Saturday, September 27, 2008

January 2007

Fourteen years ago, Clint Eastwood was the most honored man in Hollywood for his majestic, Oscar-winning Western, “Unforgiven.” At the time, it was seen as a final stand for the 62-year-old movie legend, the culmination of nearly 40 years as an actor, director and producer. Little did anyone know that Clint was just warming up.

Since then he’s directed 11 films, three of which, “Mystic River” (2003), “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and now “Letters From Iwo Jima” have been the year’s best film. It’s an amazing run of superior work from any filmmaker, let along one who’s in his 70s.

Eastwood’s first film of 2006, “Flag of Our Fathers” told the story of the World War II battle of Iwo Jima from the American side. Focusing on three of the men who famously raised the flag on the island and then went on a bond-sale tour across America, “Flags” is one of the best films of the year.

But Eastwood’s examination of the battle from the Japanese perspective, illuminating the “enemy” as no other film by an American director ever has, is not only the best picture of the year, but the best of this decade and the crowning achievement of his iconic career.

In Japanese with English subtitles, “Letters” shows both the wild-eyed devotion to the empire and the universal emotions of all service men. Eastwood brings to the film an honesty to this sensitive subject that would be difficult for a Japanese filmmaker to duplicate, but otherwise, there’s little evidence that an American directed. He’s taken Iris Yamashita’s uncompromising, superbly structured, heartbreaking script (her first produced screenplay) and created a complex, multi-character story while never losing the sense of the overall battle.

Cinematographer Tom Stern’s camera weaves through the elaborate system of caves the Japanese dug before the American assault, giving the viewer the feeling of their trapped, doom fate while allowing Eastwood to focus our attention on the dog soldiers as they await their turn to fight. Two men serve as the twin leads of the picture: Gen. Kuribayashi (played by the commanding Ken Watanabe), the man in charge of the forces and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiyo, a popular singer-actor), a baby-faced soldier who longs to return to his wife and a newborn he’s never seen. Both are compelling characters whose stories crisscross throughout the film, but also serve as representatives of the top and bottom of the military food chain.

It’s fascinating watching a war film told from the opposite side you’re used to seeing. As much as you become attached to many of the characters, especially the general and Saigo, and you want them to survive, you also are rooting for their defeat. That it’s an event from 60 years ago makes it easier to put in perspective, but that psychological conflict still increases the intensity of the movie.

This is one of the great World War II battlefront stories ever put to film, ranking with such classics as “They Were Expendable” (1945), “The Longest Day” (1962), “The Big Red One” (1980) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998). That Eastwood made the film in Japanese, with the help of translators, of course, just adds to the achievement and this great filmmaker’s legacy.

Despite its nods to fantasy classics “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz,” this visually stunning, audacious mixture of dark fairy tale and darker reality is not for young children, or even the faint of heart. It’s a harrowing journey into the bleakest days of modern Spain and the incredible world a young girl escapes to.

The Spanish-language film centers on a pregnant woman and her bookish, pre-teen daughter as they join her new husband, a captain in the government’s post-war fascist regime, at his military installation. While he and his men attempt to root out the Communist rebels hiding in the mountain woods, the woman suffers through a troubled pregnancy and the girl gets mistaken for the reincarnation of a long-lost princess. Led to an underground room, hidden deep in a labyrinth on the edge of the forest, Ofelia (a very assured 12-year-old, Ivana Baquero) is told to perform a series of adventures by a creepy, vegetable-like creature in order to prove that she really is royalty.

While the confrontation between the rebels and the military becomes more intense so does Ofelia’s forays into the dark underworld and encounters with unpleasant creatures. American actor Doug Jones is buried under the rubbery goo of a couple of these creations and he does an astonishing job of bringing them alive. The monster with eyes in his hands will go down as one of the most horrific in film history.

But equally horrifying is the captain, played with studied intensity by Sergi Lopez. A heartless, arrogant dictator who, in the service of destroying the rebellion, has lost nearly all of his humanity. Running the household for the captain, but with her own agenda, is Mercedes (Mirabel Verdu of “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) who uses her post to aid the rebels and soon becomes Ofelia’s protector. She’s the real hero of the film, a sliver of hope in a world that seems beyond saving.

