Friday, September 19, 2008

March 2003

NARC (2002)
This is yet another movie filled with corrupt detectives beating the hell out of drug-abusing suspects to get information on the killing of an undercover cop. In truth, the film is about giving showy roles to a pair of one-time sure-fire stars whose careers are sputtering.

Jason Patric, the low-keyed actor whose best role was as a drug-using cop in "Rush" (1991), and Ray Liotta, a scenery chewer who was the star of "GoodFellas" (1990), bark at each other and criminal types for 100 minutes before the truth about Liotta's dead partner is revealed.

Each actor has his moments but the accumulative effect is little more than a stream of noisy obscenities. (3/03)

LOVE AND A .45 (1994)
Two years before she became a star as a wholesome single mom in "Jerry Maguire," Renee Zellweger was sowing her acting oats as a randy, white trash killer-on-the-run in this violent B movie.

Director C. M. Talkington (sounds like a pseudonym to me) combined "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) with "Natural Born Killers" (1994) for an orgy of bleeding bodies and foul-mouthed Texas hicks. Zellweger and her boyfriend (Gil Bellows) head for Mexico after trigger-happy Zellweger takes out a couple of local deputies. Along the way, they tie the knot, stop in to give her parents (a pair of potheads played at full-tilt by Peter Fonda and Ann Wedgeworth) the happy news and avoid a collection of old friends anxious to kill them before they reach the border.

A bit more humor and a tad less blood-letting and this might have been a pretty good film. Instead, we're left with a handful of entertaining scenes and the comic imagine of the ever-smiling Zellweger, in her cutoffjeans and revealing tops, firing an oversized .45. (3/03)

Maybe it's just me, but this kind of standard-issue Hollywood product proved to be wonderfully entertaining in the 1930s and in the 1940s and in the 1950s and in the 1960s and in the 1970s and then....something happened.

This very loosely told tale (from a Donald Westlake novel) follows a rag-tag collection of robbers whose attempt to steal of precious diamond from a museum goes terribly wrong.

The unlikely pairing of Robert Redford and George Segal proves to make this comic heist film very watchable. The ever affable, bumbling Segal is the perfect foil for Redford, the very serious brains of the outfit who doesn't really look gritty enough for his ex-con role, but knows methodical intensity as well as anyone. Adding to the film's comic kick is Zero Mostel as a shady lawyer who interferes with the gang's plans.

The movie was directed by Peter Yates ("Bullitt" and "Breaking Away") and scripted by William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Marathon Man"), which probably answers my initial query. All through cinema history, quality directors and screenwriters worked on everything but the most minor of pictures. Then, in the mid to late 1980s, Hollywood decided that anything short of a potential blockbuster or Academy Award contender could be handled by a director whose background consists of a couple of shoe commercials and a Van Halen video, while the script would be passed around among a dozen or so writers until it was complete drained of its wit and originality. (3/03)


You've got to give Robin Williams credit; he's really trying to bury his "Mrs. Doubtfire" image. last summer, he held his own opposite Al Pacino in "Insomnia." As a twisted killer too smart for his own good, he pulls a trick out of the Bob Mitchum bag by speaking his lines very quietly and deliberately while Pacino's detective rants and raves. It's very effective--in that film.

In "One Hour Photo" the same characterization of evil comes off as a goofy creation from an SNL skit. As the photo guy in a WalMart-like store who becomes way too attached to a customer's family, Williams doesn't offer much to help us understand this nut, but then the script doesn't offer much either.

This might have been a quirky little thriller had the screenwriter eased up on the heavy dramatics and tossed in some black humor. Instead, it quickly falls apart after its well-crafted, creepy setup. The screenwriter (and director) Mark Romanek had a decent premise, but didn't know where to go with it. (Needless to say, his previous work was as a music-video director.) (3/03)

In the early 1930s, prison films were all the rage. What's surprising about the best of these films-"The Big House" (1930), "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932) and "Hell's Highway"-is the brutally honest portrayal of both the criminals and the inhuman conditions of prison life.

"Hell's Highway" opens with the death of a young prisoner in a "hot box"-a small tin shack that disobedient convicts are shackled into and left to roast.

Richard Dix, a big star of the era who is now all but forgotten, plays the scrappy leader of the convicts, whose toughness is compromised when his younger brother joins him in the prison road gang. Just a shade over an hour long, this Rowland Brown-directed picture is half social commentary and half teary melodrama. It climaxes with the prisoners burning down the camp and the arrest of the corrupt officials.

Brown only directed two more films and spent the rest of his career as a screenwriter. He's probably best know as one of the writers on "What Price Hollywood?" (1932), the precursor to "A Star Is Born." (3/03)

As much as I admire Spencer Tracy's abilities as an actor, I've never found his performances riveting or felt he was able to elevate a film with his presence. He was at his best when reacting to his co-star, whether it was Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable or even Mickey Rooney.

In this John Ford political homily, Tracy plays a beloved Irish mayor during his final re-election campaign in a Boston-like city. All the political maneuvering, even the favoritism and cronyism and underhanded trickery, is played with the wink-and-a-nod style Ford often lapsed into. "The Last Hurrah" has no chance of showing up on a list of top political film, but it should have been much more entertaining than it turned out.

There are plenty of character actors to keep the energy level high-the irascible John Carradine as Tracy's rival, the greatest Irishman of all time, O'Brien as Tracy's top lieutenant and James Gleason as another sidekick-but what's really needed is a larger-than-life performance from the star. Needless to say, James Cagney would have turned this into a classic, but even the charismatic presence of a Gable or Wayne would have made it a helluva lot more fun.

But Tracy is Tracy: calm and deliberate no matter what kind of fireworks the scene demands.

This was the third time I've watched "The Last Hurrah" and I found more to like about it this time, but I also finally discovered why the film has never work for me. The star is miscast. (3/03)

No one should have to sit through this sophomoric attempt at a Woody Allen-imitation romantic comedy directed by and starring Mike Binder. Binder writes himself sarcastic, self-deprecating dialogue that he delivers with all the panache of a freshman drama student. What's amazing is that despite showing no special talent in any phase of moviemaking, he's gotten films made (if not released) and even had his own a cable series ("The Mind of the Married Man").

The obvious question becomes: Why the hell did I watch it? Co-starring with Binder is Mariel Hemingway, who has been my favorite actress since she starred as Allen's young paramour in "Manhattan." Twenty-four years later, the granddaughter of the great writer mostly appears in straight-to-video or cable movies-hard-to-find bad films that I eventually ferret out. If it isn't obvious, my devotion has little to do with acting skills.

The previous Binder-Hemingway pairing, "The Sex Monster" (1999), was slightly better. The intriguing scenario is launched when husband Binder suggests that the couple try threesome sex. His hopes for wild fun backfires when Hemingway finds sex with females preferable to relations with her husband. It's all played for laughs and handled with a PG-13 sensibility.

"Londinium" also stars Irene Jacob ("Three Colors: Red"), Colin Firth ("Bridget Jones's Diary") and Stephen Frey ("Gosford Park"), all respectable, successful actors that shouldn't be seen anywhere near a movie of this quality. The plot isn't worth explaining, the acting wooden and even the beauty of Paris is underutilized.

Hemingway's career started its decline following two exceptional performances: as the young athlete in Robert Towne's "Personal Best" (1982) and doomed Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratton in Bob Fosse's "Star 80" (1983). She never seemed to find the right roles, starring in a failed thriller, "The Mean Season" (1985) and a failed comedy "Creator" (1985), before slipping into second-rate made-for-TV movies and straight-to-video junk. Her best work since 1983 has been as lawyer Sydney Guilford in the smart TV series "Civil Wars," that ran from 1991 to 1993.

Among her recent TV stuff was a humorous turn as Tipper Gore in the sarcastic VH-1 movie "Warning: Parental Advisory" (2002), about Al's wife's crusade against rock music. It's been a long 20 years in Hemingway's career, but she's just 41 so they're still hope she can turn it around.

Believe me, if Ms. Hemingway shows up in anything worthwhile, you'll be the first to know. (3/03)

Every critic and his brother found a spot for this artsy animated film from Japan on their top 10 list for 2002. The man most responsible for "Spirited Away," Hayao Miyazaki, is clearly an extremely talented artist, creating animated images than make the recent Disney efforts look like Saturday morning cartoons. But you know what? Some of those cartoons (don't even get me started on Bugs Bunny, maybe the greatest film performer of all time) tell great stories and are populated with wonderful characters. I wasn't enthralled with the story or the characters that were so admirably drawn in "Spirited Away."

The premise had promise: a young girl finds herself separated from her parents, caught in a world of spirits. The spirits run what seems like a spa for other spirits and to survive the girl connives her way into a job. Then some evil spirits show up and a young boy turns into a dragon to do some kind of misdeeds for the evil overseers of the spa and suddenly this cartoon was way too confusing for me.

I loved Saturday morning cartoons-the Warner Bros. and MGM classics-and even now I'll stop flipping at the Cartoon Network if a great Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng short is showing. I rank "Pinocchio" (1940) and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) among the best films of their era and recent years I've listed "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Aladdin," "Beauty and the
Beast" and "Monsters, Inc." among my best films of the year. But the achievement of those films is timeless stories and memorable characters; the animation is secondary. Cartoons deserve to be judged like every other movie. (3/03)

There's much potential in this film's setup: A free-living, hippie record producer residing in the hip Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon gets a visit from her uptight son and his East Coast debutante fiancee. Making it more appealing is the casting of Frances McDormand as the unapologetic, blunt mother and the up-and-coming star Kate Beckinsale as the fiancee. The writer-director is Lisa Cholodenko, who helmed the smart indie film "High Art" (1998).

But there is a stone in this shoe. Christian Bale, onetime child actor who was quite good in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" (1987), has grown up into a bad actor. The role isn't fleshed out very well by the script, but Bale does little to help. His stiff line readings and deep, emotionless voice sink nearly ever scene he's in.

The film is sexy and alluring when it focuses on Beckinsale's growing fascination with McDormand's rock 'n' roll life, especially her young singer-boyfriend, but it quickly turns dull as Bale enters the scene.

Maybe the best performance in "Laurel Canyon" is giving by Natascha McElhone, playing Bale's fellow doctor intern, who wastes little time before pursuing the clearly discontented Bale. I first took notice of her last year in Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris." She was perfect as George Clooney's deceased wife who reappears to him at a haunted space station. McElhone has a commanding, assured, but ethereal presence in both films, and a beauty that has less to do with her youth (32) than in the way she communicates with few lines her characters' complexity.

Unlike most young actors, there seems to be a lot going on behind her piercing eyes. I'll be shocked if she doesn't break through with a major role in the next year or so. (3/03)

From his breakthrough year in 1972--when he was brilliant in both the low-budget "Tomorrow" and the biggest box-office hit of the decade, "The Godfather"--through his masterful performance as Gus McCrae in the 1989 miniseries, "Lonesome Dove," Robert Duvall was among the finest movie actors. Then he fell in love with his acting skills.

I first noticed his mannerisms taking over his characters in "Rambling Rose" (1991). Since then, nearly everything I've seen him in (more than a dozen pictures) has been tainted by his
look-at-my-amazing-ability-to-make-everything-I-do-into-a-brilliant-piece-of-acting-business style of performing.

After his back-to-back Oscar nomination for "The Apostle" (1997) and "A Civil Action" (1998), I knew I was in the minority about Duvall's decline.

He wrote, directed and stars in "Assassination Tango," playing an egotistical hit man who loves to dance. The role and the plot are hard-to-swallow movie conceits, but if Duvall was at the top of his game he could pull if off. But nothing has changed. He turns every scene into an acting seminar; exploding in anger without provocation, making a big deal out of the most unimportant of actions and generally making the other actors seems out of sync. And he rarely looks anyone in the eyes, further isolating his performance. Duvall turns walking down the street or eating a sandwich into a diverting acting trick.

Director Duvall doesn't do much better. The plotting of the assassination is pedestrian and the tango scenes, co-starring his real-life girlfriend Luciana Pedraza, aren't integrated into the film--they play like a documentary tossed in the middle of a political thriller.

The final, indulgent years of Duvall's career (he's 72) can't erase the greatness of his earlier work, but they are starting to leave an unpleasant taste. (3/03)

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