Sunday, September 28, 2008

May 2007

and LONELY HEARTS (2007)
It’s not easy to explain how “Honeymoon Killers,” a slow-moving, D-grade amateur picture that at first seems like the worst film you’ve ever seen, evolves into a compelling, freakishly entertaining study of a pair of amoral killers. You can’t look away from this badly lit, stiffly acted black-and-white movie as it follows these oddball scam artists who take advantage of lonely hearts while struggling to maintain their own tentative, but passionate, relationship.

The same story is retold in the recently released “Lonely Hearts,” starring Jared Leto and Salma Hayek as the killers and John Travolta as the police detective who brings them to justice. I have no idea which version is closer to the truth, but in “Honeymoon Killers,” the actress (Shirley Stoler) playing killer Martha Beck is plain and overweight, a far cry from Hayek, one of the most beautiful women in film. But Stoler makes you believe she’s this imperious, possessive working woman who sees a way out of her routine when she becomes part of Raymond Fernandez’s “Bluebeard” scheme.

Part of the ruse is that Martha pretends to be Raymond’s sister when he goes to visit the latest victim and then together they scam money from the women, some of whom they kill. Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco, who went on to become one of the busiest television actors of the past 30 years) seems to truly enjoy his calling as he peddles his charm to every women he meets.

Martin Scorsese was the original director of this script by Leonard Kastle, an operatic composer who has never had another script produced or ever directed again, but Kastle fired Scorsese when their visions clashed. It would have been Scorsese’s second feature after “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1967).

Kastle’s artless direction and actors’ flat line readings give the film, surely unintentionally, an existential air that just adds to the overall dreamlike mood and, over the decades, attracted a cult following. It’s almost like watching home movies made by Martha and Ray.

The new, more straightforward telling of these crimes from the late 1940s, focuses on Travolta’s Det. Robinson, who is the grandfather of the film’s director, Todd Robinson. The New Jersey detective and his partner (James Gandolfini) start investigating the couple not long after Robinson’s wife commits suicide, leaving him a teen son to raise. That the couple targets lonely women hits a nerve with Robinson and the case becomes his obsession.

Playing this emotionally repressed, intense cop, Travolta gives one of the best performance of his career. It’s the first grizzled role I’ve seen this perpetually hip actor take; his Robinson is worn down by life and a pain to be around, but he’s a helluva good cop.

Less effective are Leto and Hayek as the mismatched killers. In this version, their bloody trail of women is graphically detailed yet neither performer ever convinced me they were capable of such coldblooded savagery. The script desperately needed to explain how Martha goes from a hot-to-trot pickup to an unrepentant murderer.

A startling performance is given by Dagmara Dominczyk as a naïve single mother who ends up being the final target of the couple. She was the one victim of their scheme who I found myself rooting for.


Rudolph Maté, the brilliant Polish-born cinematographer, who shot such films as Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), Ernest Lubitch’s “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) and the beloved baseball picture “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942), moved to the director’s chair in 1947.

He followed a forgettable Ginger Rogers comedy, “It Had to Be You” (1947), with this intense psychological chess match adapated from a stage play, “Blind Alley” by James Warwick. William Holden, in a role more suited to John Garfield or a young Humphrey Bogart, plays trigger happy escaped con Al Walker who, along with his gang, breaks into the house of a psychology professor (Lee J. Cobb) in the middle of a dinner party.

While Wilson holds the entire household hostage awaiting a rendezvous with his crime partner, Cobb’s Dr. Collins tries to unlock Wilson’s disturbed, criminal mind. Despite Maté skills as a director of photography, there’s very little of visual interest in the film, never escaping its stage-play roots. The plot is heavy on Freud, and totally unbelievable, as Collins interprets Wilson’s reoccurring dream in an attempt to break him free from his troubled past.

Holden is out of his element as the wild-eyed, over-the-top con but Cobb is perfect as the probing therapist who is convinced he can turn Wilson away from crime.

Maté fared better two years later with “D.O.A.,” a film noir classic about a man investigating his own murder. He continued directing mostly B pictures until his death in 1964. One of his last films was “The 300 Spartans” (1962), a rousing battlefield epic based on the same ancient war tale that inspired this year’s “300.”

Quirky, low-budget favorites are especially dangerous to revisit---the inevitable shortcomings are easy to overlook in the blush of a first viewing. It’s been more than 15 years since I’d last seen this wild slice-of-life portrait of a wannabe punk groupie and a quarter century since it was released. Happily, “Smithereens” remains as exhilaratingly entertaining as ever, primarily because of Susan Berman’s energetic, unpretentious performance as Wren, the abrasive, mini-skirt wearing teen determined to attach herself to a band.

Rarely has such a little-known actress (before and after this film) given such a memorably original performance. Her Wren, clueless when it comes to her shabby treatment of others, shows unflagging persistence as she latches on to a struggling musician, played by Richard Hell, one of the founding fathers of punk as it emerged at CBGB in New York City.

Founder of the seminal band Television and later frontman for the Voidoids (whose 1977 album “Blank Generation” is a punk masterpiece), Hell isn’t much of an actor but he brings authenticity to the ripped and painted T-shirt scene. Mostly, he looks appropriately astonished at Wren’s hilarious antics.

While Wren is clinging to Hell’s Eric, hoping to tag along to Los Angeles with him, she’s also crashing in the van of a corn-fed Midwestern dude who just arrive in New York City and has parked his vehicle in an empty lot populated by prostitutes.

One of the film’s classic moments is when a zonked-out hooker (reportedly, a real working girl) climbs into van and offers him her services---and when she’s rejected, shares a chicken-salad sandwich with him.

“Smithereens,” written by Peter Askin and Ron Nyswaner (who went on to write “Philadelphia”) is filled with these kind of unforced, slyly comic moments, some of which showed up in different forms in director Susan Seidelman’s mainstream follow-up “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985).

Seidelman’s career never lived up to this amazing debut or her other early successes---the John Malkovich sex farce “Making Mr. Right (1986) and the less-than-subtle Meryl Streep-Roseanne Barr comedy “She-Devil” (1989)---and has mostly worked in television since the mid-1990s.

But Seidelman and her writers’ creation of Wren, decked out in ripped fishnet stockings and red high-tops while crashing nightclubs and spinning improbably tales of her life, and her world in “Smithereens” would be the pinnacle of nearly anyone’s career.

Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to recreate the romantic war thriller of the 1940s looked great when cut into a trailer, but the full-length film turns out to be a slow, uninvolving tale that would have closed in a week in 1946.

The director not only shot the film in black-and-white, but used the kind of framing and camera placement that was popular in the 1940s. Nice idea but it can’t make up for the lack of story or credible acting. Even George Clooney, the current star who most resembles a performer from Hollywood’s Golden Age, never quite gets a handle on his character, an American journalist covering the Potsdam peace conference in 1945 Germany.

Even less convincing is Toby Maguire, badly cast as a tough, corrupt American GI who draws Clooney’s Jake into a messy plot involving a German rocket scientist, war atrocities, scheming Russians, underhanded Americans and a shady, fragile Marlene Dietrich-like working girl (Cate Blanchette, in an intense, showy but ultimately soulless performance).

The use of newsreel footage of post-war Berlin mixed with the glossy black-and white drama never brings out the authenticity that Soderbergh is striving for---it just makes the movie feel like a cheap imitation of the real thing. While Clooney does his best to push the tricky story line (the film desperately needs a strong third character), the final 20 minutes plays out like the director just kept filming until he had tied up each loose end.

As much as everyone tried, there’s nothing close to “…you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life” in “The Good German.”

KANAL (1957)
In stark contrast to “The Good German,” this Polish war film is excruciatingly realistic; a powerful, unforgettable chronicle of the valiant, but hopeless Warsaw Uprising that took place near the end of the World War II. The second of director Andrzej Wajda’s war trilogy (between “Generations” and “Ashes and Diamonds”), doesn’t sugarcoat anything about this last stand by the Poles against the invading Nazis. The narrator bluntly states near the start of the film, as the ragtag collection of resistance fighters pass by the camera, “Watch them closely, because these are the last hours of their lives.”

After an impressive continuous shot that tracks the company as they move through the bombed out city, followed by a short skirmish with the Germans, the soldiers hole up in an abandoned, ransacked house. But not for long, as they are ordered into the city’s sewer as a way to get around the Nazi front line and possibly mount another assault. Led by a somewhat delusional commander, Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski), the group slowly descends into this watery hell and struggles to reach a safe escape.

The journey in the sewer, shot almost entirely with available light, is agonizing to watch, especially as you realizing how hopeless it all is. The soldiers break off into three groups, the most interesting of which is the injured Jacek (Tadeusz Janczar) and his lover Daisy (Teresa Izewska), a street savvy survivor who knows the sewer system like the back of her hand. Only through her courage is Jacek able to maintain his sanity. Others aren’t as lucky.