Responsible for this magical movie is Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro, whose American films aren’t exactly prestige projects---“Blade II” (2002) and “Hellboy” (2004). But his Mexican horror pictures, “Cronos” (1993) and “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) have received critical raves.

As a pre-teen, the first records I bought were Motown singles. In a three year period from 1969 to 1971, nearly every record I owned came from the Motown stable of artists, including the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. In other words, a musical based on the Motown sound, offering an inside glimpse at the turmoil behind the incredible success, sounds like something I couldn’t help but love.

What’s happened? There is so much wrong with this film it’s hard to decide where to start, but since it’s a musical, let’s start with the songs. There isn’t a single one in “Dreamgirls” (a mixture of new compositions and ones from the 1980s stage show) that can hold a candle to any Motown hit of the 1960s. Bland, over-wrought, forgettable music in a film based on the career of the most popular female singing group in history? That’s a bad start.

Then there’s the script. It leaves so many holes, I thought I was watching a trailer for the full film. The most blatant problems involve Jamie Foxx’s Curtis Taylor Jr. (a character based on Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.), who turns from sweet, brotherly manager to the megalomaniac control freak who seem to enjoy throwing friends into the gutter. Not once are we ever let into his head or offered even a tiny clue as to his motivations.

The center of the musical is when Curtis demotes the Dreamgirls’ lead singer, the overweight, classic R&B style singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), replacing her with backup singer Denna Jones (Beyonce Knowles), the thinner, prettier and smoother vocalist. You’re suppose to believe this ruins Effie’s career, but if she’s the great singer the film makes her out to be (instead of the third-rate Aretha she comes off as) then she could have walked into any other record company and been making hit records by the next week. Instead, (and the script is unclear on this) she sits in her apartment for the next five or six years.

The best part of “Dreamgirls” is Eddie Murphy’s charismatic, thoughtful performance as James Early, a Jackie Wilson/Marvin Gaye type crooner who Curtis keeps from evolving as an artist. While there aren’t many opportunities in this film for character development or interesting acting, Murphy makes the most of his. Hudson, who, like Murphy, was nominated for a supporting Oscar, offers little depth in her line readings. Best singer in a supporting role, I’ll buy, but not as an actor.

Putting aside the story and character problems, I felt the film played fast and loose with musical genre conventions. For the first third of the film, all the singing was done on stage, but then, suddenly, characters started singing their some of their conversations, reverting to the classic model of a musical. I wish director Bill Condon, best known for “Gods and Monsters” (1998) and “Kinsey” (2004), would have started with one style and stuck with it. For me, it just added to the fractured nature of this badly told tale.

This is undoubtedly among the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. I can’t even imagine how the filmmaker pitched this to potential investors: Set in a rundown Texas boarding care facility, the story follows the attempts by two elderly patients, one who thinks he’s Elvis Presley, the other (a black man) who imagines he’s John Kennedy, to rid the place of a resurrected Egyptian mummy who is sucking the souls out of other patients. And, if that wasn’t enough, the place is infested with predatory roaches the size of softballs.

What keeps it from being just another low-budget, laughable horror flick is a wonderful performance by Bruce Campbell as the sarcastic, regretful, walker-using Elvis. As he explains his story to his nurse, he was looking for a break from his out-of-control life and changed places with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastjin Haff. Before he could switch back, the fake Elvis died and he carried on as Haff, until he fell off the stage and broke his hip.

Campbell, best known from the “Evil Dead” movie series, makes you believe he really is Elvis and, even more impressive, makes you believe in the noble effort to destroy the evil mummy. Whether he’s ruminating about his relationship with Lisa Marie, lamenting the demise of his sex life, battling the giant roaches or discussing Egyptian legend with JFK (the always persuasive Ossie Davis), Campbell’s Elvis is a very real, if broken-down, man who can’t help but saying, “Thank you, thank you very much.”

