Sunday, November 2, 2008

October 2008

W. (2008)
When it comes to the critics, Oliver Stone can’t win. If he had pulled out his sledgehammer and made a no-holds-barred, political attack film, he would have been dismissed as taking on an easy target and showing no restraint. Instead, he made a funny, thoughtful and balanced look at George W. Bush’s rise to the presidency and critics say he’s gone soft and should have shown no mercy in depicting the sitting president.

To me, certainly no fan of Mr. Bush, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (“Wall Street”) have done a superb job of dramatizing the unlikely path “W.” took to the White House and how those around him used him to promote their own agendas. He’s certainly taken plenty of liberties (as he is want to do) in showing Bush’s relationships with his wife, father and mother, but everything rings true and helps explain the man we see in public. What really makes this a standout picture is the phenomenal performance by Josh Brolin as the president. He’s made up to slightly resemble Bush, but he’s really nailed his odd speech pattern, his body language and that irritating half-laugh. Just about the time President Bush is moving out of the White House, Brolin should be collecting an Oscar nomination for playing Stone’s version of Bush.

Few presidents have lived such an unsettled, wild life well into the 30s, when he finally turned his life around after becoming a reborn Christian and accepting his place in the family business. The film depicts these years fairly, I think, avoiding the easy route of making Bush look like a buffoon; he comes off as no different than thousands of other sons struggling to live up to a father’s fame. It’s that relationship, between Bush and his father (superbly portrayed by James Cromwell), that is the film’s most fascinating. You can understand how Bush takes on an attitude when you see his father and mother (Ellen Burstyn) get upset when he tells them he’s running for governor. They were more concern with not causing any problems for Jeb, who was running for governor in Florida that year.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally convincing: Toby Jones as Bush’s alter-ego Karl Rove, Richard Dreyfuss as the manipulative Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as the cautious Colin Powell and Elizabeth Banks as a perky, devoted Laura Bush. Thandie Newton does a very funny imitation of Condoleezza Rice, but it plays like something from an “SNL” routine rather than a feature film.

Whether Stone is taking us inside the Oval Office during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq or to a Texas barbeque where bourbon and politics flow freely, “W.” offers a smart, believable take on the making of our 43rd President.

SLEUTH (2007)
I’ve never been a big fan of the 1972 version of Anthony Shaffer’s play; as enjoyable as the acting battle between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine can be, the ridiculously overwrought dialogue takes all the fun out of the game. This updated, even slicker version----a virtual total rewrite by the great playwright Harold Pinter---pushes the hyper-reality of the original right into camp territory.

The most interesting part of this film is the clever casting of Caine, this time in the older role of Andrew Wyke, and Jude Law, who remade Caine’s signature role in “Alfie” (2004), as Milo Tindle, the role Caine played in 1972. This time around, Wyke, still a mystery novelist, lives not in a cozy, game-filled old mansion, but in a sleek, ultra-modern glass-and-steel museum of a house. (The room where Wyke keeps copies of his novels is the most outlandish depiction of a writer’s ego you’ll ever see).

Milo, the young lover of Wyke’s wife, arrives at the famous man’s house, to persuade him to divorce the unfaithful Marguerite. Instead Wyke offers a plan to help Milo keep her in a fashion she’s accustomed to. From that point on, “Sleuth” is one double-cross, con game after another as Wyke refuses to accept the idea of losing his wife.

Director Kenneth Branagh, who has yet to make a satisfactory contemporary film, must have thought that shooting through glass, from behind furniture, from the ceiling and every odd angle imaginable would somehow invigorate this two-character story, but it’s just distracting. By the final act, when Pinter’s screenplay goes off the deep end of believability, even a fine performance by Caine and a game one by Law can’t save this foolish film.

Veteran independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom has spent much of his career exploring characters who struggle with identity and image issues. In two of his best recent films, “Last Summer in the Hamptons” (1995) and “Festival in Cannes” (2002), and again in this new film, he’s looking at those issues as they apply to actors.

