Tuesday, September 23, 2008

May 2004

Turning the sad tale of Steven Glass, who built a successful writing career at the New Republic by fabricating stories, into an entertaining movie seems, on the surface, all but impossible. But writer-director Billy Ray does an admirable job, crafting a smart, even-handed character study that manages to show Glass (Hayden Christensen) as a pathological liar and self-aggrandizer but also as a pitiful, almost sympathetic man-child.

The film is at its best showing Glass seducing his bosses into trusting him by constantly entertaining them, sweet talking them or simply overwhelming them with his solicitous manner. Hayden, who was simply awful as Anakin Skywalker in the last episode of “Star Wars,” is a perfect choice to play this supremely ill-prepared magazine star.

The outstanding supporting cast includes Peter Sarsgaard as the editor who must deal the revelations of Glass’ fabrications, Hank Azaria as his first editor, Michael Kelly (who later was the first American journalist to be killed in the Iraqi war), Steven Zahn as the internet reporter who first spots the fakery and Choloe Sevigny as Glass’ loyal friend and co-worker. Veteran film and TV director Ted Kotcheff (“North Dallas Forty” and “Rambo: First Blood”) plays the much-feared publisher of the magazine, Martin Peretz.

The film comes down hard on Glass and makes clear for those who may not understand the ethics of journalism what a terrible act he’s committed, but I found it a little soft on his editors. That Glass got away with this for years speaks to the incompetence of all the editors, from Kelly on down, at the New Republic. In the story that he finally was nabbed for-about an imaginary compromise between a hacker and a software company-even a simple check of the name of the computer company might have led to its unraveling. Most magazines are obsessive about fact-checking; this magazine seemed to take everything their writers wrote as the gospel.

Since Glass was exposed both the New York Times and USA Today have uncovered similar fabrications; and, now that more publications are taking a harder look at their reporters, more revelations are sure to follow. But what “Shattered Glass” makes all too clear--but refuses to acknowledge--is that if everyone just does their job the way they should, these kinds of weaselly bastards would never get a story published.

I can’t think of a more suitable candidate to play the debonair, amoral con artist Tom Ripley than John Malkovich.

Novelist Patricia Highsmith’s oily character has been portrayed on screen by a interesting array of actors: Dennis Hopper in “The American Friend” (1977), Wim Wender’s take on “Ripley’s Game”; Alain Delon in “Purple Noon,” the 1960 French version, directed by Rene Clement, of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”; and Matt Damon in the 1999 version, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” helmed by Anthony Minghella.

This version, directed by Italian filmmaker Liliana Cavani, was announced as a 2002 release but instead went straight to video. I’m not sure why. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a wonderfully acted thriller that’s better than 90 percent of what Hollywood releases.

Dougray Scott (the bad guy in “Mission Impossible 2”), plays Ripley’s dupe, an Italian frame maker who is lured into killing a man for a malicious thug (the always superb Ray Winstone, who played the retired mobster in “Sexy Beast”). Scott almost matches Malkovich for low-key acting awards, looking like he’s ready to collapse at any given moment. While Malkovich’s Ripley reacts to deadly situations with less concern than he has over the brand of wine he’s drinking.

There’s a cold inevitability to the film that is matched by the exquisite home and furnishings that Ripley surrounds himself with, not to mention the young, beautiful musician he lives with. There’s barely enough plot to fill out this picture, but more than enough character insight to keep things interesting.

In films starting at age five, Natalie Wood was the rare child actresses who was as good an actress as an adult as she was in childhood. She managed to grow up on screen without a break until she reached her late 20s, consistently appearing in quality films.

At nine, she played the non-believing friend of a Macy’s Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947); at 17, she swooned over James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955); at 23, she played both the street-tough Puerto Rican in “West Side Story” (1961) and the love-struck schoolgirl, opposite Warren Beatty, in “Splendor in the Grass” (1961); and at 31, she played an adventurous married woman in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969). It didn’t hurt her career that she was one of the most beautiful women ever to appear in motion pictures, but her memorable work in the 1960s show an actress that might have evolved into a superb mature performer.

After a short retirement to focus on her family, she returned to do critically acclaimed work in TV movies; most prominently as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976) and as the adulterous woman in the remake of “From Here to Eternity” (1979). But before her comeback flowered on the big screen, she drowned at age 43.

What we learn in Peter Bogdanovich’s television movie is that Natalie wasn’t the happiest girl in America. I don’t doubt it for a minute, but watching yet another overbearing stage mother (Alice Krige) treat her child like a meal ticket gets old very quickly. What held my interest were the impersonations of Natalie (Elizabeth Rice as a teenager; Justine Waddell as an adult) and the other famous people of the era. Waddell does an excellent job of capturing the flighty star and duplicating the actress’s habit of constantly rolling her eyeballs.

Taking it on the chin is her two-time husband Robert Wagner, portrayed by Michael Weatherly as a shallow, egotistical and rather cold companion who’s most interested in attending Hollywood parties.

Also memorable is Matthew Settle as the young Warren Beatty. The performance is almost scary in the way it captures Beatty’s distinctive vocal style and posture.

What doesn’t work in this movie is the insertion of interviews with the real people (mostly non-celebrity friends and relatives) between the dramatic scenes. Bogdanovich was trying for the kind of richness Beatty achieved with his witnesses in “Reds,” but here it comes off as cheesy. (Though I was surprised to learn that Wood dated Robert Vaughn in the early ‘60s--who would have guessed?)

The last 30 minutes or so of the movie is devoted to the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death. Clearly, that was Bogdanovich’s interest in this project. Like his last theatrical film, “The Cat’s Meow” (2001), which explored the death of silent producer Thomas Ince while on a yacht trip, the focus of “The Mystery of Natalie Wood” is her celebrity-clouded death.

On the boat anchored off Catalina Island, Wood, Wagner and Christopher Walken--her co-star in her last movie, “Brainstorm” (1983)--argue and drink and drink and argue. What really happened has never been revealed, but the main contention is that Wagner thought his wife was having an affair with Walken and that dispute spurred the drunken Wood to jump into a dingy in the middle of the night, resulting in her drowning. As tragic as her death was, the whys and wherefores have lost their import in the ensuing 20 years. But because it involves still living people, Bogdanovich had no choice but to treat it with grave seriousness and it just drags the movie to a solemn, dull end.

In recent years, Bogdanovich has become more of a Hollywood celebrity than a moviemaker. Doing more acting, including a role on “The Sopranos,” and writing, the well-received “Who the Devil Made It,” and enjoying his self-style role as a curator of old Hollywood, Bogdanovich has found a way to avoid being just another burn-out case from the 1970s.

8 WOMEN (2003)
French director Francois Ozon’s English-language film “The Swimmer” was among the best of 2003. His French offering for 2003 might have been an entertaining Agatha Christie-like mystery if not for a fatally foolish decision: Interrupting the bickering, finger pointing and unexpected revelations are a series of flat, often embarrassing musical numbers performed by actresses who possess no singing or dancing skills. Trying to be clever, Ozon ruins a good movie.

When the man of the house is found in his bed with a knife in his back, his wife (Catherine Deneuve), mother-in-law (Danielle Darrieux), sister-in-law (Isabelle Huppert), sister (Fanny Ardant) and housekeeper-lover (Emmanuelle Beart) are the prime suspects. Rarely has a more illustrious cast of actresses been assembled.

Huppert, nearly unrecognizable as the prudish, plain-Jane sister-in-law, gives the film’s best performance, but equally impressive are the lesser-known Virginie Ledoyen as the eldest daughter just back from college and Firmine Richard as the family’s longtime housekeeper who supplies one of the movie’s biggest surprises.

But just when I found myself getting involved, another musical interlude grinds this occasionally amusing, if derivative, movie to a halt.

That this film failed miserably at the box office says there’s hope for American movie audiences. Then again, maybe the studio just screwed up the marketing campaign.

Clearly everyone involved in this picture anticipated a major hit and a handful of Oscar nominations. It’s the kind of slick production filled with big-time actors reciting heart-felt speeches that the filmmakers believed were witty and wise and would bring audiences to tears. The manipulative nature of the film--its TV movie-like plot, small-town setting, classic rock soundtrack--represents what Hollywood thinks over-40 moviegoers long for. Most of the time, Hollywood is correct (i.e., Oscar-winner “A Beautiful Mind”), but occasionally audiences, and critics, know a bad movie when they see it.

The movie opens with the funeral of a young woman shot to death just days before her wedding, leaving her fiance (Jake Gyllenhaal) and parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) in varying states of shock.

These three fine actors (23-year-old Gyllenhaal was outstanding in “The Good Girl” and is one of the stars of the current “The Day After Tomorrow”) attempt to inject some reality into this predicable, irritatingly saccharine script, but it’s pretty hopeless. Both Hoffman’s and Sarandon’s characters are so simplistic that they come off as writing-class inventions rather than real people.

Writer-director Brad Silberling (whose girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaffer, was murdered in 1989) must have impressed someone with this screenplay, which probably says more about how anxious studios are to tap older audiences than what passes for good writing in Hollywood.

The title comes from the little-known Rolling Stone song (from their “Sticky Fingers” album), part of the classic rock soundtrack that serves as the only clue that the film is set 20 or so years ago. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to set the story in the past, but that’s the least of this film’s problems.

I haven’t seen many Mary Pickford pictures, but it doesn’t take long to understand why she was one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Pickford started acting in motion pictures in 1909 at age 16 and by 1916 she was making $10,000 a week and had her own production company. And while she wasn’t a great actor like Lillian Gish or John Barrymore or Buster Keaton, she created an engaging screen persona and clearly understood how to play to the camera; she seems so much more alive than the other actors around her.

During a recent TCM day-long celebration of Pickford, I saw two of her best-known films.

“Daddy Long Legs” isn’t much of a movie--Pickford plays an orphan who has a secret benefactor (if Dickens had still been alive he could have sued) and survives the usual obstacles to find love. It was remade in 1955 as a Fred Astaire musical.

But “Stella Maris” is a superb soap opera featuring dynamic direction (Marshall Neilan, who also directed “Daddy Long Legs”), a very adult, serious plot and surprisingly effective acting.

From all reports, this is among Pickford’s greatest roles, playing both a rambunctious orphan and a crippled, naive rich girl. The pair are linked by a gallant married man (Herbert Standing), who is a friend of the rich girl’s family and then hires the orphan as a housekeeper. Playing the man’s sadistic, drug-addicted wife, Marcia Manon nearly steals the film. She creates an intense, villain who stands in the way of happiness from both of Pickford’s characters.

Even when dated morals and outrageous plot turns threaten to sink the picture, the sharply drawn characters keep it afloat as the story builds to a surprisingly moving conclusion.

Pickford’s stardom continued for another 10 years, ending with her Oscar-winning performance in “Coquette” (1929), in which she dropped her childish character and curly hair and lost her fan base. Three pictures later she retired.

I don’t think many people are going to enjoy or even appreciate this oddball movie from Canada, but I can guarantee that you won’t see a stranger film all year. This one-of-a-kind, mostly black-and-white melodrama looks like a lost gem from about 1918 except that it does have sound and is set during the Depression.

Not only does director Guy Maddin shoot and light this tall tale of a beer hall owner (Isabella Rossellini) holding a contest to determine which country has the saddest music like a silent, but his directing and editing style, with literally hundreds of quick cuts in the montage style of the great Russian filmmakers, also gives the picture the look of an 80-year-old relic.

The bizarre story turns out to be a perfect fit for Maddin’s seemingly offhanded, ragged but hypnotic filmmaking.

Mark McKinney plays Chester Kent, an egotistic producer right out of a 1933 Warner Bros. musical who has returned to his hometown of Winnipeg to raise funds for a new Broadway production. He quickly jumps into the music contest, having an advantage in that he was once Lady Port-Huntly’s (Rossellini) lover. Then again, she was also involved with his father (veteran Canadian actor David Fox) a doctor who after a car accident, amputated both of her legs. If that isn’t bizarre enough, his other son took up residence in Serbia and has become a reclusive, but world-renowned cellist.

They all enter the contest, which plays out in hilarious fashion. During each round, two countries’ representatives face off on stage, performing their sad music and then stopping when a loud, gymnasium-style buzzer rings through the narrow arena filled with cheering, beer-guzzling music fans. By the end of each round, the performers are in each other’s face, both playing sadly, waiting for Lady Port-Huntly’s decision.

Amid all this insanity, Rossellini manages to give a fascinating performance as does Maria de Medeiros (best know for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as the ethereal Narcissa, who may or may not be the cellist’s long-lost wife. Despite admitting to be a nymphomaniac, she has the na├»ve, waif-like look of so many silent-era heroines (It would have been a great role for Mary Pickford).

I can’t even begin to explain the level of strangeness achieved in this movie. It reminded me, at various times, of both David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” (1978) and F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (1922), but in truth it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

This is the first film I’ve seen by Maddin, a Canadian who has many dozens of short films and features since late 1980s (his “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” received an L.A. release in 2002) but he’s clearly a major talent. “The Saddest Music in the World” is ready made for cult status--an art house version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”-but it’s also an astonishing complex piece of filmmaking. That’s a combination as rare as a black-and-white movie in the 21st Century.

One of the funniest plot turns in this superbly made marital comedy feels like a joke right out of a Mel Brooks movie: On the day that all of Italy is rushing to see the controversial movie “La Dolce Vita,” the wife of Fefe (played by Marcello Mastroianni, also the star of “La Dolce Vita”) runs off with her lover.

Other than that mix of fiction and reality, this popular Italian import is a classic screwball comedy, with a deadly serious, yet hilarious performance by Mastroianni as an unhappily married man of leisure whose wife (wonderfully played by Daniela Rocca) is as attractive as she is dumb. To counter the very restrictive divorce laws of Italy, he plots to arrange an affair for his wife so he can shoot her.

Inserting this well-oiled comic format into an old world, high judgmental society ratchets up the laughs--you can’t top the Italians for outrageous family feuds or two-faced moralizing.

It was probably the best comedy released in America in 1962 (a year best remembered for very serious works such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “The Miracle Worker”), going on to become one of the most honored foreign films in Academy Award history. Mastroianni became the first best actor nominee from a foreign film, while Pietro Germi scored both a nomination for his directing and as part of the screenwriting team (which won the Oscar over Ingmar Bergman’s work on “Though a Glass Darkly”).

The film solidified Mastroianni’s stardom and versatility; he was both one of the finest comic and dramatic actors of the last half of the 20th Century. He followed this broad comic role with what may have been his best performance, in Federico Fellini’s dreamy, analytical “8 1/2” (1963). While he is best remembered as Fellini’s alter-ego in many films, all three of his Oscar nominations came for other directors, the others in Ettore Scola’s lightweight “A Special Day” (1977) and Nikita Mikhalkov’s powerful remembrance of a life wasted, “Dark Eyes” (1987).

This slight, comic tale of early Hollywood isn’t a bad film, it just should have been much better. A still doughy-faced Jeff Bridges, just 26, plays an eager, Depression-era wannabe writer who heads West, from his farm home in Iowa, to experience the Wild West of Zane Grey novels. Instead, he lands in what’s left of that legendary era: a small movie company making B-Westerns.

The set-up proves to be more interesting than the results. The plot flails around for a focus and, despite a gang of amusingly cynical extras, offers few laughs. Bridges is appropriately naive, but Andy Griffith, who turns out to be a deceitful mentor to Bridge, plays so low-key you never get a read on his character and Alan Arkin, as the hyper director of the company, doesn’t get much out of his one-note role. The problems go back to the soft, uninspired script by Robert E. Thompson and Howard Zieff’s TV-movie style direction. It was just Zieff’s second film and he did improve, later making “House Calls” (1978) and “Private Benjamin” (1980).

Coming off best is Blythe Danner, more attractive and spunkier than her more famous daughter will ever be, who plays the company’s Girl Friday. Danner should have been a major star of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but appeared in just three films in the 10 years after “Hearts of the West,” concentrating instead on stage and TV work.

John Galsworthy’s saga received a severe Hollywood edit, striping the epic story of an 19th Century British family to a rather pedestrian story of a woman who wants out of her bad marriage.

Greer Garson, at 41 a tad old for the role, plays Irene, whose loveless marriage to Soames Forsyte (Errol Flynn, near the end of his run as a major star) leads to her falling in love with a young architect (Robert Young, a decade too old at 42) who is engaged to her niece (22-year-old Janet Leigh). Walter Pidgeon, who seemed to co-star with Garson in every movie she ever made, is his usual droll self as the rebellious Forsyte, Jolyan. Not for a second do you ever believe he’s a struggling painter.

Compton Bennett, a British director whose best Hollywood film was the action hit “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950), creates some artfully done set-pieces, including a foggy day of tragic revelations, but doesn’t have much a chance to do much with this story in less than 2 hours.

As a child I think I saw parts of the acclaimed 1967 British television version, but have no memory of whether it was as great as critics claim. But the two recent miniseries of “The Forsyte Saga,” which played on PBS in 2003 and earlier this year, are among the best productions I’ve seen on television in the past decade. Even at the daunting length of six hours apiece, the miniseries are riveting from start to finish, especially the pitiful but fascinating Soames, brilliantly portrayed by Damian Lewis.

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