Wednesday, September 24, 2008

March 2005

Two or three times, on visits to New York, I almost went to see this legendary off-Broadway musical that is the longest running theatrical production in history. This old-fashioned “Carousel”-like show, written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, opened in 1960 and didn’t close until 2002, more than 17,000 performances later. But there was always something more glamorous, at least in the 1970s—“A Chorus Line,” “A Gin Game,” “Pippin,’” among others—that lured me away.

After seeing the film version, that received sporadic theatrical release before going to video, I don’t think I missed much. In fact, I’m baffled as to how this by-the-numbers small-town romance with just one catchy tune (“Try to Remember”) endured so long. Nearly every stage musical loses something in the translation to the big screen, but “The Fantasticks” seems to have lost everything—whatever that was.

Jean Louisa Kelly and Joseph McIntyre star as next-door-neighbor sweethearts whose love for one another is tested when their single fathers (Joel Grey and Brad Sullivan) foolishly interfere, getting them mixed up with a traveling troupe of performers, “The Fantasticks.” Jonathon Morris brings very little charisma to the role of El Gatto (a role originated by Jerry Orbach), the troupe’s magician/con man. The best performance in the film is given by veteran stage and screen actor Barnard Hughes as a Shakespearean actor without much of a grasp of the Bard.

This was one of the many failures of the later career of Michael Ritchie, who directed some of the best films of the 1970s, including “The Candidate” (1972), “Smile” (1975) and “The Bad News Bears” (1976). It turned out to be the last film released under his name as he died in 2001 at age 62.


The issue of revealing the endings (or crucial plot turns) of movies recently became a hot topic as part of the protest against “Million Dollar Baby.” One columnist suggested that not explaining the mid-film development that leads the characters down different paths in Eastwood’s movie would be like an art critic not describing the entire canvas of a painting. No, it’d be like a book reviewer revealing who the murderer is in a crime thriller or that the hero dies on the last page. A critic who feels the need to ruin a key plot turn either doesn’t have much to say or doesn’t care about his readers.

This romance, which didn’t do well when it was released in theaters but seems to have become a DVD hit, could serve as the perfect example of the damage done when what should be the dramatic highlight is made clear from the start.

Gena Rowlands plays a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s while James Garner portrays her husband, who stays in the same nursing home though she doesn’t recognize him. Day after day, he reads to her the story (which she wrote before her illness) of their courtship and we see it played out by young versions of their characters. In fact, the early romance makes up bulk of the picture and while it’s appealing in its telling, you never stop thinking: I know that they marry and have a bunch of kids and live happily ever after.

When it comes to art, too much information is not always good.

But for fans of Rowlands and Garner, “The Notebook” is still worth seeing. Rowlands (under the director of her son, Nick Cassavetes) captures the hazy world that Alzheimer’s sends its victims while Garner plays the ultimate devoted husband who refuses to give up on his soul mate.

BONE (1972)
This clumsily made low-budget attempt at social satire has gained, for reasons that went right over my head, something of a cult following over the years. Looking and sounding like a bad episode of a ‘70s detective show—featuring a parade of kooks all dressed in painfully colorful clothes—this picture (which later was known as “Housewife”) makes fun of the indulgences of the rich and racial stereotyping, which is certainly admirable, but does it in such a sophomoric way that it quickly dissolves into self parody.

In a home invasion robbery, Yaphet Kotto, at the time an unknown actor, orders the husband of this Beverly Hills couple (Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten) to go to his bank and take out $50,000 under the threat of raping and killing the wife. Everything is played for big-picture symbolism: instead of going to the police (or even getting the money), Duggan picks up a eccentric young woman (Jeannie Berlin) and ends up in her bed. Meanwhile, in the only interesting aspect of the film, Kotto and Van Patten form an unlikely bond and end up working together against the wayward husband.

First-time writer-director Larry Cohen went on to a prolific career in the kind of movies that once filled drive-in theaters and now go straight-to-video.

Considering his talent, Kotto’s career has been something of a disappointment. His breakthrough role came in the 1973 Bond film, “Live and Let Die,” but for every good film—“Blue Collar” (1978), “Alien” (1979), “Brubaker” (1980) and as Ida Amin in the TV movie “Raid on Entebbe” (1977)—he’s appeared in five bad ones. Maybe his best film role was as the befuddled FBI agent chasing Charles Grodin in “Midnight Run” (1988). In the 1990s, he was one of the stars of Barry Levinson’s acclaimed cop series, “Homicide: Life on the Street.”


Revisiting these two prestige pictures of the 1950s reminded me of what made that decade’s best films so interesting: While retaining the seamless production values of the previous decade, the pictures began exploring the kind of issues that would have been tiptoed around before the war. A quiet revolution was going on in Hollywood—in spite of the still-standing studio system and production code—that would lead to the complete collapse of censorship in the 1970s. Sexuality, drug use, racism, the sanctity of religion, the morals of business, even teen angst became acceptable topics for big-budget motion pictures.

In “Executive Suite,” adapted from Cameron Hawley’s best seller, a company’s board member sells his stock short after seeing the CEO die on the sidewalk, the top sales executive skips a trip to spend the night with his secretary-mistress, the chief accountant begins blackmailing members for their votes and the daughter of the company’s founder contemplates suicide. It’s all made palatable by an all-star cast of William Holden, Frederic March, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters and June Allyson. Everything leads to the climatic sequence in the board room where Holden argues to keep the company out of the bean-counter’s hands and return to the days when they took pride in their products. Sadly, his speech now sounds quaint; the very thought that a company would put quality before profitability seems insane.

“Separate Tables” goes further out on the edge. David Niven, the epitome of the smooth-talking urban Brit, plays Major Pollock, who bores his fellow boarders at the seaside Beauregard Hotel with tales of the war but turns out to be a fraud who molests women in the dark of movie theaters. Meanwhile, Burt Lancaster drinks to forget his past until it shows up at the hotel (in the person of his ex-wife, played by Rita Hayworth) and then drinks even more. Deborah Kerr plays a fatally shy, plain young woman who can’t escape her oppressive mother. There’s probably one too many “types” in this adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play, but the acting is so uniformly splendid (Niven and Wendy Hiller, as the hotel’s manager, won Oscars and Kerr was nominated) and most of the dialogue so biting that you forgive the cliches.

Just when I thought I’d seen every possible take on the Holocaust, Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox has found a new (at least to me) and fascinating approach: the lingering effect the tragedy has had on the relationship between Jews and Germans.

Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), a member of an Israeli spy agency, is assigned to track down a World War II death camp guard who recently disappeared from Argentina. Posing as a tour guide, Elay becomes the constant companion of the grandson, who’s visiting his sister, who lives in a Tel Aviv kibbutz. While the plot follows through with the hunt for the elderly war criminal, the heart of the film is about the relationship formed between Elay and the grandson, which becomes more complex when you realize that the German man is gay.

Not only does this film give you an interesting tour of Israel, but explores how different generations of Israelis connect to the Holocaust and the way Germans have handled their national guilt. The three main actors smoothly tackle these complex roles, all displaying an emotional authenticity that carries the movie.

The ending seems a bit pat and upbeat, but I felt that the film had earned its right to find a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.


While never the most productive filmmaker around, Britain’s John Boorman has consistently made smart, adventurous movies for the past 40 years. After a decade of working in British television, Boorman made his feature debut with “Catch Us If You Can” (1965)—later renamed “Having a Wild Weekend”—an attempt to do for the Dave Clark Five what “A Hard Day’s Night” did for the Beatles. But it was with his first American film, “Point Blank” (1967), that he earned his reputation as a major filmmaker. This unflinchingly brutal, existential crime thriller stars Lee Marvin as a criminal who goes to incredible lengths to get his share of the loot after being left for dead by his partner and wife. The film has grown in prestige since its release, going from cult classic to great film. It deserves a spot along side “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969) as films that, for better or worse, changed the way violence is portrayed.

Though Boorman has directed just 13 films since “Point Blank,” they include such memorable works as “Deliverance” (1972), “Excalibur” (1981), “The Emerald Forest” (1985), “Hope and Glory” (1987)—a remembrance of World War II and his finest film—and “The General” (1998).

One of his specialties is sending strangers into an exotic setting to explore how the environment can forever alter one’s life. Most recently, Boorman’s “Beyond Rangoon” (1995) starred Patricia Arquette as a politically aware tourist getting in over her head in Burma, while “The Tailor of Panama” (2001) sent a failed diplomate (Pierce Brosnan) into the political chaos of Central America. Both are flawed films but they clearly fit the theme the director started with “Deliverance” and “The Emerald Forest.”

“In My Country” tries a little too hard to be part of this lineage. Samuel L. Jackson plays a Washington Post report covering South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 who has a running argument (and you know where that leads) with a white South African poet (Juliette Binoche) also covering the proceedings. In addition to leaning on such an obvious setup—white African/black American—the script, by Ann Peacock from a book by poet Antjie Krog, fails to make these characters much more than mouthpieces for points of view and never finds a way to make the country’s pain feel real. Boorman recreates bits and pieces of the testimony by blacks persecuted under white rule and the characters discover a deserted torture chamber, but maybe because it’s all in the past tense, the emotion never reach the pitch it should.

