Wednesday, October 1, 2008

September 2008

THE HUSTLER (1961)
Paul Newman was better than anyone at playing the kind of heartless cad you just can't help but root for. It didn’t matter how badly his characters treated those around him or what deceitful methods they used to get what they wanted, this slyly brilliant actor managed to convince us that they were, at heart, just misguided, misunderstood innocents. Maybe it was that always-at-the-ready boyish smile or those otherworldly blue eyes (even in black-and-white) under that heavy, brooding brow that earned him our sympathy, but to me it was Newman’s uncanny ability to free his characters from the easy trappings of their film.


Starting with Eddie Felson in “The Hustler,” through the title characters in “Hud” (1963), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) (he was Butch), and as Reg Dunlop in “Slap Shot” (1977), Frank Galvin in “The Verdict” (1982) and Sully in “Nobody’s Fool” (1994), Newman inhabited characters than transcended what they did and said in their movie; they were fully realized individuals who could show up anywhere----in another film or at your local hardware store looking for a screwdriver. As devoted as Newman was to the Method and his place as the successor to Marlon Brando and James Dean, he also provided a crucial link back to the larger-than-life classic movie stars. He had the same kind of charismatic screen persona that made actors such as Gable, Grant, Stewart and Bogart unforgettable.

After working in television since the early ‘50s, Newman got his break in 1956 (at age 31) when he portrayed boxer Rocky Graziano, a role originally tailored for Dean, in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” It’s not a great performance by any means, but it led to three 1958 pictures that established Newman as both a star and a first-rate actor. In Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” he plays the repressed homosexual Brick married to Elizabeth Taylor’s hungry Cat, earning the first of 9 Oscar nominations, but was equally impressive as the barn burning Faulknerian rogue in “The Long, Hot Summer” and as a Beatnik-like Billy the Kid in “The Left Handed Gun.”

When I heard that Newman had died, the movie I immediately pulled out to watch again was “The Hustler.” It’s a great movie, beautifully directed by Robert Rossen and featuring three nearly perfect supporting performances by Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie, yet you just can’t take your eyes off Newman. His “Fast” Eddie Felson isn’t a nice guy, but he’s supremely confident in his ability as a pool hustler, cocky even when walking into the pool hall home of the country’s best shot maker, Minnesota Fats (a stoic Gleason).

In the marathon pool competition with Fats, which sets up the rest of the movie, Newman’s Eddie goes from impressed fan to crowing winner to drunken, obsessive loser, utilizing the kind of physical acting that was the signature of Marlon Brando or James Dean, But Newman never lets it become mannered or stagy and Eddie always comes off as a guy we’ve all known: in over his head but determined to never give up.

His relationship with the crippled, alcoholic Sarah (Laurie) is among the most unflinchingly harsh ever put on film up to that time, with Newman making believable a character who is both cynical and cold, and romantic and loving.

It’s a great performance, arguably his best, and, in my mine, established Newman as the best actor in American film (replacing a disinterested Brando), a title he held until Jack Nicholson came into his own in the early 1970s.

My other favorite Newman film is “Slap Shot.” He was 52, when he played the foul-mouthed player-coach of a minor league hockey team, struggling with relationships, aging and the out-of-control Hanson brothers.

Newman never stopped giving interesting performances. Just shy of his 70th birthday, he remained at the top of his game, delivering a wonderfully comic turn as the arrogant CEO in “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) and as the small-town curmudgeon reconnecting with his son and grandson in “Nobody’s Fool” (1994). And he gave a towering performance as the stage manager in the 2003 Broadway production of “Our Town,” filmed for PBS.

In the 2005 cable movie “Empire Falls,” Newman is quite amusing as an irresponsible, small town nut, showing no signs that he wasn’t anything but a still vital, commanding performer. It was to be his last performance.

A great star and a greater actor (certainly, among the ten best in American film history), Newman has been equally remembered for his selfless contributions to charitable causes, his fascination with auto racing and his longtime marriage to Joanne Woodward. And I think all those had something to do with making him such an enduring and appealing performer. How can you not love a guy who after 50 years of international fame, would regularly show up on David Letterman’s show for a two-minute gag appearance?

Paul Newman was among the few performers who by sheer talent and the ability to just be himself---not as easy as it sounds----made us all feel as if he was part of our lives.


RIGHTEOUS KILL (2008)
and 88 MINUTES (2008)
Dermatologists and others interested in studying the sixtysomething faces of a pair of movie legends should rush out to see “Righteous Kill.” I can’t remember a film in recent years that relies so heavily on close-ups. Robert De Niro, 65, and Al Pacino, 68, both have very distinctive looks, but I want to see them act not count the layers of skin under their eyes. (For the record, Bob has aged more gracefully than Al, but who really cares?)

