Thursday, September 25, 2008

May 2006

UNITED 93 (2006)
Experiencing this movie isn’t a pleasant experience and you’ll be living with it for days afterward, but it’s such a superbly written and constructed piece of filmmaking, chronicling such a monumental event, that it’s worth the pain.

The movie succeeds on many levels: as an intense action film, as a virtual documentary of what went wrong during the chaotic morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and as a character study of the passengers on United 93 who decide to fight back. Yet maybe the most impressive accomplishment by British writer-director Paul Greengrass is the manner in which he keeps viewers involved in the details of the unfolding events, delaying and somewhat muting the emotional impact of the overall events of the day. Otherwise, it’d be just a tear-jerker with little redeeming value.

Greengrass grabs us from the start as he documents the routine of a plane trip: passengers, including the Al Qaeda terrorists, waiting at the Newark Airport gate and then boarding the plane and the crew chatting and preparing for another flight. The care and detail the director gives to these procedures that we’ve all experienced countless times immediately hits home: These men and woman are us; it could just as easily have been any of us.

Shifting back and forth from inside Flight 93 to the FAA’s command center in Virginia, where air controllers begin noticing suspicious happenings in the air, the intensity of the day begins to unfold. Soon everyone is involved as confusing, contradictory and vague information is juggled by the folks in charge. At the region’s air defense center, military commanders suddenly switch from an exercise to the real thing but, like at the FAA, confusion reigns and little is accomplished before three of the hijacked planes hit their targets (which they learn about from watching CNN).

Greengrass selected a cast of mostly unknowns—there are a few familiar faces, but no one I could name—and features some of the real people from the FAA and the military playing themselves. But he’s chosen wisely: There isn’t a false acting note in the film.

The director used similar techniques to bring to life the events of the 1972 killings of unarmed Irish protesters by British troops in his 2002 film, “Bloody Sunday.” Detailing both sides’ preparations for the day and the tragic results makes for an involving, emotionally wrenching docudrama even if you bring limited knowledge of the Irish “troubles” to a viewing. In the same way, Greengrass lets the small details of “United 93” provide the dramatic arc of the film, providing suspense even as we know what’s to come.

No matter how much you’ve read about 9/11, no matter how many hours of footage and interviews on television you’ve seen, there’s no substitute for the emotional and intellectual punch a feature film packs. Like the great films about the Vietnam War—“The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket”—“United 93” goes a long way to helping us make sense of an horrific event. That’s quite an accomplishment for any work of art.

CATCH-22 (1970)

    As memorable as so many movies were in the 1970s, it’s still a gamble when you revisit one all these years later. Often what was once compelling and intense now looks slow and obvious and comedies that seemed cutting-edge 30 years ago come off as tired or quaint. Not so for Mike Nichols’ film version of Joseph Heller’s beloved war satire.

This biting, insightful comedy that chronicles the absurd adventures of an Air Force squadron stationed in Italy during World War II, remains as sharp and relevant as it was during the Nixon administration. Without changing a word, it could be released this year and probably would earn a Oscar nod for best picture. In 1970, it wasn’t even considered among the year’s best films, didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination and was overshadowed by the year’s more popular war comedy, “MASH.”

Nichols was in the midst of a run of inventive, controversial and ultimately timeless motion pictures that make his subsequent career disappointing: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966), “The Graduate” (1967), “Catch-22” and “Carnal Knowledge” (1972). With “Catch-22,” Nichols faced the difficult task of bringing to the screen a touchstone novel for a generation—not dissimilar to what the makers of the “Harry Potter” films encountered—and he delivered the goods. Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry (who also is one of the stars) take Heller’s dark, chaotic and disturbingly hilarious vision of a war that had been portrayed nearly exclusively in noble terms and create a film that matches the book’s condemnation of military bureaucracy and the pure absurdity of warfare.

Deserving much of the credit is Alan Arkin, who, as frustrated bombardier Yossarian, anchors the large cast of famous names. An amazing actor who never seemed to get the good parts he deserved, Arkin displays his ability to be very funny while playing very serious. Yossarian is the lone sane man in a world of crazies who everyone assumes must be crazy as he continually complains about the number of missions the platoon is asked to fly. But, of course, there’s a catch….Catch-22: You can be pulled off duty if you’re crazy but if you ask to be pulled off duty you can’t be crazy.

The picture is loaded with amazing performances, including Martin Balsam as the self-centered Col. Cathcart who keeps raising the required number of missions to impress his superiors; Jon Voight as heartless entrepreneur Lt. Milo Minderbinder who trades the fliers’ parachutes and arranges for the bombing of their own airstrip; Bob Newhart as scared-of-his-shadow Maj. Major who is only available for visitors when he’s not in his office; Art Garfunkel as a naïve young flier who falls in love with a prostitute; and Jack Gilford as the sympathetic doctor who understands the contradictions of Catch-22.

VOLUNTEERS (1984) and DICK (1999)
Ever since “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), Hollywood has had more success with dumb (and I mean that in the nicest way) comedies featuring teens or young adults outwitting authority figures than nearly any other genre. I recently caught up with two entertaining dump comedies I’d somehow missed at the theaters.

Tom Hanks, fresh off his star-making role in “Splash” (1984), plays Laurence Bourne III, a spoiled Ivy Leaguer with an accent that would embarrass Thurston Howell III and the demeaner of suave frat man Otter from “Animal House.” He shares Otter’s insistence on living the playboy lifestyle no matter what the circumstances.

Laurence escapes with a plane full of Peace Corp true believers (this is 1962) to avoid paying the price for a gambling debt daddy (marvelously played by George Plimpton) won’t take care of and ends up in a remote Southeast Asian village helping sincere volunteers Rita Wilson and John Candy build a bridge. There’s a sweetness to the romance between Hanks and future wife Wilson on screen probably because it was happening in real life as well, but Candy steals the show as the naively enthusiastic Tom Tuttle from Tacoma. While Wilson is passing out medicine to the natives and Candy is designing the bridge, Hanks teaches the villagers poker.

All the dump plot developments you’ve come to expect in these kind of movies are needlessly tossed in; watching Hanks and Candy do their Hope and Crosby act is all the entertainment anyone could want.

“Dick” is a bit more ambitious and just as funny and I’m baffled as to why it wasn’t a hit. Two appealing young actresses, Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams (nominated for her role in “Brokeback Mountain”), play giggly teens who live in Washington, D.C. circa 1972. After unknowingly playing a role in the capture of the Watergate burglars, the pair, on a school field trip to the White House, get ahold of a piece of incriminating evidence and become dog walkers for President Nixon’s pet “Checkers.” (who, in fact, was famously the Nixons’ dog in the 1950s, but died in 1964).

Not only do they become “secret teen advisors” to the president, seemingly triggering many of the key policy changes during the period, but Williams’ character falls in love with tricky Dick (perfectly played by Dan Hedaya). Writer-director Andrew Fleming (along with co-writer Sheryl Longin) does a clever job of finding ways for the innocent girls to do just enough to trigger the events that forced Nixon’s resignation.

Many of the White House scenes, with Harry Shearer as Liddy, Saul Rubinek as Kissinger, Dave Foley as Haldeman, play like a “Saturday Night Live” skit, but that’s not necessarily bad. Really taking a hit are Woodward and Bernstein, played as complete buffoons by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch.

This bio-pic of one of the most famous pinup girls of the 1940s and ‘50s should have been, at least, a lightweight peek into the sexual mores of a bygone era. Instead, writer-director Mary Harron delivers a flat, by-the-numbers portrait that makes no attempt to understand Page or even the times she lived in. Made by HBO Films, it doesn’t even rise to the level of a good TV movie.

Gretchen Mol, who’s worked steadily for the past 10 years but is still looking for that breakout role, plays Page as a naïve Southern girl who blithely goes from being a standard photographers’ model to posing for photos for fetish magazines and pseudo bondage movies, approaching her controversial modeling as thoughtlessly as she would a waitress job. The director takes an equally dispassionate approach to the film, creating a tone that hovers somewhere between camp and melodrama without committing to either.

Even the film’s production design feels false; the carefully decorated rooms look like cheap imitations of the era—a high school production of “Picnic” instead of actual places that really existed.

PRIME (2005)
I rented this romantic comedy only because it stars Meryl Streep, but, in fact, it’s an amusing, well-acted film that deserved a bigger audience than it ever got during it’s brief theatrical run last fall.

Streep plays Lisa Metzger, a psychiatrist treating Rafi (a very engaging Uma Thurman), a woman recovering from a messy divorce, who ends up, unknowingly, getting romantically involved with a younger man who is Streep’s son.

For most of the movie, only Streep is aware of the connection and (after being advised by her therapist to continue to treat Rafi) finds herself in the uncomfortable position of knowing that this relationship is good for her patient while disapproving of it on a personal level. Not only is Rafi 15 years older than her son, but she’s not Jewish! On top of this dilemma, Streep has to endure stories of their sexual intimacy, rapturously told by Rafi. It’s a perfect screwball setup that, minus the frank talk of sex, could have been made in 1935.

Streep, appropriately I think, turns Dr. Metzger into a broad, comic caricature of the liberal, New York therapist who can’t accept the results of her own “good” advice. She’s clearly following in the tradition of controlling Jewish mothers created by Neil Simon and Woody Allen in year’s past.

In many ways, the film plays like Woody-light, as writer-director Ben Younger stages both romantic scenes and dramatic confrontations very reminiscent of Allen’s pictures.

Thurman gives one of her better performances, convincing as a unexceptional, totally normal woman while Bryan Greenberg handles the film’s most difficult role as the son-lover who can’t win when he gets caught between these two women.

CRASH (2005)
Since “Crash” won the big prize at the Oscars this year, I decided to give it another look—about a year after I first saw this ambitious but failed attempt to take Los Angeles’ racial temperature.

The second viewing didn’t change my opinion; in fact, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. It seems pretty clear that writer-director Paul Haggis is painting us all as racist—some of us, apparently, are just better at hiding it than others.

(Fair warning, if you haven’t seen the film, you should skip the rest of this.)

The film relies on two incredible coincidences that, especially seeing them the second time, are beyond ridiculous. The day after a man and his wife (superbly played by Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) are stopped and harassed by a racist cop (Matt Dillon) as his partner looks on (Ryan Phillippe), these same officers, now separated, encounter the man and woman, also separately, in life-and-death situations. Great literature is filled with coincidences that play a crucial part of the story, but the chance of the same two cops encountering the same two civilians in a city of 3 million people is so astronomical that, for me, it drained the dramatic impact out of those admittedly well-directed scenes.

If those scenes didn’t make the film seem like it was set in Mayberry instead of L.A., then how about the pivotal encounter at the end of the film? Phillippe’s cop just happens to unknowingly gives a ride to one of the carjackers involved in the standoff the cop had with Howard’s character earlier. It’s the result of a writer determined to make his point even when the action isn’t logical.

I also couldn’t believe the exchange between a police detective (Don Cheadle) and his Latina partner and lover (Jennifer Esposito) in which he calls her a “Mexican,” unaware of her actually ethnic background. They ride around Los Angeles every day and never discussed that? Again, Haggis is determined to paint everyone as racially ignorant.

If even a small percentage of the racial slurs tosses around in this film were actually spoken by Angelenos in a given day, race riots would be as normal as a Santa Ana wind.

Few shared my opinion 10 years ago that the first installment of this TV classic-turned-movie franchise was one of the best action pictures in years. Combining the fascinating trickery that made the 1960s TV show so addictive, masterfully directed (by Brian De Palma) action scenes, sharply drawn characters, one of Tom Cruise’s best performances and a plotline as complex as a John le Carré novel, the 1996 movie was everything a summer movie should be.

Part II was everything a summer movie usually is: dumb, boring and full of itself. Only Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable theme was left to remind audiences of the “Mission Impossible” potential.

The new film falls somewhere between the first two. Even when the plot is illogical and the special effects are making incredible stunts look way too easy (one of my action-film pet peeves), the movie possesses the energy and passion of the first film and a very memorable villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s seemingly unstoppable Owen Davian.

After a stunning opening sequence featuring a helicopter chase through a cluster of giant steel windmills, the movie sends the IM force (Cruise as Ethan Hunt along with previous sidekick Ving Rhames and newcomers Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q) to the Vatican to capture Davian and then eventually to Shanghai to secure some unexplained WMD. By then, the chase has become personal: it’s mano-a-mano between Hunt and Davian.

Cruise can do this kind of nonstop intensity better than anyone but here he’s so energized you sometimes think his head is going to explode. You just can’t imagine Ethan sitting on the couch with his fiancé (who, of course, gets entangled in the mission) watching bad television. The presence of Rhames, always so cool and witty, and Hoffman, who turns a cardboard bad guy into a wickedly entertaining and worthy opponent, help keep Cruise and the film tethered to reality.

I read a story that pointed out numerous similarities between this film and the series pilot of “Alias,” created by J.J. Abrams, who makes his feature directing debut here. I guess if you’re going to steal from someone, it might as well be from yourself. Let’s face it, this genre isn’t exactly known for its originality. Change Ethan’s name to Bond and add a little sex and you’d have the latest edition of 007.

In 1924, Fred Niblo was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, having made “The Mark of Zorro” (1920) and “The Three Musketeers” (1921) with Douglas Fairbanks and “Blood and Sand” (1922) with Rudolph Valentino. And two years later, he would direct one of the most popular epics of the silent era, “Ben-Hur.”

The recently restored and newly scored “The Red Lily” is a stark change of pace for the action specialist. This heartbreaking romance stars Ramon Novarro (who would play the title role in “Ben-Hur”) and Enid Bennett (the director’s wife) as young lovers who run off to Paris only to be separated by cruel fate. They both go one to live tough lives on the streets, he as a petty criminal, she as a prostitute. Yet they both hold out hope that they will meet again.

Even 80 years ago, that wasn’t the most original story, but Niblo artful direction—creating gorgeous tableau with the attractive young stars and turning minimal sets into the gritty underbelly of Paris—and subtle, expressive performances by Novarro, supporting player Wallace Beery and, most memorably, Bennett, turn “Red Lily” into a very impressive film.

The actress, who somewhat resembles Lillian Gish, does an amazing job of transforming this sweet, naïve country girl into a harden woman of the street. But Bennett’s film career, that began in 1916, was nearly over. Though just 31, she only had a few more lead roles and was all but retired from the screen by 1931.

The directing career of Niblo, who started as a vaudevillian in George M. Cohen’s troupe and married Cohen’s sister (before Bennett), was out of the business nearly as fast. He went from directing one of the biggest production of the 1920s (“Ben-Hur”) to making B pictures in about four years. Niblo directed his last film in 1932.

This Sam Peckinpah-influenced Western, relocated to a small frontier town in 1880s Australia, tells the bloody, brutal tale of a British lawman who simply can’t take it anymore.
Ray Winstone, memorable in “Sexy Beast” (2000) and “Cold Mountain” (2003), plays Capt. Stanley, who makes a post-shootout deal with Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), agreeing to spare the lives of him and his younger brother if he can find and kill his raping-murdering older brother (Danny Huston).

What director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (the rock musician) focus on are the effects all the killing—his main job is to clear the area of Aborigines—has on Stanley and his relationship with his proper English wife, convincingly played by Emily Watson.

Superb acting from the entire cast—Huston, who sometimes can be an uncomfortably bad actor is especially memorable as a pathological, unrepentant killer—and the insightful psychology behind the storylines provide sharp contrast to the often unwatchable, horror-film like violence. All the bloodletting and mutilations don’t add much to the film; it’s almost like the filmmakers fell in love with the FX possibilities and just couldn’t stop themselves.

I’d still recommend “The Proposition”—to find a good Western is such a rarity—but with a very bloody warning.

The fun of Dan Brown’s exceedingly popular novel is the impressive brain-power utilized by Robert Langdon and Sofie Neveu to decode the cryptic clues that they believe will lead them to the legendary Holy Grail. Struggling over anagram puzzles and obscure references to ancient texts, the pair use their deciphering expertise (he’s a symbolist, she’s a cryptographer) while being pursued by a murderous monk and a determined French policeman.

That worked on the page. Ron Howard’s much-anticipated movie version has reduced the story to a long chase (with way too many easy escapes) interrupted by dry mini-lectures on the history of Christianity.

What all the characters are rushing about over, if you’ve somehow missed the cottage industry that has sprung up around the book, are the long-hidden remains of Mary Magdalene along with proof that Jesus had a child with her and, hold on to your cross, wasn’t divine.

Neither Tom Hanks as Langdon or Audrey Tautou as Sofie come off as very convincing, either as real people or as characters who are passionate about their trek. But as dull as they are, the film’s real problem lies with Akiva Goldsman’s script. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed actors stuck selling such uninspired dialogue. When you have a plot that constructs a 20-century-old conspiracy around the life and death of the most beloved figure in world history, it’d be a good idea to offer three-dimensional characters engaging in riveting discussions that, at least, make the story plausible, if only for as long as the lights are out.

Saving the film from total disaster are the beautifully photographed locales—the Louvre in Paris, Temple Church in London and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland—and a sparkling performance by Ian McKellen as Teabing, an expert on the Grail legend who joins the duo in their journey. Even at 2 hours and 32 minutes, the movie fails even in the most basic function of clarifying how the police determined who were the bad guys and who were the innocents. If Howard had just filmed McKellen reading from the novel for two and half hours, “The Da Vinci Code” would have been a more entertaining experience.

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