Sunday, September 28, 2008
3:10 TO YUMA (2007)
The 1957 original, starring Glenn Ford as notorious killer Ben Wade and Van Heflin as soft-spoken rancher Dan Evans who escorts Wade to prison, is a dark, moody, psychologically complex study of manhood and one of the least appreciated great Westerns ever made. Some of the best films of the 1950s were Westerns----“Rio Grande” (1950), “High Noon” (1952), “Shane” (1953) and a half-dozen each from the teams of Anthony Mann/James Stewart and Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott----and “3:10 to Yuma” is near the top of that list. Directed by Delmer Daves and written by Halsted Welles from an Elmore Leonard story, this taunt actioner has rarely gotten the recognition it deserves. If it does nothing else, the high-volume remake focuses an overdue spotlight on the original.
Director James Mangold, who made the entertaining Johnny Cash bio-pic “Walk the Line” (2005), adds three key plot elements to the narrative but for most of the film sticks closely to Welles’s screenplay, replaying even minor dialogue. (At one point, in both versions, Wade asks Evans, while they are dining at the rancher’s home, to cut the fat off his meat, “I don’t like fat.”) The new version eschews the noirish feel of the original for a more explosive, epic adventure that includes an Indian attack, a deadly encounter with a railroad-building crew and an entire town full of hired guns.
Jam packed with all the standard-issue clichés of Westerns, this version relies on the superb performances of and the rich chemistry between Russell Crowe (Wade) and Christian Bale (Evans). Of course, 50 years later, Wade is twice as charismatic and sensitive and Evans is even more of an underdog; more than just down on his luck, he’s pitiful, one-legged and his manhood is constantly questioned. These are two of the most intense actors working in film today and putting them together was inspirational casting. Bale, with his scraggly looks and nervous manner, seems more like the bad guy while Crowe displays the healthy, attractive look and relaxed confidence of a hero. That contrast, in both versions, elevates this story above the typical shoot ‘em-up.
Once Wade is captured, after he and his gang rob a stagecoach near Bisbee, the stagecoach owner offers Evans $200 to help the sheriff and his posse to transport the gunman to Contention, where he can be put on the 3:10 train bound for Yuma, site of the regional prison. But first they rendezvous at Evans’ homestead, where Wade flirts with Evans’ wife and further impresses his teenaged son. Mangold and his screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas enlarge the son’s role, making him older and embarrassed by the timidity of his father, and, though he’s not invited, have him join the posse escorting Wade to the train.
The middle act of the new film is all original, with a long, difficult journey from Bisbee to Contention that allows the relationship between Wade, Evans and his son to percolate. But the final act in a hotel room equals the original in intensity and edge-of-your-seat dramtics. Wade plays mind games with Evans, who by now is all but on his own, while Wade’s devoted, psychotic right-hand man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster in a memorable, wild-eyed performance) waits out on the street. The final sprint to the 3:10 train is pumped up to meet modern audience expectations---a thousand rounds of bullets fly when a couple dozen sufficed in 1957.
I was surprised by the change in the ending, now darker and more blunt, but both versions still offer the hopeful belief that even the most amoral man can, occasionally, throw in with the good guys.
The films also questions the worth of a life lived without risks. The one great line from Welles’ screenplay that didn’t make it into the 2007 version is offered up by the Bisbee marshal (played by the great character actor Ford Rainey) when he’s trying to raise a posse: “Who knows what’s safe? My own grandmother fought Indians for 60 years and then chocked to death on a lemon pie.” In a nutshell, that was life in the Old West.
THE JACKET (2005)
If you think too much about the plot details of this time travel/mad scientist picture you’ll realize it’s completely ridiculous. Better to just enjoy the ride with its surprising number of complex characters, fascinating setup and oppressively dank and dangerous atmosphere.
Adrien Brody, looking as unkempt and confused as he did in his 2002 Oscar-winning turn in “The Pianist,” survives a head wound in the Gulf War only to get blamed for a roadside killing of a policeman that gets him shuttered away in an insane asylum. There he becomes the latest guinea pig in Dr. Thomas Becker’s (a coolly evil Kris Kristofferson) experiment in time travel that involves a restraint jacket and long stays inside a body drawer in the morgue.
Brody’s Jack meets a girl from his recent past (a slumming Keira Knightley, a long way from “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and the future version of one of his current doctors (an almost unrecognizable Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he ventures into the future in hopes of understanding both his fate and adjusting the fate of others.
After getting over the initial “you’ve got to be kidding me” phase, “The Jacket” isn’t a bad film at all, benefiting from good work by the four stars and stylish, grungy filmmaking by director John Maybury, whose background is in video, and cinematographer Peter Deming, who’s also done impressive work in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001) and this year’s “Lucky You” (see below).
TOKYO TWILIGHT (1957)
Yasujiro Ozu, the deliberate, introspective director best known for exploring the dramatic changes in post-war Japan, made films for an audience that understood the nuances of that rigid, tradition-bound society. For Western viewers, movies dominated by scenes of families sitting on the floor drinking tea and occasionally speaking to one another, can be heavy going. But it’s worth the effort.
At first, “Tokyo Twilight” plays like a slow-moving soap opera: A single father frets about a non-communicative teenage daughter (who has a feckless boyfriend and is pregnant) and his older daughter whose marriage is on the rocks. Their world is further complicated when their unmentioned mother (the younger girl thought she was dead) returns to their town after many years and is running a mahjongg parlor with her new husband.
Slowly and quietly the film and its characters become more complex and intense, taking on a Shakespearean-like depth. Like their nation, the daughters deal with the emotional shattering realities of the past as they struggle to find a path to the future.
Typical of an Ozu film, the actors offer riveting performances, highly emotional but balanced with a reserved formality that at first feels stagy but ultimately comes off as completely natural. Setsuko Hara, a veteran of Ozu films and known to Japanese film fans as “the Eternal Virgin,” carries much of the film as the older daughter who serves as the mediator between the father (Chisyu Ryu) and her sister (Ineko Arima) and also must deal with the arrival of a mother (Isuzu Yamada, best known for her Lady Macbeth character in Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”) who deserted her. The performance and Ozu’s film, turns melodrama into masterful art.
Ozu made some of his county’s greatest films (“Tokyo Story” is considered his masterpiece) in a career that began in silents and ended in 1963 when he died of cancer at age 60.
THE LOOKOUT (2007)
This quirky story of a young man struggling to find his place in the world after a horrific auto accident starts out like a film we’ve seen too often but turns out to be much more rewarding.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of Hollywood’s best young actors who distinguished himself in “Brick” (2005) and “Mysterious Skin” (2004), plays Chris Pratt, a admired, high school hockey star, who, while impressing his girlfriend, slams head-on into a road grader. The film then jumps ahead a few years and Chris is alive but in rehab as a result of brain damage. He works as a janitor at a bank and shares in a small apartment with an older, blind man (Jeff Daniels) he got to know at the rehab center.
This setup felt like one Hollywood has been repackaging for years. But writer-director Scott Frank, the screenwriter of “Get Shorty” (1995) and “Out of Sight” (1998) making his directing debut, digs deeper into this character than you’d expect and doesn’t provide easy, feel-good solutions to his problems.
While Chris works on reclaiming his sense of self, he faces his deep-seated guilt (his girlfriend was injured and the other couple killed), parents who can’t help but say the wrong things and endless obstacles in just getting through each day because of his injuries. To say he’s vulnerable is a major understatement and before he knows it, he falls in with a dangerous collection of lowlifes. Before he realizes what they’re up to, it’s too late.
Equaling Gordon-Levitt’s thoughtful performance is Matthew Goode, playing the sly, sleazy Gary who manipulates Chris toward the dark side. A British actor who was also quite good as the privileged son in Woody Allen’s “Match Point” (2005), is scheduled to portray Charles Ryder in a new version of “Brideshead Revisited.”
