Wednesday, September 24, 2008

February 2005

THE RACKET (1928) and
In conjunction with the release of Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” Turner Classic Movies aired a handful of pictures produced by Howard Hughes. His best known films are “Hell’s Angels” (1930), the aviation-war film that he also directed and the making of was depicted in the Scorsese film, the 1931 version of the timeless Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play “The Front Page” and Howard Hawks’ landmark “Scarface” (1932). All three films are often shown on TCM.

“The Racket” and “Two Arabian Knights” are silents that haven’t been seen since their initial run almost 80 years ago. TCM helped pay for the restoration of these lost treasures after they were discovered in a storehouse of Hughes’ belongings in Las Vegas. Not only were both pictures nominated for Academy Awards, but they were directed by Lewis Milestone, one of the great filmmakers of the era who went on to make “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), the 1930-31 Oscar winner for best picture, and, again for Hughes, “The Front Page.” At the end of his career, he attempted to directed the Rat Pack in “Ocean’s 11” (1960) and helmed the troubled remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1961), which starred Marlon Brando.

“The Racket,” often credited with being among the first gangster films, stars Thomas Meighan as a crusading police captain who finally finds a way to put the squeeze on a ruthless mob boss, played by Louis Wolheim. The picture proceeds at a snail’s pace, is over-reliant on titles and rarely rises above its anti-crime preaching. If it wasn’t for Wolheim’s enthusiastic performance, this wouldn’t be much of a find. But it was among the three best picture nominees for 1927-28 (the first Academy Award presentation), along with “Seventh Heaven” and the winner, “Wings.” (Three other films were nominated under the category “Unique and Artistic Picture”: “The Crowd,” “Chang” and the winner “Sunrise.”)

A better version of the “The Racket” was produced by Hughes in 1951 with Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum.

“Two Arabian Knights,” made a year earlier, is everything “The Racket” isn’t: inventive, energetic and features smart titles and a pair of stars that play off one another wonderfully. This may be the most entertaining silent comedy I’ve seen not starring Chaplin or Keaton.

Wolheim teams with William Boyd (most famously, between 1935 and 1948, he played cowboy Hopalong Cassidy) as a pair of World War I soldiers who are taken prisoner by the Germans and end up aboard an ocean liner headed for “Arabia.” Mary Astor, just 21 and already a veteran of more than 30 films, plays the girl they’re both sweet on, an Arab princess they save from drowning.

The opening scene is a classic: Wolheim and Boyd begin fighting after ending up in the same foxhole on the front line—it’s clear that Sgt. McGaffney (Wolheim) hasn’t been the best commander to serve under. But they barely get started beating on each other when the camera pulls up to reveal the foxhole surrounded by German soldiers, all pointing their guns at the pair. After a few weeks in the prison camp, the two soldiers are best buddies.

In films since 1914, Wolheim was just hitting his peak as a Hollywood star when he died of stomach cancer in 1931, at the age 50.

The picture earned Milestone an Academy Award for best comedy direction, a category eliminated after the first ceremony.

Hughes’ Hollywood career, like the rest of his life, took some strange turns after his early, very successful run as an independent producer. He spent the early 1940s trying to turn Jane Russell into a sensation in “The Outlaw” and then lavished tons of RKO studio’s money on “Vendetta,” which he hoped would make Faith Domergue a star. Those projects and his general disregard ran RKO into the ground.

I saw one of the best movie trailers in years the other night, but it turned out to be an actual feature film. This adaptation of H.G. Bissinger’s best seller about the intensity of high school football in Texas is rendered pointless and incoherent by Peter Berg’s warp-speed direction, jittery hand-held camera work and TV commercial-like editing.

The filmmaker (probably a misnomer in this case) barely spends more than a few minutes on each scene and within those scenes cuts to feet or hands or some detail so often that it’s nearly impossible to learn anything about these characters. This might sell sneakers or Viagra, but it’s not much of a storytelling device. As if high school athletes aren’t already inarticulate, this film’s style adds yet another layer of fog to any attempt at insight. Those to blame are the producers that let Berg (best known as an actor) get away with this approach to the film.

Even the coach, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is left without a personality—I doubt he has 10 meaningful lines in the entire picture.

At least you’d think that the dramatization of the games would benefit from Berg’s oh-so-hip style, but they come off just as flat and unclear as the drama. He films each tackle as the most bone-crunching in the sports’ history, and he sends more runners airborne than I’ve seen in nearly 40 years of football watching.

While the book has been acclaimed, the substance presented in the film—what little of it was discernible—was one cliché on top of another. The predicatable and melodramatic Disney film, “Remember the Titans” (2000), starring Denzel Washington, does a much better job telling essentially the same story.

Seems like everyone and their cousin has proclaimed “Friday Night Lights” as the best football movie they’ve ever seen. While there’s not a great history of football movies, this one is strictly for those who don’t watch much football.

I’ve never quite got what Shakespeare was saying in this play. While it certainly reflects the hatred of Jews in 16th Century Europe, the play also presents Shylock, the money lender who demands a “pound of flesh” when a merchant defaults on a loan, as a man beaten down by the prejudice that surrounds him. Yet by the end, when Shylock is basically found guilty of being too severe in his attempt to enact some revenge, he’s “sentenced” to become a Christian. If Shakespeare was being ironic, it’s never been made clear in the productions I’ve seen and comes off as the crassest type of bigotry.

This latest adaptation, directed by Michael Radford (best know for “Il Postino”), is an unapologetic vehicle for Al Pacino. And while he does a good job of making Shylock into a real, understandable person and he has some wonderful acting moments, the performance never rises to that level you expect when a great actor takes on the Bard. It certainly doesn’t rank with the best work that Pacino’s done.

Actually, the film’s most memorable acting comes from Lynn Collins as Portia, who impersonates a male solicitor and adjudicates the dispute between Shylock and the merchant (Jeremy Irons). While it’s hard to buy that anyone is fooled by Shakespeare’s favorite device of masquerading a woman as a man, the radiant Collins becomes the center of every scene she’s in—going toe to toe with Pacino in her first major film role.


This is basically an animated movie with real actors inserted into the action, creating a sci-fi world set in the 1930s. When New York City is attacked by what looks like the same menacing robots that were in “The Incredibles,” Jude Law’s Sky Captain (a cooled off version of Indiana Jones) takes to the skies to thwart this evil plot, accompanied by persistent newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow, trying very hard to be cynical and spunky in a Barbara Stanwyck way), who once was romantically involved with Sky.

These two display the chemistry of a pair of bickering teenagers and manage to turn fun, cartoonishly thrilling set-ups into a pedestrian movie. Director Kelly Conran would have been better off animating the actors as well. If you’re looking for a good sci-fi adventure, forgot about this film and check out the Cartoon Network’s weekly series, “Duck Dodgers.” Based on the classic Warner Bros. toon, “Duck Dodgers in the 24th and 1/2 Century” from 1953, Daffy Duck plays an egotistical spaceship commander, who along with his “eager, young space cadet” (Porky Pig) finds ways to be heroic all across the galaxy.

A bizarre side note to this picture is that it features an appearance—in the form of a video broadcast—of Laurence Olivier, who died in 1989. I’m not sure what the point was in using of his image achieves; he’s not in it long enough to make it worth waiting for. Maybe in Conran’s next picture he’ll just forget about casting contemporary actors and bring Bogey and Bergman back to star.

I’d never heard of this film before I watched it recently on TCM and came away wondering why it’s not better know. This exciting, submarine war story stars two of the best actors of the early ‘30s, Robert Montgomery and Walter Huston, as incompatible officers who feud over decisions made during combat and Montgomery’s romance with Huston’s daughter.

“Hell Below” features many scenes that became standard in the many submarine films that followed, including the crew awaiting to run out of oxygen as the sub is forced to remain on the ocean floor; a sailor drowning behind a closed hatch as the water rises over his head; and the inevitable conflict between the by-the-book commander and the more free-wheeling, emotional younger lieutenant.

Jack Conway, a veteran MGM director who also helmed the 1935 version of “A Tale of Two Cities,” does a superb job of meshing the war drama, passionate romance and the usual comedy high jinks, hilariously supplied by frog-voiced Eugene Pallette and showbiz legend Jimmy Durante. Also in a supporting role is Robert Young, as Montgomery’s best buddy and fellow sailor.

Huston, of course, is best known now as the father of John and grandfather of Anjelica, but in 1933 he was considered one of the great actors of stage and screen. “Hell Below” ranks with his best film performances, which includes “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933), “Dodsworth” (1936), “Of Human Hearts” (1938), “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941) and, capping his career with an Oscar, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948).

