Wednesday, September 24, 2008

September 2005

I was only peripherally aware that a part three of this idiotic, highly profitable series existed until it showed on TNT recently. Steven Spielberg left it to Joe Johnston, who previously directed the much-better “October Sky” (1999), to pick up where he left off (it was embarrassing enough that Spielberg did the sequel) and the difference is slight. While the subtle Spielbergian touches are missing-is any filmmaker better at visualizing the anticipation of terror?-this edition of dinosaurs go wild is pretty much like the first two.

Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant (from the first film) is back to guide a couple of adventurers to the island from Part II for a peak at the laboratory-created pre-historic monsters. At least that’s what he thinks. Turns out, these “adventurers” are the divorced parents (the unlikely pairing of William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) looking for their son, who is lost on the island. There’s no explanation that I gathered, as to why they didn’t just call in the authorities. Considering the media focus on lost white children these days, this story would have been on CNN and Fox 24/7.

For anyone who still cares about this series, IV is scheduled for next year.

I’m the last guy who would be interested in a documentary about someone who spent the last 12 years of their life photographing bears. Even if he was finally eaten by one of the critters, I’m not much on wildlife studies or the humans that become attached to animals. So I went to this Werner Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell expecting to be bored. Instead, it turns out to be one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year.

A couple of decades ago, Herzog was one of the great European filmmakers, making such critically acclaimed movies as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982). In the past 15 years, he’s mostly made documentaries for German television.

In “Grizzly Man,” Herzog has done a superb job of editing Treadwell’s videos of himself and the bears to not only capture what Treadwell thought of the bears but also the inner demons that propelled him into his obsessive life. At first, Treadwell just seems like a guy who could never find his niche in life and then found it in his love for bears. But as more footage is shown and Treadwell speaks more frankly to the camera, he emerges as a very angry, child-like man, with deep-seated emotional problems, virtually no self-esteem and determined to present himself as the only one who cares about these bears.

Herzog’s interviews with Treadwell’s friends and others connected to his tragic demise often feel theatrical and are rarely insightful, but the director’s commentary and Treadwell’s footage are priceless. Herzog gives him high marks for his visual sense, but sees through his posings. Impressively, this veteran filmmaker treats the tragedy of Treadwell’s death with respect while never shying away from showing the ugly side of this disturbed personality.

2046 (2005) This is my third attempt to appreciate the critically acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. While his state-of-the-art technical skills result in stunning images frame after frame, I’ve never been drawn into his stories or characters. Similar to some recent Martin Scorsese pictures, I feel like I’m seeing an elaborate trailer for the film, not the film itself.

In his latest, Tony Leung plays Chow Mo-wan, a disaffected journalist turned novelist who he also played in Wong’s previous film “In the Mood for Love” (2000). In “2046,” his romantic liaisons, past and present, are jumbled together along with scenes from a sci-fi novel he’s writing. There’s plenty of sensuality, but little emotionally reality, playing out like a beautiful shot collage about nothing.

At heart of the film is his lengthy affair with a young call girl (Zhang Ziyi, the star of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), who, despite her devotion and passion, can’t convince Mo-wan to take their relationship seriously. The acting is first-rate, including Gong Li and Maggie Cheung as other women involved with Mo-wan, but for all it’s stylish images, I never felt like I was watching real life-past, present or future.

This stylish, impressively constructed Dutch picture sets itself apart from the typical crime thriller by creating a protagonist who is a worn-out but highly skilled hit man dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Jan Decleir gives an unforgettable performance as the contract killer who one minute finds himself shooting a man point blank and the next confused as to where he is and why he’s there. His story intertwines with a police detective’s obsessive determination to solve the killing of a young girl who had previously been involved in child prostitution.

The hit man, spurred by the same murder, goes about enacting his own form of justice while leading the detective toward the responsible parties.

Director Erik Van Looy keeps the tightly paced, complex police procedural moving at full speed, while chronicling the mental decline of the hit man and the strange bond that develops between him and the younger, but equally self-assured detective. It reminded me of the thoughtful, realistic American crime pictures of the 1970s that have since given way to cop movies featuring over-the-top car chases and smart-ass bantering.

There are certain expectations one has before seeing an Oliver Stone film. Love him or hate him, you know you’re going to have an visual experience-cluttered with bizarre angles, off-the-beat editing cuts and ever-change film stocks and color palettes-unlike any other director delivers.

Even his minor films, which includes everything he’s done since “Nixon” (1995), are incredibly entertaining exercises in cinematic excess. Strange to say, but I really missed Stone’s excesses in “Alexander.” This has to be his most conventional, by-the-numbers film he’s ever directed. Except for the portrayal of the legendary conqueror as gay, this picture could have been made by Cecil B. DeMille in 1935.

Colin Farrell makes a rather dull Alexander, especially compared to Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer, who, playing his parents, offer up the broad, road-show kind of performances you expect in a Greek tragedy.

The highlight of the picture comes when Alexander and his troops encounter an Indian army fronted by a pack of elephants; it’s the only point in this epic (the newly minted director’s cut comes in at 167 minutes) that Stone gets to show off his directing chops.

THE SET-UP (1949)
The assessments of the directing career of Robert Wise, who died at age 91 a few weeks ago, inevitably focused on his adaptations of the hit stage musicals, “West Side Story” (1961) and “The Sound of Music” (1965). Those plodding, sentimental favorites are far from Wise’s best work, most of which was done in the 1940s and ‘50s.

After earning an Oscar nomination for his editing work on “Citizen Kane” (1941) and then infamously being the editor who had to cut Welles’ second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), at the studio’s behest, he made his directing debut on “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944), a follow-up to the popular horror picture “Cat People” (1942). Wise was quickly directing top-notch B-pictures, including “The Body Snatchers” (1945) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, “Born to Kill” (1947) with Claire Trevor and Laurence Tierney and “Blood on the Moon” (1948) with Robert Mitchum and Barbara Bel Geddes.

In the 1950s, his work became slicker and more socially conscious as he moved up the Hollywood food chain, but he was hardly a sell-out. Wise made one of the best sci-fi pictures of the era, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951); the superbly acted board room drama “Executive Suite” (1954), which peeked inside the corporate conscious; and “I Want to Live!” (1958), a powerful chronicle of female criminal Barbara Graham (played by Oscar-winning Susan Hayward) and her journey to the gas chamber.

As much as his two Oscar-winning musicals are beloved, his attempt to recreate the magic of “The Sound of Music” with Julie Andrews in “Star!” (1968) is often cited as one of the era’s expensive bombs that sparked studios to abandon big-budget projects for a time in the 1970s.

Wise’s two best movies are the moody “The Haunting” (1963) and, one of my favorite movies, “The Set-Up” (1949). In “The Haunting,” based on the Shirley Jackson novel, Wise utilizes all the filmmaking tricks he learned in his B-movie days to create what may be the most chillingly frightful haunted-house picture ever made. Julie Harris gives an intense performance as a member of a team studying the house, who makes a psychic connection with a not-very-friendly ghost.

“The Set-Up,” a tale of the corrupt world of boxing, is a small masterpiece. Playing out in real time, marked by a street corner clock that shows it’s five after 9 when the movie starts and 10:16 when it ends, this dark, fatalistic story may be the only boxing picture based on a poem (by Joseph Moncure March). Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a fringe boxer at the end of the line who is feeling pressure from his wife (film noir looker Audrey Totter) to give up the sport before he really gets hurt. What he doesn’t know as he prepares for his fight with a young up-and-comer at the Paradise City Athletic Club is that his manager (George Tobias) has sold out to a gangster, promising that Stoker will lose the fight.

Wise creates what are arguably the most realistic fight scenes in film history: four rounds of sweaty, bloody nonstop pounding of fists on flesh. If Ryan wasn’t recognizable throughout, you’d swear there were real fighters in the ring.

Yet as brilliantly staged as the boxing scenes are, the heart of the film is the way Wise examines the psychological rewards that Ryan and these other two-bit fighters get out of boxing, in spite of suffering one brutal beating after another. The faces of the actors portraying the motley collection of fighters sharing a locker room before their fights tell you more about the disturbing nature of the sport than any magazine or newspaper article ever could.

Ryan, among the most underrated actors of his era, gives one of his finest portrayals as this athlete who in little more than an hour experiences his finest moment as a boxer and one of his most frightening outside the ring. “The Set-Up” should be the film Robert Wise is remembered for.

Turning a complex tale of political corruption into a quality motion picture is tricky business. Audiences are easily lost amid documentary-like details of how a corporation or government deceived the people they’re committed to serve. And it’s almost impossible to create an activist protagonist without slipping into polemic preaching.

The last two attempts to translate the brilliant British spy novelist John Le Carré to film, “The Russia House” (1990) and “The Tailor of Panama” (2001), have failed at the box office because the behind-the-curtain workings of the spy business played too large a role. I enjoyed both movies but for those who get frustrated if every plot development or double-cross isn’t crystal clear, fine performances by Sean Connery and Geoffrey Rush weren’t enough to win them over.

“The Constant Gardener,” adapted from Le Carré’s 2001 novel, succeeds as a film because the writer’s cautionary tale of a heartless, profiteering pharmaceutical company and a complicit government unfolds through the eyes of a character who’s only interesting in understanding why his wife was murdered.

Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a mid-level, unassuming British diplomat posted in Kenya who spends more time tending to his plants than worrying about his career or the African people. His outspoken wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is his exact opposite: flirty, outspoken and devoted to aiding the locals whether or not it pleases the British consulate. Since the film opens with the news of her brutal killing, this passionate activist’s character slowly unfolds as her husband, in defiance of his employers, investigates what led to her death.

This isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense since there seems to be little doubt (despite the attempt to spin it by the British government) as to who was responsible for Tessa’s death; what Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who earned an Oscar nomination for “City of God” (2003), finds interesting is Justin’s mission to verify his wife’s conspiracy theories and assure himself that her love for him was true.

Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine are able to show the dispiriting conditions the Kenyans live in without turning their lives into an exotic backdrop for a story about white people. By shooting many scenes in actual villages, the director creates a documentary-like picture that’s just as concerned about the plight of the Africans as it is about Justin’s fate.

The performances are uniformly impressive, especially Weisz, who brings Tessa to life with a level of smarts and passion never hinted at in her previous work. In supporting roles, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Donald Sumpter represent with perfection three differing character types of the British diplomatic corp.

But carrying the film is Fiennes, who quietly has built one of the best acting careers of his generation. His ability to project a confused, emotionally stunted personality on the screen, so crucial in “Constant Gardener,” has marked his memorable performances in “The English Patient” (1996), “Quiz Show” (1994), “The End of the Affair” (1999) and “Spider” (2002). Yet he’s equally skilled at playing a single-minded brute, portraying one of the scariest film Nazis in “Schindler’s List” (1993).

While the film’s ending offers a taste of comeuppance for the bad guys, “The Constant Gardener” isn’t about the romantic notion of a heroic triumph. The film, and Le Carré, I think, is simply asking us to keep questioning what we’re being told and to maintain a little cynicism in a world filled with complex motives.

Bob Rafelson, after being part of the team that invented “The Monkees” and directing them in the off-beat, free-flowing “Head” (1968), made two of the best pictures of the 1970s, “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) and “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972). Beyond establishing Jack Nicholson as the preeminent actor of his generation, the two movies about men searching for their identity amid the expectations of others around them signaled the changing tone in American movies. Not only were the heroes gone, but the moral code they followed had been blown up; the Summer of Love, Vietnam, Civil Rights, free sex, cheap drugs and lots of rock ‘n’ roll had remade American culture and, at the turn of the decade, Hollywood movies were reflecting that new reality.

Rafelson made but one more movie in the ‘70s, “Stay Hungry” (1976), the star-making turn for future politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the next thirty years, he’s directed just five features: the disappointing, but occasionally inspired remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981); a flat attempt to recapture the spark of film noir in “Black Widow” (1987); “Mountains of the Moon” (1990), his one unqualified success chronicling the life and times of British explorer Richard Burton; and then two more with Nicholson, the simply unwatchable comedy “Man Trouble” (1992) and the entertaining, well-acted but convoluted thriller “Blood and Wine” (1997).

This one-time important filmmaker rarely makes a movie and when he does it barely gets released. That was the case with “No Good Deed,” a crackling, energetic realization of Dashiell Hammett’s short story, “The House on Turk Street.”

Samuel L. Jackson portrays a lonely, cello-playing police detective who’s doing a favor for a neighbor when he stumbles into an odd collection of thieves who take him prisoner. Led by the snarling Tyrone (a wonderfully sadistic Stellan Skarsgard), this gang also includes a jumpy, violent henchman, who clearly is an early version of Wilmer, Hammett’s memorable gunman from “The Maltese Falcon,” a pair of senior citizens and a sexy moll (Milla Jovovich), who like Brigid in “Maltese Falcon” can’t decide if she’s a good girl or a bad girl.

As I recall, the original story never left the Turk Street house. Rafelson has opened it up, showing a bit of the bank robbery and sending Jackson, Skarsgard and Jovovich on the road for the finale. But he retains the heart of the tale, which is about two people making a connection despite incredible conflicts. The end also prefigures the “Here’s another one for you. She killed Miles” shocker from “The Maltese Falcon.”

“No Good Deed” is clearly Rafelson’s best film since “Mountains of the Moon” and would have been one of the better movies of 2003 if it had been released. I guess there was no room between “Hulk” and “Kangaroo Jack.”

Humphrey Bogart must have questioned his choice of professions after being saddled with the starring role in this embarrassing hillbilly, musical-comedy wrestling movie, clearly the low-point of his storied career. He plays a wrestling promoter traveling the country with his dumb-as-dirt grappler (Nat Pendelton) and two trainers (Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins, two of the funniest sidekick actors of the era). Their luck changes when they arrive in Ozark country and discover a woman blacksmith and attempt to set up a match.

The film, directed by Warner Bros. veteran Ray Enright, pulls out every hillbilly cliché known to Hollywood-filling every scene with corncob pipes, banjos, moonshine, shotgun-wielding mountain men and musicians lounging on porches.

Musical performances by the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, a popular folk group of the era, and some impressive singing and tap dancing by Penny Singleton (this famous “Blondie” is startlingly brunet here) offer some relief from the idiotic plot, but there was nothing that could save this film (not even a brief appearance by Ronald Reagan as a reporter arriving to cover the big event).

Actually the funniest moment of the movie comes when the wrestling referee arrives and immediate asks Bogart which wrestler will be winning tonight. Was there ever a time that wrestling wasn’t fixed?

This dazzling combination of teen angst, horror and supernatural speculation had the misfortune of being released just days after Sept. 11, 2001. In the meantime, the film has become a cult favorite, so much so that its extended “director’s cut” got a theatrical release last year before coming out on DVD. And it hasn’t hurt that the movie’s star, Jake Gyllenhaal, has become one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood.

Writer-director Richard Kelly, a 1997 graduate of USC’s film school who made his feature-directing debut with “Donnie Darko,” packs so much interesting material into this movie that any description can’t possibly do justice to the richness of the plot. The story goes through the looking glass almost immediately when Gyllenhaal’s Donnie is visited in his bedroom by a ghost-like creature wearing a metallic rabbit mask who orders him out of the house for the night while informing that the world will end in 28 days. When Donnie returns to his house the next morning, his parents and two sisters are outside, having survived the crash of an airplane engine into the house. It had landed directly on Donnie’s bedroom.

Over the next 28 days, Donnie tries to make sense of the visits by the all-seeing rabbit and understand a book about time-travel written by a retired local teacher nicknamed Grandma Death, while dealing with his easily flustered parents, a determined therapist, a new girl in school who falls for him and a self-assured New Age self-help guru (Patrick Swayze giving a very entertaining performance).

Gyllenhaal remains the calm center of the storm that grows more violent and unpredictable as he nears doomsday deadline set by the rabbit specter. You won’t soon forget “Donnie Darko” or see anything that resembles it anytime soon. The film reminded me of a Stanley Kubrick picture in the way it meshes the mundane with the extraordinary and builds to a cataclysmic conclusion.

PROOF (2005)
Three of the four main characters of this film are as fully realized, fascinating and expertly acted as any you’re likely to see this year. Yet “Proof” is ultimately unsatisfying. It ends up trying way too hard to make all its mathematical formulas add up to more than just a bunch of numbers.

Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn, this intense drama examines the struggle of a young woman to establish her own identity in the shadow of her brilliant, but mad, father, played in flashback and dreams by Anthony Hopkins.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Catherine, who put her life and a promising math career, on hold to care for her father and now that he has died must endure her controlling older sister (Hope Davis) while battling her own inner demons.

Paltrow gives a riveting performance as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Catherine has locked away her personality, seeing that as the only way she could deal with her life as her father’s caretaker. The actress, who was equally impressive as the fragile intellectual in “Sylvia” (2003), stays away from filling the performance with theatrics so typical in portrayals of unstable characters.

Hopkins, whose characters always seem to have a touch of madness about them, and Davis are just as convincing playing Catherine’s tormentors. Davis never seems to give a false performance; here she finds a way to let the sister’s sincere concern shine through her life-as-a-list-of-things-to-do manner.

Miscast is Jake Gyllenhaal as a devoted student of Hopkins, and now a professor himself, who seems to want to share in his professor’s glory and win the heart of Catherine. He’s all boyish enthusiasm, lacking even a hint of the gravitas one expects of a math professor.

John Madden, who directed Paltrow to her Oscar-winning performance in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), does a good job of moving the action back and forth in time, but he can’t overcome the stage-bound nature of Auburn’s symbolism-heavy writing. Clever parallels between Catherine’s life and the complicated mathematic proofs that often add up to nothing, quickly becoming obvious. Though “Proof” is dressed up as a serious drama it never comes alive; it remains a problem to be worked out on paper.

DETOUR (1945)
I’ve seen this critical favorite B-movie about a half-dozen times now. Every time I read another rave about this Edgar G. Ulmer-directed film noir, I watch it again. This time, I noticed Roger Ebert had it listed on his web site among his list of “great films.” His essay on the low-budget thriller is ten times as interesting as the film.

Watching it again, I was astonished at how long 69 minutes can seems when the story is devoid of drama and the acting is amateurish. The segment of the film that clearly keeps the critical bouquets coming is when the doomed couple—he’s impersonating a man who dropped dead in front of him and she’s calling the shots in a blackmailing scheme—are cooped up in a cheap motel and she all but offers herself to him. He rejects all her overtures, including a plan to defraud the dead man’s rich father, and then strangles her (accidentally, of course) with the phone line. I love low-budget film noirs but “Detour” remains the most overrated in this underrated genre.

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