Sunday, September 21, 2008

July 2003

Chen Kaige, one of China’s most important filmmakers, has made a deceptively simple movie with “Together.” This heart-tugging tale follows the travails of a father and his violin-prodigy son who leave the countryside for Beijing in hopes of fame and fortune.

The first half of the film is a comedy, centering on the bumpkin-like antics of the father (Liu Peiqi), who, despite his inappropriate manner, secures a respected, if unconventional, piano teacher for the son. But it soon becomes clear that if the son is going to enjoy big-time success, he’ll need to drop the offbeat teacher he’s become attached to and sign on with a slicker, agent-like mentor (portrayed by the director).

Also part of the melodrama is a prostitute (Chen Hong, Chen’s wife) with a heart of gold, who lives in the same apartment building as the father and son and befriends the young boy.

Chen, best know for his brilliant epic “Farewell My Concubine” (1993), would seem to be too smart of a director for the cliché push-and-pull plot turns in the last 30 minutes of the film, but clearly his focus isn’t on the details of the drama but on the story it represents. In the past decade, throughout China, countryside villages have been emptied as workers flock to the big cities to get a piece of the new economy. While many are making more money than they ever imagined, social critics are questioning what the country is losing as these individuals and their village traditions disappear into the big-city rat race. Chen looks at the struggle through the father-son relationship and how it becomes splintered by the success-focused piano teacher.

While the film wears its symbolism on its sleave, the themes never overwhelm the characters-even if you don’t care about Chinese politics, “Together” is a moving story and a fascinating peek inside contemporary China.

Cary Cooper, in the right role, was among the best actors in movie history. In the wrong role, he was hard to watch. Lacking a strong director, Cooper tended to play up his bumbling, dopey-boy persona and fumbled through line readings. If you look at his best performances, inevitably a top-notch director is at the helm: Frank Capra for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Meet John Doe”; William Wellman for “Beau Geste”; William Wyler for “The Westerner”; Howard Hawks for “Sergeant York” and “Ball of Fire”; and Sam Wood for “The Pride of the Yankees” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”; and Fred Zinnemann for “High Noon.”

Stephen Roberts, a B-level director of the 1930s, was behind the camera for this episodical, offbeat mix of drama and comedy about a turn-of-the-century dentist who recalls a failed romance that led to his marriage. Cooper is especially ineffective playing drunk in the opening scenes where he learns that his old flame and her husband are back in town. Most of the film is told in flashback, with a 32-year-old Cooper playing a naive, love struck twentysomething who keeps making a fool of himself to win the love of a flirtation young lady played by Fay Wray. When she runs off to marry Cooper’ best friend (played by Neil Hamilton), Cooper is stuck with the mousy Frances Fuller. She has the thankless (and unbelievable) role of pretending Cooper loves her when she knows he continues to pine for Wray.

Hollywood loved this story (from a play by James Hagan), remaking it as “The Strawberry Blonde” with James Cagney in 1941 and then as a musical, “One Summer Afternoon” in 1948. But those versions avoided the darker part of the tale, in which Cooper’s plans to become a dentist are sidetrack when he kills a security guard after being fired from a factory job. Yet this serious turn doesn’t add much weight to the picture. It just feels like another episode in a series uninvolving plot turns. Most disappointing, the script never tries to explain what keeps Fuller’s character loyal to this odd marriage. Also never explained is the couple’s lack of children, quite unusual in an era when marriage was all about childbearing.

If you ever watched the 1960s TV series “Batman,” Cooper’s turncoat buddy who marries Wray will look very familiar. Neil Hamilton, who capped a long acting career playing Commissioner Gordon on “Batman,” was a star for D.W. Griffith and other top directors in the 1920s before becoming a much-in-demand character actor in the 1930s. Ironically, he played the lead role in the silent version of “Beau Geste,” a role Cooper played in 1935.


If this was the 1960s, Theo Angelopoulos would be as famous as Bergman or Fellini. Instead this 68-year-old Greek filmmaker is unknown outside of Europe and the film buff crowd. But his films have been winning festival awards since the 1970s and this film won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1998.

His best known movies in this country are “Landscape in the Mist” (1988), and “Ulysses’ Gaze” (1996), a Cannes’ runner-up that stars Harvey Keitel as a film historian searching the Balkans for a legendary lost film from the turn of the century. A typical Angelopoulos film is dense, ponderous, gorgeously photographed and rarely less than two-and-half hours long.

As the title of this film suggests, the action all takes place in a day but deals with eternity. One man’s eternity: A writer, who is scheduled for life-threatening surgery the following day, explores the meaning of his life while trying to help out a homeless boy he rescues from the cops. The movie is filled with memorable set-pieces that illuminate the eternal struggle of man to understand his place in the world. In a beautifully staged wedding ceremony, Angelopoulos drives home his point of how hard it is to put aside individual interests even in the midst of someone else’s celebration.