The script, by Russell Gewirtz, doesn’t offer these acting giants much to do in this melodramatic cop thriller about long-time partners on the trail of a serial killer. The heavy-handed dialogue and turgid direction by Jon Avnet (who also directed Pacino in “88 Minutes”) would have sent this picture straight to the DVD bin at Big Lots if two of the cinema’s greatest actors hadn’t decided that this was a worthy vehicle to re-unite. They had worked together in the vastly superior “Heat” (1995), but that film featured only one scene of the pair together.

Recently, Los Angeles Times movie industry columnist Patrick Goldstein took De Niro and Pacino to task for seemingly abdicating the artist aspirations they once had, instead accepting second-rate roles for a paycheck.

Both actors have been in a bunch of bad movies going back to the 1990s: De Niro’s last good role was in “Ronin” (1998), but Pacino gave a great performance in “Insomnia” in 2002, not to mention his impressive work in the cable movie “Angels in America” (2003). As much as I admire Goldstein’s nerve in calling out these legends, I wonder exactly how many good roles are being offered to actors their age---I don’t care if your name is De Niro or Harrison Ford, Pacino or Michael Douglas. All we can really do is judge the work they take and hope the next one is better.

In “Righteous Kill,” Pacino’s Rooster is the more cerebral, steady detective who spends most of the movie trying to calm down the volatile Turk (De Niro), the more interesting character. Not only is Turk involved in a kinky, violent sexual relationship with another detective (Carla Gugino), but also early in the film, he plants a gun to nail a despicable murder suspect. Because he has the better role, De Niro comes off best, but neither of these performances will make either actor’s Top 10.

Pacino’s work in “88 Minutes,” released earlier this year, makes “Righteous Kill” look like Oscar bait. He plays a strutting college professor/forensic psychologist whose life is being threatened on the day a serial killer he helped convict is schedule to be executed. What’s next for Avnet, the Ted Bundy story? Pacino barks orders at his assistants and students like he’s directing a road show of “Hamlet” while others are killed around him. It’s a ridiculous film that should have starred Eric Roberts, not a film legend.


BURN AFTER READING (2008)
For more than 20 years, Joel and Ethan Coen have been assembling a collection of cinematic goofballs unmatched since the screwball mastery of Preston Sturges.

From Nicolas Cage’s family-loving robber in “Raising Arizona” (1987) to the Dude in “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and George Clooney’s wide-eyed crooner in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), along with a host of nutty supporting players, the brothers have peopled their films with three-dimensional cartoons. Irrational innocents who are harmlessly self-obsessed, these characters are likely to do anything, yet retain just enough human traits to maintain our sympathies.

Their latest comedy---a far cry from their deadly serious 2007 best picture winner “No Country for Old Men”----has the required allotment of crazies, but not much else. Brad Pitt’s spastic personal trainer Chad, dumb as a doorbell but possessing the energy of a newly adopted puppy, and his gym co-worker Linda (Frances McDormand), not much brighter and determined that having her body redone is the only way she’ll find the man of her dreams, get their hands on a disk they believe contains CIA secrets and set out to make the most of it.

In hopes of a reward, they contact the author, an ex-CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, portrayed by a ghoulish-looking John Malkovich, who has just lost his job, is drinking too much and is being cheated on by his tightly wound, controlling wife (last year’s Oscar winner Tilda Swinton). All the parts of this screwy tale are individually amusing, but the brothers’ surprisingly flat dialogue and the odd side trips the plot takes keep the film from ever taking flight. Most surprising is the meandering performance by George Clooney, whose role as a serial philanderer (he’s involved with Osbourne’s wife among others) never makes much sense or gets many laughs, creating long periods of tedium in this otherwise fast-moving picture.

The highlights of this disappointing film for me were the CIA scenes, with David Rasche, as Osbourne’s former boss, keeping his boss (the always unflappable J.K. Simmons) updated on the goings-on of these insane characters. Simmons sums it all up at one point when he tells Rasche, “Report back to me when it makes sense.”


TROG (1970)
This unintentionally comic sci-fi tale is best known as the final film of screen legend Joan Crawford. While her choice for her last appearance is embarrassing, she doesn’t give a bad performance. She’s actually very convincing as a scientist running a clinic in rural England who rescues a cave-dwelling creature who may be the missing link and tries to civilize him.

The monkey-man looks like the half-wit cousin of the gang from “Planet of the Apes” and about as believable as a grade-schooler’s Halloween costume.

The plot follows the well-worn “Frankenstein” model: sympathetic, forward-looking scientist battles the frightened masses (in this case just one loud-mouthed businessman) until the “monster” escapes and goes on a rampage.

Freddie Francis, a two-time Oscar winning cinematographer----“Sons and Lovers” (1960) and “Glory” (1989)----who as a director made two dozen horror flicks, brings professionalism to this half-baked story, which is probably the last thing it needed.


SUMMER PALACE (2008)
This intense coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of student unrest in China during the late ‘80s, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square confrontation, is a compelling character study despite occasionally being confusing and politically ambiguous. In fact, I suspect the government of China, which banned the film and prohibited director Lou Ye (best known for “Purple Butterfly”) from making films for five years, was more upset about the film’s explicit sex than its political content.

Yu Hong (played by the impressive, fearless Lei Hao) leaves her small town along the China-North Korea border to attend Beijing University and quickly finds the smart, politically aware and rebellious crowded at the school. Yu befriends the sexy, outspoken Li and, through her, Zhou Wei, a popular upper classman who embarks on a love-hate relationship with Yu. Acting like Western students of the 1960s and ‘70s, they show equal passion for sex and politics. The eroticism, as in Ang’s Lee “Lust, Caution” (2007), borders on soft porn but marks an important step in the evolving cinema of China, knocking down another barrier.

When it opened in theaters in February, most reviews of “Summer Palace” seemed to miss that director Ye makes a point of never showing the militia shooting at students during the sit-in at Tiananmen Square. You only see them shooting in the air to disperse the crowd; the film seems to buy into the official line that no students were killed and that the students were the cause of the trouble.

Yet Yu and her friends seem more interested in the intoxicating talk of revolutions than the real thing. The film loses some of its steam as the students go their separate ways after college and their definition of a relationship changes. The director is clearly at his best in the cramped environment of dorm rooms and nightspots, utilizing hand-held camera work and rapid cutting.

It’s the performance of Lei Hao, a Chinese television actress, who makes the film worth watching. In nearly every frame of this 2 hour and 20 minute film, she portrays an unfocused girl-woman struggling to find herself and her place in a society whose long-held rules are suddenly being tossed aside.


PROUD AMERICAN (2008)
Mixing docudrama tales of minorities struggling against all odds to find success with sweeping shots (it was shown at IMAX and regular theaters) of American landmarks, rousing music and heavy-handed narration, this movie could pass as a production of the U.S. State Department.

Opening with a routine about living in America by 1990s comic Yakov Smirnoff, “Proud American” at first seems like it’s going to be about immigrants and minorities finding their place in society, but pretty much anything that makes you feel patriotic gets a few minutes. Writer-director-producer Fred Ashman (who has made other IMAX features) also throws in highlights from the dramatic episodes throughout the film as if we need reminded of what was on the screen 20 minutes before.

The dramatizations, though strangely under-lit, are the highlights of this disjointed presentation, which seems more suited to a Fourth of July television special than a theatrical release.


5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955)
and NIGHTFALL (1957)

      Until I saw these two entertaining crime films, my impression of Brian Keith was that of the sleepy, witless Uncle Bill on the TV series “Family Affair.” I had seen him in a few movies---“The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming” (1966), “Reflections of a Golden Eye” (1967), “The Wind and the Lion” (1975)---but he inevitably came off as a forgettable, colorless actor.

But he shines as a heavy in both of these films: he’s a calmly determined murderer pursuing an innocent victim in “Nightfall” and in “5 Against the House” he plays a disturbed Korean War-vet who joins his college chums in a casino heist. In these films, made when he was in his mid-30s, Keith comes off as a very promising actor, bringing subtlety to roles that could easily have been over-the-top clich├ęs.

“5 Against the House,” directed by Phil Karlson, a well-regarded maker of B-movies best know for “Kansas City Confidential (1952) and his late-career hit “Walking Tall” (1973), is interesting in the way it depicts the Korean War veterans now trying to adapted to college life. More than in most movies of the era, the characters are consistently sarcastic in their conversations and cynical in their outlook for the future. They seem more like characters from the ‘70s.

Guy Madison, a second-rate William Holden, plays Al, who has the job of calming down his best buddy Brick (Keith) when his temper gets out of control. But as Al starts spending more time with his girlfriend (Kim Novak at her sexiest, in just her third film) Brick and two other friends (including Alvy Moore, who went on to play Hank Kimball on “Green Acres”) come up with a hair brain plan to rob a Reno casino. When the plan begins to fall apart, Brick flips out.

In “Nightfall,” Aldo Ray plays an advertising artist who finds himself on the run after his camping buddy is killed during an encounter with Keith and his trigger-happy partner after a holdup. It’s a game of cat and mouse as Ray, with help from a girl he meets in a Hollywood Boulevard nightspot played by Anne Bancroft, eludes Keith and an insurance investigator (James Gregory). This is a real battle of low-key tough guys as Ray and Keith both whisper their way through the roles.

