Tuesday, September 23, 2008

March 2004

SAHARA (1943)
A typical made-during-the-war combat picture, "Sahara" stands out because Humphrey Bogart stars and the focus is on survival rather than war maneuvers. Bogart, a handful of his men and their tank get separated from their platoon and in their travels across the desert, pick up a band of British soldiers (with the usual old world-new world bickering), take in a German and an Italian prisoner and then out smart an entire platoon of Nazis.

Little in the film feels phony or overblown and when the good guys win the day it's believable. But there's propaganda to be found if you read between the lines. While the German prisoner never rests in his attempts to undermine the efforts of his captors, the Italian is portrayed as a likable, reluctant combatant who prefers the Americans to his Nazi allies.

In fact, J. Carrol Naish earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the Italian prisoner (It must have been a bad year for supporting actors.) A cynic would say that the American propaganda unit had put the word out in Hollywood to differentiate Italian soldiers from the ruthlessly evil Germans. You can see the same portrayals played out in other Hollywood World War II films and that perception-whether it's true or not-continues to this day.

I've forever been baffled by Robert Altman's insistence on naming this oddball lark as his favorite among his films. I assume it's like the mother who dotes on her most disappointing child; if Altman doesn't stand up for this dated ecology-minded farce no one else will. Not that Altman-among the finest filmmakers of the past 35 years-hasn't had his name on worse films; anyone who sat through "Beyond Therapy" or "O.C. and Stiggs," both 1987 disasters, can testify to that.

But there's something strangely unpleasant about watching "Brewster McCloud" as its twisted plot unfolds. The title character, played by Bud Cort, lives in the bowels of the Astrodome while he builds a set of wings in hopes of taking flight, only occasionally leaving the nest to commit a string of bizarre murders.

Sally Kellerman lingers in the background encouraging and enabling Brewster's efforts while Michael Murphy, another Altman regular, arrives from L.A. to aid the bumbling Houston police with the murder investigation. His ultra hip detective is named Shaft.

Trapped in all this chaotic action are some vague points about the graceful superiority of birds compared to the foolishness of man. If nothing else, the script by Doran William Cannon is very Altmanish. But in this case, bad Altmanish.

This film was but a blip in an incredible run of outstanding pictures directed by Altman during the early '70s. Released the same year was his groundbreaking "MASH" (1970) and in the next five years he made "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971), "Images" (1972), "The Long Goodbye" (1973), "California Split" (1974) and "Nashville" (1975). I guess the real question should be why I wasted my time watching "Brewster McCloud" again instead of one of these gems.

I've never liked any of the films made from John Grisham's books and this one, about the battle to control a jury on a civic suit against a gun maker, is particularly ridiculous. Nothing in the entire film rings true.

Only the first appearance by Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman in the same film make this even worth mentioning. Back in the 1960s, when they were both struggling actors, they roomed together. Now, after 30-plus years of stardom, they pick this awful piece of crap to co-star in.

Hoffman has been the more selective of the two, making 35 feature films (to Hackman's 77) since his 1967 debut, and because of his high-profile roles in the late 1960s and '70s, has been more acclaimed than his colleague. From his breakthrough role as Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate" (1967) until his second best actor Oscar for the idiot savant Raymond Babbitt in "Rain Man" (1988), Hoffman kept topping himself with one fascinating performance after another: Ratso Rizzo in "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), Jack Crabb in "Little Big Man" (1970), the doomed comic in "Lenny" (1974), Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein in "All the President's Men" (1976), the sincere divorced father in "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), a performance that earned him his first best actor Oscar, and as the cross-dressing, intense actor Michael Dorsey in "Tootsie" (1982).

Since 1988, Hoffman has worked more often but less successfully, appearing in 15 pictures but offering just one performances of note, his hilarious Robert Evans impersonation in "Wag the Dog" (1997). And he has at least five films that are in production and scheduled for release in the next year and a half. What's clear from his recent work, including "Runaway Jury," is that he's not a great older actor. If Hoffman doesn't have some kind of oddball quirk to hang his performance on, he barely rises above the ensemble. He's not a naturally flashy performer and that served him well when he could claw his way into a character and totally inhabit a role. Actors in their 60s rarely get those kinds of roles; instead they need to rely on screen and vocal presence to make their mark.

That's what Hackman has become a master of. Even as he appears in bad film after bad film (from most reports the recent "Welcome to Mooseport" was a new low), his star power grows. At age 74 (eight years Hoffman's senior), he makes throwaway pictures at least worth the rental price. Since he won his second Oscar, for supporting Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" (1992), Hackman has given at least a dozen memorable performances, the best of which are "Crimson Tide" (1995), "Get Shorty" (1995), "The Chamber" (1996), "The Birdcage" (1996), "Enemy of the State" (1998) "Heist" (2001) and "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001). Rotating from lead to supporting roles, he delivers even when everything else in the movie looks like the work of amateurs.

Of course, Hackman has his share of truly great performances also: as Clyde's brother in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), as a son coming to grips with his dying father in "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970), his Oscar-winning turn as Popeye Doyle in "French Connection" (1971), as the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, his finest film work, in "The Conversation" and as doomed detective Harry Moseby in "Night Moves" (1975). His career meandered after he scored box-office bonanza as Lex Luther in the "Superman" franchise, but his touching, charismatic Coach Norman Dale in "Hoosiers" (1986) kicked off the second phase of his career. He's starred in or had major supporting roles in an astonishing 36 movies since then, including a powerful performance as an FBI agent rooting out racist murderers in "Mississippi Burning" (1988).

In 2000, when I ranked the greatest actors of the 20th Century, the pair finished back to back; Hackman at No. 19, Hoffman at No. 20. I'll stick by that for now, but I'd also bet that both have a couple more great performances in them before it's all over.

I remember seeing countless Spaghetti Westerns when I was a kid on late-night TV Friday and Saturday nights. In the years before infomercials, "Saturday Night Live" and cable television, not much was on after Johnny Carson on Friday or following the 11 p.m. news on Saturday. No doubt, local channels were able to rent the foreign-made cowboy pictures at a very cheap rate. All I can recall about the ones not made by Sergio Leone is that they were hilariously dubbed and featured very weird music.

The dubbing isn't bad and Ennio Morricone's score is weird enough in "The Big Gundown," the first non-Leone Spaghetti I've seen since childhood. Turns out, it stacks up quite well against the Clint Eastwood-starring pictures.

Lee van Cleef, the "Bad" from the classic "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and one of the legendary villains of Westerns, stars as Jonathan Corbett, as close to a good guy as Cleef ever played. Deputized by a railroad mogul to hunt down a Mexican renegade (played by Tomas Milian) who has been accused of the rape-murder of a young girl, Corbett leisurely rides from one border outpost to another, often encountering the well-known Cuchillo Sanchez, but never capturing him.

One of the oddest episode occurs when Corbett finds Cuchillo at a ranch owned by a sadistic young woman. She seems to enjoy watching her ranch hands beat the crap out of new hires after she's had sex with them. She tries to allure Corbett into her web, but instead he shoots down her entire crew.

When the big gundown finally happens, it's a classic Old World vs. New World battle, with Corbett facing off with the rich guy's Prussian sharpshooter (complete with cape and monocle).

Van Cleef, who has his own prop, a long stemmed pipe, gives a very good Spaghetti performance: cool, sarcastic and mysterious. Milian, a Cuban actor who had a long career in Europe and still appears in small roles in American films, comes off as the Mexican Paul Newman; good looking, resourceful and enjoying every moment of the chase.

The fine acting, quirky script and Sergio Sollimi's stylish direction make this one of the better Westerns of the 1960s.

Mel Gibson deserves accolades for what he's accomplish in making this film. If I had a dime for every time I've read about a director or actor lamenting how their "dream" project never reached the screen because studio backing kept falling through, I'd be a movie producer. Gibson used his production company, Icon, to fund the film and handle the distribution (even on independent films, a major studio usually purchases the distribution rights), and then stirred up enough controversy to make the most savvy movie flack envious. Attention moviemakers: If you want artistic freedom, this is how you get it. The cardinal rule of moviemaking has always been to never put your own money into a film, but it's a greedy commandment. If you want to take an artistic risk, take a financial one as well.

That said, I found the results of Gibson's passion hard to endure. This is a motion picture as demographically focused as a teenage sex comedy. Unlike most depictions of the final hours of the life of Christ-which strive to inspire, even convert-the goal of "The Passion" seems to be to gratify true believers and (literally) hammer home the severity of Jesus' suffering.

Let me disclose at this point that I am a lapsed Protestant, having abandoned the faith during my college years. But I'm certainly familiar with the Bible and the entire litany of Judeo-Christian mythology having enduring my weekly dose of Sunday school as a schoolboy. But being a non-believer doesn't mean I'm not moved by the power of the Passion play.

I've rarely seen a more stirring stage production than "Jesus Christ Superstar," the rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice. Both as a theatrical piece and a record album, the work probably did more to popularize Jesus among the youth than any single event of the 20th Century. When the record was released in 1970, everyone was talkin' 'bout JC. In its time, it too was controversial in that it sympathized with Judas and actually gave Jesus a personality.

In 1977, Franco Zefferilli's masterful movie, "Jesus of Nazareth" aired on American television. Solemn, respectful and as literal as Gibson's version, "Jesus of Nazareth" is an astonishing picture that brings to life, like no other film every has, the inspirational rapture that has made millions upon millions believe in this god turned man. Overflowing with brilliant moments of acting by the all-star supporting cast and centered on the unblinking calmness of Robert Powell's Christ, "Jesus of Nazareth" ranks with the best movies ever made for television. If Zefferilli's movie doesn't make a believer out of you, you're hopeless. (In other words, I've already made my reservations in hell.)

The third great representation of Christ in my lifetime is Martin Scorsese's film version of Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis' "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). Christians and Jews alike condemned Scorsese's movie (most before seeing it) as blasphemy. For those who believe in the Gospel truth, well, it probably is blasphemy. For those who are open to the idea that Jesus had the same feelings and doubts as mortal men, the film can be a transforming experience. Scorsese, a lifelong Catholic, gave us the most vital and believable Christ yet imagined.

Gibson dispenses with any back story or introduction, opening the film with Jesus have a little tete-a-tete with Satin (who appears to have just walked in from a David Lynch film) before he's rounded up by soldiers under the command of the Jewish high priests. Thus begins Jesus's long day's journey to crucifixion. What separates Gibson's story from those told before is the depiction of the punishment metered out to Jesus.

I'm sure as a non-Christian I'm missing something, but what purpose does it serve to show this prophet receiving the most brutal beating any individual in movie history has endured. From the moment he's arrested, soldiers and citizens and rabbis use him as a human punching bag. Then Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, orders him lashed. In the past, 39 lashes was the accepted punishment Jesus received. In this film, after that's done, the masochistic torturers pull out an even deadlier whip-like weapon and turn his body into a pool of blood. No mortal man could have survived this punishment and that's clearly Gibson's point. But if anyone missed it, there's another 30 minutes of Jesus carrying his cross out of town to the site of his crucifixion. He falls head first about six times during this portion of his torture. (While this is no criticism of the film, I've never understood why the victims of crucifixion bothered to carry these huge pieces of lumber that were to be used in their execution. Why not refuse and be killed immediately rather than facing much worse pain and then death?)

At some point (for me, during the whippings), the nonstop violence loses its impact, in fact, becomes boring. Like an overheated horror flick, the gore becomes just another special effect.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Gibson's career shouldn't be surprised by the violence in "The Passion of the Christ." Starting with his Mad Max films and escalating in recent years in the "Lethal Weapon" series, his Oscar-winning "Braveheart" (1995), the brutal "Payback" (1999) and two bloody war movies, "The Patriot" (2000) and "We Were Soldiers" (2002), the actor-director has made bone-crunching, realistic violence his signature. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But in Gibson's films I don't detect much interest in the psychology of violent acts, just a way to boost the box office take. And that's certainly been the case with "The Passion of the Christ."

As for the much-discussed anti-Semitic leanings of the film: It's hard to ignore the fact that the only Jews given any sense of humanity are Jesus and those close to him. The rest are foaming at the mouth cartoons screaming for Jesus' death. (Why do they care of much? Gibson skips that plot point). But I don't think this version differs much from any other I've seen. The Jewish high priests are always the bad guys.