There’s hardly a false moment in the entire film as Wajda pays tribute to the national pride and courage of these fighters, but without turning them into saints. It’s a simple, narrowly focused film, but says more about men, and women, at war than most epics.

Has any actor ever been so enamored of a film character as Sylvester Stallone is of the slow-witted, lovable Rocky? After wringing all the sentimental pap he could out of this one-dimensional character in four sequels to the Oscar-winning 1976 original, Stallone couldn’t let go. He wanted his Rocky to have one last day in the sun, bringing him back 17 years after “Rocky V” in this improbable fairy tale.

I’m not sure why Stallone (who wrote and directed) didn’t call this film “Rocky VI,” but I suspect he thought including the legendary fighter’s last name in the title would suggest some kind of finality. No, the boxer doesn’t go down for the final count, but he does, at an unmentioned age that must be close to Stallone’s 60, fight what he says will be his last match, taking on the heavyweight champ.

This might have been a sweet visit with an old friend, but Stallone’s inability to fashion interesting characters turns the film into just an excuse for the inevitable workout montage with Rocky getting back into fighting shape with Bill Conte’s rousing “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” blaring on the soundtrack.

Rocky Balboa, though still a hero in Philadelphia, lives a pretty sad existence. His beloved Adrian is dead, his nerdy son is remote, and the old neighborhood has gone to hell. Rocky does own a fancy, popular restaurant named Adrian’s, but in this make-believe world running a restaurant consists of telling old boxing stories to customers and joking with the kitchen help. There’s no explanation of who’s really running the joint or why Rocky still puts up with Pauli (Burt Young), who continues to be the biggest jackass in movie history. There are so many flashbacks to Adrian and the early days that I kept hoping Pauli was just a ghost, but the worthless hanger-on is still alive and shadowing Rocky.

The film leads you to believe that there might be something interesting in the relationship between Rocky and his son (a miscast Milo Ventimiglia) but it follows a totally predictable course as does his relationship with a single mom and her son from the neighborhood. Once Rocky sets his sights on getting back in the ring, all character development immediately stops.

As in all the “Rocky” pictures, the fight is the thing and this one doesn’t disappoint. Mason “The Line” Dixon (well played by former light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver), goes into the fight expecting to carry the old guy for a few rounds before ending it. But Sly, no, I mean Rocky, looking as good as a guy his age can, still takes a beating like no one else and, as if we didn’t know by now, never gives up.

The end of the film reminded me of a Stallone sighting at an afternoon Dodger game a few years ago. Along with an entourage, he walked down to the seats near the dugout and stood talking to another celebrity for an inning or so. Before you knew it most of the crowd was chanting “Rocky…Rocky…Rocky.” He waved and smiled, clearly enjoying the attention before he walked back into the stadium, returning to his luxury box or maybe his limo. It’s hard to tell anymore, even for Stallone I think, where Sly ends and Rocky begins.

THE DARK COMMAND (1940) and RIO LOBO (1970)

What were the odds that two of the most important actors of the 20th Century would be born four days apart? On Wednesday, May 22, 1907 in Dorking, England, Agnes Olivier gave birth to a son, christened Laurence Kerr Olivier. Four days later, across the globe in Winterset, Iowa, Mary Morrison also delivered a son, named Marion Michael Morrison.

While the boys would take very different paths to attain their success---Olivier on the British stage, Morrison as a stage hand and prop man in Hollywood---they both became movie stars in 1939; Olivier as Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and a renamed John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach.”

It’s easier to define the greatness of Olivier, ultimately knighted and then named a Lord of the British Empire. Nearly universally acclaimed as the finest stage performer of the century and among the most highly regarded in the history of the English theater, he not only redefined Shakespearean acting on stage but nearly single-handedly made the Bard’s works a film genre unto itself.

Wayne has been dismissed as a limited actor who repeated his no-nonsense heroic character in a series of war and Western pictures that often played like simple-minded propaganda. Yet watching Wayne in even the least of his films you see an actor who dominates every scene he’s in, whose screen persona is so enticing that he became a director’s dream---an actor who can tell the story with hardly a word of dialogue.

