Tuesday, September 23, 2008
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973)
The easiest, shorthand assessment of Marlon Brando's acting career labels it as both a landmark in the history of film and the most disappointing of any great actor. While he certainly made some second-rate pictures during the 1960s, he continued to work regularly and for top-notch directors. Can you blame Brando for signing up to star in movies directed by Sidney Lumet, Lewis Milestone, Arthur Penn, Charles Chaplin and John Huston? Yet each film with those great filmmakers was a failure for Brando.
To me, the real loss is how rarely Brando worked after his great comeback roles of "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris." In the 15 years after he refused the Oscar for his performance as Don Vito Corleone, he appeared in just four films. He spent his middle age, starting at age 49, getting fat in Tahiti. While Brando didn't do much after he returned to the screen with "A Dry White Season" (1989)--his best performance of the last stage of his career--at least, starting at age 65, he was working again. The laughably bad performances in "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996) and the straight-to-cable "Free Money" (1999) were painful to watch, but better those than nothing.
What Brando could never overcome were the expectations created by his towering portrayals of Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront" (1954). These famous Method performances turned an acting technique into a religion for some and a standing joke for others. I've never been sold on the revolutionary status of the Method--hundreds of very emotional and very realistic performances were given by actors who had never heard of the Actors Studio, Stanislavski or Lee Stasberg--but you can't argue about what it did for Brando. No other American actor has two performances that match the brilliance of "Streetcar" and "Waterfront" on their filmography.
And then there's "Last Tango in Paris." Some critics have called Brando's tragic role in Bernardo Bertolucci's masterpiece the finest piece of acting in film history. Certainly, it ranks with the actor's two early performances as among the greatest ever.
Watching it again, I believe for the fifth time, days after Brando's death at age 80, I was reminded yet again that the intellectual and emotional depth explored in films of the 1970s hasn't been approached since. And the kind of unsanitized sex that made "Last Tango" famous remains a subject dealt with in European films but rarely on this side of the Atlantic. Sadly, if this film was released by Hollywood today, it would be more controversial and out of the ordinary than it was in 1973.
What's astonishing about Brando's performance as Paul, an American in Paris in the depths of mourning over the suicide of his wife, is how every moment he's on screen reveals the unrelenting pain he feels. The way he walks, the way he runs his hand through his scraggly hair, the way he fiddles with found objects, even the way he fornicates with a stranger again the window sill of an empty apartment says this is a man who has lost his will to live. Brando's portrayal has such a strong, single focus that it's somewhat amazing how much we learn about Paul and his wife and their life. It comes out in bits and pieces--some spoken in English and others in French--in gut wrenching, combative scenes with his mother-in-law; an almost comic encounter with his late wife's lover (they wear matching robes); a raging, tearful rant over the dead body of his wife; and in the rare, talkative moments in his relationship with Jeanne (Maria Schneider), his anonymous lover.
In a long soliloquy given while lying on the apartment floor and shot almost entirely in close-up, Brando's real life and his character become one. He tells of growing up on a farm and of his parents, "My father was a drunk....my mother was very poetic and also a drunk." Earlier, he tells of being "a boxer, an actor, a bongo player, a revolutionary in South American, a journalist in Japan" and of living in Tahiti. In what may be the ultimate Method performance, Brando freely mixes his own biographical information into his character's until the line where Brando ends and Paul begins is erased.
When Paul finds some sliver of hope in his feelings for this flighty Parisian and then shows his goofy side making fun of the tango dancers, Bertolucci allows the viewer to believe that there might be a happy ending in the offing. The idea of his suicide is never broached, but in some ways everything he does after his wife's death is one long leap from a roof; it's when the conflicting emotions of his new relationship become too confusing for Jeanne that she ends it with a bullet.
Doors and rooms play a big part of "Last Tango in Paris"; how we move from one place to another, emotionally and intellectually adjusting from one situation to another, and the parts of us we leave behind each closed door. Brando, maybe better than any film actor, was able to communicate the conflicting emotions encountered as lives move from room to room and pinpoint the humanity in characters facing life's most difficult challenges. Yet, to the regret of movie lovers, Brando closed too many doors along the way, leaving us with the belief that, as vital and unforgettable as his best work was, there could have been so much more.
THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)
When I first saw this prehistoric musical, the best picture winner at the second Academy Award presentation, it was one of the few 1929 movies I'd seen. I still haven't seen any of the film's competition for best picture that year ("Alibi," "Hollywood Revue," "In Old Arizona" and "The Patriot") but I have seen about 20 other pictures from 1929 and, with that perspective, "Broadway Melody" isn't as bad as I originally thought. It's still in the running as the worst best picture (right there with 1956's "Around the World in 80 Days" and 1994's "Forrest Gump") but considering the quality of movies that were produced during the transition between silents and sound, it at least has some entertaining musical numbers and a pair of spunky leading performances.
