Saturday, September 27, 2008
RUNNING WITH SCISSORS (2006) I thought I’d seen the worst of the parental persecution films in “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), but this offensively quirky mess of a picture offers a true story (of course) of a mother who, in the name of “finding herself,” lets her controlling, borderline insane therapist raise her teenage son. Even the names haven’t changed to protect the….well, I guess there’s no one worth protecting.
This memoir of writer Augusten Burroughs’ youth plays like a sendup of dysfunctional family films, with every character but the one based on the author displaying unbalanced, psychotic behavior that isn’t amusing or enlightening.
Annette Bening has the thankless role of the mother who seeks help from a quack psychologist (Brain Cox) in hopes of attaining her dream of becoming a world-class poet. He does little except turn her into a drug addict and, eventually, take her son, Augusten, (a sane, but dull Joseph Cross) into his family, which includes his dog-food eating wife (Jill Clayburgh), and a pair of daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Gwyneth Paltrow) who like to have long meaningless conversations and dress like they’ve seen too many indie films, all living in a house cluttered as only a set designer could create.
Despite all these fine actors, not once did I ever believe these characters were real people. Only an unrecognizable Joseph Fiennes, Paltrow’s co-star in “Shakespeare in Love,” playing another patient of the good doctor who becomes involved with Augusten, brings any sense of humanity to the film. Instead, director Ryan Murphy (who also adapted the book) offers a greatest hits of crazy movie characters.
PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1972)
Tuesday Weld never quite escaped her image as an oversexed teenage blonde, cemented in films such as “Sex Kittens Go to College” (1960) and “Wild in the County” (1961). She made her movie debut at age 13 (after a troubled childhood that included a drinking problem and a suicide attempt) in “Rock, Rock, Rock” (1956), one of the first movies about rock ‘n’ roll, in which Connie Francis provides the singing voice for Weld’s character.
By the 1960s, she mostly worked in television until she gave a memorable performance as the fragile, immature girlfriend of Steve McQueen in “Solider in the Rain” (1963). She co-starred with McQueen again in “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), but eventually became more famous for the roles she turned down (reportedly “Lolita,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Bob & Carol& Ted & Alice”) than the ones she took.
Her reputation as an interesting actress comes from four offbeat films, “Pretty Poison” (1968), playing a twisted high school girl turned coldblooded killer; “A Safe Place” (1971), a hard-to-follow experimental film mostly set in Weld’s memories of her romantic liaisons; “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (1978), in which she plays a wife and mother involved in a drug deal gone wrong; and “Play It As It Lays.”
Weld is nothing short of brilliant in this adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel about a restless, depressed but very self aware actress who has lost interest in her self-centered director husband, her equally petty friends and even her emotionally unstable young daughter who lives in a boarding care facility. The film has long been dismissed as a failure, mostly because of its unorthodox structure that discards chronological order. But the film isn’t about plot or story, it’s about the emotional state of Weld’s Maria, thus the scrambling of time and place works perfectly.
I’d always thought of “Play It As It Lays” as an unimportant film, but finally seeing it I think its distracters have it all wrong. Director Frank Perry, best known for the regrettable “Mommie Dearest” (1981), manages to bring Didion’s tale of an amoral, hopelessly vain, intellectually vacant Hollywood to the screen without letting the film become preachy or even judgment. The indiscriminate sex, pill popping, disregard for others’ feelings is all presented as simple facts of life.
Perry also does justice to Didion’s obsession with Southern California’s freeway system---the fallback metaphor for whatever characteristic writers want to pin to the area---by capturing both the loneliness and freedom of the roads. Ironically, Maria seems to be at her happiest when behind the wheel; it may be the only time she feels connected to others.
It’s a crime the Weld didn’t get nominated for a best actress Oscar that year; in my mind it’s as good as or maybe better than Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-winning turn in “Cabaret.” Weld did get noticed by the foreign press, earning a Golden Globe nomination for best actress. Anthony Perkins also gives a good performance, maybe the best of his career, as the one friend that understands Maria’s state of mind, as does Adam Roarke as her full-of-himself husband.
Five years later, Weld did get an Oscar nod for her supporting work as Diane Keaton’s sister in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.”
Her last meaty role was as an underworld associate of the James Woods and Robert De Niro characters in “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984). She’s appeared in just five films in the last 20 years.
DOWN TO THE BONE (2005) and CLEAN (2006)
Without junkies and out-of-touch parents, the independent movie industry would collapse. These similarly themed films follow the struggles of women fighting longtime drug addictions in hopes of holding together or reclaiming their family. And much like “Sherrybaby,” these films offers substantial, showy roles for the actresses playing the junkies.
While neither Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone” or Maggie Chueng in “Clean” deliver the emotionally complex, heartbreaking performance of Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Sherrybaby,” their acting is what makes both movies worth seeing.
Farmiga, who played the police therapist in “The Departed,” is Irene, a seemingly typical wife and mother in a small, depressed, upstate New York town, except that she’s addicted to coke. In many ways, her attempt to stop using makes her life more complicated as she falls into an affair with a predatory rehab counselor and loses her job as a grocery store clerk when she admits she can’t work as fast now that she’s off coke.
Everything about this film is downbeat, from the bleak setting and Irene’s sad life to director Debra Granik’s documentary-style presentation of the story. Yet watching Farmiga bring this character to life in a totally undramatic way---it’s a classic Method performance---is totally riveting.
Cheung, one of the most prolific actress of the Hong Kong cinema, having starred in everything from historical romances, marital arts actioners to pretentious art-house pictures, plays Emily, the overbearing wife of a past-his-prime rock musician who finds herself adrift after he dies of an overdose. The couple’s young son remains in the custody of the late father’s parents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry), who are reluctant to let Emily even see him.
She goes from a prison term for possession to waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant in Paris to working in a clothing store to getting back into the music business, while trying to convince Nolte that she’s a worthy parent.
This multi-lingual film (English, Chinese and French) is directed by veteran French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, who also directed Cheung (then his wife, now his ex-) in the movie industry-themed “Irma Vep” (1996).
Along with these two films and “Sherrybaby,” the best of the recent glut of junkie pictures includes “Half Nelson” (2006), “The Good Theft” (2003) and “Jesus’ Son” (2000).
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006)
You’d hardly expect to find an inspirational story in the annuls of domestic spying done by the Communist government of East Germany. Yet this superbly made, intense picture, gives hope to the belief that even the most dedicated bureaucrat can be moved to disobedience once he has a chance to understand his victims. It’s the film’s underlying optimism, as it chronicles this oppressive society, that, no doubt, earned it the year’s best foreign-language film Oscar.
While offering a frighteningly detailed examination of how closely monitored “suspicious” citizen were in Soviet-block regimes during the Cold War, this German film, not coincidentally set in 1984, focuses on the surveillance of a prominent playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), his live-in actress-girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) and Capt. Weisel (Ulrich Muhe), the secret police agent who spends most of his day in their attic listening to everything they say.
Ironically, Dreyman isn’t much of a rebel-rouser, preferring to stay in good graces with the party and get his plays produced. Yet after the suicide of his mentor, he becomes radicalized and so does Weisel, in ways that are hard to predict.
Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in an impressive feature film debut, takes the well-worn plot device of eavesdropping and, with compelling performances by the three principals, fashions a heartbreaking, “intimate” triangle in which Weisel is influencing the lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria without their knowledge. And then those lives change all over again once the wall comes down.
I can’t even imagine how difficult this film must be to watch for those who suffered under the oppressive East German rulers; this depicts the real-life horrors that are imagined as sci-fi in “V for Vendetta.”
V FOR VENDETTA (2006)
Adapted from a graphic novel by David Lloyd by the Wachowski brothers of “Matrix” fame, this hypnotic movie rails against a big-brother government that under the guise of controlling domestic terrorism has turned England into a para-military state and all but eliminated civil liberties.
Appearing out of nowhere to incite the silent masses is a masked, cloaked, pontificating figure named V (Hugo Weaving) whose mask depicts the 17th Century anarchist Guy Fawkes. To get everyone’s attention, he blows up buildings and takes over the TV airwaves, where he promises to destroy the Parliament building in a year.
Evey (Natalie Portman), a nonpolitical go-fer at a television station, by chance and reluctantly, becomes aligned with V, helping to humanize this specter and ultimately aiding his cause.
Trying to track him down is Finch (the always dour Stephen Rea) who, brings more cynicism than devotion to his position as a government investigator.
Director James McTeigue (he was the Wachowskis’ assistant director on the “Matrix” films) maintains the film’s dark, ominous tone, helped by the superb cinematography of Adrien Biddle, while giving room for the characters to develop beyond action figures. While the finale borders on utopian optimism, the film offers a stark, timely warning on giving up rights for security and ceding to much power to elected officials.
FORTY SHADES OF BLUE (2005)
There aren’t many character actors still around whose presence make a film worth seeing. We all go to see the stars, not the supporting players. But Rip Torn, who has been stealing movie and television scenes since the late 1950s, turns every role he gets into the best part in the film.
In this Altmanese look at a self-indulgent Memphis record producer married to a young Russian woman, Torn has the rare opportunity to star. He perfectly captures a man past his prime, trying to hold to his importance in his industry while maintaining his relationship with his detached wife and forging a new one with his confused, resentful adult son.
There’s not much plot to “Forty Shades of Blues,” but it’s worth a look if only for the raw, truthful arguments between Torn and Dina Korzun, playing his wife, and between Torn and Darren Burrows, who plays the son.
Though much of his work in the ‘50s and ‘60s was on television, he did play Judas in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961) and was memorable as the son of a Southern political boss in the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1962), a role he played on Broadway and earned a Tony nomination for. He married the star of “Sweet Bird,” Geraldine Page, in 1963 and they remained married until her death in 1987. (In 1989, he played the role of Boss Finley in the TV adaptation of the play.)
One of Torn’s best known roles was a part he didn’t play. He lost out (whether he was fired or quit is subject to a dispute) on the Jack Nicholson role in “Easy Rider.”
He’s superb in a little-seen performances as controversial writer Henry Miller in “Tropic of Cancer” (1970) and as an alcoholic country singer in “Payday” (1973). Since then, Torn has settled into a consistent supporting career, appearing in two or three films a year for more than 30 years. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role in “Cross Creek” (1983), as the backwoods, cantankerous father of the young girl whose pet faun inspired the novel “The Yearling,” and also did superb work in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (1979), “Heartbreak” (1979), “Defending Your Life” (1991) and “Men in Black” (1997), among dozens of others.
But the crowning achievement of Torn’s acting career is his portrayal of TV producer Artie on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” from 1992 to 1998. As the foul-mouth TV veteran who has to coddle prima donna late-night host Sanders (Gary Shandling) while keeping the idiotic second-banana Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) in line, he created one of television’s funniest, most honest characters.
At 76, Torn doesn’t seem to be slowing down a bit, with three movies set for release this year, along with two more voice roles in animated films.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006)
While it’s based on a true story, this up-by-your-bootstraps tale is classic Hollywood, honed to perfection during the silent era and the early 1930s. Chris Gardner (Will Smith, looking appropriately beaten down) takes his young son (Smith’s own son, Jaden) to daycare every day before heading off to peddle bone-scanning machines, a product he bought dozens of, falling for a “can’t miss” sales opportunity. The clunky machines aren’t selling as expected so Gardner jumps at a chance to apply for an internship as a stock broker. While he’s pursuing that job, his wife (Thandie Newton) leaves him and he gets evicted from his apartment.
As much as I admired Gardner’s ambition, when it turns out that the internship is unpaid and he’s left with no money to provide food and shelter for his son, it seemed time to get a paying job and put hopes of becoming a broker on hold. But he soldiers on and, needless to say, his optimism and hard work pay off.
