Wednesday, December 16, 2009

November 2009

The original “Bad Lieutenant,” as unrelenting and unsettling a film as you’re likely to survive, earning an NC-17 rating and featuring a wild-eyed performance by Harvey Keitel that falls somewhere between early Scorsese and soft porn, unearthed the sleazy, corrupt underbelly of an out-of-control New York City cop.

The sequel/remake, repudiated in no uncertain terms by Abel Ferrara, the director of the 1992 version, smoothes out the veneer and offers more of a plot, but ends up being a bit too ordinary for its own good. That’s not what I would have expected from Werner Herzog, the obsessive, usually daring German director whose return to fiction filmmaking produced one of the most compelling films of 2007, “Rescue Dawn.” With his new film, he and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein (longtime TV writer/producer who’s worked on “L.A. Law” and “Law and Order”) create a showcase for another weirdly off-kilter and frustratingly inconsistent performance by Nicolas Cage. As Det. Terence McDonagh, who moves from vicodin to cocaine following a back injury rescuing a prisoner in a flooded jail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Cage believably captures a man who becomes a slave to his addiction.

Before you realize how bad off this guy is, he’s shaking down young couples for drugs and sex, stealing from the police evidence room and making deals with the city’s top drug dealer as a way to pay off a mobster he’s offended. But it’s not like he was squeaky clean before he turned into a coke head: his girlfriend is a high-class call girl (a sexy, but miscast Eva Mendes) and he gives most of his paycheck to his bookie (an unrecognizable Brad Dourif).

McDonagh is so messed up in so many ways and has his hands in so many illegal and unethical activities that it’s hard to get a handle on him or Cage’s performance. It’s bad lieutenant overload, yet Herzog keeps letting him off the hook, finding slices of light for McDonagh as he barrels down a dark tunnel. The director also allows Cage to reinvent his performance in nearly every scene—even his accent shifts in tone through the film. Maybe Herzog and Cage felt that approach worked because of the detective’s drug use, but it didn’t work for me.

The film is not without its frenzied moments as one would expect from such a lethal combination of director and actor, the best of which is when Cage takes advantage of a pair of young partiers. And Herzog offers up his own craziness (this is the man who made “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo”) by featuring some very expressive iguanas and a cartoonish alligator scene. But there’s just not enough New Orleans atmosphere and way too many secondary plots to call this film a success.

Ferrara was so upset when he learned they were redoing this story that he reportedly wished horrible deaths for Herzog and his cast; who says there’s no passion left in American filmmaking. That’s a bit excessive, but please, don’t turn this into a franchise. What would be next? Michael Mann’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call Miami?”

and BILLY BUDD (1962)
These emotionally charged, unapologetically symbolic dramas---one rooted firmly in the land, the other on the high seas---feature larger-than-life performances by Robert Ryan, arguably the most underappreciated great actor of the American cinema.

Ryan, who would have turned 100 on Nov. 11 if cancer hadn’t ended his life in 1973 at the age of 64, never scored leading man roles in major films, but instead became a mainstay of B-level crime and melodrama pictures and by the 1950s was among the most recognizable character actors in Hollywood. The lean, 6-foot 4-inch native of Chicago had the hardened, lived-in look of a man who’d spend time on the lam (he roamed the country doing odd jobs during the early years of the Great Depression) and wasn’t afraid to use his fists (he was a boxing champ at Dartmouth). Yet he could be gentle and caring in roles, in retrospect a more believable romantic figure than some of the slick, affected actors the studios preferred.

He studied acting in Hollywood and began working on stage in 1939, eventually reaching Broadway in the 1941 production of “Clash by Night” (he also starred in the 1952 film version). Ryan had small film roles before the war, but after serving as a drill sergeant in the Marines, he had his breakthrough role in “Crossfire” (1947), playing an anti-Semitic veteran suspected in a murder. The role earned Ryan a supporting actor Oscar nomination (the only of his career) but didn’t change his status as a B-movie player.

He gave what was probably his greatest performance two years later in “The Set-Up,” a film noir masterpiece directed by Robert Wise, one of the few movies to play out in real time. As Stocker, an aging, small-town boxer who defies mobsters who want him to throw a fight, Ryan gives a gritty, heartbreaking performance. With every facial expression, Ryan reveals this man as someone who never got the break he deserved. In large part because of Ryan’s background in prizefighting, “The Set-Up” is the most realistically brutal boxing picture made before “Raging Bull.”

Other must-see Ryan performances include his arrogant mobster in “The Racket” (1951); the unhappy, loner cop in “On Dangerous Ground” (1952); a wanted man in the James Stewart-starring Western “The Naked Spur” (1953); another racist in “Bad Day in Black Rock” (1955); and the cruel, heartless crime syndicate chief in “House of Bamboo” (1955).

In “God’s Little Acre,” the sex-soaked best seller by Erskine Caldwell, Ryan plays Ty Ty, the gold-obsessed patriarch of a loud, half-crazy rural Southern family who has dug dozens of holes all over his property in search of grandpa’s hidden treasure. Despite pleas from his family to plant cotton, Ty Ty has spent the past 15 years digging for a fortune he just knows God wants him to have. He’s also the moral center of the film, as he tries in vain to bring God back into a dysfunctional family. The cast is filled with performers who were on the brink of fame, including Buddy Hackett as a candidate for sheriff who longs for Ty Ty’s sexy, uninhibited daughter, Vic Morrow and Jack Lord as Ty Ty’s sons, Tina Louise as Lord’s unhappy wife who is really in love with Aldo Ray, playing the heavy-drinking, unemployed husband of another of Ty Ty’s daughters. And Michael Landon makes a bizarre appearance as an albino Ty Ty kidnaps to help him find the gold. The novel was tailor-made for a TV soap opera, and director Anthony Mann doesn’t shy away from the melodramatic aspects of the story.

The film offers both low-brow humor and moving insight as it portrays these men who stubbornly refuse to give up their dreams, no matter how far fetched, and the women who tolerate them. And while Ryan’s performance teeters on the verge of Southern gothic overload, he reins it in just enough. Maybe Ryan’s greatest strength as an actor was knowing exactly how far he could take a highly emotional character without letting him become a cliché. As much of a buffoon Ty Ty often comes off as, he also has the depth to tell his sons, when they complain about God’s silence, “All you boys seem to think about is the things you can see and touch. That ain’t living. It’s the things you feel down inside you. That’s what living’s for.”

In “Billy Budd,” Herman Melville’s novella of a British warship in the late 18th Century, Ryan plays Claggart, a smart, conniving and masochistic seaman in charge of the ship’s discipline. He takes special interest in Billy Budd (Terence Stamp in his debut), a seaman pressed into service off a merchant ship ironically named “Rights of Man.” There are few rights on the “H.M.S. Indomitable” under command of the by-the-book Captain Vere (subtly played by Peter Ustinov, who also directed the picture) and enforced with the lash by Master at Arms Claggart.

But he goes too far when he tries to frame the always upbeat Billy and disaster follows. There’s more than a hint of sexual attraction between Claggart and Billy, but what really gets under Claggart’s skin is that Billy understands him and isn’t afraid of him.

Few actors were better at creating a truly frightening, yet very human character as Ryan and here he’s at his best, smiling as the men he dislikes are repeatedly whipped and thriving on the fear he sees in the sailor’s eyes as he walks among them.

These two films show Ryan doing what he does so well: turn emotionally intense, often irrational characters that other actors would have played as caricatures into complex, fascinating people.

Ryan was just 53 in 1962, but he found few good roles after “Billy Budd,” instead focusing on stage work, including starring opposite Katharine Hepburn in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and as James Tyrone in a 1971 revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But he had two late-career film performances that stand with the best supporting work in film history. As Deke Thornton in “The Wild Bunch” (1969), he’s the cynical, disillusioned lawman after the Bunch who once road with Pike (William Holden) and wishes he still was. And he’s there at the end to mourn their valiant, bloody end.

Then, just months before his death, he played the world-weary, broken drunk Larry Slade, one of the barflies who endure the endless rantings of Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh” (1973). Ryan stands out in the great cast assembled by director John Frankenheimer, led by Lee Marvin, Fredric March (also his last film as he died two years later) and a very young Jeff Bridges. Ryan’s Larry looks and sounds like a man near his end, done in by a life filled with disappointments and failures.

In his own life, Ryan was a dedicated liberal, involved in the Civil Rights movement, anti-nuclear protests and other issues of the day. He and his wife, children’s novelist Jessica Cadwalader, started an elementary school in North Hollywood that remains a respected private school.

While Ryan isn’t a forgotten actor, he continues to be underrated, in large part because he never had that signature role in a blockbuster film. But much like his fellow RKO contract player Robert Mitchum, Ryan was instrumental in injecting a tough, unvarnished realism to post-war American films, while bringing both brainy instincts and a sadistic obsession with violence to society’s miscreants. That’s certainly a legacy worth honoring.

It’s not a bit surprising that the U.S. military brass would green-light a program to train a special force in New Age-inspired mind-control warfare. What’s baffling is that George Clooney and his writing-producing partner Grant Haslov (making his directing debut) couldn’t turn that idea into a decent comedy.

The film’s structure doesn’t help matters. Ewan McGregor, playing an annoying, mealy mouthed journalist desperate to make his name covering the war in Iraq, hooks up with the unpredictable, amusingly cracked Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a one-time member of this psychic-enhanced unit. The tale of this farcical program, told in flashback, and its inspirational gung-ho leader Bill Django (Jeff Bridges in full “Dude” mode) might have made a hilarious 20-minute subplot in a better film---there isn’t much that’s funnier than an Army officer attempting to walk through a wall. Unfortunately, it’s stretched beyond its limits and somewhat buried under the McGregor-Clooney road-trip routine.

Bridges’ patiently outrageous character, another goofy gem in his recently unpredictable career, makes “Goats” a must-see rental for fans of this versatile actor. As the guru of the New Earth Army, Bridges gives an impressive, nuanced performance, locating the perfect balance between sincere conviction and doped-up mysticism.

As Cassady, Clooney brings his smooth, unflappable persona to the film; the character’s insistence that this psychobabble is real (he does kill a goat by staring at it or at least makes the poor animal faint) drives what plot there is, but it’s far from enough.

Peter Bogdanovich, despite directing one of the true masterpieces of the American cinema, the dark look at a dying small town and its desperate residents, “The Last Picture Show” (1971), has become better known as an occasional actor, full-time personality and chronicler of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

His continued high profile (he turns 70 this year) disguises the fact that his film career has been one of the great disappointments of the past 40 years. Instead of more great films, he helmed “At Long Last Love” (1975), “They All Laughed” (1981), “Illegally Yours” (1988) and too many TV movies, knocked off track by his obsession with two voluptuous blondes, Cybill Shepherd and Dorothy Stratten. In the sad case of Stratten, Bogdanovich went so far as to marry her younger sister after the Playboy centerfold model was murdered.

Along the way, he made the occasional interesting film, including “Paper Moon” (1973), “Saint Jack” (1979), “Mask” (1985) and “Texasville” (1990), but nothing that came close to his early masterpiece. Finally seeing “Nickelodeon,” his homage to the early days of filmmaking, I’d add it to the above list. It’s Bogdanovich’s best comedy.

Most interesting is the parallel plotting structure he and co-writer D.W. Richter use to characterize a group of movie pioneers as the pratfalls and corny plots of their lives are turned into the basis for their films.

Ryan O’Neal, the director’s actor of choice during the 1970s (“What’s Up Doc? “Paper Moon”) plays a lawyer who hooks up with H.H. Cobb, an egotistical loudmouth who runs an independent production company. Cobb, hilariously played by Brian Keith, recruits (bullies) O’Neal’s Leo for his roguish troupe, first as a scenario writer and later as a director.

Burt Reynolds, at his impulsively nutty best---even his clothes are comical---ends up hiring on as an enforcer for a coalition of major filmmakers, paid to sabotage the production of minor players like Cobb.

First these two goofballs end up with each others suitcases when they both attempt to woo a wannabe actress----magazine cover model Jane Hitchcock makes her debut in a role written for Shepherd (coming off two box office bombs, she was rejected by the studio)---then they become filmmaking partners. With Reynolds and Hitchcock as the romantic stars and O’Neal the director, they make a series of action silents in the California desert years that become box office sensations.

What Bogdanovich does best here is capture the seat of your pants philosophy of these early filmmakers and how inventive people took a blank canvas and created the template for the next 100 years of moviemaking.

As a director, Bogdanovich never stopped trying to recapture the style and spirit of those early filmmakers he so admired---DeMille, Walsh, Dwan, Hawks, Ford and Hitchcock, all of whom started in the silent era. It was his strength as a director, but also his limitation. He was never going to be the innovator his fellow Roger Corman grads Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese were. Doing it the old fashioned way only worked to a point, but for “Last Picture Show,” “Nickelodeon,” “Paper Moon” and a few others, Bogdanovich’s traditional style perfectly matched the material.

RED CLIFF (2009)
John Woo, after establishing himself as one of the most accomplished directors of action films in his native Hong Kong, the filmmaker relocated to Hollywood, where he made tons of money and second-rate movies.

“Face/Off” (1997) and “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000) represent the height of Hollywood junk food----brainless, pretentious, characterless action. No matter what the results, his return to the Chinese cinema would be welcomed, but with “Red Cliff” he has made a stirring historical epic that succeeds as an exciting battlefield adventure and a smart, insightful study of men struggling for power. It’s also the most expensive and, already, the most popular film in Chinese history.

The battle of the Three Kingdoms, a 3rd Century event that changed the face of China, comes alive in Woo’s film (released in China as a two-film, five-hour event) as he combines computer graphics, thousands of extras, hundreds of horses and first-rate portrayals of the legendary figures involved.

It all starts with Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), an egotistical warmonger in the ruling Han Dynasty, who bullies the weak emperor into agreeing to attack two rebel warlords, the aging Liu Bei (You Yong) and a younger insurgent Sun Quan (Chang Chen). But the more interesting characters are Liu Bei’s soft spoken, but brilliant military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Sun Quan’s intellectual, music-loving general Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, who gives the film’s most memorable performance). Leung, one of the most accomplished Asian actors who’s best known in the West for Woo’s “hard Boiled” (1992) and “In the Mood for Love” (2000), turns Zhou Yu into a compelling hero who personalizes the colorful, wide-screen warfare.

What makes this better than an imitation of the jaw-dropping Kurosawa war epics is the care Woo and his writers take to turn these dusty names from history books into very real, fascinating characters, integrating their personal stories with the impressively stages arrow battles. Most memorable are the battles on the Yangtze River in which Zhuge’s military genius, along with his meteorology skills, wins the day.

As in all Chinese period pieces, the ravishing palaces, brightly-colored outfits and, best of all, the fantastic array of hat wear add to the pageantry. Woo’s film is jam-packed with everything you’d want from this kind of old-fashioned historical adventure.

The consistently unpredictable Coen brothers, coming off their 2007 Oscar-winning picture “No Country for Old Men” and a way too hip 2008 black comedy “Burn After Reading,” have written and directed a Woody Allen movie. This dry, unassuming comedy, filled with hilarious one-liners and wonderfully wacky characters and set among the Jewish community of Minneapolis of the 1960s, brings back memories of the comic master’s best work of the 1970s and ‘80s.

