Wednesday, September 24, 2008

July 2005

For me, the highlight of any alien-attack picture is when the hero turns to a nerdish scientist or large-chested general and suggests some hare-brained scheme to defeat the seemingly indestructible invaders. “Hey, you know, that just might work!” And it always does. Corny as all get-out, but essential to the B-level sci-fi movies that filled screens in the 1950s.

Those kinds of pictures are celebrated in “Watch the Skies,” a new documentary made for Turner Classic Movies by film critic Richard Schickel. Directors Steven Spielberg (whose new film is plugged liberally), James Cameron, Ridley Scott and George Lucas discuss how the sci-fi pictures of the ‘50s influence their work in the genre. As interesting as these filmmakers’ insights are, I would have liked to have seen a more complete survey of this fascinating set of movies. Considering the proliferation of documentaries and the current resurgence of sci-fi pictures, I’m sure someone’s delving into the subject.

In putting together his impressive-looking version of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” Spielberg had a slightly bigger budget than the filmmakers of 50 years ago. But he left out that crucial scene described above, which for me leaves a huge hole at the end of this film. In fact, Spielberg all-but ignores the efforts by world leaders to stop a sudden attack by aliens, whose spider-like assault vehicles arise from the ground, apparently having been buried for centuries. Instead, he gives us a ground view of the deadly invasion through a frenetic divorced dad (Tom Cruise) and his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin). Inevitably, that angle of a catastrophe is filled with scenes we’ve seen too many times in too many movies; wouldn’t you expect a director of Spielberg’s caliber to bring something new to this scenario?

Needless to say, the visuals are stunning and the gritty cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (who won an Oscar for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”) maintains an end-of-the-world look until the very end. But “War of the Worlds” never achieves the roller-coaster rush of Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002) or the emotional power of his near-perfect early sci-fi movies, “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” (1977) or “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982). The new film is just too linear to be anything more than a diversion; there seems to be no reason why a secondary plotline couldn’t have been added to give the “big picture” view of the “war.” And the ironic twist of Wells’ novel doesn’t pack much of a punch on screen.

Fanning (“Man on Fire,” “Hide and Seek”) gives another wide-eyed precocious performance; she has that little-girl-in-distress role down pat, and Cruise does what he can, trying harder than he should, in a cliché role. Yet when the characters only plan of action is to run, it’s hard to get involved in their plight. This “War of the Worlds” plays more like a neighbor skirmish than a fight for the survival of the planet.

No one will ever consider this one of the best of Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant filmmaking career, but it offers more insight, honesty, intelligent and heartbreaking reality than any movie I’ve seen this year. At age 87, Bergman remains a master director and one of the most thoughtful screenwriters in the world.

Originally made for Swedish television in 2003, “Saraband” reunites the argumentative couple from Bergman’s most famous TV movie, “Scenes From a Marriage,” released theatrically in the U.S. in 1974. Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) have been divorced for decades and haven’t seen each other in nearly as long when she decides, out of the blue, to visit. Both are alone, with, like all Bergman characters, emotional and psychological issues to work out along with an impressive awareness of their own flaws.

Maryanne ends up staying for what seems like a month or so, becoming involved in a battle of wills between Johan’s unbalanced son, who has yet to recover from his wife’s death, and the daughter left to care for her needy father.

The film is structured around a series of dialogues, between these four characters, each matched up with the other at some point in the film. While the script touches on dozens of issues, Bergman, appropriately, seems most assured and understanding when confronting the issues of old age and the regrets that loom large as the end approaches.

Most likely this will be the director’s final trip behind the camera and if it is, he goes out showing no sign of decline. Even a minor entry in a career that includes such landmark films as “The Seventh Seal” (1956), “Wild Strawberries” (1957), “The Virgin Spring” (1960), “Through a Glass Darkly” (1962), “Persona” (1966) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1982) leaves one awed at the possibilities of the cinema in the hands of a master.

Robert De Niro was a key player in making movies an important part of my life. I first watched him on screen in “The Godfather Part II,” a seminal experience for me during which I began to understand and appreciate the art of filmmaking and acting. I was overwhelmed by his cool, commanding performance as young Vito Corleone; even my unschooled eye could see this was an amazing artist.

As my interest in movies grew over the next few years, De Niro remained at the center. I still remember feeling shell-shocked after seeing “Taxi Driver” but then defending it as my college friends assailed its violence. Also around the same time, I saw De Niro’s hilarious pre-“Godfather” performance in “Mean Streets” and then, as my devotion to movies reached full obsession, the actor devastated me again with his work in “The Deer Hunter.” Two years later, he topped all these incredible performances with his Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” I had no doubt that De Niro was the actor of my time.

While he never could match that run of great performances he had in the 1970s (who could?), he had his share of memorable roles throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. “True Confessions,” “The King of Comedy,” “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Midnight Run” were among his best of the ‘80s, while “GoodFellas,” “This Boy’s Life,” “Casino” and “Heat” top his ‘90s output. He wasted plenty of time in second-rate films during those 20 years, but any actor would be envious of securing even one or two of the above-mentioned roles.

But De Niro’s career took a turn for the worse when, at age 56, he starred in one of the biggest hits of his career, “Analyze This” (1999). Playing a needy, confused mafia godfather, De Niro did a nice job of satirizing his many mobster roles, but what that film led to wasn’t a good thing. The next year he played mean-spirited, unfunny Jack Byrnes in the huge comedy hit “Meet the Parents.” At this point, De Niro became a very talented bad actor. His amazing technique and bottomless reservoir of emotions were being tapped to flesh out a role more suited for Dan Aykroyd or Dennis Hopper. One of the dozen or so greatest actors of the 20th Century had become an overwrought ham on the level of William Shatner. What was next, an album of old ‘60s classics?

Five and a half years into the new century, De Niro has made a dozen pictures and not one of them as good as almost everything he appeared in during the previous three decades. He had his moments in “Men of Honor” (2000), “15 Minutes” (2001), “The Score” (2001) and “City by the Sea” (2002), but none of those films were very memorable. Yet compared to his last four, they rank as classic De Niro.

“Analyze That” (2002) and “Meet the Fockers” (2004) are outright embarrassments, with the actor reprising roles that weren’t worth doing in the first place. His Paul Vitto cries more in the “Analyze” sequel and gets to sing show tunes, but it’s just more of the same back-and-forth shtick with Billy Crystal. His father-in-law from hell in “Meet the Fockers” stomps around like a six year old in need of a sugar fix. The character does so many outlandish things that he makes the hippie Fockers (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand) seem sane.

And then there’s “Godsend” (2004) and “Hide and Seek” (2005), both horror films involving young children and idiotic plots, which offered roles you’d expect to be filled by Eric Roberts or, if the producers were lucky, Jon Voight.

De Niro plays the classic mad scientist in “Godsend,” delivering a cloned version of the son Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos lost in a car accident. The usual complications arise when the boy is haunted by dreams of a past he’s never experienced. De Niro doesn’t really act: he maintains a stern, concerned look as the story grows loonier and loonier. Director Nick Hamm does an admirable job of putting a respectable shine on the film, but he can’t do much with a script more suited for a Sci-Fi network production.

“Hide and Seek,” which came out earlier this year, co-stars De Niro and “War of the Worlds” star Dakota Fanning as father and daughter coping with the death of the girl’s mother by moving to the countryside. When bad things start happening in their new house, Fanning blames it on her imaginary friend Charlie. The film teases the audience with a half-dozen possible house haunters before the dramatic and dumb conclusion. I can only assume De Niro took this one-note role for the opportunity to work with Fanning; or is this the only kind of crap he’s being offered these days?

It’s inevitably depressing when age (he turns 62 in August) deprives great performers of roles worthy of their talent, but actors older than De Niro—Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino—still manage to find strong parts in respectable movies every so often. I keep hoping his old filmmaking partner, Martin Scorsese, can be convinced to abandon his fascination with Leonardo Di Caprio and find a role for De Niro. Then again, maybe De Niro is happy collecting the paychecks and couldn’t care less about the quality of his films. But for those of us who have been admiring his work for the past thirty years, it hasn’t been pleasant to watch.

De Niro’s next project, about the CIA, provides some hope for a good role since he’s also directing, his first time behind the camera since his debut with “A Bronx Tale” in 1993.

There’s not much of interest in this silent version of the Lady Hamilton story—a maid who rises to become an English ambassador’s wife and then has a famous affair with war hero Admiral Nelson—except that it earned three Academy Award nominations during the second year of the awards.

Frank Lloyd, one of the busiest filmmakers of the silent era, surprisingly won the best director award though the film didn’t earn a best picture nomination. He was also nominated that year for “Drag” and “Weary River,” yet it remains unclear if the award was for all three films or just for “Divine Lady.” In recent years, the Academy has ruled that the other films count as nominations and that the statuette was given for a single film.