Daniels, serving as Chris’ moral center, avoids turning the cynical, blind Lewis into a cliché and the always superb Bruce McGill is perfect as Chris’ confused father.
INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
There’s a point in every David Lynch film when I have absolutely no idea what’s going on or how the scene connects to the rest of the movie. In his latest, I had that feeling during most of its nearly three-hour running time. Covering similar ground he explored in the more plot-driven and dramatic “Mulholland Drive,” Lynch keeps finding ways to vent his hatred of Hollywood and, seemingly, the very idea of making and watching movies. But I spent so much energy just trying to follow what was going on that anything more subtle was lost in the ether. This is three hours of occasionally striking images and a constantly remarkable performance by Laura Dern, but it’s totally baffling as a film.
Dern, who starred for Lynch in “Blue Velvet” (1986) and “Wild at Heart” (1990) and previously had been romantically involved with the director, plays Nikki Grace, a successful movie actress who is cast in what turns out to be a remake of a Polish film that was never finished because members of the cast were murdered. Or at least that’s what Harry Dean Stanton’s Freddie (the assistant to the director played by Jeremy Irons) tells Nikki and Devon (Justin Theroux) at their first reading.
From that point on, Nikki and her character Susan Blue and a person who might be a character from the Polish version (all played by Dern) become interchangeable as Nikki loses all sense of herself and any idea if she’s dreaming or acting or experiencing real life. Dern’s ability to juggle these complex roles is amazing as she does her best to comprehend what’s happening to her life.
At some point I just gave up trying to decipher the story; you really needed to be in the room when Lynch came up with all this (reportedly, he never had a completed script) to understand it. Not helping is his penchant for dark, fuzzy compositions, emphasized here by his use of a high-definition video camera. Even on my hi-def, 42-inch plasma TV, I couldn’t make out what was going on. (Don’t even attempt to watch “Inland Empire” on a standard TV.)
If all this seems convoluted, throw in the occasional appearance of a humorless sitcom starring human-sized rabbits, a parade of scenes featuring threatening Eastern European characters speaking nonsense and a screeching, horror-film like score and you’ll begin questioning that thin line between genius and insanity. I did figure out, about two hours into “Inland Empire” that it had nothing to do with Southern California’s Inland Empire (parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties). Lynch’s “Inland Empire” is a twilight zone of dreams and imagination and shreds of images that drift in and out, fueled by deep-seated insecurities and fears. It’s a world only this one-of-a-kind director could or would put on film.
More interesting than the movie are the DVD extras, including a two-cigarette long interview with Lynch highlighted by his rant against people who watch movies on cell phones and his dream of making a movie with sound as loud as a rock concert. Another extra is a short of the director cooking a concoction he calls quinoa (some kind of grain mixed with broccoli) and telling an odd story about a train trip through Yugoslavia with Jack Nance. It’s all as offbeat as “Inland Empire,” but in a good way.
The idea of a major actor playing a gay man in the 1960s was nearly unthinkable. So when Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, two of Britain’s biggest movie stars, agreed to play a homosexual couple in an adaptation of Charles Dyer’s stage play “Staircase” it was a major step forward in the evolution of cinematic portrayals of gays. Unfortunately, the rarely shown film, recently aired on Turner Classic Movies, is a giant step backward in the portrayal of humanity. I’m sure Stanley Donen, the superb filmmaker of such classics as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)---co-directed with Gene Kelly---and “Funny Face” (1957), wishes he had taken an Alan Smithee on this turkey.
Charlie (Harrison) and Harry (Burton), who own a barber shop (before even gay men were “hairdressers”) and care for Harry’s bed-ridden mother, are such offensive stereotypes and exchange such insipid, mind-numbing dialogue that the film’s noble intensions are quickly erased. Both actors have moments in which they rise above the material----Burton’s ability to portray Harry’s deeply felt love for Charlie in the face of constant verbal abuse is the movie’s best attribute---but the film now plays like an embarrassing relic of long-passed era.
LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1941) and IN OUR TIME (1944)
Ida Lupino the movie director, one of the few women of the 1950s and ‘60s to hold that job, has nearly completely overshadowed Ida Lupino the movie star. Behind the camera she was a pioneer who helmed a couple of superb low-budget, hard-boiled pictures, “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953) and “The Bigamist” (1953) but little else of note. As an actress, she was among the most appealing and commanding screen presences of the 1940s, an underrated performer who rarely got the best roles.
From a showbiz family in England, she made her starring debut in 1933 when famed silent director Allen Dwan cast her in “Her First Affaire.” It took another six years before she had her real breakthrough, playing an artist model for a painter going blind (Ronald Colman) in “The Light That Failed” (1939). She followed that with two gritty crime pictures opposite Humphrey Bogart, “They Drive By Night” (1940) and “High Sierra” (1941), and the high-seas adventure, “The Sea Wolf” (1941), co-starring with John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson.
But working at Warner Bros., she stood in line for roles behind Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland, but made the most of what she was given. The roles she had in the two films I saw recently during a TCM tribute to Lupino display her versatility and range (and her amazing resemblance to Annette Bening).
She returned to her native England (at least in its setting) for “Ladies in Retirement,” an odd but entertaining tale of Ellen Creed (Lupino), who manages the household of an older woman living in a quaint cottage in Victorian England. Determined to be reunited with her eccentric, somewhat feeble-minded older sisters (the very amusing Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett) she brings them to the cottage for “a visit” that inevitably leads to Mrs. Fiske ordering the sisters, who lack any sense of decorum, out of the house. Adding to this volatile mix is the arrival of the sisters’ conniving cousin (Louis Hayward), who is on the run from the police.
It’s something of a black comedy (years before that was a genre) anchored by Lupino’s exceptional performance as she attempts to keep her wacky sisters in line, outthink her con man cousin and face a series of morally dubious, no-win decisions.
“In Our Time” is a more standard studio picture; a slick, but well done love story set on the cusp of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Paul Henreid, fresh from his memorable turn as Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca” (1942) plays Count Stephen Orvid, who after a whirlwind romance, proposes to the young English assistant (Lupino) of a bossy antiques collector (the irascible Mary Boland) visiting Warsaw. Lupino’s Jenny, at first shy and mild-mannered, takes to her role as a land-owner’s wife, convincing him to modernize the farming methods and give the peasants who work the land a share of the harvest. This upsets Stephen’s controlling uncle, who sees this move toward “democracy” as something more sinister than the encroaching Nazis. Though the word is never spoken, it’s clear he represents those who believed at the time (including many right-wingers in America) that fascism was a lesser evil than communism. Co-screenwriter Howard Koch was later blacklisted.
But the role isn’t much of a challenge for Lupino, especially coming off what was probably her finest film performance the year before as the aggressive, controlling sister of her Broadway-bound sibling (Joan Leslie) in “The Hard Way” (1943). The film earned her the 1943 New York Film Critics best actress award.
Also among her best work are her performances in “Road House” (1948), as a lounge singer who gets caught up in a messy love triangle and in “On Dangerous Ground” (1952), playing a blind woman living in a remote area who struggles with her feelings when a lawman (Robert Ryan) comes looking for her brother, wanted in a killing.
LUCKY YOU (2007)
Maybe the only people who will enjoy this movie are those who spend more hours watching TV poker tournaments than sleeping, which I’m guessing includes the film’s director, Curtis Hanson.
Eric Bana, best know as the assassin with a conscience in “Munich” (2005), plays Huck (telling you right off that this is a film with “big ideas”), a professional poker player whose entire existence is centered around gambling. The film opens with a long scene in a pawn shop where Huck is trying to raise funds for another poker game. His exchanges with the tough-old-bird of a owner are amusing and insightful, but soon afterward the script (by Eric Roth, another “Munich” alumni) turns into a collection of platitudes as he wrestles with his relationship with his new girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) and estranged father (Robert Duvall).
There’s plenty of poker, featuring many real-life players and mostly shot inside the Bellagio (or a very impressive recreation; most of the locations seem real, including the well-known dive bar Dino’s). But Bana just isn’t a strong enough actor or charismatic enough to overcome the repetitiveness of these scenes. He never manages to make Huck real enough to make you care about him.
Barrymore, as a singer just in from Bakersfield, seems a little old for the role (at 32 she’s still playing naïve girl in from the hicks) and never jells with Bana. But the heart of the film is the sparing match between Huck and his father (a two-time World Series of Poker winner) destined to conclude at the poker table in the big tournament. Duvall gives one of his overly mannered performance, never letting the audience forget he’s a great actor at work.
The film doesn’t come close to capturing the chaotic, obsessive life of gamblers, best seen in Robert Altman’s “California Split” (1974). Even a soundtrack featuring songs by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen can’t bring this picture to life.
Hanson, who hit the big time with “L.A. Confidential” (1997) and directed one of 2005’s most underrated films “In Her Shoes,” lets his fascination with the world of professional poker cloud his filmmaking instincts, so by the time he throws down the river card, I had long lost interest.
FEAST OF LOVE (2007)
At age 75, veteran Hollywood director Robert Benton would seem to be the last filmmaker to bring a novel about the current state of romance to the screen. But it has all the elements that have drawn Benton to stories before: flawed, vulnerable but undeniably realistic characters; a feeling of community and a plot that doesn’t take the expected turns.
Benton, who became famous in Hollywood when he co-wrote (with David Newman) the landmark 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” has directed just 11 features, starting with the low-keyed buddy Western “Bad Company” (1972), starring Jeff Bridges. But he has some real gems among those 11, including the comic detective yarn “The Late Show” (1977), starring the peerless Art Carney, in his best film role, and a very kooky and animated Lily Tomlin; 1979’s best picture winner, “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), which also earned Benton Oscars for directing and writing and a couple of acting Oscars for Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; and two tales of small-town life and the people that make them special, “Place in the Heart” (1984) and “Nobody’s Fool” (1994).
Even his failures have been interesting: the Hitchcockian “Still of the Night” (1982) with Streep, “Twilight” (1998) a noirish mystery with Paul Newman and “The Human Stain” (2003), a valiant but disappointing attempt to adapt Philip Roth’s brilliant novel to the screen.
While not among his best films (the ending is a real let down), “Feast of Love” has much to recommend it, reflecting Benton’s skills as a top-flight director of actors and a filmmaker interested in life’s big issues.
The collection of wounded souls in need of love is anchored by Morgan Freeman’s Prof. Harry Stevenson, a gentle, philosophical man, deeply in love with his longtime wife Esther (Jane Alexander), but still pained by the recent death of his adult son. His good friend Bradley (Greg Kinnear) runs the neighborhood coffee house and in the open few minutes of the film is left alone with his dog when his wife (Selma Blair) leaves him for a woman. But he soon meets (and immediately falls for) real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell), who’s having an affair with a married man (Billy Burke).
Over on the younger side of love, Oscar (Toby Hemingway), who works at Bradley’s coffee shop, and new employee Chloe (Alexa Davalos) fall head over heels in love, determined to forge a life together despite their total lack of financial prospects.
Allison Burnett’s screenplay (from a novel by Charles Baxter) smoothly weaves these stories into a single theme about the costs and rewards of devoting one’s self to another. The performances are all quite good, especially newcomer Davalos, who brings a wise, sad gravitas to her love-struck Chloe.
While “Feast of Love” has leisurely, old-fashioned tone, it’s refreshingly adult in both its dialogue and the surprising amount of nudity and explicit sex scenes (the acting skills of Mitchell and Burke are tested when they have an intense, crucial argument totally naked). It’s so rare to see an American movie that treats nudity as a natural state of being, not as a comic device or simply exploitative.