Monday, September 22, 2008

September 2003

I remember seeing the trailers for this film before it was released and thinking that it might be a funny movie-a football version of “Major League.” Well, I finally got around to seeing it and it’s a drama! The filmmakers actually attempt to turn this limp story of replacement players filling in during a mid-season strike into an inspirational story of has-beens uniting to form a winning team.

The story is propped up by the presence of Gene Hackman, reworking his “Hoosiers” coaching mannerisms and saying inspirational cliches to this collection of former college and pro players. At the center of the film is the black hole of acting, better known as Keannu Reeves. He brings nothing to his role as a top college quarterback who never recovered from a humiliating bowl defeat. His deep, flat voice and unchanging facial expression seem incapable of showing anything that resembles human emotions. And why does he always look like he’s in such pain in every role he plays? Is that the effort he’s putting out in his attempt to be a serious actor?

For every good film that Al Pacino has starred in during the past five or six years, including “Any Given Sunday” (1999), “The Insider” (1999) and “Insomnia” (2002), he’s made one or two unwatchable ones. This standard-issue spies-in-training picture pits Pacino’s fast-talking, mind games-playing CIA recruiter against a naive trainee (Colin Farrell). Smartly, Farrell lays back while Pacino rants and the ludicrous plot is played out. Amazingly, one of the credited writers of this obvious story is legendary screenwriter Robert Towne. I can only assume that he wrote an early version of the script and little of his writing made it to the screen.

It’d be easy to say that an actor as great as Pacino should stay away from these easy performances in throw-away films, but what’s the point? He’s 60 years old so why not take as many roles as humanly possible? Considering how much outstanding work he’s done in the past decade, I’ll gladly weed through the junk to get to the jewels.


    This is what the 1960s looked like for those who spent that pop-crazy decade on LSD. Clearly a key treasure trove for the designers of the Austin Powers’ films, this ridiculous adaptation of a comic strip has a cult following among those who can’t get enough of psychedelic colors and miniskirts. For those of us who knew when to give up our drugs, it’s long, tedious and too hip for its own good.

Monica Vitti, the long-legged Italian sex symbol who was central to Michelangelo Antonioni’s art-house classics “L’Avventura” (1960) and “La Notte” (1960), plays the flirtatious super-spy Modesty Blaise. Utilizing her super-powers to change her clothes and hair color, she spends more time jumping in and out of various men’s bed than chasing down bad guys. Working for the British government in a plot to stop a famed jewel thief (Dirk Bogarde) from stealing diamonds headed for a Mideast sheik, Modesty, teams up with slacker spy (Terence Stamp) to cause havoc across the continent. About 30 minutes into the film, I stopped trying to figure out who was on what side of the fight and just tried appreciating the cool and fashionable actors and the chilly attitude they were projecting. In other words, I struggled to stay awake.

I’m not sure what possessed Joseph Losey, a serious and usually quite formal filmmaker, to sign on for this mind-bending production. An American who left the country during the McCarthy era, Losey directed some of the best British films of the 1960s, including “The Servant” (1963), “King & Country” (1964), “Accident” (1967), and, in 1971, the superb romance “The Go-Between.” But “Modesty Blaise” wasn’t the only odd picture in his career: he helmed the bizarre Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton “Boom” (1968).

No episode in the history of American film has been more thoroughly examined or has continued, 40 years after the fact, to provoke such intense debate like the blacklist of the late 1940s and through the 1950s. In Hollywood, along with the rest of America, the House Un-American Activities Committee not only ruined lives but its hearings changed the personality of the country. Suddenly, everyone was suspicious of anyone who wasn’t like them. If you dared complain about some aspect of America, you were labeled a “commie sympathizer.” Free speech became a lot less free.

This documentary examines the divisive era by chronicling how it affected the lives and friendship of two of the artistic giants of the period, stage and film director Elia Kazan (who died a few weeks after this aired) and playwright Arthur Miller. They had combined to create what become the landmark stage production in American theater history, “Death of a Salesman.” Through that experience, and their shared left-leaning politics, the men became best friends. But the relationship came to an abrupt end when Kazan had a change of heart and named names to the committee in 1952. He became one of the few champions of left-wing causes to give in to the committee’s demands rather than take the Fifth and face the blacklist.

Miller testified before the same committee four years later and refused to name anyone. But as the filmmakers point out, those four years were crucial. Not only had the committee lost some of its power, but Miller was engaged to the most famous woman on the planet, Marilyn Monroe. He was untouchable.

What galled those who continued to treat Kazan as an untouchable up until his death was that he never backed away from his belief that testifying was the right thing to do. The intensity of the protests over his 1999 honorary Oscar showed that few of the wounds had healed.

“None Without Sin” does an excellent job of explaining the complexities of the blacklist and the broken bond between Miller and Kazan. Monroe is given credit, by more than one witness, of getting the men back on speaking terms (she, at various times, had also been Kazan’s lover), but they never patched up their friendship. They did work together again-for the opening of Lincoln Center in 1964.