If you believe in the Bible, of course, you know that the crucifixion was the plan all along for Jesus, so no group can be blamed anything that happens. Judas, the Jews, the Romans are but pawns in God's plans for his son. But a movie needs its villains. If the story was rewritten today in Hollywood, they'd add an Arab or two to do the dirty work.

What makes this film so interesting isn't what's on screen, Gibson's plodding direction or the unremarkable acting (Jim Caviezel continues a long tradition of bringing nothing but mournful eyes to the role of Jesus), but that in 2004 a subtitled, incredibly violence movie based on a Bible story can gross over $300 million in five weeks. Now that's a real miracle.

This minor, lightweight crime picture is worth a look for the co-star pairing of the Brothers Barrymore, their first since 1917.

John plays a rich, dashing playboy who Lionel, playing a Paris detective, suspects of being the notorious thief of the unpronounceable title. It's all very French, with John seducing a police informant (Karen Morley) with some decidedly unsubtle lines.

The leisurely paced cat-and-mouse game plays out predictably, but not before John gets to trick Lionel by disguising himself as a long-bearded, elderly street peddler. The brothers both ham it up and seem to be having the time of their lives.

John, then 50, was already a major star having establish himself as probably the greatest dramatic actor of the American silents. While he never achieved that level of success in the sound era, he gave impressive performances in "Grand Hotel" (1932), "A Bill of Divorcement" (1932)--as Katharine Hepburn's irresponsible father--and "Dinner at Eight" (1933) to go along with his two great comic roles, as the egotistical stage director in "Twentieth Century" (1934) and as yet another millionaire playboy in "Midnight" (1939).

Older by four years, Lionel was the supporting player of the family and continued to excel in small roles after arthritis confided him to a wheelchair. While he appearing in dozens of major films in the 1930s and '40s, his most popular performances were his annual turn as Scrooge in the radio production of "A Christmas Carol" and his role as Dr. Gillespie in the "Dr. Kildare" movie series.

The brothers acted together again the next year in "Rasputin and the Empress," which also starred sister Ethel.

The great Philadelphia acting family didn't extend to the next generation. John Barrymore Jr., who never knew his father, resembled the old man only in his love of drinking. He made dozens of bad movies and then dropped out of society. It took his daughter, Drew Barrymore, to returned the Barrymore name to star status. She has the profile of her grandfather but the infectious enthusiasm she brings to the screen more closely resembles her great uncle Lionel. But like all the Barrymores, Drew is never shy about hamming it up.

There's no question that given the right role, Julia Roberts can dominate a picture. Her work in "Erin Brockovich" (2001), which earned her a best actress Oscar, and even some of her light comedy roles, reveal an actress whose nervous energy and offhanded sensuality add up to a remarkable screen personality. But in too many other roles, less developed and lacking sharp dialogue, Roberts comes off as a stand-in for the real star of the movie.

This unfocused and thinly constructed look at a group of Wellesley College students circa 1953 and the art teacher trying to introduce a world beyond marriage to the young women desperately needs a strong lead performance. I can imagine Michele Pfeiffer in the 1980s or Jane Fonda in the 1970s turning this character-an independent-minded teacher whose attitudes prefigure the 1960s-into a meaningful, memorable role. Roberts looks tired and confused most of the movie and doesn't display enough spark to inspire a classroom of kindergarten students.


Since I first started reading about movies in the late 1970s, this French film has been high on my list of films I wanted (needed) to see. My 25-year wait finally ended with the re-release of this chronicle of the Muslim uprising against French occupiers in the early 1960s. And I wasn't disappointed.

The action and acting (mostly by amateurs) is so compelling that you think you're watching newsreel footage of the actual rebellion. (At one point, the producers added a line to the closing credits stating that no documentary footage was used in the film.)

Set almost entirely in the confiding, labyrinth Casbah section of this North African capital, director Gillo Pontecorvo perfectly balances the stances of the two sides: the frustrations of the Algerians after years of being second-class citizens in their own country; the hatred of the French for the terrorism used by the rebels to provoke them. I don't know enough about the conflict to state how accurate the film portrays each side, but while I was watching I never doubted its authenticity. It's believable history and exciting drama and certainly one of the best movies of the 1960s.

