Monday, September 29, 2008

July 2008

The central problem with the first series of “Batman” movies (1989-97)----beyond the constant recasting of the role of Bruce Wayne----was the filmmakers’ obsession with making the villains more outrageous with every film. Each successive film added more tents to the carnival freak show, slowly marginalizing the superhero star.

Recharged and retooled in a more serious mode, “Batman Begins” (2005) was maybe the best film ever made from a comic book, exploring the evolution of Wayne to Batman as it focused on the psychological burden weighing on Wayne as he cleaned up Gotham City. This was a wrenching, character-driven drama (featuring an excellent performance by Christian Bale as Batman) that also found time to be one of the best action-thrillers of recent years. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan, fresh from his art-house success of “Memento” (2000), turned a lackluster franchise into quality cinema.

Now, with all the money in the world and total control, Nolan has created exactly what Hollywood loves: a shapeless, bloated, over-the-top jumble of mayhem in which motivations and character development are kept to a minimum and the villain is out-of-this-world nuts. It’s almost as if the Joker, not Nolan, directed the film.

Much has been written about the frighteningly twisted portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” but I wonder how much of this reaction is connected with knowing that Joker actor Heath Ledger died not long after completing the film. While Ledger has his moments, overall, it’s a performance in bad need of direction. Sounding oddly like Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, Ledger’s Joker is more than just a psychotic, he’s an all-knowing, fearless crime boss who seems to control everything that happens in the city, with the ability to trick both fiendish thugs and the city’s best and brightest. And he knows exactly what Batman will do before even Batman knows.

The overly detailed plot involves Batman and his trusted man on the inside, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) deciding to let the city’s popular district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), in on their plan to crush the mobs running Gotham. Complicating matters, but only slightly, is the fact that Dent is dating Bruce Wayne’s old flame Rachel (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). But it’s all for not because it takes the Joker about 10 minutes to take over the city’s organized crime and turn Batman’s life from bad to worse.

The script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, does little beyond moving the plot forward toward its next vehicle chase. There are at least a half-dozen subplots that needed to be cut; it plays like every idea the brothers came up with was thrown into the picture, including more “endings” than I could count.

The acting, so good in “Batman Begins,” is hard to watch in the new film. Beyond Ledger’s mannered, irritating Joker are lifeless performances by Eckhart, Oldman and the usually brilliant Gyllenhaal. As Wayne ’s support team, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are given little to do or say. Bale also has a less interesting role in this film as Batman continues to struggle with his role as a superhero. The most interesting idea in the film (stolen, I believe, from “Superman”) is how the public comes to see Batman as a menace rather than a blessing. But like everything else in “The Dark Knight,” it gets pushed aside by something less interesting and more explosive.

and THE BUCKET LIST (2007)
Within a week, I saw Jack Nicholson’s first film performance and his most recent. Both movies are rather forgettable and Nicholson’s performances give little clue to the great career he had between, but it was fascinating seeing a razor-thin 20-year-old neophyte turn into a hefty, confident 70-year-old legend.

After a few years of making television appearances and studying acting with Jeff Corey, Nicholson was cast as a teen who panics after shooting a boy during a tussle over a girl. The actor has little to do in the Roger Corman production, which plays out like an episode of a TV series. He manages to look confused and frantic after he holes up in the storeroom of a restaurant, holding the custodian and a woman and her newborn at gunpoint. Most of the movie involves the police interviewing witnesses and relatives of both boys and trying to convinced Nicholson’s Jimmy to give himself up. I doubt that anyone who saw “The Cry Baby Killer,” shot in the fall of 1957 and released the next summer, thought that Nicholson would ever be heard of again.

He showed more potential, and a peek at his crazy persona, as the masochistic dental patient in “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960) and then gave his first legitimate lead performance that same year in “The Wild Ride.” A D-level “Rebel Without a Cause,” the movie follows the adventures of a group of “troubled youths” led by Nicholson’s cocky Johnny. When his best buddy turns out to be a nice guy, influenced by his new girlfriend, Johnny takes it personally (I think you had to be a ‘50s teen to understand the motivations), reacting like a spoiled child. Nicholson makes no attempt to make this character likeable; it’s an excellent portrayal of an angry youth who expresses his frustrations through violence.

The most important result of “The Wild Ride” was Nicholson meeting Monte Hellman, one of Corman’s production assistants on the film. They became fast friends and writing partners, working together on two 1964 war films set in the Philippines, “Back Door to Hell” and “Flight to Fury” and the atmospheric Westerns “Ride the Whirlwind” (1965) and “The Shooting” (1967).

While his role in “Easy Rider” (1969) was his official breakthrough, earning an Oscar nomination, the actor was just as good two years earlier in a very similar role in “Hell’s Angels on Wheels.” Walking away from a job at a gas station, Nicholson’s Poet joins the motorcycle gang as they cruise up the coast. While they eventually accept him as part of their group, despite his sensitivity, it’s always a tentative relationship. Nicholson offers a very subtle, mature performance as a young man struggling to establish his identity.

Three Oscars and 12 nominations later, Nicholson is still a major star and occasionally delivers superb performances, but “The Bucket List” is nothing more than a high-concept package for the masses (and it did well at the box office.) Nicholson plays the arrogant owner of a company that runs hospitals who lands in the same hospital room as a humble car mechanic played by Morgan Freeman. Both have been given little time to live and before you can say, hey what’s that crazy look in Jack’s eyes, the pair set out on a world tour to see and do everything they’ve dreamed of.

The movie, directed by veteran hack Rob Reiner, is enjoyable when these two great actors are getting to know each other across the hospital room. But the rest of the film is just a collection of clichés and stereotypes----lonely rich man; a smarmy assistant; loving African-American family; endless old guy jokes---unworthy of both Nicholson and Freeman.

WALL-E (2008)

Every year, there’s an animated film that everyone goes nuts over and most of the time it’s a Pixar creation. Last year it was “Ratatouille,” preceded by “Cars” (2006) “The Incredibles” (2004), “Finding Nemo” (2003) and “Toy Story” (1995). It’s a record that matches the great years of Disney as judged by popularity and ambition but certainly not in terms of art.

This year, Pixar’s computer creation is a sci-fi tale set on Earth after humans have deserted the now-unlivable planet. Left behind are a robot-like garbage compactor and his friend, an enduring roach. Wall-E is a robot with a heart, who has a vast collection of odds and ends saved from the trash back at his living quarters, including a videotape of the 1969 musical film “Hello, Dolly!”

The set-up and first 20 minutes of the movie made me think I was watching a classic: The stark, grotesque landscape of a planet destroyed and then abandoned; a machine, on autopilot, condemned to clean up their mess for eternity; his lovingly preserved collection of the artifacts from that long-gone society. Then, like every other movie desperately seeking a large slice of box office bucks, it becomes a high-spirited adventure as our heroes (Wall-E is joined by a space colony probe named Eve) attempt to “save” the world.

While I appreciated the sarcastic commentary on the wasteful, indulgent, pampered lifestyle of Americans, I quickly lost interest in this pair of robotic romantics as they are chased through the mall-like space station by a security force made up of their fellow robots. The pampered humans, without much brainpower after seven hundred years away from Earth, are just bystanders as their fate is determined.

I’m probably being too hard on “WALL-E” because I thought it could have been so much more. And I’d recommend seeing the film if only to catch the 10-minute cartoon shown before the feature. “Presto” is a masterful piece of animation, as a very hungry magician’s rabbit (he clearly must be the grandson of Bugs Bunny) turns the tables on the magician with a pair of magical hats. It was reminiscent of those incredibly fast-paced Chuck Jones classics in which five great gags are pulled off in a matter of seconds. Don’t miss it.


     There’s plenty to enjoy in writer-director John Sayles’ latest film, set in a poor, Southern black community in the 1950s, but it’s ultimately done in by its predictable, cliché-filled story. Not only does the plot play out exactly as you expect, but Sayles’ usually sharp dialogue falls into the trap of turning everything said by the uneducated poor into a wise parable. Hollywood has long used this crutch in an attempt to offer a positive portrayal of minorities; it’s as if everything they say comes from a book of famous quotes, meant to be carved in granite and placed in the town square.

The story of “Honeydripper” centers around a blues roadhouse of the same name run by one-time pianist Pinetop Purvis (Danny Glover) and his plan to bring a famous blues performer named Guitar Sam to the club. Predictably, it’s Pinetop’s last chance to save the club and, of course, nothing goes as planned. The biggest hole in the film is how Pinetop expects to keep paying the bills after this one-night gig by Sam.

Typically of a Sayles film, there are many other story lines going on---including Pinetop’s wife struggle with her faith, a young musician (Gary Clark Jr.) passing through town who has eyes for Pinetop’s step-daughter, and a corrupt sheriff (Stacy Keach) who helps keep a form of slavery going strong nearly a century after Emancipation. There’s also a philosophical blind guitar player (it’s as if Sayles didn’t want to leave out a single cliché of the poor South) played by blues musician Keb’ Mo’.

The sense of community, the unbridled racism of the 1950s and the way music can make one forget a troubled life are nicely captured by the director, but he needed to spend a little time on coming up with a story we hadn’t seen and heard dozens of times.

Sayles has always put more emphasis on character than story, but in recent years----“Casa de los babies” (2003) and “ Silver City ” (2004)----his stories have been so flimsy that it was hard to maintain interested in the film’s people. At his best, in “Matewan” (1987), “City of Hope ” (1991), “Lone Star” (1996) and “Limbo” (1999), the writer-director melds original characters, offbeat locales and simple, truthful stories that make a typical Hollywood film look like a cartoon.

This movie doesn’t do a very good job of integrating its two very different parts. The first, more successful, section tells a poignant, if shopworn, tale of a fractured childhood friendship; the second is a hard-to-believe adventure in which the now-grown child attempts to redeem himself.

Set in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan in the late 1970s, on the cusp of the Soviet invasion, Amir is a privileged child, raised by his secular father, whose best friend is Hassan, the son of the family servant. They bond over their love of kite flying (a competitive activity in Afghanistan) but are clearly on different paths. Amir (played by Zekiria Ebrahimi) is a born storyteller but unprepared for the tough life of the streets, while Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmodzada) stands up to the bullies and puts loyalty to his friend above all else. Both young actors create endearing, memorable characters.