Bessie Love and Anita Page star as sisters who try to bring to Broadway their successful vaudeville act-which looks like the stuff of a high school talent show when they do bits and pieces of it-but clash over romantic entanglements. In addition to huge holes in the plot and dreary direction by Harry Beaumont, the acting ability of the musical's leading man, Charles King, barely exists, even when compared to the typical stiff acting of the period. In general, the acting in the early years of sound makes a strong case for defining play-acting as a feminine art. When no one knew what they were doing, it was the women who first figured out how to talk and walk and play to the camera all at the same time.
Director Harry Beaumont was a top silent filmmaker, having directed John Barrymore in "Beau Brummel" (1924) and Joan Crawford in her star-making flapper role, "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928), but he quickly descended to B level in the sound era. He continued directing until 1948.
Because the Oscars didn't follow the calendar year until 1934, it's hard to tell which films were eligible for the 1928-29 award that "Broadway Melody" won. Among the 1929 pictures I've seen, only William Wyler's "Hell's Heroes," a moving version of "The Three Godfathers" story, and Cecil B. De Mille's crime drama "Dynamite" are clearly better films than "Broadway Melody."
LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
This superbly cast British import was among the most popular comedy romances of last year. I found it witless and heartless. Only Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, as the "older" couple (though the actress is just 45), create characters that are recognizably human. The rest of the couples are inventions of a writer who has seen too many movies at the expense of experiencing life.
That's probably unfair because writer-director Richard Curtis wrote the much better comedies, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (1994) and "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001). Then again, he seems to be one of the main writers for "Mr. Bean," so maybe I'm right.
Of course, even movie cliches can be entertaining on some level, but Curtis has packed this film with so many characters that he short shifts them all. This slick, formulaic movie tries to make up for its lack of depth but turning its many conclusions into grand events. It basically continues the sad, recent trend in British filmmaking: imitating Hollywood.
I've never been a big Clark Gable fan, but when he plays a comic rogue, as he does in about half of this bloated romance, it's clear why he was considered the "King of Hollywood." Here he gets to play the seaman rube who visits a library looking for the "tree of knowledge" and discovers a bookish redhead played by Greer Garson.
Directed by Gable's favorite director Victor Fleming ("Red Dust" and "Test Pilot" with Gable and, more famously, parts of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind"), the film is part sea adventure, part philosophical study and part screwball comedy. It's a bad mix. Despite a sincere performance by Thomas Mitchell as a reformed drunk and Joan Blondell's free-spirited girl about town, the lack of chemistry between Gable and Garson proves fatal.
But Gable steams ahead at full speed; punching, joking and smooching his way through the picture. You just can't help but laugh out loud every time he tilts his hat up on his forehead and smirks.
MR. WU (1927)
Lon Chaney might have been the finest actor of the silent era. While it's easy to dismiss his performances as more about skillful makeup work than acting, "The Man of a Thousand Faces" usually created a very believable person behind the facial reconstructions and grease paint. In "Mr. Wu," he plays both a Chinese lord and the man's grandfather. While the grandfather role is all about makeup, his main role as Wu is a powerful portrayal of a good man turned evil.
In a plot that would never have been made just a few years later, Wu's daughter falls for a British diplomat's son, which turns into tragedy when Wu discovers the secret romance. The climax has Wu forcing the young man's mother (Louise Dresser) to chose between the death of her son and the rape of his daughter. It's a horrific scene and the kind of realistic horror that American cinema wouldn't return to until the 1950s.
Chaney's amazing career, which began in 1913, probably would have ended with the coming of sound, but he was doing some of his best work in the late 1920s just before his death from cancer at age 47 in 1930.
I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD (2004)
Veteran British director Mike Hodges and actor Clive Owen, who teamed for the superb crime picture "Croupier" in 1998, have made a moodier, intentionally vague and ultimately unresolved movie as a follow-up. While it doesn't pack the punch of "Croupier," the new film displays the kind of well-written, world-weary characters and shadowy activities that made 1950s film noirs so memorable.
The 72-year-old director had dropped from most people's radar after his breakthrough with "Get Carter" (1971), a classic of the British crime genre that stars Michael Caine. He worked mostly in television until his 1998 "comeback." What he proves with his latest is that tough-talking but thoughtful gangsters are timeless.
