Sunday, September 28, 2008

July 2007

Forget about the movie, here’s an episode I saw the other day (not sure if it was from last season or earlier) that was simply amazing:

Because Marge sleeps in (having a romantic dream), Homer gets Lisa and Bart off to school since he was up early (“I stumbled home at dawn”). But the kids discover their lunches include a drawing of a sandwich and Grandpa’s medicine (cut to Gramps wildly driving the old-folks bus). Once at school, Bart concocts a horror tale of “Dark Stanley” who cooked the heads of school children. When the kids all stampede out of the school, Bart sits down to a buffet of sack lunches.

After Willie, the wild groundskeeper at the school, rounds up all the kids, Principal Skinner discovers a family of hillbilly kids who haven’t been attending school. Instead, their illiterate father is home-schooling them. Lisa is assigned to tutor these backward kids (their names include Crystal and Meth) and introduce them to Springfield culture. There are a couple of musical production numbers in this sequence, which leads to the slimy Krusty the Clown signing the family to perform on his show.

As they get exploited by Krusty (they even get their own network special, with music by Stephen Sondheim), Bart develops a crush on his school-appointed therapist and longs to get back on her couch. He finally gets to see her again (Marge ponies up the money she’s been saving for Homer’s breast-reduction surgery) while Lisa coaxes the hillbilly family’s mom back from Iraq (arriving in a helicopter) and they free the kids from Krusty’s money-grubbing hands.

Topping it all off, the hillbilly couple kiss and the show ends in a “Honeymooners” tribute, replicating the fireworks and face-in-the-moon trademarks of that classic ‘50s comedy.

In 22 minutes, that episode has more laughs and more inventive animation than the 90-minute “Simpsons Movie.” The feature film starts well enough, with Homer standing up in a theater during an “Itchy and Scratchy” movie and proclaiming everyone a sucker for “paying to watch something we could see on TV for free.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Creator Matt Groening has loaded the movie version down with an environmental theme in which the deadly polluted Lake Springfield is pushed over the edge by, of course, Homer, convincing the evil head of the EPA (voiced by Albert Brooks) to seal the entire city under a glass dome. The movie labors over its extravagant plot until it stops being funny, with Homer spending much of the film apologizing for his recklessness and setting up his heroic return to everyone’s good graces. More than a dozen writers had a hand in crafting this film and it shows. Comedy by committee is rarely funny.

“The Simpsons Movie,” like so many adaptations of television series, tries to replicate a big-budget Hollywood movie, when, D’oh!, what these writers and animators do each week on TV is funnier and smarter than nearly movie comedy. But after 18 years on TV, they wanted something “special” for the feature and it ended up being forgettable.

Much has been written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Barbara Stanwyck’s birth on July 16, 1907---especially insightful was Anthony Lane’s New Yorker article earlier this year---so I’m not going to duplicate those efforts here. But I recently rewatched Howard Hawks’ masterful battle-of-the-sexes comedy “Ball of Fire,” gaining a new appreciation for Stanwyck’s performance as Sugarpuss O’Shea, a dance-hall singer who falls in with a collection of uptight academics.

Even more than her duplicitous Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity” (1944), Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss shows off the actresses’ ability to dominate the screen on the strength of her real personality, a girl from the streets who won’t be intimidated by smarter men; in fact, always has the upper hand because she knows how to use her sexuality. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Stanwyck was the equal to Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis in her ability to dominate a film. But Stanwyck is unmatched in her psychologically complex portrayals of women who were forced to fight for everything they had and knew how to use their looks and street smarts to survive. She played these characters almost exclusively throughout the 1930s, in many ways giving a film face to the Great Depression.

Hawks was at the top of his game on “Ball of Fire,” having directed “Bringing Up Baby,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” “His Girl Friday” and “Sergeant York” in succession from 1938 to 1941. Working from a brilliant script by Billy Wilder (who later directed Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity”) and Charles Brackett, Hawks knows exactly how to balance sympathy for the sweat, naïve professors and the uneducated, wised up tart. The film is all about timing and Hawks’ picked the perfect match for Stanwyck in the taciturn Gary Cooper. Even if it wasn’t scripted, Stanwyck could talk rings around Cooper, who plays Prof. Bertram Potts, the head of this group of encyclopedia writer-researchers.

Potts first spots Sugarpuss in a nightclub and invites her to participate in his survey of current slang (the hilarious Allen Jenkins, playing a milkman, also takes part), but the only reason she participates is because she needs a place to hide. Her mobster boyfriend (Dana Andrews) doesn’t want the cops to find her and force her to talk about his activities, so letting her stay at the researchers’ house meets his needs.

