Friday, September 26, 2008

October 2006

The first three-fourths of this fast-paced, violent crime picture is the best feature film Martin Scorsese has directed since “GoodFellas” (1990). Unfortunately, the final act plays out like dozens of other mediocre Hollywood actioners that sloppily tie up all the loose ends. All the accumulated energy slowly dissipates in an orgy of bloodletting that seems too convenient a way to resolve this complex story.

Once again Scorsese has cast Leonardo DiCaprio, following “Gangs of New York” (2002) and “The Aviator” (2004), as his protagonist, this time playing Billy Costigan, a graduate of the Massachusetts state police academy who is convinced by the men who run the investigative unit (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) to take on a new identity and infiltrate the Boston mob.

That mob is headed by an aging Irish don who is as charismatic as he is ruthless, played with his usual zeal by Jack Nicholson. The tantalizing prospect of the most important actor of his era finally working in a Scorsese picture doesn’t disappoint: Nicholson creates a Frank Costello that is part “crazy Jack,” part mentor, part brutal murderer, part out-of-control hedonist. Another actor could have created a more conventional crime boss, a performance we’ve seen over and over again since “The Godfather” (1972), but Nicholson turns Costello into a one-of-a-kind pathological nut.

What also separates “The Departed” from other mob-cop movies is that Costello has his own mole, Colin Sullivan, a young detective (Matt Damon in a very buttoned-down performance) on the rise who Costello has looked out for since he was a kid in the neighborhood. So you have Damon trying to find out who the undercover cop is among Costello’s gang, while the cops are trying to smoke out the double-agent in their own midst. (An irritating hole in this film is that while the top cops seem to know every relative and acquaintance of DiCaprio, they somehow overlook the fact that Costello was like a benevolent uncle to Damon. It had to be common knowledge in their neighborhood.)

Scorsese’s directing and editing brilliance shows up early in the film as we see Costigan and Sullivan go through the academy and then Sullivan establish himself in the state police as Costigan makes his bones on the street, earning a place in Costello’s inner circle. It’s succinct storytelling at its best; playing out to a soundtrack of ‘60s pop, another Scorsese trademark. (Nothing defines the director more than a couple of wise guys getting the crap beat out of them as classic rock roars in the background.)

Finally, DiCaprio emerges as an adult in this film, totally convincing as the young thud he’s posing as and the cop who must find a way out of a dangerous corner. He holds his own in his many scenes with Nicholson, no simple task.

The other performances are uneven, though Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, as foul-mouthed assignment cops, bring needed humor to the intense atmosphere. On the other side of the law, Ray Winstone as Mr. French, Costello’s top lieutenant, adds to the sense that violence could happen at any second when you’re dealing with this mob; his calm, no-nonsense ruthlessness balances out the sheer insanity of Nicholson’s Costello.

Vera Farmiga, critically acclaimed for her role as a drug-addicted mother in “Down to the Bone” (2005), is also superb as a police therapist who gets involved with both Costigan and Sullivan, to various degrees. Yet, by the end of the film, her role diminishes when it should have become crucial.

Both screenwriter William Monahan (adapting the 2002 Japanese film “Infernal Affairs”) and Scorsese must shoulder the blame for the slopping conclusion of this otherwise first-rate movie. Never has a film taken its title so literally; “The Departed” cleanses itself of so many characters, both good and bad guys, that you feel gutted as the credits roll. That’s a good thing, but the feeling that the filmmakers let a mob mentality overtake their filmmaking smarts isn’t.


Director Michel Gondry’s follow-up to his labyrinth-structured, cracked love story “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), this equally tricky movie is cut from the same fantasy vs. reality cloth. While “Eternal Sunshine” relied on a memory-erasing process to separate it from reality, the fantasy/dream world of “Science of Sleep” is all in the head of Stephane, an artistically inclined young man who has just returned to his boyhood home in France following the death of his father.

Almost immediately, his new next door neighbor, prophetically named Stephanie, becomes central to his dream life---he hosts a TV show about himself among other dreamy settings---as he clumsily tries to woo her in real life.

