Tuesday, September 23, 2008

November 2004

Ian Holm, among the finest English actors of his generation, may be the least appreciated great actor working in film. Possibly because of his small stature (he’s listed at 5 foot 6, but seems shorter), he’s rarely mentioned with the more obvious names of Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen, as being among the top, post-Olivier, British thespians. Yet since he turned 65 in 1996, he’s delivered one distinctive and amazing performance after another, and has been working like a man possessed, appearing in 28 features in the past eight years.

While the masses know him as the ring-obsessed Bilbo Baggins from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he’s done impressive work in lesser know films: as a proud retired cop with a secret in “Night Falls on Manhattan” (1997), portraying a persistent lawyer dealing with bus crash victims in “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), repeating his acclaimed stage performance as King Lear for television in 1998, playing a half-crazy, literary homeless man in “Joe Gould’s Secret” (2000) and, in “Emperor’s New Clothes,” becoming both Napoleon Bonaparte and a working-class impostor.

This first-rate production tells the story of what might have happened had Napoleon escaped his house-arrest on the island of St. Helena and returned to France. The plot is such a flighty conceit that it requires a charismatic, dominating performance from Holm and he gives it. As Napoleon, he goes from being the imperialistic, arrogant, self aware “great man” to a commoner who accepts his new, more humble life, which offers him both love and freedom. Meanwhile, he does a wonderfully comic turn as the seaman recruited to take Napoleon’s place on St. Helena. Pretending to be Napoleon gives him what we would label today as a Napoleonic complex. So much so that he ruins the original plans for the real Napoleon to become a political leader again.

Alan Taylor, who has mostly directed for television, does a superb job of making this fantasy feel real and turning the legendary emperor into a sympathetic human.

Sir Ian, who was knighted in 1998, has already appeared in two 2004 films, “Garden State” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” and will play a key role in the upcoming Martin Scorsese biopic of Howard Hughes, “The Aviator.” At 73, he continues to build on what is already a great movie career.


As much as I want to applaud this attempt to produce a classic woman’s picture, featuring the kind of role that, in the Golden Era, would have earned Bette Davis an Academy Award nomination, it falls well short of the standards established in the late 1930s and ‘40s. In those years, this script would have been tossed back to the writers with demands to surround this great character with some drama, some real conflict, anything to keep the audience awake.

Instead, Annette Bening emotes up a storm as the grand dame of the British theater, Julia Lambert, who finds herself involved with a younger man with dubious intensions. But she might as well be single as her marriage to director-manager (a role phoned in by Jeremy Irons) is more arrangement than passion. I guess we’re suppose to respond to this as a character study of a performer facing the realities of aging, but Bening is such a gorgeous 46 and the “harsh” realities she faces are so superficial that the story rings as false as the overblown melodramas her character acts in.

Michael Gambon, as Julia’s long dead mentor, spices up the proceedings when he appears, but that’s not enough to counter the “I’ve appeared in too many Masterpiece Theater productions” performances.

Filmmaker Mike Leigh has spent most of his superb television and movie career exploring the personal frustrations of a generation of Brits. While political and social issues are usually lingering the background of his films, the ways that individuals and their family units manage to survive day in and day out remain at the heart of Leigh’s work.

His latest makes a social issue—abortion and the results of its prohibition—the central theme yet still captures the complexities of a family.

Stage actress Imelda Staunton plays the title character, an insistently upbeat mother of two adult children who works as a domestic for those much better off than her and her humble family. Set in the years right after World War II, the war remains a very contemporary topic and is heartbreakingly remembered when a young man (the wonderfully dour Eddie Marsdan) invited to dinner by Vera poignantly tells of his mother’s death during the blitz. Like most Leigh films, the magic happens when the characters are uncomfortably sitting in a cramped living room and quietly discussing the mundane events of their lives. The writer-director has long been able to reveal more about a character through the fewest words than any filmmaker working.

