Sunday, September 28, 2008

June 2007

Like the pros who competed in the U.S. Open in June---played at the great, demanding Oakmont Country Club in western Pennsylvania---Hollywood remains well over par in its few attempts to turn the world of professional golf into motion pictures.

The inspirational story of golf legend Ben Hogan became the incredibly boring movie “Follow the Sun” (1951) with Glenn Ford at his low-keyed worst. A decade later, “Banning” (1967) turned the striped-pants, button-down sweater crowd of country clubs into a melodrama with Robert Wagner, Jill St. John and a young Gene Hackman.

For my money, the most entertaining pro golf movie (that excludes “Caddyshack,” of course) has to be “Tin Cup,” (1996) with Kevin Costner and Don Johnson as links rivals and a host of real pros filling the screen.

I’ve avoided “Happy Gilmore” (1996), another vehicle for Adam Sandler’s sophomoric hijinks, like the plague, but I have seen “The Caddy” (1953), which stars Jerry Lewis as a great golfer who becomes impossibly nervous when playing in tournaments so he passes along his expertise while caddying for the always calm Dean Martin. To say it’s dated is to be kind.

Two recent films played up the mythic qualities of the game: “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000), with Will Smith and Matt Damon (directed by Robert Redford), tried and failed to be the golfing version of “Field of Dreams” and “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” (2004), starring Jim Caviezel, fresh from his turn as Jesus Christ, as the saintly amateur Jones, the dominate golfer of the 1920s.

Just a few days after this year’s open, I caught up with “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” based on the true, nearly unbelievable story of the 1913 Open held in Brookline, Mass., where a 20-year-old amateur, who had grown up across the street from the course, came out of nowhere to win in a playoff against legendary British player Harry Vardon and another Brit, Ted Ray.

Shia LeBeouf, who starred in the TV series “Even Stevens,” plays Francis Ouimet, who dreams of golfing with the likes of Vardon but gives up the game after being brow-beat by his immigrant father, who believes he’s wasting his time in a rich man’s game.

The film succeeds despite a script (written by Mark Frost, best known as the co-creator of “Twin Peaks”) riddled with cliches---a dream discouraged by a stubborn father, ridicule from the country club crowd, a Romeo-Juliet romance, unknown athlete tops famous veteran. The predictable story is saved by LeBeouf’s winning performance and top supporting work by Josh Flitter as his spunky young caddie and Stephen Dillane as the reserved Vardon. Bill Paxton, the actor directing his first feature, and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut capture the beauty of the course and the back-and-forth nature of a tightly fought match. It may be the closest a film has come to showing the simple perfection and unending frustrations of golf.

The bizarre title gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect from this film. No one makes movies like Guy Maddin---he’s pretty much a genre all to himself---and this concoction is one of his strangest. Like most of his films, “Brand Upon the Brain!” looks like a recently restored, though still in bad shape, silent from the early days of cinema featuring acting as arch and overplayed as it was in that era. In this film, the characters don’t speak but there is narration, some subtitles (it’s divided in 12 chapters), sound effects and a plot right out of a campy 1950s horror flick.

It opens with the main character, a fortysomething man arriving on what looks to be a deserted island with a lighthouse. The man (Erik Steffens Maahs), coincidentally named Guy Maddin, has been summoned to his boyhood home---his parents ran an orphanage inside the lighthouse---by his mother, who wants the place painted. He then remembers back (the young Guy is a wide-eyed Sullivan Brown) when their twisted little world was upturned by a famous girl detective, Wendy Hale (a charming newcomer Katherine E. Scharhon), who arrives to investigate the holes in the back of the heads of orphans who came through this institution.

The story isn’t told in normal narrative style; rarely does a shot last more than a few seconds, instead this montage of visuals, with much repetition of images, sets the scene and, in its particular way, evolves into a plot. Maddin uses his amazing technical skills to explore the characters place in the family, society and their sexual identities. At one point during the film, Wendy pretends to be her twin brother Chance and pursues Guy’s sister.

The film can be rather unpleasant---Guy’s father spends his days in his laboratory improving on his Nectar Harvest, which can reverse the aging process---and incredibly oppressive, but unrelentingly inventive and fascinating. Center stage is Guy mother (played at various times by Gretchen Krich, Cathleen O’Malley and Susan Corzatte), a psychotically possessive and controlling shrew who keeps track of her children with an Audiophone, a wireless transmitter that works only between loved ones, and by peering through the lighthouse’s giant telescope. She’s a character you won’t soon forget.

You know you’re in for a weird ride when an early subtitle reads: “DINNER AS USUAL. GRIM.” If you’re not already a Maddin fan (“The Saddest Music in the World” is probably his most accessible film) or a connoisseur of experimental, truly offbeat movies, take that as fair warning.

Anthony Minghella has directed three films since his hugely over-rated, Oscar-winning (nine of them, in fact) “The English Patient” (1996). “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) was a sharp, tale of novelist Patricia Highsmith’s cold, amoral character, but “Cold Mountain” (2003), based on another acclaimed novel, returned Minghella to the mushy romanticism of his Oscar winner and was a great disappointment.

His latest, barely released for Oscar consideration last year and then dumped out again in February, is stuffed full of deep discussions of personal responsibility, the role of architecture in society and the tentative state of immigrants living in London. Not only does “Breaking and Entering” try to say way too much, but it isn’t very clear about any of it.

Jude Law, who made his first big film splash in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” plays Will Francis, a workaholic architect designing a huge complex in the middle of a rundown, crime-infested section of town. After his offices are repeated burglarized, he (not the police) tracks down a suspect and, instead of reporting him, finds ways to spend time with the boy’s attractive, single Bosnian-refugee mother (France’s Juliette Binoche). This clearly doesn’t help his already shaky live-in relationship to a Swedish woman (American Robin Wright Penn) and their struggles with her troubled teen. Did I mention his chaise, but ill-advised encounters with a Russian (I think) streetwalker played by Vera Farmiga (American, but her parents are Ukrainian)?

It’s a cautionary tale about the upper-class English who dare trend into the world of immigrants, or maybe it’s about what the upper-class has to learn from those living in fear of being deported. I’m not sure and the characters seemed equally confused. The film features some good acting, mostly by the three women, but Law never gets a handle on his confused architect mostly because Minghella’s script never give him a chance.

Probably no acclaimed French director has had less exposure in this country than Jean-Pierre Melville. In part because he died so young (at age 56 in 1973) and made just 13 feature films, Melville hasn’t had the profile of his contemporaries---Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais and Claude Chabrol.

That one of his most admired pictures, “Army of Shadows,” didn’t make its U.S. premiere until 2006, 37 years after it was released in France, reflects his stature among American moviegoers.

Not long before I saw “Army of Shadows,” I caught up with Melville’s best-known film, “Bob le Flambeur,” an uninvolving profile of a middle-aged thief and compulsive gambler who reluctantly agrees to plan one last caper before retiring from criminal life.

Roger Duchesne plays Bob with a cool detachment that was oh-so hip in the ‘50s, but now comes off as just flat acting. The plotting of the crime, to rip off a glamorous casino, keeps the story moving, but the film is really about Bob and his inability to quit gambling. The film’s vaulted reputation probably has more to do with the clever ending than the overall film. I’ve seen this picture ranked on all-time best lists and that’s just dumb.

A much better version of this same story was made by British director Neil Jordan in 2003. Retitled “The Good Thief,” Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as the gambler and, in this version, a drug addict. Jordan and Nolte do a superb job of making Bob a character you care about and creating a tense, thrilling finale.

I had high hopes for “Army of Shadows” after reading the glowing reviews and the placement of this 37-year-old picture on many critics’ 2006 Top 10 lists. It looks great---in color, but gloomy and depressing---and its tales of heroic acts by members of the French resistance bring those difficult times alive, yet this slow-moving, 2 ½-hour picture was too episodical and too detailed oriented to sustain my interest.

Every scene goes on 10 minutes longer than it should; Melville doesn’t just show the actors getting out of a car and going into a building, he shows them walking up the stairs, knocking on the door, waiting for the door to be answered, exchanging pleasantries at the door, taking off their coats as they enter the house, waiting to be served coffee….. The endless tedious details become exasperating, ultimately diminishing the important moments of the film.

Lino Ventura plays Gerbier, our main guide through the resistance, who looks like a studious, office-bound banker but makes a daring escape from Nazi prison guards, parachutes back into France after a trip to London and has to murder a traitor to the cause. But even the most intense adventures are rendered mundane by the formal filmmaking style of Melville. No doubt, his point is to show the matter-of-fact nature of the resistance movements heroism---a group the filmmaker was part of during the war---but it was lost on me. I was also let down by the fact that most of the daring resistance this group does is to free captured compatriots from the Vichy government. I wanted to see what they were doing to disrupt the fascist regime, but even in a 2 ½ hour film that was never portrayed. Even the compelling presence of Simone Signoret as a tough, daring resistance soldier can’t save the film.

Melville’s film doesn’t come close to measuring up to two recently released World War II resistance pictures, “The Black Book” (about Dutch resistance) and “Sophie School—the Final Days” (set in Germany).

ONCE (2007)
If I was 20, I would have already seen this archetypical tale of a struggling musician destined for bigger things a half dozen times. Romantic, fresh, energetic and without an ounce of pretense (well, maybe just a little), “Once” tells the story of an Dublin street singer/vacuum repairman who falls for a Czech street peddler/pianist as she encourages him to complete his half-finished songs and record them.

What helps makes this film so vital is how closely it reflects reality. Lead actor Glen Hansard is a Dublin singer-songwriter (with the band the Frames) who also has collaborated on songs with 19-year-old Czech musician Marketa Irglova, who plays the young woman. Both performances are so convincing and unforced that you’d never guess she was a complete amateur (and, like her character, a recent immigrant) and he had only acted, in a small role, in another exhilarating film musical, “The Commitments.”

Though neither character is given a name, you quickly become entranced by their tentative relationship---both have attachments elsewhere---and the intense way they bond around the music. Not only does writer-director John Carney, who once was a bandmate of Hansard in the Frames and has made a handful of independent films, let nearly every song play in its entirety, but, being a musician, is able to show the way songs come together and how musicians relate as they perform.

You know you’re in for something special when the girl drags the guy to a music store where they allow her to play the showroom pianos. Together they work out one of his songs and as he watches in amazement at her piano playing (he took her for a nut, at first), you experience the almost magical way music brings people together. It’s like one of those great scenes from a Judy Garland or Gene Kelly musical when the artistry and the characters become one. If Hansard has even a third of the musical charisma he exudes in the film, the Frames must be an killer live band.

Shot on the crowded streets of Dublin, in the tight quarters a recording studio and the cramped apartments of the two principals, the film makes you feels like you’re caught in the middle of something; that you’re part of whatever’s happening. It’s hard not to get swept away by it all, especially the music, even if you haven’t been 20 for a long time.

Forget about all those gruesome, blood-letting horror pictures meant to scare the crap out of you---this gentle but heartbreaking drama of a married couple dealing with the wife’s decent into Alzheimer’s disease is the most frightening film you’re likely to see this year.

Sarah Polley, the fine 28-year-old Canadian actress best known for her role in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) (a film that clearly influenced the style of “Away From Her”) makes her feature directing debut, tackling this sensitive, depressing subject with intelligence and a steady hand that belies her age and experience. She also wrote the screenplay, adapting a short story by Alice Munro.

Maybe the smartest choice Polley made was casting the still luminous Julie Christie, underused in recent years following her great run of performances in the 1960s and ‘70s. The sublime actress never overplays this difficult role, allowing you to see into this woman’s pain as her life as she knew it disappears.

Her Fiona, who lives a seemingly idyllic life with Grant, her husband of 45 years, (Gordon Pinsent), in a large house on the edge of the woods in Ottawa, slowly notices memory problems. First she can’t remember what yellow looks like and puts a pan in the refrigerator, but soon she’s mindlessly wondering away from home. Despite her husband’s reluctance, she knows what has to be done and moves into a nursing care facility.

The film shifts its focus to Pinsent’s Grant and the obstacles he faces in just maintaining a relationship---even getting her attention---when visiting Fiona, after she attaches herself to a male patient (Michael Murphy) in the home. Pinsent is superb at showing the frustrations faced by the spouse of an Alzheimer’s patient, as he keeps grasping at straws of hope that she’ll recover.

The plotline that brings Murphy’s wife, played by Olympia Dukakis, into Grant’s life seems a bit fanciful, but it doesn’t distract from the honest, loving and drastically changing relationship between Grant and Fiona.

Polley, who has been in the business since she was a child, has clearly been playing attention to how it’s done. She shows a surprisingly strong visual sense (along with cinematographer Luc Montpiellier) and understanding of pacing, wisely never rushing the story to any big, dramatic scenes. It’s all about small moments of sadness that mount up, day after day after day.

It’s rare when I see a film I’ve never heard of, and when I do it’s usually pretty clear why it was shipped directly to the Wal-mart discount bin. But I was pleasantly surprised by this straight-to-video hit man satire, in large part because of the superb work by lead actors Joe Mantegna and Sam Rockwell.

Spanning a ten-year period, this episodical movie explores how the partnership between Tom (Mantegna), a veteran hit man, and Jerry (Rockwell), his apprentice, so to speak, evolves. Probably 80 percent of the movie involves scenes of Tom and Jerry talking about their next job, just before they’re about to take someone’s life.

No surprise that Mantegna is so convincing as the No. 1 gunman of an operation run out of a Chicago used-car dealership as he’s been delivering low-keyed, spot-on performances for two decades---as a con man in “House of Games” (1987), Mia Farrow’s suitor in “Alice” (1990), Joey Zasa in “The Godfather, Part III” (1990) and as the voice of Fat Tony in “The Simpsons.”

But it’s Rockwell, best known for his wonderfully wacky performance as Chuck Barris in “The Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), who steals the film, as his Jerry goes from a long-haired slacker who get sick after witnessing his first hit to a pathological killer who grows to savor each job.

The film features an all-star collection of victims, including William H. Macy, Ted Danson and the film’s director, veteran actor Saul Rubinek. But the real supporting standout is Charles Durning, whose immense proportionis belie how dangerous a guy he is. In a sharply written scene, Durning’s Vic regales Tom and Jerry about how he may---or may not---have pulled the trigger on JFK, RFK and, don’t ask, Elvis. Foolishly, he’s decided to write an anonymous tell-all book which doesn’t go over very well with the boys.

“Away From Her” director Sarah Polley also is in the cast, playing Jerry’s wife, but she’s seen in just one scene, asleep. I assume, her other scenes were cut.

The colorful, and talky, screenplay is by Rick Cleveland (adapting his own play), who went on to become a writer-producer for the TV series “The West Wing” and “Six Feet Under.” No doubt the dark subject and lack of a first-rank star contributed to the film being shelved, but it lives on, on cable, and is well worth catching.


This film pulls off one of the most difficult balancing acts in moviemaking: Telling a serious, introspective story through comic, often cartoonish, characters, without become a sentimental mess. This breakthrough movie by actress-writer-director Adrienne Shelly, who was killed in her New York City office last year, manages to evoke the tough, hopeless aspects of small-town life at the same time that it squeezes laughs out of everything from the names of pie creations to the unexpected romantic adventures of three waitresses.

The film revolves around Jenna (Keri Russell), a pretty, young waitress at Joe’s Pie Dinner with a genius for inventing new, delicious pies, who is plotting her escape from her childish, abusive husband Earl. Everything changes when she discovers she’s pregnant. Yet even as she faces very tough questions about the direction of her life and her feelings toward this unwanted baby, the texture of the film is pure comedy, surprisingly energized by a stylized, deadpan line delivery. Shelly, whose best work as an actress was done in her first two films, Hal Hartley’s “The Unbelievable Truth” (1989) and “Trust” (1990), was clearly influenced by the independent filmmaker, in both the flatly rendered dialogue and putting insightful observations into the mouths of the most unlikely characters. What she adds is an oddball comic touch (Jenna funnels her anger into her pies with names like “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie”) comparable to a Coen brother confection along with a heartfelt understanding of this woman’s emotional struggles.

Among the marvelous supporting performances are 81-year-old Andy Griffith (the very paragon of small-town life) as the curmudgeonly owner of the dinner, Cheryl Hines (Larry David’s wife on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) as a sassy, supportive but none-too-bright waitress, Shelly as the clumsy, nerdy waitress who falls for Ogie (Eddie Jemison), an earnest, poetry-reciting suitor and Nathan Fillion, the nervous, confused new obstetrician who falls for Jenna at first glance.

Russell, best known as the star of TV’s “Felicity,” has the looks and personality of a romantic lead (think early Meg Ryan), but also shows an emotional range of an actress ready for dramatic challenges. Her Jenna, representing every bright, talented woman trapped by circumstances, shows a hopeful resolve whether she’s whipping up another amazing pie (Shelly shoots these with an overhead camera in speeded up motion), confessing her troubles to her fellow waitresses or doing what she can to placate her scary husband.

Shelly, who wrote “Waitress” when, like Jenna, she was pregnant, might have found her real calling just before her tragic end, both as a filmmaker and mother. She was 40 and her daughter was just three when, following a dispute, an immigrant construction worker (who later confessed) killed Shelly and then faked her hanging to make it look like suicide.

SICKO (2007)
Tony Benn, a former member of the British Parliament, discussing his country’s national health system in Michael Moore’s indictment of the American system, points out that everything changed in England when true democracy took hold and the voters suddenly had the power once held by landowners and businessmen. Alas, we’re still waiting for that revolution is emerge in this country. Not only don’t Americans vote in large numbers, we don’t make our viewpoints known to the government (in England and Europe, strikes and protests are commonplace). We just complain, among themselves, as the lobbyists and corrupted government officials tell us what’s best for us.

Nowhere is that more evident than in our current health care system, that Moore, in his followup to the incredibly successful “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), shows to be based on restricting care rather than providing care and profiles a half-dozen victims of these profit-obsessed companies. Moore then travels to Canada, England and France to find out about those systems and discovers a bunch of happy people. Care is unlimited and free and doctors are rewarded for making patients healthier as opposed to the American system that rewards physicians for keeping costs down.

It’d be easy to counter Moore’s film with an equal number of patients whose lives were saved by HMO treatment and Canadians, Brits and French who could tell horror tales about their systems, not to mention the high percentage of tax they pay. Even Moore’s oft-repeated mantra about the longer life expectancy in those countries could be dismissed as a product of American’s poor diet and weight problems rather than the quality of health care. (The connection between those could be another documentary.)

But that doesn’t erase the central point: Why have Americans accepted this system that regularly ignores patient needs (you hardly need to see “Sicko” to be aware of this problem) and enriches the insurance companies? Why have we allowed our politicians to ignore the problem for years? As much as we might tear up when a mother tells of her child dying because of poor care, we’re not ready to write a letter or join a protest or campaign against a bought-and-paid-for politician. And that’s what the insurance companies, government officials, even our employers have come to realize: we might complain, even sue if it hits us, but Americans will accept whatever corrupt system the powers-that-be care to impose. Just, please, please, don’t fire me; then I’ll have no coverage at all.

Unlike in his previous films, Moore isn’t a confrontational figure here, instead serving as an incredulous straight man as he learns of the benefits of the foreign systems. He does pull off one stunt when he tries to get the same medical attention for 9/11 rescue workers as “the evil doers” are receiving at Guantanamo. Instead, the three rescuers receive first-rate treatment in the free Cuban system. Again, the point isn’t that Cuba is so wonderful, it’s that the United States has failed so miserably at taking care of the most important aspect of life: our health.

No comments: