Monday, September 29, 2008
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1990)
This is a decidedly minority opinion, but I believe Sydney Pollack, if he had made it his full-time pursuit, would have been a better actor than he was a director. Not that I don’t admire many of his pictures (“Tootsie” is a great film, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Three Days of the Condor” are very good ones) but he was better at assembling casts and coaching actors (12 earned Oscar nominations) than he was in visualizing a story. Pollack, who died a week ago, was a safe, predictable director who rarely took chances; as an actor he stole nearly every scene he was in.
No better evidence of Pollack’s acting nerves is his performances in this Woody Allen film, which failed to get the attention it deserved because its release came on the heels of Allen’s scandalous breakup with Mia Farrow.
Pollack plays Jack, who, with his wife Sally (Judy Davis), tells their best friends (played by Allen and Farrow), in the movies opening scene, that they have mutually agreed to break up.
Pollack’s natural charisma and unaffected line reading contrasts well with Davis’ more frantic, theatrical performance. Pollack is clearly comfortable playing the smart, confident professional (as he does in “Tootsie” and “Michael Clayton”) but here his character is more complex and conflicted as he takes up with a younger woman and then feels the pangs of jealousy when he learns of his wife’s boyfriend. In the crucial sequence of the movie, Jack abuses, both physically and verbally, his young girlfriend after a party, then drives to Sally’s house and confronts her. He’s both scary and pitiful as his pent up frustrations come out as he screams at both women; it’s one of the best portrayals of a middle-age crisis ever put on film.
Pollack made his film acting debut as a Korean War soldier in “War Hunt” (1962), best remembered as the start of Pollack’s long association with Robert Redford, who also played one of the soldiers. It’s a forgettable movie, but Pollack’s performance is the best thing in it. He comes off as the guy with the future in acting, not Redford.
Since 1959, Pollack had been acting on television, but after 1962 he stayed behind the camera until Dustin Hoffman convinced him to take the “Tootsie” role in 1982.
That would have been the perfect time for Pollack to start working regularly as an actor, but instead he waited another ten years before taking a role in Robert Altman’s “The Player.” He worked more often after that, both in films and on television, giving his only bad performance in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” in which he’s required to explain the unexplainable mystery of the film to Tom Cruise’s character. (How many actors can say they worked for Kubrick, Altman and Allen? Believe it or not, Shelley Duvall is the only other one I could find.)
Director Pollack’s best film in years, the documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” in which he chronicles the career of the famed Los Angeles architect and his close friend, succeeds in large part because of Pollack’s on-screen presence. Whether playing himself or a character, he was a welcomed addition to any picture.
He gave yet another memorable performance as the head of Michael Clayton’s law firm, a veteran lawyer uninterested in ethics or truth, just the best interests of the firm. I’d rather remember Pollack for his acting in that film and others than for some of his recent directorial efforts (“Sabrina,” “Random Hearts,” “The Firm”), but in both roles, not to mention his impressive work as a producer, he was one of the most interesting and admired men in Hollywood over the past 40 years.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)
Last month I questioned the point of Martin Scorsese spending his time directing a Rolling Stones concert film. The same question applies here: Do we really want Steven Spielberg directing another “Indiana Jones”? It could be worse, I guess: he could be wasting his time on another “Jurassic Park” sequel (or is that next year?)
Not surprisingly, Spielberg has turned out a roller coaster of an adventure film. A bit more cartoonish and fanciful than the previous three---in part because it is no longer believable that the 65-year-old Harrison Ford is capable of the physical feats his character pulls off---the new “Indy” is still head and shoulders above the comic-book based superhero movies that dominate the usual summer fare.
Ford’s Jones makes a grand entrance when he’s dragged out of the trunk of a car, along with fellow explorer Mac (Ray Winstone), by a gang of Soviet soldiers who’ve taken over a U.S. military base in Nevada.
It turns out that the Commies, led by stern taskmaster Irina Spalko, a cross between Natasha of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and Emma Peel of “The Avengers,” and played curtly by Cate Blanchett (she was also in two trailers for upcoming films shown before the feature), are after a crystal skull supposedly from an ancient alien visitor.
As usual, Indy makes one escape after another in between leading the bad guys right to where the treasures are buried. He’s done more dirty work for the evil doers than any other American, but he always finds a way to thwart the bastards at the last minute.
