Tuesday, September 23, 2008

October 2004

There was probably an age at which I would have been impressed with this gaggle of characters all searching for the meaning of their lives. But I can’t imagine many post-college filmgoers falling for this mess.

All smirk and cleverness, the film never displays the symbolic heart of its title. Writer-director David O. Russell succeeded with a similar theme once before, in “Flirting With Disaster” (1996), one of the smartest and funniest comedies of the past 10 years. In “Huckabees,” he’s again filled his picture with neurotic, needy and generally purposeless characters but he’s lost interest in the narrative, replacing it with absurd conversations and unpredictable situations. I’m guessing that Russell wanted the film to seem like an unrehearsed free-form philosophical debate and it does. Unfortunately, what the film has to say comes off as finely tuned double-talk and most of the characters never evolve, remaining irritating kooks to the bitter end.

The Huckabees of the title is a Target-like mega-store whose ever-smiling public relations man (Jude Law) has hijacked the local environmental group that was attempting to halt the building of a new store. It wasn’t very hard, since Jason Schwartzman’s Albert, who was at the helm of the Open Spaces coalition, seems more interested in reciting his inane poems than saving any wetlands.

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are the existential detectives (don’t ask) who follow Albert around to uncover his problems. It’s not that the four principals give bad performances—they just keep saying the same things over and over again.

More interesting are the supporting characters: Naomi Watts as Ms. Huckabees who finds her true self in an Amish head scarf, Isabelle Huppert as the nihilistic rival of the detectives and Mark Wahlberg playing a patient/victim of the detective who becomes Albert’s Other. Among all these psychologically sensitive souls, Wahlberg comes off best; he finds a way amid all the babble to express recognizably human emotions.

As for the film’s philosophy, I’m no student of the subject but I have (back in the days when I would have loved this film) read Sartre and Camus and what Hoffman and Tomlin were preaching didn’t sound much like existentialism; probably closer to some est theory of life. Yet it matters little: whatever Russell thought he was saying in this film gets lost in way too much sound and fury.

SPARTAN (2004)
The latest testosterone-fueled, convoluted David Mamet thriller fails in the same way his previous effort, “Heist” (2001) did: When all the twists and turns and intense theatrical-style dialogue run their course, what’s left doesn’t amount to much.

In “Spartan,” Mamet taps into a world—behind-the-scenes government operatives on impossible missions—where people probably do talk the way he writes. The flat, perfectly intoned line-readings that he coaxes from his actors, for once, doesn’t sap the humanity from the story because there’s so little to start with.

Val Kilmer plays an unflappable agent who attempts to rescue a politician’s daughter who has been kidnapped. But as his team moves closer to finding the girl, word comes that her body’s been found in a lake, a victim of a boating accident. Since this is a David Mamet film, you don’t believe that for a second and, before you know it, there’s enough double-crossing going on to fill three movies.

Kilmer and the supporting cast, including Derek Luke, William H. Macy and Ed O’Neill, evoke tough coolness and an unspoken resolve to do what a man’s got to do. Other than that, I don’t have a clue what Mamet’s point was.

While I’ve never seen his show, I’m well aware that Ray Romano is the biggest comedy star on television, beloved by millions of weekly viewers. No doubt, his legion of fans would enjoy “Welcome to Mooseport,” in which he transfers his whinny, persnickety TV personality to his role as the owner of a hardware store in a small Maine town. For the few hundred who don’t watch the show religiously, steer clear of this film.

I rented it in hopes of seeing an entertaining Gene Hackman performance. His recent comic work in “The Birdcage” (1996)” “Heartbreakers” (2001) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) have been fine additions to this great actor’s resume. Here, the script doesn’t give him a chance to do anything but recite cliches as the ex-president who is persuaded to run for mayor against Romano.

Fairing better are Rip Torn, as Hackman’s aggressive campaign advisor, Marcia Gay Harden as the president’s assistant who’s in love with him and Maura Tierney as Romano’s put-upon girlfriend who also draws the attention of the president.

The first comic pairing of Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal played like an extended “Saturday Night Live” routine, with Crystal pulling out all the psychologically needy therapist cliches while De Niro went nuts parodying his mobster roles. And they both had entertaining sidekicks: Lisa Kudrow as Crystal’s put-upon wife and Joe Viterelli as Jelly, De Niro’s clueless bodyguard.

All four are back for the sequel that offers more of the same. It’s the kind of movie comedy (Harold Ramis directs) that fills theaters today: Get a couple of appealing performers, write four funny scenes and forgot about the story.

And how can anyone resist a film that allows De Niro, as the imprisoned mob leader, to sing tunes from “West Side Story” in the holding cell?

This comedy, just like “Analyze That,” puts two appealing stars—Robert Duvall and Michael Caine—in situations guaranteed to provide laughs and tears. Yeah, right. The movie is so slight and silly that you just scratch your head wondering how these two acting legends were tricked into starring.

They play brothers who have reappeared years after years of globe trotting (or maybe prison time?), now living on a remote ranch and surrounded by rumors of hidden money. Because a distant relative hears of the possibility of the old men’s riches, she dumps, despite their protests, her pre-teen son (Haley Joel Osment) on them. The curmudgeons first ignore the kid, then regal him with their tales adventure and eventually bond with him, leading to all kinds of heartwarming scenes.

You’d think that after years of watching worthless films filled with talented performers, I’d be used to it. But it’s still depressing to see such wasted talent. Of course, with Duvall and Caine you just have to wait a couple weeks and another film will show up in video stores or in theaters. Both over 70, they remain among the hardest working actors in the business.

HUSTLE (2004)

Major league baseball has endured numerous black eyes in recent history, but for sheer dramatic controversy, nothing tops the banning of Pete Rose from the game. Since he received his lifetime ban for gambling in 1989, the all-time hits leader has rarely been out of the limelight and has remained a constant topic on sports talk radio. Earlier this year, in his pathetic attempt to get back into baseball’s good graces, he finally admitted that he had indeed bet on baseball and on the team he was managing when he was forced out of the game. But, typical of Rose, he did it in a book and during the promotional tour for the book. Long before the public assailed athletes as greedy, Pete was all about the money.

While there’s nothing new in this ESPN-produced TV movie that most baseball fans haven’t know for years, there is something startling about watching one of the most famous athletes of our time allow gambling to take over his life, pushing aside his family and friends and his responsibilities as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

Tom Sizemore, just out of jail himself following his conviction for harassing and threatening former girlfriend Heidi Fleiss, does a pretty good imitation of Rose (sporting, of course, Pete’s trademark page-boy haircut). He captures Rose’s combination of boyish enthusiasm—he wasn’t nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” for nothing—oversized ego and cloying good nature. As his world starts to close around him, Sizemore’s Rose resembles Richard Nixon or maybe Richard III.

This sordid tale down the dark road of obsessiveness has little to do with baseball and everything to do with Rose’s baffling personality, which probably explains the project’s most surprising credit: director Peter Bogdanovich. Doing a by-the-numbers TV movie for ESPN (not exactly HBO) is a long way from “The Last Picture Show.” But there are definite parallels between these two men, whose names I never imagined appearing in the same sentence. Both have been exiled from the biggest stage of their professions, but continue, by hook or crook, to stay in the public’s eye; clearly both the debonair Bogdanovich and the roguish Rose crave attention. Let’s hope that when producers get around to filming “The Peter Bogdanovich Story,” they find a better director, and screenwriter, than Rose got.

MR. 3000 (2004)
Moving on to a baseball movie that’s about baseball, I was surprised how entertaining, and occasionally insightful, I found this Bernie Mac vehicle. In portraying the ultimate egotistical athlete, the film utilizes every imaginable cliché, but also takes the character to a richer, more interesting, level than you see in most comedies.

Mac plays the self-centered star of the Milwaukee Brewers who immediately retires after getting his 3,000 hit, leaving his team in the middle of a pennant race without its best player. But all Stan cares about is reaching that plateau that all but guarantees a spot in the sport’s Hall of Fame. Then come the complications: His enshrinement is delayed first by the lingering hatred the sportswriters have of him and then by the unearthed evidence that his hits were miscounted and he’s three short of the magic 3,000. While records of pre-World War II players are often changed, the chance of a recent record being misreported is virtually impossible, but it sets up a funny scenario.

What Stan finds when he returns to get his last three hits, nine years after his retirement, is a team not very interested in winning and a few players whose egos far outsize his. While he can’t hit a lick at age 47, he brings the divergent team together for an end-of-the-season rally.

Mac has an engaging personality that shines through even when his character acts like a jerk. I knew I was going to enjoy this picture when, after Stan gets his 3,000 hit, an opposing player hurls the milestone ball into the crowd. Stan marches into the stands and rips it from the hands of a child.

The weakest aspect of the film is Stan’s on-again off-again romance with an ESPN reporter (Angela Bassett) assigned to cover his return to the playing field. I might buy that a TV reporter is sleeping with an athlete, but that she would agree to cover a story about him is ridiculous. It would soon be discovered and she’d be fired. Here, it’s not even an issue.

The more believable relationship is the one between Stan and Boca, his ex-teammate and friend in retirement, who, as played by Michael Rispoli, is both hanger-on and blunt critic. He helps make Stan a believable person, while Mac keeps us entertained.

FINGER OF GUILT (1956) and
Joseph Losey’s directing career was divided into three distinctive and successful parts: his Hollywood years, his post-blacklist British years and his final days working in France.

After directing on stage and on the radio before World War II, Losey made an impressive film debut with “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948), an anti-war tale of a war orphan (12-year-old Dean Stockwell) whose oddly colored hair makes him an outcast. Though he did direct an interesting remake of Fritz Lang’s “M,” set in Los Angeles, his career was sputtering when the House Un-American Activities Committee called him to testify. Shooting a Paul Muni film in Italy, “Stranger on the Prowl,” Losey ignored the committee until he finished the film and by then he had been summarily blacklisted.

Relocating to England, he continued making second-rate B pictures, including “Finger of Guilt” and “The Gypsy and the Gentleman.” But both films are marked by their surprisingly frank approach to sexuality and really bad acting.

In the clearly autobiographical “Finger of Guilt,” Richard Basehart, one of the least charismatic actors of the 1950s and ‘60s, plays a film director who’s left Hollywood under dubious circumstances and is trying to retool his career in England Amid his trouble with a demanding star, he begins receiving letters from a woman who claims to be his mistress and demands his attention. Clumsily plotted and stiffly acted, the film is fascinating only because you’re never sure, until the very end, if Basehart’s director really knows this woman. I was also held by Basehart’s half-hearted attempt to imitate John Huston’s vocal mannerisms—to what end I’m not sure. It just adds to the oddness of the movie.

“The Gypsy and the Gentleman” anticipates those lurid period pieces, usually featuring a werewolf or mentally deranged handyman, made in Italy and Spain in the 1960s that inevitably went from the local drive-in to showing regularly on an independent channel’s 2 a.m. late night movie. In Losey’s film, the evil one is a young nobleman (Keith Michell) who turns his back on his family and responsibilities after he’s seduced by a heartless, scheming gypsy (Melina Mercouri). This was the third film of the Greek actress who became an international star two years later with the hit romance “Never on Sunday.” But Mercouri’s career quickly took second place to her political activism and, later, her work as a Greek lawmaker.

Losey looked like he needed a career change as well until he teamed with avant-garde playwright Harold Pinter and ambivalently cool Dirk Bogarde to make “The Servant” (1963), a disturbingly intense story of identity crisis and moral decline that moved the director into the upper ranks of British filmmakers. That started an amazing string of films for Losey as he turned out some of the best (“King and County,” “Accident,” “The Go-Between,” “The Romantic Englishwoman” ), hippest (“Modesty Blaise”) or simply strangest (“Secret Ceremony,” “Boom!”) pictures of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Though he was maybe the best filmmaker—save for Stanley Kubrick—working in England, he moved to France in 1976 and made four of his final five movies in French. His World War II drama, “Mr. Klein” (1977), starring Alain Delon, and his opera film “Don Giovanni” (1979) were both critically acclaimed. His final film, “Steaming,” released after his 1984 death, was a failed adaptation of a stage play that featured Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles lounging around half-naked in a steam bath discussing life.

The unanswerable question is where Losey’s career would have gone had the idiotic blacklist not kept him in Europe, but his accomplishments also show that a productive, if not as lucrative, creative life was possible for those barred from Hollywood.

To many Che Guevara was a hero of the common man, a Communist revolutionary dedicated to giving power to the people. To others he was a terrorist who used any means available to change a country’s politics. Yet neither view diminishes the moving, universally human experiences chronicled in this film memorializing a trip across South America Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado took in 1952.

What Brazilian director Walter Salles, whose “Central Station” earned a foreign film Oscar nomination in 1998, and screenwriter Jose Rivera unearth (from books by Guevara and Granado) is a portrait of a revolutionary as a young man that could stand for anyone’s awaking to the realities of the world around them. These adventurous Argentines, about to embark on adulthood, discover what it means to be Latin American as they ride “The Might One” (Granado’s rickety motorcycle) south through their home country and then north into Chile before they take to foot—literally and figuratively connecting with the land and people—in the final leg of their journey to a Peruvian leper colony.

Both Gael Garcia Bernal as Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna as Granado create men who are neither saints nor sinners but dedicated men of medicine (Ernesto was one semester shy of his medical degree and Alberto was pharmacist) who hope to find that novelistic romance of the road; a final adventure before a life of responsibility. Bernal, who was one of the stars of another Spanish-language road film, “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” shows here he’s much more than a movie heartthrob; he makes Guevara’s transformation from a sincere, fun-loving student to a man who is appalled by the injustices he sees across the continent and struggling to determine what his response should be. It’s a great performance. And de la Serna isn’t far behind. His Alberto could easily have come off as the goofy sidekick to the deep-thinking Guevara, but he’s painted as an equal; not as serious but possessing the same kind of emotional and intellectual resolve as his younger friend.

Alternately comic and heartbreaking and determined to connect us to what these experiences meant to the two men, the movie will leave those of a certain age recalling their own youthful search for their place in the world and their ideals, often later deserted, that once seemed so important.

THE PATSY (1928)
Marion Davies’ career remains, 67 years after her last film, in the shadow of her famous benefactor, William Randolph Hearst. By creating a production company for her and endlessly promoting her in his newspapers across the country, Hearst literally created a movie star. Despite his efforts, her movies inevitably failed at the box office. She was more successful as a Hollywood party hostess, as Hearst-Davies became America’s most famous unmarried couple.

The coming of sound didn’t help her at all, emphasized her failings as an actress and a stuttering problem (cruelly caricatured by Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”). Davies career ended in 1937, the same year Hearst’s newspaper empire began to crumble under the weight of the Depression.

In recent years, Davies has gained new critical respect for some of her silent work, especially in comedies. For the great director King Vidor she made two of her best, “Show People” (1928) and “The Patsy.” Vidor, taking a break from his more earnest films like “The Big Parade” (1925) and “The Crowd” (1928), was no doubt happy to take Hearst’s money. While “Show People” is an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at early filmmaking, “The Patsy” is a tiresome romantic comedy.

Davies plays the younger sister in a well-to-do family that lives under the thumb of a stern and willful mother, superbly portrayed by Marie Dressler. While Davies has some amusing moments—for a period she faints being crazy by reading books (!) and waiting for phone calls from Napoleon—the film belongs to Dressler. Once a leading Broadway comedian and silent star, her career was in decline by the 1920s. This role helped bring Dressler back to prominence—she had the uncanny ability to be a ranting, battle-axe of a wife one second and a sympathetic victim of her own shortcomings the next. She went on to be one of the biggest stars of early sound until her death in 1934.

Davies has a jumpy energy that makes her stand out from the typically deliberateness of silent acting that rules even in comedies. Unfortunately, she couldn’t transfer that energy to sound films, as evidence in another film I saw recently, “Going Hollywood” (1933). Co-starring with Bing Crosby, Davies plays a French teacher who pursues the singer to Hollywood. Badly directed and dully written, the film is saved by Crosby’s singing and the hilarious raspy barking of Ned Sparks, playing an eternally steamed-off director.

Often more fascinating than the “classic” movies on Turner Classic Movies are the nonfiction films—the trailers and promos for movies, newsreels, short films (a major part of the business in the studio era) and full-length documentaries. I’ve watched parts of “The Secret Land” a few times and it’s not to be missed.

Chronicling the Navy-sponsored exploration of Antarctica that was led by the legendary South Pole adventurer Admiral Richard Byrd, the documentary captures the long, detailed preparations; Navy on-board high jinks on the long southern cruise; the intense, dangerous final 600 miles as the ships follow an ice-crushing vessel toward the snowed-in continent; and then the Byrd-led exploration across the frozen tundra.

The film’s strength, beyond its stunning color images of the bottom of the world, is the emphasis on the technical details, most of them recent advances made because of World War II, that made this exploration possible. It also becomes as heartbreaking as any drama when one of the exploration team’s planes goes missing and an intense search begins.

While documentaries currently are more prominent than ever before, the power of World War II documentaries and those, like “The Secret Land,” released immediately after the war still haven’t been surpassed.

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