Where “Hollywood Dreams” falls short is with the casting of newcomer Tanna Frederick as the flighty, unstable Margie, just off the bus from Iowa who is determined to become a movie star. To make this film work, viewers have to be rooting for Margie as she embarrasses herself over and over in pursuit of stardom. Maybe it was just me (it did have a long run last summer in a theater in Santa Monica), but I found this woman so irritating and truly disturbed that I was wishing she’d find a good therapist rather than a starring role.

This being the movie capital of the world, when Margie is walking aimlessly in Santa Monica she meets a movie producer (Jaglom veteran Zack Norman), who promptly invites her to stay at the Hollywood Hills mansion he shares with his lover. Also staying with the “producers,” is a somewhat successful young actor (Justin Kirk) who is pretending to be gay to get ahead in the business. When Margie and the supposively gay Robin fall for each other, it becomes such a big deal that his mentors worry it will ruin his career. Jaglom not only makes fun of Hollywood’s obsession with keeping all homosexual actors or actresses in the closet by turning the tables on the issue, but also shows how far people will go for their dreams of stardom.

This is Frederick first leading role and while she does have some nice moments in “Hollywood Dreams,” mostly in the scenes she has with Melissa Leo (star of “Frozen River”) who plays her beloved aunt, but she just isn’t ready carry a feature film. Unless that’s the joke Jaglom is playing----casting a novice to play a novice. But even in a low-budget Henry Jaglom film that doesn’t fly. And to make matters worse, she stars in Jaglom’s yet to be released next film “Irene in Time.”

I can’t resist watching anytime TCM shows one of the movies re-packaged from two-part episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” television series, my favorite show when I was a kid. During its four-year run (1964-68), I anxiously awaited Monday nights for the next episode, completely enthralled by every tidbit of information about Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin and their mysterious organization. I even set up my own “U.N.C.L.E.” headquarters in the basement of our house.

Their escapades in “The Spy in the Green Hat” (originally titled during the run of the series as “The Concrete Overcoat Affair”) play out like nearly every episode----a scientist gone bad is lured by “THRUSH,” the diabolical (and seemingly better manned) enemy of “U.N.C.L.E.,” to create some world-threatening weapon. I didn’t even notice who the spy wearing a green hat was, but Jack Palance plays the “THRUSH” henchman who has plans to warm up Greenland at the same time he send the rest of the world into a long freeze. It plays more like a plot out of “Batman,” and Palance acts as if he’s one of the cartoonish villains of that comic series. He seems to be doing a bad Peter Lorre imitation and moves around like he’s in pain.

Coming off better is his knife-wielding assistant played by Janet Leigh, who tortures Illya (David McCallum) even though she has the hots for him. The most amusing part of the movie involves three elderly Italian-American mobsters who are after Napoleon (Robert Vaughn) to marry their niece after he’s found in her room. Played by veteran character actors Allen Jenkins, Eduardo Ciannelli and Jack La Rue---familiar faces from the 1930s and ‘40s----the three Stilletto uncles (get it?) help out in the battle to stop “THRUSH,” reliving the old days of the Prohibition mob wars. If veteran TV director Joseph Sargent had been able to get Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney for the Palance role these episodes would have been memorable. Instead, it’s only of interest to those of us who still have our three-cornered, yellow “U.N.C.L.E.” badge.

This continuation of the acclaimed television series about the lives of four women in search of love in Manhattan isn’t so much a movie as pornography for shopaholics. Shoes, dresses, hats, bags, apartments, restaurants, vacations and everything in between are the measures of success in this film that feels like a remnant of the 1990s.

The razor thin plot hovers around the upcoming (and then delayed) nuptials of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), whose column on relationships serves as the film’s (and TV show’s) narrative base and longtime, very rich beau Big (Chris Noth). At nearly two and half hours, the film has plenty of time to chronicle the ups and downs of Carrie’s trio of friends----Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon)----but the story never veers far from Carrie’s emotional travails.

