Wednesday, September 24, 2008

October 2005

Beware of revisiting movies cherished from one’s impressionable youth. It can be heartbreaking. Just out of college, I remember being totally enamored of this story of a novice filmmaker (Keith Carradine) who goes to the Cannes film festival and falls in love with a married Italian woman (Monica Vitti). Something about the mixture of the exotic Cote d’Azur locals, romance with a erotic European and the glamorous world of international cinema allowed me to overlook the fact that the script features one cliché after another and the characters are facile and dull.

Michael Ritchie shot the film during the festival, spicing up the predictable plot with cameo appearances by such celebrities as Paul Mazursky, Sergio Leone, George Peppard, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett and Brooke Shields. Otherwise, it’s not in the same league with his best films, “The Candidate” (1972), “Smile” (1975) and “The Bad News Bears” (1976).

I struggled to get through this film I’d been longing to see again for 25 years. Like seeing an old girlfriend and wondering what in the hell had possessed one to get involved, some things are best left in their time.

By my count, Clark Gable played some type of newsman at least 10 times in his movie career. Especially in the 1930s, if the lead role wasn’t a gangster or a cop, a reporter was the next best thing. In this romantic comedy/action-adventure, Gable is an ethics bending newsreel cameraman on assignment in Shanghai who spends most of his time putting off requests from the home office for actual footage of the China-Japan war. Walter Pidgeon, in the Ralph Bellamy role, plays Gable’s more straight-laced competitor, who also becomes his romantic rival when Myrna Loy, as an aviatrix, shows up on the scene.

For a lightweight entertainment, “Too Hot to Handle” is loaded with plot lines, ending with a ludicrous rescue of Loy’s brother in the jungles of South America.

There are moments of both high adventure and well-written comic banter, but sparks never fly between Gable and Loy. They’d starred together many times before, most famously in “Manhattan Melodrama” (1934), but here she seems remote and uninterested in her role.

Who does shine is Walter Connelly, the hyper, rotund character actor who plays Gable’s editor at the newsreel company. His flails around his office in a constant state of panic, trying to determine what his weaselly cameraman is up to while he anxiously awaits word on whether his divorce has been finalized. He played a similar role in “Nothing Sacred” (1937) and also played Claudette Colbert’s father in “It Happened One Night” (1934). He died of a heart attack just two years after this film came out, at age 53.


There’s really no comparison between these two adaptations of Charles Dickens’ tale of a young orphan boy trying to survive and then escape the criminal life of 19th Century London. The new film plays like a nicely mounted Masterpiece Theatre production while the earlier version is a near-great movie filled with unforgettable performances and amazing directorial touches. But it’s rare that you get to compare different takes on the same material from such acclaimed filmmakers as David Lean and Roman Polanski.

In Lean’s version, you immediate know you’re in the hands of a master filmmaker: the opening scene follows a pregnant, sickly young woman as she struggles against a gathering storm, finally arriving at the ominous gate of a workhouse. Brilliantly shot (by the legendary Guy Green) and directed, the scene is reminiscent of the opening shots of Lean’s other Dickens’ film, and first masterpiece, “David Copperfield” (1946). As the familiar story unfolds, Lean brings to life Dickens’ hypocrites and two-bit criminals as seen through the eyes of ever-optimistic Oliver (a charming John Howard Davies) and the other left-behind children. The German-influenced set design by John Bryan makes Fagin’s hideaway deep in the London slums look as scary as it must have to young Oliver.

Polanski was attracted to the story because of the parallels to his own young life when he escaped from the Nazis in Warsaw after his parents were taken to concentration camps. Yet there’s a certain irony in that fact that the most infamous non-Catholic child molester of our time chose to make a film based on one of the most famous tales of child abuse.

Smartly, Polanski doesn’t even try to match Lean’s visually stunning opening, instead beginning the film with Oliver in the workhouse and then being sold to an undertaker after he foolishly asks for a second serving of gruel. There isn’t a false note in the new version, but it rarely rises above just being good. About the only aspect of the story that Polanski gives more weight to than Lean did is Oliver’s walk to London through the English countryside. Again, this relates back to Polanski’s own wanderings across Europe during the war. (I think the director could have brought much more passion to his own story rather than Dickens’ and it would have made a perfect follow-up to his 2002 Oscar winner, “The Pianist.”)

Where these films are most similar is in the performances of Alec Guinness and Ben Kingsley as Fagin, the weaselly, dramatic mother hen of this band of young pickpockets. Both are stage-trained actors with impeccable technical skills who understand that stillness and just the right small detail says more about a character than a dramatic monologue. Guinness’ performance—and his makeup—continues to be controversial (it originally delayed the film’s U.S. release and now clearly limits its TV play) for its emphasis on the cliché Jewish characteristics of Fagin. Yet Dickens’ turned all of his villains into cartoons; it not like Fagin is presented as any kind of representative of his ethnicity. To me, it’s a lot less offensive than most portrayals of Shylock or the bloodthirsty mob in “The Passion of the Christ.”

Kingsley tones that aspect of the character down and might even do a better job of showing the pure evil of this unctuous, slimy creature. It should earn him yet another Oscar nomination.

There are so many beautifully staged moments in Lean’s film that it’s understandable why Polanski followed Lean’s outline so closely (the capture of Bill Sykes is nearly a frame-by-frame recreation) but he never found a way to tap into the emotions of the 1948 picture.

When Lean’s Oliver wakes up in a large, cozy bed in his benefactor-to-be Mr. Brownlow’s home and the housekeeper is fussing over him, he looks up at the middle-aged woman and recognizes what’s been absent from his life—motherly love. Without a word and in a single scene, Lean communicates everything you need to know about this little boy, bringing the kind of emotional truth to this classic story that the 2005 version never gets close to.

This film reminded me of “In the Bedroom,” the 2003 examination of the murder of a couple’s son and the way it affects their lives. Both films attempt to make the case that violence forever marks a person, a family, a community, changing every aspect of the way our lives unfold. That may sound self-evident, but you don’t have to spend much time watching most Hollywood products (on the screen or television) or be aware of the content of video games to realize that violence has gone from being a shocking dramatic moment to an expected piece of the entertainment machine. But that genie isn’t going back in the bottle; special effects have eliminated any reasonable restraint filmmakers once worked under. So I always appreciate an attempt to confront the issue rather than exploit it.

Directed David Cronenberg has spent most of his career making films about disturbed individuals; pictures that often border on horror and are always intensely creepy. In films like “The Fly” (1986), “Dead Ringers” (1988), “Naked Lunch” (1991) and “Spider” (2002), his characters struggle with distinguishing between reality and fantasy, the present and the past, the sane and the insane.

In his new film, everything seems so ordinary that it’s hard to believe Cronenberg’s behind the camera. Viggio Mortenson plays shy, low-keyed Tom Stall, who runs a dinner in a small Indiana town and seems to be living an idyllic life with his vivacious wife (Mario Bello) and their two children. Everything starts to change when a pair of cold-blooded thieves try to hold up the dinner and Tom turns into a hero by killing both of them. In the aftermath you can see his discomfort with his newfound celebrity, but it gets worse when a Philadelphia mobster (a spooky Ed Harris) shows up in the town and insists that Tom is a former rival of his, Joey Cusack.

What Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson (who based the script on graphic novels) get right are the measured reactions of the family and the community to the killings and the arrival of the crime figures—in too many films such occurrences are either treated as commonplace or with unexplained hysteria. But I think the filmmakers lost their focus in the movie’s final act, treading too far into “Taxi Driver” territory and turning a clear, cohesive story into a sledgehammer. By the time Tom has an inevitable confrontation with his menacing older brother (bizarrely played by William Hurt), the film has become a dark comedy; a “Kill Bill”-like send-up of revenge pictures.

A few weeks after seeing the film, I wondered if Cronenberg was trying to make the case that violence has become so prevalent in America that a proprietor of a small-town dinner is indistinguishable from a mob killer. I hope not, because that’s quite a stretch. But there’s no separating the legacy of violence from the history of the country and its people. And on that subject, this film has some smart things to say. I just wish Cronenberg would have found a more thoughtful way of concluding the film.

SIN CITY (2005)
For all my reservations about “A History of Violence,” it plays like Shakespeare compared to the blunt force of this stylish, brainless cartoon of a movie.

Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novels and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, “Sin City” is a black-and-white video game filled with so much exploitative killing and mutilation that its pieced together plot from ‘40s film noirs barely registers.

Even as the blood flows white, it’s hard to watch as more heads are lopped off than were after the French revolution. And, of course, every woman in the film is either half-naked and/or a prostitute.

What’s disturbing about this film is that the heroes (Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen at various points) kill as randomly and with as much glee as the bad guys. This is a film made either for boys not old enough to see an R-rated movie or those who never grew up. And it ends, shamelessly, with a teaser to a sequel. I can hardly wait.

No one ever made more movies with less insight about violence than Charles Bronson. His series of very popular “Death Wish” films, while trying to show the flaws in the justice system and glorify revenge, are best watched as comedies, with their ludicrous scripts, monotone acting and clumsy direction.

“Messenger of Death” is just as bad or worse and I still don’t know why I watched it. It came on one morning at 1 and every time I decided to turn it off and sleep, a scene more idiotic than the last would start and I just had to watch. Bronson doesn’t even carry a gun in this one; he’s a reporter who decides to solve a feud between two factions of a Mormon family rather than report on it. You’ve got to admire Bronson and his writers: they never waste any time indulging in the realities of journalism or the procedures of law and order; it all seems to be set in some imaginary world filled with cardboard characters who do nothing but get in Bronson’s way. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more derogatory depiction of a religious group: these Mormons come off as a cross between Appalachian bootleggers and a right-wing patriot group.

For this fantasy, a brutal killing of a Mormon family spurs the wrath of a fire-and-brimstone sect, which plans revenge (without a shred of evidence) on a former member of the group. Only reporter Bronson is tough enough to try to head off this confrontation—it’s left unexplained why the police barely lift a finger to solve this multiple murder.

Longtime character actor John Ireland gives the film’s only credible performance as the lapsed Mormon, but everyone else stands around reciting their lines as if it’s the first day of acting class. It’s hard to believe veteran filmmaker J. Lee Thompson (“Cape Fear”) was in charge of this amateurish mess. In the last part of his career became Bronson’s favorite director.

Fittingly, the final scene is the most unbelievable, with the evil politician snatching the gun from the sheriff and aiming it at a hired gunman who ratted on him. But not a single person runs for cover or seems concerned that their host is about to fire a gun in a narrow hallway where everyone has gathered. The camera cuts away as he instead takes his own life, as, no doubt, the guests drifted into another room seeking refills on their cocktails.

CAPOTE (2005)
For anyone who watched much television in the 1960s and ‘70s, Truman Capote, with his high-pitched voice and effeminate manners, was a figure of amusement and the butt of endless jokes. Even Woody Allen used him as a throwaway bit when in “Annie Hall” he points out to Diane Keaton, while they sit in Central Park, “the winner of the Truman Capote look-a-like contest.” In fact, it was Capote in the role.

But if only for his creation of the charming and heartbreaking party girl Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and his groundbreaking nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood,” he remains one of the important writers of the last half of the 20th Century. What this riveting new film reveals in its portrait of Capote while he was investigating and writing “In Cold Blood,” is a manipulative, fame-obsessed egotist who was pretty much willing to do anything for what became “his” story.

He comes alive by way of an astonishing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has the voice and mannerisms down pat but never lets the character become a cliché or just an imitation. Hoffman taps so deeply into the Capote of the screenplay that at every point of the process—first with the people of Holcomb, Kansas, where a pair of robbers killed a family of four in their house, and then with convicted murder Perry Smith—you can practically see the duplicitious schemes forming in his mind.

It would have been easy for first-time feature director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman (both longtime friends of Hoffman) to simply turn the film into platform for an Oscar run for Hoffman, but instead they’ve made a artfully crafted, carefully observed and stunningly photographed (by Adam Kimmel) study of the allure of fame and the emotional costs of coldhearted manipulation.

The movie is filled with perfectly underplayed supporting roles starting with Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee, whose acclaimed novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is released during these events. A childhood friend of Capote’s, Lee serves as his liaison to the people of Holcomb and his sounding board during the process. Nelly’s honesty is crucial to the film and Keener’s insightful portrayal should earn her another Oscar nomination.

Also excellent are Chris Cooper as the Holcomb sheriff, Bruce Greenwood as Capote’s patient companion, Bob Balaban as New Yorker editor William Shawn and Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith, the killer who Capote finds himself strangely attracted to. This is a breakout performance for Collins—he spent the past 15 years in mostly small roles in second-rate films—who steals the second half of the picture as his character struggles to understand Capote’s unreliable friendship.

No one can really say how much truth there is in this dark, unpleasant journey into the heart and mind of a very talented but unlikable man. (It’s based on a 1988 biography by Gerald Clarke.) Yet, by the end of this remarkable picture, you won’t be surprised by the fact that in the remaining 20 years of Capote’s life he never completed another novel. Rarely has the cost of fame been presented so clearly.

Mainstream filmgoers may be looking forward to the new Harry Potter movie, “King Kong” and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” but for discerning rock ‘n’ roll fans, this Martin Scorsese documentary was the most anticipated film of the year. Let’s face it, the combination of two of the most influential American artists of the last half of the 20th Century doesn’t show up on television very often. And on the heels of his autobiography, “Chronicles, Volume 1” and a suddenly talkative Dylan, the documentary (shown on PBS and simultaneously released on DVD) promised new insight into a musician who for most of his career has obfuscated any attempt to decipher his life or songs.

Scorsese delivers his most successful film in 10 years. No stranger to Dylan or music documentaries, Scorsese directed “The Last Waltz” (1978), a film that captured the final concert of The Band, which served as Dylan’s backup band before emerging as one of the great rock bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In 2003, Scorsese produced a series of 90-minute documentaries by well-known directors (including Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood and himself) on some aspect of blues music for PBS.

This 3½-hour examination of Dylan’s creative surge from his arrival in Greenwich Village at age 20 in 1961 to his self-imposed exile after a motorcycle crash in 1966 delivers on many levels. Scorsese adroitly mixes never, or rarely, seen footage of early Dylan performances, surprisingly insightful remembrances of the times by the songwriter himself, an impressive gallery of witnesses to Dylan’s rise to fame and a concise history of the era and it’s ever-changing musical landscape. Far beyond the musical bios that litter television, “No Direction Home” is structured like a fiction film as Scorsese builds toward the pivotal event in Dylan’s career: his transformation from acoustic folkie to electric rocker.

Fellow folkies Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez, poet Allen Ginsberg and various record producers and executives (but, strangely, no members of The Band) are among those Scorsese enlists to paint this often-humorous portrait of an artist as a young man. Even if you’re not interested in what makes Dylan tick, the performance footage (including seven others on the DVD) is priceless, especially the color film of his infamous tour of England in 1965.

In this period, from his self-titled debut to his mid-1960s rock masterpieces, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde,” Dylan forever altered American popular music, merging songwriter and singer and then writing lyrics to the music pioneered by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry that didn’t just rhyme but changed the way people thought and how they lived. “No Direction Home” perfectly captures and puts in perspective Dylan’s astonishing rush of creativity that as much as anything defined the 1960s.


George Clooney, directing just his second film, has masterly recreated what CBS News went through when newsman Edward R. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly decided to challenge Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade. Part history lesson, part character study, the film probably won’t appeal to those unfamiliar with this sad chapter of 1950s America.

Clooney treats the events as if they happened yesterday, which makes it more relevant than the usual period piece but less accessible to anyone fuzzy on what McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee had been doing starting in the late 1940s or the stature of Morrow and CBS News at the time.

The director paces the film as if it was actually made in 1953, never overhyping the action or treating the journalists as anything more than just men and women doing their jobs. The picture, beautifully shot by Robert Elswit in silky black and white and featuring more cigarette smoking than a RJ Reynolds convention, evokes the era while rarely leaving the confines of the television studio.

