Tuesday, September 23, 2008

September 2004

This may be the only movie starring Elvis Presley that isn’t an “Elvis movie.” Just the idea of the 26-year-old singer-actor taking a role in a film scripted by the great playwright Clifford Odets seems silly, but, for most of the film, he holds his own.

While this is far from Odets’ best script (from a novel by J.R. Salamanca), “Wild in the Country” manages to be an occasionally interesting take on youthful rebellion and the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. In addition to a script by Odets, the picture was directed by one of Hollywood’s best known screenwriters, Philip Dunne, who penned the script for “How Green Was My Valley” (1941).

In “Wild in the County,” Presley plays Glenn, a troubled farm boy who earns the respect (and much more later) of a psychologist (Hope Lange) who sits on the parole board, when she discovers his hidden literary skills. Despite having the smarts to escape his sorted collection of friends and relatives, right out of Faulkner novel, Glenn just can’t help falling back into his old ways.

Lange, one of the best and least appreciated actresses of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, makes her character’s transition from sympathetic tutor to confused lover a believable one. While she seems much older in the movie—she’s being courted by John Ireland—she was just four years older than Elvis.

Excellent performances are also given by William Mims, as Glenn’s crooked uncle who sees him as a potential son-in-law; Tuesday Weld as the hot-to-trot daughter (has anyone ever better than playing that type of role?) who understands she’s likely to be used by every man she ever meets; and Millie Perkins, another underrated actress of the era, playing Glenn’s true soul mate.

The drama gets a bit overheated by the final act, but that’s what makes “morality” films from that era worth watching.

The theme of this odd Barbara Stanwyck vehicle seems to be that independent-thinking women are both dangerous and doomed. When the movie begins, Stanwyck’s Kathy is a disrespected gossip columnist, but after getting the inside scoop on a woman who killed her husband she becomes hot stuff in the newsroom. At the same time, she falls for a Los Angeles police detective (Sterling Hayden) investigating the case, and despite her stated reluctance to settle down, passes on a job at a New York paper to marry him.

But Kathy doesn’t find domesticity very appealing. Suddenly, she’s Lady Macbeth, pushing her husband to assert himself at work and then plotting to discredit his partner. She’s so intent on channeling her own frustrated ambitions onto her husband that she has an affair with his boss. It all ends in gunfire, as low-budget crime pictures of the 1950s inevitably did.

While not one of Stanwyck’s best performances, it has an eclectic cast. Royal Dano as Hayden’s partner and Raymond Burr as their boss, both give low-keyed, measured performances; a nice balance to the fast-talking, highly emotional Hayden. Playing Burr’s unsuspecting wife is Fay Wray, looking nothing like the screaming damsel-in-distress of “King Kong.”


I avoided this movie for more than a month assuming that it was little more than a vehicle for some talented actors to yell at each other. Marital unhappiness is usually best left to French filmmakers these days. But when I saw a blurb from David Denby of the New Yorker (maybe the brightest and most insightful film critic working today) calling this the year’s best film, I figured I better take a chance.

While I wouldn’t call it the best film of the year, this intense portrait of two troubled couples (friends and, it turns out, lovers) rings truer than most American domestic dramas and gives all four characters a chance to evolve beyond easy labels.

Jack (Mark Ruffalo, in about his 12th film of the year) is in the throws of a full-fledged affair with his best friend’s wife (Naomi Watts), while his wife Terry (Laura Dern) keeps convincing herself it’s not happening and his friend (TV actor Peter Krause) doesn’t really care.

Based on a story by Andre Dubus (whose work was also the source for an even better film, “In the Bedroom”), this study of marriage has no heroes or villain—one of the faults of the movie is that everyone is rather unlikable—and does its best to understand what it takes to make a marriage work. Director John Curran, in just his second feature, does an impressive job of keeping it from turning into a second-rate “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

While all four principals are convincing, Dern makes the most of her character’s conflicts, giving her most impressive performance in years. She’s been around a long time (she made her debut in the 1980 teen movie “Foxes”), but she’s not yet 40 and should end up with some major roles from this film. She totally embodies the anguish Terry suffers through.

Since Dern’s work with David Lynch in “Blue Velvet” (1986) and “Wild at Heart” (1990), her Oscar-nominated performance in “Rambling Rose” (1991) and a starring role in the blockbuster “Jurassic Park” (1993), her career has quieted. While her unconventional looks—a tall, lanky body and lacking a camera-ready symmetrical face—haven’t helped her in Hollywood, this performance certainly will.

HERO (2004)

I know quite a few Chinese and not one of them can fly. Yet taking flight apparently was common among the great sword fighters of China’s past. Like the warriors in the much-acclaimed and rather ridiculous “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), the men and women in this film go airborne during battles, but only to get a better angle for their next assault. I’m not sure why they didn’t just fly away and leave their opponent swirling about with no one to defeat.

Considering how well this film has done at the box office, it’s baffling why it took 19 months to find an American distributor. It was nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign film category in February, 2003, and is directed by one of China’s most important filmmakers, Zhang Yimou. At his best, he reached work-class status with “Ju Dou” (1990), “Raise the Red Lantern” (1992) and “To Live” (1994), but since his breakup with actress Gong Li, his career has waned. This, along with his upcoming release “House of Flying Daggers,” is clearly an attempt to regain some popularity.

Despite the incredible use of primary colors and some knock-out beautiful set-pieces (shot by Hong Kong legend Christopher Doyle), including a sword fight set amidst perfectly bronzed falling leaves, I could barely stay awake. The film mines the oft-told legend of the warlord who first united China and the many attempts on his life.

The all-star cast is led by Jet Li, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who were lovers in “In the Mood for Love”) and Ziyi Zhang from “Crouching Tiger.”

As hard as it is to image now, from 1970 (“Deliverance”) until the ill-advised “Cannonball Run II” (1984), Burt Reynolds was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. I thought I’d seen all his major films but somehow I missed, until recently, this oddly titled Western. And it turns out to be one of Burt’s better efforts.

As the taciturn leader of a train-robbing gang (Jack Warden, Bo Hopkins, Jay Varela), he tries to keep his men from killing each other over the woman (Sarah Miles) they take hostage as they flee a posse led by a railroad man (Lee J. Cobb) and the woman’s arrogant husband (George Hamilton).

While it sounds like a predictable Western chase film, the movie is really about how Miles’ unlikely frontier woman—who was running away from her husband when she got caught up in the robbery—grows to respect and then love Reynolds.

The picture also offers a critical look at rape; specifically, how men deal with it. Reynolds may have killed his Indian wife (Cat Dancing, thus the title) after she was raped and Hamilton is pointedly questioned by Cobb about whether or not he’d want his wife back after she had been “violated” by the robbers. Though set in the old West, the movie deals with issues and attitudes of the 1970s as directly as any contemporary-set script.

The filmmaking team behind the film came in with offbeat credentials. The script (from a novel by Marilyn Durham) was penned by Eleanor Perry, the screenwriter of such deep-dish works as “David and Lisa” (1962), “Last Summer” (1969) and “Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970), who also produced the film. The director, Richard Sarafian, who in recent years has worked as an actor, had made the cult classic “Vanishing Point” (1971).

Reynolds was the ultimate sensitive action star; as tough as Clint Eastwood, as romantic and sexy as Robert Redford. But he wasn’t much of an actor and before long bad movies and a bad divorce ended his star run. It wasn’t until his comeback role as the porn filmmaker in “Boogie Nights” (1997) that he found a sliver of his old success, but he’s slipped back into the same second-rate career since then.

The title character in this painfully sincere satire of small-town life makes the misfits from “Revenge of the Nerds” seem like hipster saints. As if Napoleon’s just-maturing croaky voice, his ramrod posture, impossibly foolish fuzzy hair and obsession with mythological animals doesn’t identify his social standing in the hallways of high school, he immediate makes friends with the Latino transfer student.

He lives with his equally nerdish older brother (who spends his time exchanging e-mails with women on the internet) and his pitiful uncle, still trying to relive his high-school football days while selling a Tupperware-like product door to door.

The first half of the film, the debut feature by director Jared Hess, is fresh and funny—like an extended version of a classic SNL skit. While there are well-done comic pieces in the second half of the film, the story gets a bit tired and predictable. Lengthy episodes at a school dance and during a student election don’t deliver. But Jon Heder as Napoleon doesn’t have to do anything but stand around to be funny. I can hardly wait for the sequel, “Napoleon Goes to Ag College.”

There are plenty of little-know directors who deserve greater acclaim but I don’t think Edgar G. Ulmer is one of them. I’m in the minority on this; critics and film historians are constantly singing the praises of his B-movies and the shadowy touches he brings to them. Most prominently mentioned are his oddly shot and badly acted film noir “Detour” (1945) and the lurid thriller “Bluebeard” (1944). He did make a very weird, clammy horror film, “The Black Cat” (1934), with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

“The Strange Woman” offered Ulmer a rare chance to work with a A-level cast. But the plot fits right along side his low-budget works: A ruthlessly ambitious woman (Hedy Lamarr) uses her looks and wiles to go from town slut to beloved matriarch.

Even as a child, Jenny manages to con her way into the hearts of a rich family. By the time she’s an adult, still stuck in the port town of Bangor, Maine, she leaves her alcoholic father to die and maneuvers herself into a marriage with the town’s leading businessman. Before long, she’s eyeing up future matches with her husband’s son (her childhood pal) and the foreman of his logging crew. George Sanders gets a rare opportunity to play an upstanding character as the sturdy logger, but Louis Hayward as the weak son tries so hard that he’s distracting.

But Ulmer is clearly entranced by the dangerous Jenny and despite all her devious plotting finds ways to show her in a good light. Even after her final act of evil—which results in the death of her husband—the film ends with her arm in arm with her new catch (Sanders) going off to live happily ever after. If nothing else, it’s one of the most cynical films of the 1940s I’ve ever seen.

It took the Italians to recognize the cold, calculated side of Henry Fonda. After decades of playing the tough hero or naïve boy-next-door, Fonda finally got to display a dark side in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western masterpiece, “Once Upon a Time in America” (1969). His character in this lesser, but entertaining spaghetti isn’t as nasty as the killer in “Once Upon a Time,” but he’s just as fast on the draw and more than willing to cut down anyone who looks at him the wrong way.

He plays Jack Beauregard, a gunslinger hoping to catch a boat to Europe, but keeps getting waylaid. Nobody, the young hotshot who wants to take his place as the fastest-gun-in-the-west, is amusingly played by Terence Hill as a sort of laid-back hippie. He idolizes Beauregard and spends most of the movie getting the old guy out of trouble rather than shooting at him.

But even Hill’s quirky performance can’t overshadow Fonda’s screen presence. At nearly 70, he doesn’t need much dialogue to create a compelling character and seems to have perfected his skill at making the smallest bit of business into interesting cinema. Unlikely as it seems, this ranks as one of the legendary actor’s finest performances.

Directed by Tonino Valerii (and produced by Leone), the film features gritty character work by two other American actors, R.G. Armstrong and Geoffrey Lewis.

I sought out this Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward screwball comedy after reading an article by veteran film historian Robin Wood, who finds the long-dismissed movie fascinating on numerous levels. A strong proponent of the auteur theory—which finds greatness in every film made by a director deemed great—Wood clearly has a high opinion of “Rally” director Leo McCarey.