During the first three years of the awards, it wasn’t uncommon for nominees (who, at least for the 1930 ceremony, weren’t announced ahead of time but named in documents released later) to be listed with multiple films, as many critics’ groups continue to do now. For the 1929-30 awards, actors George Arliss, Maurice Chevalier and Ronald Colman were each nominated for two pictures.

The nomination of the star of “The Divine Lady,” Corinne Griffith, also has questions surrounding it. For decades, she was never listed in Oscar books (she wasn’t named as a nominee in the definitive “Inside Oscar,” released in 1986), but recent studies of award records have convinced the Academy to add her to the 1928-29 list.

Known as “the world’s most beautiful woman” during the silent era, Griffith (no relation to D.W.) retired soon after the coming of sound and became a novelist, most famously writing “Papa’s Delicate Condition.” If “Divine Lady” is any indication, she wasn’t much of an actress.

Cinematographer John Seitz also earned a nomination (both he and Lloyd probably won nods for the impressive battleship action scenes), but is better known for his later work with directors Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder and as the inventor of the matte shot, so crucial to pre-computer special effects.

One of the most popular themes of Hollywood movies before the Production Code of the mid-1930s tightened censorship was the fate of a poor girl lured into the easy life by a sugar daddy.

This well-acted version of the story stars Constance Bennett as Lolly, who gets her break when the owner of an advertising agency (the always suave Adolphe Menjou) takes notice of her after she models for a magazine ad. Her tenant-living family all-but disowns her, led by her milk man brother-in-law (Clark Gable) who seems to take Lolly’s lifestyle as a personal affront to him and her sister (Anita Page).

Lolly’s situation grows more complicated when she falls in love with a foreign correspondent played by Robert Montgomery. At one point she leaves Menjou, but when she can’t make the rent, she goes crawling back.

In just a few years, filmmakers would have to tiptoe around showing a woman living in sin with man and even depicting the hostility between the classes, something that was at its height during the Great Depression.

Bennett, the older sister of Joan Bennett, was a silent star by the mid-1920s, but quickly faded as a box-office draw in the 1930s. Her talkie career peaked when she co-starred with Cary Grant as the ghostly couple in “Topper” (1937).

This surprisingly unflinching portrayal of a woman using her sexuality to get ahead may be the most risqué movie produced by Hollywood before the 1960s.

Jean Harlow plays Lil, a secretary at a large company, who throws herself at her married boss (Chester Morris), refuses to let him slip away from her after she sleeps with him and eventually convinces him to divorce his wife and marry her. In scene after scene, it’s spelled out that the only reason this rather staid man is tossing his life aside is because he can’t give up having sex with Lil. And it’s not just talk: Harlow is filmed in various states of undress (we first see her picking out a dress that she’s told can be seen through when the light’s behind her), including a scene in which her naked breast flashes on screen for an instant. Director Jack Conway and screenwriters Anita Loos and, uncredited, F. Scott Fitzgerald, pull few punches in showing how this young woman flaunts her sexuality.

Lil later seduces a wealthier, older guy (Henry Stevenson), who’s ready to give her everything he has before her husband confronts him with the proof that she’s cheating on both of them with her chauffeur!—played by a pre-stardom Charles Boyer.

While Morris returns to his loyal wife (beautifully played by Leila Hyams) and both men are properly chastised for their indiscretions, Lil doesn’t pay for her sins. She’s last spotted living the good life on the dime of another well-heeled man.

Who knows where Hollywood was headed had it not been stopped in its tracks by the Hays Office just a few years later. At the very least, filmmakers wouldn’t have had to hide sexual tension between the lines of screwball comedies or make all those bad musicals just to get a female leg on screen.

T-MEN (1948) and RAW DEAL (1948)
Before Anthony Mann established himself as one of the most respected directors of Westerns—helming a series of tense, rugged outdoor pictures with James Stewart starting with “Winchester ’73” (1950)—he honed his talents in the world of B movies. Working on goofy comedies, juvenile musicals and war romances, Mann usually managed to inject an edge to these soft-minded projects. (Though the recently viewed “Sing Your Way Home” with “Tin Man” Jack Haley stands as one of the most idiot war comedies ever made.)

But his film noirs of the late 1940s stand with his best Westerns; he had few equals in creating the claustrophobic, doomed atmosphere of the genre. While his first two crime pictures, “Desperate” (1947) and Railroaded! (1947), which I wrote about last August, remain little known, Mann’s 1948 movies are among the most critically admired noirs of the era. Maybe the most distinguishing aspect of these two films is the continually amazing camera work of John Alton, the quintessential cinematographer of film noir. No one was more skillful in putting a visual face on the shadowy, violent and occasionally psychotic world of a criminal on the run.

“T-Men,” like many crime pictures of the era, is based on real cases and is even introduced by Elmer Irey, one of the era’s legendary Treasury Dept. agents who helped put Al Capone away. The corny preface and terribly serious narration take some of the edge away from this intense tale of two treasury agents who infiltrate a gang suspected of running a counterfeit money ring. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder slip right into the criminal life, but always remain just one step away from being uncovered as lawmen.

The most memorable scene of the film—the murder of a slimy middle-man known as the Schemer (Wallace Ford) in a steam room—displays how superb filmmakers like Mann and Alton can turn a simple murder into compelling cinema.

Eight months later, Mann and Alton, along with leading man O’Keefe, topped themselves with “Raw Deal,” a psychologically dense and unrelentingly violent tale of obsessive revenge.

O’Keefe’s Joe escapes from prison with the help of his loyal girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) and then heads off to get his payoff for not turning in the big boss Rick (a frightening Raymond Burr). Adding to the hot-and-cold relationship of Joe and Pat is the addition of Ann (Marsha Hunt), an assistant to Joe’s lawyer who believes Joe can turn his life around. While Joe is determined to confront Rick, he finds himself drawn to Ann (younger and a more delicate beauty than Trevor’s Pat) and the morals she represents.

Back on Corkscrew Alley, (the wonderfully named location of the gang’s casino/headquarters), Rick rants and raves about Joe, who he expected to get killed during the prison break. Burr plays his character as a complete psychotic—bug-eyed and heartless, who at one point tosses a flaming dish on a woman who’s bothering him.

Alton again shines in the finale, tracking down a fogged-in Corkscrew Alley and then in Rick’s claustrophobic casino, where ominous shadows and the inevitable inferno color the emotional face-off.

Mann made two more crime pictures, “Border Incident” (1949) and “Side Street” (1950) and, with Alton, a nourish period piece and the oddest film of his career, “Reign of Terror” (1949), featuring a fur-hat wearing Richard Basehart as megalomaniac of the French Revolution. (Mann also is said to have contributed to another superb film noir, “He Walked By Night” (1949), but didn’t receive credit.)

Considering his work in both crime films and Western, Mann is nearly unmatched as a director of genre movies. Unlike so many filmmakers that started working in B pictures, Mann never lost his interest in the doomed and cynical protagonist who fights first and thinks later; as a result, his Westerns don’t feel dated like many others of the era.

Unfortunately, Mann spent the last part of his career—a heart attack killed him at age 61—toiling on bloated epics: a remake of “Cimarron” (1960), the dull tale of Spain’s greatest hero “El Cid” (1961) and a soap opera version of “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964).

I hate to sound like an old guy, but when I was in my twenties, no one I knew was as eccentric as any twentysomething character that shows up in an independent movie today. Quirky individualism has been a hallmark of the American cinema since the late 1960s, but it has reached epidemic proportions in the last five years. It seems like every director coming out of film school attempts to top his classmates by creating the most frightfully pitiful characters yet seen on screen. And sometimes it turns out to be a good thing: last year’s “Napoleon Dynamite” worked as have most of the films of Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. And sometimes it doesn’t.

This directorial debut by performance artist Miranda July (she also writes and stars) has some funny and even poignant moments, but she tries too hard to make every character the oddest person you’ve ever met. Adding to the other worldliness of the picture is the flat, emotionless tone that dominates every scene. Near the beginning of the movie, a man (John Hawkes), trying to deal with the breakup of his marriage, sets his hand on fire. July manages to make this desperate act seem mundane.

Granted, the filmmaker is using this tone to make her points about unconnected people reaching out for anything resembling human emotions, but it’s become old news. Every other film that comes out of Sundance is grasping for the same theme. Between the films of Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz and a dozen guys and gals whose names I’ve already forgotten, the whole idea of dreary and dull substituting for emotional immaturity has run its course.

“Me and You” does offer an amusing sendup of modern art, when a gallery owner mistakes a crumpled fast-food wrapper for a piece of art. For me, it was the perfect metaphor for this movie.

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