Gondry’s seemingly limitless visions of Stephane’s fantasy/dream worlds never cease to impress and entertain and Gael Garcia Bernal, the extraordinary star of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001) and “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004), exudes both wide-eyed innocence and edge of sanity as Stephane. And Charlotte Gainsbourg (she was Jane Eyre in the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli version) captures Stephanie, a smart, offbeat, unexplainably attractive woman. She reminded me of Katrin Cartlidge, the superb British actress best known for her work with director Mike Leigh, who died four years ago at age 41.

Despite the performances, “Science of Sleep” never finds its heart. The gimmicky structure and imaginative production design aren’t matched by Stephane’s real-life relationships. By the end of “Eternal Sunshine,” I cared about the fate of the on-again, off-again couple (in large part because of the contributions of screenwriter extraordinaire Charley Kaufman); in the new film it didn’t even seem to matter.

America wasn’t the only country producing great motion pictures in the late 1930s. France was enjoying it’s own Golden Era. Filmmakers Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel Carne, who directed this cynical look at a world on the edge of war, were doing their best work as were actors Jean Gabin and Michel Simon, maybe the finest France has ever produced, who star in this film.

Released in the U.S. as “Port of Shadows,” the film opens with Jean (Gabin), a soldier who seems to be AWOL, hitching a ride to a port city where he finds shelter in a roadhouse known as Panama’s. Among those who spend time at Panama’s include a philosophizing, depressed painter; Nelly, a beautiful, mysterious young woman; and a ruthless businessman who turns out to be the woman’s guardian. Jean, who’s looking to gain passage on a ship out of the country, gets involved with this motley crew and a weak-kneed crime boss who wants Nelly for himself.

Carne, whose allegorical carnival film “Children of Paradise” (1945) is often ranked among the greatest movies ever made, creates a foggy, noirish atmosphere filled with hopeless, desperate people who, like all Europeans at the time, face very uncertain futures.

As Nelly, 18-year-old Michele Morgan, most of the time wearing a trench coat and beret, is both an appealing romantic figure (falling for Jean) and a damaged woman who isn’t sure who’s the enemy and who’s her protectors. Simon, sporting a long beard, plays Nelly’s guardian and could be seen as a stand-in for the German threat. A smart, seemingly harmless “uncle,” he turns out to be the most treacherous character in the film.

Beyond the film’s pessimistic mood, it’s also a very adult romance in which it’s clear that the unmarried couple spend the night together even as their love affair seems doomed. It’s filled with interesting characters, all revolving around Gabin’s calm, determined, secretive solider who can’t help doing the right thing even when it may ruin his road to freedom.

If I had lived in the 19th Century, I’m sure most of the movies about that era would make me laugh. The majority of the films that attempt to recreate an era I’m familiar with fail miserable; inevitable filling the frame with vintage accessories picked up at swap meets, dressing the actors in exaggerated versions of the era’s styles and giving the performers lines that are right out of the era’s movies, not real life.

While I was just three in the summer of 1959, when the principal action of this film takes place, I know enough (the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s are really the same era) to appreciate how well this film recreates the time period. And that authenticity goes a long way in making this a believable look at the events surrounding the shooting death of actor George Reeves.

Ben Affleck, an actor I regular find pitifully inept, gives a convincing and thoughtful performance as Reeves, a bit actor who longed for stardom, but was embarrassed by it when it came in the form of the cheesy TV series, “Superman.” His life is complicated by his affair with an older woman (Diane Lane) who is married to a slimy studio executive (Bob Hoskins) and his involvement with a temperamental B-girl (Robin Tunney).

All this unfolds as a second-rate private eye (Adrien Brody, who won the 2002 best actor Oscar for “The Pianist”), hired by Reeves’ mother, ignores the studio-sanctioned police ruling of suicide and tries to piece together what really happened the night “Superman” died.

Allen Coulter, making his feature film debut after directing such high-profile TV series as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” doesn’t fall into the trap of turning the film into an over-heated noir (as Brian DePalma did in “The Black Dahlia”). Instead Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum (who has also mostly worked in TV) neatly combine the age-old story of unexpected stardom with a classic detective yarn.

Not only does “Hollywoodland” (I’m not sure what the point of the title is) do a wonderful job of recreating ‘50s Los Angeles, but it exposes the incestuous relationship that existed for many years between the movie studios and LAPD.

Brody captures the look and cynical attitude of a struggling P.I., coming off as a poor cousin of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Lane and Hoskins chew the scenery a bit much, but Tunney, an underrated character actress who’s been a standout in a number of films in the past 10 years, steals all her scenes, in flashbacks with Affleck’s Reeves and, afterwards, as a suspect Brody pursues in the investigation.

It’s a delicate balancing act when you base a movie around real people and real events yet still approach the material as a fictional film. Yet the filmmakers and actors succeed in making the character believably real and the story believable fiction.

TEXAS (1941)
This second-rate Western is worth a look if only for its young co-stars who went on to become two of Hollywood’s most popular stars: 23-year-old William Holden and 25-year-old Glenn Ford. And even though Ford lived for a quarter century longer than Holden, their illustrious careers ended around the same time, in the early 1980, Holden’s in death and Ford’s for a lack of good roles.

Both actors signed with Columbia Pictures in 1939 and immediately received top billing. Holden landed choice roles as the young musician turned boxer opposite Barbara Stanwyck in “Golden Boy” (1939) and as George Gibbs in “Our Town” (1941). And he was reteamed with his buddy Ford in another Western, “The Man From Colorado” (1948).

Ford became a full-fledged star after returning from World War II---he served in the Marines and Holden joined the Army---with “Gilda” (1946), the atmospheric romantic thriller co-starring Rita Hayworth that established Ford’s cool, soft-spoken but commanding film persona. It took Holden a bit longer, but by 1950 he was a major Hollywood star, with superb performances in two very different films. In Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, “Sunset Boulevard,” he scored an Oscar nomination playing a doomed screenwriter who becomes a kept man by Gloria Swanson’s spooky, one-time movie star, while in “Born Yesterday,” he’s the suave teacher who falls for the dumb blonde mistress (Judy Holliday) of an overbearing Washington businessman.

Both were among the most popular stars of the 1950s. Holden won the best actor Oscar for his performance as the sarcastic POW in “Stalag 17” (1953) and then followed with critical and box office hits “Executive Suite” (1954), “Sabrina” (1954), “The Country Girl” (1955), “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955), “Picnic” (1956) and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957). From 1954 through 1958, Holden earned a spot on the list of Top 10 box office draws.

In 1958 and 1959, Ford also made the list, capping off a decade that included “Follow the Sun” (1951), as golf legend Ben Hogan; “The Big Heat” (1953), giving his best performance as a tough and tender cop in this noir classic; “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955), his most iconic performance as a sensitive teacher; “Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956), with Marlon Brando as post-war soldiers in Japan; and “3:10 to Yuma” (1957) and “Cowboy” (1958), two first-class Westerns directed by Delmer Daves.

After a couple of sappy but popular films, Frank Capra’s “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961) and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (1963), Ford’s choices in the 1960s mostly failed him. Probably his most watchable film of the decade is the comic Western “The Rounders” (1965), opposite Henry Fonda. By the ‘70s, he was working mostly in television, including headlining two series, “Cade’s Country” and “The Family Holvak.” His last memorable film role was as the Man of Steel’s earthly father in “Superman” (1978).

Holden slowed down after his 1960 hit “The World of Suzie Wong,” but gave two brilliant, great-man-in-decline performances that ended up defining his career: Pike Bishop, a disillusioned cowboy making one final run in what may be the greatest Western ever made, Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and Max Schumacher, a seen-it-all TV newsman battling management while clinging to an affair with a younger woman in “Network” (1976). He also was memorable in lesser films, Clint Eastwood’s underrated “Breezy” (1973), Wilder’s “Fedora” (1978) and Blake Edwards’ crazed old guys comedy “S.O.B.” (1981) and starred in the popular disaster film “The Towering Inferno” (1974).

At 63, a drunk Holden slipped in his Santa Monica home and hit his head on the coffee table, bleeding to death.

Ford lived another 25 years, mostly out of the spotlight and, in the last decade, in poor health. In 1993, he made the news when he married, at age 77, his nurse. The marriage last a year. Ford died in August at age 90.

In “Texas,” these two young men play friends who ride west and end up on different ends of the law, while both allured by sultry Claire Trevor and a wily conman played by Edgar Buchanon. Other than their good looks and cool camera presence, there are no clues in “Texas” that these two would go on to storied movie careers. But Ford and Holden were never flashy actors like Brando or Burt Lancaster; their strength was an ability to persuade audiences they were regular guys whose heroic, romantic, even deceitful acts were something we were all capable of.

TSOTSI (2006)
As hard as it is to watch this portrait of a young South African thug (Tsotsi actually means thug in the dialect of his village) and as much as I found the attempt to excuse Tsotsi’s violence on his sad upbringing unconvincing, this is a superbly made and acted picture that shines a bright light on the disparity between the country’s haves and have nots.

Written and directed by Gavin Hood, from a novel by legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard, the film was the surprise winner of the 2005 foreign film Oscar (but not released in the U.S. until early 2006), elevated by Presley Chweneyagae compelling performance whose laser-like stare expresses both an amoral evilness and a total naivety about how to exist in society. Like the monsters often portrayed by James Cagney, Chweneyagae’s Tsotsi is both easy to hate and hard to forget.

Almost on a whim, Tsotsi ventures into the city and ends up shooting a well-to-do woman during a carjacking. When he discovers her baby in the back of the car, he decides to keep him. It’s through his attempts to care for the infant that you get a glimpse at his humanity and see how the child alters his view of the world.

What bothered me about the presentation of Tsotsi’s mistreatment as a youth and how that led him into crime is that it doesn’t address why many others of his village who, no doubt, suffered similar fates yet have managed to live a peaceful, lawful life. There clearly were authority figures around that Tsotsi could have turned to if he was interested in leading a productive life. Instead, he chose the easier way of violence and crime.

A two and a half hour long movie about a Romanian man being carted from one hospital to another seeking relief for pain in his head and stomach sounds more painful than rewarding. Yet it turns out to be a fascinating study of an overburden health care system, the indignities faced at the end of life and the often callous, thoughtless way people deal with one another.

Having said that, I admit it takes awhile to get hooked by the story of Dante Remus Lazarescu, a somewhat sour 62-year-old who shares an apartment with his cats and drinks despite a history of ulcers. His neighbors call an ambulance when they see his condition, but aren’t willing to go to the hospital with him. Luckily, the ambulance nurse becomes Lazarescu’s guardian angel as she’s forced to move him from one Bucharest hospital unit to the next and battle with bored and/or overworked doctors and nurses, explaining the same things over and over again. All the while he lies on a gurney, growing more incoherent by the minute. By their second hospital stop, I was drawn into Lazarescu’s journey toward death; this documentary-like minute-by-minute record of his attempt to receive help explores a part of life that American films rarely go near.

Ion Fiscuteanu as Lazarescu and Luminita Gheorghiu as the nurse give naturalist, painfully real performances that make you feel like you’re watching nonactors. The bond they develop and the quiet tragedy of his plight are never turned into melodrama. In a style that seems to be exclusively European, director Cristi Puiu turns every day occurrences into an emotionally powerful indictment of society.


Maybe the indelible image of World War II is AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s shot of six soldiers raising the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi on the Pacific Island of Iwo Jima. The battle hadn’t been won, but a platoon of Marines had reach the summit of the island and the flag raising was an inspirational moment for the troops who had already suffered incredible losses in the effort to take the island.

What is less known is that not long afterward, the three survivors of the raising were whisked back to the United States to lead a government-sponsored bond drive across the county. Clint Eastwood’s emotion-packed, superbly constructed movie tells the story of the infamous battle and the bond drive and the three young men who survived both. Most impressively, it manages to be, at the same time, a moving tribute to the men who fought on Iwo Jima and a condemnation of the way heroism is marketed and the truth is manipulated for political means.

For 76-year-old Eastwood, “Flags of Our Fathers” further cements this legend as one of, if not the, finest American director working today. Following “Mystic River” (2003) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), this very different but equally challenging picture reveals a filmmaker who has mastered the art of movie storytelling and acquired a great artist’s insight into the human condition. Not to mention, a superb judge of well-written screenplays. Everything in “Flags of Our Fathers,” written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (who also wrote “Million Dollar Baby”) from a book penned by James Bradley (son of the story’s central figure) and Ron Powers, rings true from start to finish.

This film offers Eastwood the largest canvas he’s ever worked on; this is epic filmmaking that never loses sight of the individual. As usual, the director’s longtime production designer Henry Bumsted, who died at age 91 after completing this film, creates a world that never feels false.

In the brilliantly staged Iwo Jima invasion scenes---comparable in scope to the great re-enactments of D-Day in “The Longest Day” (1962) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)---the action focuses on three soldiers, medic Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) plus their inevitably tough and sympathetic sergeant, superbly played by Barry Peppers. Through them we experience the bloody massacre of U.S. troops as they land on the black, volcanic beach fortified by Japanese in hillside bunkers. More than most war films, “Flags of Our Fathers” emphasizes the emotional scars left on the surviving soldiers who have witnessed the death of one friend after another.

Moving back and forth between the monochrome look of the battlefield and the brightly lit bond tour, where only the ambitious Gagnon enjoys the spotlight while Bradley becomes disillusioned and Hayes becomes a drunk, the movie smoothly meshes the two equally surrealistic aspects of the war effort.

What keeps the film from greatness is an unnecessarily extended conclusion that tries too hard to wrap up all the loose ends of these men’s lives and an intrusive framing device set in the present day showing the book’s author interviewing survivors. For me, it took away from the intensity of the 1945 action; reminded me I was watching a movie.

But overall, this is a superb film that reflects Eastwood’s dedication to get the story right. If anyone doubts his commitment, immediately after filming “Flags of Our Fathers,” Eastwood made a Japanese-language film that looks at the battle from their side. It will be released in the U.S. in 2007.

Both absurdly humorous and deadly serious, often at the same time, this second film by director Todd Field continues his exploration into the complexities of the human heart and the often strange dynamics of family. Field’s superbly acted and directed “In the Bedroom” (2001) probed beyond the obvious effects of a son’s death on the parents’ marriage; in his new film, it’s an affair between a pair of bored, stay-at-home parents that leads into a critique of a whole menu of suburban concerns.

This rich, deeply textured film covers many issues, but they all come back to the film’s central theme: the refusal (or is it an inability?) of today’s so-called adults to let go of their childhood. Nearly all of the grown-up characters, to one degree or another, are pretending to be adults, either under protest or without an understanding of what the role entails.

Brad, played with wide-eyed confusion by Patrick Wilson (best known for his role as the closeted gay lawyer in “Angels in America”), is in a stifling marriage with the beautiful but demanding Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), who has defined her husband’s life: entertaining their young son during the day, study for his third try to pass the bar at night. But instead of hunkering over books in the library, he watches a gang of kids skateboard and later joins a sadistic night football league.

His arrested development is encouraged when he meets Sarah (Kate Winslet) on an outing with his son to a neighborhood park. She’s equally discontent, married to a tedious workaholic who has become obsessed with Internet porn, and unable to relate to the gossipy, smarmy group of moms who bring their children to the same park. These are smart people---Sarah holds a master’s degree in literature and Brad has a law degree---but their “job” is caring for their child. So they end up clinging to one another, a pair of directionless children who can’t find their place in the adult world.

Intersecting with their confused lives is the presence in the neighborhood of a convicted pedophile (he flashed in front of little girls), played as both disturbed and sadly aware of his unhealthy desires by Jackie Earle Haley. He and his elderly mother, played by the spunky Phyllis Somerville, become the focus of an equally unhappy and scary ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) who is determined to drive them out of the area. Field and co-writer Tom Perrotta, whose novel the film is based on, never dismiss the concerns of the parents who object to the pedophile’s presence but also show that moral-superior vigilante actions aren’t the answer. One of the film’s most compelling scenes occurs at a public pool when the large collection of parents realize the pedophile is in the pool with their children and everyone frantically evacuates the water.

Nearly unnoticed, the young children of Brad and Sarah (mirroring their relationship, he has a boy, she a girl) are both unpretentiously appealing and very real reminders of the responsibilities the lovers seem anxious to toss aside.

Wilson and Winslet give impressive performances as the passionate, but unsure couple, portraying the pair as both sympathetic and foolish. Winslet, who has shown herself over the last 10 years to be among the most skilled and fearless actresses in the world, delivers yet another great performance, in what is her most emotionally complex and fully realized role.

“Little Children” takes a while to get used to. The characters aren’t simply defined as is usually the case in a Hollywood film, a “Network”-like pseudo-serious narrator pops in and out of the film and subplots like Brad’s night football team at times seem oddly off point. But Field brings it all together to capture, with impressive insight, the world we live in, the people we live next to, even a bit of ourselves, at least those of us who continue to kick and scream 30 years into adulthood.

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