Sunday, September 28, 2008

November 2007

Sidney Lumet was born three years before “The Jazz Singer” premiered. When he directed his first TV show for “Studio One,” Harry Truman was president and Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Cary Grant were at the peak of their careers. Nearly 60 years later, at an age 83, this enduring filmmaker is not just still working, but capable of putting a new spin on the psychological crime picture, producing an inventive, unorthodox and uncompromisingly tough movie that’s his best work in 17 years.

“May you get to heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead” is an old Irish proverb that applies to unlikely brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) after things go terribly wrong in their scheme to rob their parents’ New Jersey jewelry store. Hank, facing child-support payments and other financial troubles, is easily manipulated by older brother Andy, a drug-addicted accountant lacking any ethics or morals, as things go from bad to worse.

At first I was off put by the film’s continuous time shifting as it tells the story from different character’s perspectives; just as you settle into the narrative, a title pops on the screen saying “Three days ago…” or “Two hours previous.” But once I accepted the rhythm of Lumet’s storytelling (from Kelly Masterson’s script), I could see how he had turned a straightforward caper tale into an emotionally wrenching study of a troubled family (not unlike his 1962 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”). Despite all the back and forth in time, the film never feels episodical or loses its narrative flow, a tribute to the sharp cutting skills of Lumet and his editor for the past ten years, Tom Swartwout.

As in most Lumet pictures, the acting is uniformly superb---he’s directed 17 Oscar-nominated performances----led by Hoffman, whose strung-out, calculating Andy energizes the film even as he leads us down a dark, irrevocably doomed path. Marisa Tomei, as his confused, unfaithful wife, and acting legend Albert Finney, as the unforgiving, determined father, are both first-rate in rich, substantial supporting roles. I had mixed feelings about Hawke’s performance as the weak, stupid Hank; to me, he overplayed the childish emotions and foolish innocence of the character.

Since Lumet made the equally smart and morally ambiguous “Q&A” (1990), he’s continued to work but his films have been less than stellar. His best work during the period has been on his short-lived TV courtroom drama, “100 Centre Street.” But with last year’s “Find Me Guilty” and now “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” this octogenarian shows he’s still among America’s premiere filmmakers.

I was going to claim that Sidney Lumet was the oldest man to ever direct a film, until I realized that French New Wave legend Alain Resnais is still behind the camera at age 85. Unlike the hardworking Lumet, Resnais has directed just 16 features since his famous debut, the introspective, memory film “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959). His minimalist, abstract and often incomprehensible style of filmmaking made him an art-house favorite in the 1960s, especially his beautiful but baffling “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961). Most of his films have left me cold, but he did direct a superb study of a prickly, dying novelist (the brilliant John Gielgud) in the English-language “Providence” (1977).

His latest, more down to earth than his best-known works, is a spirited comedy of manners that follows seven characters as they make the best out their lonely existence. These Parisians, as a surreal snowstorm rages outside, interact with one another mostly out of desperation to give meaning to their dreary lives, and yes, it’s a comedy.

Based on a play by British writer Alan Ayckbourn (whose “Smoking/No Smoking” also became a Resnais film), the story follows Thierry (Andre Dussolier), a sixtysomething real estate agent who’s having little luck trying to find an apartment for Nicole (Laura Morante) and Dan (Lambert Wilson), mostly because their relationship is unsettled. After their breakup, Dan goes on a blind date with Thierry’s younger sister (Isabelle Carre) while Thierry becomes obsessed with his outwardly conservative, deeply religious assistant Charlotte (Sabine Azema), who, at night, works as a caretaker for the ill-tempered, bed-ridden father (an unseen Claude Rich) of middle-aged Lionel (Pierre Arditi), who tends bar at the slick, hip hotel where Dan hangs out. The connections between the characters never seem forced, or, for that matter, even important. It’s just life. As in most of Resnais movies, the architecture of the apartments and public places these characters exist in reflects their mental state; nearly merging with their personalities.

Resnais finds just the right weight to give each character and is able to show their evolving sense of self even though we see just a small slice of their lives. If there’s a lead performer in “Private Fears” it’s Lambert Wilson’s Dan, a dishonorably discharged Army officer who with Nicole comes off as a self-centered, hopeless drunk (he insists on room for a study as they look for new apartments even though he has no use for one) yet comes alive during his date with Gaelle as they quickly form an unlikely bond. But the most intriguing is probably Charlotte, whose hidden desires challenge her faith or, maybe, strengthens it.

Surprisingly, there is nothing old fashioned or dated about “Private Fears in Private Places”; it’s as smart and insightful a look at the difficult state of relationships as any film I’ve seen in awhile. As evidenced by these new films by Resnais and Lumet, at least in the world of cinema, 80 has become the new 50.

In the short, brilliant career of filmmaker David Lean, he made three rarely shown pictures from 1949 to 1952, all featuring his then-wife Ann Todd. Best known as the mentally unstable pianist in the psychological drama “The Seventh Veil” (1945), Todd was also one of the stars of Alfred Hitchcock’s courtroom drama “The Paradine Case” (1948) before she married Lean in 1949.

I’ve never seen “The Passionate Friends” (1949), which stars Todd, Trevor Howard and Claude Rains, or the critically acclaimed “Breaking the Sound Barrier” (1952) in which she co-stars with Ralph Richardson, but TCM recently screened “Madeleine.” And while it’s hardly first-rate Lean, the murder-mystery features plenty of touches that distinguished the director’s two Dickens’ adaptations “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948).

Todd plays Madeleine, a young Scottish woman from a 19th Century well-to-do family who is being pushed into an engagement to a proper, but dull man (Leslie Banks). But, unbeknownst to her family (she seems to have no friends), she’s having a passionate affair with Emile, a suave, gold-digging Frenchman (Ivan Desny). Lean is at his best depicting their late-night liaisons in the shadowy alleys near her home as Guy Green’s camera work tells what the script can’t: That this upstanding woman has given herself to this rogue.

The intrigue heats up when Emile takes ill, seemingly from the effects of poison, and then dies. Madeleine immediately becomes the target of the investigation. From that point, the film becomes just another Agatha Christie-wannabe.

Todd isn’t the most expressive actress but she shines in the early scenes as her Madeleine goes to elaborate lengths to maintain, and hide, the scandalous affair.

This warning probably comes too late, but if you’re a fan of Kevin Spacey or Bobby Darin, do yourself a favor and avoid this film. This ultimate vanity project may be the worst movie I’ve seen in the last 10 years. It’s a tossup as to whether Spacey the director or Spacey the actor should be more embarrassed about this biopic of the popular singer from the 1950s and ‘60s.

The picture is a patchwork of styles and tone, ranging from lightweight romance, stylized musical and psychological study----and none of them work. As the film opens, Spacey is playing Darin, who is playing himself in a biopic, allowing him to talk to the actor playing Darin as a boy. It’s head-spinning. Luckily, most of the time Spacey is just playing Darin, just very badly.

The film begins with Darin as a sickly child and methodically follows the ups and downs of his career before his death at age 37. Not only is Spacey too old for the scenes when Darin is just starting out in the business (the actor was 45 when the film was released), but, for no good reason, he shouts most of his lines.

The supporting cast tries to speak louder than Spacey----Kate Bosworth (as wife Sandra Dee) John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn---but never gets a chance to add much to this story of a supremely self-centered singer played by a supremely…..well, we won’t go there. The one plus is Spacey’s impressive imitation of Darin’s singing style, but, for anyone whose seen Spacey on talk shows, it’s not as good as his Johnny Carson.

About the time this film bombed at theaters, Spacey became artistic director of London’s legendary theater, the Old Vic. Was it a coincidence that he not only took a break from films but left the country?

The source for nearly every film made by Joel and Ethan Coen since their 1984 debut have been original screenplays by the brothers. Which makes them unlikely candidates to accept a project based on a novel. But not only did they take on Cormac McCarthy’s dark, violent saga of a Texas crime wave, but they have transferred it from page to screen nearly scene for scene, word for word, insight for insight.

As a fan of McCarthy’s simple but deeply thoughtful prose and his often unorthodox, challenging style of storytelling, I’m pleased that the Brothers Coen felt the same respect and hewed so closely to the original. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more faithful adaptation of a book I’ve read, with nearly every detail in the movie coming directly from the novel. But as a moviegoer, I think the filmmakers could have added some character background and added some clarity to a plot that becomes murkier as it progresses.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting in the Texas desert, not far from his trailer park home, when he discovers the scene of a drug deal gone bad---a collection of dead bodies and a truckload of drugs. Following the blood trail, he finds another dead man and a briefcase of what seems to be millions of dollars.

Without much of a plan but with full knowledge that someone is coming for the loot, Moss takes the money and hits the road. At the same time, a coldblooded, blank-faced killer who carries an air pressure gun used to kill cattle, is leaving a trail of bodies as he quickly determines that Moss is his prey. Professional tracker and assassin Anton Chigurh, impressively embodied by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, dominates the story even when he’s not on screen; he’s a calculating killer who’s more robot than human, a force of nature more than flesh and blood.

Adding much needed humanity into the film is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a laconic, country-smart burnt-out case, beautifully portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. It’s in his county that the original murders take place and he does his best to bring Moss in before Chighurh catches up with him. In the book, McCarthy uses Bell as a sort-of Greek chorus or maybe like the Stage Manager in “Our Town;” he’s part of the plot but he stays aside and explains to the reader/viewer what it all means.

This morally bleak, nearly existential movie will leave you with plenty of questions and few conclusive answers, but it perfectly captures the ruthless underbelly of society where death is just a coin toss away.

This epic tale of the drug trade in the late 1960s and early ‘70s is a major disappointment, not because the film is bad, but because it fails to achieve its obvious aim for greatness.

Two Hollywood heavyweights, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, deliver the kind of solid, convincing performances you’d expect, but the very deliberate tone of the film doesn’t offer either actor a chance to really stretch. And while veteran director Ridley Scott does a nice job of balancing the story of Frank Lucas’ rise as a Harlem drug lord with Det. Richie Roberts’ investigation into the out-of-control growth of drug trafficking, the film plods when it should soar, lacking in the kind of energy and intensity a crime picture needs. Fatally, he waits too long into this 2 hour and 40 minute film to bring these characters together and, looking back at the end of the film, seems to have chosen the wrong part of this true story to focus on.

Washington’s Lucas, the driver and confidant of kingpin Bumpy Johnson (an uncredited Clarence Williams III), steps into the void after the death of his boss by making a deal directly with the drug producers in Thailand, buying top-of-the-line heroin and diluting it less than his competitors. “Blue Magic” quickly becomes the hottest seller in Harlem. By paying the right people, he procures safe transport of the drugs through the military and, again with payoffs, has few worries about police harassment. Raking in the cash, he brings his family up from rural North Carolina and puts them to work in his drug empire and marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen. Unlike his competitors, Frank dresses like a banker---not a pimp---and generally stays out of the limelight.

Crowe’s Richie is a Serpico-like cop who, because he seems to be the only ethical detective in the New Jersey-New York area, gets named to head a federally funded narcotics unit. In addition to discovering the extensive corruption of the police force, Richie starts suspecting that the little-known Lucas might be worth investigating.

As written by A-list scripter Steven Zailllian (“Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York”), neither man’s story is very compelling. Especially tedious are long scenes involving Richie’s child custody fight with his ex-wife. The only thing you really need to know about this guy is that he’s an honest cop. On the other side of the fence, Frank is such a home body that his attendance at the first Ali-Frazier heavyweight fight becomes a major turning point in the film.

The movie is also hurt by the lack of interesting secondary characters. The worst is Armand Assante’s performance as an Italian Mafioso; maybe it was his bad accent or just the way he overacted, but I kept thinking he was doing an imitation of Rodney Dangerfield playing a mobster. You’d think a film of this scope would be filled with memorable performances, but only Ruby Dee as Frank’s adoring mother leaves an impression. Even the always superb Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Frank’s older brother, is given little to do.

Despite all that, I did enjoy much of “American Gangster”----it’s a well-made chronicle of the start of the drug epidemic in New York----but it falls well short of what it could have been.

YOU KILL ME (2007)
John Dahl was a hot filmmaker back in the 1990s after he made two smart neo-noirs, “Red Rock West” (1992) and “The Last Seduction” (1994), but he hasn’t done much since. This black comedy about an alcoholic hit man from Buffalo who is shipped off to San Francisco by his Polish mob bosses to clean up his drinking problem isn’t going to do much to resurrect Dahl’s career.

Ben Kingsley as Frank, a joyless, vodka-loving assassin, has the right look but his monotone performance becomes tedious after about an hour, along with the script, which milks to death the obvious irony of a hit man going to AA meetings. On top of that, Dahl and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely seem to have set the film in San Francisco for the sole purpose of filling the screenplay with gay jokes.

Not long after relocating, Frank actually meets his soul mate: Laurel (Tea Leone) turns out to be just as miserable and unsociable as he is. Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, Dennis Farina and Philip Baker Hall, two engaging old pros, are much more interesting as rival mob bosses fighting over their share of the city’s crime profit.

Nothing is harder to pull off than dark humor (in this case, tasteless jokes about the dead juxtaposed with bloody shootouts) and the oppressively ironic “You Kill Me” occasionally succeeds, but not enough to spend two long, depressing hours in the company of these characters.

Dynamic acting goes a long way to overcome the convoluted, improbable plot of Ben Affleck’s directorial debut. Ripped right out of the logbook of “Law and Order,” this police procedural follows the investigation of a child abduction in a poor section of Boston by the local police, who seems to know nothing, and a pair of private detectives, who seems to know everything.

It’s the oldest story in the book: sharp PI gets no cooperation and plenty of grief from tough-talking police until they realize they can use what he knows. But the story has plenty of U-turns, each one straining to top the previous.

Ben’s brother Casey Affleck plays private eye Patrick Kenzie, who with his partner-girlfriend Angie (Michelle Monaghan), are hired by relatives of the abducted child and immediately butt heads with the cops assigned to the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton).

Affleck brings a local’s sense of place to the story (from a novel by Dennis Lehane, who provided the source for Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River”) and has an actor’s ear for good performances, but his filmmaking skills fail him when it comes to making the story play out believably.

But if you want to see tremendous acting, “Gone Baby Gone” is your film. Ed Harris’ snarling, talkative cop is one of the best roles of his career and he delivers a riveting, Oscar-worthy performance. Just as good is Amy Ryan (a veteran of cop TV shows) as the irresponsible, white-trash mother of the kidnapped child. Her poor parenting habits give the film is central theme---Is a child better off with good parents or their bad birth parents.

Affleck seems a bit young for the role of a PI but he pulls it off and, despite his somewhat annoying voice, holds his own as the lead actor. Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver are perfect as the emotional, controlling relatives of the mother, while Morgan Freeman brings his inherent nobility to the role of a captain on the Boston force who has a special interest in the case.

Even while you’re watching this surprisingly thoughtful comedy-drama, it’s hard to believe that screenwriter Nancy Oliver has placed at the center of this gentle, wholesome film, steeped in family and small-town values, a full-size silicone sex doll. “Bianca,” the anatomically correct Internet purchase made by the reclusive, socially inept Lars (Ryan Gosling), goes from a curiosity to a beloved member of this tightly protective Midwest community.

Since the death of his father, Lars has lived an isolated existence in the converted garage beside the family home, now occupied by brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (a luminous Emily Mortimer), who try to pull him out of his funk. Then one day, after hearing his co-worker joke about a web site selling sex dolls, he asks Gus and Karin if his new friend, a wheelchair-bound Brazilian/Danish missionary, can stay with them since it would be improper for her to stay with him.

As his family and church-centered community deal with this unexpected addition to their world, Lars is convinced to take Bianca to see Dr. Dagmar, the local GP who also is a psychologist. The doctor (Patricia Clarkson, in another of her subtle, but quirky performances) urges his family to go along with Lars’ self-delusions about Bianca and slowly but surely is able to make headways into Lars’ emotional problems.

Director Craig Gillespie, in just his second feature, has created a timeless, almost too-good-to-be-true world around Lars, set in a snowy village that seems untouched, physically and psychologically, by the past 50 years of societal change. Not only do his church friends come each day to take Bianca to some activity (she “volunteers” at the hospital, among other things), but when she takes “ill,” they arrive at Lars’ house to “sit” with him.

The actors (including Bianca) all deliver pitch-perfect performance, crucial to maintaining the films delicate balance between its sweet comedy and serious study of a troubled young man. But the standout is Gosling. Nominated for an Oscar last year for his very different performance as a drug-abusing school teacher in “Half Nelson,” the 27-year-old not only shows off his range as an actor with Lars, but creates a character who’s both deeply disturbed and the ultimate everyman who longs for companionship and love. This leisurely paced, involving picture is the kind of story Hollywood normally would turn into a sophomoric comedy (think Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey), but clearly the filmmakers prevailed and the result is one of the year’s best films.

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