Monday, September 22, 2008

October 2003

I really didn’t think writer-director John Sayles could make an uninteresting movie. One of the few independent filmmakers who hasn’t sold-out to the big studios, Sayles has consistently delivered quality movies since his famous debut, “Return of the Secaucus 7” (1980). Among his best films are “Baby, It’s You” (1983), “Matewan” (1987), “City of Hope” (1991), “Lone Star” (1996), “Limbo” (1999) and last year’s “Sunshine State.” Not many current directors have that many good films on their resumes.

I guess he was due for a dud. This slightly plotted movie presents six irritating American women who are all waiting in an unnamed Latin American country in hopes of adopting babies. The actresses-Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Susan Lynch--play out their one-note characters the best they can, getting no help from the script, which resembles something from a college drama class. As usual, Sayles attempts to show a whole society; so beyond the petulant women, we see the plight of housekeepers, corrupt officials and paint-sniffing street urchins. In the past, Sayles’ awareness of his environs enriched his films; here, it feels like something added to beef up an insubstantial story.

Worst of all, after sitting through this dull talkfest, the movie ends without any attempt to bring closure to the women’s situations. That’s usually not a bad thing in a Sayles film, where the journey is more important than the destination, but here, when the journey has been so uneventful, you really feel cheated.

A repeat viewing of any of Sayles previous efforts would be many times more rewarding than watching “Casa de los Babys.”

I just read that the producers of the “Harry Potter” films are changing directors for the third edition. Thank god. Though I haven’t ready any of the books in this ridiculously successful series, I don’t doubt that a good movie could be made from them.

Chris Columbus, who helmed this film and the first one, never figured out how, probably because he didn’t try. He and screenwriter Steven Kloves were hired not to make good films but to recreate the books on screen to satisfy Potter devotees. In doing so, they’ve marginalized their work, turning the movies into very elaborate and expensive accessories to the novels.

At least the first movie offered something new and some lively performances from Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and Robby Coltrane. Those British veterans are back in “Potter II” but are given little to do and seemed to have lost their enthusiasm for the roles. And I never did figure out the point of special-effects character Dobby, except to remind viewers of Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” and how much better a literary adaptation that series is than “Potter.”

What Hollywood has always done best is recycle cliches. The difference between a good film and a bad film usually comes down to how well those cliches are presented. This comedy is a textbook example of how to do it well. Just a few of the well-worn plot devices from Screenwriting 101 that show up here include:

1) the undisciplined, unschooled outsider can inspire students while the professional teachers can’t even scratch the surface;
2) upper-crust, private school students have no fun and are emotionless study freaks;
3) their parents are even more uptight and heartless;
4) with the right prodding, every student has something wonderful to contribute;
5) the by-the-books humorless principal just wants to be loved;
6) rich parents, who must be all of 35 or 40 years old, hate rock ‘n’ roll and all it encompasses.

In spite of all those foolish assumptions, “School of Rock” turns out to be nonstop entertainment because of Jack Black.

Playing a frustrated rock ‘n’ roller who just got tossed out of his band, Black’s Dewey lies his way into a substitute teaching job and then goes about turning the class into his own personal backup band. Along the way, lessons are learned and psychoses are overcome, but mostly Black is unleashed in a perfect setting for his physical comedy skills-he’s a combination of John Belushi and Jack Nicholson.

Black started getting small roles in the early 1990s and then broke through with his scene-stealing turn as a sarcastic record store employee in “High Fidelity” (2000). He moved to co-starring status in “Shallow Hal” (2001), opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. Black’s Hal is only interested in beautiful women until TV pitchman Tony Robbins puts a spell on him. The Farrelly brothers (fresh from their hit “There’s Something About Mary”) try to have it both ways in this film-pointing out that unattractive women are beautiful inside, while mining laughs from the fat-suit wearing Paltrow. Black does a nice job of playing a jerk, but is less convincing when he turns sweet.

“School of Rock” pushes Black into comic stardom. Utilizing his rubbery face, cartoonish eyebrows and spasmodic body, he takes reckless abandon about an octave higher than most actors. With this film he brings the kind of comic energy I haven’t seen since Eddie Murphy first broke into motion pictures. Let’s hope Hollywood can keep up with Black and provide him with the kind of material that will maintain that glowing energy.

If Hollywood still operated under the old studio system, Ridley Scott would be king. Like the best directors who worked from the start of sound until the early 1960s, Scott inevitably delivers top-notch entertainments that feature highly polished production values, superb star performances and story lines that tackle serious themes. And, like those pros from yesteryear, can handle any genre the story requires.

Since he left British TV (along with brother Tony) for the big screen, he has directed just 14 films, but those include some of the best remembered pictures of the last 25 years-“Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000) and “Black Hawk Down” (2001). Scott has also made his share of stinkers, include the Tom Cruise fantasy bomb, “Legend” (1985) and the overheated Demi Moore vehicle, “G.I. Jane” (1997), but typically his less successful efforts have been as interesting as his hits. His first American effort, “The Duellist” (1977) and his romantic thriller “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1987) fall into that category.

Following the acclaimed for “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” “Matchstick Men” reaffirms that Scott, at age 66, is at the top of his game. While he’s always been the master of creating a believable time and place-even if it was the unknown future as in “Alien” and “Blade Runner”-here he’s working closer to the “Thelma and Louise” model. Like those two outlaw heroines, Nicolas Cage’s Roy is very much an outsider. A con man, I mean, con artist (the film’s title is yet another nickname for this category of criminals) with so many neuroses you wonder how he manages to pull off his cons. His orderly life is disrupted just as he and his partner (scene-stealer Sam Rockwell) are about to embark on a high-stakes con game when the daughter he’s never met shows up at his door. Not only does he take to fatherhood, but he introduces the teen to his life of crime. The twists and turns of the plot are clearly and smartly presented by Scott, but what makes “Matchstick Men” snap is another perfectly measured Cage performance.

I never doubted his talent after seeing his early work in “Racing with the Moon” (1984) and “Birdy” (1984), but in the last decade he’s wasted a lot of effort playing sweet (“City of Angels,” “The Family Man,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”) or tough (“The Rock,” “Con Air,” “Gone in Sixty Seconds”) and even won an Oscar for his unconvincing performance as a suicidal drunk in “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995).

Last year, he lived up to the promise and gave a smart, multi-layered performances in the challenging role of twin brothers, Charlie and Donald Kaufman, in “Adaptation.” His Roy in “Matchstick Men” could be a cousin of the Kaufman brothers. At first, the character comes off as a cartoon; a duller version of Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall from “As Good As It Gets,” but once the young girl appears he blossoms into a very believably confused man trying to figure out what’s important in his life.

In addition to Cage and Rockwell, outstanding supporting work is supplied by Alison Lohman as the long-lost daughter and Bruce McGill, who was also superb as a lawyer in “The Insider” (1999), as the mark of the con.

What makes this movie stand out among con films is that it doesn’t let the con dominate the film, because no matter how entertaining the plotting is, in the end it’s the people that matter most.

ZERO HOUR (1957)
This rarely shown thriller is best known as the model for the classic satire “Airplane!” (1980). It’s surprising how much of the original’s plot was reused in the comedy-all writer-directors Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker had to add was the jokes. Even the main character’s name, Ted Striker, is the same, though it’s spelled with a “y” in the original.

In this film, Dana Andrews plays the role with the kind of earnest grit that is just asking to be parodied. Avoiding piloting a plane since a disastrous war incident, Ted is forced to take control of a passenger jet when the pilots (and many of the passengers) fall to food poisoning.

The film picks up steam when Sterling Hayden arrives in the control center to guide Ted through the landing. The famous line from the 1980 film-“I picked a bad week to give up smoking”-is taken directly from “Zero Hour,” as is pretty much all of Hayden order-barking, monotoned performance (the role is split in “Airplane!” between Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack).

It’s not a bad little B-movie, based on an Arthur Hailey TV script, but seeing it post-“Airplane!” makes it hard not to laugh at scenes that were later turned comic. Even a blandly cute scene like the young boy’s visit to the cockpit just serves as a reminder to the hilarious exchanges in “Airplane!” between the boy and pilots played by Peter Graves and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Maybe now Clint Eastwood will finally be broadly recognized as one of America’s greatest living film directors. Working behind the camera since 1971--the same year he became the country’s top action hero as Dirty Harry Callahan-Eastwood’s best work includes an amazing array of film styles: the revisionist Western “The Outlaw--Josey Wales” (1976); the Wild West show comedy “Bronco Billy” (1980), the musical-bio of jazz legend Charlie Parker, “Bird” (1988); a profile of an egomaniac filmmaker, “White Hunter Black Heart” (1990); his Oscar-winning repudiation of revenge, “Unforgiven” (1992); and a study of crime and punishment, “True Crime” (1999).

Not many filmmakers have ever reached their artistic peak at age 73, but Eastwood has done just that with the release of “Mystic River,” a movie that digs deeper into the psychological effects of violence than any American film in years. The riveting script by Brian Hegland (from Dennis Lehane’s novel) and Eastwood’s unflinching camera exposes, with astonishing subtlety, how different people deal with tragic events, expressed on screen in painfully raw and startlingly truthful emotions.

Without getting too political, the film can also be seen as a condemnation of capital punishment, as it deals with the finality of death and how that penalty ends any hope of forgiveness. But I think the director is mostly concerned with the anger and fear, in individuals and communities, that leads to lawless vengeance.

As is so often the case, casting turns this very good film into a great one. At the heart of “Mystic River” is the relationship between Sean Penn’s Jimmy, a small-time crime boss in the Boston community of East Buckingham, and his childhood friend, Tim Robbins’ Dave, a fragile, damaged man who was kidnapped and molested as a child. Both actors give career-best performances.

Robbins, who I thought was going to be one of the best actors of his generation after his weirdly perfect performance in “Bob Roberts,” has found few roles in the past decade that have challenged him. In “Mystic River,” Robbins never lets his performance slip into the cliches of a TV-movie victim; beneath his inarticulate, confused manner is a survivor who isn’t going to let life roll over him.

Penn, of course, is the best actor of his generation and, in this role, taps into an internal sound and fury that few actors can muster. Looking like a man who’s fought for everything he has (and older than Penn’s 43 years), the actor brings equal amounts of intensity and truthfulness to the heartbreaking sorrow and the uncontrollable anger that overwhelms Jimmy following the killing of his daughter. To say Penn deserves the Oscar for this role is to undervalue it. It ranks with the two towering dramatic performances by actors in the past 25 years--Robert De Niro’s disturbed boxer in “Raging Bull” (1980) and Albert Finney’s self-hating alcoholic diplomat in “Under the Volcano” (1984).

Standing out among the supporting players are Kevin Bacon, as the childhood buddy of Jimmy and Dave, who is the detective investigating the case and also serves as the audience’s docent to this complex collection of Bostonians and Marcia Gay Harden, as Dave’s weak, fearful wife.

My one problem with this film is the somewhat clumsy and extremely low-keyed conclusion. To go into detail about my complaints would reveal too much of the plot, but, in general, I feel Eastwood gives short-shift to what could have been a memorable, climatic scene. Yet when weighed against the powerful catharsis we experience through these characters, it’s a minor let down in a great motion picture.

and SATAN MET A LADY (1936)
Everyone has seen John Huston’s classic film “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), the best detective movie ever made, but few are aware that Dashiell Hammett’s novel had already been filmed twice before. The complaint against modern Hollywood is that it keeps recycling old stories, but even during the so-called “Golden Age,” there were no qualms about filming the same story three times in an 11-year period.