Screen acting is a different animal: More “being” than “acting” and no two great actors display the difference better than Sir Larry and the Duke. As effective as Olivier was in his Shakespearean roles---his performances as Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V and Othello are among the finest ever delivered on film---the actor could overwhelm roles with his detailed-oriented, fidgety theatrics and vocal modulations. Olivier was always a great actor performing; Wayne, on the other hand, simply existed on screen.

Most importantly, what Wayne had that Olivier didn’t was John Ford. Wayne was molded as an actor and screen personality to enact Ford’s vision. That vision wasn’t just to make entertaining movies (as the director endlessly claimed) but to understand and define the American character and to explain how the American landscape forged what we call the American way of life and, later, how that ideal dealt with the challenge of warfare.

On the other hand, Olivier had Olivier (he directed himself five times) and took interesting roles that ended up earning him a record nine best actor nominations (only Spencer Tracy collected as many) but he never became aligned with one director or even one type of role that would have allowed him to define his screen persona. He brought the principals of stage acting to the movies and it resulted in some mesmerizing performances but not an essential film career.

If Wayne seems like an anachronism in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was only because audiences misread the Wayne pictures as preaching a version of the right wing’s insistence that everything American is good and everything the country does is positive. And they confused Wayne the person, who became the poster boy for the values that were under attack in that era, with Wayne the actor. In film after film, from Ford’s “Fort Apache” and “The Searchers” to the Howard Hawks-directed “Red River” and “Rio Bravo,” Wayne’s way of handling things is challenged and often it’s a member of the younger generation who pushes Wayne’s character to adjust his thinking. And, unlike his action-hero heirs, Wayne played men who nearly always viewed killing as a last resort and only when the stability of society was threatened.

Both of the Wayne films I saw in May during the many retrospectives (tellingly, no one was marking Olivier’s centennial, at least in this country) represent how effective the actor could be even in second-rate films. “The Dark Command” reunites Wayne with his “Stagecoach” co-star Claire Trevor---and with Raoul Walsh, who directed the actor in his first great performance, “The Big Trail’ (1930)---in a story set in Kansas on the eve of the Civil War. Wayne’s Bob Seton rides into the burgeoning town of Lawrence and is elected sheriff, topping the local schoolteacher (Walter Pidgeon), who then promptly forms a gang of marauding terrorists who plunder the towns across the plains. While the film is short on logic, Wayne effectively portrays a man of action who is also trying to reform his ways to win Trevor’s love.

Thirty years later, and saddled with about 40 extra pounds, Wayne remains a star in “Rio Lobo,” playing another Civil War-era Westerner who joins up with a pair of ex-Rebel soldiers (his Col. McNally was a Northern commander) to track down a war profiteer and traitor who has used his riches to wield power over the town of Rio Lobo.

The acting of co-stars Jorge Rivero and Jennifer O’Neill is stunningly bad while director Hawks (helming his last film) doesn’t do much to enliven the action until the last half hour, when the good guys face off with the bad guys. The first half of the film also tries, but fails, to be comic in a ‘70s kind of way. But the Duke abides, as not only a commanding voice of what’s right and fair but as a compelling screen presence whose low-keyed, but assured acting turns even the creakiest plot into an entertaining motion picture.

Olivier lived another ten years after Wayne’s long battle with cancer ended in 1979, just months after he presented the best picture Oscar to “The Deer Hunter.” The Brit added two more impressive performances to his legacy, both on television, as the blind father in “A Voyage Round My Father” (1981) and re-enacting one of his great stage triumphs, as the confused, misled father-king in “King Lear” (1982). A litany of physical problems finally took their toll and he died at 82 in 1989.

There’s no record that I could find that these two 1907 babies (amazingly, May also marked the 100th birthday of Katherine Hepburn and, in July, Barbara Stanwyck) ever meet, though it’s hard to believe they didn’t bump into each other backstage at the Oscars a few times. But wouldn’t it have been great to see Olivier in the Henry Fonda role in “Fort Apache” or Wayne in the Michael Caine role in “Sleuth”?

While taking alternate routes, both men ended up defining acting at a time when film was the world’s most important medium, leaving a legacy of characters---from Hamlet to Rooster Cogburn---that will endure as long as people care about art and the human condition.

New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote this just before Wayne’s death in 1979, but it applies to both legends:

“John Wayne doesn’t only represent our idealized, mythical past. He is that past, a time before Marx and Fraud, before tax forms, public utilities, telephones, collective bargaining, Miranda, traffic jams, pollution at Yellowstone National Park, dope, energy crises, other countries and other people.”

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