Bruno Ganz, the German actor who has made a career of playing weighty protagonists in such films as Wim Wender’s “Wing s of Desire” (1987) , Gillian Armstrong’s “The Last Days of Chez Nous” (1993) and the French film “Bread & Tulips (2000), finds the right balance of brooding intellectual and emotional humanist in this role that must carry the burden of all of mankind.

I haven’t been that impressed with the foreign imports of the past decade or so, but “Eternity and a Day” is a monumental film that ranks with such recent great foreign-language pictures as “Red” (1994) and “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991).

This is a very odd norish B-movie that begins with a young boxer (Ralph Meeker) walking out of the ring right before the biggest fight of his career.

From that point, Meeker’s Socks Barbarrosa attempts to restore his reputation, especially the opinion of the imperious Judge (Kurt Kasznar), the blind father of Meeker’s girlfriend, played by Leslie Caron.

This forgettable, episodically picture is highlighted by its faux New Orleans setting and the presence of Louis Armstrong. Offensively cast as Shadow, the Judge’s trusted guide, Armstrong occasionally steps out of his stereotype role and blows his mighty coronet. And for fans of Caron, the film is a must. Playing a star cabaret dancer, this may be her sexist role.

Director Raoul Walsh usually solid storytelling skills are nowhere to be found here.

For those who can’t help stopping at A&E when you hear the melodious tones of Paul Winfield describing yet another small town where some bizarre crime has taken place, don’t miss this documentary. Frustrating, deceptive, journalistically shaky and even-handed to a fault, this retelling of a child molestation case against a middle-age man and his son is hard to dismiss.

Without getting into the details of the charges against Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse--which you’ve probably read about even if you haven’t seen the film--here are some of my problems with the way director Andrew Jarecki approaches his subject:

1) He holds back key, damning information about Arnold Friedman until near the end of the film.

2) His interviews--at least the portions he chose to use--with both accusers and law enforcement personal are superficial. He fails to challenge pat answers and rarely pushes his subjects to defend their conclusions.

3) His use of Friedman home movies shot after the charges were filed does little but offer a voyeuristic look at a dysfunctional family fighting to survive. What I wanted was more information to make a judgment on the two men’s guilt not finger-pointing arguments at the kitchen table.

4) And maybe most damning, the director fails to thoroughly probe exactly how the information used for the criminal complaints--some 352 incidences of sexual molestation--were elicited from the children. At one point, one of the alleged victims discusses recovered memory theory, the now-disreputed method of accusing molesters made infamous in the McMartin case. No more light is shed on that aspect and it was never clear, at least to me, if police heard even a single child make claims against the Friedmans without being prompted.

Having said all that, this is a provocative piece of filmmaking, which makes one, yet again, question the reliability of the criminal justice system and the weight our court system puts on image over facts. Nothing earthshaking in that, but this is a particularly horrific example.

By the end of this theatrical car wreck, you’re exhausted, confused and in bad need of a conclusion. Despite huge gaps in the body of evidence, and little clarity on any aspect of the case, it’s only human to judge. To me, the Friedmans are guilty. Not guilty of the full litany of overblown charges, filled with ridiculously fantastic horror stories, that law enforcement would have you believe. But I can’t help thinking that under all the piling-on done by prosecutors, there is a sliver of truth. I also have a feeling that the filmmaker thinks the same thing, but he never plays that card.

What a wonderful idea for a comedy: three ordinary guys are determined to be superheroes in a city dominated by a legitimate, if egotistical, superhero.

The first half of “Mystery Men” lives up to its possibilities, as William H. Macy (as The Shoveller), Hank Azaria (as the fork-tossing Blue Raja) and Ben Stiller (as Mr. Furious) recruit a team of equally lame heroes. Janeane Garofalo, so perfect as the talent booker on “The Larry Sanders Show,” steals the second half of the film as a quirky heroine with a lethal bowling ball. And the always-entertaining Tom Waits shows up as a trash-arms dealer that supplies the rag-tag gang.

The picture loses its steam when the petulant Stiller quits the group and then the film falls apart when it descends to the level of every other action-fantasy in the over-long climatic battle.
Underutilized is Greg Kinnear, whose vain Captain Amazing should have played a more prominent role.

The script by Neil Cuthbert, based on a comic book series by Bob Burden, had possibilities, but novice director Kinka Usher (now that’s a superhero-like name) lets the film become too much action and not enough comedy.

