Monday, December 1, 2008

November 2008

       The problem with real life is that it doesn’t divide easily into three acts or have a smoothly defined dramatic arc. In Clint Eastwood’s latest film, the director sacrifices drama in an effort to recreate every aspect of this sensational child-abduction case from 1928.

     Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother working as a telephone company supervisor in Los Angeles, who comes home from work one Saturday to find her nine-year-old son gone. Five months later, the LAPD make a big to-do when they claim to have found the boy in the Midwest and reunite him with his mother. The only problem is that Christine tells the police right off that this isn’t her son. They’ve brought her another boy claiming to be her son and despite her continued protests, the police refuse to admit to the mistake.

     This nightmarish scenario, along with the portrait of a thoroughly corrupt police department, is superbly told by Eastwood and his screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, as is the other aspect of this story---a series of murders that took place on a chicken ranch in the Riverside County community of Wineville (now Mira Loma). At the same time Jolie’s Christine is fighting to get the police to look for her real son, information comes to light about these murders of young boys 50 miles away.

     Jolie doesn’t allowing Christine to be reduced to just a collection of screaming and crying scenes, instead creating a believably strong, independent woman in an era when those weren’t admired female qualities who refused to give up on her child.

     But too many of the other characters---a publicity-conscious police captain (Jeffrey Donovan), an anti-police radio preacher (John Malkovich), a mental institution doctor (Denis O’Hare)---are either completely evil or saints. In the last third of this overly long picture, the drama grinds to a halt as Eastwood shows us the conclusion to each aspect of the case. As interesting as it is to know how it all turned out, that approach doesn’t make for compelling cinema and most of the actors just go through the motions. What the film spends close to an hour on could have been artfully wrapped up in 15 minutes.

     The last part of the “Changeling” (referring to folktales of children being switched by mystic creatures) is partially salvaged by a fabulous performance by Jason Butler Harner (who’s mostly working in television) as the disturbed Wineville mass murderer. Though he doesn’t have much screen time, his twitchy, wild-eyed performance is one of the year’s most memorable. Also quite impressive is Eddie Alderson as the boy who first alerts the police to this horrid series of murders.

    Eastwood remains in the midst of an incredible creative run that has produced three great films, “Mystic River” (2003), “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), and two very good ones, “Blood Work” (2002) and “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) in the past seven years, but this time he’s faltered a bit by not being tough enough on himself in the editing room. Still, for an hour and a half, “Changeling” is a heckuva film. And, on top of that, his second 2008 picture, “Gran Torino,” opens in a couple of weeks.

TANNER ‘88 (1988, TV) and TANNER ON TANNER (2004, TV)
      Robert Altman’s acclaimed HBO series about a Michigan congressman running for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination hasn’t aged well.

     Written by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau and starring Michael Murphy (“Nashville,” “Manhattan”), “Tanner ‘88” is a behind-the-scenes look at the ugly side of the campaign trail, where over-caffeinated, win-at-all-cost politicos do their best to manipulate the press, the public, even the candidate in search of the ultimate prize.

    Twenty years later, it plays like a film-school student’s project, filled with enthusiastic, but amateurish performances (save for Murphy, who is the calm, steady center of this 11-part series), unresolved story lines, one-note characters that quickly become tiresome and totally lacking original insight into the process.

      Altman’s films and Trudeau’s comic strip had been mining this territory for years before “Tanner ‘88” with more insight and humor. And this series looks awful, having been shot on videotape rather than film to make it look more immediate.

    The key players are Tanner’s savvy campaign manager T.J. (Pamela Reed); Tanner’s girlfriend (Wendy Crewson) who works for Michael Dukakis’ campaign; NBC reporter Molly Hark (a constantly panicked Veronica Cartwright) and Cynthia Nixon as Tanner’s daughter Alex, his biggest supporter.

     “Tanner ‘88” earned its hype from Altman’s willingness to shove his fictional candidate into real situations, meeting other candidates and working the delegates on the convention floor.  Those are the best scenes, but there aren’t enough of them. The shenanigans of the Tanner campaign staff get old quickly.

      Altman presents Tanner as too smart and too honest to ever get the nomination, but what chance did he ever have when he calls for legalizing drugs and gets arrested protesting for change in South Africa.

     The director and screenwriter returned to the subject with a four-part series set during the 2004 Democratic convention. Tanner’s daughter (still Nixon) is now a struggling documentarian working on a film about her father’s 1988 run for the presidency.

      I actually enjoyed this new “Tanner” more than the original, as it focuses on the hurdles and frustrations faced by documentary filmmakers rather than the same old political infighting. Nixon gives a striking performance as she and her production crew keep losing out on key interviews at the convention, all captured not only by Altman but in the show itself by one of Alex’s film students who follows her around with a video camera.

     The best scene in the series occurs when Ron Reagan Jr. accidentally schedules interviews with Alex Tanner and Alex Kerry at the same time, causing a bit of a tiff between the two political daughters. There is also an amusing scene at Elaine’s (the famed New York eatery) featuring Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi and Mario Cuomo mingling with the fictional cast.

     While neither of these series come close to ranking with Altman’s best works, there is still a sampling of Altmanesque moments (the occasional appearances by E.G. Marshall as Tanner’s estranged father; reporter Hark’s battles with her cameraman), all reminders of the brilliance of this one-of-a-kind filmmaker.

      I watched these two badly dated sex comedies in my annual attempt to understand Jerry Lewis. My quest, as impossible as it is unpleasant, has revealed little beyond the fact that Hollywood knew how to make embarrassing, unwatchable comedies long before “SNL” alumni became the go-to guys for laughs.

     In “Three on a Couch,” Lewis makes fun of his loyal following in France by having his character, Christopher, a commercial artist, win a prize given out by the French government. When his girlfriend Elizabeth (Janet Leigh), a psychiatrist, says she can’t join him in France because she can’t leave three troubled female patients, you don’t need a French passport to know what Christopher’s next move is. He disguises himself as the perfect man for each of the girls, wooing them in hopes of ridding them of their anti-man fears. It’s pop psychology at its most demeaning: The women, all gorgeous but portrayed as gullible as children, fall for Christopher’s bizarre characters in a matter of days.

     There isn’t a moment in this Lewis-directed mess that rings true, even under the parameters of a nutty comedy.

    “Boeing Boeing” is equally sexist (the opening credits include measurements of the actresses) as playboy-journalist (isn’t that an oxymoron?) Tony Curtis shuffles three stewardesses in and out of his Paris apartment with the help of his put-upon housekeeper, amusingly portrayed by the great Thelma Ritter.

    Lewis, for once under control and playing his character relatively straight (TV veteran John Rich, not Lewis, directs), shows up uninvited---he’s also a foreign correspondent---and must play the sensible one to Curtis’ frantic neurotic. Originally a stage play, the comedy is primarily an unending opening and closing of doors as Curtis does his best to keep the women from running into each other, which was funny in the 1930s and ‘40s, but feels mean-spirited and tiresome in the bright colors of the 1960s.   

     The abiding rule in both of these films (ah, those innocent ‘60s) is that for all the winking and innuendo and leering at cleavage and too-tight skirts, no one ever sleeps with anyone. The movies were still living in a PG world, but bursting at the seams to become an R.

     In recent years, no filmmaker has created as many unforgettable characters as Mike Leigh. David Thewlis’ Johnny in “Naked” (1993), Brenda Blethyn’s Cynthia in “Secrets & Lies” (1996), Jane Horrocks’ Nicola in “Life Is Sweet” (1991) and Katrin Cartlidge’s Hannah in “Career Girls” (1997) are just a few of the confused, often troubled and usually quite blunt individuals this insightful British writer-director has centered movies around.

      His latest protagonist is also quite unforgettable, but not in the way Leigh’s past characters have been.  Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins, is a high-energy, positive-thinking grade-school teacher whose nonstop, chipper, jokey conversation is alternately irritating and endearing. As a movie character, she has unlimited potential. But Leigh doesn’t do much with her. The most interesting relationship in the movie develops between Poppy and her driving instructor  (Eddie Marsan), a nervous, angry, bigoted man who, for no good reason, falls for her.

     Another relationship---a mysterious encounter Poppy has with a disturbed homeless man---turns out to be just an odd little incident unconnected to anything else that happens in the film. Had Leigh developed this intense meeting, it might have opened up a fascinating new aspect to Poppy, but it comes and goes like it’s an outtake from another film.

    Hawkins, who has appeared in smaller roles in Leigh films, works hard to create a character who isn’t just a one-note smiley face, but someone who has found a way to deal with life’s disappointments and, at the same time, shed light on those with more gloomy lives. I kept waiting for Leigh to take this character where she’d encounter more than everyday life. But the director had something else in mind, and for me, it didn’t make for a successful movie.

        Sadly, this minor pre-Code movie isn’t remembered for the performances of two up-and-coming stars, Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, or for its lurid topic of female murder. All that was swept away, when, two days after the premiere, a supporting player in the picture, 24-year-old British actress Peg Entwistle, jumped to her death off the Hollywood sign. Despondent over being dropped by RKO and other matters, this promising stage actress who made her film debut in “Thirteen Women” committed suicide in an eerie reflection of the movie’s storyline.

