Thursday, September 25, 2008

June 2006

I was prepared to see a documentary about global warming but not one about Al Gore’s crusade to educate the world about global warming. I have nothing against Al Gore. Even though it turned out my vote didn’t matter, I helped him win the presidency in 2000. But as a subject for a feature-length documentary, Al is a tad on the dull side.

They actually made a TV movie about his wife Tipper (“Warning: Parental Advisory”) that was somewhat amusing, but the former Vice President is about as compelling a movie subject as your typical tweed-coat wearing history professor. Instead of presenting the horrific results of man’s disruption of Earth’s delicate ecological system, the movie watches Gore giving his slide show lecture on the subject in front of an audience, intercut with scenes of Gore walking through airports headed for his next tour stop, archival footage of Gore as a senator pushing the issue and even a visit back to his father’s Tennessee farm. It feels like a video made to be sold after the lecture for $29.99.

The actual information offered in “An Inconvenient Truth” is both overwhelming and frightening, as you see the evidence of the receding glaciers around the world, the incredible rate of increase in the earth’s temperature and the expected result of that warming. If you remain unsure if global warming is something you should be concerned about, by all means see this film. It will wake you up….if you don’t doze off to the sound of Prof. Gore’s voice.

You’d never guess it from this concert film, but Neil Young gives one of the most exhilarating live shows you’re likely to see. Typical wearing baggy jeans and an oversized flannel shirt, this ageless rocker (he turned 60 last fall!) stomps around the stage like a madman and plays with energy of a 21-year-old.

Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of “The Silence of the Lambs” (1981), has always been a rock fan, having directed the superb Talking Heads concert film, “Stop Making Sense” (1984), in addition to many videos, including a great live performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Murder Incorporated.”

“Heart of Gold,” filmed at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (original home of the Grand Old Opry) in 2005, not long after the Young had brain surgery is a gentle, sentimental affair; much like a segment of the “Prairie Home Companion.” A stage-full of musicians, all dressed to the nines, support Young’s set of songs from his “Prairie Wind” CD and a handful of his classics.

Neil tells a few stories and remains in fine voice, but the show feels like a recreation of a performance rather than the real thing. Demme seems to have tied down the musicians and he shoots the show with little flair. We’re all getting old, but, jeeze, rock ‘n roll has never been this subdued. Maybe if I had listened to the songs before seeing the movie I would have a greater appreciation for these nostalgic tunes (many featuring melodies very similar to older Young songs); clearly they’re very important to Young, having written them while he was going through his health crisis. Luckily, Young’s gentle mood didn’t last long; his latest CD, “Living With War,” is a blunt, rowdy protest album filled with screeching guitars and forceful vocals. Now that’s the concert film I want to see.

For me, the gold standard for concert films will always be “Concert for Bangladesh” (1972), the straight-forward chronicle of the George Harrison-led all-star rock ‘n roll benefit for the poor in the south Asian country. Not only is the music unforgettable, dominated by Harrison’s songs from “All Things Must Pass” and his Beatle years, but the concert features the most interesting collection of beards you’re ever likely to see.

Harrison’s long scraggly black beard, set off by his shockingly white suit, leads the ensemble. Right behind him is Eric Clapton’s rare, brownish growth, rendering him barely recognizable; Leon Russell’s reddish offering that just adds to the man’s demonic looks; and, Ringo Starr, sporting a quite distinguished chin full of coal black hair.

This being 1971, virtually everyone on stage is smoking cigarettes and probably high (Russell and Clapton both have that frighteningly intense doper looks) but the band, with few rehearsals, sounds incredible. While Harrison is at his musical peak, he’s still upstaged by his keyboard sidemen: Billy Preston, who just died a few weeks ago, and Russell.

Preston’s enthusiastic, gospel-like “That’s the Way God Planned It” and Leon’s wild medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” give the show a jolt of exuberance.