This otherwise fascinating documentary comes to a screeching halt about halfway through when long outtakes from Miller’s play “The Crucible” are recited while stills from a production of the play are shown. Because this dramatization of the Salem witch trials was obviously a metaphor for the blacklist, it is central to understanding Miller’s views on the subject. Yet long after the point is clear, the line readings continue.

Except for that segment, “None Without Sin” comes off as impressively researched and balanced record of these two men’s lives were forever changed by the persecution of those who held communist beliefs.

The documentary ends with the famous quote from blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who summarized the blacklist better than anyone in a speech to the Screen Writers Guild when he accepted a lifetime achievement award from the group in 1970.

“The blacklist was a time of evil, and that no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides.

“When you who are in your forties or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us--right, left, or center--emerged from that long nightmare without sin.”

I’ve always looked at it this way: Kazan, in testifying, hurt his own life more than anyone else’s (the names he gave the committee were of already known communists) and, most important to me, saved his career. For “On the Waterfront” alone, not to mention “Baby Doll,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “East of Eden,”---all made after he testified---I’m glad he gave in to the committee and wasn’t blacklisted. His moral failure was the world’s artistic gain.

This docudrama, which aired earlier this year on the FX channel, chronicles the radicalization of state department underling Daniel Ellsberg during the Vietnam War and his decision to leak the classified history of the war to the New York Times. The strength--and weakness--of the movie is James Spader’s intense portrayal of Ellsberg.

Ellsberg, a tightly wound, highly respected military strategist, carries the administration’s line that Vietnam is a winnable war until he spends time with the troops in Vietnam and sees for himself the lies that are being passed on to Washington. When he gets his hands on the multi-volume state department report of the war (which he helped write), Ellsberg is convinced he must do something to end the war.

In many ways, Ellberg’s conversion mirrors the way Ron Kovic’s experiences turned him into an anti-war protester (portrayed in “Born on the Fourth of July”) and shows, once again, how converts to a cause usually become the most passionate of activists.

Spader’s razor-sharp focus and internalized angst fit this role perfectly. He always looks like he’s fighting an army of inner demons and is reluctant to verbalize his opinions. A classic brilliant bureaucrat. But as well as Spader embodies this type, he proves to be a very dull person to build a drama around. The movie wilts when the script veers away from the historic and includes personal incidents in Ellsberg’s life, in part because Spader never makes you believe his Ellsberg can think about anything other than his work and cause.

But for those who aren’t familiar with what led up to the printing of the Pentagon Papers and the landmark Supreme Court decision to allow its publication, this movie does a good job of recreating those crucial events, which foretold the Watergate crisis.

I hadn’t seen this sci-fi classic in years and was amazed how relevant it remains. Michael Rennie’s subtle reactions to earthlings’ comments on the arrival of an alien being (who, unbeknownst to them, is him) are just as smart and insightful as they must have seemed 50 years ago. The film’s slow, unhysterical pacing and hushed tones became the template for the flood of sci-fi pictures that filled drive-ins during the 1950s.

This and the boxing film “The Set-Up” (1949) are Robert Wise’s best movies, long before he morphed into an orchestrator of Hollywood blockbusters (Oscar winners “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”).

Screenwriter Edmund North, who also scripted “In a Lonely Place” (1950) and, with Francis Coppola, “Patton” (1970), best decision was ending the picture with Rennie’s cautionary speech, in which, speaking for the rest of the universe, he warns Earth that dire consequences lie ahead if its leaders continue to develop bigger and more deadly weapons. He then gets in his ship and flies off.

Most films, especially in the past 20 years, would have just been getting started at this point. The focus would have been on Earth’s response and, no doubt, the space battle that would have followed. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the response is left for the filmgoers to deal with. That’s right: A film that doesn’t wrap up all the loose ends and pushes the audience to make its own conclusions.

Essentially, this film is a one-act play about two disillusioned people who form a surprising bond while stuck in a foreign country. Bill Murray plays Hollywood action star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to film whiskey commercials and bored out of his mind. Fortune strikes when he runs into an equally bored twentysomething woman (Scarlett Johansson) who has nothing to do but wait for her photographer husband to finish his work.

These two actors make the film worth seeing, both bringing a pained, low-energy reality to the kind of depressed characters that you don’t often find in American films. The sophomore directorial (and writing) effort by Sofia Coppola, Francis’ 32-year-old daughter, “Lost in Translation” has a couple of problems. First, and most bothersome, is the sparseness of Coppola’s dialogue. This is a film that totally relies on the interaction between Murray and Johansson, yet too often they exchange more meaningful expressions than words. Some of the silences make sense: these are people with little in common and a 30-year age gap. But at some point I felt like Coppola had just run out of ideas. That was further exasperated by her infatuation with the neon of Tokyo. Some atmosphere is great, but after a half-dozen lengthy scenes that looked like Travel Channel outtakes I felt like the director was so overwhelmed with the “exotic” location that she couldn’t stop shooting.