      The movie stars Loy as Ursula Georgi (described by police as a “half-breed”), an exotic, intimidating woman who uses her hypnotic skills to enact revenge on the women who rejected her from their school sorority many years ago.

      Because the studio wanted to give more screen time to Dunne, who had starred in the best picture winner “Cimarron” the year before, thirteen women are cut back to seven women. Entwistle’s Hazel appears in the opening scenes when she visits her friend May, who is part of a circus aerialist duo with her sister. She confides to Hazel that the horoscope predictions they all received from Swami Yodadachi (a confidant of Ursula) forecast the death of someone close to her. Predictably, her sister falls to her death during their act.

     Hazel is then seen killing her husband (another prediction by the Swami) as the scene fades to a newspaper headline about her being sent to prison.

      The last part of this 59-minute thriller focuses on Ursula’s attempt to kill Dunne’s young son. Again, she allures another man to aid her in her sinister plot, but you understand how they fall to her charms; Loy has never looked sexier playing this Eurasian vamp. The cast also features Jill Esmond, then Mrs. Laurence Olivier, and Florence Eldridge, then Mrs. Fredric March.

     At its full length, this might have been an interesting picture, but little is left other than its part in a promising actress’ pointless death.

      Most great film performances are given by actors playing charismatic, energetic, bigger-than-life characters. Which makes Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in this film all the more remarkable. Working in her second language, the British actress is mesmerizing as a sullen, broken, almost lifeless woman adjusting to freedom after years in prison.

     This French film unfolds at a leisurely pace, letting the back story emerge naturally as Juliette (Scott Thomas) moves in with her sister’s family and gradually comes out of the protective shell she’s built around herself. With very few words Scott Thomas creates a character so depressed and self-hating that it’s almost impossible to connect with her, yet you root for her as she quietly finds reasons to keep living.

    Nearly matching Scott Thomas’ work is veteran French actress Elsa Zylberstein as Lea, the younger sister who juggles work, her two daughters and her husband, while doing what she can to reconnect with Juliette. This is as moving and complex a portrayal of sisters you’re likely to see on film. It’s a tribute to writer-director Phillipe Claudel, making his first film behind the camera, that every emotional revelation is earned and feels true.

       Scott Thomas, married to a Frenchman and living in the country, gave a first-rate performance in the French film “Tell No One” earlier this year, but here she goes to the next level. Her Juliette has the deep inner sadness that reminded me of Meryl Streep’s brilliant performance in “Sophie’s Choice”; both actresses convey the pain their characters carry inside even when smiling. Scott Thomas gives a dark, searing performance that’s heartbreaking and unforgettable.


GOYA’S GHOST (2008) and THE DUCHESS  (2008)
     There’s not much connecting these two unsuccessful period pieces other than they both are set in the late 18th Century and star similar looking leading ladies, Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.

     “Goya’s Ghost,” directed by two-time Oscar winner (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus”) Milos Forman, is the more interesting picture if only because it’s about an important world event, the end of the Spanish Inquisition after the country was invaded by Napoleon. Portman, playing the daughter of a well-to-do family, is targeted by vigilant Catholic monk Lorenzo after he sees her portrait as painted by the country’s leading artist, Francisco Goya.

    The great painter, rather dull and soft-spoken as portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard, tries to help the girl over the years as circumstances change---Napoleon takes over and jails the clergy---but is shockingly ineffective. She remains the pawn of Lorenzo (Javier Bardem, almost as scary in robes as he was in “No Country for Old Men”) and the story turns out to be just another sad tale set during a terrible chapter of history. But Forman uses the story to assail America’s actions in Iraq and the country’s use of torture. Even for someone sympathetic to his viewpoint, the parallels he makes aren’t nearly enough to enliven this creaky story.

     “The Duchess” plays out like so many other English upper crust arranged marriages gone-wrong films that I kept thinking I’d seen another version of the same story. Knightley becomes the Duchess of Devonshire when she’s wed to the much older, passionless Duke (Ralph Fiennes) and soon after, having failed to produce a male heir, becomes a society star. The film bears similarities to the Marie Antoinette story, except that it doesn’t end at the guillotine. Maybe it should have.

      The marriage takes a strange turn when Knightley’s Georgiana brings a voluptuous divorced mother (Hayley Atwell) into their home and---who would have guessed?---she quickly schemes her way into the Duke’s bed. Just as quickly, my interest in the film fizzled.

      Fiennes gives an intense, uncompromising portrayal of a strident, self-centered 18th Century man more interested in his dogs than his wife; if it wasn’t for his performance there would be no reason to see “The Duchess.”

SYNECDOCHE, N.Y.  (2008)
     This film seemed reasonably normal, especially for a Charlie Kaufman-written picture, until the scene in which a real estate agent successfully sells a house that’s on fire. And the buyer continues to live in the house the rest of her life as small fires burn throughout the home.

      As he did in his scripts for “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “Adaptation” (2002) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), this astonishing writer bends reality nearly to the breaking point as he examines the very real barriers people face as they attempt to carve out a life.  Kaufman was an actual character in “Adaptation” and he might as well be here: Caden Cotard is a fidgety, hypochondriac stage director who attempts to recreate his messy life in an ambitious, never-ending rehearsal with a cast and crew of hundreds.

    Beset by real and imagined ailments, Caden (played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman) loses all sense of time and his grasp on reality after his painter wife (Catherine Keener), with their young daughter, moves to Germany. But after winning a MacArthur grant and screwing up his relationship with Hazel, a vivacious theater employee (Samantha Morton), Caden buys an abandoned airplane hanger and starts mounting a theatrical production based on his life.

       As confusing as it is brilliant, this movie reminded me of Federico Fellini’s “8 ½,” Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” and Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” all attempts by the directors to understand their lives as both artists and men. Kaufman’s version (his directing debut) is messier and less visually interesting, but it overflows with fascinating ideas on balancing art and real life and discerning the difference between the two; it’s about the unexplainable, unpredictable nature of relationships and ever present shadow of mortality.

     The film is jam packed with extraordinary performances. No one working in film can portray unstable, obsessive loners better than Hoffman and he delivers again here, turning Caden into a pathetic but sympathetic character whose failures in life are balanced by his insatiable desire to understand those mistakes.

       Morton, another actor who gets better with each role, is hilarious and heartbreaking as Hazel, who becomes Caden trusted assistant after their affair ends. Emily Watson, as the actress who plays Morton in the stage version of Caden’s life, manages to be both a real person and a convincing doppelganger of Morton (to whom she bears a close physical resemblance).

      Also doing impressive work with complex, confusing roles are Michelle Williams as an actress playing Hazel who ends up marrying Caden; Hope Davis as a very aggressive therapist; Dianne Wiest as an actress who ends up playing Caden; Keener as his artist-wife and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her angry, man-hating friend. 

       Maybe the weirdest role in a film filled with weirdness, is that of Sammy, a man who, for some unknown reason, has followed Caden most of his life. When Caden is interviewing actors to play himself, Sammy reveals himself as the perfect guy to play him. Tom Noonan, a tall, thin actor with no resemblance to Hoffman, gives a memorable performance as a man attempting to live the life of someone else, who usually has more insight into Caden than Caden does.

      The odd title refers to both the setting of the film in Schenectady, N.Y., a community that has long been a center of the arts, and the word synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a word for a small part of the whole is used to indicate the whole or vice versa. Confused? Kaufman’s film is just as confusing, but well worth the effort spent figuring it out.

       Michel Gondry, who directed the Charlie Kaufman-penned “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), among the finest films of the past decade, hasn’t had much luck on his own. Like Kaufman, he portrays reality as fluid and unreliable; unlike Kaufman, he doesn’t have much of interest to say.

      “Be Kind Rewind” is more entertaining than his last, dreary romance “The Silence of Sleep” (2006), but falls apart when it turns into a typical feel-good Hollywood film. Jack Black, wild-eyed and acting with no reasonable restraint, plays Jerry, a paranoid, conspiracy theorist slacker who spends his days hanging out at a neighborhood video store. It seems to be the last business still renting tapes until Jack’s body becomes magnetized and he accidentally erases the store’s entire inventory.

      In true Jack Black fashion, he convinces the store’s clerk Mike (a gently goofy Mos Def) to shoot short versions of the films and rent those. They start with “Ghostbusters” and “Rush Hour 2” and before you can even figure out how they’re paying for all this, customers are lining up for these offbeat videos (they called them “Sweded”).

      The film is wacky and energetic when the making of these videos is front and center (including “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Robocop” and “The Lion King”) but when the plot turns to the plans by the owner (Danny Glover) to save the dying store, Gondry seems to have fallen under the spell of the spirit of Frank Capra.

    It’s not a pretty sight when born anarchists like Gondry and Black slip into Hollywood sentimentality.