Monday, September 29, 2008

June 2008

IRON MAN (2008)
I’ve wasted way too many hours in the past decade watching brainless comic book-based movies. So, despite the good reviews, I went into “Iron Man” reluctantly.

Turns out that actor turned director Jon Favreau, who had a hit with “Elf,” not only provides the required over-the-top special effects and snarling bad guys, but also spent some time making sure he had an interesting script (from a quartet of writers) with complex characters. And because the script is a step up from your typical action picture, the director was able to attract an impressive cast, led by the brainiest of superheroes, Robert Downey Jr.

Downey plays Tony Stark, the CEO of a hot arms manufacturer, who, after taking over the company after his father’s death, has become one of the world’s leading playboys. On a trip to Afghanistan to show off the firm’s latest rocketry, he’s captured by a group of terrorists and told to create a rocket under threat of death. Instead, he creates the suit/weapon that transforms this engineering genius into a killing machine.

Back home, Tony’s newfound social conscious doesn’t play well in the board room, led by his father’s old partner, played by Jeff Bridges, who with his head shaved looks more menacing that he ever has. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Tony’s devoted assistant Pepper Potts and Terrence Howard plays an Air Force colonel who advises the company. Four Oscar nominees in one comic-book film----not bad.

While the creation of Stark’s Iron Man outfit is entertaining and fascinating, the plot quickly becomes predictable, leading to the kind of overblown finale I’d expect to see in “Spiderman” or “The Hulk.” Yet, overall, “Iron Man” doesn’t play down to its audience, showing, as “Batman Begins” (2005) did, that fantasy heroics don’t necessarily have to be attached to a dumb script.

Paul Schrader’s scripts have been the foundation of some of the most compelling and adventurous films of the last thirty years, including “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” “American Gigolo” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” And while “The Walker” falls well short of those films, it’s a crackling social commentary on Beltway politics that manages to amuse at the same time as it sticks daggers in the (unnamed) Bush Administration.

The writer-director took a chance by casting Woody Harrelson as the son and grandson of Virginia political legends who has found a place for himself in Washington as the center of a gossip circle that includes the wives of some of the country’s most powerful men. Harrelson’s Carter Page III is a gay Southern gentleman, with perfect manners, impeccable tastes, an unmatched knowledge of politics and a nose for dirt.

But when he finds himself in the middle of an untidy mess----his best gal pal (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of the Senate majority leader discovers the dead body of her lobbyist lover----he finds that his perfectly ordered life is built on very shaky ground.

Harrelson’s thick Southern accent takes a bit getting used to but he digs pretty deep into this character (aided by Schrader’s excellent script) and ends up giving a very good performance, probably his best since he played Larry Flynt. The highlights of “The Walker” (which refers to his role as an escort to married women) are the scenes between Carter and Natalie Van Miter, the grand dame of his group beautifully played by 83-year-old Lauren Bacall. She’s a tough old bird who isn’t afraid to let Carter know where he stands.

Ned Beatty, as power broker Jack Delorean, has a great scene near the end in which he channels Dick Cheney while he schools Carter in the ugly realities of Washington.

The film got lost in the quagmire of high-profile releases in December (this would have been a perfect March 2008 release, in the midst of primary season) but deserved a better fate. Schrader’s deliberately paced, studious story and eloquent script finds the perfect balance of murder plot and character study. This is the rare film in which the lead character can offhandedly lament, “I have had some illusions shattered... I thought we weren't an aggressor nation. I thought there was a separation between church and state. Hell, I even thought that the people elected the president” without sounding like he’s mouthing the words of the writer.

“The Walker” never stops talking about politics (reflecting the city where it’s set) but it also never stops being about real people.

This odd mix of political potboiler and satire is a lightweight cartoon when compared to “The Walker,” but a top-flight cast and a paperback novel-like melodrama hold it together.