The Coens’ protagonist, the nerdy, nervous, overwhelmed Larry Gopnik could easily be the younger brother or second cousin of Alvy Singer from “Annie Hall,” Miles Monroe from “Sleeper” or even Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, as he bungles one crisis after another. Even his name seems like an invention of Allen.

It begins for Gopnik, perfectly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, when his wife casually informs him that she’s retained a divorce attorney and has fallen for the recently widowed Sy Ableman (an imposing, intense Fred Melamed). His two children also have complaints: His son, days away from his bar mitzvah, wants the TV antenna adjusted so he can watch “F-Troop,” while his daughter wants Uncle Arthur (the marvelous Richard Kind), constantly lancing his neck cyst, out of the bathroom so she can wash her hair.

On top of that, the committee considering his teaching tenure---he’s a physics professor--- has been receiving anonymous hate mail about him. And one of his students has offered him a bribe to improve his grade. Also his gentile neighbor keeps encroaching on his property line----Gopnik, understandably, feels like the weigh of the world is crashing down on him.

Behind his thick glasses, the constantly squinting Stuhlbarg turns Gopnik into a classic wimp, a passive, nearly invisible man who gets pushed around by everyone around him.

But the most memorable performance comes from George Wyner, best known for playing an assistant DA on “Hill Street Blues,” as a rabbi counseling Gopnik relating an uproarious tale of a dentist who discovered a message written in Hebrew on a gentile patient’s teeth. It’s a beautifully written and performed set piece, emblematic of the film’s adept mixture of sarcasm about and insight into the Jewish character, utilizing the same kind of cultural stereotypes the filmmakers worked with in “Fargo.”

Nearly every member of the cast has a memorable moment of two, including Sari Lennick as his uncomfortably blunt wife, Adam Arkin as a continually stunned divorce lawyer, Kind as Gopnik’s loyal but burdensome brother, and Melamed as the insufferably understanding Sy.

Joel and Ethan Coen won’t be winning Oscars or might not even score a writing nomination for “A Serious Man,” but it’s one of their best pictures, the funniest and smartest they’ve made since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000).

OUT OF TIME (2003)
After winning the 2001 best actor Oscar for his full-throttle performance as a corrupt cop in “Training Day,” Denzel Washington has had a disappointing decade. The actor never gives a bad performance, but, as of late, he’s picking heavily plotted movies rather than the character-oriented pictures he excelled in during the 1990s.

Instead of “Malcolm X” (1992), “Philadelphia” (1993), “Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), “He Got Game” (1998) and “Hurricane” (1999), Washington chose action-driven films such as “Man on Fire” (2004), “Inside Man” (2006), Déjà vu (2006), “The Taking of Pelham 123” (2009) and “Out of Time,” the kind of movies that don’t lend themselves to complex performances. In Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” the actor turned what could have been a cardboard character into an interesting and entertaining role, but it’s still a long ways from the depth he brought to his ‘90s films.

His best chance for great performances this decade were in Jonathan Demme’s disappointing remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004) as a war veteran who uncovers a political conspiracy, and in Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” (2007) as a smart, quick-tempered New York City drug king. Whether it’s the fault of the directors, writers or Washington himself, neither role turned out to be memorable; other than a few emotionally charged scenes, the films offer little chance for the actor to stretch beyond his comfort level. Probably his best performance this decade was in a supporting role as a military psychologist in “Antwone Fisher” (2000), his debut as a director.

He plays an idiot in “Out of Time.” As the sheriff of a small Florida town, he finds himself in the middle of a murder-fraud scam, attempting to get to the bottom of the crime while misleading the county murder detectives (led, if you can believe this, by his ex-wife). He commits about a dozen crimes and breaks another dozen ethical standards en route to the heroic finale. And he gets away with it.

“Out of Time” is a surprisingly dumb picture from filmmaker Carl Franklin, who has done excellent work in the past, including “Devil in a Blue Dress” starring Washington as private detective Easy Rawlins and “One False Move” (1992), the fast-paced crime picture co-written by Billy Bob Thornton.

At 55, Washington remains a viable box office attraction and one of Hollywood’s most talented actors. Yet he’s so much more than an action star and needs to take advantage of his star-power while it lasts and find some dramatic powerhouses he can sink his teeth into. He’s too great a talent to be standing around while cars blow up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

October 2009

Among the accomplishments of my year of unemployment was watching all 17 episodes of the cult television show “The Prisoner.” First aired on CBS during the summer of 1968, this one-of-a-kind hour-long series remains an intellectually challenging, dramatically daring examination of ominous government control and the loss of individualism in modern society.

In part because of its setting in the hermetically sealed world of “The Village,” but also because of its timeless themes, the series rarely (most notably the hair and dress of the women) shows its 40 plus age. It would clearly be the most inventive and best written show on contemporary TV. AMC is counting on that as it plans to unveil a remake of the series starting Nov. 15, starring Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.” I’m not sure how much updating the new series will do, but they are using at least some of the episode titles from the original.

For the uninitiated, Irish actor Patrick McGoohan, fresh from the spy series “Danger Man” (also known as “Secret Agent”), plays an unnamed British intelligence agent who, in the open credits, resigns the service and goes home to pack for an unknown destination. Before he can finish, he’s gassed and awakes in a quaint, resort-like community known as “The Village” and he’s now referred to as Number 6.

Filled with mostly older residents who go about their quiet, somnolent life as if they’re brainwash victims, the Village is ruled by a revolving series of Number 2s and a group of technocrats who operate a sophisticated surveillance system, control balloon-like trackers called rovers and subject residents to an array of futuristic psychological and hallucinogenic treatments. Number 6 quickly becomes Number 2’s main headache as he and others attempt to pry out of him the reason for his resignation. The assumption seems to be that they expected Number 6 to sell his secrets to the enemy.

So it goes for 17 bizarre, only superficially connected episodes as Number 6 ends up winning the psychological warfare even as he fails in his constant attempts to escape or, at least, confront the never seen Number 1. There are moments of humor and fun, most notably when Number 6 engages another villager in “Kosho,” a sporting contest played out on trampolines with contestants wearing dark orange jumpsuits and black helmets. It’s a bit like a pre-historic version of “American Gladiator.”

One of the “Prisoner’s” most intriguing shows, “Many Happy Returns,” has Number 6 waking up to a seemingly deserted Village and escaping by sea, eventually making his way back to London and contacting his former bosses. They seem to buy his story and set out to locate the Village. Unfortunately for Number 6, they succeed in finding it.

In another memorable episode, “Living in Harmony,” Number 6 finds himself in an American western town, circa 1880s, where he butts heads with everyone because he refuses to carry a weapon. It’s the one episode of the series banned by American censors during its original run.

Every episode manages to convey a sociological message as it comes up with a more difficult hurdle for Number 6 to overcome. Yet even the most bizarre episodes can’t compare with the final two shows. Not until “Twin Peaks” did anything come close to the feverish theater of the absurd atmosphere of “Once Upon a Time” and “Fall Out.”

Veteran British character actor Leo McKern plays Number 2 in these episodes (he had also played the role in the second episode), engaging Number 6 in a marathon, psychological fight-to-the-death therapy session in a room filled with over-sized children’s toys. Written and directed by McGoohan, as is the final, the episode is filled with overwrought emotions and clever wordplay as No. 2 digs into his rivals deepest memories. “Once Upon a Time” unfolds like a Pinteresque puzzle, reaching out into the darkness to understand the basic instincts of man.

“Fall Out” ends the series with a carnival-like courtroom scene in which Number 6 finally gets his day of judgment as the Village rulers preparing for Armageddon. Not to be too subtle, the soundtrack blares out the Beatles anthem, “All You Need Is Love.” A monk-like, mask-wearing jury decides to free Number 6 as “The Kid” (a manic Alexis Kanner) from the “Living in Harmony” episode returns to sing the spiritual “Dem Bones” over and over and over again. Don’t ask.

Number 6 and Number 2, along with his ever-present butler (Angelo Muscat), manage to simply drive out of the Village and into downtown London. They’re free, or so it seems.

McGoohan, along with producer David Tomblin and script supervisor George Markstein, created a remarkable, 17-part piece of experimental theater, as avant-garde as anything television has ever attempted, before or since.

AN EDUCATION (2009) and WHIP IT (2009)
The settings of these two films are basically opposites: the prep school world of early ‘60s England in “An Education” and the rowdy, sweaty Roller Derby arenas of Austin, Texas in “Whip It.” But they tell the same story. Both portray a teenage girl on the verge of adulthood who decides to take a different path than what has been planned for her. And the strength of both movies comes from insightful, luminous performances by young actresses who perfectly capture their times and the boundaries society has drawn for them.

Carey Mulligan’s Jenny is the brighter of the two, bound for Oxford and a first-class education when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard) a smooth, well-spoken, art-loving sophisticate who fancies much younger girls and knows all the tricks to seduce both them and their parents.

Jenny’s “education” happens in a few exciting, whirlwind months when David, along with his dilettante friends bring her into their world. In addition to an appreciation of art and music and glamorous nightlife, Peter and his friends are amateur cons who target the elderly to score easy paydays.

What elevates this story (based on the memoirs of writer Lynn Barber) beyond the usual coming of age tale comes from a smart, morally ambivalent script from novelist Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”), who leaves all the usually clichés at the door. A mixture of humor and tragedy, the film isn’t afraid to say that Jenny really is getting a valuable education from David, despite the inevitable heartbreak. This is a 16-year-old who understands life better than many of the adults around her. And even though David turns out to be a despicable cad, as portrayed by the charismatic Sarsgaard, he’s hard not to like.

Danish director Lone Scherfig, making her English-language debut, guides Mulligan (she’s actually 25, but still looks like a teen) to a star-making performance. The actress has mostly worked in British TV, but did have a role in this summer’s “Public Enemies” and will play Michael Douglas’ daughter in the sequel to “Wall Street.” In addition to first-rate work by Mulligan and Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina shines as her naïve father. Molina has turned into one of the top character actors in the business, having recently given impressive performances in “Frida” (2002), “The Da Vinci Code” (2006) and “The Hoax” (2006).

Maybe the most poignant scenes in the movie come when Jenny, having committed to a life with David, questions her teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmaster (Emma Thompson) about the few options available to a woman, even with an Oxford education. This is a story about questioning accepted truths and morals and how sometimes teens deserve to be heard.

“Whip It,” Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, produces some emotional heat when it deals with the incompatible goals of a mother and daughter and how they both find ways to compromise. But Barrymore and writer Shauna Cross (from her novel) rely too much on repetitive, cliché Roller Derby action and easy sports symbolism----it’s colorful but not very enlightening beyond creating some simplistic dramatics.

Ellen Page, nominated for best actress for “Juno” (2006), portrays Bliss, a small-town teen seeking her identity, when, almost by chance, she joins a Roller Derby squad, keeping it secret from her parents. Without the over-wrought cleverness and crutch of pregnancy that marked Page’s work in “Juno,” her performance here shows she’s a skillful actor who can create a complex, emotionally truthful character. While she learns toughness and self-esteem from the eclectic group of toughs on the Roller Derby team, not much happens of interest after she settles in. Comic relief is provided by Barrymore, who plays the dumbest member of the squad, and Juliette Lewis, as the aging diva of the sport who sees Page as a rival to her crown. Both over-act in their roles, pointlessly drawing screen time away from Page’s Bliss and her development.

Director Barrymore does her best work in the scenes between Bliss and her mother, superbly played by Marcia Gay Harden, who has pushed her daughter into beauty pageant shows. The frustrations of both mother and daughter come out in their uncomfortably real arguments. It’s clearly an area Barrymore knows well from her own experience as a deeply troubled youth.

While “Whip It” doesn’t have the pedigree or depth of “An Education,” this entertaining picture explores the same crucial teen theme: the difficulty in finding the right path of life and convincing others to support the decision to take that often unpaved road.

This film demonstrates how difficult it was to depict violence before the movie rating system was in place. To truthfully show the frightening atmosphere that was inflicted by a crime syndicate on this small Alabama town, producers of the picture had to include a 13-minute news report, with interviews of a local newspaper reporter and residents of Phenix City, as a prologue to the feature.

The artless, rather uninformative news report does little more than what a “based on a true story” title would have done, but it satisfied the era’s censors. That allowed the movie that follows to tell the incredible “Phenix City Story” by graphically dramatizing the horrific, ruthless actions of the crime bosses who controlled the town’s gambling and prostitution.

The movie dates itself with its high-toned moralizing on the evils of sins, but the core of the story, written by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur, focuses on intimidation and gang rule.

John Patterson (Richard Kiley), just out of the military and the son of the town’s most respected lawyer (John McIntire) gets drawn into the citizens’ fight against the corruption in red-light district, which has prospered serving the solider from the nearby military base. McIntire, a solid character actor in film noir and Westerns throughout the 1950s who became a familiar face on episodical TV from the ‘60s through the 1980s, has one of his juiciest roles as this outspoken, serious-minded lawyer.

His son’s determination to fight back takes on a new level of vigilance when the mob murders a young black girl, the daughter of a friend of his, and then tosses her body on his yard as a warning.

With the corrupt local police offering no help, the only hope they have relies on getting a sympathetic ear in the state capitol. Reluctantly, John’s father runs for attorney general.

Phil Karlson, best known for his B-level noirs such as “Kansas City Confidential” (1952) and his late career cult hit, “Walking Tall” (1973), captures the pure terror of the situation and how law-abiding citizens are pushed to the edge of vigilantism. Shot by B-movie veteran Harry Neumann, the drama rarely moves out of the shadows; even the interiors are underlit to emphasize the dark evil that has enveloped the city. While individual scenes are more memorable than the film as a whole, “The Phenix City Story” paints a disturbing picture of a community under siege.

I know very little about soccer and have even less interest, yet this story about a rivalry between two managers of English soccer teams in the 1970s held me riveted from start to finish.

Peter Morgan, the screenwriter responsible for “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” turns another real person, Brian Clough, into an egocentric, larger-than-life movie character who never fails to entertain. Working from a book by David Peace, Morgan fashions an intriguing study---again using TV appearances as key moments----of how hubris can destroy even the most talented.

Michael Sheen, who had key roles in Morgan’s other works (Tony Blair in “The Queen”; David Frost in “Frost/Nixon”) brings an irrepressible energy to Clough, who becomes a coaching legend when he turns second division Derby County into national champions. But his obsession with Leeds United team (the New York Yankees of English football) and their tough, old-fashioned manager (the always convincing Colm Meany, wearing a simply awful toupee) leads to his alienating Derby’s exasperated owner (Jim Broadbent) and his loyal assistant coach, Peter Taylor. Timothy Spall, the plump, rubber-faced character actor, who has enlivened numerous Mike Leigh dramas, gives the performance of his career as Taylor, a simple, sincere sport who is loyal to a fault to the younger, ambitious Clough.

Tom Hooper, who directed the multi-Emmy winning HBO series, “John Adams,” smartly doesn’t let the film get bogged down in on-the-field scenes. Maybe the most dramatic moment and most visually arresting scene of the film comes when Clough refused to watch an important contest and awaits the results in his office. Because the office is built under the stands, he can watch the ebb and flow of the game, seeing the shadows of the crowd rise from their seats when the home team does well. It’s subtle, smart filmmaking steeped in classic cinematic storytelling.

Great writing, great acting, an authentic setting---the rainy, muddy English countryside becomes another character----and a pitch-perfect recreation of the era make “The Damned United” one of the year’s most thoughtful and enjoyable pictures.


Read enough film critics and you’d think every movie released in the 1970s was either a ground-breaking masterpiece or an underappreciated gem falling just shy of greatness. I’m just a culpable; but let’s face it, compared to the past 20 years of movies, the 1970s are easy to aggrandize. But these two high-profile pictures, both statements, of a sort, in the emerging feminist movement, haven’t aged well, In fact, I can’t imagine why anyone ever though much of these movies.

“The Owl and the Pussycat,” adapted by the usually reliable Buck Henry from the stage hit by Bill Manhoff and directed by Herb Ross, is offensively stupid and unrelentingly loud. If the rest of the country had a negative image of New Yorkers at the time, this just played right into those prejudices. Barbra Streisand’s Doris, a part-time model and wannabe actress, and George Segal’s Felix, a boorish, struggling writer, scream at each other for 95 minutes in a pointless and shrill battling of wits.

They’re thrown together after Felix spies Doris---she lives in the same building across the courtyard----having sex and then accepting money, which he reports to the building’s super. She’s immediately evicted (without, no one ever mentions, any real evidence) and shows up at Felix’s door demanding a place to stay. But first she starts calling him a “queer” and berates him, as if she’s in junior high, for not “liking” girls. I’m not sure how the writer made the leap from a man spying on a woman having sex to the assumption that he’s gay, but it’s a running theme----later she’s shocked that Felix’s friend has a girlfriend (fleetingly, porn star Marilyn Chambers!) I guess gays weren’t expected to have straight friends in 1970.

The unlikely couple experience a hellish night together as they attempt to find a place to sleep---but it’s not near as bad as the suffering viewers endure watching this shouting match. Yet it was a huge hit, no doubt in large part because of Streisand’s popularity.

“The Stepford Wives” became one of those films that everyone knew about even if they never saw it. It became a punch line for comedians and a talking point in any discussion about suburban living. Certainly its central idea is fascinating---that a group of men would want to replace their wives with lookalike robots----but the film takes way too long to get to its point and spends too little time on the motivations of the husbands. The ugly reality that these men are murdering their wives is never thoroughly addressed.

Katherine Ross, stars as Joanna, whose husband (Peter Masterson) insists on relocating the family in the suburban community of Stepford, Conn. Immediately she notices that the other wives only talk about cooking, cleaning and pleasing their husbands---and they dress as if they’re going to a church social circa 1956.

Ross finds an ally when the feisty Paula Prentiss moves into the community and they pair up to get to the bottom of the weirdness. Their sarcastic chit-chat is the only saving grace in this misguided assault on couples who gave up on city life in the 1960s and ‘70s. Otherwise, the women keep discovering more evidence that something’s not right in their community instead of just getting the hell out of there. Yet, to me it was the husband’s story I wanted to know more about. How did that conversation go when they were first told their wives were going to be disposed of and an obedient, subservient duplicate (with, in most cases, enhanced breasts) would become their new partner.

Bryan Forbes, the skillful British filmmaker who directed “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964) and “The Whisperers” (1967) and screenwriting legend William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” among many others) clearly struggle to extend the underdeveloped idea from Ira Levin’s novel into a full-length movie. The revamped version with Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler, released in 2004, was just as dumb but at least had a brisk, humorous pace.

The 1970s were a fertile time for the cinema, but the era wasn’t short of turkeys, including the musical version of “Lost Horizon,” the “Death Wish” series and all the “Planet of the Apes” sequels. These two don’t reach those depths, but are very disappointing attempts to address the feminist movement, dulled further by the passage of time.

There’s a deep, underlying sadness that can be seen on the faces of nearly every character in this unassuming film; people struggling in low paying jobs, complicated relationships and paying heavily for foolish decisions. Christine Jeffs, who directed the underrated “Sylvia” (2003), the story of one of the 20th Century’s most famous depressed women, poet Sylvia Plath, again paints a dark picture of disappointment, this time disguised as an amusing slice of life. First-time screenwriter Megan Holley finds just the right balance of lightweight humor and unflinching character study.

At the center of the picture is yet another poignant, thoughtful performance by Amy Adams, this time playing a former prom queen who, as she approaches thirty, finds herself a struggling, dissatisfied single mother working as a house cleaner. Her Rose Lorkowski has also appointed herself guardian of her hopelessly confused and anti-social younger sister (Emily Blunt) and her feisty but unreliable father (Alan Arkin), both, as she is, forever damaged by the long-ago suicide of the girls’ mother. On top of all that, her son gets tossed out of grade school for his disruptive antics.

Rose finds a semblance of salvation when she follows a suggestion by her police detective lover (Steve Zahn)---her ex-boyfriend from high school now married---to start a crime scene cleanup business. Sequences of Rose and her sister cleaning up after suicides, murders and the death of elderly are played for comedy and pathos, but as with everything in her life, it seems bound to go wrong at some point.

Adams manages to create a character who remains hopeful in the face of one disappointment after another but never seems like a fool. She’s exactly like dozens of classmates you knew from high school who seemed destined for picture perfect lives but got stuck in that hometown rut that’s often hard to escape.

Beside Adams, the outstanding performance of the film is given by Clifton Collins Jr., playing the one-armed owner of a cleaning products store, who helps Rose out as she starts her business and ends up becoming something of a father figure for her young son. If you saw “Capote” (2004), you’ll remember Collins, who gave a heartbreaking, Oscar-worthy performance as Perry Smith, the jailed killer who becomes Truman Capote’s special project. He’s nearly as good as Winston in “Sunshine Cleaning.” Between these two first-rate roles he’s mostly worked in television, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t become a regular player in major films in the next couple of years.

The great movie stars of the 1930s and ‘40s who survived to work in the 1960s found good roles few and far between. The studios had shifted their focus to a youth market that had little interest in seeing movies starring 60 year olds, which explains the sad sight of the great Barbara Stanwyck in this brainless, forgettable Elvis Presley vehicle.

Stanwyck, her hair white though she was just 57, acquits herself well as the no-nonsense tough-talking owner of a traveling carnival who takes Elvis’ Charlie Rogers under her wing. The role is similar to her starring performance in the memorable TV series “The Big Valley,” which ran from 1965 to 1969. But in this picture, nothing she does can improve Presley’s acting skills or save the nonsensical script.

Charlie, an up-and-coming guitar-playing singer (a real stretch for the King), ends up jailed---and fired from his roadhouse gig---for defending himself against three smart-ass college dudes. It’s just the beginning of plot points that make no sense.

As a roustabout for Stanwyck’s carnival, he makes inane jokes about the performers and carny life, delivered with the stiffness of a non-actor. After 16 films in 9 years, he’s no better an actor than he was in his debut, “Love Me Tender.” In fact, I think Elvis became a worse actor as his career went on, no doubt in large part because he simply lost interest. Not even the songs in “Roustabout” are very good and Elvis’s singing performances are mostly lackluster.

Other than Stanwyck, the highlight of the watching the movie was spotting 17-year-old Teri Garr as a scantly clad carny dancer, in her fourth (!) Elvis flick. Leonard Maltin points out in his summary of the movie in his “TV Movie” annual that Rachel Welsh also has a bit role, but I didn’t notice her. I was probably too focused on the jaw-dropping dramatic acting of Elvis. Fifteen films and five years later, this unfortunate interruption of his ground-breaking, unparalleled singing career came to a thankful end.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

September 2009

This is the rare American film that portrays deeply depressed, psychologically damaged people without trying to turn them into sympathetic characters cured by a few well-timed hugs.

Mexican writer-director Guillermo Arriaga, best known as the screenwriter of director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000) “21 Grams” (2003) and “Babel” (2006), has penned another interweaving, multi-character story, but without the over-reliance on coincidence that hampered those previous movies.

A Portland restaurant manager (Charlize Theron) who substitutes anonymous sex for a personal life, a New Mexico housewife (Kim Basinger) who feels trapped by her family and marriage and her confused, guilt-ridden teenaged daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) are the principal characters in this exploration into the effects of impulsive acts and misunderstandings.

Two incidents kick start the drama: the burning down of a trailer that leaves two lovers dead and a plane crash that critically injures a single father. But the focus of the movie never wavers far from these women’s state of mind, allowing Theron, Basinger and Lawrence to create vivid, if hard to watch, portraits of hopelessness.

The acting, as it was in his and Iñárritu’s “21 Grams,” is extraordinary. Sylvia, a lost soul drifting through life, is Theron’s most interesting and intense character since her Oscar-winning turn in “Monster” (2003), as she delivers a raw, tough, uncompromising study of sadness. Basinger’s role as a straying wife is less interesting but the actress leaves a strong impression, while 19-year-old Lawrence as the daughter shows a depth of understand of complex emotions that’s rare for an actress so young. This is her first major film role, having been a regular on the TBS sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show” for the past three years.

Joaquim de Almeida, the accomplished Portuguese actor who has had a long American film and TV career, including impressive work as a villain in the third season of “24,” is outstanding as Basinger’s partner in adultery.

Arriaga, who also wrote the powerful border drama “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005)---directed and starring Tommy Lee Jones----establishes himself with this debut behind the camera as a serious, introspective filmmaker who has a deeply felt understanding of women. Already his screenplays have helped three actresses score Oscar nominations (Naomi Watts in “21 Grams” and Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi in “Babel”) and if “The Burning Plain” can stick around in theaters for awhile, it should add to that number.

This is a dark, difficult film that requires patience and attention, but it more than redeems itself by its memorable conclusion.

Budd Schulberg, who died in August at the age of 95, wrote two of the best screenplays in film history----“On the Waterfront” (1954), winning an Oscar for it, and “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)----and what may be the finest novel ever written about Hollywood, “What Makes Sammy Run?” But he’ll always be remembered as one of the “friendly witnesses” who named names while testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

His reasons weren’t about saving his career---he’d already been blackballed by the studios after the 1941 publication of his novel, but continued to work in small projects and on TV----but because he had grown to hate what the Communists were doing in Hollywood. He broke with the party when leaders of the writer’s branch attempted to dictate the content of his novel. As un-American as it was to punish those who were simply members of the Communist Party, it was equally un-American that any political group was making a consorted effort to control the content of Hollywood pictures. Imagine the uproar today if a large contingent of television writers were members of a rightwing group whose leaders instructed them on how to insert pro-Republican themes into their scripts?

The issue isn’t as black and white as many like to paint it. Schulberg and his friend Elia Kazan, among others, were true believers in the 1930s, who wanted to end the Communist influence in Hollywood not out of the hysterical fear that fueled the politicians but because they saw first hand the party’s methods being used to influence American filmmaking.

That controversy aside, the two-part television dramatization of Schulberg’s sarcastic, cynical masterpiece, which aired on NBC’s Sunday Showcase, is one of the finest TV productions I’ve ever seen. If this script by Schulberg and his brother Stuart, has been made into a feature film, it would undoubtedly be considered one of the greatest of its era. The black-and-white kinescope version (it was originally aired in color), put together for the first time in 2005, has to be considered one of the great found treasures of the Golden Age of television.

Sammy Glick, played with an ingratiatingly self-assured energy by Larry Blyden (who had a long career in television until his death in 1975) represents a side of Hollywood rarely seen up until that point. Lacking in morals, ethics or even a semblance of humanity, Sammy refuses to let anything or anyone slow his path to the top.

As in the novel, Sammy is seen through the eyes of Al Manheim (John Forsythe), who first meets Sammy when they both work at a New York newspaper. Drama critic Manheim is, at first, bemused by the over-eager copy boy until Sammy maneuvers himself into the position of radio columnist and then pitches to an agent a script written by a co-worker.

After he cold-calls famous Hollywood agent Myron Selznick with his movie idea, Al asks him if he was scared. Sammy says he wasn’t, but kept thinking to himself during the call “Sammy Glick Sammy Glick Sammy Glick Sammy Glick.” Sammy is energized by his own ego.

Once in Hollywood, Sammy quickly finds that his ability to talk the talk with complete self assuredness more than makes up for his total lack of writing skills. Al follows Sammy to the West Coast when he sells his own screenplay, giving him a front row seat to the path of destruction left in the wake of his young friend’s sprint to the penthouse.

Sammy moves through the ranks of writers by taking credit for other’s scripts, stealing ideas from old movies and selling out those closest to him without a hint of regret. And he does it all by never writing a word or reading a single book or play.

The novel, published in 1941, cost Schulberg his job as a studio screenwriter and ended his father’s producing career. B.P. Schulberg had been one of the early executives for Paramount Pictures and, from the early 1930s, a successful independent producer. Louis B. Mayer famously suggested to B.P. that his son be deported because he dared write a book so critical of the movie studios. “Where the hell are you going to deport him,” the father of the American-born Budd asked, “Catalina Island?”

It clearly had no chance of being made into a film, but this version is actually the second television version; the first was made in 1949 with José Ferrer as Sammy and, amazingly, Paddy Chayefsky writing the screenplay. In the past 10 years, actor-director Ben Stiller has attempted, and failed, to bring the story to the big screen.

While the production values of the 1959 version, bare-bones sets shot in tight quarters, all indoors (I suspect the original color version looked even worse than the grainy kinescope) could easily be improved upon, the acting can’t be beat. Blyden, who had made a name for himself in “The Bachelor Party” (1957), directed by “Sammy” director Delbert Mann, was never better, showing Sammy as a repellent, but very convincing con man whose unlikely rise up the studio ladder seems all-too plausible.

Forsythe, a slick, bland actor whose biggest success was years later in “Dynasty” and, I guess, as the voice of Charlie on “Charlie’s Angels,” also gives the performance of his career as the voice of reason who keeps asking the unanswerable question: “What makes Sammy run?” But this script and its characters are so fresh and dynamic that any good actor couldn’t help but do great work.

Also outstanding in the show are Barbara Rush as a successful screenwriter who is equally fascinated by Sammy but falls in love with Al, and Dina Merrill as the dilettante daughter of the studio CEO who proves to be a perfect match for Sammy. In a single, heartbreaking scene, Sammy’s brother, played by Norman Fell (later Mr. Roper on “Three’s Company”), reveals his brother’s disregard, even hatred, for his past. This emotional highpoint is set during a chi chi cocktail party at a New York hotel (according to Sammy, “Toots says he’s bringing DiMaggio”) during which the brother barges in and pleads with Sammy to attend his uncle’s funeral.

Replacing a much longer sequence about Sammy’s family in the book, the scene is a brilliant example of what a great writer can accomplish in just a few minutes of screen time. Mann, who directed “Marty” on TV and on the big screen (winning an Oscar), and such first-rate films as “Separate Tables” (1958) and “Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1960), deserves a good share of the credit for not only getting the most out of his cast but keeping the dialogue- heavy script from feeling like a filmed play.

One of the most controversial plot lines of the novel was the characters’ involvement in the messy creation of the Writers’ Guild, which involved Red-influenced organizers and studio union busters. It is nowhere to be found in the TV play. In a fascinating 2008 interview included as an extra on the DVD, the then 94-year-old Schulberg explains that he eliminated that aspect of the book because he knew he didn’t have enough time to properly explore the complex issue. But I doubt that any TV or advertising executive in 1959 would have OK’d a script taking on the politics involved in the union movement in Hollywood.

Sammy’s and Al’s Jewish backgrounds are also downplayed in the TV drama compared to the book. Studio moguls of the time, most of whom were Jewish, didn’t want that fact advertised, while many in Hollywood felt that Schulberg’s Sammy was a negative Jewish stereotype.

But even without those aspects, this production offers a revealing peek inside at the ruthless way the studios did (and, in many ways, still do) business: the low opinion in which actors, writers and especially audiences were held, the exploitative treatment of women, the rampant backstabbing and, topping it off, the truly scary prototype of Hollywood success: Sammy Glick.

PONYO (2009)
I’m not a big fan of modern animation---if you can even call what Disney and Pixar do animation----but it’s impossible to deny the startling imagination that flows out of the mind of Hayao Miyazaki.

His “Spirited Away,” a scarier version of “Alice in Wonderland,” won the 2002 Oscar for best animation and earning a spot on many critics’ Top 10 lists. I was more impressed with his next project, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), another story of a young girl forced to empower herself to survive a treacherous adventure. Magical powers, worlds within our world and characters who look more frightening than they turn out to be are among the hallmarks of Miyazaki’s films.

His new film follows the very normal life of Sosuke, the young son of a feisty nursing home worker and a hard-working sailor, who befriends an odd-looking fish he pulls out of the sea. The creature, which he names Ponyo, is actually one of a school of big-eyed fish, the daughters of a former human who is now king of the ocean. He comes looking for his lost child but the little one is determined to stay with Sosuke and, like “Pinocchio,” become a real human.

It was a relief to see a sweet, old-fashioned animated tale, minus all those clever asides and comedy club-style voiceovers. The most distinctive voices in the England-language version of “Ponyo” are Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cloris Leachman as residents of the nursing home.

Ang Lee’s latest picture explores the coming of age of the gay son of a Jewish couple who run a dumpy hotel in upstate New York. Elliot, a nerdy interior designer and wannabe painter is helping out his parents for the summer as they face foreclosure. Then he reads about a concert promoter desperately looking for a site for a rock ‘n’ roll festival. Elliot meets with Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the main force behind the concert that became known as “Woodstock” and his life changes forever.

This episodical, scattershot movie, based on the real-life Elliot’s book, attempts to humanize the famous event by focusing on Elliot, the organizers of the festival who make his parent’s’ El Monaco motel their headquarters and the oddball characters of White Lake, N.Y. It works for awhile but once the concert begins, this approach runs out of steam---as an audience you feel cheated that after all the build up you don’t get to experience the show.

Demetri Martin, a standup and comedy writer, isn’t much of an actor but he brings a clumsy, wide-eyed innocence to the role and turns out to be about the only believable character in the movie. Otherwise, Lee and longtime screenwriter James Schamus populate “Taking Woodstock” with stock characters, including a wacked-out Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch), hippie-hating locals and overbearing, clueless parents. (Elloit’s mother, played by British actress Imelda Staunton, is downright evil in her attempt to control the life of her son and husband.) The film also milks some easy laughs out of a cross-dressing ex-Marine (Liv Schreiber) who takes charge of security.

The film’s best moments come when Elliot attempts to get to the show, just over the hill at the dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur (amusingly played by Eugene Levy). He drops acid with a laid-back couple from the West Coast, slides in the mud with the Vietnam vet and gives us a ground level view of the mass of youth people streaming into the festival. In the background, Richard Havens, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin and others can be heard, but neither Elliot nor filmgoers ever see the show.

It’s a disappointingly slight film from one of the smartest and most successful directors in Hollywood. If you long to recall the festival during its 40th anniversary year, catch the new documentary directed by two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA,” “American Dream”) in which she interviews those who were there----on stage, in the audience and behind the scenes. “Woodstock: Then and Now,” which aired recently on PBS, offers an interesting retrospective on this landmark event and comes much closer to the heart of the matter than Ang Lee’s film ever does.

I’ve extolled the underrated directing skills of Anthony Mann many times in this space, but with each film of his I see I’m impressed all over again. Here he takes what could have been a forgettable B-western and turns it into a tough-minded, clear-eyed study of how pettiness and racism shaped the way the West was “won.”

The well-worn scenario (by Philip Yordan and Russell S. Hughes from Richard Emery Roberts’ novel) focuses on a vigilant, self-righteous colonel (Robert Preston) determined to annihilate the Indians remaining in the Oregon territory, ignoring the more measured approached urged by Jed (Victor Mature at his scene-chewing best), an experienced, savvy but ill-mannered and undisciplined scout.

As they clash over the colonel’s plans to send all the fort’s troops out to confront the Indian nation on the frontier, Jed is putting the moves on the commander’s discontented wife (a startling young and blonde Anne Bancroft). Also in the fine supporting cast is Guy Madison as the young sergeant who is amused by Jed and supports him against the egomaniacal colonel, and James Whitmore as Jed’s loyal sidekick.

Not only is the pictured filled with fascinating characters with all sorts of psychological problems, but Mann and his cinematographer, William Mellor, capture the unspoiled beauty of the heavily wooded terrain and find ways to keep things visual interesting inside the confines of the fort, all in gorgeous CinemaScope. When Jed and the colonel’s right-hand man engaged in an epic fistfight, Mann shoots most of it from the ceiling of the room (a trick I don’t think I’ve ever seen) and then from the rooftops once the brawl continues outdoors.

“The Last Frontier” is a smart, entertaining little Western, in a large part because a master filmmaker was at the helm.

This low-key character study is exactly the kind of anti-Hollywood movie I should love. The introspective, rather depressing story finds a young woman (Michelle Williams) and her dog midway through their road trip to Alaska, a journey interrupted when her car breaks down in a small, bleak Oregon town. Then, while Wendy deals with a shoplifting charge, Lucy the dog runs off.

That’s about as complicated as this film gets. Not much else happens beyond Wendy’s repeated calls to the pound and her discussions with a kind, elderly Walgreen’s security guard.

With the pacing of a slow-melting glacier, the movie digs into Wendy’s state of mind as she faces one crisis after another (turns out her car is busted beyond repair) as she attempts to restart her life. Willliams, best know as the frustrated wife of Heath Ledger’s character in “Brokeback Mountain,” does her best to wring the most out of this rather flat character, but director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond (they teamed for another recent indie favorite “Old Joy”) has given her little to work with.

Too often, indie filmmaking style consists of interminable shots of inanimate objects or characters walking in the distance and an adherence to the mundane rituals of life. At some points, “Wendy and Lucy” plays like a parody of this type of movie, insisting on rejecting all conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But, on the other hand, there’s not a single special effect, car chase or character with super powers, so why am I complaining.

Someone once said, I’m sure, that casting is 90 percent of making a good movie. It’s certainly true in this cockeyed comedy telling of the true story of an Archer Daniels Midland executive turned FBI informant. While Matt Damon has the Midwest chirpy niceness down pat as his Mark Whitacre attempts to be the best spy the bureau has ever recruited, he plays the deadpan reading of the role way too close to the vest. It’s all played as farce as the seemingly naïve, goodhearted Whitacre turns out to be a pathological liar. But as his story slowly deconstructs to the frustration of two trusting FBI agents, the film never builds up enough energy to be much more than mildly amusing.