This preposterous melodrama of a young man led into a life of crime by an older wise guy would never have played again after 1939 if it didn’t star Humphrey Bogart.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1941, with “High Sierra,” that Bogart became a star. And 16 years later he was dead. But in those years, he made nine films that are among the most beloved of all time and a dozen other superb pictures that benefit from Bogey’s charismatic screen presence. The quality of the more than 30 movies he made in during the 1930s varies greatly, but Bogart is always Bogart and that makes them all worth watching.


No one has ever accused veteran director Alan Parker of being subtle. Even in his best work --“Midnight Express” (1978), “Shoot the Moon” (1982), “Birdy” (1985) and “Mississippi Burning” (1988)--Parker uses a sledge hammer to drive his points home and allows his actors to liberally chew on the scenery. This film, a sophomoric condemnation of the death penalty, isn’t near his best and wastes the considerable talents of its impressive cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet and Laura Linney.

Spacey plays Gale, a former college philosophy professor who awaits his execution for the murder of his anti-capital punishment activist Constance (Linney). Four days before the state is scheduled to take his life, Gale allows hotshot magazine journalist Bitsey Bloom (Winslet) three interview sessions in which he prods her to investigate this miscarriage of justice. Only a total fool (which Bitsey is made out to be--even her name smells of Parker, or screenwriter Charles Randolph, lashing out at a writer who did him wrong) wouldn’t recognize that this is a set-up, especially when evidence starts dropping in her lap.

The surprise ending is so obvious that I guessed it less than halfway into the film. And, believe me, I can’t remember the last time my mid-movie speculations were proved correct.

We are clearly meant to see Gale as a political martyr and Bitsey as a stalwart of investigative reporting, but instead they both come off as pretentious egotists, using each other for self promotion. I don’t support capitol punishment, but this film gives the cause a bad name.

This French drama set in the 1850s offers a triangle as complex and fascinating as any in recent films.

Juliette Binoche, who at 39 is among the most beautiful and talented actresses in the world, plays the free-spirited wife of a French military officer (played by stoic French star Daniel Auteuil) living on the French province of Saint-Pierre, an island off Canada.

The third part of the triad is an illiterate local fisherman, who is condemned to death after he kills a man during a drunken lark. This likable, bear-like man is played by Yugoslavian filmmaker Emir Kusturica.

While they await the arrival of a guillotine (the French government has decreed it the only method of execution), Binoche takes the condemned man under her wing--with the approval of her husband. The passionate couple seem to enjoy treating the hardworking prisoner as an equal as the town’s tony set begins to gossip. The controversy becomes more heated as the murderer fathers a child and saves a woman’s life just before the guillotine arrives.

The grand tragedy of the final act has the sweep of a Shakespearean play while director Patrice Leconte utilizes the expressive faces of the three actors to create (with master cinematographer Eduardo Serra) meaningful images worthy of a silent classic.

Leconte seems to be the French master of unusual relationships, having profiled odd couples in his acclaimed films, “The Hairdresser’s Husband” and “Monsieur Hire.”

This film works on so many levels that it’s almost impossible to describe without shortchanging its impact or revealing too much detail and ruining it.

Basically, “Swimming Pool” follows a middle-aged English writer unable to get started on her latest tale in her series of best-selling mystery novels. Her publisher, possibly an ex-lover, offers up his French vacation home as a sanctuary for her to unwind and get back on track.

Sarah barely settles into the quaint rural getaway when the publisher’s rambunctious teenage daughter shows up. Forced to share the grounds, the sexually and emotionally repressed Sarah develops a love-hate relation with the girl--one is never sure if she’s enamored of the teen who takes to lounging by the pool naked and dragging home assorted men from the nearby town or thinking of killing her.

Secrets and lies or maybe both are exposed at an increasing rate as the film nears its end. And the film concludes with a revelation that changes what one thinks about the entire movie in the same way that the denouncements did in “The Others” or “The Sixth Sense,” but without the supernatural aspects.

What elevates this movie above its cleverness is Charlotte Rampling’s raw, full-bodied, unpretentious portrayal of Sarah. After years of getting few decent roles, the slender, still sexy 58-year-old British actress (she’s lived in France since her 1983 marriage to a French composer), gave two impressive performances in 2001, in “Signs and Wonders” and “Under the Sand,” directed by “Swimming Pool” director Francois Ozon. Not since the early 1980s--when she gave a brilliant turn as Woody Allen’s psychotic girlfriend in “Stardust Memories” (1980) and opposite Paul Newman in “The Verdict” (1982)--has her career been so hot. Back then, she was all about long limbs, exotic eyes and a whisky voice; now Rampling has a quieter, internalized style. These three recent roles have all allowed her to reveal a woman who is smart, worldly and independent but deeply vulnerable to the pain of being alone. Let’s hope someone in this country takes notice and offers her a meaty role while she’s in the midst of this creative run.

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