Writer-director Don Coscarelli (working from a short story by Joe R. Lansale) never lets the wacky horror shtick overtake the human story of a pair of old guys who really believe they are dead legends. Coscarelli, who wrote and directed the sci-fi film “Phantasm” (1979) and its three sequels, is working on a sequel to “Bubba Ho-Tep,” incredible titled “Bubba Nosferatu and the Curse of the She-Vampires,” with Campbell as Elvis and Paul Giamatti as Colonel Parker. The King is back in the house---I can hardly wait.

It’s London, 2027. The city, like the rest of the world, has sunk into complete chaos, marked by Marshall law, unchecked terrorism, collective paranoia and total filth. Cages of immigrants line the streets. The end is clearly near, as citizens stare in disbelief as television reports that the youngest person in the world, an 18 year old in America, has been assassinated. The root of the collapse of civilization is the unexplained inability of women to become pregnant.

This bleak vision of the near future serves as the backdrop for an exciting chase film starring Clive Owen as a cynical Londoner who is recruited by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) and her underground group of revolutionaries to sneak a young African woman out of the country. Owen’s Theo soon learns that the woman, miraculously, is about to give birth.

Alfonzo Cuaron, the superb Mexican director of such diverse material as “A Little Princess” (1995), “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001) and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), and a gaggle of writers (usually a bad sign) have turned P.D. James’ novel into an entertaining action picture that also serves as a insightful political commentary on the distressing state of society. It’s a world where the difference between the bad guys and the good guys is indistinguishable.

There is so much to look at in this remade Britian---an amazing accomplishment by production designers Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki---that it’s easy to overlook the superb performance by Owen, the best he’s been since his breakthrough role as a disillusioned writer in “Croupier” (1999). In “Children of Men,” Owen’s Theo, like all believable action heroes, is a self-centered, resourceful loner who has to be convinced that the cause is worth risking all.

Playing Theo’s reclusive old friend, Michael Caine, sporting shoulder length gray, brings a comforting connection to a safe world we recognize. And in the difficult role as the mother of future civilization, Clare-Hope Ashitey makes Kee a thoughtful, flesh-and-blood woman; not the saintly symbol she could have become.

This classic women’s picture has gotten lost in the crowded, Oscar-bait time of the year, but it turns out to be a well-crafted, smartly written and acted adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s tale of a troubled marriage.

Previously filmed as a Greta Garbo vehicle in 1934, “The Painted Veil” follows an upper-class British woman who marries a man she doesn’t love mostly to escape her family. Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Walter (Edward Norton) have an uncomfortable marriage until, while living in Shanghai circa 1925 where he’s a microbiologist, he discovers that she’s having an affair with a suave British diplomat (Liev Schreiber). Walter enacts punishment by forcing his wife to accompany him into the interior of China where medical help is needed for a cholera epidemic.

Director John Curren, who made the excellent “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” (2004), and adapter Ron Nyswaner, who earned an Oscar nomination for “Philadelphia” (1993), create a very real Chinese village and don’t short change the political unrest of the time---the country’s fragile Republic must contend with local warlords and a growing anti-British sentiment---while keeping the story focused on the complex, evolving relationship of Kitty and Walter.

Norton gives the same kind of overtly restrained performance he gave in last summer’s “The Illusionist,” but here it’s appropriate, working well with the leisurely pace of the film and helping to maintain the palatable tension between him and his wife. And British actor Toby Jones, as a disillusioned envoy, manages to turn a cliché role into a fascinating character---amusing, cynical and honest---who seems more baffled by Kitty and Walters relationship than the shifting politics of China.

But the film is about Kitty and in that multi-layered role, Watts delivers yet another commanding performance, portraying the inner doubts and outer struggles of this woman thrust into totally unfamiliar, and very dangerous, surroundings. Starting with her breakthrough role in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” (2001), she’s given moving performances in “21 Grams” (2003), “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” and, as the giant monkey’s girlfriend, in “King Kong” (2005). In this role, she’s less showy but equally impressive as she follows in the giant footsteps of Garbo, Davis, Garson, Stanwyck and other classic actresses who have played this kind of a flawed yet irresistible woman.