McCarey, who made just one more film, “Satan Never Sleeps” (1962), before retiring, started in silents, famously bringing together Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in a series of shorts that launched the comedy duo’s legendary career. He went on to direct two classic comedies, “Duck Soup” (1933) with the Marx Brothers, and “The Awful Truth” (1937), a landmark screwball with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, along with one of the most popular romances of the era, “Love Affair” (1939), which he remade in 1957 as “An Affair to Remember.” McCarey commercial success peaked in 1944 when his sentimental classic “Going My Way” starring Bing Crosby won the Academy Award for best picture. He also directed it’s popular sequel, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945).

“Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!” adapted from a best-selling novel by Max Shulman, serves up suburban America as a combustible combination of sexual repression, fear of outsiders and a general dissatisfaction with work and home life. Newman plays Harry Bannerman, a public relations man frustrated by his wife (Woodward) and her never-ending community activities. Which leads him to his own activism: flirting around with the town floozy, portrayed with playful amorality by Joan Collins. Meanwhile (this film seems like an endless string of “meanwhiles”), the town, led by Woodward, is in an uproar over the arrival of the military. Ironically, the concern rises not from fears of the “secret plan”—that turns out to be a space launch—but the belief that the soldiers would corrupt the morals of the town’s females.

These stories play out with all the subtlety of a Jerry Lewis comedy. Hardly a character in the film shows any resemblance to real people and, like so many late ‘50s and early ‘60s comedies, men react to female sexuality as if they’re still in grade school. Newman’s Harry becomes completely flummoxed when Collins’ Angela shows up in his hotel room while he’s on a business trip.

Coming off the best in this smorgasbord of 1950s paranoia is 15-year-old Tuesday Weld as the ready-to-go-wild Comfort Goodpasture (her Hawthorne-like name plays into another of the movie’s themes: the town’s connection to early North American settlers) who discovers boys just as the soldiers roll into the community. Her nearly orgasmic reaction to a song sung to her by a soldier prefigures the stuff of teen-beach movies that became so popular in the early 1960s.

Weld, despite some outstanding performance in the 1960s—the above mentioned “Wild in the Country” (1961), “Soldier in the Rain” (1963), “Lord Love a Duck” (1966) and the cult classic “Pretty Poison” (1968)—never became the star her talent shows she should have been. She was outstanding in supporting roles in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977), earning an Oscar nomination, and in “Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978), but has worked very little since the early 1980s.

So what’s to be made of “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!”? Despite being packed with the hot topics of the day, no one went to see the film in 1958. Nearly fifty years later, there are fewer reasons to see it, as the themes are now dusty and the comedy stale. It does solidify one of my theories: the impossibility of making a successful screwball comedy in color. The unreal world of screwball, and the audiences willingness to accept it, crumbles when filmed in reality-based color. Even Lucy stopped being funny when she moved from black-and-white to color.

As much as I enjoy the James Bond series, invigorated lately by Pierce Brosnan, this second installment in the Bourne franchise makes the Bond films look as dated as the “Lone Ranger” serial. What “Bourne” possesses that “Bond” doesn’t—beyond state-of-the-art car chases and the use of international locales for more than one-shot picture postcards—is a hero who’s vulnerable, confused, regretful at the same time he’s the most resourceful and resilient soldier-spy still roaming the world.

Matt Damon, who still seems like a boy in other movies, has matured into Jason Bourne, turning Robert Ludlum’s pulp fiction creation into a character with feelings and a damaged psyche, not your usual action-movie butt kicker. As both the prey and the stalker, Bourne races around the world not on some mission to save mankind, but to preserve his own skin and, the most universal of traits, figure out who he really is.

If you missed the first film, “The Bourne Identity” (2002), renting it before seeing the current picture. Not that “Supremacy” isn’t self contained and a superb movie without any prior understanding of Bourne, but the knowledge from seeing the first installment gets you up to speed immediately and you won’t be wasting your energy trying to figure out the basic setup. One of the strengths of this film, and its predecessor, is the way it jumps head first into the action and its complex skulduggery without so much as a sentence of explanation.

Bourne, still struggling with amnesia, is being hunted by both his old employers, the CIA, and a Russian hit man attempting to clean up loose ends of an operation Bourne played a key part of before his memory loss. What’s impressive about Tony Gilroy’s script, which reportedly pays little attention to Ludlum’s original, is the balance it achieves between the inside-baseball espionage workings, breathless action scenes and character development. Two of America’s best film performers, Joan Allen and Brain Cox, are given the room and dialogue to create full-bodied, fascinating characters and Franka Pontente, the co-star of the first film in a smaller role here, remains a force in Damon’s Bourne heart long after she’s gone from the film.

Technically, you won’t be seeing a movie this year that surpasses “The Bourne Supremacy”: director Paul Greengrass, who made the acclaimed Irish docudrama “Bloody Sunday,” cinematographer Oliver Wood and editors Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson know exactly when to slow the film down and when to shift into hyper speed. And, for once, the lightning-paced, sometimes jumpy editing that has become so prevalent in recent years, matches the chaotic energy of the story, highlighted by an incredible chase through narrow streets and tunnels of Moscow that ranks with the best in film history.

Not long after this metal-crushing chase, Bourne seeks out a victim of a mishandled operation and tries to set the record straight. It’s not the kind of quiet, moving moment you expect to find in the year’s best action picture.

At his best, John Sayles is one of America’s finest filmmakers; at his worst, his direction lacks structure, his writing sinks to leaden polemics and he tolerates flat, TV-movie-style acting. In the past few years, Sayles has been at the top of his game with three entertaining and thoughtful films—“Lone Star” (1996), “Limbo” (1999) and “Sunshine State” (2002). His ability to write deeply felt, fully realized female characters and finding just the right actresses for the roles has resulted in Elizabeth Pena (“Lone Star”), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Vanessa Martinez (“Limbo”), and Edie Falco and Angela Bassett (“Sunshine State”), all little know or underutilized, giving award-worthy performances.

Last year, he released “Casa de los babys,” a pointless tale of a group of American women waiting in an unnamed South American country to purchase babies. Insufferably indulgent, the film made its point about 10 minutes after the credits and was nearly unwatchable after that. His latest, an attack of the power held by special interest groups in present-day politics, isn’t much better and, because of its lofty ambitions, a bigger disappointment.

Chris Cooper, who’s been working with Sayles since the late ‘80s, plays a Bush-like scion who is running for the governorship of Colorado, where his father has been a long-time Senator. Not only does Cooper’s Dickie Pilager have difficulties with the English language but he hasn’t had an original idea for years. Leading him around by his nose is his Karl Rove-like handler, Chuck Raven, who Richard Dreyfuss plays with gusto (a performance that deserves to be in a better film). This all sounds promising until the film turns its attention to Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a down-on-his-luck investigator assigned to find out how a body ended up floating in a river while Pilager is filmed fishing during a campaign ad shoot.

While Pilager occasionally drifts into the picture, we’re subjected to a parade of characters—a discredited mining inspector, an unsavory lobbyist, an importer of illegal workers, a muckraking publisher of an underground newspaper—who are all exactly what you’d expect them to be, all caricatures without dimension. But what really sinks “Silver City” is a lapse in Sayles’ usual superb casting decisions: Huston, whose vocal mannerisms are disturbingly similar to his legendary father’s, has no business being the main character in a major movie. He displays the screen presence of a TV sitcom sidekick, and clearly doesn’t have the intensity or seriousness to bring the kind of weight a film dealing with these kinds of issues needs. Not that Sayles’ script gives him much support—in one long, pointless episode, Huston’s Danny spends the evening with the candidate’s black sheep sister (Daryl Hannah, looking like she still thinks she’s in “Kill Bill”), which has little to do with the story and detracts from the central arc of the picture.

In the past, in films like “City of Hope” “Lone Star” and “Sunshine State,” Sayles has displayed the rare ability to bring numerous thematic threads together seamlessly to reveal the complexities of a community; in “Silver City” those threads meander on their own without ever revealing much of anything.

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