Owen, 39, who's been acting in films and TV since the late 1980s, became a hot commodity after his roles in "Croupier" and "Gosford Park" (2001) and current stars in the latest version of "King Arthur."
In this lower-budgeted picture he plays Will, a man who dropped out of his life as a London mobster and, for the past couple of years, lived on his own, out of his beat-up van. He returns to the city to discover that his younger brother has just committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Will's methodical investigation of his brother's death and the response by the local mob he was once part of form the heart of the picture.
The relationship of some of these characters is never quite clear--including Will's involvement with a restaurant owner played by the always exquisite Charlotte Rampling-but, for the most part, writer Trevor Preston is just using most of them as signposts to Will's attempt to understand himself. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" won't please those who crave for all the lose ends of a movie to be tied up, but will be sheer pleasure for those who miss the dark ambivalence of classic film noir.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)
Finally, after two dismal attempts, the producers of this mega-franchise have managed to deliver a film to match the hype surrounding the books. While it remains firmly entrenched in the juvenile adventure genre, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron brings a very adult, sci-fi darkness to the story, giving the film a more serious tone and the action more weight. Since I haven't read this novel (or any of the "Potter" books) maybe Cuaron and screenwriter Steven Kloves had better material to work with compared with the first two, but they certainly bring it to the screen wonderfully. And the filmmakers never let the special effects overshadow the human story.
What sunk the first two "Potters" was the episodic nature of the narrative that left the movies unfocused along with way too many hammy supporting characters. The new edition dispenses with most of the oohs-and-ahs scenes and goes right for the throat: Harry's anger and confusion over the death of his parents. And the classy collection of supporting players are either given less to do (Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith) or instructed to tone it down a bit (newcomers David Thewlis, Gary Oldman and Emma Thompson). Thewlis, who gave an unforgettable performance as a violent, talkative drifter in Mike Leigh's "Naked" (1993), is the film's most interested character, a professor who befriends Harry, but has some nebulous link to Harry's parents.
In addition to learning that friends and enemies aren't always clearly labeled, Harry starts taking his fate into his own hands, especially with his irritatingly ignorant adoptive family. No longer is the tale happening around Harry; now he's making it happen.
The direction of Cuaron, who made a well-received English-language version of the classic tale, "A Little Princess" (1995) and 2002's best foreign import, "Y tu Mama Tambien," a sensual coming-of-age story, has turned what could have been just another Harry Potter story into one of the best movies of the year.
THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004)
This comic remake of the 1975 thriller about a upper-class town where all the women have been turned into compliant robots works surprisingly well until it has to explain itself.
With Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler and Roger Bart (playing the feminine character in a gay partnership) as the rebellious wives trying to find out what the hell is going on in this way-too-happy community, the film can't help but produce amusing situations. Just as good are Christopher Walken and Glenn Close as the offensively perfect couple who run the town and Matthew Broderick as Kidman's frustrated husband.
The premise plays out amusingly right up until the details of how these women have been brainwashed and the insidious nature of their husband's actions are revealed. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick (working from Ira Levin's best-selling novel) fails to find a reasonable way out of the maze he's constructed.
Director Frank Oz, one-time Jim Henson assistant and voice of Yoda, has made some good comedies, including "What About Bob?" (1991) with Bill Murray as an entertaining head case harassing an egocentric therapist (Richard Dreyfuss); "In and Out" (1997) with Kevin Kline as a small town school teacher who is forced out of the closest; and "Bowfinger" (1999), about an offbeat movie company with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. He also attempted to directed Marlon Brando in what looks to be his final role, "The Score" (2001), but reportedly the big guy refused to read his lines until Oz was out of the room.
With "The Stepford Wives" he does a nice job with the comedy, but no director could have saved the picture's mangled ending.
ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950)
Most film historians place the Golden Age of Hollywood from the early 1930s until the end of World War II. It's hard to argue with that, but there's something equally golden about an era that produced, nearly weekly, a new tough-talking crime thriller like this one. From the end of the war until the late 1950s movie screens were simply lousy with cheaply made, B-level programmers that now are viewed as the true gems of the era.
"Armored Car Robbery" will have added interest to natives of Los Angeles, with its extensive use of downtown locales and the numerous shots around old Wrigley Field, the home of the city's minor league team, the Los Angeles Angels and the first home, for one season, of the major league Angels. The ballpark, a replica of Chicago's Wrigley Field, was located on Avalon Boulevard, southeast of USC.
The heist, which takes place in front of Wrigley Field, is pulled off by a gang led by the hot-tempered Dave Purvis, menacingly played by William Talman, who was equally psychotic in "The Hitch-Hiker" but best know as Perry Mason's DA rival Hamilton Burger on the long-running TV show. When a cop is killed during the crime, tracking down the robbers becomes the obsession of police detective Jim Cordell (Charles McGraw). The cat-and-mouse aspect of the story is enhanced by the way Cordell and Purvis are portrayed as two sides of the same coin; irritable, stubborn and keenly focused on accomplishing their goal.
This little-known, fast-paced picture (it runs just 67 minutes) was directed by Richard Fleischer, later know for the box-office hits "Fantastic Voyage" (1966) and "Doctor Dolittle" (1967) and some real stinkers, including "The Jazz Singer" (1980) and "Conan the Destroyer" (1984). Sometime over the years, he became a second-rate director, but in the 1950s he did outstanding work, including "Armored Car Robbery," "The Narrow Margin" (1952), which also stars McGraw, and "Compulsion" (1959).
While Talman and McGraw are the stars of the picture, excellent supporting work is done by Adele Jergens as exotic dancer Yvonne LeDoux and, playing robbers, Steve Brodie and Sam Fuller-regular Gene Evans.
THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR (2004)
Writer-director Tod Williams does an impressive balancing act in this adaptation of part of John Irving's novel, "A Widow for One Year." Like other films made from Irving's novels ("The Cider House Rules" and "The World According to Garp"), outrageously comic scenes sit side by side heartbreakingly tragic ones. He gives us life without wrapping it up in neat little packages, letting it all spill out together, the laughs with the tears.
Yet as much as I admired the skill Williams displays in telling this moving story of a married couple struggling to cope with the deaths of their teen sons and the memorable acting of Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as the couple I was never able to become totally involved in the movie. Part of my problem with "Door in the Floor" is the character of Eddie (newcomer Jon Foster), whose relationship with Ted and Marion Cole becomes the way Williams and Irving reveal the complex character of the couple. I don't think it's revealing too much to explain that Eddie is hired to be children's writer Ted's summer assistant and ends up in Marion's bed. The structure gives this timid college student-more a writer's device than a real person-too much screen time, too much weigh in what should be the story of Ted and Marion. Eddie is amusing at first, but soon becomes a nuisance.
I'm still not sure what to make of Mimi Roger's role as artist model/lover for Ted. Even though it's Ted who is using her, the film makes her out to be the fool. On top of that, did we really need to see her naked?
My frustrations with the film can't diminished the power of the work done by Bridges and Basinger. He has the showier role: a flamboyant, arrogant artist who is also a man simply trying to understand what's left of his life in the wake of the family tragedy. Like he's done in so many roles over the past 30 years, Bridges finds ways to bring out the truth of a character-through body language, an attempt at a smile, a thrown-away line-while playing to perfection the pretenses that character presents to the rest of the world. The performance, one of the 54-year-old actor's finest in years, is highlighted by a gut-wrenching scene near the end when he explains in writerly detail the accident that killed his boys. It's storytelling, and acting, at its best.
Basinger-while still having the looks that make a college student's obsession for her believable-plays a woman who is dying inside, who is sleepwalking through her life without a sense of how to wake herself up. It's her most difficult and accomplished performance (better than her Oscar-winning turn as a prostitute in "L.A. Confidential") as she communicates everything you need to know about Marion with her cold, sad stare.
Yet even these award-worthy performances are upstaged-by a six-year-old. Elle Fanning, who played Sean Penn's daughter in "I Am Sam" (2001), gives an amazingly smart performance as the lonely toddler obsessed with the photos of her dead brothers.
It's pretty sad to watch the great John Wayne lumber through this second-rate police action film. Way too old, at 68, to be busting down doors and chasing bad guys, the Duke gives it his all as Jim Brannigan, a Chicago cop sent to London to bring home an on-the-run mobster.
The film plays like a TV pilot, from the "Mannix"-like score to the flat, by-the-numbers direction, but it does offer one memorable scene: Wayne and Richard Attenborough, playing London's chief of detectives, start a brawl in a crowd pub while the juke box plays "Aquarius" from the musical "Hair."
At his slimy best is John Vernon, playing the wily mobster, in a role not dissimilar to his legendary performance, three years later, as Dean Wormer in "National Lampoon's Animal House."
Wayne made two more pictures. He was much better suited to his role, reprised from "True Grit" (1969), as "Rooster Cogburn," also a 1975 film, and then gave one of his finest portrayals, as a dying gunman, in his last movie, "The Shootist" (1976). He died of lung cancer three years later.