Brendan Gleeson, who starred in Boorman’s “The General,” plays a notorious military leader who has dedicated his life to brutalizing blacks and, for no good reason, spills his guts to reporter Jackson. Gleeson, as always, gives a compelling performance but the director does a sloppy job of integrating the interview with the rest of the drama; it’s never clear if it’s one long session or continues each night.

Hopefully this won’t be the last dispatch from the 72-year-old filmmaker. His drive to explore worlds most mainstream films never go near is admirable, but, as “In My Country” makes clear, even when your heart is in the right place, what you have to say loses its impact unless you surrounding it with interesting characters and a memorable story.

CODE 46 (2004)
Michael Winterbottom, another British director whose expertise is evoking worlds we’ve never experienced, creates a cold, strick, efficient but recognizable future in his latest film. What makes this sci-fi movie more interesting to me than many of the recent offerings in this genre is that the director doesn’t fall in love with his invented world, instead focusing on the two main characters, superbly portrayed by Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton.

Many of the plot details went over my head, but I did gather that restrictions on travel make a “papelles” very valuable and the illegal copying of the passes bring William and Maria together. Robbins’ William has the ability (enhanced by some kind of drug) to read minds and uses it to ferret out the culprit at a company that manufactures the papelles. By the time he determines that Maria is the guilty party, he’s fallen for her.

If there’s one constant in film history it’s that a well-acted, emotional love affair can make up for shortcomings elsewhere in the movie. This impossible romance offers rich, complex roles for two underappreciated performers. The low-keyed Robbins, coming off his supporting actor Oscar for “Mystic River,” rarely gets mentioned in same the breathe as Penn or Washington or Spacey or Hanks but he deserves to be: Usually working with lesser material than those stars he consistently creates fully realized characters and invariably raises the emotional stakes of the film. Here he’s a super-confident professional who suddenly loses all his smarts when passion (something that seems to be all-but lost in this futurist world) enters his life.

Morton first came to prominence as the naive mute opposite Sean Penn in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999), earning an Oscar nomination for the performance. She scored another nomination for her performance as a Irish immigrant struggling to make it in New York City in “In America” (2003). Morton was also impressive in the thankless role of a barely conscious soothsayer in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002), but her best work has been done in independent movies. She was nothing short of astonishing as a junkie’s girlfriend in “Jesus’ Son” (1999) and playing a free-spirit who handles her boyfriend’s suicide in a unusual way in “Morvern Callar” (2002).

She has the ability to communicate more through her sad eyes and expressive face than almost any film actress now working. It can only be a matter of time before she’s a major star; to me she ranks with Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts (all, like Morton, hail from the former British empire) as the finest actresses under 40.

While Woody Allen’s recent films have been poor representatives of this great writer-director’s career, if an unknown director’s name was attached to them they probably would have done decent business. Allen’s reputation as an intellectual filmmaker (whatever that means) has kept the audience that would have appreciate “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001), “Hollywood Ending” (2002) and “Anything Goes” (2003) away from the theaters. These films are made for the audience that spends every weeknight watching sitcom after sitcom.

“Melinda and Melinda,” despite its high-brow setup, falls right in line with the above mentioned pictures. A pair of playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine), in a debate over the merits of tragedy and comedy, work out the same premise in their own way.

Radha Mitchell plays the central character, a woman who bursts in on a dinner party and upsets the lives of the couple hosting the get together. There’s not much else worth knowing, except that the performances (except for Mitchell in a handful of scenes) are uniformly poor and the writing so formal and overly explanatory that I doubt Allen and Diane Keaton, in their prime, could have made it interesting. In the “serious” version, Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller, as an unhappily married couple, recite their lines as if they were handed the script the night before.

On the comic side, Will Ferrell looks like he’s about to collapse as he attempts to mimic Woody’s physical and verbal style.

The jokes sound like they were stolen from older, better Allen pictures and never feel part of the flow of the dialogue. When Amanda Peet, playing Ferrell’s wife, asks him if he’s “car sick” I thought I’d been shot back in time. Has anyone been car sick since the 1960s?

Despite his dismal record in the past five years, Allen was making very good films not very long ago. In the last 10 years, he’s directed “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996), “Deconstructing Harry” (1997), “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999) and “Small Time Crooks” (2000). In other words, there’s still hope for this filmmaker who turns 70 this year. But a few more movies like “Melinda and Melinda” and even I, among his staunchest defenders, may be ready to give up.

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