INTO THE WILD (2007) Usually Sean Penn isn’t the filmmaker you look to for an uplifting, celebratory take on life, but this movie about the post-college adventures of Chris McCandless, made famous in Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, reveals the director’s sunny side. It’s also his most accomplished film; where Penn’s previous efforts---“The Indian Runner” (1991), “The Crossing Guard” (1995), “The Pledge” (2001)---seemed more acting vehicles than wholly successful films, “Into the Wild,” while still featuring first-rate acting, has the look and tone and steady hand of a mature filmmaker, not just a dabbling actor-director.
Emile Hirsch plays McCandless as a thoughtful, determined 24-year-old who seeks a world as far away from his materialistic, overbearing parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, who elevate the characters beyond stereotypes) and his upper middle-class youth. He simply disappears after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, hitching across the country with no money and his sights set on reaching the wilds of Alaska.
The film flashes back and forth from Chris’ life in the middle of nowhere in Alaska (he discovers an abandoned bus to live in) to the people he met, and affected, on his journey there. He earns some money when he joins a grain harvesting operation in the Midwest and befriends the freewheeling boss (Vince Vaughn), and then kicks back with a philosophical hippie couple (Catherine Kenner and Brian Dierker) at Slab City, an abandoned Naval base near the Salton Sea (in Southern California), now a hangout for free spirits. These episodes, along with his bonding with an elderly desert loner (a shockingly frail Hal Holbrook), could easily have become sloppily sentimental or overly dramatized, but Penn’s low-keyed, leisurely paced approach lets the relationships emerge naturally, earning every bit of their emotional punch.
Hirsch, in his biggest role to date, brings an unpretentious enthusiasm to Chris but doesn’t turn him into a saint. He’s a self-styled rebel who’s both foolhardy and naïve but it’s impossible to root against him. Hirsch is in virtually every scene of this 2 1/2 hour film and handles it like a veteran.
Adding immensely to the film’s impact are the glorious cinematography of Eric Gautier, who captures the beauty and cruelty of America’s wilderness, and the evocative songs sung by Pearl Jam’s front man Eddie Vedder.
MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)
There’s an intelligence and low-key seriousness to this well-told legal thriller that seems at odds with the majority of adult dramas made today that either strain credibility or pump up the melodramatic volume. First-time director Tony Gilroy (the scripter of the “Bourne” films) seems to have fallen under the influence of two of his co-stars, Sydney Pollack, who as a director has made comparable films “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) and “The Firm” (1993), and George Clooney, who has quickly established himself as the thinking-moviegoers’ star.
The less you know about the plot of this complex tale of corporate malfeasance and law-firm intrigue the better: The subtle, layered story-telling utilized by writer-director Gilroy and the process of understanding the way the plot weaves together should be experienced fresh.
But the basics involve a brilliant litigator (Tom Wilkinson, in a masterful performance that finds the shadowy world between enlightenment and insanity) who is defending a chemical company against a class-action suit brought by residents of a farm community. Out of the blue, apparently, he’s flipped out and begins making a case for the plaintiffs.
The mega law firm he works for, headed by the no-nonsense Pollack, sends its resident fixer Michael Clayton (Clooney) to repair the problem or at least do damage control. What makes this story a step above the usual John Grisham page-turner is the portrayal of Clayton as a confused, morally ambiguous guy whose gambling problem and general aimlessness is beginning to overwhelming. Clooney is perfect as the man who can be different things to different people until he finds he’s not sure where he stands.
Except for a rushed, a bit-too-tidy ending, the film maintains a introspective tone and keeps its focus on its messy characters as they navigate through an amoral world where nothing turns out exactly as expected.
FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS (2006)
The title says it all about this strange concept of a biopic of this famous portrait photographer. The film examines a few months in the life of Arbus when she transformed herself from a tightly wound, unhappy housewife to a liberated, adventurous artist-in-the-making. As promising as that sounds, the film actually plays like a horror-fantasy fairy tale that makes little connection with reality.
Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman (another of her repressed, depressed, buttoned-down characters like those in “The Others,” “The Hours,” “Birth”), is portrayed as a victim of her times (when a woman’s place was in her home serving her husband and caring for her children) and overbearing parents. But her savoir arrives in the form of a mysterious upstairs neighbor who she becomes immediately fascinated with.
Lionel, solemnly played by Robert Downey Jr., suffers from an affliction that results in his face and body being completely covered in lion-like fur (that Diane’s father is a wealthy furrier is just a bit heavy-handed). Her initial encounters with this man-creature, filmed with horror-film dread, are quite moody and effective, but the story loses its steam when it becomes just one visit after another with Lionel as he displays his uncanny ability to psychoanalyze Arbus.
Lionel and his crowd (midgets, transvestites, the physically disabled) are portrayed as the smart, hip, creative other to Arbus’ stiff, cold parents and husband (a commercial photographer) and her dull duties as a mother. Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, both best known for the kinky workplace film “Secretary” (2002), make it too easy to forgive Arbus for ignoring her children and husband; does she really need to cast aside her family to find artistic fulfillment and, if she does, what’s the resulting effects on her and her children? Those issues are ignored.
What this all has to do with the real Diane Arbus is also left unanswered. I’ve long been a defender of filmmakers who play lose with the facts even while portraying real-life people (a Hollywood tradition going back to “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” “Sergeant York” and “The Pride of the Yankees”), but “Fur” may have stepped over the line, failing to shed new light on this renowned photographer or delivering a compelling tale, be it truth or fantasy.
EASTERN PROMISES (2007)
David Cronenberg has always had a strange fascination with the mutilation of the human body, from films like “Scanners” (1981), “The Fly” (1986), “Dead Ringers” (1988) and “A History of Violence” (2005). His latest, and one of his best, is no exception as the blood pours generously in this dark story of the Russian mob in London. And thought I’ll admit to looking away from some of the throat slicing and eye gouging, this is a dark, unrelenting movie that is difficult to look away from.
Viggo Mortensen, who also starred in the director’s “History of Violence,” gives the performance of his career as the slick, resourceful Nikolai, the driver for this crime family, who clearly has ambitions beyond his station. We meet him and his bosses (Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel as father and son) when a nurse (Naomi Watts), with a Russian background, seeks out Mueller-Stahl’s Semyon (he’s also a well-known restaurant owner) to translate a diary she found on a young girl who died while giving birth.
Watts’ Anna becomes obsessed with knowing about the dead girl and finding her relatives so they can raise the baby. But as the film follows the dealings of Cassel’s alcoholic, out-of-control Kirill, who Nikolai struggles to reign in, it’s clear that this family was most likely involved with the dead girl. Complicating matters, a relationship of sorts develops between Nikolai and Anna as she sees through his tough exterior. Yet the film never lets you forget how scary this world is; the next sudden burst of violence is always just around the corner.
The most horrific and amazing sequence of the film takes place in a bathhouse when a naked Nikolai fends off two assassins---it’s both hard to watch and unforgettable.
The contrast of Watts’ attempt to save this newborn and the murderous, revenge-obsessed world of the mob gives this film an energy and humanity that Cronenberg’s films have often lacked.
NAKED ALIBI (1954)
“The Story of a Love with the Law at its Heels!” That’s the tagline on the poster for this neglected B-movie gem that features Sterling Hayden at his most intense and Gloria Grahame at her sultriest. Long one of my favorite low-budget film noirs, the crime thriller still holds up despite its studio-bound sets and hammy acting.
Gene Barry, who went on to TV stardom as “Bat Masterson” and later on “Burke’s Law,” plays a seemingly upstanding citizen, the owner of a bakery with a wife and baby, who slugs and then threatens a cop after he’s hauled in after a bar fight. When that detective and then another are killed, police chief Conroy (Hayden) is certain Barry’s Al Willis is the killer. Lacking evidence, Hayden is ordered to drop Willis as a suspect, but he refuses and soon he’s fired for brutality.
As only happens in the movies, the fired cop continues his pursuit of suspect, which in “Naked Alibi” eventually leads both to Border Town, the appropriately named burg just north of the Mexican border where bad guys hang out. Chanteuse Marianna (Grahame), who sings in a stageless bar to a collection of drunks, is the bad girl (with a good heart) who finds herself caught between Conroy and his pursuit of Willis.
Barry chews all the scenery he can get his teeth on portraying this slippery character whose out-of-control temper is the only clue that he’s leading a second life as a criminal, while Hayden utilizes his commanding presence and smoky voice as the obsessed lawman. But Grahame, who won the supporting actress Oscar two years earlier for “The Bad and the Beautiful,” gives the film’s outstanding performance as her Marianna dreams of escaping her tawdry, depressing life while facing the results of her bad decisions. It’s one of her best performances, in a film hardly anyone has seen. Nearly everything she did in the late 1940s and in the ‘50s was memorable, highlighted by “Crossfire” (1947), which earned her an Oscar nomination, “In a Lonely Place” (1950), “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Man on a Tightrope” (1953) and “The Big Heat” (1953).
In a small role as a detective is Chuck Connors, just two years after he quit professional baseball and became a full-time actor. Four years later, he’d hit the big-time as the star of “The Rifleman.”
DEATH PROOF (2007)
It might have been fun for filmmakers and actors to make this no-holds-barred homage to pointlessly bad, 35-year-old B-movies, but watching it is a joyless endurance test and a depressing waste of anyone’s time.
This is Quentin Tarantino’s half of “Grindhouse,” a double feature released in theaters earlier this year meant to recreate the low-budget features of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s now a DVD on its own, as is Robert Rodriguez’ half “Planet Terror.” What Tarantino did for Hong Kong martial arts films in his “Kill Bill” double-bill, he does here for sexploitation, car-crash movies that filled drive-in theaters a generation ago. Just in case you’re not sure everyone’s in on the joke, he adds scratches to the print and makes jumpy, amateurish editing cuts. Even at age 44, Tarantino is still, at heart, just a boy with a science kit.
Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, who gets his jollies by terrorizing young women with his tricked-out sports car, but that’s just the payoff of “Death Proof.” Most of the picture is spent with the short-shorts wearing gals as they hang out, talk about guys and fight over what they’re going to do next. As you can imagine, it’s endlessly fascinating and, as written by Tarantino, makes the dialogue from those vintage bad flicks sound like Chekhov.
In addition to being part of a twin bill, “Death Proof” is also two films in one, as Mike plays with a trio of women in Austin, Texas, and then, in the second half, takes after a tougher group in Tennessee. The film ends with its only redeeming sequence, in which stuntwoman Zoe Bell, essentially playing herself, rides atop the hood of a Dodge Challenger (the car made famous in the 1971 cult classic “Vanishing Point”) as Mike attempts to run them off the road in a spectacular high-speed chase. It’s an astonishing stunt and would have made for a memorable ending if the previous two hours hadn’t been so mind numbingly dull.
LUST, CAUTION (2007)
Ang Lee’s epic tale of the Chinese resistance movement in Shanghai and Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of those areas during World War II offers both lust and caution but don’t add up to a very compelling picture.
Too long at 160 minutes and repetitive in its single-minded plot of a college girl seducing a high-ranking Chinese collaborator, “Lust, Caution” doesn’t have anything interesting to say about resistance, collaborating or the price paid for following either course. What you’re left with is a well-acted, doomed love affair, not unlike Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” this time set in an impressively realistic recreation of 1940s China.
The reason to see this Chinese-language film is Tang Wei, a 27-year-old Chinese TV actress who as Wong Chia Chi, a naïve college freshman, takes on the dangerous role of seductress and over a four-year period becomes Mr. Yee (the sad-faced veteran Tony Leung) mistress. It’s a great, difficult role and this newcomer brings the shading necessary to show a woman caught between her loyalty to the cause and her feelings for this man.
But her sacrifice for China constantly seems to be for naught as the young resistance group she’s part of (they started out as a theater group staging a nationalistic play) is way out of their league in their plans to kill Mr. Yee.
The extensive sex scenes are about as explicit and rough as anything you’ll see in a mainstream movie and do reveal the love-hate relationship between these two unlikely lovers, but I couldn’t help but think that Lee was trying to shock, to one-up himself after “Brokeback Mountain.” A more subtle approach might have been more effective and less diverting. Let’s face it: after 15 minutes of furious bedroom gymnastics, it’s hard to appreciate the political intrigue going on during a gossipy game of mahjongg.
COMPULSION (1959) and PARIS, TEXAS (1984)
Dean Stockwell is one of those actors who has always been there; not a star, but a solid, well-known actor who is still going strong after 62 years of performing. That’s right, 62 years. And he’s only taken one break longer than two years---from age 15 to 21 he traveled the country and worked non-acting jobs. Virtually every year since the end of World War II, Stockwell has been in a feature film or television movie or made a TV series appearance.
As a pixie-faced child of nine, Stockwell made his movie debut in the 1945 Gregory Peck-Greer Garson romantic melodrama “The Valley of Decision.” Immediately, he established himself as a top juvenile performer with roles in the Gene Kelly musical “Anchors Aweigh” (1945), as Nick Charles Jr. in “The Song of the Thin Man” (1947). playing Peck’s son in the Oscar-winning “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and starring as a war orphan in the poignant melodrama, “The Boy With Green Hair” (1947). Though he never reached the Mickey Rooney/Shirley Temple level of childhood stardom, Stockwell perfected the fragile, sensitive-youth character and, unlike most child stars, grew up to be an even better actor.
His best shot at film stardom came in the late ‘50s and early ’60, when, in his twenties, he landed three superb roles: as one-half of a pair of disturbed prep school students who kill another student in “Compulsion” (1959), as the artistic-minded son battling a iron-fisted father in “Sons and Lovers” (1960) and as the fragile and sickly Edmund Tyrone in Sidney Lumet’s film version of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962). But in the same four year period that he gave these impressive performances, he also made a dozen television appearance, including episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Wagon Train.” For whatever reason, he found most of his work over the next two decades on television.
In the mid to late 1980s, after being under the radar for years, he began a run of memorable character performances in major films, starting with Wim Wenders’ existential road film “Paris, Texas.” But it was his role as Ben, the zoned-out drug supplier who memorably lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in David Lynch’s psychotic fantasy “Blue Velvet” (1986) put Stockwell back on the map. He followed it with a small, but sparkling turn as Howard Hughes in Francis Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) and then as the slimy, flashy mobster Tony “the Tiger” Russo in Jonathan Demme’s “Married to the Mob” (1988), which earned the actor his first and only Academy Award nomination.
But instead of additional juicy supporting roles, Stockwell returned to television, as co-star of the popular time-travel series “Quantum Leap,” which ran from 1989 to 1993.
In “Compulsion,” director Richard Fleischer’s fictionalize version of the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case, Stockwell was 23 but doesn’t look out of place as a prep student. His Judd, a timid boy struggling with puberty, comes under the influence of a wealthy, spoiled and clearly psychotic classmate (a hypnotically good Bradford Dillman, another future TV fixture). The first half of the film focuses on the boys and their encounters with other students, serving as a fascinating study of peer pressure and the conflicting emotions of young people. After the murder takes place, Dillman’s Arthur becomes central as he injects himself into the police investigation, determined to outsmart the detectives (led by a meticulous E.G. Marshall).
The performances of Stockwell and Dillman are so compelling that when Orson Welles arrives in the last act as the boys’ flamboyant lawyer, the film suddenly feels very pedestrian. Even Welles’ over-the-top, entertaining performance can’t make up for the absence of these memorable characters.
In “Paris, Texas,” Stockwell plays the film’s stabilizing force who is summoned to the middle of the Texas desert to retrieve a brother he hasn’t heard from in years. Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis, a lost soul, both figuratively and physically, who just barely acknowledges his brother when he arrives to take him home and doesn’t say a word for a few days. Travis refused to fly, so Stockwell’s Walt drives back to Los Angeles, where Travis is reunited with his abandoned son, now being raised by Walt and his wife.
The centerpiece of this over-praised, formless Wenders’ film (written by Sam Shepard) is two long, emotional conversations between Travis and his ex-wife (Nastassja Kinski) as they sit on opposite sides of a one-way mirror booth in the sex shop she works in. Much of the film is very indulgent and only works if you just can’t get enough of Travis’ incoherent philosophy on living life, but as usual Stockwell grounds the film in reality and is exceptional at portraying both brotherly love and bafflement as his character tries to do what’s best for Travis.
I hadn’t given Stockwell’s career much thought until I saw these two films within days of each other, purely by coincidence. I didn’t even make the connection immediately; having spanned so many different eras---from classic Hollywood to the realistic 50s and then into the current era of independent film---it almost like he’s three different actors. And each of them has had a pretty good career.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)
I had a bad feeling from the opening scene: An unnamed businessman played by Bill Murray, one of the stars of director Wes Anderson’s last three films, rushes through an Indian train station to catch the Darjeeling Limited and but fails to get on, missing both the train and the movie. Instead of Murray, we’re stuck with Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, unlikely brothers who haven’t spoken in a year and have been summoned by Francis (Wilson) to travel across India in a spiritual journey/reunion.
As one should expect in a Wes Anderson picture (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”), the brothers are more likely to say something completely inappropriate and outrageous than not and when faced with anything resembling an obstacle, they act as if they’ve spend the last decade in a half-way house.
This colorful train trip through India (impressively photographed by Robert Yeoman) seems like the perfect setting for these divergent men to find common ground, but not much happens and the brothers remain, from beginning to end, childish, irritating and exceedingly dull. The actors work overtime to create something interesting, but the script by Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola is so busy being hip and clever that it never finds time to say anything interesting.
Preceding the film is a 12-minute short, “Hotel Chevalier,” featuring Schwartzman’s character and his encounter in Italy with an ex-girlfriend (played by Natalie Portman), which is just as ponderous as the feature.
As much as I enjoyed “Rushmore” (1998), one of my favorite films of the ‘90s, and his quirky debut “Bottle Rocket” (1996), Anderson, now that he’s an A-list director, has found a wavelength that just goes over my head.