Film noir veteran Jacques Tourneur, though past his best years that produced “Cat People” (1942) and “Out of the Past” (1947), does a nice job of maintaining the dark mood and threat of violence, working with a first-rate script by Stirling Silliphant.

Keith was primarily a TV actor and didn’t have his flirtation with movie stardom until the 1960s, during and after his popular series. Just before his death in 1997, he received good reviews for his portrayal of President McKinley in the John Milius-directed TV movie “Rough Rider.”


ELEGY (2008)
Based on Phillip Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal,” this impeccably acted film is a daring, refreshingly adult and ultimately honest examination of a May-December love affair between a gorgeous literature student and a famous writer-professor.

David Kepesh, another of Roth’s alter-egos who was also the subject of novels “The Breast” and “The Professor of Desire,” has enjoyed professional success but failure in relationships and now, in his late 50s or early 60s, moves from one sexual conquest to the next. When Consuela Castillo, a first generation Cuban, sits in the front row of his class, Kepesh bides his time until the semester ends and he can ethically make his move.

What he doesn’t expect is to fall head over heals in love with this much younger woman, completely with feelings of petty jealousy and anxiety when she doesn’t call. Kepesh acts like a schoolboy experiencing his first crush, yet burdened with his instinctual fear of a long-term relationship.

Roth’s writings in recent years have focused on the psychology of the aging male; his pining for youthful companionship, the regret of lost love and a youth misspent. This film, better than the other recent adaptation, “The Human Stain” (2003), shows a deep understanding of Roth and his characters. (Veteran screenwriter Nicholas Meyer wrote both adaptations.)

Spanish director Isabel Coixet does two things well in “Elegy” that American directors rarely do: portray intellectuals without making them into nerds or snobs and depict sexual relations without letting the sex dominate the story.

Much of the credit must go to Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz, both doing some of the best work of their careers, as Kepesh and Consuela. Kingsley, bald and not classically handsome, radiates a mature sexuality and tough-guy sensitivity that makes the unlikely relationship believable. Cruz, beyond looking stunning, has now mastered the language and delivers they kind of charismatic and emotionally complex performance she before seemed only capable of when speaking her native Spanish. Her work in both “Elegy” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” deserved Oscar consideration.

Nearly as memorable are two first-rate supporting performances, by the always interesting Patricia Clarkson, as Kepesh’s long-time, but only occasional bed-partner and Dennis Hopper, playing a famous poet and Kepesh’s best friend (“Horatio to your third-rate Hamlet,” he says sarcastically), who tries to get him to face reality. It’s Hopper’s best performance in years as he tosses out all those Hopperisms he has been falling back on since the late 1980s and provides some of the films most touching moments.


STOP-LOSS (2008)
Director Kymberly Peirce understands the dynamics of small-town life. Her debut, “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), chronicled narrow-minded, aimless teens in rural Nebraska who turn ugly when they can’t understand a girl pretending to be a boy. “Stop-Loss,” her second film, follows a group of soldiers from a small Texas town dealing with the aftermath of a harrowing tour in Iraq.

They return home as heroes not long after a bloody ambush that leaves one of their buddies severely wounded and another dead. Platoon commander Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) blames himself and is struggling with the guilty, while Steve (Channing Tatum) can’t wait to get back into battle and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has shut down emotionally, drinking himself into a stupor.

Brandon (the same first name as Hilary Swank’s character in “Boys Don’t Cry”) has hopes of trying to get on with his life when he’s told by an officer that he’s been stop-lossed and must return to Iraq for another tour. This back-door draft, extending those who signed up for a specific service time, has been used extensively in this war because of the lack of volunteers. While it’s a bit of a stretch that Brandon is surprised when it happens (he surely would have heard many soldiers complain of the practice in Iraq), his reaction is not surprising. Instead of reporting for duty, he goes AWOL.

Peirce and co-screenwriter Mark Richard don’t have a good idea of what to do with Brandon (and his friend’s girlfriend who goes along) once he’s on the run, but the film’s strength is in the small-town world that shapes each of the characters’ understanding of duty and patriotism and what that becomes after mixing in the intense, life-and-death experience of warfare.

Phillippe continues to grow as an actor, following up good work in “Crash” (2004) and “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), and showing he’s capable of carrying a movie. But giving the best performance in the film is Gordon-Levitt, maybe the best young actor in American movies. He delivers another intense, complex performance, matching what he did in the independent films “Mysterious Skin” (2004) and “Brick” (2005). He’s just one high-profile film away from becoming a star.