Monday, September 22, 2008

November 2003

The type of novels Philip Roth writes are not exactly ready-made for screen adaptation. It’s not plot twists or exotic adventure that fuel his books, but the deep-seated neuroses of his characters and their reaction to the world around them.

Not much chance of that kind of movie coming from Hollywood, but director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer do a pretty good job of getting some of Roth’s points from “The Human Stain” onto the screen. Through one man’s life journey, Roth explores the many masks modern Americans wear and how much our identity is tied to race, ethnicity, class status and profession.

Despite valiant work by the filmmakers and superb acting from Anthony Hopkins--overcoming a clear case of miscasting--and Nicole Kidman, “The Human Stain” fails as a film. Fine scenes and passionate monologues never merge into a coherent flow or build upon each other to form a memorable dramatic arc; it might as well been titled, “Scenes From a Book by Philip Roth.”

Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, onetime dean of humanities at a small, prestigious New England university who was fired for calling a pair of students who never attended his class “spooks.” The students turn out to be African American and lodge complaints, believing he used the term to refer to their race. The irony of this life-changing event for Silk is that, unbeknownst to everyone, he’s a black man who has been passing as a Jew since his college days.

Hopkins captures the commanding presence of Silk but never made me believe he was black. In flashbacks, Wentworth Miller has the perfect look and demeanor for the young Silk, but I’ve been unable to think of a prominent actor that would have been a good choice for the lead role, though anyone darker (but not obviously black) and more American than Hopkins would have been an improvement.

I’ve also read complaints about the casting of Kidman as the down-on-her-luck, white trash janitor who has a passionate affair with Silk. The actress probably is too beautiful for the role, but she gives another sublime performance that erases her visual glamour and brilliantly illuminates this bitter, hopeless woman who finds a sliver of joy with Silk.

I really hated not liking this film because it does bring many of Roth’s cutting insights to the screen and has more to say than 90 percent of American movies. And despite its flaws, the film is very much worth seeing.

OUR TOWN (2003, TV)

Thornton Wilder’s deceptively simplistic play about life in a small New Hamphire town at the turn of the century remains one of the landmarks of the American theater. This version, first shown in May on Showtime and recently on PBS, was filmed at the Westport County Theater in Connecticut, before the production moved to Broadway, and is notable for the presence of Paul Newman as the stage manager.

He narrates the story--really directs the story--while offering a God-like vision of the world of Grover’s Corners, knowing all about the past, present and future. The role towers over the play. His low-keyed, almost smug commentary emerges in spurts but what slowly becomes clear is that this humble observer has some pretty good insight into the human race.

I’ve never been a big fan of the 1940 film version; in its attempt to make the drama more literal, it drains the poetry from the work. But the acting in this new version, save for Newman, can’t match the 1940 performances. William Holden and, from the original, 1938 stage production, Martha Scott are perfect as the young couple and their parents are played by four all-star character actors: Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi and Guy Kibbee.

In the new version, Ben Fox and Maggie Lacey are rather bland as the youngsters and the only parent to register is Jane Curtin, a veteran of TV comedy, as the nagging Mrs. Webb.

But this is Newman’s show. The 78-year-old movie legend hasn’t lost his talent for combining natural charm and an ironic sense of humor with a curt, matter-of-fact delivery. Hearing Wilder’s timeless insights into the failing of the human race in the voice of Paul Newman adds both gravity and a contemporary sheen to the message. Newman, like few celebrities of our time, is both a great artist and a regular guy; the perfect mix to guide us through this classic piece of Americana.

I’m not sure what the jury at the Cannes Film Festival saw in this deliberately tedious depiction of Columbine-like high school killings. It won the Palme d’Or (the top prize) over, incredibly, “Mystic River.” I clearly missed something important.

Any film that follows students as they walk through the hallways of their high school (with the camera on the back of their necks) and then shows the same sequence from the back of another student’s neck, isn’t worth thinking about very long. I read in the Los Angeles Times that the filmmaking device was a metaphor for the constant movement in these young lives. Maybe, but it’s not a very interesting metaphor.

Then, just before the two young boys go on their shooting rampage, we see them watching Nazi documentaries and making out in the shower. Gay Nazis, apparently, are the source of high school disturbances. I don’t know what I’m suppose to make of that. If director Gus Van Sant, who has made some terrific pictures, including “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989), “To Die For” (1995) and the more overtly commercial “Good Will Hunting” (1997), had nothing to say about Columbine or high school violence why did he waste his time making this movie. And if he did have something to say, well, damnit, he should have said it.