Clooney also manages to create a true ensemble of actors, with uniformly superb acting from the entire cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella (as CBS chairman William Paley), Ray Wise, Jeff Daniels and David Strathairn as Murrow. While Strathairn measured, cool turn as the legendary interviewer and his banter with Friendly (Clooney) remain the film’s focus as it builds toward the televised confrontation between Murrow and McCarthy—who is seen in real television footage and not portrayed by an actor—it never feels like a one-man show. Just like the real CBS crew of reporters and newscasters, this is a team effort.

But the movie should earn Strathairn, a longtime character actor mostly associated with the films of John Sayles—“The Return of the Secaucus Seven” (1979), “Eight Men Out” (1988), “Limbo” (1999)—an Academy Award nomination and the kind of recognition this excellent actor deserves. (His last name is pronounced Struh-thairn).

Clooney took on this project (along with screenwriter-actor Grant Heslov, who portraits Don Hewitt in the film) because of his concern about both the declining state of television news (his father Nick is a longtime Cincinnati newsman) and the rise of the kind of political persecution that McCarthy trafficked in. The script makes those connections clear. But “Good Night and Good Luck” never feels like a rant or sermon; the script accomplishes its mission simply by bringing to life these heroic journalists from another era.

I like the title of this overheated rumination on sex, death and comedy duos gone bad. The rest of it is an incomprehensible jumble that flashes back and forth in time and between versions of the truths until my head was spinning. By the middle of the movie, I didn’t care about anyone or anything in this idiotic story.

Atom Egoyan, director of such critically acclaimed films as “The Advocate,” “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” butchers this adaptation of Rupert Holmes’ novel about a Martin and Lewis-like 1950s comedy team whose partnership goes sour after a night of debauchery ends in the death of a young woman.

Twenty years later, a freelance journalist (a childish Alison Lohman), in her attempt to uncover the truth, decides it’s better to take off her clothes for the duo (Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth) than ask them questions. In fact, pretty much every young female in the film disrobes sooner than later. It’s the only diversion as the plot careens out of control.

I’ve never seen Bacon or Firth so inept and Lohman, who was quite good in “White Oleander” (2002) and “Matchstick Men” (2003), gives a stunningly poor performance. Even veteran character actor Maury Chaykin, playing a nightclub-owning mobster, comes off looking like an amateur. Did Egoyan put something in these actors’ morning coffee?

The filmmaker doesn’t even do a good job of evoking the time periods; the ‘50s come straight out of a bad Rat Pack picture, while the ‘70s look like they were designed by an employee of VH1.

Nick Park’s animated shorts featuring these two oddball characters have won two Academy Awards, for “The Wrong Trousers” (1993) and “A Close Shake” (1995). Using the time-consuming process of claymation, Park has turned Wallace, a wide-eyed, cheese-loving innocent who has rigged up his house as an out-of-control Rube Goldberg contraption and Gromit, his more sensible and extremely resourceful dog, into a classic comedy duo. These timeless, distinctly British characters are impossible not to warm up to.

But no matter how wonderful the characters are, there is always risky when an animator expands his canvas to feature length. A short can survive on a throwaway plot as long as the stars get a chance to show off their wackiness; a 90-minute film needs a multilayered plot, numerous supporting characters and enough clever bits to fill a dozen award-winning shorts. In his last feature, “Chicken Run” (2000), Park starred a farm full of chickens in a prison escape plot and it turned predictable very quickly.

This time, Park parodies horror movies, which means that nearly ever gag he uses in the film has been done to death. He and co-director Steve Box do their best to puts quirky spins on themes from “Frankenstein,” “The Werewolf” and “King Kong” and make the most of a romantic subplot involving Wallace and the town’s grande dame, Lady Campanula Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) but, especially in the second half, the film plays out too conventionally. The only character that keeps things interesting is Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), a gun-toting, toupee-wearing, blustery rival to Wallace for the affections of Lady Tottington. He and his snarling bulldog are amusing bad guys; Park should have found more for them to do.

There are plenty of priceless sight gags and sharply written wordplays, but if this was a live-action film it’d be dismissed as a collection of tired, retread jokes.

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