Smith does a solid job of showing Gardner’s emotional roller coaster and his 8-year-old son (playing a pre-schooler) is plucky and cute, but the film never rises above TV movie level.
VENUS (2006) Just try substituting an American actor in this role played by 74-year-old Peter O’Toole---say Jack Nicholson (five years younger), Woody Allen (three years younger) or Gene Hackman (two years older)---and this movie about the relationship between a twentysomething woman and an old, roguish gent would have been crucified as perverted, misogynistic and tasteless.
There’s something about a well-read, funny Irishman that allows filmgoers to view as precious (instead of criminal) this character’s exhaustive leering, flirtatious courting and excessive gift giving---followed by pleas to touch---of this 50-years-younger woman. I seriously doubt this film could get made in this country.
O’Toole plays Maurice, a once-famous actor who gets by on small roles (he plays a corpse at one point) but spends most of his time sharing memories and afternoon drinks with another old actor, Ian (Leslie Phillips). When Ian’s young relative moves in with him, Maurice takes an immediate fancy to her. At first, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) has little interest in either of these old guys, barely responding to their conversations, but eventually she falls for Maurice’s charm and starts spending an unhealthy amount of time with him.
The picture takes a very predictable route, but it’s saved by O’Toole and Whittaker. This tailor-made role allows O’Toole to show he hasn’t lost any of his screen charisma and offhanded humor, yet his best acting in the film is near the end when Maurice’s becomes sick and impossibly frail. There are also a couple of beautiful acted scenes between him and his ex-wife, played to perfection by Vanessa Redgrave.
While O’Toole failed yet again to win the Oscar, it was his eight best actor nomination, more than anyone in that category except Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracy with nine and Paul Newman and Nicholson also with eight. Pretty good company.
British stage actress Whittaker, making her film debut, nearly matches the old master as she makes you understand this young woman’s need for love at the same time that she’s slightly repulsed by Maurice’s affection. It’s a complex role that she pulls off admirably.
Despite the fine acting, I was still left with the question of whether Maurice was more interested in putting Jessie on the right path or just getting into her pants. Seems to me that director Roger Michell, who made the superb adaptation of “Persuasion” (1995), and writer Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) wanted it both ways but didn’t go far enough in either direction.
BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE
BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (2006)
Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who portrays Borat, a television “journalist” from Kazakhstan, may be a very funny performer in the right role, but in this uncomfortable mix of satire and documentary he gets his laughs from deceiving and making fun of unsuspecting, ordinary people. To me, that’s not funny.
If you somehow missed all the stories about this ridiculously successful, cheaply made movie, Cohen’s Borat is a sex-obsessed, socially inept imbecile who, along with his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) and an unseen cameraman, arrive in the U.S. to make a documentary to help Kazakhstanians understand Americans. After Borat catches an episode of “Baywatch” on his hotel TV, he’s determined to head west and make Pamela Anderson his bride. Along the way, he plays dumb with mostly naïve, overly friendly people who smile politely when he says or does something inappropriate.
Despite a few people who display ugly sexism and/or racism, which should be no surprise to anyone who’s ventured out of their neighborhood lately, the film sheds no light on anything about this country and earns most of its laughs from Cohen’s portrayal of the sexist/racist foreigner. I’m not sure why that’s seen as funny or how he expected people to react: Maybe by being as rude and ignorant to him as he is to them?
Enjoying the comedy stylings of Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler is a good prerequisite for liking “Borat”; along with a high tolerance for humor that never gets out of the gutter.
THE HOUSE OF SAND (2006)
This moving Brazilian film, set in a remote, desert area of the country, has the visual and emotional sweep of a great silent film. It’s through the remarkable images of the characters establishing a life in this god-forsaken area much more than any dialogue that the film’s amazing story is told.
Aurea and her mother are reluctantly part of a group of pilgrims, led by Aurea’s husband, who have come from the city to establish a new life in this deserted area, circa 1911. But when the rest of the group is scared off by a band of escaped slaves and the husband is killed, a pregnant Aurea and her mother are left on their own.
While forever holding on to the hope of escaping back to civilization, they carve out something of a life in the desert, becoming friends with a runaway slave and his son.
On the surface, it seems like “House of Sand” would grow tiresome, but riveting performances by Fernanda Torres as Aurea and Fernanda Montenegro (who earned a 1998 Oscar nomination for “Central Station”) as her mother and the startlingly beautiful desert landscape become intoxicating. As the story spans the decades, the actresses change roles, with Montenegro becoming the aging Aurea and Torres playing the grown-up daughter, a casting trick that adds to the film’s sense of surreal while emphasizing how quickly a life passes by.
Director Andrucha Waddington and cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa have created a elliptical, existential film, clearly influenced by Bunuel and Kubrick, that slowly emerges as a moving study of time, nature and the human capacity to adapt.
BOOM! (1968) and SECRET CEREMONY (1968)
In 1968, Elizabeth Taylor was 36 years old, an age when most actors are just hitting the prime of their careers. Instead, Taylor, just two years removed from winning her second best actress Oscar for her tumultuous performance as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had just about completed her metamorphosis from one of the finest screen actresses of the 1950s and ‘60s to a full-time celebrity. But in the final years of her serious movie career, which began at age 10 in 1942, she make some interesting, ambitious failures, including these two pictures directed by Joseph Losey.
It’s a tossup as to which of these two 1968 releases has the most bizarre plot and the more disturbed characters. “Boom!” is entirely set on a small, mountainous Mediterranean island where Sissy Goforth (Taylor), an ill, wealthy socialite dictating her memoirs, is spending her summer. She runs the estate like a dictator, treating the servants like dirt as she barks out irrational orders. Things don’t change much when a determined poet/philosopher named Flanders (Richard Burton) survives the estate’s attack dogs and slowly insinuates himself into Sissy’s life.
Adapted by Tennessee Williams from his one-act play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” the film touches on many of the great playwrights favorite themes---crumbling beauty, the insanity of isolation and the transcendent power of art---but it’s all for not because it’s laden with so much pretense and shrill acting that the words become meaningless.
It’s painful to watch Taylor try to trudge through this mean-spirited role, virtually spitting her lines while Burton, too old for the part, strains to be the sensitive companion. It’s amazing their marriage, then in its fourth turbulent year, survived this fiasco.
“Secret Ceremony” throws together a depressed woman (Taylor) whose child has died at some point in the past and a disturbed young woman (Mia Farrow) seeking a replacement for her dead mother. Taylor quickly fills the role of mom, wearing the dead woman’s clothes, enjoying the comforts of their London mansion and basking in the devotion from this faux daughter. The cozy arrangement is threatened by a couple of nosy, pilfering aunts and the dead woman’s husband, played by Robert Mitchum, who returns from America to find an impostor in his house.
Director Losey, who left America during the blacklisting period, and screenwriter George Tabori paint a picture of desperate characters grasping for love even when reality has to be put aside, yet too much of the film focuses on deception and greed rather than emotional needs. All three principals manage to deliver good performances despite the shaky ground the script provides.
Taylor followed these odd choices with “The Only Game in Town” (1970), a dull romance between an aging showgirl and a gambler (Warren Beatty) directed by George Stevens, and, again with Burton, “Under Milk Wood” (1971), a minor film based on Dylan Thomas’ story of a Welsh seaside village.
The rest of her acting career has been negligible, spent mostly in television and highlighted by a starring role in the TV remake of “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1989), which co-starred Rip Torn. She and Burton reunited in 1983 for a Los Angeles stage production of “Private Lives,” a classic romance written by their “Boom!” co-star Noel Coward. She’s has made just two film appearances since 1980, in the Italian film “Toscanini” (1988) and, an over-hyped cameo in “The Flintstones” (1994).