IN THE CUT (2003)
Hollywood producers always seem to be looking for projects they think will be script-proof. In other words, a film that can be presold on its title or subject or star, eliminating the need to spend much time or money getting a decent script written. I’m sure the filmmakers of “In the Cut” believed that if you cast romantic-comedy icon Meg Ryan as an offbeat, sensual woman and show the audience plenty of her 42-year-old naked body, the story and dialogue would be unimportant. They were wrong.

This plays like a straight-to-video sleazy crime flick that typically would star Shannon Tweed or Theresa Russell. And Ryan’s performance is about on the same level as one expects from a bargain rental. Co-starring as a repulsively misogynous cop (what passes for a romantic lead in this “gritty” film) is the talented young actor Mark Ruffalo. Poor guy, he probably thought he was signing up for a big box office hit. Instead he didn’t get much more than the audience did: a voyeuristic chance to see what good shape Ms. Ryan has stayed in.


     Charlie Chaplin delayed his entrance into sound moviemaking as long as he could. When he finally gave in and made a full-fledged talking picture, it was 13 years after the rest of Hollywood had taken up the new technology.

Of his five sound pictures, only “The Great Dictator” (1940) rates with his finest work. Of his last four pictures, “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) holds up as a smart, if slow-moving black comedy about a serial lady killer while “A King in New York” (1957) and “A Countess from Hong Kong” (1962) should be locked away by Chaplin’s heirs to protect his image. Both are unwatchable. “Limelight” falls somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

The legendary entertainer plays a legendary entertainer named Calvero, a once-in-demand vaudevillian now barely able to find a one-night gig. When a fellow boarder fails in her attempted suicide, he takes her in and nurses her back to mental and physical health. Claire Bloom, who went on to a memorable stage and screen career (and had a tumultuous marriage to “Human Stain” writer Philip Roth), in just her second film, gives a touching performance as the depressed ballet dancer.

There are some nicely staged ballet scenes late in the film and one memorable scene with Buster Keaton and Chaplin in the makeup room before a stage performance. (Once on stage the scene goes flat, mostly because Calvero’s act is so sadly dated). It isn’t hard to see the parallels between the once loved Calvero, now discarded by fans, and Chaplin’s situation in the 1950s. His anti-war and Communist beliefs got him exiled from the U.S. and his numerous affairs with and marriages to much younger women hurt his image around the world. In fact, “Limelight” wasn’t shown in Los Angeles until 1972, earning Chaplin an Oscar for best score 20 years after the film was made.

As an actor, once Chaplin talked, he was just another courtly, gray-haired Brit. His Little Tramp character had made him arguably the first international celebrity, but when he put away the mustache he lost the magic.

In “Limelight,” he plays the role like he had just time-traveled from another era. It works to some degree in this film, but the truth is Chaplin never was able to escaped his standing as a silent icon.

Matt Dillon’s feature directing debut spills over with potential. The plot (slick con man flees the U.S. and the FBI to Southeast Asia, ending up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as he attempts to get answers from his handler/surrogate father), the cast (Dillon, James Caan, Gerard Depardieu, Stellan Skarsgard and Natascha McElhone), and setting (when was the last time you saw a film set in Cambodia?), at first glance, seem like a quixotic combination of ambition and exotic slumming.

Unfortunately, Dillon, both actor and director, never manages to push the set-up to the next level. The script, by Dillon and Barry Gifford, doesn’t help as it struggles to make a plan to build a casino, Russian mobsters and a kidnapping into something meaningful or interesting. Dillon, a familiar face, but never really a star, since he’s been a teenager, has never really grown up on screen. No matter how sleazy or tough Jimmy is presented, as played by Dillon he comes off as too nice, too naive, too All-American to be mixed up with so many low-lifes.

The actor turns 40 next year, but still looks and acts like he just stepped off your local community college campus. Dillon’s career should have turned into something more after a superb, very adult performance in “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989). But since then his best stuff has been off-beat comedy roles, like his pretentious actor in “In and Out” (1997) and the incompetent private eye with a hideous mustache in “There’s Something About Mary” (1998).

Caan, who now shows up in independent films as often as Harvey Keitel did in the 1990s, gives his patented boisterous, strutting, tough guy act and, if the film would have had more going on, it would have been perfect. Instead, it feels like he’s putting on a show and everyone else is just standing around watching him.

McElhone’s Sophie, an archeologist trying to preserve historic Cambodia, gives Dillon’s Jimmy a reason to carry on while everything collapses around him. Her quiet intelligence and luminous beauty make her one of the most charismatic actresses working in American movies; I’m convinced that given the right role in a major film she’ll become a major star--a status veteran Dillon may never reach.

BLOWUP (1966)

     The reason this film is best remembered for its mod fashions and glimpses of female nudity became clear when I saw it recently for the first time in nearly 20 years. The underdeveloped plot and nonexistent screenplay (which was nominated for an Oscar--voters had to show they were hip), filmed with little flair, never rise above the simplistic purpose of illustrating director Michelangelo Antonioni’s commentary on how easily we can be manipulated by visual images in this dumbed-down world.

David Hemmings plays a fashion photographer who by chance photographs what may have been a murder scene. What at the time was a scandalous encounter between Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in which she tries to persuade him to give her the roll of film he took, eventually removing her shirt (but covering her breasts with her arms), now seems interminably long and pointless.

Hemmings, who died this week, never had much of a career following the success of “Blowup,” appearing in a bunch of forgettable Italian films in the 1970s and TV films in the 1980s. He had his best role in years in the 2001 British movie, “Last Orders.”

The most lively scene of “Blowup” occurs when Hemmings wonders into a rock concert by the Yardbirds, which at the time featured both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar. But Antonioni isn’t interested in this aspect of modern art, instead depicting the fans as detached and lifeless. Clearly, he’d never been to a rock concert.

The filmmaking legend--now 91, having last directed in 1996--has always presented life in deliberate, often mundane images but when shot in black-and-white and spoken in Italian the effect can be hypnotic, as in his “L’Avventura” (1960) and “La Notte” (1961). In color and in English, he comes off as an uninformed tourist who wishes he had stayed at home.

The headline on the Los Angeles Times review of this movies was “It could have been worse.” I guess that’s inevitably true for any movie, but short of substituting Christopher Lloyd or Bruce Dern for Jack Nicholson, it’s hard to imagine a worse combination of sappy sentimentalism and unfunny political incorrect comedy skits.

I’ve stopped trying to understand the appeal of Adam Sandler, who here plays a man who is abused and insulted by everyone but just smiles and takes it. Sandler’s screen persona, which strikes me as something close to the bastard son of Jerry Lewis and Roseanne Barr, has few recognizable human characteristics. It’s the same thing every picture: He acts like a complete ass throughout most of the film and then is rewarded for being a sensitive guy by the end.

Nicholson gets to do his well-worn madman act, completely with wild hair and bulging eyes, playing a famous anger management counselor. After they rail at each other for about 90 minutes, the conclusion negates everything we’ve seen.

The only relief from this overheated mess are a few nutty supporting performances, including John Turturro as one of Nicholson’s most implosive patients, Woody Harrelson as a cross-dressing prostitute/Yankee security guard and Rudy Giuliani as himself.

21 GRAMS (2003)
I’m no stickler for linear storytelling--the backward “Memento” is one of my favorite recent films--but “21 Grams” takes the device way too far. In telling this rather melodramatic tale in a jumble of fractured time, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who did similar cutting in his acclaimed “Amores Perros” (2000), wastes three outstanding performances by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.

The plot is slowly parceled out as we get to know these three characters and learn how their lives intersect. But even before we know why or how Penn and Watts get together, we learn that they are plotting to kill Del Toro. I won’t go into any more details on the storyline because knowing any information about this film would ruin what impact it has to offer, but, in the truth, the film has little going for it other than the acting.

Of the three principals, Watts has the best role and does the most with it. Like her daring and complex performance as the wannabe movie star in “Mulholland Drive,” her portrayal here as a woman who has lost everything and struggles to give meaning to her life displays her skills at bringing incredibly intense emotional experiences, without restraints, to the screen. She more than holds her own with Penn and that’s about as tough as it gets.

Yet another performance from Sean Penn (from a guy who claimed he was retiring from acting a few years ago), isn’t a good enough reason to waste time on this ambitious but convoluted movie. There was a reason why it sat on the proverbial shelf for more than two years before its released in November 2002.

Director Kathryn Bigelow attempts to parallel (as the novel by Anita Shreve does) a crumbling contemporary marriage with the unfolding mystery of a murder that took place on the coast of Maine in the 1870s. A photographer (Catherine McCormack), who is researching the case, sails to the site of the killings with her famous poet husband (Penn), his brother (Josh Lucas) and the brother’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley). The 19th-Century story has all the trappings of a Masterpiece Theatre production, including British TV star Ciaran Hinds as a boarder who is hanged for the murder of two women following the testimony of a disturbed young woman played by Sarah Polley.

I probably would have enjoyed an all-out production of the 1870s murder-mystery, but the attempt to twin it with the contemporary story fails miserably. Penn offers little more than a tough guy pose and you never see any bond between him and his wife. Hurley isn’t asked to act, only to disrobe and flirt, both of which she does wonderfully.

The most interesting acting comes in the scenes between Hinds and Polley as their unhappy lives lead to tragedy.


      How do you ruin the most famous screen adaptation of what may be the greatest boyhood adventure novel ever written? By casting Jackie Cooper as a wimpy, girlish Jim Hawkins. The famous child actor, in movies since he was eight, was coming off his best screen roles in “Skippy” (1930), which earned him a best actor Oscar nomination, and “The Champ” (1931).

But at age 13, when “Treasure Island” was made, Cooper had outgrown his boyish cuteness and shows absolutely no skills at line reading. Veteran director Victor Fleming, along with co-stars Wallace Beery (as Long John Silver) and Lionel Barrymore (as Capt. Billy Bones) must have been pulling their hair out trying to get a believable performance from Cooper. I truly can’t remember seeing worse acting from a lead actor in a major Hollywood production; Cooper’s performance would have been booed off a high school stage.

That giant flaw aside, Robert Louis Stevenson story--a motley group of treasure hunters, under the leadership of the British crown, sail off in search of a long-lost bounty on a deserted island--makes for exciting cinema, with its nonstop action and colorful characters and this pre-code production doesn’t pull any punches. Both good and bad adventurers die and Long John, a liar and thief and mutineer, slips away a free man at the end of the film.

Beery has a grand time as the one-legged scalawag, creating one of the most charismatic villains of the era, and, most enjoyably, never stops manipulating the naive Hawkins into doing his bidding.

Some early sound films play like remnants of the 19th Century. No actor embodies that feeling more than George Arliss, born in 1868 and one of the leading Broadway actors in the early years of the 20th Century. Best know for his portrayals of famous men (Disraeli, Voltaire, Alexander Hamilton), Arliss was 53 when he made his film debut in 1921. He repeated his stage performance in “Disraeli” (1929) to win the Academy Award for best actor.

In “Millionaire,” this stoic, deliberate actor plays a industrialist forced to retire because of his health, but quickly tires of sitting around in his new home in sunny California with a blanket over his legs, taking his medicine. Then a visit from an enthusiastic and very blunt life-insurance salesman (James Cagney, just before he starred in “Public Enemy”) turns his life around. Cagney’s character warns the old man that an inactive retirement usually translates into an early death. The one-scene performance by Cagney plays like a small tornado in the middle of the desert. The movie quickly returns to its leisurely pace after Cagney exits.

The story picks up some steam when Arliss buys into a gas station and then plays matchmaker between his daughter (Evalyn Knapp) and his hard-working co-owner (David Manners, who played the fiance in “Dracula” the same year).

While “Millionaire” is classic Depression-era moving making in the way it shows a rich man finding real happiness when he mingles with the working class, Arliss contributes that 19th Century style of low-keyed, highly technical stage acting. It’s as close as you can get to seeing a turn-of-the-century stage production.


     French Canadian director Denys Arcand makes adult comedies; the kind of movies that American filmmakers aren’t interested in. Films in which smart adults talk to each other about life and death and sex and politics and art and aren’t afraid to reveal their flaws and failures. The characters in Arcand’s films are intellectuals who liberally drop literary and historical references in their conversations, but are most concerned with sex and success. By the end of this film, you’ll wish you were part of this cluster of friends.

“The Decline of the American Empire” (1986) is his best known and most successful film, but since then he’s done impressive work in “Jesus of Montreal” (1989) and “Love and Human Remains” (1993). His latest work is a sequel of sorts to “American Empire.”

Beyond bringing together the actors/characters from the 1986 movie to give comfort to their old friend Remy (Remy Girard), who is dying of cancer, the strength of “Barbarian” is the inclusion of the next generation. Remy’s distant son (Stephane Rousseau) and the heroin-addicted daughter of a friend (Marie-Josee Croze) both turn out to be more sympathetic and humane, as they attend to the needs of the dying Remy, than their elders expect of that generation. If this all sounds depression and dour, it isn’t. Instead Arcand turns this into a celebration of life. These entertaining old radicals have learned to make fun of themselves and never stop lashing out at each others’ failings.
The writer-director also uses the plot to show the most egregious failings of Canadian’s medical system, question the state of education and touch on 9/11, which the film’s title refers to. Arcand has written a great script in which every scene contains memorable, funny lines and striking insights into the state of the world and the way we live in it. In other words, don’t miss this film.

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