This film doesn’t do justice to the television series, which was clever and sexy but also could be insightful and poignant. Like so many TV-based movies (“The Simpsons,” “Bewitched,” “The Hulk”) it just cashes in on the name and characters to make more money.

This high-profile Ridley Scott-directed movie has a problem: It’s an action film, but it’s mostly just talk and, despite all the talk, the film doesn’t have much to say.

Russell Crowe, who starred for Scott in “The Gladiator” (2000) and “American Gangster” (2007), plays Ed Hoffman, a high-ranking American intelligence official and the only contact for fearless, spy on the ground Roger Ferris (a grungy Leonardo DiCaprio) as he pursues Middle East terrorists. While Ferris goes headfirst into danger, Hoffman is shown giving orders on his Blue Tooth phone while at his home surrounded by his family. So blatantly a stand-in for a thoughtless, self-centered, imperious foreign policy, Hoffman is barely a character. Crowe doesn’t have a chance to breath life into this miserable man, who seems to do everything in his power to keep Ferris from succeeding.

Screenwriter William Monahan, as he was in his Oscar-winning script for “The Departed,” is more interested in the behind-the-scenes plotting than the typically disappointing results. As much as I appreciate the realism he brings to the story, this is an action film and way too much screen time is spent on petty, pointless arguments.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the relationship between Ferris and the head of Jordan’s undercover police (played by charismatic British actor Mark Strong) and how difficult Washington/Hoffman make it for cooperation. It’s certainly not a news flash that America, especially during the past eight years, has all but refused to be a team player when it comes to intelligence matters. But seeing how that stubbornness plays out is this film’s greatest strength---along with DiCaprio.

In “Body of Lies,” the actor, as he was in “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed,” is the perfect action star: tough and determined, defiant and cynical, yet vulnerable when an attractive woman arrives on the scene. Along with being the biggest star of his generation, DiCaprio is becoming one of the best actors of his era.


Trevor Howard never reached the movie stardom of fellow English actors Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness or Claude Rains, yet for about 20 years he was one of the most interesting performers in film, regularly taking on challenging, complex roles.

After his breakthrough performance as the sympathetic married man falling in love with a stranger he meets at a train station in David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” (1945), Howard developed a tougher, more cynical screen persona, often playing intelligent, but rarely happy, authority figures.

He seems miscast in Lean’s attempt to recapture the magic of “Brief Encounter” in “The Passionate Friends,” a star vehicle for Lean’s wife Ann Todd. Looking younger than his age, the 32-year-old Howard plays the ex-lover of the now-married Todd (to a passionless Claude Rains) who resumes the affair when they run into each other at a resort. But when she decides to stay with Rains, Howard’s character gets on with his life. As strange as it sounds, the actor isn’t believable as a content, adjusted man. The film never comes close to having the impact of “Brief Encounter,” even when the Todd-Rains relationship grows more volatile as she continues to obsess over Howard.

The next year, he played the sensible English policeman standing between a pair of emotional Americans, (Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles) in a thrilling tale of post-war Vienna, “The Third Man,” one of the true masterpieces of 20th Century filmmaking. Howard and “Third Man” director Carol Reed collaborated again in “Outcast of the Islands,” a Joseph Conrad story of an ambitious Brit corrupted by life on a Pacific island. This rarely seen and under appreciated picture is both a damning critique of British imperialism and a daring take, for its time, on sexual obsession between a white man (Howard) and a manipulative native girl (the sultry Algerian actress Kerima).

Howard’s Willems is an over-dressed, back slapping con man who, after being fired by his Singapore boss, is hired back by his old mentor, Capt. Lingard (the always superb Ralph Richardson) to help him at his island trading post. Willems becomes the burden of the Captain’s sanctimonious son-in-law (Robert Morley) ultimately upsetting the tentative relationship between the natives and the Brits when he takes up with Aissa, the daughter of the tribe’s elderly leader.