Beyond the superstars, the band is made up of the best rock studio musicians of the era, including drummer Jim Keltner, saxophonist Jim Horn, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voormann, longtime sideman for the Beatles, on bass.

Then, to top it all off, Bob Dylan makes a surprise, rare appearance (this is long before he became the road warrior he’s been recently), ripping through five of his classics with Harrison and Russell at his side. For those who saw the show at Madison Square Garden there was the added excitement of not knowing who was going to appear---the hot rumor at the time was that the show would feature a reunion of the Beatles.

This was the first movie I saw by myself at a theater and I can still remember the thrill of seeing these musicians on the big screen playing music I knew by heart, having listened endlessly for months to the three-disk album.

From the strangely hypnotic sitar of Ravi Shankar---the instigator of the project---to Harrison and Clapton trading licks and Dylan, in his jean jacket, taking the stage, “The Concert for Bangladesh” was a religious-like experience when I was 16. Now, beautifully preserved on DVD, it’s a superb record of an era when what’s now quaintly referred to as “classic rock” was the music that mattered.

Why some films don’t receive theatrical releases has always been a mystery to me. Clearly, movies that have no business getting released often play for a few weeks because studios want to keep stars and directors happy, plus it helps DVD sales and rentals. Usually, it’s the bad films that lack stars with clout that get sent straight to the small screen.

None of that explains the fate of “Curtain Call,” a slightly amusing romantic comedy starring James Spader, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith that immediately disappeared into the wasteland of cable television. I’m not claiming this is some unseen gem that you should rush out and rent, but it’s an amusing, well-made picture featuring enchanting work by Caine and Smith and certainly more entertaining than 70 percent of the comedies that reach the big screen.

It’s directed by Peter Yates, longtime British director who’s still working at age 76. While “Curtain Call” doesn’t match his career bests---the Steve McQueen action classic “Bullitt” (1968), the popular, introspective youth drama, “Breaking Away” (1979) and the Albert Finney vehicle, “The Dresser” (1983)---he brings an old pros sense of timing and tone that often is missing in contemporary comedies.

The only real problem with “Curtain Call” is Spader, playing a book editor running the family publishing business who can’t commit to his longtime girlfriend (the gorgeous Polly Walker) and is flummoxed by the recent corporate takeover of his firm. The usually intense Spader doesn’t fit well into a comedy, let alone one that asks him to be bumbling, stuttering, confused and inept---he’s stumbled into Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey territory and his character turns out to be more irritating than amusing.

The hook of the film comes when Spader buys an beautiful old house in New York and discovers he’s sharing it with the ghosts of its former owners, a constantly bickering, theatrical couple (Caine and Smith), once stars of Broadway and now determined to bring Spader and his girlfriend together.

The impressive cast also includes Marcia Gay Harden and Buck Henry as part of the publishing firm that has scrambled Spader’s life. The film’s assault on the lowly state of the publishing business is pretty funny; Henry pushes a book on cat names and signs off on a still-struggling young writer because he has a film deal. Also, Sam Shepard has some nice scenes as a U.S. Senator who’s also romancing Walker.

The on-and-off relationship between Spader and Walker has a few too many reverses and sometimes it’s not clear what the ghost couple think their interference is going to accomplish, but if only for the one-liners exchanged between Caine and Smith and their continuing romance this film is worth seeing. Even if Hollywood didn’t think so.

Even a great filmmaker like Sidney Lumet has some losers on his résumé. While not quite the monumental disaster of his musical, “The Wiz” (1977), these two slow-moving, ambitiously introspective studies of love, sexuality and infidelity never come together as either entertainments or serious dramas.

“The Appointment” strives for the kind of European exotica that was so popular in that era---movies filled with mysterious women, confused men and sex, all set amidst the beauty of Paris or Rome or Geneva. Omar Sharif, at the time Hollywood’s favorite romantic foreigner, plays a wealthy businessman who immediate falls for the hauntingly beautiful but deeply disturbed Carla (Anouk Aimée), the fiance of an acquaintance. But their on-again, off-again relationship is hampered by a rumor that she works as a high-class prostitute. Most of the movie chronicles Sharif’s maneuvers to determine the truth of the rumor (but he never actually asks Carla).

Lumet has always been interested in dark individuals who struggle over life’s disappointments, but the characters of “The Appointment” are never substantial enough to be interesting.

If heading to Rome was a stretching for Lumet, riding off to Texas to film a Larry McMurtry story was pure foolishness for this lifelong New Yorker. The story of a pair of Depression Era cowboys and the woman they both love, “Lovin’ Molly” spans 40 some years in the characters’ lives. But a weak script (by Stephen J. Friedman from McMurtry’s novel “Leaving Cheyenne”) and weaker acting undercut what little emotional impact the film offers.

Anthony Perkins is an unlikely choice for the main character of Gid, a confused, unfocused youth man who, like his friend Johnny (Beau Bridges), wants nothing more than to spend his life with Molly (Blythe Danner), the small-town’s free-spirited beauty.

But Molly marries the town jerk and Gid hooks up with the town’s other available woman (Susan Sarandon) and nothing is ever the same again---even though Molly and Gid seem to spend most of their time together, both in and out of bed.

Danner, looking amazingly like her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, gives one of her best performances as the complex Molly, who has more than enough love for all her men, but finds happiness allusive. Bridges knows how to play a good old boy, but Perkins, carry much of the film’s emotional baggage, is way too stiff and nervous for an outdoorsman and doesn’t do much better in playing sensitive. He’s just too odd of a personality for this kind of role.

Ed Binns, a longtime character actor who spent most of his career on television, gives the film’s best performance as Gid’s father and gets to deliver the script’s best line. Consoling his son after Molly’s marriage, he remarks: “A woman’s love is like the morning dew. It’s just as apt to settle on a horse turd as on a rose.”

When the main characters begin to age, the film becomes harder to take seriously. In most scenes, the characters don’t look any different at 50 as they did at 20. The movie looks cheap in other ways too: rarely do you ever get a feeling of a real town; in fact, most of the time the only people we see are the main characters.

Someone with a better handle on the West and living in open spaces---Clint Eastwood, Terrence Malick or even Monte Hellman would have been good choices---might have turned this into something worthy of McMurtry. In fact, “Lovin’ Molly” would be a great candidate for a remake; I’m sure there’s a good movie in this story, Lumet just couldn’t find it.

This low-budget, rarely shown drama must be one of the first movies to portray racism north of the Mason-Dixon line. Based on a true story, it chronicles the life of a doctor and his wife, both light-skinned blacks, who decided to pass as whites when he takes over a practice in a small New England town. He becomes a beloved member of the community, but when the U.S. enters World War II and he and his son join the Navy, the family has to face the truth about their heritage.

The year was a watershed for movies about racial issues, led by “Pinky,” the Elia Kazan-directed story of a young woman who struggles with her attempt to pass as white, and “Intruder in the Dust,” a well-made adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel about a black man wrongly accused of murder.

As a film, “Lost Boundaries” doesn’t come close to the quality of those two major productions, but in many ways it’s more direct in confronting the racism faced by black Americans. It hits hard early in the film when a just-graduated dark-skinned doctor says he’ll probably go back to working as a train porter since there are so few positions available for blacks. Later, director Alfred L. Werker, a longtime B-movie filmmaker, doesn’t shy away from showing the outright hatred many whites directed at blacks.

Mel Ferrer, making his film debut, and stage actress Beatrice Pearson as the couple that pass as white are quite convincing, though it would have been more interesting to see black performers cast in the roles. Clearly, that would have been more daring than what 1949 Hollywood was capable of.

Richard Hylton, as their son who runs off to Harlem when he learned he’s part black, gives the film’s best performance as he struggles to understand his new identity. The film’s portrayal of Harlem is less than subtle—there’s not a friendly face in sight—but, overall, the film doesn’t rely on hysterics or become preachy, instead offering an fascinating look at post-war race relations.

Except for an occasional good role in a major film—prominently “Double Indemnity” (1944) and “The Apartment” (1960)—Fred MacMurray was essentially a B-movie actor. In a career that spanned from the 1930s to the ‘70s, including a 13-year run as the low-keyed dad on TV’s “My Three Sons,” the lanky, affable actor was a solid, well-known presence without ever becoming a star.

Also among his best roles were three romances for director Mitchell Leisen: “Remember the Night” (1940) with Barbara Stanwyck, “The Lady Is Willing” (1942) with Marlene Dietrich and “No Time for Love” (1943) with Claudette Colbert.

“Borderline” meanders between romantic comedy and crime thriller with MacMurray and Claire Trevor playing undercover cops who both have infiltrated Mexican drug smuggling operations and thus assume that each other are criminals. Together, they head for the border on a drug-run, each expecting to arrest the other once in the U.S., with a sinister and well-dressed drug kingpin (Raymond Burr) on their tails.

MacMurray and Trevor do their best to make something out of nothing but they both seem too old for the roles and the script and production values barely rise to B-level. The funniest line in the movie comes near the beginning when an LAPD chief is pushing for Trevor to work undercover. In her favor, he says, “she speaks Mexican.”

“Never a Dull Moment” is closer to the family-oriented pictures that MacMurray later did for Disney. He’s a shy, widowed rodeo cowboy who, after a whirlwind romance, marries a Broadway songwriter (Irene Dunne) and brings her back to his ranch and his two children.

The film doesn’t try to be anything more than its overused plot suggests: big-city girl tries her best to fit into the cowboy life and sudden motherhood.

Both stars are fine and are well supported by the always amusing Andy Devine (it looks like animal cruelty when this large man is riding a horse), as MacMurray’s ranch partner, and the usually angry William Demarest, playing the unpleasant neighbor who controls the water rights.

Demarest and MacMurray co-starred in five other films and then, most famously, worked together on “My Three Sons” when Demarest’s “Uncle Charley” replaced William Frawley.

Natalie Wood, already a film veteran at age 12, plays MacMurray’s eldest daughter.

More relevant than ever, this intense David Mamet rant on the depths men of business will sink for the sake of the almighty buck digs into the dark side of humanity as few plays have since the later works of Eugene O’Neill. By all accounts, it’s way too talky and way too thin on plot to work as a film, but it does. I found it more entertaining and insightful than when I first saw it 14 years ago. Like O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” it’s filled with characters living on an emotional tightrope ready to take a leap. Unlike O’Neill’s family, Mamet’s real estate salesmen, or should I say con men, don’t have a past to regret; their fear is all about the here and now. Closing the deal.

Not only does Mamet nail the shady morals of corporate America, but puts on display the gall of these shysters to revel in their successes. They pump themselves up with bravado talk of deal-making acumen that, in fact, probably resulted in financial ruin of working people not unlike themselves. It’s easy to be fooled by these smooth-taking crooks, especially when they’re portrayed by four brilliant actors: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin. Add to those four Kevin Spacey as a corporate lackey and Alec Baldwin as the company’s blunt-speaking bulldog and you have one of the finest acted movies of the past 25 years.

This journey into night and, inevitably, the ugly reality of morning, begins with Baldwin’s profanity-laced pep talk to the salesman, informing them that one of them will be fired by month’s end.

Director James Foley, whose best film since has been the similarly themed “Confidence” (2003), cuts between Pacino’s over-heated, bullshit-filled barroom seduction of an easily impressed hayseed played by Jonathan Pryce; Harris attempt to bring Arkin into his plot to rob the office of the coveted Glengarry leads (names and numbers of possible suckers); and Lemmon’s pitiful sales pitch to get those same leads from office manager Spacey.

As impressive as all the acting is, Lemmon’s portrayal of Shelley “The Machine” Levene takes your breath away. Not coincidentally, Lemmon had played, on stage and in a cable movie, James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” just four year’s earlier (a production that co-starred his protégé Spacey). While Lemmon’s Levene more closely resembles Willy Loman, he displays the bragging, full-of-himself resilience of Tyrone, using it to fight back the constant beating life lays on him.

This may be legendary Lemmon’s finest performance---he’s totally immerses in this man’s decent from a star salesman to a desperate petty thief. It certain ranks as one of great film performances by a senior citizen (he was 67), along with Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City” (1981), Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) and Clint Eastwood in “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).

I’ve never listened to this now legendary radio show, but after seeing Robert Altman’s ever-moving camera capture a dramatization of a live performance I can understand its appeal. Thoroughly old-fashioned while it satirizes the homespun humor of pre-television entertainment, “Companion” is the brainchild of Garrison Keillor, a hulking, self-involved, impulsive talker who has a face made for radio. In the film, he does a fine job of playing himself, something not necessarily easy to pull off.

Unfortunately, the plotlines Keillor and Altman have attached to the show---a big corporation is closing down the show and the angel of death is roaming around backstage---are simplistic clichés that quickly become tedious. Yet, the heart of the film is the on-stage performance and there it shines.

Wonderfully real and witty, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, as eccentric singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, make the movie worth seeing. Boring Yolanda’s daughter (Lindsay Lohan) with tales of family history while in their dressing room and then giving moving performances on stage, the sisters represent the kind of classic performers that continue to fill small venues across middle America.

Nearly as entertaining is the cowboy duo of Lefty and Dusty, played as a pair of dense dudes by John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson.

This being Altman, I expected the film to milk the difference between the public and private personas of the performers, but here everyone’s the same on and off stage. Which makes the performance of Kevin Kline, as the show’s security guard Guy Noir, stands out as totally out of place. He’s a cartoon goofball in the middle of a collection of simple, sincere players.

This isn’t going to be remembered as one of Altman’s best, but there’s plenty to enjoy in “A Prairie Home Companion.” And what’s not to admire about an 80-year-old who’s still working at his profession at such a high level.

I ignored this film for years, mistakenly believing it was a frothy romance with little substance. I should have known better, considering it’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story and co-scripted by “Casablanca” writers Julius and Philip Epstein and director Richard Brooks, a serious, literary-minded filmmaker whose resume includes “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), “Elmer Gantry” (1960) and “In Cold Blood” (1965).

“The Last Time I Saw Paris,” set in MGM’s version of Paris in the aftermath of the Allies victory over Germany, stars Van Johnson as a Stars and Stripes reporter who yearns to be an important novelist but instead marries into an American expatriate family more interested in partying every night until dawn. Elizabeth Taylor gives one of her best performances as the party-girl wife who transforms from hedonistic youth to a more serious, introspective woman after the birth of her daughter. At the same time she must deal with her husband’s manic depression as he faces rejection from publishers and battles a drinking problem. Four years later, Taylor was a magnificent Maggie for Brooks in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Heavy stuff for a slick MGM production and it only partially works as Johnson isn’t up to pulling off the internal struggles faced by his character. But its ambitious, if slightly scattered, script and supporting cast help cover up Johnson’s flaws. Cast against type, Donna Reed, as Taylor’s bitter sister, and Walter Pidgeon, as the devil-may-care father, come off as much more than literary devices. Eva Gabor and a very-young Roger Moore are correctly pretty and vacant in their roles as temptations for Johnson and Taylor.

Brooks career took off after this film, blossoming into one of the most interesting of the late ‘50s and 1960s. Slowing in the 1970s, his best work of his later career was the controversial Diane Keaton film, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977).

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