Her first film, “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), succeeds in part because the story is filtered through the eyes of a group of teenage boys who worship five sisters from a neighboring family. After the unexplainable suicide of one of the girls, the remaining sisters find themselves further and further under the thumb of their authoritarian mother (Kathleen Turner). Coppola, who adapted Jeffrey Eugenides novel, seems uninterested in why these girls end up taking their own lives and more interested in how they fascinate the neighborhood boys. The film does a nice job of painting the life of a teen circa 1975, but like “Lost in Translation,” it feels more like a sketch than a fully imagined painting.

Kristen Dunst’s Lux, the most outgoing of the sisters, is more than a little similar to Johansson’s Charlotte. Clearly, Coppola is still working out her teenage angst.

The difference between her first and second film is all about star power: This is Murray’s film. He can’t act with his young co-star but his 25 years of charismatic film work are tapped to their fullest. If this solemn comic had ever developed his acting chops, combined with his scene-stealing, cynical screen presence, he might have become one of the premiere actors of his generation. Among his more than 30 films, Murray has created an astonishing number of memorable characters in a wide-range of genres--from the slapstick of “Caddyshack” (1980) and “Ghostbusters” (1984) and more serious comedy roles in “Tootsie” (1982) and “Groundhog Day” (1993) to more serious work in “The Razor’s Edge” (1984), “Mad Dog and Glory” (1993) and “Rushmore” (1998). His Bob Harris ranks with his best and may earned him that long talked about Oscar nomination. But what Murray has done most importantly in his film career is carry the comedy torch of those early great “Saturday Night Live” skits, which defined humor for a generation.

I don’t think there is any question that Carole Lombard would have been one of the star actresses of the 1940s and ‘50s if she hadn’t died in a plane crash in January of 1942. Just 33 years old, she was already a veteran of 75 films (she started at age 12 with a small role in a 1921 movie), including some of the some of the funniest comedies of the 1930s.

While this heartfelt nursing drama set in contemporary England is far from her best work, she’s perfect in it. As frantic as Lombard could be in screwball comedies--“Twentieth Century” (1934) and “My Man Godfred” (1936)--she was extraordinarily calm and centered in dramas and romances. When she lowered her high voice to a whisper, it had the command of a Bette Davis rant. And unlike Davis or Hepburn or Stanwyck, you would be hard pressed to find a scene in one of her films where her “acting” shows (except for her role as a bad actress in “Twentieth Century”).

She’s a dedicated nurse in “Vigil in the Night” whose career is put in jeopardy when she takes the blame for a mistake made by her sister (Anne Shirley) and then later is fired because she rejects the sexual advances of the hospital’s top donor. By the end, the sisters take over an isolation ward treating children fighting a viral infection and help stop the epidemic.

She made just three more films after this: the rarely show “They Knew What They Wanted” (1940), a Garson Kanin comedy-drama with Charles Laughton; “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (1942), a domestic drama co-starring Robert Montgomery and directed by Alfred Hitchcock; and “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), the Ernst Lubitsch-directed classic satire of Nazi Germany.

Lombard, her mother and 20 others died in a Nevada crash on a return flight from her home state of Indiana, where she had gone to promote war bonds.
I may be the last non-French speaking movie fan that looks forward to the annual cinematic offering from Woody Allen. Ever since the ugly breakup with Mia Farrow and his marriage to Soon Yi, the political correct response to Allen’s movies has ranged from repulsion (usually spurred by the shocking-yes, shocking-pairing of the badly aging comedian and a much younger actress) to indifference, lumping his good and bad films since 1990 together as evidence of his decline.

Before I begin my annual defense of the writer-director, let me state my bias up front: No filmmaker--no artist--in my lifetime has enlightened the mysteries of life and provided more humor than Allen.

His latest comedy is a long way from his best, but it’s a fascinating, if redundant, work that has been totally misread by every critic I’ve read. The film tells the story of Jerry Falk, a young, struggling comedy writer (Jason Biggs) and his frustrating relationship with a ditzy, struggling singer/actress (Christina Ricci). The critics have taken Woody to task for imbuing his young stars with his taste in music and literature rather than the typical favorites of their generation. Biggs’ performance has also been assailed for sounding and acting too much like Allen. Isn’t it clear that this is an autobiographical film, in spite of its contemporary setting? Clearly, Woody is telling his own story-or a facsimile of it-in which many of the scenes are repetitive of scenes from his earlier movies. What the writer seems to be doing is attempting to explain himself-the man and artist he became-by looking at this crucial period in his early life. It’s almost like he took 20 scenes from his previous films and patched them together into a film. The movie isn’t quite that bad, but it’s not going to win any awards for originality.

The filmmaker cast himself in the most interesting role in the film: Dobel, the 60something school teacher/philosopher who, like Falk, the young writer, wants to be a comedy writer. Dobel evolves into Falk’s mentor and convinces him to break from his girlfriend, agent and therapist, all of whom are clearly a detriment to his life.

“Anything Else” is an amusing minor work from Allen, but I was encouraged by it. Beneath its jokes, the film is the director’s most serious movie since “Deconstructing Harry” (1997). The only thing American audiences are less interested in than a Woody Allen comedy is a Woody Allen drama. But to me, I’d rather see him fail while making a drama than yet another romantic comedy. There’s always next year.

No comments: