Friday, September 19, 2008

January 2003

Who knows how many great films Roman Polanski might have made had he not found himself looking at jail time in 1978 for having sex with a minor? Rather than face his sentencing, he fled for Paris and has worked in exile since.

His latest is an amazing account of one man’s journey of survival in Nazi-occupied Warsaw from 1939 to the war’s end. “The Pianist,” only the director’s eighth film since his landmark film noir “Chinatown” was released in 1974, is his best since his left the United States. His output in exile has been a collection of unremarkable pictures that haven’t come close to matching his impressive resume of films from the 1960s and ‘70s.

“Knife in the Water,” his first film released in the U.S. (in 1963), shows a filmmaker in complete control of his medium, a thriller that is also a thoughtful, ahead-of-its-time dissertation on sexual politics. “Repulsion” (1965), Polanski’s first English-language film, may be the finest psychological thriller ever made and certainly features the best performance of Catherine Deneuve’s career.

Needless to say, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) was (and is) overrated, but it made him an international celebrity, allowing him to make the underrated “Macbeth” (1971), maybe the best Shakespeare adaptation directed by someone not named Olivier or Welles.

Polanski was just 41 when “Chinatown” (1974) was released. The divergent sensibilities of screenwriter Robert Towne and Polanski came together in a perfect mix of over-lit California naivete and shadowy European doom. Few films of the 1970s—maybe the most glorified era of American film—have sustained their luster as well as “Chinatown.”

The director’s next great film was released a couple of weeks ago—he’ll turn 70 in 2003. Almost 30 years wasted on second-rate scripts and a failed obsession to turn his sexy wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) into a star, featuring her in over-the-top, convoluted films, “Frantic” (1988), “Bitter Moon” (1992) and “The Ninth Gate” (1999). Considering how many directors whose touch seemed golden in the 1970s found more failure than success over the past 25 years, maybe Polanski would have faired just as poorly if the sex scandal had never happened (or he wasn’t caught…). But seeing “The Pianist” is to be reminded that Polanski’s skills as a director still place him among the best in the world.

Central to “The Pianist” is Polanski’s trademark matter-of-fact presentation of the most dramatic of material. He’s remote without being cold, creating memorable moments without being showy about it. His camera remains steady and mostly invisible while telling a most horrific story.

Any Holocaust film has to be compared to “Schindler’s List.” Though Polanski lived through the experience as a child in Krakow, he keeps his personal emotions in check in a way that the California-born Spielberg can’t do in his Holocaust film. The heroes of each film dictate the divergent styles in many ways: Schindler the high-living egotist; Szpilman, a humble musician whose only act of courage is to survive. For better or worse, Polanski’s film is about hope while Spielberg’s too often revels in horrors we’ve become numb to after way too many dramatizations. For unbridled intensity and bravura filmmaking, “The Pianist” can’t compare to “Schindler’s List,” yet Polanski’s picture offers an equally moving view of what happens when your entire world is turned upside down.

Adrien Brody, as a privileged, talented pianist--in a career-changing performance--avoids, often by luck, often by ingenuity, being sent to the extermination camps, hiding out in Warsaw until the Nazi are driven out by the Allies. While the film clearly comments on the resolute power of the artist to survive whatever hardships the world delivers, it most pointedly speaks to the importance—the glory—of simple survival. The script, by Ronald Harwood from the book written by Szpilman right after the war ended, fits Polanski’s style like a deceptively simple score. The dialogue never becomes hysterical or forced; the characters never become cliches.

The production is magnificent, with the recreation of the utterly destroyed Jewish Ghetto, where the Jews were held as virtual prisoners before being sent to the gas chambers, looking frighteningly real. The look of much of pre-war Warsaw doesn’t need to be replicated, the communists already did that. The government rebuilt many of the buildings destroyed in the war to the exact specifications of the originals. So it’s possible to film in the city and have it look as if the war had never happened. Polanski matches these authentic locales with a story that rings just as true (something Hollywood usually fails at even when dealing with a true story).

When it’s all said and done, “The Pianist” will stand with “Chinatown” as the signature films of this great director. (1/03)

ROGER DODGER (2002)This picture would be the main competition for Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” (1997) in the “Men Who Hate Themselves Only Slight More Than They Hate Women” film festival.