At first, Sugarpuss is less than happy to be spending time with Cooper and his elderly co-workers (S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Henry Travers and Richard Haydn are among the most lovable of the group) instead of at the fancy restaurants and nightclubs she’s accustom to. But the old guys treat her with such respect and admiration----they act like they’ve never talked to a woman under 50---that she takes a liking to the place and, of course, starts to fall for the too-smart-for-his-own-good Potts.

Not only does Stanwyck look like she’s having the time of her life but she makes the viewer share in her enthusiasm. As much as Cooper’s Potts and the other professors, to say nothing of Andrews and his gang of “criminals,” all feel like movie conceits, Stanwyck shines as a living, breathing slice of reality intruding into a Hollywood fantasy. As the indignant housekeeper says of Sugarpuss: “That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple.” If only there were more of them.

Last month I wrote about the dearth of decent golf movies; the state of pro football pictures isn’t much better. While college football has long been a staple of both comedy and drama, from Buster Keaton in “College” (1927) and Frank Capra’s “Flight” (1929), about a college footballer who runs the wrong way and wins the game for the opposition, to the heart-tugging Notre Dame stories “The Knute Rockne All American” (1940) and “Rudy” (1993), the NFL has rarely been in the spotlight.

“Paper Lion” (1968), based on George Plimpton’s book about his time with the Detroit Lions, is dated and dull, while “Semi-Tough” (1977) is an OK romantic comedy with the NFL as the background. Warren Beatty plays an NFL quarterback in the comedy “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), but it really has little to do with football.

“North Dallas Forty” (1979), based on Peter Gent’s behind-the-scenes peek at the players and league, remains the Super Bowl champ of football movies, with Nick Nolte and Mac Davis as very believable athletes. Add some steroids, Oliver Stone’s manic style and the burning intensity of Al Pacino and you get “Any Given Sunday” (1999), which fully captures the exhilarating competition of game day.

“Invincible,” the latest edition to the field, is the “Rocky” of football flicks, telling the true, but fairytale-like, story of a 30-year-old bartender and weekend pickup football player who earned a roster spot on the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976.

Vince Papale, played as a humble, sensitive ‘70s guy by Mark Wahlberg, is goaded by his friends to attend an open tryout put on by the Eagles’ new coach, Dick Vermeil. He makes the team and the usual complications (friends are resentful, teammates are cold) ensue, but Wahlberg’s Vince is such a likable and determined character that it holds your interest right through all the clichés.

Greg Kinnear looks a lot like the young Vermeil (fresh from a stint as UCLA’s coach and years before he led the Rams to a Super Bowl victory) but the script, by Brad Gann from Papale’s book, doesn’t give him much to do. If you believe the movie, some of his smartest football decisions were made at the urging of his wife.

First-time director Ericson Core does his best work in the realistic portrayal of training camp, the relationship between players and coaches and the way he emphasizes the depressed economic climate of the time, which hit places like South Philly especially hard. In addition to Wahlberg’s solid performance, Elizabeth Banks is appealing as the cute, no-nonsense girl from the neighborhood, who bravely roots for the New York Giants in the midst of diehard Eagle fans.

FAY GRIM (2007)
Indie filmmaker Hal Hartley, who made some of the most interesting movies of the 1990s, hasn’t done much since the release of his finest picture, the smart and hilarious “Henry Fool,” in 1998. His latest, which opened and closed in a month’s time, is an unlikely sequel to “Fool,” focusing on Henry’s wife Fay (the always feisty Parker Posey) and her globe-hoping attempt to track down her husband’s mysterious, multi-volume confessionals at the bequest of the CIA.

For the uninitiated (and I can’t imagine anyone seeing “Fay Grim” who isn’t a fan of “Henry Fool”), the 1998 film followed the literary enlightenment and success of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a razor-thin, Queens disposal plant worker who seems to be on the verge of suicide, under the tutelage of Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mannerless, frumpy, itinerant man of letters whose ramblings managed to be both half-baked pretence and insightful. Not only does Henry inspire Simon to become a controversial, Nobel Prize-winning poet but wins the heart of Simon’s bitter sister and they marry and have a son.

The film ends with Simon and Fay arranging for Henry to use Simon’s passport and ticket to Stockholm (for the Nobel presentation) so he can escape murder charges at home.

Seven years later, as “Fay Grim” begins, Simon is serving time for helping fugitive Henry escape, Henry hasn’t been heard of since and Fay is struggling to raise her now 14-year-old son Ned.

Hartley, whose trademarks are his staccato, arched dialogue and the flat, monotone reading of those lines he elicits from his actors, utilizes his sly, sardonic wit to continue the story of Henry Fool while satirizing the paranoia of international spying in a very suspicious post-9/11 world. If you believe the federal agent played by Jeff Goldblum, Henry was involved in numerous hot spots around the globe and his confessionals are filled with coded secrets that would embarrass the America government and its allies.

In a deal to get her brother out of prison, Fay heads off to Europe to claim the journals, but ends up in the middle of an international shooting match and involved with a couple of film noir dames, played by Saffron Burrows and Elina Lowensohn.

Beyond offering “Fool” fanatics a chance to revisit these memorable characters and Hartley’s always-bizarre world, “Fay Grim” serves as a great vehicle for the versatile Posey. Her Fay manages to be a frustrated mother, a sharp-tongued tough girl, a soft-hearted wife who misses her husband and a resourceful secret agent. Why she’s not a top-line movie star is anyone’s guess.

One of German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s favorite themes has long been man’s relentless struggle against nature. From his masterpiece about South American exploration, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) and his best known work, “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), about a man determined to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle, to his documentary on Alaskan bear lover Timothy Treadwell, “Grizzly Man” (2005), this daring and uncompromising director has shown a keen interest in men who are just crazy enough to try what most of us see as impossible.

This is just the second feature in 10 years by Herzog, who has been focusing his talents on documentaries since the late 1980s. One of those documentaries, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997), serves as the basis for “Rescue Dawn,” Herzog’s first English-language film, chronicling Dieter’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Laos at the start of the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

Unrelentingly brutal and intense, the movie could easily have been turned into another “Rambo”-like super warrior actioner, but Herzog instead gives us very human soldiers who can barely stay alive while in captivity. Even Dieter, a Navy pilot, who is shot down on his first bombing run and brought to a jungle prison to join two Americans and three South Vietnamese being held, is more naively confident than tough-guy brave. He refuses to accept his fate---as the other prisoners have---and immediately begins planning his escape.

The film becomes more than a POW film when Dieter and fellow escaped prisoner Duane make their way through the incredible thick, dangerous jungle hoping to reach safety in Thailand. Herzog puts us right in the middle of the heart of darkness and it’s quite an experience.

Much of the authenticity of the movie comes from Christian Bale’s completely convincing portrayal of Dieter, who is determined and gutsy but also a likable goofball. This same character could just as easily be the lead in a romantic comedy. As he did as the title character in “Batman Returns,” Bale makes amazing feats seem plausible and an extraordinary man flesh and blood. Bale made his first movie splash at age 13 with another POW film, playing a youth in a Chinese prison camp in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” (1987).

Also giving riveting performances are Steve Zahn, more typically seen in comedies, as fellow prisoner Duane and Jeremy Davies as the frighteningly emaciated Gene, a POW who had lost his sense of reality.


Director Michael Winterbottom had to overcome two high hurdles to make a good movie out of the disappearance and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. First he had to create enough realistic, emotional tension in the search for Pearl that the audience would put aside the knowledge that he was killed; and the character of his wife Mariane had to be strong enough that audiences would forget, at least for a couple of hours, the frenzied tabloid coverage of Angelina Jolie’s life.

The filmmaker and screenwriter John Orloff (working from Mariane’s book) do both. Around Jolie’s superb performance, the filmmakers have fashioned an involving human drama that also delves deeply into the obvious post-9/11 political issues. And much like Winterbottom’s previous film about the region, “The Road to Guantanamo,” he captures the atmosphere of the area (here set in Karachi, Pakistan) as if he’s making a documentary. For a film that involves a lot of sitting around the table discussing what to do next---following Pearl’s abduction when he thought he was headed to interview a tribal leader---“Mighty Heart” never feels talky, in part because Winterbottom fast-paced, quick-cutting style and solid acting in the smallest parts. Archie Panjabi, as Mariane’s best friend who is also a Indian reporter, Denis O’Hare as a Wall Street Journal editor who comes to Pakistan to get involved in the search, Irfan Kahn as the local police captain and Will Patton as the American embassy official all give urgent, emotional performances, adding to the film’s documentary-like feel.

Less effective is Dan Futterman as Daniel Pearl, mostly seen in the film’s many flashbacks. He never convinced me that he was the kind of caution-to-the-wind war reporter that the real man obviously was.

But the film belongs to Jolie, an actress I’ve never thought much of (even in her Oscar-winning performance in “Girl, Interrupted”), but as Mariane Pearl her French-English accent (she’s of Cuban-Dutch decent, raised in Paris) sounds completely natural and she finds the right balance between a wife gravely concerned for the life of her husband and a journalist determined for use her smarts and instincts to do what she can to save a man. Jolie and Winterbottom have created both a heart-felt remembrance of a man who gave his life for his profession and a insightful slice of the chaos of South Asia.


     There’s really no point in critiquing this all-star caper franchise. The ridiculous plots, over-the-top action scenes, cartoonish villains and cleverly sophomoric dialogue are right out of the playbook of the Bond movies.

Conveniently forgetting how tiresome the first two were, I went into “13” with expectations of something resembling a good movie. Yet no matter how entertaining the banter between George Clooney and Brad Pitt is (the Hope and Crosby of the gang), how humorously Matt Damon wears a fake nose (looking a lot like the rarely seen Matthew Modine) and how well Al Pacino plays an egotistical casino mogul, I never could escape the feeling that I was watching a vaudeville show---or was it a Vegas lounge act---rather than a motion picture.

Steven Soderbergh, the overqualified helmsman of this slick ship, milks every scene for the least little laugh and keeps things moving even when nothing is happening, but doesn’t spend much time worrying about the fractured fairy tale of a story. And if it’s really this easy to rig the games at a casino, sign me up.


The life of French cabaret singer Edith Piaf, one of her country’s most beloved performers, plays like the ultimate cliché of a tortured artist. Neglected and then deserted by her mother (who seeks fame as a singer), Edith is raised in her grandmother’s whorehouse. After growing close to one of the prostitutes (Emmanuelle Steiger, best known as Roman Polanski’s wife), she is reclaimed by her father (a circus performer) and soon gains a reputation as an impressive street singer.

These early days of her life are the best parts of “La Vie en Rose,” but director Oliver Dahan does what he can to disrupt the story by constantly shuffling between different parts of Piaf life. The result is a mess of a movie lacking any sense of dramatic arc, wasting an astonishing, emotionally intense performance by Marion Cotillard as the adult Piaf. As the film cuts back and forth between her early life to her final days when she looks 20 years older than her age and can barely move around, I half expected the film to end in the middle of her life. Possibly because French audiences know Piaf’s story so well, this approach made sense when it was made, but for this American viewer it was confusing and tiring.

But Cotillard never fails in commanding the screen, convincingly mouthing Piaf’s singing and creating a sad, confused woman-child whose mood changes on a dime: she goes from desperately wanting to be loved to treating her sycophants and everyone around her with unbound arrogance. Cotillard also mimics Paif’s distinctive look (with the aid of makeup), including her sad, far-apart eyes, pencil-thin eyebrows and high forehead.

Strangely, despite all the skipping around through her life, the film never addresses her experiences during World War II. I’ve read both that she had affairs with German soldiers and that she helped injured Allied soldiers escape from the Nazis. Either way, it would have made for some interesting scenes in a film filled with more than its fair share of by-the-book showbiz tragedies.

BREACH (2007)
What was probably the greatest security breach in American history came to an end in February of 2001 when Robert Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, was arrested for decades of passing classified information to the Soviet Union. He later was sentenced to life in prison. The final takedown of Hanssen is chronicled in this intelligent, well-made and superbly acted movie about the spy and the young agent assigned to keep tabs on him. Yet “Breach” is ultimately a disappointment because it never is able to resolve the contradictory nature of Hanssen or even explain what turned this seemingly loyal American into a traitor.

Chris Cooper is the perfect choice to play Hanssen, a strict Catholic, arrogantly conservative and dependably self-righteous. Cooper, who won the 2002 supporting actor Oscar playing Meryl Streep’s unlikely guide to a rare orchid in “Adaptation,” has developed into one of the finest character actors in Hollywood, usually playing a stern, humorless authority figure who often turns out to be more complex.

He was 36 when, after years of stage work, he made his film debut as a union organizer who disrupts a mining town in John Sayles unsung gem, “Matewan” (1987). Cooper worked mostly in television over the next 10 years (including as July Johnson in “Lonesome Dove”) before getting another juicy role, again for Sayles, as the sheriff investigating his own father in “Lone Star” (1996).

Cooper became an actor in demand after memorable turns as the father in “October Sky” (1999) and Kevin Spacey’s suspicious neighbor in “American Beauty” (1999). Since then he’s become part of the “Bourne” franchise (in flashbacks) as the on-the-run agent’s original field supervisor, played the loyal trainer in “Seabiscuit” (2003) and the no-nonsense Kansas sheriff in “Capote” (2005), in addition to his winning work in “Adaptation.”

In “Breach,” Ryan Phillippe (“Crash”) plays the ambitious young gun who resents his assignment at first and then begins to admire Hanssen. The role, though based in fact, is very similar to characters played by Johnny Depp in “Donnie Brasco,” Ethan Hawke in “Training Day” and those in a dozen other lesser films. Phillippe’s only purpose is to be the audiences’ eyes into Hanssen and all we get is surface. Not only is Hanssen giving away government secrets but he’s selling home videos of him and his wife having sex. I’m not really sure who would want to buy them, but for a guy who takes offense to women wearing pants suits, this personality quirk could have used some fleshing out.

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