Pontecorvo was just 46 when he directed "Battle of Algiers," earning Academy Award nominations for best director and best screenplay in 1968 after winning the top prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival. He should have gone on to be one of the key directors of the 1960s and '70s. Instead has directed just two features since (plus a handful of documentaries and shorts); "Burn!" (1969), a well-made study of a soldier of fortune played by Marlon Brando, and "Orgo" (1979), an acclaimed look at the end of Franco's dictatorship in Spain. His earlier drama, "Kapo" (1960), about a German concentration camp, earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Ingmar Bergman, the world's pre-eminent filmmaker, hasn't made a feature film for more than 20 years, having retired to write screenplays, work in the theater and occasionally direct movies for Swedish television. In fact, one of his recent TV movies, "Saraband" will be released theatrically in the U.S. this summer.

But for those who miss the brooding, introspective tragedy of the great Bergman films of the past, "Faithless," an intense drama about an affair that was written by the 85-year-old master and directed by his most luminous interpreter Liv Ullmann, fills the bill remarkably well. In fact, I can't imagine director Bergman improving on the work of director Ullmann.

What makes this story of a happily married woman whose summer affair ends up destroying her marriage so riveting is an astonishingly powerful performance by Lena Endre. She's telling her story (though you see most of the key events played out with the other characters) to a screenwriter who may be an older version of one of the characters, but since he's named Bergman you could also assume that he's the writer working through his story and Endre's character is part of his imagination. Yet the vague, mystical aspects of the film's structure don't alter the heart of the film. Bergman's script pulls away the sheets, exposing the hard-to-watch, painful side effects of this couple's blissful sex. Especially heartbreaking is seeing the sad look of the woman's daughter (Michelle Gylemo) when she realizes she's being pushed out of her mother's life.

There's plenty of real-life back story to all this: in addition to being a key actress in Bergman's films, Ullmann was also his mistress for many years. In addition, veteran Bergman actor Erland Josephson, who plays the writer's alter-ego again in this film, co-starred with Ullmann in another Bergman study of matrimony, "Scenes from a Marriage" (1973), and its sequel, the upcoming "Saraband."

"Faithless" is a long (nearly two and a half hours) and difficult movie, but like most Bergman works, its rewards are well worth the effort.

Charlie Kaufman is on a roll. The screenwriter's outlandish plots and needy characters have made "Being John Malkovich" (1999), "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002), "Adaptation" (2002) and now "Eternal Sunshine" among the most interesting pictures of the past six years. I can't remember a writer producing so many memorable scripts in a short period of time since Woody Allen was in his prime. I'm not discounting the contributions of directors Spike Jonze, George Clooney or Michel Gondry, but all of these films are so clearly the product of the same, somewhat mad, mind that it's hard not to give a big slice of the credit to Kaufman.

In the new film, Jim Carrey plays Joel, another of Kaufman's unkempt loners who seem baffled by the workings of the rest of the world. The plot begins spinning in fourth-dimensional haywire when Joel attempts to give his girlfriend of a year, Clementine, (Kate Winslet) a gift and she doesn't recognize him. Turns out she's gone to Lacuna, Inc., a company right out of a bad sci-fi film that will erase all memories of a person you want to forget. Upset and confused, Joel decided to erase his memory of her also.

The centerpiece of this kaleidoscope of a film takes place while company employees, played by Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst, attempt to clean Joel's mind of Clementine and he begins to fight it. At first confusing, these scenes portray both the dissolving relationship and the surreal version of their experiences playing out in Joel's mind. This film not only goes through the looking glass, it keeps jumping in and out of it.

Once all the pieces start fitting together, it turns out that the "Eternal Sunshine," beyond its mind-bending structure, offers some interesting perspectives on the nature of relationships and the balancing act our minds do in weighing good and bad memories.

The video background of director Gondry, whose previous partnership with Kaufman resulted in the critically ridiculed "Human Nature" (2001), made him the perfect filmmaker to bring this visually overwhelming tale to the screen.
Carrey delivers one of his most focused performances while Winslet steals every scene she's in, managing to create a free-spirited girl-gone-wild while never losing sight of the real person behind the heavy-drinking and multi-colored hair. Because the movie has such a fractured plot, it would have been easy for Kaufman and the actors to stick with simplistic characters, but instead their humanity is the picture strongest element.

No comments: