Wednesday, September 24, 2008

May 2005

TENSION (1949)
If it wasn’t for a sizzling performance by Audrey Totter as a brazen, coldhearted, blonde femme fatale, this B-level film noir would be utterly forgettable.

Richard Basehart, whose career as a leading man remains a mystery to me, plays Totter’s hen-pecked husband who ignores her philandering until she moves in with a gregarious middle-aged man with a beach house. In a far-fetched plot turn, Basehart’s soft-spoken pharmacist begins living a double-life (spurred by a optometrist’s suggestion that he get contacts) in a plan to kill his wife’s lover.

Director John Berry is best known as a victim of the Hollywood blacklist after being named as communist before Congress. He made one more film after “Tension” and then worked in France and England in the 1950s and ‘60s. He returned to America to directed a notable film about urban black life, “Claudine” (1974), and a forgettable sequel, “Bad News Bears Go to Japan” (1978).

“Tension” features a solid collection of supporting players, including Barry Sullivan and William Conrad as the no-nonsense detectives and Cyd Charisse as the nice girl who falls for Basehart sans glasses. But it’s Totter who steals every scene she’s in. Alternately sneering and sexual, she seduces every man she comes in contact with, holding a nearly hypnotic control over her wimpy husband.

Like many actresses of the era, Totter had a short career that included supporting roles in some major films—“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) and “The Blue Veil” (1952)—and a few leading roles in smaller pictures (all from 1949)—“The Set-Up,” “Alias Nick Beal” and “Tension.” Maybe her most prominent role was as the woman who hires and then falls in love with Robert Montgomery’s Philip Marlowe in “Lady in the Lake” (1947). In the 1970s, she played Nurse Wilcox on the TV series “Medical Center.”

Is there anything funnier than a low-budget, badly made horror film from the 1950s or ‘60s? If a list was compiled of the worst films of all time, easily 80 percent would be either horror or sci-fi pictures from those years. While not quite up to the levels set by Ed Wood (“Plan 9 From Outer Space”), “The Devil’s Hand” comes pretty close to the master’s standards. Long-time TV director William J. Hole Jr. deserves the credit.

Robert Alda, father of Alan and a second-rate star of the 1940s, is Rick, a boring guy who just quit his job who’s engaged to an equally boring woman. So dull that for the first 20 or so minutes of this film I found myself focused on the unusual vest Alda wore in virtually every scene. It was black and seemed to be made of leather with some type of white trim around it; the kind of garment you’d expect a motorcyclist to wear over his bare chest as he road into town to kick some ass. Alda wears it over a long-sleeve wool-like white shirt; call it early nerd. But while it looks idiotic, it did divert my attention from the lumbering plot for awhile.

The story picks up speed when Rick discovers in a neighborhood shop a doll that looks like a woman who appears in his dreams and another doll that looks like his fiancee. That leads him to the apartment of the dream girl (Linda Christian, the ex-wife of Tyrone Power), where he take one look at her and signs his soul over to the devil. I will say this for the movie, it doesn’t pretend like this is a big moral struggle for Rick. The choice between joining Satan’s team for the chance to sleep with this very sexy woman or going back to his depressing girlfriend is a no brainer.

The hilarious meetings held by the Satanic worshipers (behind the doll shop) usually begin with the only black members of the group performing a modern dance followed by the torture of a traitor to the group executed by the head cultist, played by Neil Hamilton. Long-time character actor Hamilton was best known for his TV role as Commissioner Gordon on “Batman.”

I kept waiting for an explanation of why Rick had been tricked into joining the cult but that never came; I guess the desire to increase membership was reason enough. By the end, of course, Rick breaks free from the cult and saves his fiancee from their clutches (sorry to spoil the ending) but I really couldn’t figure out why. While a member of the group, not only does he not work, but he seems to have sex with Christian all day and night and, best of all, never has to wear than god awful vest again.


I’ve never been much of a Peter Sellers fan. He gave two brilliant performances, as three different characters in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and as the man with no personality in “Being There” (1979), but otherwise he stuck me as either overly mannered or simply silly. He also ended up in way to many bad films to consider his career very successful. In fact, if it wasn’t for the undiminished popularity of the slapstick “Pink Panther” films, Sellers’ career might have been over before “Being There” happened.

In the 1960s, Sellers was cast in seemingly every social satire, including “What’ New Pussycat?” (1965), “Casino Royale” (1967), “The Party” (1968), “The Magic Christian” (1969)—all filled with sophomoric jokes and dated insights—and “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!” which I was pleasantly surprised to find to be the exact opposite.

It’s the perfect role for Sellers’ unhip, bumbling loner, here playing an engaged business executive who finds himself mingling with an amusing collection of the long-haired, pot-smoking friends of his hippie brother and his girlfriend (Leigh Taylor-Young). Unlike nearly every film of the era that tackled the alternant lifestyles of young America, “Alice B. Toklas” makes fun of hippies without treating them as amoral kooks and actually seems to make the case that everyone could benefit from getting a little high. The much-repeated scene of older, straight people enjoying the results of unknowingly ingesting marijuana is one of the centerpieces of the film and remains very funny and believable.

The film concludes with a massive pot party in Sellers’ small apartment that serves as a microcosm of the hedonistic aspects of the 1960s, elevating an entertaining movie to a smart, unflinching study of the era. Director Hy Averback, who spend most of his career in episodical television, does a good job of keeping the sometimes frantic action under control, but what makes this movie stand out among the gaggle of the “aren’t these hippies crazy” films is the script by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker. The pair earned an Oscar nomination for their work on the film and the next year the pair wrote and Mazursky directed the landmark film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” launching one of the most interesting careers of the 1970s.

Without benefit of a quality script and in spite of the presence of a legendary director, another Sellers film I recently saw for the first time, “After the Fox,” falls flat.

Vittorio de Sica, who established himself as one of the great post-war filmmakers with “The Bicycle Thief” (1948) and “Umberto D” (1952), is clearly slumming at the helm of this knockabout comedy about a famous Italian criminal who hijacks a movie company (with de Sica playing himself in a humorous aside) to pull off a robbery. Only Victor Mature, parody himself as an egotistical movie star who can’t accept his decline, and the beautiful Britt Ekland (Sellers’ real-life wife), make “After the Fox” worth a look. It does have impressive credits: in addition to de Sica and Sellers, Neil Simon is the screenwriter, adapting his own play.

When this film first came out you’d have thought John Travolta had made the worst movie of all time. Nothing sets the mainstream critics off more than a picture that in any way smells of a vanity project. This extremely unsubtle sci-fi actioner is based on one of L. Ron Hubbard’s novels. Hubbard, of course, is the founder of Scientology, a mysterious and secretive group that counts Travolta (along with Tom Cruise) as one of its most prominent members.

But clearly that’s beside the point. Travolta, in “Battlefield Earth,” plays the head alien working in this dreary outpost called Earth, where occasionally he has to put down a rebellion by the natives, but mostly their mission seems to be mining the natural resources. Travolta meets his intellectual match in a feisty earthling played by Barry Pepper, who secretly plots of take back Earth for the human beings. Like all these kinds of movies, the captives manage to accomplish so much more than would ever be possible and the bad guys are stunningly stupid.

Having said that, the movie features some amusing banter between Travolta and his second-in-command, played by Forest Whitaker; never takes itself too seriously; and does a nice job of evoking that gritty, worn-out futurist world first popularized in “Alien.” While the climatic battle scene is almost impossible to follow, to even mention “Battlefield Earth” as a “worst ever” contender makes just as little sense.

It’s been 11 years since writer-director Kevin Smith made his impressive debut with “Clerks” (1994), a hilariously profane, black-and-white slice of life centered around a video store and the slackers that work and hang out there. His third film, “Chasing Amy” (1997) showed he could make a more mainstream comedy without losing his credibility as an indie iconoclast. Attempting to bring his humor to a bigger canvas in the religious satire “Dogma” (1999) revealed his limitations as a writer and a director. Smith didn’t have a clue what to do with his actors or how to keep the plot moving and the script seemed to run out of ideas about an hour into the film.

I have no doubt that “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” was written either during or after a three-day drunk by Smith; that he decided to make the movie after he sobered up doesn’t say much about his judgment. Of course, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are the comic goofballs who hung out in front of the video store in “Clerks,” at the mall in “Mallrats” (1995) and became stars of a comic strip in “Chasing Amy.” As supporting asides, they were amusing: Jay obsessing on sex as if he’s still in junior high an Bob being, well, silent.

In this mess of the movie, the pair find out their characters are being turned into a movie and head to Hollywood to get paid for it. You’re right, that’s what lawyers are for, but these two guys had barely heard of Hollywood and have no knowledge of the American court system. Along the way, they meet up with a gang of (great-looking) women terrorists and, in the only humorous scene, stumble onto the set of the sequel to “Good Will Hunting,” with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and director Gus Van Sant parodying their own seriousness. Otherwise, this film plays like a rejected candidate for the “National Lampoon” franchise.

In what seems like perfect career moves, Smith is doing a sequel to “Clerks” this year and then, in 2006, will direct just what audiences are waiting for, another “Fletch” adventure.

As Yoda would say: Finished, the damn thing finally is.

Twenty-five years ago, I had high expectations for George Lucas’ epic study of teachers and pupils, fathers and sons set against the backdrop of a never-ending war for worlds far from our own. “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) was a thoughtful, well-acted improvement over the high-flying, jokey “Star Wars” (1977) but taken together they were myth-making at its best, giving hope for a series of memorable motion pictures. The ridiculously light-weight “Return of the Jedi” (1983) sank the original trio and I assumed Lucas would move on to bigger and more interesting projects.

Sixteen years later, he was back, vowing to complete the first three episodes of the adventure, prequels chronicling the battle inherited by Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia of the first film. A few things had happened between 1983 and 1999 that sealed the fate of this new trio of pictures: Lucas lost his ability to director actors and write believable dialogue (it’s now hard to believe he was responsible for “American Graffiti”) and computer-generated special effects took over science-fiction movie-making. “The Phantom Menace” (1999) and “Attack of the Clones” (2002) were visually interesting travelogues of fictional worlds that had all the dramatic impact of car commercials.

Despite the involvement of such fine actors as Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson and Ewen McGregor and the ever-comforting presence of Yoda, both films were little more than filmed storyboards, allowing fans to chart the whens and whys of “Star Wars” history. All the computer-generated soldiers and space ships look great but when our heroes are slicing through them like a field of overgrown weeds, I never felt they presented any real danger. Just cartoon figures with very little fight in them.

A bigger problem with “Attack of the Clones” and the new film are the bloodless performances of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman.

As Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one who, we’re told, has more “force” than any of the Jedi warriors, Christensen possess so little energy or spunk he makes one long for the sparkling acting of Mark Harmon. Really, he’s that bad. Portman as Queen turned senator Padme, who falls in love with young Skywalker, walks through every scene like she’s never been in a film before.

The emotional hole they leave in both “Clones” and “Sith” can’t be repaired with all the special effects in the world. I’m inclined to blame Lucas for their horrid acting; Christensen showed he could act in both “Life As a House” (2001) and “Shattered Glass” (2003) and Portman has rarely disappointed since her debut at age 13 in “The Professional” (1994). Yet send them to a galaxy far far away and suddenly they lose all ability to emote. Granted, Lucas’ script is little more than one cliché after another, but bad writing doesn’t necessarily translate into bad acting. They show so little passion that it’s hard to believe Padme has become pregnant.

As Anakin struggles with his inner demons and, as we all know, turns to the dark side, Christensen displays all the emotional intensity of a teen told he can’t watch “The O.C.” this week. There isn’t a single moment in “Revenge of the Sith” that I believed Christensen was Darth Vader.

McGregor does his best, pushing the mythology to its necessarily turning point, as Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he too is rarely given a chance to become more than an action figure.

Also, about half-way through this slow-moving, dull epic I started dreaming of never seeing another light saber fight. They were incredibly cool back in 1977 and still made for a thrilling showdown between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in “Return of the Jedi,” but all these years later, they might as well be competing in a game of Pong.

One can’t help but be fascinated by the final 30 minutes of “Revenge of the Sith,” inevitably satisfying for anyone who fondly remembers the first film, as the fates of those characters are forged. But, overall, this isn’t much of a film. The worst thing that happened to Lucas was “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy; it makes his prequel trio look like kids’ stuff.

Since seeing “Croupier,” one of the best films of 1999 and the film that made Clive Owen a star, “Get Carter” moved to the top of my list of films to see. The connection is British director Mike Hodges, who after his early critical success spent most of the past 30 years in relative obscurity; by the 1980s, he was helming campy sci-fi, “Flash Gordon” (1980) and “Morons From Outer Space” (1985). Probably his best picture between “Get Carter” and “Croupier” is “Black Rainbow” (1991), a psychological thriller with Rosanna Arquette and Jason Robards.

With the release of “Croupier,” all the stories about Hodges cited “Get Carter” as one of the best British films of the 1970s, but just try to find it. Rental stores don’t carry it and it never shows up on television. Then, about a month ago, while rifling through the discount videotapes at Big Lots I found this acclaimed movie for $1.99.

This found treasure didn’t disappoint. Unrelentingly cynical and brutal, “Get Carter” features a performance by Michael Caine that is unlike anything he’s done in his long, illustrious career. As Jack Carter, a hit man working for a London mob, Caine makes no attempt to humanize this killer, playing him as a heartless son of a bitch who is more comfortable with violence than small talk. He finds plenty of trouble when he travels to Newcastle (reading “Farewell, My Lovely” on the train) to investigate the suspicious death of his brother.

Nothing in Hodges’ taunt, biting script is spelled out; relationships and basic plot info become clear in time but it took me 20 minutes into the film to get my bearings and figure out what was going on. It’s easy to forget that filmmakers working in the 1970s and even into the ‘80s treated audiences as equals, expecting them to be smart and movie-savvy. “Get Carter” demands that you think and watch closely while it offers not a single character worthy of our respect.

Carter’s unflagging determination to find out who killed his brother (and made it look like a drunk driving accident) recalls the obsessive behavior of Lee Marvin’s ex-con in “Point Blank” (1968). And both films refuse to pull back from the thoughtless violence of criminal life.

As Carter bullies his way through the Newcastle underworld (his brutality extends to a lonely landlady and the tartish girlfriend of his dead brother) the film achieves the kind of existentialism found in the intense masterpieces, “The Searchers” (1956) and “Taxi Driver” (1976). Not that “Get Carter” is a great film, but it shares the emotional vertigo found in those better pictures. Like Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Carter turns his entire being over to his odyssey. It’s not even clear that Carter cared that much for his dead brother, but once he sets his mind on revenge there’s no turning back.

Hodges’ film is chock full of reprehensible characters, including a mobster’s cheating lover (Britt Ekland, who participated in what must be the first movie depiction of phone sex), a slimy pornographer (the legendary playwright John Osborne), the uncooperative girlfriend (Dorothy White) and on old friend of Carter’s who’s now keeping tabs on him (Ian Hendry).

Caine’s ever-present sarcasm is the only relief from the dark, airless world that Hodges has created (from a novel by Ted Lewis). Raw and disturbing, this isn’t a film you can warm up to, but it lives up to its reputation and deserves a spot among the best of the 1970s.

AFTER THE SUNSET (2004) This is the movie equivalent to those cleverly written and totally forgettable paperbacks that come out every summer catering to beach goers. Those lightweight shadows of serious fiction don’t disappoint in providing sexy characters and thrilling plot turns and never lose track of their goal: pure entertainment.

Director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”) knows the purpose of “After the Sunset” just as well and delivers. Pierce Brosnan plays Max Burdett, a master jewel thief (a role he’s played more often than 007) who has reluctantly “retired” to a lush, colorful Caribbean island with his sexy, independent girlfriend, played by Salma Hayek. No matter how much she insists, it’s clear Max can’t relax.

Retirement is further complicated when a determined federal agent, played by Woody Harrelson—who we see getting humiliated by Max in the film’s thrilling opening set piece—shows up to nail the thief.

Of course, there’s a well-guarded, impossible-to-steal diamond to entice Max and a local gangster-politician (Don Cheadle) to encourage the crime.

All the actors equate themselves perfectly for this type of picture while Ratner does a fine job of keeping the action moving and the buddy-movie rap between Bronson and Harrelson lively. As you’d expect from this type of entertainment, the plot has holes you could drive a Hummer through, but the palm trees, umbrella-decorated drinks, perfect beaches and Ms. Hayek’s stunning beauty do a superb job of diverting attention.

“After the Sunset,” foolishly released in mid-November, the most competitive time of the movie year, could have been a hit with the proper ad budget and, like those pulp fiction entertainments, a summer release.

CRASH (2005)
Paul Haggis, who penned the screenplay for the best film of 2004, “Million Dollar Baby,” makes an impressive feature film debut with this ambitious exploration into the way people interact in Los Angeles. In the long run, Haggis tries too hard to make all his intersecting stories work out—it’s good writing but flimsy drama.

The picture opens with a crash. Police detectives, played by Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito, en route to a crime scene, are rear-ended by a Korean woman, which prompts an ugly argument between the women filled with racial stereotyping by each. For the next hour and a half, virtually every possible type of racially motivated bigotry is vented, be it from an Iranian shop owner or the district attorney.

The film most resembles Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993), also focusing on unhappy Angelenos, in that it’s filled with superb performances that can be enjoyed in the moment but at the end of the show you’re not left with much substance.

While I’m usually arguing in favor of shortening movies, “Crash” could have used another hour to flesh out some of it’s stories—it has way too many characters for an hour and 47 minute picture.

Memorable performances are given Sandra Bullock, surprisingly effective as the DA’s unstable wife; Larenz Tate as a thoughtful carjacker; Matt Dillon as a racist cop caring for his sick father; Thandie Newton as the frustrated wife of a television director; and Cheadle as a cop who can’t escape the burdens of his personal life.

Maybe the best work in the film is done by William Fichtner (“The Perfect Storm” and “Black Hawk Down”) in a one-scene performance as an arrogant PR guy from the district attorney’s office trying to adjust the facts to fit political realities.

What Haggis ends up with is a well-acted argument trying to persuade us that racists can occasionally be good people. Who would have guessed?

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