In a plot turn very similar to what happens in the French film “Caché” (2005), Amir abandons his friend at a crucial moment and then tells a lie that leads to Hassan and his father leaving the household. Not long after, Amir and his father leave the troubled country for America. (The script by David Benioff comes from a novel by Khaled Hosseini.)

Director Marc Forster, who quickly became an A-list filmmaker after the back-to-back successes of “Monster’s Ball” (2001) and “Finding Neverland” (2004), loses his focus once Amir is an adult. While passivity in a child is interesting, it becomes dull and irritating once he grows up and feels more like a plot contrivance. On the day that Amir (now played by Khalid Abdalla) receives the first copies of his novel based on his childhood in Afghanistan, a relative he hasn’t heard from in years calls to ask him to visit him in Pakistan. What follows is a guilt-ridden man’s fantasy redemption.

Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer turn kite flying (I’m guessing with the aid of special effects) into an exciting event, but fail to pump any energy into Amir daring return to his homeland.

Sophia Loren, other than her Oscar-winning performance in “Two Women” (1961), had a rather undistinguished film career, but she has remained a beloved international star for over 50 years. The combination of her exotic, high-class beauty and the publicity machine of her powerful producer/husband Carlo Ponti turned her into a more serious Marilyn; an enduring sex symbol whose fame seems beyond mere measures of good or bad movies.

Loren gives a good performance in his clichéd wartime romance, playing a kept woman who falls for a fresh-faced, romantic soldier (an overmatched Tab Hunter) during a train ride from Florida to New York. There isn’t much to the picture ---director Sidney Lumet’s third film----as it follows the on-again, off-again romance and finds just the right angle to display Loren’s glowing beauty. Jack Warden, who, starting with “12 Angry Men,” appeared in five Lumet films, gives the movie’s best performance as Hunter’s fun-loving buddy who hooks up with Loren’s friend (Barbara Nichols) but isn’t much interested in “love.” He also has the film’s best line when he and Hunter follow Loren into a fancy New York restaurant: “Now I know what we’ve been fighting for….eight dollars for a lamb chop!”

George Sanders (who else?) is the smooth-talking millionaire who keeps Loren on a leash with extravagant gifts, but, when it comes down to it, shows he has deeper feelings for her.
Lumet puts his stamp on the film by shooting it on location in New York City, but we’ve seen this story too often---a woman must choose between love and money----so “That Kind of Woman” ends up being yet another forgettable vehicle for Loren.

MONGOL (2008) One of the nominees for the 2007 foreign-film Oscar (losing to the German film “The Counterfeiters”), this Russian movie chronicles the events that transformed Temudgin, a rebellious 12th Century Mongol into the infamous warrior leader Genghis Khan. While it’s light years better than the embarrassing 1956 John Wayne vehicle “The Conqueror” (1956), “Mongol” never gets out of first gear, plodding along as it tells a story that should be an exciting, thrilling history lesson.

Director Sergei Bodrov succeeds in showing the motivations and philosophy of Temudgin, humanizing him through his unfailing devotion to the bride he took at age 9. Tadanobu Asano, a stoic Japanese actor, convincingly turns a legend into a man, yet too much of the story is either repetitive or unexplained. Especially baffling is why Temudgin’s enemies continue to capture him but let him live. These tribal warriors seem more than willing to butcher women and children, but not their most hated rival.

In one of the most unconvincing plot turns, Temudgin is sold to a slave owner, who locks him up for no good reason. And then, with the help of his ever-faithful wife, he escapes with all the difficulty of checking out of a vacation resort.

The appropriately bloody battlefield scenes, and the stark landscape of Mongolia, are the highlights of “Mongol,” but they can’t save what turns out to be less-than-compelling character study.

Shown originally on HBO and now in theaters, this compelling documentary details the legal proceedings that followed a 13-year-old Los Angeles girl accusing the Polish director of rape.

Most people know the basic facts of the case, which ended when Polanski, a day before he was to be sentenced in February 1978, took a one-way flight to Paris and hasn’t return to America in 30 years. The focus of this film are the legal games played by Santa Monica Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, the now-deceased jurist who presided over the case. Mixed in with TV footage from 1977-78 are extensive interviews with the prosecutor from the district attorney’s office, Roger Gunson, and Polanski’s lawyer, Douglas Dalton.

In addition to a judge more interested in public opinion than justice, Polanski also faced a media that still harbored suspicions about his “blame” for the death of his wife, Sharon Tate, in the infamous “Helter Skelter” murders.

The documentary, directed by Marina Zenovich, plays it right down the middle in its judgment of Polanski; it’s more interested in the manipulations of the legal system by publicity-hound Rittenband. Even Polanski never argued about his guilt: he pleaded to “unlawful sexual intercourse” and served 42 days locked up in Chino Men’s Prison for psychological evaluation. What the film most clearly illustrates is that celebrity justice----as we’ve seen recently with O.J., Michael Jackson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector----has always been played by different, and very questionable, rules.

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