Robin Williams is unusually stiff as popular TV talk show host/comic Tom Dobbs, who, clowning around on his show one night, suggests that he should run for president. The stunt turns serious and he’s soon campaigning across the country, encouraged (thought it’s unclear why) by his longtime manager, played by the scene-stealing Christopher Walken.

The plot turns crazy after the election when an employee (Laura Linney) of the electronic voting company that ran the election starts to question the results. She seeks out Dobbs and, in an unnecessary twist, they quickly hit it off romantically. Meanwhile, she’s dodging bad guys sent by her employer. It’s about as believable as a candidate’s campaign pledge, but works as dumb fun. Linney and Walken can make any character compelling and they do it again here, keeping the story moving while Williams stands around looking out of place.

Writer-director Barry Levinson, who hasn’t had a critical success since “Wag the Dog” (1997), a much sharper political satire, never really figures out what kind of movie he’s making: a Robin Williams yuk-fast or a D.C. thriller. Instead, it ends up being an occasionally interesting failure.


This intriguing French film about confused identities and the power of deception never quite gels into the highbrow mystery it aspires to be. But the pieces are so interesting that it makes the ride worth taking.

When you see Pierre, played by veteran French actor Dominique Pinon, offer to give a ride to Huguette, a woman ditched at a service station by her fiancée, the narrative has already hinted that he may be an escaped pedophile, an unhappy husband on the run or someone completely different. Either way, he’s very suspicious, especially after he claims to be the ghostwriter for a popular novelist.

But the unsteady Huguette (wonderfully played by Audrey Dana) trusts him enough to ask him to pose as her fiancée for a visit to her farmer parents and her teenage daughter.

Veteran director Claude Lelouch, best know for the popular love story “A Man and a Woman” (1966), starts to lose his grip on the story when Pierre leaves Huguette and her warmhearted family and joins his employer, the famous writer played by Fanny Ardant (best known for her work with Francois Truffaut in the early 1980s) on her yacht. He says he has a great idea for a novel: a man pretends to be the fiancée of a woman he picks up at a service station…..well, you get the idea. And, of course, this time he wants credit for himself.

The director and co-writer Pierre Uytterhoeven wrote a very clever half a script, but the second half is in bad need of a rewrite. And what started out as an oddball slice of life turns into a series of convoluted plot twists you’d expect to find in a bad novel.

RUSH HOUR 3 (2007)

The disadvantage of having a couple dozen pay cable channels (I’m still on the introductory package) is that you end up watching badly made, insultingly stupid trash like the third installment of this Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker franchise.

They repeat the same jokes, the same plotline and the same stunts from the first two films, and to top that off, they both get a chance to sing.

What made “Rush Hour 3” particularly jaw dropping for me was the appearance of Roman Polanski, playing a clueless French police chief. Roman Polanski. “Rush Hour 3.” I’m still trying to get my mind around that pairing. It’s like Martin Scorsese showing up on “Dancing With the Stars.”


Unlike recent years, the Oscar selections for best foreign-language film during the 1960s mostly turned out to be classics. Among the winners in that decade were an Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), Federico Fellini’s greatest film “8 ½” (1963), the heartbreaking World War II film “The Shop on Main Street” (1965) and one of the most admired Russian films ever made “War and Peace” (1968).

Considering this superb track record, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” has long been on my must-see list, having topped the landmark Japanese film “Women in the Dunes” and the beloved French musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” to win the 1964 Oscar. Despite the presence of Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren and the direction of Vittorio De Sica, this trilogy of short films, with the Italian stars playing different characters in each, is nothing more than occasionally amusing.

The one-joke opening segment is a fable about a couple eking out a living in a small village, unable to pay for the furniture in their house. But a local law prevents the jailing of a pregnant woman, so Mastroianni and Loren make sure she’s with child whenever the police come around each year to make the arrest. It’s very much in the style of De Sica’s postwar neorealism pictures (“The Bicycle Thief,” “Umberto D”), but without the gravity.

In the short middle section, the stars play very different characters. She’s a pompous, wealthy married woman who goes on a drive with a middle-class man (Mastroianni), who she’s just met and seems about to start an affair. This not very subtle assault on the bourgeoisie is completely forgettable.

Loren plays a high-priced prostitute in the last segment, who keeps delaying sex with her most devoted customer (Mastroianni) as she tries to discourage a young man studying for the priesthood from giving it all up for her. There’s much crying and shouting, playing out in the ridiculous way so many sex farces of the era did.

Throughout it all, Loren is at her loveliest and Mastroianni, especially in the final story, is clownishly hilarious as a man at the mercy of this beautiful woman. I guess that was enough for the Oscar voters: more often than not, star power takes the prize over art.


A weaker version of both “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) and “Match Point” (2005), Woody Allen’s latest starts off well enough but sputters to an end, failing to deliver a resolve with even a bit of a punch.

Its film noir plot---brothers in need of quick cash agree to take on an unsavory job----is mostly played out in a surprisingly sunny London and shot (by legendary cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond) and directed without any sense of dread or fear. Even the writing seems thin and repetitive; brothers Terry and Ian say the same thing to each other about a half dozen times and have the same argument at least four different times. There’s barely a twist or turn in this story of life-changing moral choices.

Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor play the brothers who seem to be on their way out of their dull lives. Farrell’s Terry, an obsessive gambler, has a winning streak going at the dog track and at his poker games, while McGregor’s Ian, unhappily working at his father’s restaurant, has met a vivacious, ambitious actress and plans to invest in a hotel project in Los Angeles. But the money that Terry seemed to be swimming in soon turns into a big debt he can’t begin to pay and that’s when they turn to their beloved Uncle Howard.

And, as luck would have it, the uncle shows up unexpectedly in London. But it turns out the reason he’s back in England is because he’s about to face prison if an associate testifies at an upcoming trial. Sure, he’ll bankroll their plans, but he there’s a nasty quid pro quo involved.

Tom Wilkinson, as usual, does a fine job as the less-than-admirable Howard, but the character never comes off a real, in part because so many details are left out. If he’s such a financial star, shouldn’t the news of his impending indictment have been known by the family? And never does he explain, or does anyone wonder, what he did or why he’s been targeted.

Farrell gives a strong performance as Terry, who is very conflicted over the job Howard requires of them, but McGregor’s Ian is another story. While the script wants to portray him as singularly focused on his own needs, he never acts the same way twice. Ian might as well be a different character as he inconsistently deals with his girlfriend, his brother, his parents and Howard. When the central character of your story doesn’t have any real character, you’ve got a problem.

Having said all that, this drama is more engaging that most of the comedies the writer-director has made since the turn of the century, including “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001), “Anything Else” (2003) and “Melinda and Melinda” (2004). And “Cassandra’s Dream” (the name of a boat the brothers buy) features solid acting from most the cast, especially Farrell, John Benfield as the brothers’ worn-out father and newcomer Haley Atwell as Ian’s flirty girlfriend.

Allen has absorbed quite a critical backlash in recent years, yet as recently as the late ‘90s he directed three excellent pictures, “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996), “Deconstructing Harry” (1997) and “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999). Of course, in Hollywood, eight years is a lifetime, even longer if you don’t deliver a hit or an Oscar winner.

Yet, his biggest crime seems to be his productivity----“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” to be released in a few months, a romantic comedy with Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Scarlet Johansson, will be his 9th film since 2000. Only Cate Blanchett works so often.

“Breathless,” Jean-Luc Godard’s off-handed homage to American film noir, which managed to look and sound like a documentary (shot on the streets of Paris) while creating pure movie fantasy, made him an instant star in 1960. Forty-eight years later, his first feature remains his best.

In the ‘60s, he became the critics’ darling as virtually every film he made was lauded as a landmark. But like so much of political-themed art, Godard’s work hasn’t aged well. Not helping matters are his attempts to re-invent the conventions of the cinema, with jump-cuts, fantasy scenes stuck in the middle of reality-based sequences, and the de-emphasizing traditional acting.

“Pierrot le Fou,” which generally translates to “Crazy Pete,” is a perfect example of a movie that was once considered a masterpiece and now is a total bore. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the witty, likable star of “Breathless,” plays a well-to-do businessman who runs off with his best friend’s mistress (another Godard regular and his one-time wife, Anna Karina), but what follows is far from a romantic adventure.

Karina’s Marianne turns out to be a former revolutionary who is being pursued by bad guys (the first clue that something is wrong is when a dead body is seen on her bed and a pile of automatic weapons are lying around her apartment) while Belmondo’s Ferdinand (who Marianne insists on calling Pierrot) seems content to ignore all the chaos and read paperback novels.

The highlight of “Pierrot le Fou” is a short appearance by cigar-smoking, gravelly voiced man at a party who introduces himself as such: “My name is Samuel Fuller. I’m an American film director in Paris making an action picture.”

But most of the film comes off as an episode of “The Monkees” with a political agenda. American values, along with wars in Algeria and Vietnam are Godard’s main targets.

Little has changed in 40 years for Godard. His latest feature, “Notre Musique” is another assault on the insanity of war, opening with a 10-minute montage of photos and clips showing horrific scenes of war (part real, part cinema). The main narrative follows various professors and writers (including a filmmaker played by Godard) holding a conference on war and peace and the fate of the world in Sarajevo. As interesting as some of the arguments are, I would have gotten just as much out of an hour of the “Charlie Rose Show.”

The last section of the film turns surreal, with American Indians showing up in Sarajevo and a journalist from the conference contemplating life along a waterfront guarded by Marines.

Godard’s earliest movies dealt with people---after “Breathless” there was “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961) and “My Life to Live” (1962), both starring Karina----but soon characters became stand-ins for big ideas and political stances. And while his devotion to his causes is noble, it’s been an anchor around his filmmaking neck. There are filmmakers all over the world with all manner of political causes who manage to make forceful films about those issues, but Godard would call them sell-outs (as he did Francois Truffaut). Yet, no matter how important your message is, it soon gets lost when it’s stuck in the middle of an unwatchable movie.

There’s plenty to enjoy in this HBO miniseries, adapted from Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a small Maine town, but its constantly changing tone and a very passive lead character keep it from completely succeeding.

In Empire Falls, the plant has closed and the remaining businesses are either owned or under the thumb of the city’s matriarch---all seems hopeless. Ed Harris plays Miles, who runs the dinner and dreams of breaking free of the oppressive town, but for now has his hands full with his teenage daughter (Danielle Panabaker), an ex-wife (Helen Hunt) about to remarry, her overbearing, gym owning fiancée (Dennis Farina), a chummy waitress (Theresa Russell), his mooching, shifty father (Paul Newman), the heartless, controlling city boss (Joanne Woodward), a confrontational deputy (William Fichtner) and the memories of his long-dead mother (Robin Wright Penn). And that’s just the major characters.

The three-hour plus miniseries jumps from screwball comedy to “Mayberry”-like folksiness to life-and-death intensity, shifting from one issue to another without ever finding its focus. If Harris’ Miles had been a more charismatic figure, he might have been able to pull it all together, but he’s mostly a cipher, reacting as trouble comes tumbling at him.

Director Fred Schepisi, who has done some exceptional film work, including “A Cry in the Dark” (1988), “The Russia House” (1990) and “Six Degrees of Separation” (1993), creates some enjoyable set pieces, highlighted by the flashbacks to the affair Miles’ mother had with a mysterious stranger, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. But overall the miniseries never displays the playful vitality of the similarly themed, Russo-penned “Nobody’s Fool” (1994).

Newman, who announced his retirement from acting soon after this performance, is thoroughly entertaining as the grizzled, unshaven, half-nuts old man who does and says whatever comes into his head. His trip to Key West with stolen church funds and a priest with Alzheimer’s in tow could have been a movie on its own. Instead, it’s just another ill-fitting piece to this rambling tale.

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