Wednesday, September 24, 2008

June 2005

There’s nothing subtle about this anti-Nazi British propaganda film set in the great outdoors of Canada. Clearly made to lure the United States into World War II, it came too late; made before Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t released in this country until 1942.

A handful of Nazis, after just avoiding being among the dead when their submarine is destroyed while cruising in Hudson Bay, take over a trading post, then venture into a Mennonite community and finally confront a pacifist writer on retreat in British Columbia.

What’s most interesting about the film are the gorgeous locations and the star supporting players: Laurence Olivier hams it up as a French-Canadian trapper but Finlay Currie as a Mennonite leader, Leslie Howard as the writer and Raymond Massey as a Canadian solider come off much better.

Directed by Michael Powell and written by Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger (Powell and Pressburger went on to make “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes”), the film does show one of the Nazis as a sympathetic character and he pays a high price for it after falling for a Mennonite girl and admiring their way of life. Otherwise the Nazis are Third Reich sycophants who are ultimately revealed as cowards. And, of course, all the Canadians are friendly, brave and fervently patriotic.

It’s a sign of those times that the film earned Academy Award nominations (under its U.S. title “The Invaders”) for best picture and best screenplay and Pressburger won an Oscar for his original story.

This jokey horror picture isn't something I'd usually make any effort to see, but since it's the film Peter Jackson made just before his epic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I figured I should make an exception.

The film has more than its share of amusing moments—supplied by Michael J. Fox as a psychic detective (a cross between “Columbo” and ghostbuster Bill Murray)—but mostly follows the “Halloween” formula of a deranged killer creating havoc in a community too stupid to comprehend what’s going on.

Fox gives the kind of hyper performance that made his Marty McFly so entertaining; this film feels like an offshoot of the “Back to the Future” franchise and, in fact, “Future” director Robert Zemeckis serves as executive producer. Fox’s detective is able to see ghosts (John Astin and R. Lee Ermey are among the most amusing of the poltergeists), which leads him to a recently widowed doctor (Trini Alvarado) and together they battle a very bad spirit.

In a plot turn that makes little sense, but adds to the general creepiness of the film is the appearance of Jeffrey Combs, the star of the popular horror film “Re-Animator” (1986), as a psychotic FBI agent who has a special hatred for Fox’s detective. In a film in which everyone is a bit odd, he’s a total nut case.

For all the publicity and star-power that’s been attached to the three films that center around master thief Danny Ocean—first played by Frank Sinatra and then, in the last two, George Clooney—none of these entertainments are very memorable. The latest attempt, again directed by Steven Soderberg, trumps the previous editions’ dullness by being both incoherent and insufferably pretentious.

Soderberg, one of the most talented directors around, throws in every directing trick in his arsenal but is hopeless in trying to enliven this story. In fact, there barely is a story; I’m not sure I’d even call this string of scenes between various famous performers (Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould join Clooney) a feature film. It’s more like something you’d show at a retirement party, put together with obvious enthusiasm by one’s friends, but of little interested to anyone outside your clique.

The most inspired idea in “Ocean’s Twelve” is when the gang decides to use Ocean’s girlfriend (played by Roberts) as a diversion because she looks so much like that famous movie star Julia Roberts. It sounds better than it plays, except for a brief moment when Bruce Willis (playing himself, of course) surprises the faux Julia. It’s either the finest moment of acting Roberts has yet put on film or she was truly surprised when Willis showed up. If the rest of “Ocean’s Twelve” possessed even a tenth of the emotional truth of that scene, I wouldn’t be dreading “Thirteen” like the plague.

WESTFRONT 1918 (1930)
This devastatingly realistic German war film begs comparison to the acclaimed America film “All Quiet on the Western Front,” also released in 1930. Both focus on German soldiers in the trenches on the western front, emphasize the bonds soldiers form under gunfire and present an anti-war statement simply by depicting the everyday horrors of battle.

The American film, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Lew Ayres, is better known and won the third-ever best picture Oscar, but the German movie’s documentary-like chronicle of the frantic, doomed atmosphere of the foxhole and its unwavering depiction of the effects on soldiers seeing their buddies die around them make it the greater film. The emotional impact of German filmmakers and actors creating a movie for fellow Germans about the country’s disastrous loss in the Great War can’t be compared to the winning country dramatizing the same story. “Westfront 1918” may be the most unflinchingly real telling of ground war produced before the Korean War pictures of Sam Fuller in the 1950s.