Reed’s treatment of the island’s people, seen more than 50 years later, avoids being either too sanctimonious or racist, showing them to be just as smart and conniving as the white men. And even though the allure of the exotic girl is a classic Western cliché, the smoldering sensuality of Kerima makes Willem’s wild-eyed lust perfectly believable.

Over the next ten years, Howard continued doing first-rate work in “The Heart of the Matter” (1953), playing another man in a moral struggle in a foreign land, this time Sierra Leone, in this powerful Graham Greene story; “The Stranger’s Hand” (1954), as a spy in Venice in another Greene story; “Run for the Sun” (1956), as a twisted plantation owner in Mexico; “Sons and Lovers” (1960), earning an Oscar nomination as the domineering coal-mining father; and in “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962), as a commanding Captain Bligh in this otherwise overblown remake.

Just as his profile peaked with his Oscar nod and a role in the much-publicized “Mutiny,” he became a supporting player in less interesting films, but he continued working up until his death in 1988. The best of his later roles includes another turn for Lean in “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970), playing the dying doctor in the Jane Fonda-version of Ibsen’s “The Doll House” (1973) and, in one of his most surprising roles, as an American-Indian chief trying to save his tribe in “Windwalker” (1980).

Last month I roasted Robert De Niro for phoning in performances in a series of second rate movies (most recently with Al Pacino in “Righteous Kill”) so I’m pleased to report that he gives an involving, complex, amusing and very truthful performance in this Hollywood satire.

He plays mid-level movie producer Ben, about to bust a vein as he juggles a daily schedule filled with as many problems as phone calls. In addition to trying to calm a volatile young director battling against the heavy hand of Hollywood executives, Ben faces the cancellation of a project because Bruce Willis won’t shave his “Grizzly Adams” beard, tries to keep tabs on an ex-wife he still has feelings for and maintain a relationship with his children from two marriages. In a role modeled after Art Linson, longtime producer of such films as “The Untouchables” (1987) and “Heat” (1995), who wrote the script and the book it’s based on, De Niro, utilizing his sly smile and tired eyes, makes you root for this guy even when he’s doing those slimy things Hollywood producers do.

The problem with this Barry Levinson-directed movie is that it plays like yet another TV reality shows pitting “the talent” against “management.” In many ways it also resembles “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in its unfiltered portrayal of the unapologetic arrogance that rules the entertainment industry.

Good performances abound in this picture, starting with Robin Wright Penn as the ex-wife Ben can’t quite break away from; Sean Penn in a smaller role as himself, the star of one of Ben’s films; Catherine Keener as the cold-blooded studio chief; Stanley Tucci as a nagging screenwriter; and Michael Wincott as the overly medicated British director who is appalled by the crass commercialism of the studios.

The film is entertaining if you’re interested in the movie business, but it doesn’t have enough real laughs to qualify as a success. The filmmakers should have been worried when the funniest thing in their comedy is the beard sported by Bruce Willis, who, it must be noted, does a great job playing himself as a complete ass.

If you’re a fan of the fast-paced screwball comedies of the 1930s, which often featured a wise, world-weary domestic offering straight talk to their irrational, heedless rich and famous employers, this film is a pretty good imitation.

Frances McDormand plays Miss Pettigrew, a set-in-her-ways, out-of-work governess who tricks her way into a job as nursemaid to a screwy young singer/actress Delysia Lafosse (perfectly captured by the feisty Amy Adams) in pre-war London. Right off the bat, Miss Pettigrew gets Delysia’s last-night lover out the door before another boyfriend shows up and then disposes of him so she can head out to another appointment.

Set during one, incredible hectic day, the story pits Delysia’s career ambitions against a chance for true love, as Miss Pettigrew does her best to maneuver the confused but sympathetic debutante in the right direction. Along the way, even Miss Pettigrew acquires an admirer (“Masterpiece Theatre” veteran Ciaran Hinds).

