THE PASSENGER (1975)
If Michelangelo Antonioni wasn’t the name of one of the 20th Century’s most acclaimed filmmakers, someone would have made it up for a movie satire. No moniker, even if you don’t know his work, comes closer to symbolizing the intellectual European art film world that reigned in the 1950s and ‘60s. You could say his name is as pretentious as his metaphorically laden movies, but it also implies a grand, boisterous showman when in fact he’s a minimalist who says more with less than nearly anyone who’s ever made a film.
Though incapacitated by a stroke in 1985, the 93-year-old Italian directed a feature film as recently as 1995 and contributed one of three shorts that made up “Eros,” released earlier this year. But the important part of career ended with this Jack Nicholson-starring, English-language movie, which was re-released in November to mark its 30th anniversary.
I had seen “The Passenger” before on cable or video back in the early 1980s, but experiencing the film on the big screen was like seeing it for the first time. And while I can’t say I’m convinced of the picture’s greatness, it perfectly captures the endless, often confusing search for identity that was as much a part of the 1970s as disco and Afros.
Nicholson plays a television journalist working in North Africa who, after a long day of trying to get somewhere but failing, returns to his hotel and finds an acquaintance, also staying there, dead. With little thought, the journalist swaps the contents of their rooms, their clothes, their passport pictures and takes on the identity of the dead man, who slightly resembles him.
Returning to Europe, he finds out the man he’s impersonating is a gun runner in the middle of a deal with African revolutionaries. Without a plan or any sense of self, Nicholson’s David soon finds himself on the run from the dead man’s clients, the police and a wife and friend from his real life. In Barcelona, he convinces a sexy architect student (Maria Schneider, fresh from her star-making role in “Last Tango in Paris”) to join in him what seems like an aimless trek through the Spanish countryside.
The demise of meaningful communication has long been a central theme of Antonioni’s films; in “The Passenger,” the couple have little to say to one another, but after just a few days together, David clearly finds more truth and substance in this offhanded partnership than any relationship from his past.
If you’ve seen any of Antonioni’s acclaimed films—“L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), “Red Desert” (1964) and “Blow-Up” (1966)—you won’t be surprised that little in the narrative of “The Passenger” is spelled out and that long, wordless shots of characters moving through serene environs substitute for the endless talk that distinguishes most English-language movies. The presence of Nicholson makes this Antonioni’s most accessible film for Western audiences, but don’t expect to find the usual charismatic Jack. He gives a strong, thoughtful performance but he tamps it down in accordance with the director’s style.
“L’Eclisse,” which I saw this month, also benefits from a movie star performance. Alain Delon, one of the biggest European box office attractions of the 1960s, plays a anxious stock broker who attracts Monica Vitti’s Vittoria after she splits from her boyfriend. You’ll never see a more desolate portrait of Rome as Vittoria drifts through the city in search of some meaning in her life. But the film bogs down with two long sequences set on the floor of the frantic Rome stock market, which, from what I could surmise, were only there to point out that modern man’s true passion is for money not women. The message, and the film, feels sadly dated today; the tedious, sleep-inducing visuals all but mute the insights into the characters’ inner lives that Antonioni brings to the movie.
I felt the same at many points of “The Passenger,” yet, compared to the director’s other films, he makes more an effort to fill the screen with traditional, character-driven action. Maybe because he was working in English, Antonioni, as he did in his most popular picture “Blow-Up,” throws a bone to his more literal viewers.
For me, Antonioni’s European contemporaries—Truffaut, Visconti, Fellini, Godard and Rohmer—all speak to me with more depth and clarity, but his place alongside these great directors can’t be denied. Watching an Antonioni film can often feel like being trapped in a dusty Art of the Film course, but even if you’re left baffled it’s worth the effort.
PACIFIC HEIGHTS (1990)
What’s most interesting about this baby-boomer horror tale (in which a tenant not only won’t pay the rent but completely destroys the apartment) is the three stars of the film and how quickly they’ve fallen off the Hollywood map.
Michael Keaton, who plays a devious con man who makes a living tormenting and defrauding rental owners, had just hit the big time, portraying the caped crusader in “Batman” (1989) and he would repeat the role in 1992 in “Batman Returns.” At age 39, when he made “Pacific Heights,” he was headed for a major film career. But a string of failures—“My Life” (1993), “The Paper” (1994), “Speechless” (1994) and “Multiplicity” (1996)—quickly turned him into a marginal player. He’s still a fine actor and gave an outstanding performances in “The Paper” and, in a smaller role, in “Jackie Brown” (1997), but his star has dimmed considerably. This year he had a supporting role in the Lindsay Lohen film “Herbie: Fully Loaded.” Need I say more.
Melanie Griffith, playing the home owner who turns the tables on Keaton’s con man, had risen from sleazy roles in B movies to a major star with “Something Wild” (1986) and “Working Girl” (1988), which earned her an Oscar nomination. Then, right after “Pacific Heights,” she appeared in a string of bombs that sent her career reeling: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990), “Shining Through” (1992) and the remake of “Born Yesterday” (1993). While Hollywood loves a comeback, time may be running out for Griffith, who is approaching 50.
Matthew Modine never had the star power of his “Pacific Heights” co-stars—he plays Griffith’s inept boyfriend—but he was one of the brightest young actors of the 1980s. He gave memorable performances in “Birdy” (1984), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), the little-scene but brilliantly acted Sidney Lumet picture “Orphans” (1987) and “Married to the Mob” (1988). After “Pacific Heights,” Modine was one of the many players in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993) and gave a nice performance in the indie film “The Real Blonde” (1997), but probably his most prominent role was opposite Geena Davis in the monumental bomb “Cutthroat Island” (1995). The last movie I saw him in was an embarrassing TV time-travel fantasy in which he played early 20th Century baseball star Honus Wagner.
As for the film these three actors worked together on, “Pacific Heights” isn’t nearly as good as it could have been, but grows entertaining when Keaton’s con man gets his comeuppance. John Schlesinger, one of the finest filmmakers of the 1960s and ‘70s and an Oscar winner for “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), directed this San Francisco-set melodrama. His career was also on the downturn, but in 1995, he made the very funny British comedy “Cold Comfort Farm,” his first film in decades that came close to his great early run that produced “Darling” (1965), “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971), “The Day of the Locust” (1975) and “Marathon Man” (1978). He died of a heart attack in 2003 at age 77.
NORTH COUNTRY (2005)
Everything dramatized in this story of the first class-action sexual harassment suit may be completely true, but the filmmakers never made me believe any of it. It takes more than the title “This is based on a true story” to convince audiences that they’re seeing real life on the screen.
Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a woman with two children and an abusive husband, who returns to her Minnesota home to start over. Over the objections of her narrow-minded father (superbly played by Richard Jenkins), she hires on at the local mine. There she can make enough money to get her own place and feed her kids, but must endure the endless advances and sexual denigration that the men dish out. Eventually, with the help of a hockey-playing lawyer (Woody Harrelson), she brings suit against the company.
It’s not that I doubt for a second that Josey and the other women working at the mine faced all that’s portrayed and more, but the indignities are pilled on so thick and the personal traumas she must endure are so unending that any sense of normalcy is simply crushed. As much as I was hoping for a nuclear attack that would kill all the citizens of this town, I couldn’t build up real emotions for the victims. The deck is so thoroughly stacked (with the final straw coming when Josey’s best friend comes down with Lou Gehrig’s disease!) that it’s obvious from the first frame that she’ll win the day in court. In fact, the only defense offered by the men is that “they’re taking ‘our’ jobs!”
It’s easy to be won over by a collection of fine acting, including Theron, Jenkins, Frances McDormand as one of the miners (reviving her accent from “Fargo”) and Sissy Spacek as Josey’s indecisive mother. But the project crumbles under the weight of its convictions; director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) seems to have gotten swept away by the message and forgot about delivering a dramatically truthful film.
THE WEATHER MAN (2005)
I’ve seen way too many movies in recent years about highly successful people trying to find “meaning” in their lives. Visit Oprah or Dr. Phil, but don’t show up as sympathetic characters in major motion pictures. This hard-to-watch Nicholas Cage vehicle reeks of the Anderson influence (Wes and P.T), as it desperately tries to be hip and intellectual and nervously humorous. I felt sorry for the fine actors forced to read the lines and play out the scenes.
Cage plays David Spritz, a Chicago weatherman who is being considered for the same job on a national morning show. He’s separated from his wife and struggles to relate to his children and his famous father, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer; frankly, he’s such an immature mess (he even swears like a juvenile) they’d all be better off if he left town. This guy needs about 10 years of intense therapy before he should be allowed out in the real world.
Yet director Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and screenwriter Steve Conrad treat him as an everyman of contemporary America who just needs a dash of self-confident to enjoy the riches of his life. The filmmakers turn a cute idea of having food thrown at Spritz when he’s out in public into a major theme of the movie and it gets old quickly. Also, the portrayal of the children is needlessly crass and freakish.
Not even fine performances by Michael Caine as the soft-spoken father and Hope Davis as the worn-out wife can save this film from itself.
IN HER SHOES (2005)
Then again, there’s always an exception to every prejudice. In this perfectly mixed comedy-drama, Toni Collette plays Rose, a workaholic lawyer who buys shoes instead of enjoying life. Maybe if that’s all there was to this film, it would be as indulgent as “The Weather Man,” but instead director Curtis Hanson (working from a script by Susannah Grant based on a Jennifer Weiner novel) saddles Rose with an impossibly self-serving sister (Cameron Diaz in a career-best performance) who turns to her sister every time her life hits the skids.
The fighting between Rose and Diaz’s Maggie has been played out in dozens of movies, both tragedy and comedy, yet Hanson keeps it fresh by never letting these character become cliches. These are recognizable women, not movie fantasies, doing their best to avoid facing up to their problems and their need for one another. And while Maggie comes off badly in the first half of the film as we see her only from her sister’s perspective, there is never any doubt that both are incomplete without the other.
It also becomes clear that these motherless girls (their mother struggled with mental illness and committed suicide when they were young) are desperate for maternal guidance, which materializes in the form of an unexpected grandmother (a subdued Shirley MacLaine).
When the film shifts to a Florida retirement community, I braced myself for the onslaught of old people shtick, but the filmmakers show restraint, mostly avoiding cheap jokes (though a running bit with the male retirees gawking at the bikini-clad Diaz is overused). It’s a mark of this film’s accomplishment that while the focus never strays from the sisters, the movie still offers a very honest, sweet portrait of the retirees.
The three principals all give impressive performances, especially Collette, who totally embodies this smart, but aimless woman who finds a new world when she decides to take a few chances.
I wasn’t that impressed with Hanson’s most recent films, “Wonder Boys” (2000) or “8 Mile” (2002), but “In Her Shoes,” shows that, like he did in “L.A. Confidential” (1997), he can take an old-fashioned story, make it sharply contemporary and fill it with characters you can’t help but care about.
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005)
“In Your Shoes” features a widowed father who hides the existence of a grandmother; in “The Weather Man,” an insecure man forever measures himself against his famous father; in “North Country,” a woman is berated by her father for not sticking with an abusive husband; and “The Squid and the Whale” centers around the most self-centered father in the history of parenthood. And that’s just the movies I saw in November.
In those other movies, the parenting flaws aren’t central to the plot of the film, but “The Squid and the Whale” has nothing to say other than bad parents can be sophisticated and well-read. Jeff Daniels plays Bernard, a college professor and published novelist who separates from his wife Joan (Laura Linney) because of her infidelity. Ridiculously splitting the custody of their two sons, the pair, especially the arrogant and self-centered Bernard, do everything they possibly can to make life hell on the boys (who, not surprisingly, are as self-involved as their parents).
The father would be a funny supporting character if this was a comedy; here he’s just insufferable. That the film is based on the real-life experiences of writer-director Noah Baumbach (who wrote “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”) doesn’t make the character any more plausible, though it does explain the mean-spirited writing. No fiction writer would create such an unsympathetic character.
Linney’s wife-mother comes off more believable; having to live with this idiot all but excuses her flaws. The most appealing character in this dreary picture is the boys’ laconic tennis instructor played by Billy Baldwin. Bernard calls him a “philistine,” but he turns out to be the only sane dude in the bunch.
In an odd juxtaposition of style and content, this slick, genteel movie tells a story of a tawdry, messy affair between a rich businessman and a struggling store clerk young enough to be his daughter.
Adapted from actor Steve Martin’s novella, the script never even attempts to dig deeper into this relationship; it stops with he wants sex, she likes his money.
Martin, of course, cast himself as Ray Porter, the unassuming, soft-spoken fiftysomething computer executive who picks out Claire Danes’ Mirabelle while she’s selling him a pair of gloves at her counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles. While she’s falling in some version of love, he’s happy to have someone to screw when he’s in town.
I was willing to go with this film—Martin and Danes are both engaging performers—until Mirabelle was overjoyed, not outraged, when her sugar daddy pays off her student loan. She might as well have accepted cash payments at the end of each of their nights together. And then there’s a totally unbelievable segment in which a co-worker of Mirabelle plots to sleep with Ray. She barely knows Mirabelle but she wants to bust up her relationship?
The movie also spends an inordinate amount of time with Jeremy (played by Jason Schwartzman), a totally inept underemployed dude who was dating Mirabelle when she met Ray. In frustration, he hits the road with a small-time rock band and learns how to turn himself into an acceptable match for Mirabelle. The picture’s point is that both Mirabelle and Jeremy needed to experience more of life before they would be ready for one another. But both journeys seem very forced, too theatrical. I’m sure it was more convincing on paper.
The model from which screenwriter-star Martin and director Anand Tucker (“Hilary and Jackie”) are clearly working is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but they never come close to matching the honesty of that classic romance. Instead, “Shopgirl” tries to pass off shiny and well-groomed as charm and it just doesn’t work.
WALK THE LINE (2005)
As demonstrated last year in “Ray” and “The Aviator,” it takes more than a memorable subject to make a successful bio-pic. For all the dazzling recreations of events in the lives of Ray Charles and Howard Hughes, neither film gets under the skin of these legends, settling instead for glossy icons. Sure, the films portray the frailties of the men, but just as a way to show how they overcame yet another obstacle to greatness.
“Walk the Line,” by most measures, is a prototypical biography, chronicling the rise and struggles of the great country music singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. And though his life and his long courtship with June Carter is a familiar story for anyone who’s been watching television since the 1960s, sensational performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the couple turn the film into a first-rate entertainment. Not only are the actors believable as charismatic musicians (doing their own singing), but they fill the screen with the kind of chemistry rarely seen between recent movie couples.
Phoenix, who seems to improve with every role since his breakthrough as an adult actor in “To Die For” (1995), makes up for his lack of physical resemblance to Cash by capturing the singer’s halting, shy manners that turn to intense determination when it comes to music. He’s just as convincing on stage, his body looking more like the singer’s lanky built when framed by Cash’s infamous black jackets.
Unlike most bio-pics, “Walk the Line” doesn’t try to cram every highlight of the subject’s career into a two-hour film. By ending the movie in 1968, when Cash was just 36, director James Mangold, best known for “Girl, Interrupted” (1999), and co-scripter Gill Dennis are able to avoid the episodical trap. Their film plays like a focused, slice-of-life drama that gives Phoenix and Witherspoon the opportunity to create characters that are as rich as fictional ones. For these characters, problems—for Cash, amphetamines and booze; for Carter, bad marriages—aren’t easily resolved or don’t simply disappear when they move to the next phase of their lives.
Even as a public persona, there were always two Johnny Cashes: the larger-than-life “Man in Black” and the aw-shucks farm boy. It’s a measure of the passionate work done by Mangold and Phoenix that both of those sides Cash—plus the real man in between—come alive in “Walk the Line.”
So much of this movie is cribbed from far better war and basic training pictures that it barely qualifies as a new release. The basic training scenes add nothing beyond what Stanley Kubrick dramatized in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and once these Marines sharpshooters are sent to the Middle East, their frustration over the “hurry up and wait” aspect of warfare reflects a plotline that goes back to the silent era.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the central figure, a young man who joins up without really thinking it through and ends up coming of age during his stint. But the character just isn’t memorable enough to elevate the familiar story. Jamie Foxx, as the Bible-reading platoon leader, gives the film’s best performance, capturing the focused intensity of a career solider.
Director Sam Mendes, whose previous films are the Oscar-winning “American Beauty” (1999) and less effective “Road to Perdition” (2002), brings a nice sense of place to the desert encampments and turns the burning Kuwaiti oil fields into a visually stunning scene, but is let down by a script that putters along aimlessly.
There is one great, ironic scene in which the enlisted men are at a camp screening of “Apocalypse Now” cheering on Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his helicopter corps as they strafe a Vietnamese schoolyard. One of the most anti-war movies ever made now serves as an adrenaline-pumping boost for those headed into battle.
WISHFUL THINKING (1997)
It’s not surprising that this smartly written picture received only limited theatrical release. It isn’t funny enough to be labeled a comedy or dark enough to be sold as a drama. In other words, it’s a lot like real life.
Writer-director Adam Park, whose only film credits before and after this film are as a production manager, has taken a worn-out topic—young, quirky adults floundering through a relationship—and made it both believable and watchable. James LaGros plays a writer-inventor-projectionist who suspects his live-in girlfriend (Jennifer Beals) of cheating on him and, urged on by a love-struck co-worker (Drew Barrymore), makes a fool of himself trying to catch her.
Providing most of the comic edge to the film is Jon Stewart, long before he became a TV star on “The Daily Show,” playing a romantic interest of both Barrymore and Beals.
Though he goes back to it once too often, Park’s cleverly inserts the three principals in scenes from the B-movies screening at the local revival house, recasting the story into a tawdry, black-and-white melodramatic.
The biggest surprised for me was the wonderfully appealing and emotionally complex performance given by Beals. After becoming an overnight star in her 1983 debut, the box-office hit “Flashdance,” she became a bit player, mostly showing up in indie pictures. She showed flashes of being a good actress in “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995)” and later in “The Anniversary Party” (2001) and “Roger Dodger” (2002), but if “Wishful Thinking” had been seen by more people it might have turned her career around.