Monday, September 29, 2008

February 2008

Roy Scheider might not have been an important actor or major star, but few performances I’ve ever seen have left such a strong impression as his portrayal of Joe Gideon. Not only was he portraying a stressed-out, workaholic, pill-popping, womanizing egomaniac approaching a major heart attack, but the character was, in fact, the film’s director Bob Fosse.

The mere audacity to write and direct a movie about your own messy life which culminates on the operating table (unlike Gideon, Fosse lived to direct again, if only for eight more years), is unprecedented; that it remains as musically invigorating and psychologically insightful almost 30 years later is a miracle.

And at the center of it all is Scheider, a tough-guy character actor, complete with a broken nose and deep-set eyes, being asked to portray a legendary dancer-choreographer----sing, dance, tell jokes and make you care that Gideon is slowly killing himself even as he shows no concern.

This cool hedonist, who even when he’s cruel does it with tenderness, is a virtual textbook of Freudian contradictions as he struggles for perfection while editing his film and creating choreography for a new stage show. Scheider becomes Fosse (beyond replicating his facial hair and style of dress) in one of the great Svengali-like director-actor symbiotic relationships. The performance is subtle and outrageous, shy and gregarious, capturing Gideon/Fosse’s creative genius and flippant approach to the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, Scheider was never able to find the role or film that would allow him to repeat the level of acting he brought to “All That Jazz.” It was clearly the perfect matching of actor and role. Of course, he had already established himself as one of the best supporting players of the 1970s by then, most prominently as Det. Russo, partner to Popeye Boyle, in “The French Connection” (1971) and as the overwhelmed Chief Brody in “Jaws” (1975). (The worst move of his career was reportedly turning down the lead in “The Deer Hunter” to do the “Jaws” sequel.)

But the 1980s brought a mixed bag of roles. Not that successful were the Hitchcock-like thriller “Still of the Night” (1982), opposite Meryl Streep, and the sequel “2010” (1984)---but he seemed to find a niche as a thinking man’s action hero that had worked for him in the ‘70s with “The Seven Ups” (1973), “The Last Embrace” (1979) and, of course, “Jaws.” In both “Blue Thunder” (1983), a dumb but entertaining actioner and “52 Pick-Up” (1986), an underrated adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, directed by John Frankenheimer, Scheider plays regular guys in over their heads.

In “52 Pick-Up,” Scheider plays a businessman whose affair with a stripper leads to blackmail and accusations of murder, sending him on a voyage into the sleazy world of the sex trade. The actor perfectly captures this determined, not-quite innocent everyman, who finds himself on an adventure that is both thrillingly seductive and extremely dangerous.

He gave some interesting supporting performances in the 1990s, including as a bow-tie wearing, stuck-in-the-past spy in “The Russia House” and as the twisted drug-supplier Dr. Benway in “Naked Lunch” (1991), but the good roles dried up. When he died earlier this month, he hadn’t been in a major film in ten years----playing the father of a dysfunctional family in “The Myth of Fingerprints” (1997).

Scheider will always be remembered for “Jaws,” one of the most popular films of all time and constantly playing on a television near you. But for me, his Joe Gideon, picking dancers in the dazzling “On Broadway” opening scene, looking in the mirror each morning and proclaiming “It’s showtime, folks!” or hamming it up at his own, imaginary “final” performance, singing “Bye Bye Love” as his heart slowly gives out, will be his legacy. If only in one role, this sad-eyed, low-keyed character performer achieved acting greatness.


This meditation on the final year of the life of the legendary outlaw (between 1881 and 1882), is stunningly photographed and superbly acted, yet never offers a good reason to care about any of the characters. About halfway through the film’s two and a half hours, I had pretty much lost track of which gang members the psychotic Jesse James had murdered or why he wanted them dead or why he hadn’t kill the ones still hanging around. It’s a long, long wait before Bob Ford puts a bullet in his hero.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins was robbed at the Oscars, but he was doomed to lose (to Robert Elswit’s work on “There Will Be Blood”) because he was nominated for both this film and “No Country for Old Men,” no doubt splitting his votes. He’s best known for his many collaborations with the Coen brothers and also shot “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” (1997). But nothing he’s done in the past compares to the magnificent images he captures in “Jesse James.” From a barely-lit nighttime train robbery to evocative shots of sun-drenched plains, Deakins creates a sweeping vision of the Midwest in the late 19th Century. Individual scenes are innovatively constructed by director Andrew Dominik, making just his second feature, but he wasn’t able to turn the numerous beautiful set pieces into an interesting movie.

Brad Pitt plays Jesse James as a frighteningly unpredictable killer who fears and trusts no one, but, for no good reason except that it’s necessary for the story to work, becomes close to the Ford brothers (Casey Affleck as Bob and Sam Rockwell as Charlie), who are part of his gang on his final train robbery.

Hero-worshipping Bob does everything he can to stay close to Jesse, enduring endless ridicule and threats, while simpleton Charley is just along for the ride. All three actors are outstanding, with Affleck’s performance as a shy, soft-spoken but diabolical sycophant who ultimate kills Jesse earning him a surprise Oscar nomination.

That nomination could have gone just as easily to Rockwell, an underrated actor best known for his performance as Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002). For much of this dry, slow film, he’s the only character with much life to him.

Maybe the worst aspect of this epic is the overblown, adoring narration that, I guess, is meant to be taken as ironic since the outlaw being portrayed on screen in an unsympathetic, heartless criminal, but the subtlety didn’t work. It just adds to what ends up being a great-looking jumble.

This contemplative, heartfelt examination of returning soldiers from the Iraq war comes from the Paul Haggis who wrote 2004 best picture winner “Million Dollar Baby” not the Paul Haggis whose film “Crash” was the surprise best picture winner at the 2005 Oscars. Unlike the polemic, theatrical dialogue and exaggerated characters that filled “Crash,” the writing is measured and naturalistic in “Elah” and the characters, like in the Clint Eastwood film, are unpretentious, real people.

Tommy Lee Jones, in one of the best roles of his superb career, plays Hank Deerfield, a regimented, taciturn ex-soldier who drives from his Tennessee home to a New Mexico army base when he learns his son, just back from Iraq, has gone AWOL. Not long after he’s there, the son’s body---hacked apart and burned beyond recognition---is found in a field, and despite attempts by Deerfield and a local detective who takes pity on him (a very dowdy looking Charlize Theron) the military is reluctant to dig into what really happened.

The film is about more than just the mystery of this soldier’s brutal death; it explores the difficulties some soldiers face once back stateside, how they deal with their conflicted feelings about what they did in the heat of battle and what it means for their families. Writer-director Haggis spices up the narrative with short cell-phone videos shot by the son in Iraq and watched by Deerfield as he uncovers more about his son and his murder.

Though the picture feels a bit long and repetitive at two hours, some plotlines seemed to have been left on the cutting room floor, most notably the involvement of a strip joint waitress played by Frances Fisher. The film also underutilizes Susan Sarandon, as Deerfield’s beaten-down wife, but she’s impressive, as usual, in her few scenes. Theron doesn’t leave much of an impression; she’s seems to be trying to match Jones’ deliberate pacing and it doesn’t work for her.

Haggis makes the most of Jones’ steely eyes and lived-in face; he dominates even the scenes in where he’s given little dialogue. Considering how few people saw this film, it was a bit of a surprise that Jones scored a best-actor nomination (rather than a supporting-actor nod for “No Country for Old Men”) but not unlike his great work in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), you won’t forget this low-keyed performance anytime soon.


I’m baffled as to what this trio of stars---Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall----saw in this overheated, cliché-filled cop drama. Whatever it was, not much of it ended up on the screen.

I guess Phoenix and Wahlberg, the stars of writer-director James Gray’s much better crime film “The Yards” (2000), put their trust in the filmmaker, who revisits the subject matter, the Russian mob in New York, of his first and best film “Little Odessa” (1999). Since “Angels With Dirty Faces” was released 70 years ago, dozens, maybe hundreds, of films have pitted brothers on the opposite side of the law as a way to intensify the connection between the criminal and the cop. “We Own the Night” adds little to that legacy.

Wahlberg plays Capt. Joe Grusinsky, who has followed his father----Duvall as Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky----into the city police department. Meanwhile, having lots more fun is high-living brother Bobby (Phoenix), who has dropped his father’s name and is running a popular nightclub for the godfather of the Russian mob. He has little time for his brother or father, even when they ask for his help in shutting down the growing cocaine trade in the city. If you’ve been watching movies for very long you can guess the rest of the plot.

Gray offers virtually no surprising turns while Wahlberg and Phoenix sleepwalk through their roles. You would think acting opposite the legendary Duvall would spur these two young stars to impressive performances but it seems to have done the opposite. Not only do they have little of interest to say, but their voices barely rise above a whisper.

Director-painter Julian Schnabel has turned the amazing story of stroke-victim Jean-Dominique (Jean-Do) Bauby, a French editor of a fashion magazine, into an innovative, unsentimental but deeply moving film. He’s made an art film out of the kind of plot that usually is reduced to a treacly TV movie.

The film begins, literally, with Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric, who played the seller of information in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”) opening his eyes and seeing his hospital room after being in a month-long coma. Shot from his point of view (as is most of the first third of the film), we see through his blurry eyes doctors and nurses as they surround him and try to explain his situation. We hear him speak but it turns out that it’s just his internal voice; he’s paralyzed from head to toe, but his brain is functioning as normal (allowing him to hear and see) and he has retained the ability to blink.

The film combines Jean-Do’s inner thoughts, his fantasies and his memories to create a portrait of this vibrant, successful 43-year-old reduced to having to relearn how to make sounds. His speech therapist has devised a system in which she recites the letters of the alphabet and Jean-Do blinks when she speaks the letter he wants. Slowly, he learns to form sentences through this method and, in what seems like a herculean task, writes a book.

Amalric is extraordinary both as the paralyzed Jean-Do, creating a portrait with just his inner voice and blinking eye, and as the pre-stroke Jean-Do, who left his family for a beautiful young model. Also outstanding are Emmanuelle Seigner as his ex-lover and mother of his children, Marie-Josée Croze as the inventive therapist, Anne Consigny as the woman he dictates his book to and Max von Sydow, the towering figure of the last 50 years of European acting, unforgettable in two scenes as Jean-Do’s elderly father.

The 56-year-old Schnabel, born in Brooklyn and raised in Texas, became a leading figure in the art work in the 1980s. The artist’s first foray into film was “Basquiat” (1996), a controversial biopic of New York painter Jan Michel Basquiat, followed by “Before Night Falls” (2000), which told the tragic life of a persecuted gay Cuban poet. The performance by Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas earned a best-actor Oscar nomination.

Also deserving credit for this superb film is Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”), whose sharp, unsentimental adaptation of Jean-Do’s book paves the way for Schnabel’s free-wheeling direction, and director of photography Janusz Kaminski (all of Spielberg’s films since winning the Oscar for “Schindler’s List”), who somehow makes you believe you’re seeing the world through Jean-Do’s eyes.

I thought it was crazy that the best film of 2006 was made by an American working in a foreign language (Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”) but now it’s happened two years in a row. “The Diving Bell and Butterfly” (the title describes scenes images imagined by Jean-Do) is a great and unforgettable picture.

Maybe no monarch has been portrayed on film more often than Elizabeth I, the 16th Century queen of England who had her rival, Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded and then successfully defended the Empire against the Spanish armada. Among the actresses who have given life to the Virgin Queen are Bette Davis (twice), Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench (winning an Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love”), Sarah Bernhardt (in a 1912 picture) and Helen Mirren in an award-winning cable production.

Now Cate Blanchett is back for her second go at the flinty ruler, earning a second Oscar nomination for the role. When she received the nod in 1998 for “Elizabeth,” she was a fresh face in a dynamic role, playing the young Elizabeth about to ascend to the crown. This new film plays out like a retread, not only in that it tells the same story that many previous movies have, but it so clearly was made as a vehicle for Blanchett to repeat her earlier performance. She adds nothing to the Elizabeth repertory and the film, directed, as was the first one, by Shekhar Kapur, strains to be arty and sweeping but instead is meandering and lifeless.

Clive Owen playing Sir Walter Raleigh, New World explorer and court flirt, brings his usual energy to the tale, but there’s little evidence of chemistry between Own and Blanchett. By the time Elizabeth orders her cousin executed and war breaks out, the film turns into a series of symbolic images, losing any sense of story flow and looking more like an impressive trailer than the conclusion to a dramatic film.

Anyone interested in this story should rent “Mary Queen of Scots” (1972), in which acting titans Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave (as the Catholic Mary) are exceptional as these bitter rivals, or “Elizabeth I,” the intelligently written and brilliantly acted TV film that won an Emmy for Mirren.


This harrowing, unflinchingly graphic film chronicles the effect an illegal abortion has on a Romanian college student in the 1980s. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca in an amazing performance) isn’t getting the abortion, but she has arranged the hotel room and picks up the abortion doctor for her roommate Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu).

Not surprisingly, considering who’s pregnant, Otilia turns out to be the more responsible woman. That becomes very clear during a long scene in which the women negotiate with the abortion doctor, who turns out to be as unpleasant as his job. It is the wrenching centerpiece of this memorable film and the beginning of the strained relationship between the women. Marinca’s sad face reflects the burden of the situation and the complex emotions her character experiences during this long day’s journey into night.

Writer-director Cristian Mungiu shot the film like a documentary, with very little camera movement, long takes and an emphasis on the smallest of details. The movie’s stark realism, added to by the actors’ naturalistic performances, makes it both hard to watch and emotionally powerful. While the film doesn’t make a big deal about what life was like under Communist rule, the various encounters Otilia has with hotel employees tells you everything about the bureaucratic arrogance of the regime.

There is nothing uplifting or hopeful (other than one assumes conditions have improved in the past 20 years) in this bleak story, yet fine acting and unsparing insight turns “4 Months, 3 Days and 2 Hours” (the unstated length of Gabriela’s pregnancy) into a memorable film experience.


     Brad Bird, whose previous films “The Iron Giant” (1999) and “The Incredibles” (2004) have been among the most acclaimed animated features in recent years, moves closer to the Disney model with his latest crowd pleaser. While his hero is a rat who (mostly) walks on all fours through sewers rather than a mouse with gloves and a girlish voice, Bird’s “Ratatouille” is more pleasantly safe than witty or edgy and it’s filled with the heavy-handed life lessons that often weight down children’s films.

Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt), unlike the rest of his rat community, is very particular about the food he eats; his exceptional sense of smell has turned him into a gourmet among rodents, and a desire to be a chef. Opportunity knocks when he lands in Paris and seeks out the restaurant made famous by a TV chef who recently died. After he concocts a soup that becomes a favorite of the restaurant’s patrons, Remy forms an unlikely partnership with Linguini, the clumsy young cleanup boy who received the credit. The talented rat hides in the hat of the very nervous new chef and guides his cooking to great acclaim.

Remy faces issues of responsibility and learns that humans can be petty and deceitful, but if you make a great ratatouille (a French stew-like dish) even a rat in the kitchen is acceptable.

THE TV SET (2007)

Thirty years ago, “Network” satirized the idiocy of network television. A generation later, lampooning TV seems as pointless as lamenting crooked politicians.

This forgettable comedy gives it a shot and offer little we haven’t seen before. David Duchovny, with a beard and looking a lot like John Ritter, plays Mike Klein, a writer whose very personal project is about to be turned into a TV pilot. Things starts off badly when the studio insists on casting Zach (Fran Kranz), the actor Klein didn’t want.

Bad acting, second-rating direction and the expected interference from an arrogant network chief (Sigourney Weaver, channeling Faye Dunaway from “Network”), sends Klein into a personal crisis. About the only thing different about this version of this familiar tale is Ioan Gruffudd’s (“Amazing Grace”) role as a British TV producer who has just joined the network and quickly discovers that “quality television” has a different meaning on this side of the pond.

Am I suppose to feel Klein’s pain when his vision is slowly but surely crushed by the forces of television? He’s presented as a veteran of TV, yet he acts like a naïve first-timer. Same goes for the Brit: Did he mistakenly think “Masterpiece Theatre” aired on CBS at 8 p.m.? Writer-director Jake Kasdan, who had his own acclaimed sitcom “Freaks and Geeks” canceled, comes off as thinking he’s the first guy who’s ever gotten screwed by television. Ironically, or maybe perfectly, Kranz, playing the bad sitcom actor here, is now one of the stars of the new real-life sitcom, “Welcome to the Captain.”

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