Campbell Scott gives an exemplary performances as Roger Swanson, a self-loathing jerk who thinks being rude to women is the best way to pick them up. He gets his comeuppance, somewhat, when he’s fired by his boss (Isabella Rossellini) after making a fool of himself at a company party he wasn’t invited to. Yet the movie allows him to indoctrinate his high school-aged nephew into the world of late-night pickup bars while barely chastising him. Maybe it’s enough that he’s clearly seen (by adults, at least) as an ass, but as I grown older I hate seeing misanthropic characters given relatively free rides in movies.

Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals are ravishing as the two women who put up with Roger’s shit because they find the boy amusing. And there is plenty to be amused at here, but after awhile it starts to reek of its own sloppy thinking and offensive attitude toward its own characters. Writer-director Dylan Kidd, making his feature debut, displays plenty of filmmaking skills and probably has a bright future; maybe all he needs is a co-writer to suppress his sophomoric tendencies. (1/03)


What does this renown Samuel Beckett play mean? The wait for a silent, hard-to-locate God to give us hope; a reason to continue the pointless, aimless journey of life? Probably. But I must admit that I feel the same about absurdist theater as I do about poetry and Mamet plays: What the hell is the point? Is art elevated by vague, indirect, obscure symbolism? Give me direct—subtle or blunt—language to communicate ideas anyday. I’m too much of a realist, a believer in only what I can see and hold, to abide the artistic merit of works that strive to mask their message in obscurity and convoluted language.

Complexity, even confusion, is to be admired. But to have characters speak as no human’s speak does little to enhance my understanding of a writer’s point. A little bit of cleverness goes a long way.

This production of Beckett’s play is the third or fourth version I’ve seen. (You can’t say I’m not trying…) I remember thinking it brilliant when seeing a production in college, but I also was enthralled with poetry during those years. Now I find it a struggle to sit through—this version saved only the fine acting of Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy as the poor wretches waiting for that bastard Godot.

It was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who also was behind the camera for “Brideshead Revisited” (1981) maybe the finest long-form drama in television history, and documented the end of the Beatles in “Let It Be” (1970). (1/03)

CHICAGO (2002)
I’ve been anxiously awaiting a new Bob Fosse film since 1983 (when I was sated, or whatever you want to call it, by the underrated “Star 80”). I pretty much gave up hope in 1989 when the director suffered a fatal heart attack just hours before the opening of his final stage show, “Big Deal.”

But just in time for Oscar consideration, Fosse, under the pseudonym of Rob Marshall, has released a sizzling adaptation of his legendary stage musical, “Chicago.”

Though he couldn’t match the cast of the original production—Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach (who now plays Lt. Lennie Briscoe on “Law and Order”)—Fosse has found some pretty good substitutes. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the perfect Velma—sexy, cynical, relentlessly self-promoting—and Richard Gere does as well as anyone who can’t sing or dance could in the role as the arrogant lawyer to the stars, Billy Flynn. More problematic is Renee Zellweger in the lead role of Roxie Hart. Though a superb actress, she seems uncomfortable as the murderer turned media star, unable to just let go and rip into the character.

I don’t doubt that if Bob had final say in the casting---I’m guessing he didn’t—he would have gone with a more daring choice. Maybe Shania Twain or Dianne Krall? Or some young Broadway star he just “discovered.”

But the show’s the thing and “Chicago” is filled with the gallows humor, frenetic dancing and memorial specialty numbers that were Fosse trademarks. Queen Latifah brings down the house with “When You’re Good to Mama,” while John C. Reilly gives a marvelously touching performance in the “Mr. Cellophane” number. Kander and Ebb’s music has never sounded better.

“Chicago” should get nominated for a boatload of Oscars. Don’t expect Fosse to show up. But if he wins, who will accept the award for him? (1/03)

THE HOURS (2002)
A movie starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore seems an impossible dream, a sure-fire masterpiece. It’s like a 1942 picture with the cast of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman. In addition to the amazing cast, the film boasts as its source an acclaimed novel. I’m weeping already. And the winner is…..

Then I actually saw the film. The trio of actresses, needless to say, deliver fine, nuanced performances, yet their roles are simplistic cliques of female victimization. Women smothered by their times, their families, their responsibilities, yet hardly worth our sympathies.

Even the great Virginia Woolf (played by Kidman with a weird crossed-eyed look courtesy of a prosthetic nose) is portrayed as barely capable of eating, talking or interacting with other humans. Depression is a very real and sad illness, but director Stephen Daldry fails to make it compelling cinema.

Maybe if he had focused on just two of these women—I would have been very happy to see the Moore/1950s segment eliminated (or reduced to a couple of flashbacks)—the film might have made a stronger impression on me.

What has been ignored by virtually every review I’ve read is the film’s most important contribution: the first American mainstream, star-driven lesbian movie. That’s admirable, but the resulting film isn’t. (1/03)

IMDB lists 43 films and TV shows that were either written by Graham Greene or adapted from his novels. I’ve seen about half of them and they’re all pretty good. There might not be another man of letters, save the Bard himself, whose work has been translated to the screen more successfully. Here’s a Top 10 list of the best Graham Greene films:

10 “Dr. Fischer of Geneva” (1985) A bizarre British TV movie directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (see “Waiting for Godot” above) and starring James Mason as a sadistic millionaire who relishes seeing others grovel for his money. At a party, he gives everyone gifts, one of which may be a bomb that will go off when they open it. Alan Bates and Greta Scacchi also star, but this is Mason’s show. The perfect arrogant, upper crust Brit, Mason died about a year before this was released.
9 “Beyond the Limit” (1983) Almost 20 years before “The Quiet American,” Michael Caine played another cynical, worldly Greene character whose love life is disturbed by the arrival of a young American (Richard Gere). Both actors are excellent in this film set amid revolution in a South American country. Adapted from Greene’s “The Honorary Consul.”
8 “The Heart of the Matter” (1953) Trevor Howard is the perfect Greene conflicted hero, here playing a law officer, stationed in Sierra Leone, who is struggling with his morals, his Catholicism, his way of life. An admirable, if not inspired, adaptations of what may be Greene’s masterpiece.
7 “This Gun for Hire” (1942) Alan Ladd became a star as a stoic hitman on the trail of a man who double-crossed him. With Veronica Lake as the moll. The Greene novel is called “A Gun for Sale.”
6 “Our Man in Havana” (1959) Absurdly funny satire of the British spy game, with the peerless Alec Guinness as a vacuum salesman turned spy in Cuba. Ernie Kovacs, Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson are among those that enliven the sometimes plodding story.
5 “The End of the Affair” (1999) Greene’s autobiographical inquiry of his faith and an entanglement with a married woman is beautifully realized by director Neil Jordan and his cast of Ralph Fiennes, Julianna Moore and Stephen Rea. This novel was also filmed in 1955 with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson.
4 “The Fugitive” (1947) One of John Ford’s most beautiful films, this adaptation of Greene’s short novel “The Power and the Glory” chronicles the Mexican government’s search for a Catholic priest who sympathizes with revolutionary forces. Henry Fonda provides a strong, quiet presence as the priest but the real star is the work of the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, best known in the U.S. for his work on John Huston’s “Under the Volcano.”
3 “The Quiet American” (2002) Caine, who will turn 70 in a few weeks, seems to be at the peak of his career. In just the last few years, he shined in “The Cider House Rules” (1999), which earned him an Oscar, “Quills” (2000) and “Last Orders” (2001). After decades of appearing in any piece of crap that was offered to him, he has finally started to get choosy and it’s paid off. In “The Quiet American,” he plays Thomas Fowler, a British journalist based in Vietnam in the early 1950s more interested in hanging out at coffee shops and rushing home to his Vietnamese mistress than doing any real reporting. Director Phillip Noyce does a nice job of capturing the atmosphere of Saigon, but weakens him movie by miscasting Brendan Frazer in the title role. But Caine’s amazing performance erases the vacuum created by Frazer; Caine’s Fowler wears all the disappointments and frustrations of a lifetime of mistakes on his face. It’s not easy being a metaphor for an entire continent’s decline, but Caine pulls it off.
2 “The Fallen Idol” (1949) A great film based on Greene’s “The Basement Room” about a servant suspected of killing his wife as seen through the eyes of a boy who idolizes him. Ralph Richardson as the man under suspicion and Bobby Henrey as the child have the kind of chemistry filmmakers dream of. Under the direction of Carol Reed, the film manages to be both a coming-of-age tale, a suspenseful thriller and a moving character study. Richardson, the legend of the British stage, gives his finest film performance.
1 “The Third Man” (1950) One of the few perfect films ever made. Again Reed captures Greene while making his own mark on this story of the black market in post-war Vienna. Joseph Cotten is the plain-speaking, no-nonsense American in search of Harry Lime (Orson Welles), maybe the most charming villain in screen history. Greene’s cynical view of life gets full airing, most famously in Lime’s cuckoo clock speech. (To paraphrase: Switzerland had 300 of peace and only contributed the cuckoo clock to society.) (1/03)

25th HOUR (2002)
I’ve been a Spike Lee fan since “Do the Right Thing,” one of the best pictures of the 1980s. He’ll probably never match the toxic mix of drama and politics he managed to convey in that 1989 film, but he’s made some fine movies since. Yet he’s very inconsistent and, amazingly, isn’t even the best working director named Spike.
With “25th Hour,” I’m not really sure what he’s up to: Something about the connection between making the right choices in your life and 9/11?

Lee could also just be using the 9/11 references to point out to the rest of the country how central the attack on the World Trade Center has become to life in New York City. Yet it seems he’s trying for a bigger thematic payoff and, in doing so, overplays his hand.

It’s great that there remains a few filmmakers with intellectual and political agendas, but you can’t stuff big ideas into every story.

One of the film’s central elements is that a stock broker and a teacher continue to be best friends with a childhood buddy after he becomes a drug dealer. That strikes me as something that happens in the movies more often than in real life.

A ton of great acting—Ed Norton, Barry Peppers, Philip Seymour Hoffman, newcomer Rosario Dawson and the always pitch-perfect Brian Cox—goes a long way to making this an extremely watchable film. And the open-ended ending—will Norton’s character go to jail or spend his life as a fugitive—is a daring, well-done touch.

The bottom line is that this material would have been turned into a piece of pretentious crap by 90 percent of the directors out there. At least Spike makes it interesting. (1/03)

This is the second collection of H.E. Bates stories dramatized for British television and then shown as part of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre.” They all revolve around a roguish 60ish layabout in pre-war Britain and the summer he spends with his young nephew.

The stories all involve Uncle Silas stealing something, bickering with neighbors, pulling some gang or looking for a tryst with one of the town’s lovelies.

But what makes these throwaway shorts worth watching is Albert Finney. The great actor understands every detail of this devilish man-child and plays him with such exuberant gusto that it’s just a marvel to watch. Finney might not have seemed like the great actor of his generation when he was younger, but since his string of amazing performances in the early 1980s—“Shoot the Moon” (1982), “The Dresser” (1983) and “Under the Volcano” (1984)—he’s evolved into the closest thing we have to Olivier. His work, especially on British television, has been both adventurous and mesmerizing. (1/03)

I watched this only because I had just vacationed in Kauai, where this hit Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was filmed. It’s long and dull and whoever though Mitzi Gaynor could carry a major movie was nuts. But someone liked it: the film finished 7th in the year’s box office rankings, right behind “Search for Paradise,” a travelogue narrated by Lowell Thomas, made to show off the “magic” of Cineramascope. And you thought things were bad now in Hollywood. (1/03)

This film could be the reason Hemingway shot himself. Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones have zero chemistry and give performances that wouldn’t earn them guest spots on “The Love Boat” (though I believe both made appearances on the show later in their careers).

The best performance in the film is given by Elaine Stritch, playing a friend and fellow nurse to Jones’ Catherine Barkley. She appeared in just a handful of films after that, concentrating on the stage and occasional television work, until her great performance as the mother from hell in Woody Allen’s “September” (1987). Recently, she’s been elevated to legendary status on Broadway and is touring with a one-woman show.

Hudson, who was very capable of being an outstanding film actor, (as he does in “Giant,” “All That Heaven Allows” and “Seconds,” among others), was also very capable of taking bad acting to levels of dullness previously unexplored. He does that here.

The 1932 version, starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper, is a much more intimate and entertaining film, and does a much better job of telling Hemingway’s story in 78 minutes than the later 152 minute picture. (1/03)

DETOUR (1945)
I’ve seen this critical favorite B-movie about a half-dozen times now. Every time I read another rave about this Edgar G. Ulmer-directed film noir, I watch it again. This time, I noticed Roger Ebert had it listed on his web site among his list of “great films.” His essay on the low-budget thriller is ten times as interesting as the film.

Watching it again, I was astonished at how long 69 minutes can seems when the story is devoid of drama and the acting is amateurish. The segment of the film that clearly keeps the critical bouquets coming is when the doomed couple—he’s impersonating a man who dropped dead in front of him and she’s calling the shots in a blackmailing scheme—are cooped up in a cheap motel and she all but offers herself to him. He rejects all her overtures, including a plan to defraud the dead man’s rich father, and then strangles her (accidentally, of course) with the phone line.

I love low-budget film noirs but “Detour” remains the most overrated in this underrated genre. (1/03)

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