Montgomery, also with a famous offspring, TV actress Elizabeth, made over 40 films in the 1930s, many of them major films, as he quickly became one of MGM’s biggest stars. His superb dramatic performance in “Night Must Fall” (1937) and his classic comedy turn in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941) highlight a film career that ended when he was just 45. In the 1950s, he worked on television, mostly as a director.

I really thought this TV biopic of actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to be played for laughs. With a little imagination, this could have been made into a weird comedy, but instead it’s nothing more than a dramatic version of an A&E biography.

The fine German actor Jurgen Prochnow (best known as the commander in “Das Boot”) captures the vocal mannerisms and the public personality of Arnold—something that’s been on display for more than 20 years now—but gives us little new.

The more interesting performance is delivered by Roland Kickinger as the young bodybuilding Arnold, who plans out his life like he’s writing a script. It’s a little far-fetched that this Austrian bodybuilder had such unbridled optimism about his future. Did he really think he was going to be a movie star before he had appeared in a feature film? I’m sure that’s the way Arnold tells his story, but I wonder who else remembers his predictions for his future.

The inside peek at the way the Schwarzenegger campaign for governor was conducted livens up what otherwise would be pretty dull stuff.

Mariel Hemingway convincingly portrays Maria Shriver (and, in a dark wig, even looks the part) in the few scenes where she’s given much to say. Even when Arnold’s mistreatment of women on movie sets is revealed in the Los Angeles Times days before the election, the movie focuses on the campaign spin, not how it impacts his personal life.

Short of seeing a screwball comedy, I was hoping to at least gain some understanding of what makes Arnold tick; what makes an incredibly successful movie star want to jump into the thankless muck of politics. The only answer offered by “See Arnold Run” is his unbound ego. Maybe it is as simple as that, but that’s not much to hang even a TV movie on.


In 1971, actor-director Marvin Van Peebles, coming off his blaxploitation hit, “Watermelon Man,” set out to make a film that black Americans could get excited about, with a hero they could cheer for. The result was a low-budget, sloppily made and badly acted picture about an on-the-run wanted black man, which succeeds as a film in spite of itself. Its many flaws notwithstanding, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song” manages to exude energy, passion and the rush of freedom that made it the perfect movie for its time—the height of the black-power movement.

Van Peebles’ son, Mario, who has directed a handful of mostly mediocre films (his best was his first, “New Jack City”) writes and directs this story of how his father put everything he had on the line—financially and professional—to get this influential picture made. Not only does “Baadasssss!” do a superb job of capturing the times, but it also is a great primer on low-budget moviemaking and the history of African Americans in Hollywood films.

Mario, playing his father, doesn’t shy away from showing the darker side of Marvin—his treatment of his son and various women—while he becomes obsessed with completed “Sweet Back.”

“Baadasssss!” is packed full of offbeat characters—Marvin made an effort to employ a diverse crew and used numerous nonactors in his cast—played by David Alan Grier, Saul Rubinek, Paul Rodriguez and, as Bill Cosby, who made a last-minute investment to save the film, T.K. Carter. Ossie Davis, who died just a few weeks ago, gives his usual charismatic performance as Marvin’s father.

For reasons I’ve never been clear on, “Sweet Sweetback” all but ended Marvin Van Peebles’ directing career, though he continued to act and still occasional does. But this film about his landmark film should give a boost to his son’s filmmaking career.

SHE HATE ME (2004) and

The latest efforts from Spike Lee and James Toback, two of the most intensely New York filmmakers around, mark new lows in misogynistic movies.

Lee, who started out his career with such promise, seems to be so intent on making “important” cultural statements in his movies that he has forgotten about the basics of filmmaking: a good story and interesting characters. His latest is set in motion by corporate misconduct that leads to the scapegoating of a young, black executive (Anthony Mackie) who has quit the firm in protest of his boss’s illegal actions. This story line might have made for a decent film, but it’s never really developed. Instead, Mackie’s Jack, suddenly in need of money, reluctantly agrees to impregnate his ex-girlfriend and her girlfriend, both lesbians. This turns into a full-time business, as the ex-girlfriend brings a parade of lesbians wanting babies.

Spike treats the parade of lesbians who visit Jack like a freak show and then depicts them having the time of their lives engaging in sex with Jack. It plays directly to a soft-porn heterosexual fantasy that has no place in a serious film; sadly Lee has run out of ideas and is left only with his prejudices.

In telling the corporate scandal story, Lee shows all the restraint of a student filmmaker, somehow turning the security guard who first noticed the Watergate burglary into a martyred American hero and illogically putting Jack before an indignant legislative committee.

While Spike has never been a subtle filmmaker, he’s now reached a point where he may end up directing a National Lampoon “Vacation” movie and, of course, adding a racial-political angle to the plot.

Toback has had more success as a screenwriter (“The Gambler,” “Bugsy”) than a director, but he’s made some interesting pictures over a 27-year career, including his debut, “Fingers” (1978), which features one of Harvey Keitel’s best performances, “Exposed” (1983), featuring legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev, Keitel and Nastassia Kinski, and the documentary “The Big Bang” (1989).

In recent years, his films have felt like voyeuristic travels on the sidewalks of Manhattan, where he mixes actors and athletes playing themselves with his fictional characters, all engaging in philosophical discussions when there not trying to seduce one another. Like Lee, he seems especially fascinated by the inherit distrust between men and woman and blacks and whites. Toback achieved some kind of twisted brilliance in his 1999 film “Black and White” in capturing a heated argument between Brooke Shields and Mike Tyson. In “When Will I Be Loved,” Tyson shows up again, this time denying that he’s Mike Tyson (who can blame him?).

Toback’s new film opens with a long, seemingly meaningless scene of Neve Campbell showering. While I admit that the sequence is the highlight in an otherwise full-of-itself picture, I would have loved to heard the rational Toback sold to Campbell to convinced her to shot the scene.

The film’s pointlessness reaches its nadir when Campbell’s Vera recognizes actress Lori Singer (a semi-star of the mid-‘80s) in a park and Singer explains what she’s been doing lately. Instead of giving Singer an actual role in his film, Toback gave her a few minutes to remind the handful of people that will see this film that she’s still available.

The flimsy plot involves an older businessman’s desire to pay to spend time with Campbell, having once seen her in an airport. Dominic Chianese (from “The Sopranos”) as the obsessed rich guy does his best delivering cliché lines while both Campbell and Frederick Weller as her boyfriend and middle man in this liaison are just irritating. There’s an unemotional remoteness to the performances that made me just hate this film.

Toback shows up playing a college professor (which he is) interviewing Campbell for a job as his assistant (which she sees right through). I guess Toback can be slightly excused: at least in his film, the men come off as amoral and repulsive as the women.

I was never able to get through Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Vile Bodies.” Too many characters saying too many things, I quickly lost track of what was important and what were just asides. But this film version of the novel, adapted and directed by British actor Steven Fry ( “Gosford Park,” “Wilde”), makes everything clear and perfectly captures a time just before World War II when the rich and idle of London flitted from party to party and scandal to scandal.

In addition to Waugh’s delicious dialogue (one character says that despite her dislike of sex she realizes she’s going to have to get used to it, “like olives or talking pictures”), Fry has done a superb job of organizing the film so you don’t get too caught up in scene-stealing supporting players and stay focused on the main characters.

Emily Mortimer and Steven Campbell Moore play a young couple who want to get married but he just doesn’t have the money to support them. One of the book’s and film’s running gags is their on-again, off-again nuptials plans according to his volatile financial situation. Both of these young actors give outstanding portrayals of these hedonist who long for conformity, but they are often overshadowed by a string of flashier performances. British acting mainstays Jim Broadbent, as a half-drunk Major; Bill Paterson, as the prime minister; Peter O’Toole, as Mortimer’s eccentric father; and Sir John Mills, seen sniffing cocaine at a party, are all a hoot. And Dan Aykroyd is perfectly cast a self-important publisher of a London newspaper best known for its gossip columns.

As was Waugh’s way (“Brideshead Revisited”), grim reality ultimately replaces youthful hedonism; war and responsibility overtake parties and cocktails. Fry, making his directorial debut, superbly handles the quick change of mood as a result of Britain declaring war on Germany. The solemn conclusion puts everything that came before in perspective for both the characters and the viewer.

It’s not often that a movie improves upon a novel, but I think this story works better dramatized than it does on the page. But it does make me want to try again to get through the book, which is high praise for any movie.

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