Sunday, September 21, 2008

May 2003

THE BIG CITY (1937) This is a curious romance starring Spencer Tracy and Luis Rainer, when both were the hottest actors in Hollywood (Tracy won back-to-back Oscars in 1937-38 and Rainer did the same in 1936-37). He’s a struggling cabby and she’s his immigrant wife. Things get messy when a labor dispute (led by William Demarest in a rare bad-guy role) leads to the district attorney’s attempt to deport Rainer.

After the usual complications and resolutions, the whole tangled web is unraveled in a giant brawl on the New York docks. Fighting for the good guys are such real-life notables as former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe and a collection of strange-looking wrestlers who no doubt where famous in 1937. Tracy, desperate to save his wife from deportation, gathers the sports figures from a banquet at Dempsey famous Broadway restaurant. The film is probably of more interest to sports fans than movie fans.

It was only the fifth U.S. film of Rainer’s short career. She retired in 1943 and has only made a handful of TV appearances and one movie, “The Gambler” (1997), since. But at age 93, she was among those who gathered for the reunion of Oscar winners at March’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Director Frank Borzage was among the best romantic-comedy directors of the 1930s, reaching his peak with another 1937 release, “History Is Made at Night.”

Before they made what we now know as kid’s movies, Hollywood made kids-and-animal pictures. About the only films that were made before 1960 with a youth audience in mind were movies about lovable pets. Or, in this case, horses.

This Fred Zinnemann-directed picture is as silly as the title, with Rat-Packer-to-be Peter Lawford as a young man trying to improve his lot so he can marry his long-time sweetheart (Beverly Tyler). That’s when his little brother’s talent comes in handy.

Soon, everyone is down at the track, betting on the hunches that Lewie (Jackie “Butch” Jenkins, who played Elizabeth Taylor’s little brother in “National Velvet”) gets from talking to the horses in the race. (Apparently, the horses fix the race ahead of time and no one seems to care that the horses are unethical.)

More entertaining than the young horse whisperer is his free-spirited mother, played wonderfully by Spring Byington. Among her eccentricities is her insistence that everyone do yoga stretching before dinner.

This British spy mystery has all the trappings of an Alec Guinness vehicle: a gloomy, naive protagonist thrown into an extraordinary circumstance while surrounded by a group of off-beat characters. But Alec was still a West End stage star at the time and wouldn’t begin his amazing film career for two years, in David Lean’s “Great Expectations” (1946). But James Mason gives a perfectly fine Guinness-like performance.

One of a group of international vacationers at a French resort, Mason is arrested by police when he goes into town to pick up his developed film. It turns out that half of his roll is pictures of a nearby military installment. Though the cops know he’s innocent, they use his shaky passport status to force him to attempt to ferret out the spy among the hotel guests.

The 35-year-old Mason had just became a major British film star the previous year, in “The Man in Grey” and would become a bigger star after hits with “The Seventh Veil (1945) and “Odd Man Out” (1947). His long career, that continued until his death in 1984, includes as many bad films as good ones, but at his best--the above films plus “Five Fingers” (1952), “A Star Is Born” (1954), “Lolita” (1962), “The Verdict” (1982)--he was one of the finest actors of his generation.

I don’t know why, but “Hotel Reserve” is credited to three (long-forgotten) directors: Lance Comfort, Max Greene and Victor Hanbury. Other than anthology films, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with more than two credited directors.


        After making two brilliant mockumentary comedies-“Waiting for Guffman” (1997) and “Best in Show” (2000)--writer-director-star Christopher Guest has gone back to the same well one too many times. His latest satire, poking gently (much too gently) at folk music of the 1960s features a handful of genuinely funny scenes and a couple of sharply drawn caricatures, but overall is way too soft and sympathetic to rank with his previous efforts.

While the subject seems ripe for satire, Guest runs out of material not long after introducing the principals, who are reuniting for a tribute concert following the death of a key record producer of the folk movement. Excellent performances are again delivered by Guest’s company of comic actors, but the material, written by Guest and Eugene Levy, just doesn’t have much of a bite.

Central to the weakness of “A Might Wind” is the Folksman, one of the groups reunited for the tribute show and played by the trio from “This Is Spinal Tap” (the godfather of these types of films, directed by Rob Reiner in 1984), Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean. Beyond the transformation of the hair “styles” and a few remembrances of day’s past, the trio has nothing much to contribute to the film other than bickering about what songs to perform at the show.

With more potential is Mitch & Mickey, the stars of the long-gone hipster scene, who haven’t spoken in decades. Despite being played by Levy and Catherine O’Hara, two of the best comic actors of the past 25 years, the duo comes off too real, too believable. By the end of the film, you care about them--not in a side-splitting, let’s-have-a-laugh-at-their-expense way, but in a sentimental, traditional movie way. Take away some of the more outrageous characters--Fred Willard’s incredibly stupid agent and Jane Lynch’s porn star turned color-worshiping folkie--and this could be just another bland Hollywood comedy.

Lynch, who played the butch dog trainer in “Best of Show,” delivers the best lines in the film, as she matter-of-factly discusses her career in porn films, as a member of the unctuous, ever-smiling Main Street Singers and her and her husband’s (John Michael Higgins) obsession with the power of colors. Her’s is the only character in the film that ranks with the great portrays in Guest’s earlier works.

Guest was bound to slip after creating some of the funniest characters in recent movie history: In “Waiting for Guffman” there was Willard and O’Hara as the travel agents who see themselves as great actors; Guest as Corky St. Clair, the guiding force behind the small-town pageant and Levy as the singing dentist.

And just about the entire cast in “Best of Show”: Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock as a troubled young couple obsessed with their dog; O’Hara as Cookie Fleck, who has slept with everyone she ever met; Willard’s dog show commentator who delivers every bad joke ever imagined; and Guest as Harlan Pepper who loves his bloodhound and longs to become a ventriloquist.

Heady stuff to be compared to and “A Might Wind” can’t. But I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing the new film; it’s still smarter than most American comedies. Just don’t expect the pitch-perfect insight Guest has offered in the past.

WIT (2001)
Is there anything more depressing than living out one’s final days as a patient being shuffled from one humiliating medical procedure to another, slowly slipping away in the sterile surroundings of a hospital’s cancer ward? This ironically titled HBO movie, essentially a one-woman show that was adapted by its star, Emma Thompson, from a play by Margaret Edson, seemingly pulls no punches in offering a bird’s eye view of the suffering of a patient going through chemotherapy.

I’m not a big fan of actors talking directly to the camera, but Thompson, as a devoted poetry professor who’s illness is diagnosed as ovarian cancer, pulls it off. The character’s dry wit, self awareness and literary background turn this dying woman into a real person; as she suffers more and more indignations it becomes very hard to watch.

Thompson, who was the hottest actress in movies in the early 1990s, has pulled back from big-time movies--probably for the lack of good roles for a 44-year-old woman. “Wit” reaffirms her status as one of the most talented actresses in the world. And for director Mike Nichols, better know for comedies like “The Graduate” (1967), “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “Working Girl” (1988), this may be the rawest, most uncompromising picture he’s made since his debut in 1966, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

I rented “Wit,” coincidentally, a few weeks after one of my oldest friends died of cancer after months of hospital treatment. As sad as the death of a 46-year-old is, the thought that he had to struggling through the type of existence chronicled in “Wit” makes it worse. And if he would have lived longer, that was the life he had to look forward to. Simply heartbreaking.

TICKER (2001)
When I recorded this straight-to-video action film off TV I knew I was deep into B-movie territory, but based on the cast--Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper and Steven Seagal--I was expecting 90-minutes of over-the-top entertainment. Instead, I suffered through one of the least entertaining bad movies I’ve ever encountered.

I knew I was in trouble when the credits revealed the director: Albert Pyun. A low-budget legend, Pyun has been directing movies for 20 years, creating straight-to-video blood-letting epics with titles like “Nemesis III: Prey Harder” or “Adrenalin: Fear the Rush.” At least, this veteran filmmaker would bring the steady hand of a professional to the project, right?

Wrong. “Ticker” is as ineptly constructed as any action film you’re likely to see. More explosions than you can count rip through building after building, sending bodies flying through the streets of San Francisco, but the events are so clumsily staged that they have zero cinematic impact. The stars seem to be always hovering in side alleys and walkways but never in the action (read: the explosions were all separate shoots edited in later). And the bad guys usually stand beside their explosives until the cops arrive. The slight narrative makes little sense--mad bomber Hopper makes life miserable for S.F. cops Sizemore and Seagal--and the editing so choppy it’s often unclear where characters are or how they got there. And then there is the acting.

Not to make any irresponsible accusations, but I can’t believe they weren’t passing out depressants on the set. Sizemore, a fine actor as he showed in “Heat” (1995), “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995), and “Black Hawk Down” (2001), plays the most soft-spoken, timid investigator in the history of law enforcement. Nothing wrong with a sensitive cop, but Sizemore’s Nettles seems more like an out-patient than a crime stopper. One of the highlights of this mess is when Sizemore rushes into the bomb squad’s offices and demands that they go out and find one of Hopper’s bombs set to explode soon. Half-asleep Seagel, the guru, err, leader of the squad, tells Sizemore to chill and do some detective work. He has to explain to Sizemore that cops find the bombs and his team disarms them. Sizemore’s character needs to get out to the movies more often.

Seagal is even more low-keyed than usual, mumbling his lines Brando-like and offering up philosophical gems like, “Death is just another stage on the playground.” That’s as clever as “Ticker” gets.

Hopper, who just a few years ago, was Hollywood’s favorite supporting actor and as recently as 1986 gave two amazing performances, as the demonic Frank in “Blue Velvet” and as the alcoholic assistant coach in “Hoosiers,” is strictly a B-movie actor now. His menacing stare and unsubtle line delivery is out of fashion, though he was a fine villain in the first season of the TV series, “24.”

In “Ticker,” he plays an Irishman, with a weak brogue that fades in and out, who goes on a bombing rampage after his girlfriend-partner is arrested. While he keeps making grandiose statements about what greatness he’s accomplishing, the script fails to offer up any real reasons for his mayhem or even why he has all these powerful explosive devices (as Seagel tells Sizemore, don’t use the B-word!) at his disposal.

As Seagal disarms a few bombs (opps, sorry) while reciting Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer, and Sizemore looks aimlessly around for something to do, I can just imagine director Pyun shouting for the special effects team to gear up for another explosion.

I’ve always maintained that it takes an incredible amount of talent even to make a bad movie, but this may be the exception.

This represents the more typical Hollywood bad movie.

The film stars Ed Burns, a young actor who is undistinguishable from Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey and a bunch of others whose faces I see in trailers but whose names escape me. Burns plays Jake, a cool con man who is forced to pull a big-time con after he mistakenly robs an L.A. mobster (a sweaty, sleazy Dustin Hoffman).

The con itself is so simple (basically, a few well-placed bribes) that it barely qualifies as a McGuffin. And director James Foley does such a poor job of explaining the plot that by the end I wasn’t sure if things had gone well or poorly. Foley, who has directed such excellent films as “At Close Range” (1986) and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992), is much more interested in the characters than the plot (which is a good thing), but the script by Doug Jung doesn’t do much to support the cause.

A good con picture needs a surprise twist but in “Confidence” what’s revealed at the end is about as surprising as its faux tough guy dialogue.

While the big name actors--Burns, Hoffman, Rachel Weisz and Andy Garcia--are clearly having a fun vacation playing these cartoonish characters, the best acting is done by the lesser lights. Paul Giamatti gives the most rounded performance in the film as one of Burns’ sidekicks, while Donal Logue (from “Taos of Steve”) and Luis Guzman as crooked cops are excellent in smaller parts.