The first version (renamed “Dangerous Female” for TV) proves that casting is everything. A solid, entertaining film, directed by Roy Del Ruth, it follows the book as closely as Huston did, thus it feels like a carbon copy of the more familiar 1941 version. The great lines, clever plotting, and fascinating characters are all there, but, needless to say, Richard Cortez is no Humphrey Bogart. And neither Dudley Diggs or Otto Matieson come close to matching the odd, charismatic screen presence of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in the roles of Gutman and Cairo. The best performance is giving by the always entertaining Una Merkel as Sam’s secretary, Effie

Maybe the biggest difference between 1931 and 1941 is the sexuality: there is nothing vague about Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) sleeping with Sam Spade to win his devotion. In the post-censorship version, it plays like all Bogie’s Spade needs to his secure his loyalty is a quick kiss.

Version No. 2 isn’t even a contender. The names and other details were changed for “Satan Met a Lady,”--it’s a ram’s horn rather than a falcon and the crime boss is a woman!--but Warren William as Ted Shayne (why change that?) is the picture’s major deficit. His hammy acting amounts to making nonstop sarcastic comments and then giggling at his own jokes. For an actor who played many detectives during the 1930s (including Philo Vance and Perry Mason), he plays this role more like a washed up vaudevillian rather than a clever private dick. Bette Davis as the lying, conniving femme fatale is miscast; Bette needed a bigger canvas to shine.

Playing the Lorre’s role is the urban British actor Arthur Treacher, who later in life served as Merv Griffin’s sidekick on his 1960s talk show.

EARTH (1930)

    One of the most innovative periods in cinematic history took place in the Soviet Union, from the 1917 Communist revolution until the rise to power of Stalin in 1929. Making visually stunning propaganda, directors Serge Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko developed the montage editing style to create messages that the individual images couldn’t show. Best know of these landmark experiments in moviemaking is Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin” (1925), one of the greatest of all silents.

I recently rewatched Dovzhenko’s “Earth,” which I thought was brilliant when I saw it years ago in a college film class. Filled with seemingly hundreds of close-ups of expressionless farmers, this pro-Communist story chronicles the arrival of a tractor to a communal farm and then agonizes over the killing of a young man. Not only is “Earth” excruciatingly boring, but its message is as understandable as a Soviet bureaucrat.

The death of the man is treated as such a calamity that it must be symbolic for something important; I have no idea what. And why the masses hate the church so much (because the Moscow leaders told them so?) is even less clear. The famed montage style shows (at great lengths) the glory of the farming life, but fails to clarify what makes the arrival of modern machinery such a bad thing. And the points the film does make are hammered home to beyond excess. I’m not exaggerating in stating that severe close-ups of the community’s patriarch stone-like face takes up 15 minutes of the movie’s 90-minute running time.

Amazingly, “Earth” has often been listed in polls as one of the greatest films ever made. Even as propaganda, this is a very unconvincing “classic.”

MATINEE (1993)
A great idea for a movie, this comedy combines the paranoia of the Cuban missile crisis with the screening of the latest monster movie from Hollywood’s leading schlockmeister for a bunch of Florida teens. The Joe Dante-directed film spends too much time with the teenagers’ standard-issue romances and rivalries and not enough time with John Goodman, playing the outlandish horror filmmaker who rigs up the theater to recreate the effects of his movie, “Mant.”

The only reason to see this film is for the extended scenes shown of the black-and-white “Mant,” a very funny parody of those loopy sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and early ‘60s. In “Mant,” a man is transformed into a giant ant. In addition to Cathy Moriarty as the victim’s wife (she also plays Goodman’s wife), “Mant” features appearances by sci-fi actors of that era, including Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert.

Director Raoul Walsh, just eight years after the released of his classic “High Sierra,” rehashed the storyline as a Western starring Joel McCrea. This version doesn’t have the intense, noirish mood of the original and McCrea, even as a career criminal, brings his usual sunny demeanor to the movie as opposed to Humphrey Bogart’s tough-as-nails, brooding “Mad Dog” Roy Earle. But the story’s emphasis on the characters’ complex motivations makes this a better-than-average Western.

Virginia Mayo is the bad girl who falls for McCrea after he’s sprung from jail and joins a gang planning of train heist. Dorothy Malone is the good girl McCrea meets on the stagecoach following his escape. And like in “High Sierra,” sometimes the line between the good girl and the bad girl becomes cloudy.

McCrea, though still a major Hollywood star in 1949, rarely worked again in A-level films. I’ve never understood what happened to McCrea: After achieving stardom in both comedy and drama in the early 1940s, he retreated to Westerns and stayed in the saddle for the rest of his career. And not even very good Westerns. His most memorable role after 1949 didn’t arrive until 1962, in Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country.” With a little effort, he probably could have been a major actor of the 1950s (he was only 44 in 1949), but apparently he preferred a cowboy hat to a suit and tie.

The Coen brothers seem to be channeling the spirit of Preston Sturges. Two years ago, they took the title for their film “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” from the film the fictional director wants to make in Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). Their new one comes about as close to being a “new” film from Sturges as possible.

Pilfering both style (long breezy sections interrupted by sudden bursts of insanity), subject manner (even in the 1940s, Sturges often focused on martial troubles) and an infatuation with oddball characters, the Coens have constructed a comic gem. “Intolerable Cruelty” is lightweight and not up to the level of the Coens’ or Sturges’ best, but it effortlessly glides through its screwball plot and takes full advantage of the undeniable screen presence of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

As he proved in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Clooney combines the perfect timing and cartoonishly expressive face of Cary Grant with the romantic no-nonsense of Clark Gable. Here, as legendary divorce attorney Miles Massey who wins even the most unwinnable cases, he’s looking for some meaning in his life when Zeta-Jones’ Marylin makes an appearance. And like so many classic comedy couples, they battle one another until they can help but admit they’re in love.

The picture is filled with hilarious, wonderfully named supporting characters, including Marylin’s philandering husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), the key witness against her, Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadrary), her second husband Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), private investigator Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer) and divorce court judge Marva Munson (Isabell Monk). Each of these actors has at least one scene you won’t soon forget.

I understand where the constant criticism of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies as cold-somehow lacking in real human feelings-comes from, but I don’t find it valid. First of all, the filmmakers have always portrayed a make-believe world. Most of their characters are as one-dimensional as cartoons, existing in a movie-set kind of world, speaking like actors from a 1930s film and showing little surprised when even the most miraculous events take place. This stilted take on “reality” turns out, at least under the care of the Coens, to provide a better read on “real” life than most traditionally acted movies. I wouldn’t want to hand over something like “Mystic River” to the Coens, but when it comes to finding the comic irony in life, they are worthy heirs to Preston’s crown.

Frank Borzage, who worked from the silents until the 1950s, was one of the great romantic directors. Not that he didn’t make tough-minded films, but his gift was to bring romance alive on the screen as well as any filmmaker of his time, with an emphasis on strong, in-control women.

Among his finest films are two classic Janet Gaynor silents, “Seventh Heaven” (1927) and “Street Angel” (1928); the Gary Cooper-Helen Hayes version of “A Farewell to Arms” (1932); “Little Man, What Now? (1934) and “Three Comrades” (1938), featuring superb performances by the underrated Margaret Sullavan; and “History Is Made at Night” (1937), one of the best romantic comedies of the era starring Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer.

In “China Doll,” his next to last film, Borzage explores interracial marriage, a subject rarely touched on in American movies of the 1950s. Victor Mature plays an antisocial member of an Army supply unit stationed in China during World War II, who, after a night of drinking, mistakenly buys the indentured servitude of a village girl (Chinese movie star Li Li Hua).

Later, when he tries to get rid of her, he learns that to reject her now would be an insult to the family. Of course, in real life, the servitude would have included sexual relations, but here it’s all on the up and up. She’s just there to cook and clean. At least until they fall in love and, before you know it, she’s pregnant.

Just when life seems perfect, the horrors of war rain down and turn the story into a tragedy. The script, written by Kitty Buhler from a story by Thomas F. Kelly and James Benson Nablo, does a good job of showing how the two races co-existed under trying circumstances and pointedly making the audience feel the devastation of war.

The film ends on an uplifting, tear-jerking moment in which racial divides are swept aside; there’s a feeling that postwar America will be a better place where all races are part of one big family. Sadly, we’re still working toward that goal.

KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (2003)
I’m convinced Quentin Tarantino, in directing his fourth feature in 12 years, set out to make a bad film. Not bad in a negative way, but bad in the way TV action series of the 1960s or slasher movies of the 1970s were bad. This is a film for teenage boys to watch at the drive-in and say, “Man, is that cool or what?”

The legend of Quentin began in the early 1990s when the video clerk sold screenplays for “True Romance” and “Natural Born Killers,” and made a critically acclaimed directing debut with “Reservoir Dogs” (1992). His debut was an interesting, if indulgent and overrated, movie that never got better than its wonderful opening sequence in which the gang members get named.

He made his great leap forward two years later with “Pulp Fiction,” a cultural phenomenon and a truly original and great film. Three years later, his “Jackie Brown” (1997) was a narrative mess and ultimately pointless, though it had enough great characters (played by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Pam Grier and Robert Forster) for three movies.

As critic Henry Sheehan smartly points out in his review of “Kill Bill, Vol. 1,” Tarantino is an amateur, if extremely skilled, filmmaker but a professional film buff. He’s nuts about offbeat films that you’ve never heard of and those wildly over-the-top Hong Kong martial arts films. In my one encounter with Tarantino, he looked at me like I was nuts when I said I preferred Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado” over “Rio Bravo” (a classic film-buff quandary if there ever was one). Later, I found out that “Rio Bravo” is Tarantino’s all-time favorite film.

The point is, this is a guy who will argue for hours with a perfect stranger about the merits of one film over the other and that’s great. If Quentin wrote for a film journal I would subscribe immediately. But after enduring “Vol. 1” not only am I not ready to deal with “Vol. 2” but I’d gladly wait another six years for another Tarantino flick.

The big controversy over “Kill Bill” has been the unrelenting violence. I found the violence negligible. It’s just one more special effect. I never thought I’d write this, but by about the fourth time you see a man’s head sliced clean off, you just don’t care.

Blood sprays freely from dozens and dozens of sword-wielding Yakuza members, all taken down by a tall, skinny American (Uma Thurman) out for revenge. In some ways, I think he’s trying for the existential experience of a Sergio Leone film, but he doesn’t have the actors to pull it off. In addition to Thurman, bad performances are given by Lucy Liu and Daryl Hannah. Only Hong Kong legend Sonny Chiba creates an interesting character.

I’ve read the rhapsodizing about the choreography of the sword fights-the same line of bull those who love Hong Kong films toss out endlessly. All I saw was about 70 guys standing around waiting to get their limps hacked away instead of 4 or 5 or 15 of them attacking Thurman at once and putting an end to it all.

What this film is really about is Tarantino’s fetishes: martial arts films, Japan, girls wielding big weapons and junky pop music. Toss it all together with an impressive array of filmmaking techniques and you still have nothing. I really wish Tarantino had stuck to his guns and released the film as one long epic. Then, we might have found out-without waiting four months-why the initial massacre that sends Uma on her revenge-seeking journey took place. And, most importantly, I’d only have had to make one trip to the theater to see one bad film.

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