The return of Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s romantic interest from the first film, spices up the proceedings, as does her son Mutt, played by Shia LaBeouf, a cliché of 50s teen (he’s first seen decked out like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”) who serves as Indy’s comic foil, providing way too many generational jokes.
In the summer of 1981, when Spielberg was 34 and Ford 38, they teamed up to make what is probably the most exciting and witty adventure movie ever made, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That they’re still doing the same thing 27 years later is a bit sad, but it probably speaks more to the state of the industry that encourages rehashing a character and plotlines from a generation ago because it delivers box office gold.
MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES
PROJECT (2007, TV) and SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC (2005)
Often, the best comedy goes right to the edge of being offensive. Both of these comics often go beyond the edge in using ethnic and racial stereotypes to get a laugh, but with very different results.
Don Rickles, at age 82, is one of the legendary stand-ups of our time and has been doing his “insult” act for more than a half a century. A bit newer to this game is Sarah Silverman, a tall, attractive 37-year-old, best known as Jimmy Kimmel’s smarmy girlfriend. The difference between the two is that Rickles picks on audience members with the single purpose of making the rest of us laugh while Silverman attempts to offer social commentary by playing a character who’s seemingly clueless that her observations are offensive. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but for me Rickles remains one of the funniest men alive, a comic whose outdated riffs on blacks, gays, Asians, Jews and Latinos sound nearly nostalgic; especially when compared to Silverman’s act that essentially puts her in the role of a racist as she delivers one offensive riff after another.
“Jesus Is Magic,” the rare stand-up performance documentary to receive theatrical release, comes off as a college student’s idea of cutting-edge humor after watching the last 10 years of “Saturday Night Live” (Silverman wrote for the show in the early ‘90s).
Most of her “humor” revolves around her willingness to talk about graphic sexual matters as if she’s discussing the weather, but she finds the time to joke about the Holocaust, Martin Luther King Jr., AIDS and Jesus. I’d quote something from her act, but that’d be unfair; it all sounds ugly out of context. (And not much better in context.)
More recently, Silverman made a very funny video about having an affair with Matt Damon that was shown on Kimmel’s show, which was then followed by an even funnier video featuring Kimmel and Ben Affleck singing of their romance. For me, Silverman is best in small doses.
John Landis, director of such comedy classics as “Animal House” (1978) and “The Blues Brothers” (1980), served as a production assistant on “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970), an oddball war picture that stars Clint Eastwood and features Don Rickles as Sgt. Crapgame, maybe his best film role. Thirty-seven years later, Rickles agreed to sit for extensive interviews with Landis and allowed him to film his Las Vegas show, which make “Mr. Warmth” an intimate, heartfelt, and, not surprisingly, fawning, look at the man and his long career.
The documentary, not unlike Rickles’ stage show, jumps from one thing to another with little sense of chronology. The comedian tells colorful stories from his years as a struggling performer and his friends and admirers reflect on his impact on their careers.
After serving in World War II, Rickles attempted to make it as an actor (he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft), but instead turned to standup. After working second-rate clubs and strip joints, he scored his big break when he replaced a fired Lenny Bruce at a small New York club called “The Slate Bros.” Soon his put-down humor made the club the place to be, especially after he made fun of Frank Sinatra and his entourage when they showed up.
It wasn’t long that Rickles became a fixture in Las Vegas, playing the lounges before filling in for Johnny Carson one night in the main room at the Sahara. From then on, he was a headliner.
His many appearances on “The Tonight Show,” his work as an actor, his longtime friendship with Bob Newhart and his enduring popularity are well documented by Landis. But it is the live act that is the film’s centerpiece, displaying Rickles’ amazing charisma. He still has the ability to get a laugh with old standbys like “I spoke to the home---you’re going back.” Or by pointing at a Japanese man in the audience and commenting: “I spent three years in the jungle looking for your father.”
Just as I don’t get Silverman, I can’t imagine that many of recent generations have fallen under Rickles’ spell, but for those of us who grew up in the 1950s or ‘60s, “Mr. Warmth” has provided a lifetime of laughs.
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (2007)
In the past 10 years, Francis Coppola has supported his daughter’s directing career, executive produced for actors-turned-directors Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro and tended to his successful winery in the Napa Valley. What this filmmaking legend hasn’t done is direct a motion picture. In fact, since the released of “The Godfather, Part III” in 1990---his last important film----“Youth Without Youth” is just his fourth directorial effort.
This leisurely paced, offbeat story chronicles the very unusual life of 80-year-old professor Dominic Mattel (Tim Roth), who has just moved to Bucharest to complete a book on the origins of language, an impossibly epic project he’d been working on most of his life. One day as he walks in the rain, he’s struck by lightning, leaving him badly burnt and near death. As he heals under the care of a fascinated doctor (Bruno Ganz, the great German actor who struggles here with English), Mattel miraculously has transformed into a man in his thirties.
That’s interesting enough, but he’s also gained incredible intellectual powers, able to absorb the knowledge of a book just by passing it in front of his eyes. By the middle of the film---after he’s escaped the evil clutches of Nazis----he spends his time preparing messages for future generations in a language he’s invented. Even in the hands of a master filmmaker like Coppola, this part of the story is pretty dull.
Things pick up when Dominic meets a young woman who’s the double for the lost love of his youth, but also (believe me, I was lost by now) the reincarnation of a Buddhist goddess. They seem perfect for one another, but it’s not to be.
What starts out as a good idea (Coppola penned it from a story by Romanian Mircea Eliade), evolves into a convoluted, somewhat pointless puzzle book. Roth deserves credit for making an otherworldly character seem real throughout the many phases of his life, but he’s not a compelling enough person to hold this rambling tale together.
Unlike his three previous films---“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), the embarrassing Robin Williams vehicle “Jack” (1996) and the thriller “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” (1997)----“Youth Without Youth” could have been a great film. The film looks great, featuring Coppola’s trademark wide-angle establishing shots and his long takes of perfectly composed set pieces.
This story about a frustrated, creative man who gets a second chance at youth is certainly appealing (especially for Coppola as he nears 70), but the roads it takes turn out to be mostly dead ends. Let’s just hope that if we have to wait another decade for Coppola’s next film it makes more sense than “Youth Without Youth.”
LIONS FOR LAMBS (2007)
Robert Redford has been spending too much time reading liberal blogs. His white paper---I wouldn’t even call it a movie---on the litany of blunders by the Bush administration since 9/11 is presented as a pair of debates intercut with a military operation gone bad. You wouldn’t think a filmmaker as experienced and accomplished as Redford (“Ordinary People,” “Quiz Show”) would need to be told that if you want to make a political statement you don’t do it by shooting a couple of actors in a room (even if they’re Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise) arguing with one another.
Barely a line in this movie sounds as if it was being said by a human being. This is a static, talky polemic that not only is preaching to the choir, but putting the choir to sleep.
Redford plays a political science college professor who gives a sermon on the merits of education in a meeting with a smart, but disillusioned student. Meanwhile, Streep’s TV reporter is spoon-fed a scoop by an ambitious senator (a badly miscast Cruise) about a new military push in Afghanistan, while those maneuvers are in motion on the ground. The Afghan scenes are the closest this film comes to being cinematic, but even in that part of the movie not much happens.
The picture’s most idiotic character is the journalist played by Streep. She comes off at first as a giddy girl reporter taken aback by the attention of a senator and then turns into a political activist who can’t see a great story when it slaps her upside the head. Of course, the film’s caveat is that a major military action would be announced to a reporter, on the record, by a U.S. Senator and not by the administration.
Sadly, “Lions for Lambs” has as much a grasp on reality as the Bush Administration.
THE BACHELOR PARTY (1957)An argument could be made that other than writer-directors Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Woody Allen, the most literate and thoughtfully crafted film dialogue came from the pen of Paddy Chayefsky.
After serving in World War II, the New York native began writing radio and TV plays, culminating with “Marty,” an unassuming romantic tale about two shy, ordinary people who find love. He won an Oscar for the film version of the play. Chayefsky had his most productive period in the late 1950s, writing “The Catered Affair” and “The Bachelor Party” for TV, “Middle of the Night” for the stage and “The Goddess” for the big screen.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, his focus was on stage work, but he still wrote the script for “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), “The Hospital” (1971) and his masterpiece, “Network” (1976), winning Oscars for the last two. He had his name removed from his last script, the sci-fi thriller “Altered States” (1980), which he adapted from his novel. He died of cancer the next year at age 58.
For the film adaptation of “The Bachelor Party,” Chayefsky re-teamed with “Marty” director Delbert Mann. The ups and downs of married life are probed through the musings of five bookkeepers out on the town as they celebrate one of the men’s impending wedding. The movie pulls few punches (especially for 1957) as it addresses the loss of freedom, the fear and consequences of sex, financial and career sacrifices, the temptation of adultery and, ultimately, the importance of being loved.
As is Chayefsky’s way, these issues and my others are explored in one brilliantly written monologue after another as the characters argue with each other and themselves in trying to make sense of their life. When it comes to creating intelligent, perceptive, dramatic and, more often than not, pessimistic speeches (anchored in reality but not exactly realistic), Chayefsky is in the league of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.
Don Murray, who earned an Oscar nomination for “Bus Stop” (1956), his film debut, stars as Charlie, a young married man taking classes after work to improve his lot who has just learned that his wife is pregnant with their first child. His closest friend is Kenneth (Larry Blyden, who was a constant presence on TV until his death in 1975), a soft-spoken, conservative voice as compared to the loud, belligerent and self-styled wild bachelor Eddie (Jack Warden), who sees life as one long party. E.G. Marshall plays the nervous, frustrated middle-aged bookkeeper trying to face uncertainty while Philip Abbott plays the timid bridegroom, the least interesting and weakest acted role.
For all the testosterone of this film, the best performances are given by two women. Carolyn Jones, later famous as Morticia on “The Addams Family,” earned an Oscar nomination for one of those amazing Chayefsky rants, this one about a dispute with her landlord. Playing a very available Greenwich Village hipster, Jones has little more than five minutes of screen time but makes the most of it---rattling off her lines with an uninterested coolness (as Murray puts the moves on her), that sounds nearly exactly like Faye Dunaway’s TV executive 20 years later in “Network.”
An even more impressive performance, in only a slightly longer appearance, comes from Nancy Marchand, who played Marty’s date in the TV version and five decades later portrayed Tony Soprano’s coldhearted mother. Here she’s Murray’s sister who in a scene with her sister-in-law reveals her knowledge of her husband’s affairs and the ways she lives with it. As Chayefsky showed over and over again, great writing usually translates into great acting.
Not surprisingly, after 50 years many of the assumptions and expectations of these characters have badly dated. Yet Chayefsky’s insights into the human heart and the nearly musical resonance of his words are timeless.
THE VISITOR (2008)
Richard Jenkins, an unassuming 61-year-old character actor who has worked steadily in features since the mid-1990s, isn’t your typical leading man, even for an independent film. But writer-director Tom McCarthy isn’t your typical filmmaker either, having cast a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) as the star of his acclaimed first film “The Station Agent” (2003).
McCarthy, also an actor who has had small roles in “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), Syriana (2005) and “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) among many others, went overboard on the quirkiness in “Station Agent,” but, like “The Visitor,” it explored a recluse reluctantly opening up to strangers.
In “The Visitor,” Jenkins plays Walter, a bored college professor living alone in a large Connecticut house, who travels to New York City to present a paper he co-authored (but clearly contributed little to) at a convention. When he arrives at his apartment in the city, he finds an immigrant couple living there. After they pack their bags and leave, Walter has second thoughts and convinces the pair to stay temporarily. It takes awhile, but soon Tarek, the young Syrian man (charmingly played by Haaz Sleiman) draws out this taciturn, emotionally unattached professor and they form a friendship, bonding as Tarek teaches Walter to play the djembe (an African drum). His Senegalese girlfriend (a striking Danai Gurira) never completely warms up to Walter, but eventually she learns to truth him.
This energetic, feel-good film turns serious when Tarek is arrested and sent to a detention center for possible deportation. While McCarthy is clearly making a plea for a more reasonable immigration policy, you don’t necessarily have to share his opinion on immigration to enjoy this film. It’s a simple story of a lonely man who finds meaning for his life in the last place you’d expect.
Jenkins gives a quiet, but confident performance as an extremely smart professor who has withdrawn from any emotional attachment to the world. Walter bears no resemblance to a Hollywood hero; he’s uncomfortably real.
Sleiman is equally excellent as the exuberant Syrian musician who finds himself imprisoned, as is Hiam Abbass as his determined mother who arrives in New York City without a plan but a sense that her son is in trouble.
These characters could have all easily become stereotypes in a heartwarming tale of the American melting pot, but McCarthy and his actors have created very real people whose humanity and sincere emotions are all they have as they face the difficulties of a complicated world. And that’s not something you experience in a motion picture too often.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)
Last year’s 100th anniversaries of the births of film legends John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Laurence Olivier, was marked by numerous critical appreciations and remembrances of their great careers. But hardly noted was the 100th anniversary of James Stewart’s birth in the small Western Pennsylvania town of Indiana on May 20, 1908. In no small part, the greatest strength of Stewart’s acting----his ability to play the regular guy no matter what the role----has kept him from being remembered as a the larger-than-life cinematic icon.
In fact, like few others----Charlie Chaplin, Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson----Stewart's image played a key role in defining what Hollywood movies were all about, creating a film persona that was central to the history of the American cinema. Whether he was a stumbling boy-man who gets the girl, the innocent who brings some sense to the big shots in Washington, a down-on-his-luck businessman trying to understand his life, a disturbed man obsessed with the woman of his dreams, a lawyer demanding the truth under all circumstances or simply a drunk attempting to carve out a little happiness, Stewart brought a big chunk of the American experience to the screen. "Little pieces of time," was how Stewart liked to describe his film contributions.
By 1940, Stewart’s career was in high gear, having earned an Oscar nomination and critical acclaim for his 1939 performance as Jefferson Smith, the idealistic boys' club leader who finds himself in the U.S. Senate in Frank Capra’s "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and then winning the big prize for his role as reporter Mike Conner in the romantic comedy “The Philadelphia Story.”
Despite the Oscar, Stewart's best comic role in 1940 was in Ernst Lubitsch's charming romance "The Shop Around the Corner," co-starring Margaret Sullavan, whom Stewart had known since the early 1930s when they and her then-husband Henry Fonda were members of University Players, a Massachusetts theatrical company.
She had secured him one of his best early roles, as a foreign correspondent-husband in "Next Time We Love." They were husband and wife again in "Shopworn Angel" and in "Mortal Storm" they were German lovers attempting to escape the Nazi regime. But with "The Shop Around the Corner" the pair created a still-unappreciated romantic classic.
Stewart, as an ambitious assistant manager in a Budapest gift shop, has no interest in Sullavan's know-it-all clerk, but it turns out that the pair had been corresponding anonymously for months and both have fallen in love with their unknown pen pal. Under Lubitsch's magical direction, mistaken identities and misplaced trusts are invested with Shakespearean nuance as the pair slowly inch toward each other's arms.
Stewart had a nearly unequaled ability to make dialogue sound as if he’s making it up as he goes along (just like you and I do), never sounding rehearsed or stilted. He’s at his best in the final scene in “Shop Around the Corner” as he fabricates a story about Sullavan’s pen-pal fiancé. He tells the anxious woman that her overweight, out-of-work, unseen boyfriend came to see him and showed interest in her salary. Just as she’s about to burst into tears, Stewart admits that he’s actually her pen pal and he’s fallen in love with both her and her letter-writing persona.
Stewart's warm, witty, unaffected performance makes one wonder how many more gems like this film and "The Philadelphia Story" the actor would have made had he not lost 1942 through 1945 to the war. Serving as a bomber pilot, flying missions over Germany, Stewart left the big screen playing innocent, smooth-faced, boyish men and came back a cynical grownup.
He had contemplated quitting the business and claims he would have had it not been for Capra and "It's a Wonderful Life." He was just 38 but no longer would his characters be young romantics or struggling writers. Post-war Stewart was a professional, a man of experience who knew both the bright and dark side of life. George Bailey was the pivotal role in this transformation.
He never stopped being the Jimmy Stewart movie fans had come to love, but he expanded what that screen persona was all about. In the 1950s, he was the star of both the most interesting series of Westerns ("Winchester '73," "Bend of the River," "The Naked Spur," "The Far Country" and "The Man From Laramie") under Anthony Mann’s direction and a pair of masterful studies of the human psyche, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.” In between, he was Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” the big band leader in “The Glenn Miller Story,” and a country lawyer defending a murder suspect in “Anatomy of a Murder.” Few actors have ever played a more interesting and challenging set of roles over a ten-year period.
Despite his post-war performances, Stewart, who died in 1997, continues to be remembered as the slow-talking, stuttering innocent; either the handsome romantic youth or the wise old man. The conflicted, angry and tough Jimmy, the aspects of his post-war character that made him arguably the greatest screen actor of the century, seems to be forgotten by all except Stewart’s devoted fans.