I wasn’t much of a fan of the recent David Mamet con films, “The Spanish Prisoner” (1998) and Heist” (2001), but they’re both miles more convincing than “Confidence.”

Ken Loach may be the finest director of English-language films that no one has heard of. While most of his career, starting in 1960, has been spent working on British television, since 1990 he’s produced a steady stream of vividly realistic feature films, most of which have received at least a limited release in this country. Each of his movies since “Hidden Agenda” (1990), a tense Northern Ireland political story featuring superb acting from Frances McDormand and Brian Cox, have been memorable, including “Riff-Raff” (1990), “Raining Stones” (1993), “Ladybird, Ladybird” (1994), “Land and Freedom” (1995) and “My Name Is Joe” (1998).

Loach doesn’t make any attempt to hide his liberal political views and sympathy with the plight of the lower classes--his 2001 film, set in Los Angeles amid the janitor’s strike, “Bread and Roses” is probably his most overly political film and his most uninteresting--but principally his focus is on individuals whose bad decisions and lack of education leave them facing untenable choices and a mostly hopeless future.

“Sweet Sixteen” is the best Loach film I’ve seen, primarily because of the moving performance by Martin Compston, making his film debut. In Liam, a teen (nearing his 16th birthday) who is determined to create a better life for his mother, who’s about to be released from prison, Loach, screenwriter Paul Laverty, and young Compston have created a boy trying to be a man, dealing with problems beyond his understanding and whose sincerity is matched only by his unrelenting nerve.

Tossed out of his home by his drug-dealing stepfather and heartless grandfather, Liam, with his buddy Pinball, goes into the heroin-selling business to finance a home for his mother. Set in the ghetto of Glasgow, Scotland, the picture depicts a bitter, crime-infested society that offers little incentive for a teenager to make something worthwhile out of his life. Yet because of Compston performance, the film doesn’t play as depressing as I’ve made it sound. Loach doesn’t pull back from reality for a second, yet he is able to probe deep enough into his characters to make us understand, and occasionally sympathize, with the hellish life they face.

One thing that has kept Loach on the fringe has been his refusal to hire actors who speak the King’s English. Even his films set in England feature local dialects nearly impossible to follow. Though after awhile you start to understand these Scottish characters’ fractured English, the producers have smartly elected to include subtitles.

Of course, that may keep people away also, but, believe me, the extra effort is well worth it. I doubt you’ll see a film this year that will stay with you like “Sweet Sixteen.”

For 20 years, starting in 1936, Vienna-born filmmaker Fritz Lang worked in Hollywood. Though he never was able to create a landmark work like his German pictures, “Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931), Lang made at least a dozen outstanding films in spite of the studio system restrictions. While “The Blue Gardenia” isn’t in the league with his best U.S. films-- “Fury” (1936), “You Only Live Once” (1937), “Scarlet Street” (1945), “The Big Heat” (1953) and “While the City Sleeps” (1956)--it’s a well-made murder mystery. While it seems a bit lightweight to be called a film noir, it does includes important elements of noir filmmaking: a key character facing great disappointment in life; a killing by a woman; a male authority figure falling in love with a crime suspect; and a nightclub playing a crucial role in the plot.

Anne Baxter plays a switchboard operator head-over-heels in love, whose life is shattered when her soldier-boyfriend writes that he’s fallen in love with a nurse. Anxious to forget her heartbreak, she goes out with a slimy playboy (Raymond Burr) and before the date ends, he’s bludgeoned to death in his apartment.

Newspaper columnist Richard Conte sets out to solve the Blue Gardenia murder (named after the nightclub Burr and Baxter dined at), but soon falls in love with Baxter.

The surprise ending comes further out of left field than I liked and Baxter is a bit out of her depth in portraying a tormented woman, but excellent supporting work by Burr; Ann Sothern, as Baxter’s sassy roommate; and George Reeves, sporting a mustache, as the police detective, keeps things lively. Plus the great Nat King Cole plays himself, singing the title tune in the nightclub.

No comments: