Friday, September 26, 2008

November 2006

Robert Altman, who died at age 81 a few weeks ago, observed that of all his pictures, this comic yet insightful examination of the highs and lows of the gambling life contained the least amount of plot. But plot was never a big concern for Altman; his focus on mood, character and a sense of place earned him a spot on the list of the great filmmakers of the 20th Century.

In many ways, “California Split,” though a secondary entry in this fiercely independent and endlessly inventive filmmaker’s amazing career, is quintessential Altman, with its long, rambling, improvised scenes and total immersion into a world that most of us know little about.

George Segal and Elliott Gould, two of the 1970s unlikely stars, play obsessive gamblers who meet when they are accused of cheating at a second-rate poker club in Los Angeles. While Segal’s Bill Denny has a legitimate job as a magazine editor, Gould’s Charlie Waters is a hopeless loser, living day-to-day with a pair of quirky (played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles). When I first saw this film years ago I was put off by its episodical structure and oddball interludes. Seeing it now, it seems to perfectly capture the seat-of-your-pants lifestyle of those who can’t stop betting on cards or horses or any sporting event. In an early scene in a strip club bar, Bill and Charlie bond over a bet to see who can name the Seven Dwarfs. It’s one of dozens of wonderfully acted and staged scenes in a film that Altman does his best to make it feel like something just thrown together. Sort of like real life.

The film was written by Joseph Walsh, a bit actor whose only screenplay credit is this film, which he based on the gambling escapades of Gould and himself. Wilson also plays the pair’s bookie, Sparkie, in a memorial scenes in which he demands payment from Segal. Walsh’s brother, Ed, also has a key role as a poker-playing rival.

In typical Altman fashion, most of the extras in the film are played by either actual poker players (including one-time champ Amarillo Slim) or members of the alcoholics recovery program Synanon. There’s so much going on in this film that sometimes you can get distracted from the main action. (A very young looking Jeff Goldblum makes his film debut as Bill’s boss at the magazine.)

Whether winning a hand at a card club, picking a winner at Santa Anita or counting out a big score in a Reno casino, the gamblers Altman portrays are in it for the action, the thrill of the bet, the competition; and when that feeling goes away, winning doesn’t mean a thing. The seriousness of “California Split” creeps up on you as does the superb acting by both Segal and Gould.

In February, on the occasion of Altman receiving a lifetime achievement Oscar, I wrote about the filmmaker’s greatest movies, but what makes his career so interesting are the secondary works---“California Split,” “Thieves Like Us” (1974), “Fool for Love” (1985), “Dr. T and the Women” (2000) and “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)---which are as smart and entertaining as most director’s best works.

Because Altman was always making films for himself, not for a studio executive, producer or star actor, each one plays like a piece of a single vision (you could probably edit in scenes from all his films into another Altman film and it’d look seamless). If you buy into his somewhat skewed view of life, nearly every movie is an experience worth cherishing.


Considering the obvious similarities between magicians and filmmakers, I’m not sure why so few major movies have been about performers of magic tricks.

While many films have featured scenes of magic acts (Orson Welles, an amateur magician, played the role numerous times in his career), the popular 1953 film “Houdini,” starring Tony Curtis as the legendary illusionist, as far as I can determine, is the most prominent movie with a magician at its center previous to the two new ones. Most of the movies with magic in the title have more to do with the occult than stage trickery; even “Magic” (1978), starring Anthony Hopkins, was about a ventriloquist.

In addition to these two dramas, Woody Allen, earlier this year, offered a bumbling, comic version of a magician in his film “Scoop.”

Unfortunately, neither “The Illusionist” nor “The Prestige” are as substantial as a cocktail party card trick.

In “The Illusionist,” Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, a mysterious, stoic Austrian who both amuses and irritates the heir to the throne, a very unpleasant man who keeps demanding the Vienna chief of police (Paul Giamatti) run the magician out of town. To make matters worse, Eisenheim is having an affair with the crown prince’s fiance (Jessica Biel), who just happens to be the childhood love of Eisenheim.

It’s all very melodramatic and the magic tricks that seem impossible are never explained. The biggest illusion is played on the audience when Giamatti’s character imagines what “really” happen during the last 30 minutes of the film. It felt like a theater usher passing out cliff notes on the movie you just sat through. Writer-director Neil Berger needed to find a better way of handling the reality/illusion aspect of the story.

“The Prestige,” not surprisingly the more prestigious production of the two, is more visually entertaining, but ends up being the greater disappointment. Christopher Nolan, who has quickly established himself as one of the country’s best filmmakers with “Memento” (2000), “Insomnia” (2002) and last year’s “Batman Begins,” creates some memorable scenes but the pieces don’t fit well together.

In creating a multilayered plot structure, repeatedly flashing backward and forward between different periods of a long-running feud between magicians Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman), Nolan and his co-writer, brother Jonathan, never give the audience a chance to get a handle on either the plot or the characters. Not helping matters, both actors give muddled performances; from one scene to another it’s hard to pin down their true nature.

Better work is done by the supporting cast, including Michael Caine as the mentor to both magicians, David Bowie as the electricity pioneer Nikolas Tesla and the ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson as the woman who, like the film itself, keeps shifting her sympathies between Borden and Angier.

Both of these films suffer from the lack of a main character whose fate you care about. All three illusionist are obsessed, somewhat amoral and mostly coldhearted men. Not exactly guys you want to root for.

THE QUEEN (2006)
Henceforth, all docudramas will be measured against this miraculously entertaining mixture of newsreel footage and dramatic recreations of events surrounding the death and funeral of Princess Diane in 1997. British director Stephen Frears, an incredibly versatile filmmaker who’s best work includes “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988), “The Gifters” (1990), “High Fidelity” (2000) and “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), finds the perfect balance of facts, conjecture, quirky characterizations and solemn respect to paint a totally believable picture of an out-of-touch royal family trying to understand world opinion of former royal Diane.

At the center of the storm is the steadfastly stoic Queen Elizabeth II, who carries herself as if the world, or at least the empire she rules, hasn’t changed in 100 years. It takes recently elected prime minister Tony Blair, as casual and unsure as she is regal and commanding, to nudge her into making concessions to a public that wants to see some sign of royal mourning for the shocking death of “people’s Princess.”

Helen Mirren gives the performance of her career as Her Majesty the Queen, showing the private side of one of the most famous women in the world that both reflects her public persona and offers new insight into what’s behind her mask-like face. Fresh from an Emmy-winning portrayal of the first Elizabeth in HBO’s “Elizabeth I,” Mirren doesn’t do an imitation---though she nails the facial express and the way the Queen carries herself---so much as create a character that makes us believe that this is what Elizabeth would say and do. It’s way too early to say this, but I can’t image her not winning the Oscar.

Nearly matching her in what becomes a kind of comedy of manners is Michael Sheen as Blair, who while puzzled at the reserved nature of the Windsors, also gains new respect for their attempt to remain above the sound and fury of public opinion. Like Mirren, Sheen knows his subject’s territory: he played Blair for a Frears-directed British TV movie in 2003. Not only does he capture Blair’s boyish impudence as he prepares to shake up Parliament, but the actor shows the politician as a determined leader who refuses to let the Queen become her own worst enemy.

Charles, well played by Alex Jennings, comes off as a secondary player but one who gives support to Blair’s approach rather than his mother’s. James Cromwell gives a wonderful performance as Philip, who also has little say in anything, but freely offers his 19th Century viewpoints on the whole sorted matter.

I haven’t a clue as to how authentic any of the behind-the-scenes information is, but the film is handled with such dexterity by Frears (and writer Peter Morgan) and acted with such authority that it conveys a level of truth that overshadows mere facts.

I’ve long anticipated seeing this version of the classic Daniel Dafoe tale in part because it was directed by avant-garde Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, then working in Mexico, but also because Irish actor Dan O’Herlihy earned a surprise best actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the shipwrecked Englishman.

Turns out, the film is a solid, entertaining version of the oft-told story but nothing particularly impressive, especially when you consider that Bunuel is one of the most off-beat and daring filmmakers in cinematic history. O’Herlihy is intense and energetic as Crusoe, but it’s hardly the kind of performance you’d expect the Academy to notice of, especially in a low-budget Mexican import. Movies made outside the studio system rarely got noticed by the Hollywood crowd of the 1950s.

The actor, in an audio interview included on the DVD, explains what happened. The film received limited release in New York after some publicity from one of the weekly magazines, but the studio had no interest in securing a Los Angeles run to ensure Oscar qualification. So O’Herlihy took matters into his own hands and offered an L.A. theater owner $1000 if he’d book the film and spend $500 on advertising to attract members of the actor’s guild. It played a week and enough voters were impressed that he scored his unlikely nomination.

“Robinson Crusoe” was released in the middle of Bunuel’s stay in Mexico during which he establish himself as a great filmmaker with such films as “Los Olvidados” (1950), “El Bruto” (1953) and “Nazarin” (1959). He continued to direct controversial, often surreal pictures through the 1960s and ‘70s, including “The Exterminating Angel” (1962), “Belle de Jour” (1967), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977).

O’Herlihy, a veteran of Ireland’s Abbey Players, was Mcduff in Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” (1948), played FDR in “MacArthur” (1977) and had a prominent role in John Huston’s “The Dead” (1987). He appeared in dozens of television shows---he played Andrew Packard in “Twin Peaks”---before his death in 2005.

Sofia Coppola, whose directing career appeared ready to take off after the accolades piled onto her offbeat travelogue “Lost in Translation” (2003), takes a step backward with this shallow, thoroughly undramatic telling of the infamous French queen’s short life.

Coppola seemed to believe that if she used modern pop music on the soundtrack (Bow Wow Wow, the Strokes, New Order) of this 18th Century story it would somehow turn a lifeless performances by Kirsten Dunst and the entire supporting cast and her surprisingly static direction into something cutting edge. There’s no edge here, and we don’t even get to see the queen’s head lopped off!

The 14-year-old Austrian royalty is married off to the terminally shy, socially retarded grandson (Jason Schwartzman of “Rushmore”) of France’s Louis XV (an uncharacteristically restrained Rip Torn) for the sole purpose of uniting the empires with a future heir to the throne. While Dunst’s Marie patiently waits for her husband to consummate the marriage (it took nearly seven years), she uses her privilege status to indulge in clothes, jewels, gambling and partying. Amazingly, Coppola finds a way to film hedonism without much flash.

The 1938 MGM film of the same name, with 38-year-old Norma Shearer in the title role, takes an equally sympathetic view of the Marie, but it shows so much more of the story and tells it in a consistently entertaining way. Despite working without the benefit of the rich colors of the current film, the 1938 picture does a better job of displaying the opulence of the royals; this is one of the era’s most lavish productions featuring incredible recreations of the insides of the king’s Versailles castle. But it’s the infighting and whispered plotting among the royals surrounding the king and duke that make the story interesting and what is sadly lacking in Coppola’s version. (The new version also can’t supply the kind of a dashing lover for Marie that Tyrone Power played in 1938.)

In the 1938 version, Robert Morley, in his film debut, gives a wonderfully shaded, childlike performance as the Dauphine (it earned him an Oscar nomination) while Schwartzman never seems to figure out what his character is all about and comes off as simply a fool.

I knew I was watching a filmmaker struggling to find a spark for her film when Vivaldi’s Concerto in G is used as background for the royals’ morning routine (at least twice.) Memorably, 27 years ago, Bob Fosse used the same piece of music to kick start the mornings of the screen version of himself in “All That Jazz.” Like the rest of “Marie Antoinette” it’s something done better in the past.

100 MEN AND A GIRL (1937)

It’s hard to believe 70 years later, but from 1936 until her retirement in 1948, Deanna Durbin was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, nearly single-handedly saving Universal Studios from the scrapheap. Teen singing sensations Judy Garland and Durbin were both signed by MGM, but when the studio decided to put their money behind Garland, they released Durbin from her contract and she became a Universal star.

At age 14, she made her debut in “Three Smart Girls,” playing one of three sisters trying to bring their divorced parents back together, which immediately transforming her into one of the era’s biggest box-office attractions and highest-paid actresses. Over the next 12 years, she appeared in lightweight juvenile dramas, always featuring a song or two, and then matured into romantic roles. But at age 27, she abruptly quit the business, never to return. She still lives in isolation with her husband in France.

Durbin and Garland were similar in that they both possessed astonishing voices at a young age and were simply bursting with energy. In “100 Men and a Girl,” Durbin never stops talking, in her irritatingly high voice, as she tries to convince famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to lead a group of unemployed musicians, which includes her trombone-playing father (Adolphe Menjou).

What saves the picture from being totally unbearable is the music and a very funny supporting performance by deep-voiced Eugene Pallett playing the rich husband of the flighty socialite (the always-entertaining Alice Brady) who agrees to finance the new orchestra. I immediately felt kinship with Pallett when he demands that Menjou quiet his daughter, commenting that she’s extremely irritating. Yet just a year into her career, Durbin’s popularity translated into a best picture Oscar nomination for this forgettable piece of fluff.

The only scene in the film that’s more than just by-the-numbers comes when the orchestra, trying to win over Stokowski, assembles on his long, winding staircase and performs one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

Maybe even more astounding than Durbin’s popularity is that a classical musician would be so well known that he could co-star in a Hollywood movie. Stokowski, the face of American classical music until Leonard Bernstein emerged after World War II, made his most famous film appearance in Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940).

It’s a sad commentary on the direction of American culture that the everyday moviegoer of 1937 knew something about classical music while today the music is as forgotten as Latin. If, god forbid, “100 Men and a Girl” were remade today, who exactly would fill Stokowski’s role?

I immediately feel manipulated when filmmakers inject a starring role for a white man into a story about black people. I shouldn’t blame the filmmaker because I know the realities of the industry dictate that virtually the only way to get a serious film about black people made is to mix in a white face.

The decision to examine the brutal regime of Idi Amin through the eyes of a fictional Scottish man, who, fresh out of medical school, takes a post in the Uganda countryside, ends up focusing the audiences concern on this one white man instead of the millions of Ugandans. It would have been a more interesting film and the conflicts more complex if the young doctor had been a black man from Europe or America. The fact that Amin was a fan of the Scottish makes the doctor’s easy entry into the dictator’s inner circle believable, but that’s a small point compared to the advantages of having a black man from another country become part of the Amin dictatorship.

But put all that aside: the reason to see this film is Forest Whitaker, giving an unforgettable performance as the charismatic, but deeply disturbed leader who claimed to love his people but ended up killing hundreds of thousands of them. Whitaker, who has had an uneven film career---with detours into directing, television and bad films---should have won the best actor Oscar in 1988 for capturing the drug-addled jazz genius Charles Parker in Clint Eastwood’s “Bird.” Despite being named best actor at Cannes, he didn’t even get nominated. Surely for his turn as Amin, a man who like Bird is his own worse enemy and a study in contradictions, he’ll score a Oscar nod. He’s also given good performances in “The Crying Game” (1992) and “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999).

Whitaker makes the most of his off-kilter face and sleepy left eye to capture a man who pretends to be a benevolent ruler and acts like he’s in total control but actually is just making it up as he goes along. He ends up trusting the political advice of his na├»ve Scottish doctor or, if that doesn’t work, ordering someone’s murder. Director Kevin MacDonald (the grandson of the great British filmmaker Emeric Pressburger) does a good job of recreating Uganda of the 1970s and, needless to say, deserves kudos for casting Whitaker, but can’t do much with an uninspired script.

Scottish actor James McAvoy’s portrayal of the doctor who enjoys the good life as the country falls apart, never goes beyond the surface. He fails to make the character sympathetic and never has a chance to come close to being as interesting a character as Whitaker’s Amin.

This slight, but fascinating film follows two Palestinian men living in the West Bank, best friends, who are tapped for a suicide bombing mission inside Israel. When the plan goes awry, they’re separated, allowing each a second chance to decide if they want to give their life for the fight against Israel.

Khaled (Ali Suliman) is the most complex of the two, still struggling with his father being labeled as someone who collaborated (it’s never clear how) with the Israelis. He is also attracted to a woman who believes the endless circle of retribution will never solve any of their problems. His friend Said (Kais Nashif) seems to have signed up only to support Khaled and once he’s faced with the reality of the mission, finds himself questioning his vigilance.

Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad (who co-wrote the film with Bero Beyer and Pierre Hodgson) offers an even-handed look at these men, telling the politically provocative story as straightforward as is possible. And while it’s told completely from a Palestinian viewpoint, if anything, the voices heard most prominently are those against the continuing violence.

BABEL (2006)
This ambitious film consists of three distinct stories, all superbly directed and acted and deftly intercut, which are slightly connected, but not in a way that gives the stories any deeper meaning. It’s the kind of film that’s meant to sweep you away in its worldwide scope and universal viewpoint. I really don’t have much to criticize about the film, other than it didn’t work for me. I just didn’t get it.

The central story features Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as Americans on a bus tour of rural Morocco when a shot rings out and hits Blanchett in the shoulder, seriously injuring her. With little hope of finding aid, the tour guide offers them refuge in his small village. While diplomatic entanglements keep her from receiving proper treatment, the local police seek the shooter, who turns out (the viewer knows this from the start) to be a young boy showing off with the family’s new rifle.

Meanwhile, back in America, the Mexican nanny to the two young children of Pitt and Blanchette foolishly decides to take the kids along with her into Mexico for her brother’s wedding. The trip, not surprisingly, turns out to be a disaster.

And if those two stories weren’t enough to keep you watching, the film cuts to Tokyo, where a deaf teenage girl is trying to understand her sexuality as she deals with the recent suicide of her mother.

The film, I guess, is a study of how people deal with life-changing events and how barriers to communication intensify the situation. But director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose multi-layered films “Amores Perros” (2000) and “21 Grams” (2003) I had similar mixed feelings about, takes the long way to his points and, for me, the route wasn’t very interesting.


On paper, this seemed like the perfect subject for Christopher Guest’s sharp-eyed satire; what could be more pleasurable than making fun of the pomposity of Hollywood’s publicity machine? While the film offers numerous moments of funny lampoons played out by Guest’s usual company of talented comics, it looks and sounds like a first run-through in need of a rewrite.

Sloppily structured and featuring acting so flat that even clever jokes don’t play well, the picture never seems as comical as the real-life version of what it’s making fun of. Fred Willard and Jane Lynch, two of the best comedic performers in film, playing the hosts of a TV entertainment show, can’t top the sincere idiocy available every night of the week on “Entertainment Tonight” or “Extra.”

Most of the film chronicles the making of a supremely overwrought, horribly acted movie called “Home for Purim,” starring two has-been performers (Catherine O’Hara and Harry Shearer) as a Southern Jewish couple during World War II and directed by a clueless, nerdish filmmaker played by Guest. It’s sort of sad until rumors swirl that some of the actors may be considered for Oscar nominations. It’s then that everyone’s “true” side is revealed.

Unfortunately, the script (by Guest and co-star Eugene Levy) tries so hard to make everyone look like a self-centered fool that you end up rooting against all of them. In Guest’s previous satires, especially “Waiting for Guffman” (1996) and “Best of Show” (2000) even the worst characters were somewhat sympathetic and most were lovable losers. No one is lovable in this film.

Beyond the fact that “For Your Consideration” just isn’t that funny, I was bothered by its logic problems. First, the buzz about possible Oscars for the film’s actors begins while the movie is still being made. Even in awards-obsessed Hollywood, Oscar talk rarely starts before a movie is finished; clearly Guest took license with reality so he could show the effects of the Oscar talk while the actors were all together, working on the film. But it completely ignores the long lag time between filming and the release date.

He also can’t resist showing the releasing company executives tinkering with the script. So about halfway through the filming, a couple of suits suggest that the Jewish nature of the film be toned down. What are they going to do, reshooting the whole movie?

Guest tries too hard to include every act of stupidity possible in Hollywood and in doing so fails to find the real humor in it.

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