Director Bharat Nalluri, who has worked mostly in television, does a first-rate job of capturing the era and the underlining economic gap between the domestic worker and the smart set she falls in with. Superbly written by Oscar-nominated screenwriters David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty”), based on a 1938 novel by Winfred Watson, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is a slight puff pastry, but enjoyable none the less.

APPALOOSA (2008) and

The elements of a Western don’t change that much from picture to picture. There are the good guys, the bad guys, helpless town leaders and the innocent civilians caught in the middle when the trouble explodes, all doing and saying pretty much the same thing from film to film.

What elevates a Western above the pack are its characters. Because these roles have been done so many times, it’s easy to fall back on the clichés, creating another stock version of a lawman or a horse thief or a saloon keeper or a whore. As appealing as the setting is---especially now when Westerns are so rare---without interesting, original characters all the Southwest scenery, old-fashioned gun fights and saloon fistfights are wasted.

That’s the problem with Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa.” If you’ve seen many Westerns, you’ve seen this story and these characters a hundred times and the four star-actors don’t do very much to make them memorable. Director and co-writer Harris stars as Virgil, a gunslinger/lawman-for-hire who, with his partner Everett (Viggo Mortensen), agrees to put a stop to a band of bad guys (led by an unlikely rancher Jeremy Irons) causing havoc in a small New Mexico Territory settlement.

This slow moving film doesn’t feature anything close to a spectacular set piece and the actors seem to be walking through their roles. Worst of all is Renée Zellweger, playing a mysterious woman who shows up in town and immediately falls for Virgil. It’s actually the film’s most complex and interesting role, but she fails to bring any depth to it, giving flat line readings and smiling at the most inappropriate times.

Harris and Mortensen, two of the best actors working in Hollywood today, have an easy-going chemistry (they worked together in “A History of Violence”) that should have been a solid foundation for “Appaloosa,” but instead it’s the only positive aspect of this very disappointing film.

“Welcome to Hard Times,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s simple but unforgettable novel about a harsh, desolate world, tells an appropriate story for a film released as the era of movie Westerns was ending. A psychotic gunman (a demonic-looking Aldo Ray) has decided, for no particular reason, to victimize this slight settlement of a few dozen people, shooting dead anyone who looks at him the wrong way, raping and killing a saloon prostitute and then, the next morning, burning down the town.

Among those left alive, only Blue (Henry Fonda), who ran rather than confront the “Man from Bodie,” decides to stay in the destroyed town he calls “Hard Times,” caring for the prostitute Molly (Janice Rule), who was raped by the bad man and badly burned in the fire, and Jimmy (Michael Shea), the young son of the town’s now-dead founder.

The next day, Zar (Keenan Wynn) rides in with his wagon full of prostitutes and a new town slowly emerges.

This cynical telling of the founding of the West reveals the “pioneers” to be selfish money grubbers and unapologetic cowards who lack any morals, loyalty or concern for their community. During the opening rampage of the bad man, the saloonkeeper (Lon Chaney Jr.) won’t go into his place but tries to convince one of his whores to go into the bar and stab the guy. He’s worried about his liquor stock and cash under the bar.

Though Fonda’s Blue cares for Molly, she hates him for not killing the bad man and over time, she trains Jimmy for the day she knows the man will return. The twisted relationship between these three serves as the uncomfortable center of a story that seemingly can’t end well.

Director Burt Kennedy, who also adapted the novel, made some of the most interesting Westerns of the era, including “The War Wagon” (1967) and “Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969). Yet this may be his best work, as he manages to bring out the town’s assorted characters----played by a fine collection of actors including Warren Oates, Paul Fix, Elisha Cook Jr., and Royal Dano----while never losing the feeling of doom that surrounds this little piece of desert. For the most part, he’s very faithful to Doctorow’s book, though he alters the ending to add some Hollywood hopefulness.