Thursday, September 25, 2008

February 2006

Greta Garbo, more than 60 years after she retired from the screen, remains one of the most enigmatic figures of the cinema. Pinpointing her appeal remains elusive: she moved clumsily on screen, had a shapeless body and her flat facial features washed out when she faced the camera; only in profile does is her classic beauty revealed. And Garbo’s acting skills weren’t her strength either, but her less-is-more style did stand out in an era of excessive mugging.

Yet she was nearly as big a star as Charlie Chaplin at the end of the silent era and the beginning of sound. As an icon of the 1920s, she ranks with Lindbergh, Ruth or Valentino. Maybe it all amounts to her screen persona as a sexually liberated woman; her contemporaries were independent women, eccentrics and objects of sexual desire, but Garbo was nearly alone in consistently portraying serious women (as opposed to the cartoonish Mae West) who were completely open about their sexuality, an equal to men in the way she approached sex.

These two minor Garbo films I recently saw for the first time are excellent examples of what the actress brought to all of her roles. They also provide as a stark contrast of how filmmaking changed so quickly with the introduction of sound.

In “Wild Orchids,” she plays the wife of an older businessman (Lewis Stone) who drags her along on a business trip to Java, where they stay in the palace of Prince De Gace (Swedish actor Nils Asther), a suave Asian playboy they met on the boat trip. Needless to say, despite Garbo’s reluctance, the Prince never stops trying to seduce her in the wilting heat of the exotic island.

What’s most interesting is the relationship between the husband and wife. Stone’s reaction when the Prince shows them their room—“Oh, god, a double bed”—explains his wife’s frustrations. He lights up when the Prince explains that Stone will be sleeping in a separate room. As an aside, I was stunned by Stone’s similarity in this film to Chaplin in the 1950s. With his oversized head, thick gray hair and black mustache and eyes he could be a double for what the great comic would look like 20 years after “Wild Orchids” was made.

Director Sidney Franklin makes the most of the filmmaking freedom allotted by this dying medium. He elevates the familiar trappings of the love triangle with impressive tracking shots, arty shadows and, of course, luminous shots of Garbo. The diverting sound effects added to “Wild Orchids” signal that full sound film was already knocking at the door.

“Inspiration” pales by comparison. Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo seven times, finds himself handcuffed by the limitations of early sound and the film suffers. In a more brazen role than the one in “Wild Orchids,” she plays a free-spirited mistress to a series of Paris artists, living shamelessly until she falls for an unexplainably dull and stiff Robert Montgomery. Every time he finds out more dirt on her love life he takes a long trip to escape the pain.

Garbo gets the most out of her character’s noble, sacrificing, saint-like devotion to this two-faced “gentleman” who can’t stay away from this worldly woman but condemns her past, but the film, burden by talk, never catches fire.

Fifty-nine-year-old Tommy Lee Jones isn’t the oldest to join the ranks of director—producer Irvin Winkler was a year older when he made his feature debut as a director—but he’s the most promising. His first feature (he directed a TV movie in 1995) turns out to be one of the most thoughtful, well acted and thoroughly compelling movies of 2005. Jones delivers an uncompromised look at the unforgiving life on the Texas-Mexico border and the lengths a man will go to make good on a promise to a friend.

Moving back in forth in time (sometimes without much of a warning), Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga tell the story of illegal immigrant Meliquides Estrada (Julio Cedillo), befriended by fellow cowboy, and Spanish speaking, Pete (Jones), before a overzealous border patrolman (Barry Pepper) kills Estrada. After butting heads with local officials, Pete takes matters into his own hands to make sure Meliquides’ wish to be buried in his hometown is granted.

The journey into Mexico, avoiding the U.S. law and encountering those who struggle to live in this no-man’s land, takes on an existential quality and that’s doubled when they finally arrive at Meliquides’ hometown.

Jones has assembled as superb cast, including Melissa Leo as a promiscuous waitress, January Jones as Pepper’s abused wife, Dwight Yoakam as a racist sheriff and, nearly unrecognizable, Levon Helm as a hopeless blind man living out a sad existence in a small shack on the border. The one-time drummer for The Band, Helm co-starred with Jones 25 year ago in “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980).

Jones, whose five-day growth and half-closed eyes tell everything about the life this character has lived, gives one of his best performances as this determined cowhand who refuses to let anything stand in the way of what he sees as his moral obligations.

CACHÉ (2005)
Sometimes infuriatingly slow and mundane, this French film from director Michael Haneke gathers it power as it sheds its façade as a mystery-thriller to reveal a movie about how deep-seated guilt, when unleashed, can devastate lives.

In this case, it’s a Frenchman’s personal involvement in his country’s mistreatment of Algerians in the 1960s, but Haneke wants to make a parallel to current events, be it Frances reluctance to support the war in Iraq or their struggles with minority communities or, broadly, us versus them. I wasn’t much interested in the filmmaker’s big-picture analogies, but was fascinated by the characters’ reaction when they learn that someone is spying on them. In a world bombarded with “reality” television and talk shows offering daily confessionals, it’s almost a relief to know that people still guard their privacy and find their lives upended when someone unlocks their secrets.

Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a well-heeled literary couple (he’s a host on a book talk TV show, she’s a book editor) living on a quiet Paris street with their teenage son when a videotape is left on their doorstep. Someone had recorded, with a stationary camera positioned in a facing alley-way, hours of tape showing the exterior of their home. Whether to interpret the video as a threat or a warning or a prank never becomes clear even as more videos arrive, including one showing Georges’ parent’s home. But without revealing too much of the often meandering plot, the video soon leads Georges to a childhood friend and the source of his secret guilt.

Binoche, best know in this country for her Oscar-winning performance in “The English Patient” (1986), gives yet another superb performance. Her Anne never comes off as a plot device; she’s smart and emotionally measured, but shows a sad vulnerability, especially in scenes with her son.

Auteuil, a major French star since “Jean de Florette” (1986), brings a detached coolness to the role that defines the mood of the picture. “Caché ,” which translated means “hidden,” reveals as little as possible while telling a story that penetrates the deepest, darkest corners of the human psyche. That’s an accomplishment not many films can claim.

“Downfall” taps into a done-to-death storyline—the final days of Adolf Hitler—and turns it into a compelling movie. Based on the remembrances of one of the German dictator’s secretaries, Traudl Junge, during the time the entire staff had decamped to the underground bunk (a 2002 documentary, “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” covers the same ground), this excruciating detailed account digs as deep as any film I’ve seen into the twisted mind of Hitler.

I never would have imagined German actor Bruno Ganz as Hitler but put this great actor a Nazi uniform and Adolf’s mustache and he’s totally convincing. The film’s focus on rountine, day-to-day life among the staff and Hitler turns this demonized figure into a real person—one that’s a deeply disturbed, coldblooded megalomaniac, but a real person none the less. Ganz completely loses himself in the role and makes you believe this is a man who could be, at the same time, a father figure to his staff (and much of Germany) and the mass murderer of millions.

Ganz, who is one of Germany’s leading stage and television actors, is best known in this country for his roles in Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire” (1987) and Gillian Armstrong’s “The Last Days of Chez Nous” (1992). He also gave an unforgettable performance in Greek director Theo Angelopoulos’ “Eternity and a Day” (1998). His ability to express a characters inner turmoil has made the 64-year-old Ganz one of Europe’s most respected actors and his Hitler adds to his legacy.

The performances in “Downfall” are uniformly superb, especially Alexandra Maria Lara as Junge and Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch as Joseph and Magda Goebbels, who poison their children rather than have them “live in a world without National Socialism.”

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has mostly worked in German television but his ability to make “Downfall” both a character study and an epic look at the fall of Berlin has clearly improved his status. His next movie, “The Visiting,” is a sci-fi thriller starring Nicole Kidman scheduled to be released this year.

Because of the Academy Awards archaic rules concerning foreign films, “Downfall” was nominated in 2004 (and lost to “The Sea Inside”) though it was released in the U.S. in early 2005.

FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING (1985) I managed to live nearly 50 years without experiencing a “Friday the 13th” movie. Watching the fifth installment of what is now a 11-film franchise during one of AMC’s periodical slasher marathons I probably (thankfully) didn’t get the full brunt of the blood and guts. But the sheer stupidity of it all was hard to miss. For all I know, this is one of the “better” installments of the series, but it seemed to me to be a nominee for the worst movie ever made.

What kept me watching was the outlandish characters the writers and director had assembled for the sole purpose of getting brutally murdered. And, best of all, Jason, the impossible-to-kill monster of the series, never does show up.

The plot, such as it is, begins when schizophrenic Tommy (John Shepard) is committed to what seems to be a camp for randy teens. Tommy’s life has been irrevocably devastated by having been played by Corey Feldman in “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.” In that film, (I saw the end of it) he helped kill (temporarily) the evil Jason; now he’s grown up and when the slaughter begins it’s hard not to blame him.

The first felled in some horrific way are a pair of hep cats who dress like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and act like the third cousins of Lenny and Squiggy. But my favorite victims are the camp’s neighbors, a couple who make the Beverly Hillbillies sound like Rhodes scholars. Ethel and Junior act as if they just walked out of the deepest recesses of Appalachia. Even the other cast members seem to be stunned by their over-the-top acting by Carol Locatell and Ron Sloan as they complain to the camp supervisor about the troublesome teens.

In one of the oddest scenes (in a movie filled with them), the grandson of the camp’s janitor insists on visiting his brother in the midst of this killing spree. Turns out his brother, living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, is a Michael Jackson look-alike. Even as “Thriller” was selling like hotcakes, the backlash was beginning.

In a perfect indicator of what these movies are all about, when the big moment comes to reveal the killer, it’s mentioned almost as an aside. No one seems to care who killed half the teens and not a single parent shows up to ask what happened. It’s all about the blood and, if this film is any indication, the goofy victims.

The funniest scenes in this over-the-top sex comedy aren’t when the title character’s co-workers are finding ways to get him in bed with a woman, but when those characters are interacting at the Circuit City-like electronics store. The filmmaker finds plenty of humor in satirizing the “expertise” of the workers and their constant bickering over nonsense. In those sections, it reminded me of a smarter film, “Office Space.” But too much of the movie is filled with tired sex jokes.

In the (recent) tradition of the Farrelly brothers, “American Pie” and the entire Ben Stiller filmography, the typographically challenged “40-Year Old Virgin” whoops it up over Andy, a nerdish, action-figure collecting man who has yet to have sex. Once his co-workers learn of his “problem,” they offer the most outlandish advice and go to idiotic lengths to get him some action.

In the midst of all this sitcom-like comedy skits, Andy (awkwardly played by Steve Carell) falls in love with the owner of an “E-bay” store, sweetly played by Catherine Keener. The filmmakers can’t resist throwing in some sentiment even as they’re writing condom jokes.

The best character in the film is the store’s manager (wonderfully played by Jane Lynch, a veteran of Christopher Guest’s satires), who scares the hell out of Andy with her offer for wild sex in her office. Lynch has flawless comic timing and while this is a small role compared to her dog trainer in “Best in Show” (2000) or her ex-porn star in “A Mighty Wind” (2003), her scenes almost make the movie worth seeing.

These two very different movies tell, basically, the same story.

In the more serious “Mysterious Skin,” a teen who was repeatedly abused by his Little League manager, becomes a male prostitute in his small Kansas town before moving to New York City for better hustling opportunities. While I found it unnecessarily explicit in depicting sexual encounters, the film proves to be a superb character study of both Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and another boy who was molested by the same coach. Brian (Brady Corbet) has dealt with the trauma by erasing it from his memory, recasting the episodes in his mind as alien abductions. In the one humorous storyline, he befriends a woman, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe from TV’s “24”), who believes she’s been regularly taken by aliens.

At points, the film drifts off in too many directions but eventually writer-director Gregg Araki (adapting a novel by Scott Heim) hones in on the effect the abuse had on these two boys and the personalities they’ve built to deal with the horrific events. At its best, “Mysterious Skin” is a very scary story of how a pedophile plies his trade and the damage inflicted on the victims. But if your sensibilities were stressed out by “Brokeback Mountain,” don’t even think about renting this film.

“Transamerica,” though still in limited released, aims for a broader audience and should draw some interest because of Felicity Huffman’s Oscar-nominated turn as a pre-surgery transsexual man. But the film is dramatically uneventful and Huffman’s performance, while she does have her moments, comes off as too much dress-up and not enough character.

It’s Huffman’s newly discovered son—she meets him when she bails him out of jail—whose story is similar to Neil’s in “Mysterious Skin.” Toby has been abused by his step-father and is now working the streets in hopes of going to Los Angeles to work in the porn industry. But instead of showing the ugly realities of prostitution, this film presents it as simply a bad career choice and never really deals with either his dangerous lifestyle or the draconian identity problems of Huffman’s Bree.

The film doesn’t come alive until they visit Bree’s parents. Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan, in marvelously over-the-top performances, have a hard time even looking at their son dressed as a woman, but are immediately bowled over by their newfound grandson. Little to do they know that he’s planning a career in gay porn films.

“Transamerica” tries too hard to be both an edgy examination of identity and a quirky, family road film. Writer-director Duncan Tucker never locates the right tone for either theme, squashing any hope of holding our interest in these offbeat characters.


After a very promising and entertaining setup, this story of a London theater, before and during World War II, spins off too many directions, none very interesting.

Judi Dench, in a role that seems written for her, plays a snobbish, upper class widow who, when encouraged to take up a hobby, buys a theater and, with the help of a bossy, but showbiz-smart manager (Bob Hoskins), turns it into a popular venue for vaudeville-type acts.

The movie focuses on the love-hate relationship of Dench and Hoskins and their daring ploy to put totally naked women on stage (tastefully, of course) to attract customers. After that, the script drifts from one episode to another before it gathers steam at the end by turning into a heartbreaking tale of war on the home front.

For her efforts, Dench earned a best actress Oscar nomination. Even in a weak year for actresses, this feels like voters filling out a category with an Academy favorite. She performs the role as well as anyone could, but the script doesn’t give her much to do after the first 30 minutes.

I was doubly disappointed by this film as it’s directed by Stephen Frears, one of Britain’s most reliable filmmakers. His most recent films—“High Fidelity” (2000), “Liam” (2000) and “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002)—have all been winners. And his next film, “The Queen,” sounds fascinating: a behind-the-scenes look at Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) and Tony Blair in the wake of Princess Diana’s death.

Director Ron Howard has taken one of most compelling sports stories of the Great Depression, the dramatic comeback of boxer James Braddock, and turned it into solid, occasionally moving film. But except for Russell Crowe’s convincingly realistic portrayal of this soft-spoken, unassuming family man, the movie comes off as sincere play acting with characters rarely saying anything more believable than well-worn homilies. It’s a TV movie dressed up as a motion picture.

Braddock was a heavyweight fighter on the rise when he fought hurt and seemingly ended his career just in time for the depression. Struggling to keep his family together, he hits rock bottom when he asks for a handout from his old manager and other boxing cronies. Then, out of the blue, he gets a second chance at age 30, when a heavyweight contender needs an opponent at the last minute. It turns out to be one of the great second acts in American sports.

Crowe looks the part of the beaten-down but determined father-husband-athlete, but more importantly he let you see inside Braddock’s humble, everyman persona, revealing the inner strength it took to survive the trials of the era’s poverty. He’s never more than a regular guy making a living, whether he’s working on the docks or fighting for the championship of the world.

I wish I could say the same for Renee Zellweger, who plays his devoted wife, or Paul Giamati, who earned an Oscar nomination as his tough-guy manager, but both characters, along with Bruce McGill as the boxing commissioner, come off as second-rate stock players from a 1933 Warner Bros. picture.

Howard does a good job re-creating the boxing matches, but like much of “Cinderella Man,” they feel too choreographed, too staged to turn light entertainment into something meaningful.

There’s not much to say about this badly written, unfunny attempt to cash in on the name value of the popular 1960s television show. The idea of the movie seems inventive—a real-life witch is unknowingly cast in the Samantha role of a remake of the TV show—but the execution is so poor and the picture is so haphazardly structured that 20 minutes into it you’ll be sorry you rented it.

I’ve only seen Will Ferrell in one other film (Woody Allen’s disappointing “Melinda and Melinda”) but to me he comes off as so derivative of other comic actors (Lewis, Allen, Chase, Carrey) that he barely registers as a film presence. Here he plays an arrogant actor who turns Darren into the main character of the new version of “Bewitched.” An amusing idea but presented so falsely (we’re to believe the director would have entire scenes without giving Samantha any lines) that it’s clearly just a setup for the inevitable “change of heart” scene for Ferrell’s character.

Nicole Kidman, slumming as Samantha, must have been hoping for a box office hit, but after “The Stepford Wives” you’d think she’d be weary of nostalgia kitsch. Most of her performance relies on her being cute while co-stars Michael Caine (as her father) and Shirley MacLaine (as the actress playing Endora) have even less to do.

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