Penn and Tim Robbins even richer and Clint Eastwood's direction clean and effortless, while finding just right balance between the characters and plotlines.

The sequence that starts inside the church, with Sean Penn's Jimmy attending his daughter's First Communion, and ends as he's carried off by the police, hysterical after having learned of the death of his older daughter, stands out as masterful piece of direction and editing in a film filled with superbly realized scenes. I thought "Unforgiven," Eastwood's 1992 Oscar-winning Western, was the culmination of an impressive directing career, but "Mystic River," if not topping that great film, matches it in every way. Eastwood's ability to visualize so clearly the script's complex themes and the intricate and ever changing relationship between the three principal male characters is an accomplishment few American filmmakers are capable of.

Another scene that will be remembered as long as movies are watched is the exchange between Penn's Jimmy and Robbins' Davey during the wake for the dead girl. It reminded me of the classic taxicab scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in "On the Waterfront." I have no doubt that when Penn receives his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy in 2035, this will be the final clip shown.

There's not much more I can say about Penn's performance that I haven't said before. Suffice to say that it ranks with the best work of Brando, Nicholson and De Niro and I was very pleased the Academy voters recognize it. As for Robbins, he also received a richly deserved Oscar, but only because the studio pushed him for the wrong category. He and Penn share this film, two damaged men who aren't happy with the cards they've been dealt, struggling to control their inner demons. They both are lead actors, but Warner Bros. realized that would just split the vote and both would end up losers, so Robbins ended up in the supporting category.

The film never had much of a chance in the best picture category. Even voters who believed it to be 2003's best film voted for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"; how could anyone deny the grand prize for this amazing trilogy? (Or, as it turned out, any prize in any category!) But even as the "Lord of the Rings" sweep became clear, I was surprised Brian Hegeland's screenplay adaptation didn't win.

They should have a special award at the Oscars for one-scene performances. Especially in recent years, most nominees in the supporting categories have roles as meaty as the top billed performers. But what really defines great supporting work is the ability to make an impression-have an impact on the film-in just one or, at most, two scenes. In "Mystic River," 88-year-old Eli Wallach gives a phenomenal, one-scene performance as a feisty liquor store owner recalling a long-ago holdup. This always entertaining actor, who gave a hilariously brilliant performances in his film debut 48 years ago in "Baby Doll" (1956), reflects the kind of hard-earned toughness and graceful bravado that are the hallmarks of what Eastwood brings to this powerful story.

If you long to see a comedy staged by a community theater group but would rather have the same experience in the comfort of your home, rent "Down With Love." The difference, other than the expensive sets and famous actors, is that in this movie, everyone is walking and talking like bad actors because they think that's how to make a satire of romantic comedies of the early 1960s.

Renee Zellweger, between her Oscar nominated role in "Chicago" and her Oscar-winning turn in "Cold Mountain," plays Barbara Novak, a feminist writer whose first book instructs women how they can free themselves from the bonds of love. She struts around in outrageous hats and pastel dresses enjoying her status as a New York celebrity. Meanwhile, magazine writer Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) schemes to expose her as a fraud by making her fall in love. If that isn't ridiculous enough, the plot turn at the end is easily the greatest stretch of reality in film history. But, of course, it's all played as a jokey sendup. That's still no excuse for a comedy not being funny.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson, even when stuck in convoluted, mindless stories, never reached this level of foolishness.

In 2000, Jerry Seinfeld did something few comedians ever dare attempt: He retired his entire stand-up act and started over. This, of course, is the act that earned him and then sustained a self-titled television show that evolved into one of the most popular and acclaimed sitcoms in small-screen history.

This behind-the-scenes, sometimes brutally honest chronicle of Seinfeld's return to the comic club circuit could have been subtitled, "Anatomy of a Stand-up." Smartly, director Christian Charles also follows the emergence of brash comic Orny Adams, who gets his shot at the big time with an appearance on "Letterman," but makes few friends along the way. He's a perfect contrast to Seinfeld, one of the biggest comedy stars on the planet, who at one point tells a fellow comic, "I have two bits and the rest is shit." You see his act evolve, literally joke by joke. "I have 20 minutes. Twenty minutes isn't a comedy act. An hour, an hour and 15, that's a comedy act."

The highlights of the documentary are the scenes of Seinfeld and other stand-ups commiserating over their chosen profession, including Jay Leno admitting that he's afraid to give up stand-up because he never knows when he'll lose his regular gig and revealing that he's "never touched a dime of my 'Tonight Show' money."

The DVD includes an update on Adams, a revealing scene of Seinfeld agonizing over a benefit performance and almost as funny as the actual movie, commentary by Seinfeld and his buddy and fellow standup Colin Quinn.

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