Friday, September 26, 2008

September 2006

Robert Evans, eternally bronzed, dressed for cocktails at the yacht club and sporting his oddly shaped tinted glasses, remains one of Hollywood’s most bizarrely intriguing characters. Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but Evans is working on his fourth or fifth.

He began in the movies as a good looking 26-year-old discovered by Norma Shearer poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel (you can’t make this stuff up), who secured him a part in “Man of a Thousand Faces” (1957), playing her late husband, Irving G. Thalberg. It was during the filming of “The Sun Also Rises” (1957), Evans’ second film, that producer Darryl F. Zanuck delivered his famous line---“the kid stays in the picture”---in response to demands by stars Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner that the young actor be fired. Despite that vote of confidence, Evans knew he was no actor and soon found his niche as a studio executive. By the late 1960s, he was in charge of production at Paramount, a studio on its death bed.

Before long he was a legend, having guided (to one degree or another) hits “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Love Story” (1970), “The Godfather” (1972) and “Chinatown” (1974) onto the screen and saved the studio from financial ruin. During “Love Story,” he became famously attached to Ali McGraw (for a split second, she was the most popular actress in Hollywood), who, even more famously, left him for Steve McQueen.

“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” is an oddly constructed documentary based on Evans’ biography of the same name and narrated by the man himself. It mostly consists of cutout photos of Evans and others floating over generic Hollywood photos offset with an occasional clip. This is unquestionably Evans version of the truth. And the filmmakers, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, seemingly caught up by his charm, never challenge him.

His voice and manner of speaking are his trademarks: the voice resembles whiskey-soaked gravel and the words fly out of his mouth like an auctioneer and just about as clear. He swallows so many of his words, it’s hard to make out half of what he says---not necessarily a bad thing.

Evans is clever and witty and knows when to be self depreciating, which makes it difficult to sort out the truth from the self-aggrandizing and total nonsense.

Just one example of Evans exaggerating his role in getting films made is the credit he takes for “The Godfather.” In numerous articles and books, Francis Coppola and Paramount executives from that era have pointed out that while Evans bought Mario Puzo’s unwritten novel for the studio, he was against everything that eventually made the movie the greatest of its time.

Going by the documentary, you’d think that Evans practically co-wrote the book, but according to both Puzo and Peter Bart, Evans’ assistant at the time, Evans and Paramount lost interest in the book until after it became a best seller.

According to Coppola, “If I hadn’t fought, I would have made a movie with Ernest Borgnine and Ryan O’Neal set in the ‘70s.” (That from Peter Biskind’s book about Hollywood in the 1970s, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”)

One of Evans main claims is that he demanded, after seeing the first, 2-hour and 15-minute cut, that Coppola lengthen the film and add back the details that ultimately made it a masterpiece. According to others involved, Evans had ordered the shorter cut under threat that the studio would take over the editing of the picture. Then, knowing all along it would need to be longer, ordered Coppola back to the cutting room. What Evans does best is create his own legend.

The sweet life turned soar for Evans in the 1980s. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor cocaine possession charge and received probation (and then, of course, made a star-studded anti-drug commercial). In 1983, his business partner on the Coppola film “The Cotton Club” was found dead and an ex-girlfriend of Evans was tried for the murder. Though Evans was never charged in the man’s death, he became persona non grata in Hollywood and was soon broke.

But never count Bob Evans out. His autobiography, and the publicity surrounding it, revived his career in 1994. The films he’s produced recently haven’t been very memorable---“Jade” (1995), “The Saint” (1997), “The Out-of-Towners” (1999), among others---but he’s still in the biz and has four films in the works. And an outrageous and very funny animated show on the Comedy Channel, “Kid Notorious,” ran for a few months in 2003, which featured Evans voicing a cartoon version of himself, holding forth at his Beverly Hills mansion.

Evans may be certifiably nuts and “The Kid Stays in the Picture” just an excuse to further inflate his blimp-sized ego, but if your interested in Hollywood and the idiots that run it, the documentary is a must-see.

Film portraits of historical figures---this one follows Winston Churchill in the run-up to World War II---inevitable come off as well-made, studiously performed pageants that drain the blood out of their subjects. This production, originally shown on HBO, resembles countless Masterpiece Theatre presentations, as it reenacts Churchill’s campaign to convince the ruling party to take Germany’s military buildup seriously. (It’s often forgotten that the British, like many Americans, were willing to overlook Hitler’s flaws since he was anti-Communist.)

What’s rare about “Gathering Storm” is the chance to see two of the greatest actors in the English speaking world, Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave, play Churchill and his wife Clemmie. Finney captures the blustery, bulldog politician and the sensitive artist that combined to make Churchill such a charismatic figure. The actor nails the man’s distinctive look and voice, but most impressively, sweeps you away with the passion he brings to his convictions about Germany. The best scenes in the film are those between Finney and Redgrave, whose subtle intelligent portrait of Mrs. Churchill, always supportive but refusing allow him to bully her, brings out the little boy in the future prime minister. The give and take between these two giants of the English stage and screen is simply masterful and you can see they’re having a grand time.

The usual array of fine British supporting players, Jim Broadbent, Tom Wilkinson and Derek Jacobi, give life to government officials, while Linus Roache (who played the penniless boyfriend in “The Wings of the Dove”), is outstanding as an official who passes along secret military info to Churchill.

The script was first done as a British TV production in 1974 with Richard Burton as Churchill.

Finney, who turned 70 this year, won’t be getting many more lead roles, but this isn’t a bad one to sign off on. It’s a fine addition to his gallery of performance that includes “Tom Jones” (1963), Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), a cheating husband in “Shoot the Moon” (1982), a legendary actor in “The Dresser” (1983), “Pope John Paul II” (1984) and the doomed Mexican consul in “Under the Volcano” (1984).

I had high hopes for this reprise of Henry Chinaski, the literary alter ego of iconoclastic writer Charles Bukoski, who goes from job to job in his ongoing struggle to support his drinking and writing. There are moments to savor in this depiction of life just one step up from the gutter but it’s too episodical and short on substance to qualify as a success.

Yet even when not much is going on in “Factotum,” Matt Dillon’s make it worth sticking with. He turns out to be the perfect choice to play this man who rarely holds down a job for more than a day, but will spend two days pursuing a one-day paycheck. He’s smart and a keen observer, but spends his time with losers and drunks. Looking properly beaten down and unkept, Dillon’s Chinaski is alternately depressed and sarcastic. He never really enjoys himself, even, it seems, during his intense coupling with fellow drinker Jan (a frighteningly hard looking Lili Taylor).

Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer, who made the superb comedy of manners “Kitchen Stories” (2004), does his best work when showing Chinaski’s half-hearted attempts to hold down a job (factotum is someone who does a wide variety of jobs), but he never finds a way to bring dramatic flow to the collection of tales.

I remember “Barfly” (1987), which starred Mickey Rourke as Henry, as being more of a cohesive film than “Factotum,” but I haven’t seen it in years. Ironically, it also was directed by a foreign director, Germany’s Baret Schroeder. Another film version of Bukoski stories, “Tales of Ordinary Madness” was directed by an Italian, Marco Ferreri, and stars Ben Gazzara.

Even the flimsiest musicals of the 1930s are worth watching, if only for a chance to see the stars of radio. Inevitably, an entertaining parade of the era’s best singing and comedy performers keeps things moving as young actors play out a lame romance.

“We’re Not Dressing” would be forgettable if it wasn’t for Bing Crosby, the most popular and greatest pop music singer of the first half of the 20th Century. He’s in top form as a singing sailor working on a private ocean cruiser who falls for a spoiled heiress, played by Carole Lombard, in this adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s “The Admirable Chrichton.” This popular play was made into films no less than eight times.

Between mooning over Lombard and keeping tabs on her pet bear (don’t ask), Crosby sings “She Reminds Me of You” and “Once in a Blue Moon,” among others penned by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. Meanwhile, a pair of tuxedoed pretty boys (Ray Milland and Jay Henry) vainly attempt to win Lombard’s hand and Lombard’s gal pal, Broadway star Ethel Merman, belts out a few tunes.

The class division is turned upside down (and the clich├ęs run rampant) when the ship sinks and the sailor and the do-nothing rich folks wash up on a desert island. Adding some needed humor to the festivities are George Burns and Gracie Allen, encamped on the other side of the island, he studying the native fauna and flora, she offering her trademark comic wordplay.

Lombard’s debutante, once on the island, turns into an interesting character; feisty, sexy and obstinate in what could have been a throw-away role. Her next film that year, “Twentieth Century,” made her a star.

Crosby became an even bigger movie star when he stopped singing, first as Bob Hope’s running mate in the “Road” movies and then, winning an Oscar, as the down-to-earth priest in “Going My Way” (1944).

The film’s director, Norman Taurog, began his career doing comedy shorts in the 1920s and ended it, 175 films later, with the Elvis Presley vehicle, “Live a Little, Love a Little” (1968). Among his better known films were “Skippy” (1931), “The Big Broadcast of 1936” (1935), “Boys Town” (1938) and “Girl Crazy” (1943). In his later career, he became the director of choice for Martin and Lewis and then Elvis, reportedly after becoming blind in one eye.

There’s a slight chance that I may see a worse film in 2006, but certainly there will not be a more abysmally acted motion picture this year----maybe this decade. And it’s not just the hard-to-endure performances that sink this much-anticipated adaptation of James Ellroy’s novelistic take on the famed Black Dahlia murder case. The attempt to recreate post-war Los Angeles and the tough-talking, shadowy world of film noir fails miserably. The “noir speak” that comes out of the actors mouths would be more appropriate in a Leslie Nielsen sendup of the genre. And then there’s the plot, so convoluted and splintered that I just gave up trying to understand what was going on about halfway through.

Veteran director Brian De Palma, responsible for more than his fair share of superb movies over the last 35 years, including “Carrie” (1976), “Blow Out” (1981), “Scarface” (1983), “Casualties of War” (1989) and “Mission: Impossible” (1996), seemed to be as lost as I was. While he constructs a couple of fabulous set pieces---impressive for their look but not for the way they advance the story---the filmmaker lets the actors and story run wild, usually in different directions and never shows any interest in connecting the film to real life.

There’s also the problem of Ellroy. He’s a bad writer who has gotten by with a knack for offbeat plots peopled with characters who talk like the most profane, angry person you ever met and Josh Friedman’s adaptation doesn’t do much to smooth out Ellroy’s prose. This film repeats the theme/plotline of “L.A. Confidential,” with two very different cops who join forces while a sexy blonde awaits their visits. When you finally arrive at Ellroy’s theory on the unsolved case, it plays out so outrageously that you don’t buy it for a second.

The only thing worth considering is who gives the worst performance: Josh Hartnett as the good cop, Aaron Eckhart as the crazed cop, Scarlett Johansson as the femme fatale, Hilary Swank as the slumming rich girl or Fiona Shaw as her alcoholic, possibly insane mother. Only Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short, the dead woman at the center of the case, seen in screen tests and soft porn films watched by investigators, brings any depth to her role. You know a film’s in trouble when the most interesting and best acted character in a film is dead.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance in last year’s “Happy Endings” was something to behold. For me, it changed her moniker from “Jake’s sister” to “one of the best young actresses in movies.” In her new film, playing a similar, if more fleshed out, version of her “Happy Endings” role, she confirms her command of screen acting. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of this woman whose life of drugs, sex and prison has left her unable to function in the straight world reminded me of Gena Rowlands’ startling performance in John Cassavetes’ masterpiece, “A Woman Under the Influence.” Like Rowlands, this 28-year-old has the ability to totally immerse herself in the role and make an unpleasant character fascinating.

Fresh out of prison and living in a bleak halfway house, Gyllenhaal’s Sherry attempts to reconnect with her young daughter who is being raised by her brother and his wife. Not only does she find resentment from her daughter’s guardians, who see their role as protecting the girl from her screwed-up mother, but she struggles to discover her maternal instincts.

For the most part, Sherry is simply overmatched by her world. She’s a woman with little education or even the appearance of competence who uses sex as way to survive, something she learned as a young girl. This independent film, written and directed by newcomer Laurie Collyer, captures Sherry’s chaotic world without turning into a morality tale. It doesn’t try to be more than a narrowly focused slice of this troubled woman’s life.

Collyer script is filled with interest people beyond the title character, including Sherry’s conflicted brother (Brad William Henke), a tough-looking but gentle member of her 12-step class (Danny Trejo) and her unsmiling, frustrated parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito).

It’d be easy to dismiss her as a hopelessly damaged failure who will never drift far from the world of drugs, but Gyllenhaal is able to convey a glimmer of hope----Sherry’s often misguided, but sincere and overwhelming need for the love of her daughter. No matter what she’s going through she clings to the belief that once all is right with her and her daughter, life will be good.

Gyllenhaal bares all, both physically and psychologically, in bringing this woman to the screen, yet it never feels like a calculated performance; she inhabits Sherry in a way few American actresses are able or willing to do. She creates a car wreck that you can’t look away from.

Like “Sherrybaby,” this film focuses on the life of a drug user, but the two addicts couldn’t be less alike. Dan has never been to jail and leads a fairly normal life as a junior high teacher in an inner-city school. He’s calm and well spoken and except for acting a bit jittery, you’d never guess he had a drug habit.

It’s the ordinariness of “Half Nelson” that makes it so refreshing, along with the way it presents the people of this low-income, crime-ridden area as genuine, three-dimensional people. The simple story revolves around the teacher’s relationship with Drey, a student who discovers his secret and finds herself drawn to him as a surrogate parent. While they always maintain their teacher-student status, a bond develops between these two that makes the film memorable. The quiet, yet involving performances by Ryan Gosling as Dan, the teacher, and Shareeka Epps, in a very impressive feature debut, as Drey, have the lived-in naturalness of regulars on a television series.

Epps previously played the same part in a short film with the same plot, also directed by Ryan Fleck and written by Fleck and Anna Boden. (Another actor portrayed the teacher.)

Dan is your classic rebellious teacher who has no interest in following the school-dictated curriculum and instead attempts to make his black history class something the students can relate to. But what draws Drey to the teacher, who also coaches her on the school’s girl basketball team, are his imperfections. By the end of the film, she seems to be in the position of having more influence on him than he does on her.

This a breakthrough performance for the 25-year-old Gosling, who has been in films and TV since he was a teenager, most prominently in the drippy romance “The Notebook” (2004). He does so much with so little, managing to be both unpretentious and charismatic.

This is that rare teacher-student film that doesn’t take the same old route to a heartwarming finale; real life is doesn’t work that way and “Half Nelson” doesn’t either.

Because he looks more like a gas station attendant than an acclaimed man of letters or movie actor, Sam Shepard and his unprecedented career rarely gets the attention they deserves. That one of the two or three most important American playwrights of the last 30 years is also a superb screen actor, who at age 62 can still carry a film, is rather astonishing.

In this Wim Wender film, which opened and closed quickly earlier this year, he plays an aging movie star who spent most of his life as an irresponsible bad boy. After Shepard’s Howard Spence rides his horse (it’s a Western) off the set and into the Utah desert, he ends up on a bus to Elko, Nev., where he stays with his mother (Eva Maria Saint) for a day or so. When his mother lets it slip that he produced a son in one of his misadventures, he drives to Butte, Montana, in search of his ex-girlfriend (his real life companion Jessica Lange) and their offspring.

The film becomes somewhat predictable once Howard comes face-to-face with the past he’s ignored for so long, but the character remains compelling as Shepard’s simple, unadorned acting style and smart, thoughtful presence inform this man as thoroughly as the dialogue (written, of course, by Shepard). I’m convinced that if Shepard had put his mind to it, he could have become a major film star.

Wender and cinematographer Franz Lustig capture the West beautifully, making it a symbol for the clean, flat, traditional life that Howard desperately needs to return to.

If for no reason other than to see 82-year-old Eva Maria Saint in a meaty role after all these years, the film is worth renting. The scenes between mother and son are priceless; after having recreated his boyhood room in the basement she spends most of the time apologizing for him. Also excellent are Sarah Polley as a mysterious young woman who latches on to Howard in Butte and Tim Roth as a movie studio lawyer who determinedly tracks down the wayward actor. And look quickly for George Kennedy in a small role as the movie’s director.

This is probably Shepard’s best role since he played Dashiell Hammett in “Dash and Lily” (1999) on cable TV. He did most of his best work in the late 1970s and 1980s, starting with his role as the ranch owner in “Days of Heaven” (1978), followed by “Resurrection” (1980), “Frances” (1982), “The Right Stuff” (1983), which earned him an Oscar nomination for his performance as pioneering pilot Chuck Yeager, “Country” (1984), “Crimes of the Heart” (1986) and “Baby Boom” (1987). In addition, he wrote the script for Wender’s cult favorite “Paris, Texas” (1984) and adapted for the screen and starred in his acclaimed play “Fool for Love” (1985).

Sidney Lumet is a master at filming courtroom scenes. “12 Angry Men” (1957), “The Verdict” (1982), “Q&A” (1990) and “Night Falls on Manhattan” (1996) are just some of his movies that are centered on courtroom confrontations. And his short-lived, but outstanding 2002 A&E series “100 Centre Street” focused on a New York night court judge. Probably 90 percent of his new film, based on the transcripts of the longest mob trial in U.S. history, takes place in the courtroom as real life crime boss Jackie DiNorscio serves as his own attorney and all but takes over the trial. The 1986 case, which last nearly two years, was an attempt by the FBI to bring down the Lucchese mob family of New Jersey.

Most of the publicity before this film opened was about the surprising casting of Vin Diesel as Jackie. The idea that the beefy action star of “The Fast and the Furious” (2001) and the brilliantly titled “xXx” (2002) was starring in a Sidney Lumet film overshadowed the actual movie. Not only is “Find Me Guilty” a fascinating study of a complex, wildly entertaining character but it’s a very convincing, post-O.J. indictment of the jury system.

Diesel often goes way over the top, using his large, cartoonish facial features to create this comic/criminal who is already serving a 30-year drug sentence when he’s indicted along with his mob friends and bosses. But he also manages to capture the poignancy of this sincere man who above all else is loyal; even to those who have betrayed him.

Like most Lumet pictures, “Find Me Guilty” is filled with superb supporting performances, led by Peter Dinklage, the 4 foot 5-inch actor of “The Station Agent” (2003), who plays a mob lawyer who offers Jackie moral and legal support. It’s the kind of assured, thoughtful performance that if it had been in a film more people had seen, would be considered for an Oscar nomination. The always solid Ron Silver plays the judge who falls under the spell of Jackie’s charisma; Alex Rocco, best remembered as Moe Greene in “The Godfather” (1972, plays Jackie’s mob rival Nick Calabrese; and Annabella Sciorra has one electric scene as Jackie’s fiery ex-wife.

This is Lumet’s most energetic and well-written (Lumet, T.J. Mancini and Robert J. McCrea) movie since “Q&A.” The one downside of the picture is that because the mob figures are such interesting characters, you begin rooting for these crooks and murderers to beat the charges. And it doesn’t help that the prosecution, deservedly it seems, are portrayed as ill-prepared and vindictive.

This second film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s masterful novel of Southern politics (the first won the best picture Oscar in 1949) looks great and is packed with extraordinary actors in every role, but misses both the crackling exuberance and the melancholy of disappointment that are central to the story. Writer-director Steve Zaillian (who scripted “Schindler’s List” and directed “Searching for Bobby Fischer”) leaves too many holes and questionable motives even as the film clocks in 32 minutes longer than the original version.

Sean Penn gives yet another emotionally overflowing performance as Willie Stark, a small-time politician from rural Louisiana, who is persuaded by a political boss to run as a long-shot third-party candidate in the governor’s race. Once Willie figures out that he’s being used as a spoiler, he tosses aside his dull, prepared speeches and starts speaking from the heart, enthralling the working class across the state.

This rise to fame is central to the story, but Zaillian trips over it. First, he pointlessly changes the time frame to the 1950s when the populous, Depression-era rhetoric spouted by Stark is long out of date (the character is based on Huey Long, Louisiana governor in the 1930s). Then, he skips over the transformation Stark makes once he’s in office. You’re never sure if he’s become as corrupt as the men he unseated or if the entrenched powers are plotting to get him out of office. The script’s lack of insight into this issue neutralizes Penn’s performance in the second half of the film; it’s never clear what he’s up to or why. Penn also doesn’t seem old enough for this role, yet he’s six years older than Broderick Crawford was when he played the role and won the best actor Oscar.

The other half of “All the King’s Men,” is Jack Burden, a newspaper columnist who becomes fascinated by Willie and ends up working for him. It’s through Jack’s eyes that we see Willie evolve from a small-time local politician to the governor. Jack, played unremarkably by Jude Law, is also trying to come to grips with his past, a life of privilege that he’s rejected, along with his boyhood love (Kate Winslet) and his step-father, a well-known judge (Anthony Hopkins). How his family and childhood friends get sucked into Willie Stark’s sphere of influence is the emotional and psychological heart of the novel. Yet in this version, it’s not even clear why they are involved with Stark or even how Jack feels about them.

What’s impressive about the 1949 adaptation is how little it has dated. It remains one of the most cynical movies ever made---there are no heroes, no unsoiled victims of the demigod Stark. Either the characters are corrupt from the moment they are introduced on screen or they become corrupted by blind belief in Starks. It still amazes me that in 1949, director and screenwriter Robert Rossen got away with showing this politician not only having an affair with his campaign manager (Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge stealing every scenes she’s in) but then cheating on her. In the new film, Patricia Clarkson, usually a fine actress, can’t muster even half the energy McCambridge brought to the role.

The 1949 version is so smartly structured by Rossen that tells this complex rise and fall of a well-meaning politician in just 109 minutes. Part of the reason the filmmaker was successful in condensing this epic tale is the astonishing performance of Broderick Crawford. Never again did Crawford bring the kind of subtle, insightful acting to a role. What’s remembered is the explosive, charismatic speechifying of Starks—he’s a hammy old-style politician and Crawford went on to be a hammy, over-the-top actor—but what makes those big moments work so well in “All the King’s Men” are the small quiet ones; when confiding to his tormented wife (Anne Seymour) or the confused Burden (John Ireland in this version) he becomes a small, insecure man who may have waded too far into the pool. Penn never gets to explore this side of the man, nor does he ever come off as the humble local do-gooder Stark starts out as.

As much as I dislike the idea of remaking great film (there are plenty of mediocre ones that should be remade), I sympathize with Zaillian’s desire to bring this back to the screen. It’s a timeless tale of power and corruption, brilliantly written. Yet he and his fine cast are unable to translate what made the novel and the original movie unforgettable.

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