But it’s Vera’s secret activity of inducing the end of unwanted pregnancies that becomes the central event of the last half of the movie after one of her young clients nearly dies. And while Leigh deals with the complexities of the issue, if you find abortion amoral there’s little point in seeing this film.

What disappointed me in the film was Staunton’s performance after she’s revealed as an abortionist. Leigh writes the character as though she had never once considered the possible consequences of her action and when faced with them crumbles into an incoherent crying binge. While that may be believable, it doesn’t make for great cinema.

While not first-rate Leigh—for his best, see “Life Is Sweet” (1990), “Naked” (1993) and “Secrets and Lies” (1996)—it’s an intelligent examination of an issue that remains controversial 50 years after the time frame of the film.

While much of this picture features poorly staged comic action scenes, it’s saved by two outrageously funny performances and on-the-mark satirical dialogue. The set-up is hilarious: an organization called the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., an all-African American spy agency (plus a white intern—affirmative action, of course) must stop THE MAN, who has come up with a formula to sap blacks of their ambition. The first clue comes when a Colin Powell-like character (Billy Dee Williams) decides not to run for president, but instead opens a fried chicken fast-food chain.

The key operatives in the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.—Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle) and Smart Brother (Gary Anthony)—are joined by Eddie Griffin’s Afro-sporting Undercover Brother, a Super Fly/Shaft wannabe who looks as if he just stepped out of the ‘70s. The silly plot offers plenty of opportunity for making light of racial stereotyping and the divisions between white American and black America. Griffin prepares for his mission to infiltrate THE MAN’s organization by utilizing a hot-sauce dispensing device to counter the dreaded mayonnaise he expects (and does) encounter in the white world. His transformation is complete when he can answer a “Friends” trivia question.

But the most talented performer in this film is Chappelle. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of his Comedy Central show but I’ve be told it borders on brilliance and after seeing his Conspiracy Brother I’m not surprised. Just the look in his eyes when he delivers such lines as “George Washington Carver made the first computer! Out of a peanut!” and, responding to a question about Hollywood’s relationship with Spike Lee, “Come on man! Even Cher’s won an Oscar! Cher!”

Director Malcolm D. Lee (a cousin of Spike) and screenwriters John Ridley and Michael McCullers are out of their element when they send Undercover Brother into action (only a fight between Sistah Girl and Denise Richards’ White She Devil that turns into a takeoff on soft porn is funny) but when they just let the brothers rift on race, the film is a laugh-out-loud comic gem.

TWISTED (2004)

Talk about a waste of talent. Philip Kaufman, best know for such high-minded films as “The Right Stuff” (1983), “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988) and “Quills” (2000), tries his hand at a procedural cop thriller. Clearly, he’s a director-for-hire on this project, stuck trying to turn an Ashley Judd vehicle into something you’d expect to see when Kaufman’s name appears above the title.

The plot unfolds like a Lifetime TV movie when Judd’s newly promoted detective finds herself investigating a series of murders in which the victims are all men she’s slept with. Yet it takes half the movie for the cops to consider these facts more than coincidences. While the film strives to be a psychological study of Judd’s character, who spends most of her off time getting drunk and picking up men, it can’t quite pull if off because Judd isn’t up to the task. As much as Hollywood wants to make her a major star, she doesn’t have the screen presence to carry a film and certainly doesn’t have the acting chops to create a complex character.

Not much help are supporting players Andy Garcia and Samuel L. Jackson.

If Kaufman was a prolific director it’d be easy to write this off as a blimp in a fine career, but he’s made just 12 films in his 40-year career. A 68-year-old filmmaker shouldn’t be doing this kind of crap. It’s also baffling how no-name makers of music videos are entrusted with some of the biggest films of the year, but a proven talent like Kaufman ends up with “Twisted,” which should have gone straight to DVD.

I was curious as to how Hollywood would present this fascinating Founding Father’s story after having seen a compelling documentary recently on the History Channel detailing the Hamilton-Burr rivalry and fatal duel. From the opening minutes, this George Aliss vehicle is more laughable than watchable. It’s a shock in the first scene, showing Hamilton as Gen. George Washington’s aide at the end of the war, seeing the 63-year-old Arliss (who looks even older) along side 35-year-old Alan Mowbray portraying Washington. In reality, in 1783, Hamilton was 26 years old and Washington 51. The age gap is nearly the same, except reversed!—even for Hollywood that’s beyond ridiculous.

The rest of the film isn’t worth my continuing to type: it basically revolves around Hamilton getting a banking bill through Congress and an attempt to blackmail him into disowning the bill.

They never get around to the duel (and Burr is never mentioned), but since the real Hamilton died at age 47, it might have been a little tricky for Arliss to pull that one off. And critics complain about inaccuracies in recent biopics. This is clearly an all-time low in Hollywood biographies.

I actually read some good reviews of this Al Pacino picture when it was released in the spring of 2003 and was baffled why it left theaters so quickly. After waiting about 18 months for it to arrive on DVD, I now understand its quick exit from screens. Even Pacino’s occasionally entertaining and consistently over-the-top performance (picking clean the stereotypes of Southerners and Jews—his character is both) can’t save this melodramatic, conspiratorial story of behind-the-scenes New York politics.

Pacino, looking rumpled and sweaty, plays Eli Wurman, a workaholic publicity man in the midst of putting together a charity benefit dinner. But his focus is shifted when his top Hollywood client (Ryan O’Neal) asks him to bail his latest fling out of jail. Tea Leoni plays the party girl who Eli escorts from the police station back to a party she had earlier attended and then back to her hotel room.

The next morning, she’s found dead of an overdose and Eli finds himself in possession of a damning video. That’s when Eli is introduced to some of the scariest and sleaziest politicians this side of Richard Nixon. The filmmakers seem to believe they are creating a very serious, important film, which makes it play out even sillier.

At points, the film borders on being racist and anti-Semitic, but it’s most determined in its pessimism—you won’t see a darker view of mankind.

SENSO (1954)

Luchino Visconti, one of the many superb filmmakers to emerge from World War II ravaged Italy, knows how to turn a simple story into an sweeping epic. His pictures are structured like operas, with the main characters carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders as stand-ins for philosophical issues.

Visconti’s greatest works include “The Leopard” (1963), a period piece romance starring Burt Lancaster; “The Stranger” (1967), an adaptation of Camus’ classic starring Marcello Mastroianni; and “The Innocent” (1976), the director’s final film.

In “Senso,” he tells the story of a married, Italian countess (played by Alida Valli), circa 1866, who falls in love with an Austrian officer (Farley Granger) as Italian troops are pushing the Austrian-Hungarian army out of Venice and the northern part of their country. The film looks at both the complexities of an older woman-younger man romance and the dueling loyalties toward the good of the nation and personal satisfaction. While Valli (best known for her role in “The Third Man”) and Granger aren’t the most convincing performers—Visconti originally envisioned Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman in the roles—they serve as pliable characters on the director’s grand stage, suitably attractive to fit into the film’s lush, rococo settings.

Visconti’s direction is the real star of the film; without flashy camera work he’s able to turn what should be dull interior scenes into set pieces that burst with emotions and meaning. When he does move the camera it’s usually upward, creating a god-like, operatic view of the action. And despite working on a large canvas, he never loses sight of the details. Visconti transforms something as simple as mirrors into a symbol for the shallow, self-indulgent nature of Granger’s Lt. Mahler.

That character’s name is one of many music references in this picture that opens with the characters at a production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” It’s probably no coincidence that the main character in one of Visconti’s later films, “Death in Venice” (1971) resembles the great composer Gustav Mahler. In “Senso,” Anton Buckner’s music serves as the soundtrack.

I saw a subtitled version on TCM, but for the dubbed American version, playwright Tennessee Williams and novelist Paul Bowles are credited with supplying dialogue.

Actress Ida Lupino directed just six films, but two of them are among the top films of 1953. Her best is the intense film noir “The Hitch-Hiker,” but the rarely shown social drama “The Bigamist” ranks close behind. I‘m sure there was was plenty of controversy when this somewhat sympathetic view of bigamy by a traveling salesman was released. I’m not sure why it never shows on television now; I picked up a DVD of the film at the 99 Cents Only store.

Lupino gives one of her finest performances as wife number two, who Edmond O’Brien’s Harry meets on a bus tour of Hollywood stars’ homes. Both are bored and depressed and she invites him to dine at the Chinese restaurant where she works as a waitress. Their on-again, off-again relationship—he’s married to Eve (Joan Fontaine) in San Francisco—eventually leads to her getting pregnant and then marriage. He’s such a nice guy he doesn’t have the heart to tell the new wife that he’s already married or confess his adultery to his first wife.

And, this being the 1950s, even with a woman behind the camera, the first wife gets plenty of the blame, having turned away from her husband after they discovered she couldn’t bare children. She’s painted as a woman who only cares about making money and not tending to her husband’s “needs.”

On the whole, “The Bigamist” holds up, aided by sharp, believable dialogue by Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Schor and superb acting by the three principals.

The picture is framed by an investigation by Edmund Gwenn, playing an official from an adoption agency—ironically, the first wife decides to adopt a baby about the same time the second wife is pregnant.

There’s a funny moment in this otherwise very serious picture when the tour-bus driver points out the home of that famous actor who played Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street”—Edmund Gwenn.

After this film, Lupino focused on her television’s career, directing continually through the 1950s and ‘60s. She made just one more theatrical film, “The Trouble With Angels” (1966).

Writer-director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor are making a career out of putting characters on screen that fight tooth and nail to avoid happiness. First there was Mr. McAllister, a hopeless high school teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, who was his own worst enemy in “Election” (1999). Two years ago, grumpy retired accountant Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) hit the road in search of something to base his life on in “About Schmidt.” Now in “Sideways,” wine connoisseur and struggling novelist Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) wears his role as a depressed failure like an armored vest that blocks all attempts at happiness.

This smart and funny script (from a novel by Rex Pickett) takes a familiar plot—a couple of buddies go on a final adventure before one of them takes that walk down the aisle—and gives it the kind of depth and pathos you don’t expect from a guy film.

Miles, still pinning for his ex-wife, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), about to be married, head up to Santa Barbara to tour wineries, dine on good food and play a little golf. At least that’s what Miles, who has let wine take over his entire life, thinks. Jack is itching for some action and vows to procure female companionship for his sour friend.

Like it only happens in the movies (even good ones), Jack meets in no time flat a sassy wine pourer (Sandra Oh) at the same time he’s trying to hook Miles up with fellow wine expert Maya (a radiant Virginia Madsen). It’s in these romantic entanglements, and the conflict they spur between the men, that the filmmakers are able to make the movie universal. There are innumerable side paths (I’m guessing that’s the title’s meaning) on the road to contentment and these characters are easily diverted.

Giamatti, who played a similarly bitter character in last year’s “American Splendor,” does a better job here in fully realizing Miles; as exasperating as the character can be he never stops being recognizably human and not just a movie invention. Church, Madsen and Oh, all veterans of many a B movie, give the performances of their careers, as they try to influence Miles with their refreshingly unpretentious approach to life. Madsen’s portrayal of a smart, resourceful woman still struggling to find a focus for her life (other than the latest pinot) deserves an Oscar nomination. After years of appearing in straight-to-video sex thrillers, Madsen shows she is a performer who deserves much better roles.

“Sideways” occasionally trips in its scenes of physical humor, straining too hard to show the anguish of its characters, but that’s more than made up for by priceless dialogue and an acute understand of how most of us turn out to be our own worst enemy.

RAY (2004)

Despite depicting Ray Charles as a less-than-angelic, hardly admirable man, this bio-pic feels no different than those Warner Bros. movies from the 1930s, which all-but invented “true stories” of great men. Complete with newspaper headlines, spinning records, montages of musicians at work and nearly every cliché ever used in a biographical film, “Ray” presents Charles as the ultimate Teflon man whose sins never stick to him or even leave much of an dent. As those around him suffer through his heroin addiction, infidelity, broken loyalties and inability to trust anyone’s opinion but his own, Charles, as seen by writer-director Taylor Hackford and co-writer James L. White, just steps aside and moves on to the next phase of his career.

This film even fails to capture what made Charles one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century. Even when he moves from Atlantic Records, where he made his important R&B records, to ABC, where he became a more middle-of-the-road (and very rich) performer, the fact that some saw this move as a sell-out is discussed by others but never faced by the man himself. It’s certainly no easy task to depict musical genius at work, but the closest this film gets is to show Ray at the piano, haloed with backlight and draped in cigarette smoke.

Jamie Foxx gives what may be the most incredible, on-the-money imitation of a famous person ever presented on film, but is it a great performance? I don’t think so. Foxx has the man’s very familiar movement and voice down pat and looks amazingly like him, but he rarely get inside Charles or made me understand why he was acting the way he was. Foxx, who has given superb performance in the past—in this year’s “Collateral” and in the equally shallow biopic “Ali” (2000)—seems to have been let down by the filmmakers here. He brought all the exterior elements of the man; it should have been up to Hackford and White to lead Foxx to the inner man.

Foxx best moments in the film are when he’s at the piano or in the studio fine tuning his music. In one scene, he plays live, unrehearsed, “What’d I Say,” as the band and Raelettes improvise behind him. The movie desperately needs more scenes like this one; it makes you feel like you’re experiencing something magical.

The best performances in the film are given by the women who surround Charles; Kerry Washington as his forever forgiving wife; Regina King as a Raelette and longtime mistress and Sharon Warren as his dirt-poor mother who was determined to turn her blind boy into a productive man.

The most powerful scene in the picture is a flashback to not long after young Ray loses his sight. He falls in their small house and cries out for his mother but she remains silent, hoping to see him get up on his own. He does and after navigating the room by sound, tells his mother he can hear that she’s there. This one scene tells more about this amazing musician than does the rest of this 2 hour and 45 minute coffee-table book of a film.

After reading the exuberant reviews of this animated action picture, I was expecting nothing less than another “Pinocchio.” And while it’s a very entertaining and occasionally clever movie, it falls short of three previous Pixar studio efforts, the two “Toy Story” films and the underappreciated “Monsters, Inc.”

I’m sure you know the set-up: superheroes, once saving the world on a daily basis, are put into relocation programs after lawsuits against them ended their reign. The grainy black-and-white animation used in this opening segment is the most inventive aspect of this movie directed by Brad Bird, who made the much-acclaimed “The Iron Gaint” (1999).

The story focuses on two superheroes—Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter)—who are married with children (with their own superpowers) and vainly trying to live a normal suburban life.

The most amusing parts of the film feature the gigantic Mr. Incredible, aka Bob Parr, working in his tiny insurance cubicle, facing off with his miniature boss and squeezing into his compact car. He’s miserable and, on the sly, pulls some heroics with his old buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). All this is enjoyable fun, especially the hectic superhero home life and Bob’s longing to be back in the business again.

Then it turns into a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick, as an old acquaintance of Mr. Incredible tricks the superhero into helping him perfect the ultimate destructive robot. This sends the entire superfamily back into costumes to battle the bad guys.

The highlight of the second half of the film is Edna E. Mode (voiced by the director), clearly inspired by the great costume designer Edith Head, who fits Mr. Incredible for a new outfit and then gives a hilarious tour of her facility to Elastigirl. No doubt the kiddies will love “The Incredibles” and the sequels that are all but promised at the conclusion, but this isn’t going to be remembered as anything close to classic animation.

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