Director G.W. Pabst, who had spent World War I as a prisoner in France, made his most famous movie in 1928, the psychologically complex, precautionary tale of sexual obsession “Pandora’s Box,” which made a legend of American actress Louise Brooks. No film made in Hollywood examined sexuality as frankly until the 1960s. Pabst followed up with another Brooks film that again deals with questionable liaisons, “The Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929).

“Westfront 1918,” set on the French front, follows a platoon of German soldiers, first as they hang out in a French town and then as they move into the trenches. Pabst personalizes the story without sentimentalizing it, showing a doomed romance between a fresh-faced soldier and a French girl and a disappointing home leave by a hardened veteran.

The final 20 minutes of the film are as powerful as any movie made in the 1930s; the invisible direction and gritty cinematography by German legend Fritz Wagner (“M”) and Charles Metain belie the fact that they were working in a medium (sound film) barely three years old.

The political necessarily of war—the hatreds that led to World War I had been building since the 19th Century—can never diminish the heartbreak of what occurs on the battlefield. Too often, especially while chronicling World War II, American films glossed over the real costs of warfare: tens of thousands of lives ended prematurely. Pabst doesn’t pull back an inch and the result is a great, important film.

If I had seen this utterly forgettable spy thriller when I was in my early teens, I would still remember it today as one of my favorite movies. It plays like a feature length episode of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” a show that became a virtual religion for me during its run on NBC from 1964 to 1968. I even set up my own “U.N.C.L.E.” headquarters under the basement stairs and took to wearing turtlenecks to mimic Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Somewhere, I still have my official “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” revolver, which took down many a T.H.R.U.S.H. agent roaming my neighborhood.

Illya and Mr. Waverly are absent from “The Venetian Affair,” but Robert Vaughn takes care of business (with some help from an old FBI cohort, played by Ed Asner) in a case of government secrets, hypnotic spells and a beautiful woman—all the elements that made “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” so riveting. Here, Vaughn plays Bill Fenner, a heavy-drinking wire service reporter sent to Venice to sort out the death of an American diplomat. Before you can say journalist ethics, Fenner is working with Asner and his ex-wife (Elke Sommer) to uncover the bad guys.

In a wonderful bit of offbeat casting, Boris Karloff shows up, in one of his final film roles, as an expert in European affairs who takes a liking to Fenner.

I’ve always thought Vaughn should have had a better film career. He’s a likable actor who, despite his penchant for mumbling, knows how to flesh out a character’s weaknesses.

His best film performance remains his turn as an alcoholic accused of murder in “The Young Philadelphians” (1959), which earned him an Oscar nomination, but he was also memorable in “Bullitt” (1968) and in his Emmy-winning role as a ruthless, Haldeman-like presidential assistant in the acclaimed miniseries “Washington: Behind Closed Doors” (1977). In recent years, he gave a series of fine performances as judge vying for the district attorney’s job in three or four episodes of “Law and Order.”

If William Shatner is getting roles that are earning him Emmys, surely someone has written a juice character just right for Robert Vaughn.

This slight, somewhat pretentious short feature would have been long forgotten if it wasn’t one of the 12 feature films directed by Orson Welles. While never the most prolific filmmaker around, Welles made four movies that were released between 1958 and 1968. Though he seemed to be on a roll, Welles lived another 17 years, but never completed another feature film.

Tales of his uncompleted works are legendary, as was his inability to raise funding for them, but having read many accounts of his final years, I’m convinced that 90 percent of his problems were self created. Welles’ lifelong flaw that kept him from living up to his abilities—he was undeniably the most talented filmmaker to ever work in Hollywood—was his inability to stay focused.

In virtually every project he worked on after his masterful debut, “Citizen Kane” (1941), he lost interest long before the film was completed. Welles always had too many irons in the fire and ended up spreading himself thin. “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), “Othello” (1952), “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “Chimes at Midnight” (1967), all great films, were delayed or abandoned at some point by the director. He loved to gripe about others tinkering with his work, but it was his neglect that opened the door.

He started working on “The Deep” in 1967, a thriller based on the novel “Dead Calm,” which eventually was made into a movie in 1989 starring Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman. Welles’ version featured Jeanne Moreau and Laurence Harvey in addition to Welles and his new Yugoslavian girlfriend Oja Kodar. The filming continued, on-and-off, until Harvey died in 1973.

He came no closer to completing “The Other Side of the Wind,” which he worked on throughout the 1970s. John Huston was to play a filmmaker secretly in love with his leading man, but instead chasing the actor’s girlfriend. What was filmed, with a bizarre collection of actors including Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer, comedian Rich Little, Edmond O’Brien and Mercedes McCambridge, ended up confiscated by the Iranian government when the shah was exiled.

There was always a problem with finances, but it seems that Welles was more interested in doing magic tricks on “The Tonight Show” or “The Merv Griffin Show” than focusing on his art.

Yet Welles is such a towering figure in the history of filmmaking that any morsel he left behind is worth examining. Even his rather dull documentary, “F for Fake” (1974), about legendary art forger Elmyr—which spends much of its running time ogling the beauty of Kodar—shouldn’t be missed if only to witness the way Welles can take any story and make himself the center of it.

In “The Immortal Story,” the last feature Welles directed, he plays Mr. Clay, an ignorant, egotistical wealth man lording over a seaside town on the island of Macao. It seems that senility has set in and in a bizarre fit, Clay demands that his devoted assistant (Paul Coggio) find a woman who will reenact an old sailor’s tall tale about a rich man and his young, lonely wife. The assistant recruits the local prostitute, played by the great French actress Jeanne Moreau, and then Clay lures an innocent sailor to his home.

Originally planned as a project for French television, this adaptation of an Isak Dinesen story ended up being released to theaters to little success. It plays like something made for a live TV drama show from the 1950s, filled with theatrical dialogue and weighted down in symbolism. In a way, Welles seems to be questioning the validity of the entire business of moviemaking: does a story lose its authenticity when it’s dramatized? Interesting concept, but it’s not very compelling as played out here. And the flamboyant direction one expects from Welles is nowhere to be found.

“The Immortal Story” is fine for what it is, but weak final statement from one of the great artists of the 20th Century.

MAFIA! (1998)
The original title of this sophomoric, but very funny satire of “The Godfather,” “Casino” and numerous other gangster films, was “Jane Austen’s Mafia!,” alluding to the endless Austen adaptations released in the late 1990s. That’s just one of the many smart jokes that keep this loony comedy interesting in spite of itself. The film is directed and co-written by the master of this genre, Jim Abrahams, who directed “Airplane!” (1980) and created the “Police Squad!” television series, which led to the “Naked Gun” films.

Lloyd Bridges, in one of his last film roles, plays Don Cortino, the Vito Corleone of this family, while standup comedian Jay Mohr has the Michael role and Christina Applegate fills the Kay role.

Some of the film’s funniest gags are in the scenes set in Sicily, when Don Cortino was a boy. First, he attends a street festival that features Alex Trebek as its grand marshal and where peddlers are selling spaghetti on a stick. And when the boy sneaks aboard a ship headed for America, it’s named the “Il Pacino.”

Later, when the action moves to Las Vegas, the Peppermill Casino features such table games as Chutes and Ladders and Candyland.

Other highlights are when George and Louise Jefferson show up at a meeting of the country’s mob families and Don Cornelius is among the mourners at Don Cortino’s funeral.

For anyone who loves “The Godfather” films (at least, the first two), “Mafia!” is not to be missed, if only for the sight of the Don’s aged mother (Olympia Dukakis) carrying out a hit by passing gas.

This was the movie I was hoping to see in the summer of 1989 when Tim Burton’s much-ballyhooed “Batman” debuted. That first installment of what became a bloated, unwatchable four-film franchise captured the dark, brooding nature of Frank Miller’s version of the comic book hero, but surrounded him with so many buffoonish characters and hokey plotlines that what was good about the film ended up buried. The next three just got worse.

With “Batman Begins,” Warner Bros. is clearly looking to revived the box-office bonanza that seems nearly guaranteed if you put the name Batman in a movie title, but the studio was smart enough to let a very talented, unconventional filmmaker run the show. Christopher Nolan is responsible for two of the most complex and intelligent thrillers of the last five years, “Memento” (2000) and “Insomnia” (2002). The lead characters in both of those films (Guy Pearce in “Memento” and Al Pacino in “Insomnia”) battle internal demons just to get through each day, devoting themselves obsessively to a pursuit that will somehow erase the past. “Batman” (played here with pained determination by Christian Bale) faces the same fate; for the first time on film, we see how young Bruce Wayne deals with the death of his parents and becomes a mysterious crime fighter.

All the angst aside, this is a summer movie and thus it has incredible action scenes (that, unlike in “Spider-Man,” look like they’re happening in reality not on a computer screen) and an unrequited romance (with tabloid sensation Katie Holmes). But under all the amazing batmobile tricks and evil machinations of the bad guys, “Batman Begins” is all about Bruce and his psyche. Add to the sturdiness of this picture is a gallery of father figures: Michael Caine as Alfred, Liam Neeson as a Yoda-like mentor, Morgan Freeman as Wayne’s trustworthy man on the inside and Gary Oldman as the last honest cop and future Commissioner Gordon.

I can’t say I’m hopeful that this Batman franchise will maintain its quality as it becomes an annual event, especially if Nolan doesn’t stick around, but we can ruminate about that later. For my money, “Batman Begins” is the most engaging comic book-inspired movie since “Superman” (1978).

This wonderfully free-flowing, contemporary tale of a pair of dumb cowboys rounding up cattle in Mexico for a sleazy American rodeo man plays like an episode of the most laid-back TV show ever made. So unimportant is the plot that you could drop into this picture at any point and get as much out of it as you would watching it from start to finish. Everything is secondary to the interaction of Paul Newman and Lee Marvin as they hold ridiculous negotiations with Mexican ranchers and then hopelessly attempt to get paid by an unscrupulous money man (Strother Martin).

I doubt that two bigger stars have been featured in a more pointless movie (and I mean that in a complementary way). Newman’s Jim scratches out a living selling horses but reluctantly accepts Martin’s sketchy plan to buy Mexican steers for rodeo work. South of the border he hooks up with his old pal, Leonard (Marvin) who seems to have just awaken from a weeklong drunk.

These dusty descendants of a much-tougher breed of Western men communicate in half-sentences and sideway glances (iconoclastic filmmaker Terrence Malick co-wrote the script, but the actors no doubt contributed many of the amusing asides) and most of the time are simply too dim-witted to work together very well. At some points, you almost wonder if Leonard, despite his stumbling incompetence, is working a con on Jim. But “Pocket Money” isn’t about something that complex; these are a couple of dudes who shouldn’t be doing anything more taxing than shoveling horse manure.

TELL IT TO THE MARINES (1926) Often left off the list of movie stars who died early (Rudolph Valentino, Jean Harlow, John Garfield, James Dean, Montgomery Clift are the usual names) is Lon Chaney, one of the most important actors of the silent era who might have had an equally memorable career in talking pictures. Just months after his only talkie (a remake of his silent classic “The Unholy Three”) was released in 1930 he died of bronchial cancer at age 47.

Best known as the man of a thousand faces for his skill at using makeup and prostheses and generally disguising his real face for the role, Chaney shows he’s just as effective without any trickery in “Tell It to the Marines.”

Playing the stereotype tough-guy drill sergeant—helping to create a mold that’s been reused a thousand times since—Chaney whips his men into shape and punishes every infraction, but, shows a heart of gold when his men need a hand.

The film made a star of William Haines, who plays the self-centered recruit who butts heads with Chaney’s Sgt. O’Hara before they even get to boot camp. Haines quickly became one of the most popular film stars of the late ‘20s, but his career was done by 1934 when he refused Louis B. Mayer’s order to give up his male lover and marry a woman. Instead, he became one of the most in-demand interior designers in Los Angeles.

While Chaney will always be remembered for his heartbreaking Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and his horrific turn as “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925)—among the 158 films he made from 1913. Yet “Tell It to the Marines” shows that he might have been more than just another Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi if he had lived.

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