I’m sure I’ve written this before, but every time I see another Lon Chaney film I’m further astonished by his acting skills. In an era when 90 percent of the acting was of the raised-eyebrow, clenched-jaw variety, Chaney brings nuance, controlled emotions and a humanity to even his most hideous characters.

In “The Unholy Three,” directed by horror master Tod Browning, Chaney plays Echo, a ventriloquist who joins up with midget Tweedledee (Harry Earles), strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen) and a seemingly innocent young woman (Mae Busch) to pull off a series of robberies. In their charade to gain entry to posh homes, Chaney dresses as an old woman (startlingly convincing) and Tweedledee is disguised as a baby (less convincing, but very, very weird) as they pretend to be a normal family. The details of the story are rather ridiculous, but the performances of Chaney and Earles make it a must-see.

A more complex and serious silent, “The Penalty” begins with an inexperienced doctor needlessly amputating a young boys legs after an accident. The boy grows into a cold, malicious crime boss named Blizzard (Chaney, of course) who plots to enact painful revenge on the now well-known surgeon.

For the role, Chaney had his legs tied back and fake stumps placed over his knees that reportedly caused him incredibly pain but makes the performance horribly real. He’s so clearly the personification of evil that he models for an artist (the doctor’s daughter) who’s creating a sculpture of Satan. Blizzard also likes to chain his girlfriends to the leg of his piano---I don’t even want to think about the symbolism going on there.

Though the ending is a bit of a sellout, “The Penalty” is a compelling study of revenge and evil and Chaney’s unforgettable performance made him a star.

Some reviews have claimed we should watch this overheated morality tale as a campy hoot. But I don’t think the filmmakers or actors had that in mind when they created this film. If the movie is camp, it’s sadly lacking in humor; if it was made to be taken seriously, well, it’s a laugh.

Told from the point of view of Barbara (Judi Dench), a cynical, veteran school teacher working in a poor section of London, the film quickly get to its juicy “scandal” when Barbara spies the new teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchette) getting intimate with one of the students. Turns out, Barbara isn’t a very nice person and blackmails Sheba into become her close friend, while demanding that she drop her young boyfriend.

Unfortunately, you can guess the rest of the story, played out with the subtlety of a episode of “Dallas” (now that was camp!). Dench chews up the scenery as only an English Dame can while Bill Nighy makes Sheba’s husband an interesting character, but the story just doesn’t have enough twists to make this work as a melodrama.

In some ways, the film feels like something from the 1950s, as the unspoken lesbianism of the older woman is presented as more corrupt than the heterosexual coupling of a woman and a teenage boy.

I congratulated myself for waiting until I purchase a wide-screen Plasma television to watch this car racing extravaganza, with its incredibly photographed, realistically staged track action and metal-crunching crashes. Off the track, this Tom Cruise hit doesn’t have enough gas to make it to the first turn. If there’s a sport film cliché they didn’t utilize I must have missed it while I was dozing.

What makes the by-the-numbers plot and dialogue surprising is that it was penned by Robert Towne, whose scripts for “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo” and “Chinatown,” among many others, earned him legendary status. Sadly, the film is probably best remembered as the beginning of Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s romance. He’s laughably named Cole Trickle, a smart-ass, inexperience but amazingly skilled driver (if you saw “Top Gun” you know the character) who is guided to success by the old, grizzled veteran, played with scene-chewing enthusiasm by Robert Duvall. Kidman comes off the best as the brain surgeon who treats (and falls for) Cole.

This Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer production clearly aims for the teenage-boy audience; I guess I was dreaming that Towne, director Tony Scott (“Top Gun,” “Crimson Tide”) and stars like Cruise and Duvall would strive for something a little more substantial.

I can’t remember ever seeing an end-of-the-year, major release that featured a more uninvolving, reserved character in a lead role than the one played by Matt Damon in this spy epic. As Edward Wilson, who is recruited out of Yale to work intelligence during World War II and then gets in on the ground floor of the founding of the CIA, Damon seems to float unemotionally from one dramatic event to another, remaining unchanged from the opening minutes to the final frame of this agonizingly slow 2 1/2 –hour film.

In Robert De Niro’s second effort behind the camera (his first was the smaller-scaled 1993’s coming-of-age film “A Bronx Tale”) his ambitions exceed his skill and he’s not helped by an unfocused, plodding script by Eric Roth (“Munich”) that centers around the disastrous Bay of Pigs assault on Cuba. Around that plot line, the film flashes back to various episodes in Wilson’s career but primarily focuses on his failed personal life. While it’s never really clear what he does all day long for the CIA, he clearly is too busy to pay any attention to his wife (Angelina Jolie) and his son.

While the film features some excellent supporting performances, including Alec Baldwin as a veteran spook, the director himself as “the company’s” founding father and Billy Crudup as a slick British agent, the film can’t escape the deadly dullness of Damon’s character (and the lack of any attempt to make him age as the characters around him do).

“The Good Shepherd” turns out to be the story of a uninteresting public servant, which may be closer to the truth about spies than the movies have made us believe, but it doesn’t make for a very entertaining film.

If you’re looking for a spy with little or no relationship to reality, there’s always Bond. With film number 21, the series introduces the sixth 007, Daniel Craig, who has the face and demeanor of a low-level wise guy but still looks good in a tux and plays an impressive game of poker. Craig is quite convincing as a rough-around-the-edges Bond, a more blue-collar spy than his predecessors. I half expected him to order a beer and a shot.

Based on Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel (and previously made as a comic romp in 1964), this film starts out with some logic problems for any longtime fan of the series. “Casino Royale” presents Bond as a newly minted double-0 (just scoring his second hit) on his first big-time assignment, predating all the previous film adventures. Yet, it’s set in 2006. I should realize by now that every Bond picture starts fresh, like nothing has ever come before it, but the idea of introducing a character we’ve been following since 1962 bothered me.

Beyond that, the film is a rather routine actioner, with the inane plot of Bond playing in a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro, in hopes of keeping a major arms dealer from winning the pot. Eva Green (from Bertulucci’s “The Dreamers”) plays Vesper Lynd, who serves as both spy partner and love interest for Bond, but doesn’t have the flash that you expect from a Bond girl. And Judi Dench, reprising her role as M, does little more than look very, very concerned the entire film.

More interesting is the frightfully serious bad guy, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who, because of a medical condition, cries blood. He’s a very scary dude, but I was never clear on why they didn’t just arrest, or shoot, him rather than play out this elaborate scheme.

The highlight of the film is an inventive Venice-set chase that ends with the virtual collapse of building on the banks of the Grand Canal. It’s too bad the story leading up to it wasn’t as thought out.

Most of the time, when I see a movie I dislike I am able to recognize what makes it appealing to others. I haven’t a clue with “Friends With Money.”

Kenneth Turan, longtime critic for the Los Angeles Times, observed that “the writer-director [Nicol Holofcener] holds such a keen mirror to modern times, has such a perfect ear for who we are and how we live in this particular corner of the world---brie on wheat bread, anyone?---that she brings another writer to mind…A woman named Jane Austen.”

All I can say is that I’m glad I live slightly south of that “particular corner of the world.” Three superb actresses---Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener and Joan Cusack---and box office star Jennifer Aniston play longtime friends who continue to confide in one another in a sometimes brutally honest way. The hook of the film is that all of the women except Olivia (Aniston) are successful and married, while Olivia works as a housekeeper, begs to get back with a married man and has careless sex with an absolutely pig of a man.

One of the inherit problems with this kind of single-sex talk-fest is that film characters never discuss current events or popular culture---the meat of conversation in the real world---which results in ad nauseam rants about their problems, their husbands, their future, their whatever…

Maybe Holofcener, who also directed “Walking and Talking” (1996) and “Lovely & Amazing” (2001), both featuring Keener, and episodes of “Sex and the City,” does have a keen ear for dialogue, it’s just nothing I ever wanted to hear.

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