Director Steven Soderbergh clearly wanted the corn-fed, boyish looks that Damon brings to the role, but other Soderbergh regulars Brad Pitt or George Clooney (or maybe Sam Rockwell) would have been better fits for the film. It desperately needs their quirkiness to hot wire the straightforward script and offer some contrast to the equally flat performance by Scott Bakula (star of the early ‘90s TV series, “Quantum Leap”) as Whitacre’s FBI handler. I could see Robert De Niro or Alec Baldwin bringing this character to life and offering a real comic jolt to the film.

Somewhere there’s a funny movie in this true story of an unlikely whistle blower and equally unlikely blue-collar thief who ends up making both his bosses at the powerful conglomerate and the FBI looking like fools.

Beyond the casting, Soderbergh worst decision was utilizing a voice-over throughout the film in which the audience is subjected to Whitacre’s inane observations and mundane thoughts. At first it’s slightly amusing to hear how dorky this successful businessman is, but it quickly becomes diverting and unnecessarily cruel.

For Soderbergh, this is the sixth film he’s directed in less than three years (including the two-part, four-hour plus “Che”) but nothing in that period approaches the quality of work he did at the turn of the century. No filmmaker in recent years has matched his three-year output of “Out of Sight” (1998), “Limey” (1999), “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and “Traffic” (2000). But even if he’s making misfires such as “Informant!” I prefer a director who keeps cranking them out, much like Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, to the “artistes” who take years between projects. A failure by a first-rate director is much preferred to silence.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

August 2009

Quentin Tarantino’s films----all seven of them---are energized, in large part, by his willingness to toss aside traditional movie storytelling methods, substituting a style that resembles a collage of vaguely connected ideas. Every finished picture looks to me as if the eccentric writer-director has taken three or four or more scenarios, some that could have been developed into separate films, and found a way to force them together. Sometimes the pieces barely fit together (“Jackie Brown,” “Death Proof” and both parts of “Kill Bill”), sometimes they fit well enough (“Reservoir Dogs”) and sometimes the parts are so fascinating that not fitting is barely an issue (“Pulp Fiction”).

In his latest cinematic extravaganza, Tarantino has tied three leisurely paced, superbly written and directed set pieces together with an honest to God theme: Jews kill Nazis in World War II. But please don’t bring the kids for a history lesson; this is World War II as a fantasy revenge story, a brazenly comical and bloody reimagining of how the war turned out, filled with first-rate performances (something you don’t expect in a Tarantino film) and intense, savage action, not to mention a primer on Nazi propaganda filmmaking.

The roguish title (taken from a correctly spelled 1978 Italian film) refers to a ragtag band of soldiers----dressed as civilians----recruited to act on their own to kill as many Nazis as they can behind the front lines in occupied France. Most are Jewish, one is a renegade German solider and all are chomping at the bit to not just kill but brutalize and intimidate the Nazi army. Their commander is Lt. Aldo Raine (sounds like Aldo Ray, one of many movie reference), a quick-witted Southerner who demands, owing to his Native American background, every dead Nazi be scalped. That’s just one of the many ways the film humiliates and terrorizes the Nazis----defeat and death wasn’t nearly good enough for those bastards, Tarantino is saying, we need to revisit this stage and really put the hammer to them.

The Nazi-killing Basterds slip into the background during the second half of the film, as a young Jewish woman (superbly portrayed by Mélanie Laurent), who escaped while her family was murdered and now runs a Paris movie theater, plots her revenge against the hierarchy of the Nazi command. In the end, it’s all about the power of the cinema to make a difference. (Heck, even a film critic turned soldier gets into the act.)

Smirking and squinting through the entire operation is the fearless Aldo, played to near perfection by Brad Pitt. He’s crazy, impulsive and having the time of his life killing Nazis. As much as I’ve been bored by the recent dramatic acting of Pitt (“Babel,” “Benjamin Button”), his comedy chops are better than ever (here and his spasmodic health club worker in “Burn After Reading”).

Yet the performance you won’t forget is given by little-known Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as the ever-smiling, talkative, cunning and ruthless SS officer Col. Hans Landa. In the mesmerizing opening sequence, Waltz’s Landa visits a dairy farmer who he suspects is hiding Jewish neighbors. The well-mannered Landa calmly discusses the farmer’s milk, his family, his recollections of the Jewish family he’s pursuing, all as a psychological battle to squeeze out the information he’s sure the farmer has. If only for that scene, Waltz’s performance would be amazing, but he keeps turning up and adding layers to this toxic mix of amused superiority and pure evil. It is far and away the best performance I’ve seen so far this year.

“Inglourious Basterds” isn’t for everyone. Beyond the usual Tarantino indulgences----cartoonish characters (truly weird are Mike Myers as an English general and Rod Taylor as a spooky Winston Churchill), long discussions about trivial subjects, glacier-like pacing and, of course, plenty of spurting blood---you have to accept the fact that he’s rewritten the story of World War II to accommodate his scenario. Yet seen simply as an action adventure war film, it’s a thoroughly entertaining movie and easily Tarantino’s best film since “Pulp Fiction.”

While I’m not a huge admirer of Michael Chabon’s novel---it’s a good debut but with all the shortcomings you’d expect from a writer just out of college----I was taken aback by the wholesale changes to “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” made by director-screenwriter Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”). In an interview on the DVD, Chabon says he gave his blessing to Thurber’s rewrite, but he also admits this was the fourth or fifth attempt to bring the book to the screen since it was published in 1988. He was probably just relieved to get it over with.

Most egregious to me is the elimination of the book’s most colorful character, Arthur Lecomte, an unstoppable party animal who’s in love with the book’s narrator, Art Bechstein. Elements of the character are incorporated into another friend of Art’s, Cleveland, but all that does is make Cleveland less believable; he ends up carrying too much of the thematic and symbolic load. Art’s girlfriend (needless to say, the recent University of Pittsburgh grad struggles with his sexual identity), the quirky, devoted Phlox, for no good reason, has been rewritten for the film into a shrew and very annoying minor character (played by Mena Suvari).

Yet even putting the book aside, the film doesn’t offer much of interest; the story is softened by the passage of time and the actors seem uncertain about what to do with their flat, predictable characters.

Twenty years ago, tales of binge drinking, gay sex and a bi-sexual protagonist was edgy and controversial. Now it seems like an indie film cliché. Amazingly, as filmed, the story feels so wholesome and ordinary that I can’t believe Chabon didn’t engage in some binge drinking over the results.

Art (Jon Foster, who played a similar type in “The Door in the Floor”) decides to have fun during the summer (of 1983) after graduation and finds it when he meets a gregarious couple, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jane (Sienna Miller). Art falls for both of them, but the film turns the homosexual angle into something of a lark and puts the emphasis on the bland Art and the blander Jane. The liveliest scenes in the movie involve Art’s mobster father, played by a very scary, very convincing Nick Nolte.

The film makes some use of the old neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, but most of the film could have taken place anywhere, despite the title.

Director Curtis Hanson’s take on Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” is a funnier, more insightful picture, populated with interesting, believable characters. When I saw the film during its theatrical run in 2000, I disliked it, finding both the socially backward, emotionally immature college student (Tobey Maguire) and the indulgent, dope-smoking professor-novelist (Michael Douglas) nothing more than literary devices. They still are, but seeing it again recently, I appreciated the literate, witty script (by Steve Kloves, who went on to do most of the “Harry Potter” films) and the wonderful supporting players. Robert Downey Jr. is a hoot as the professor’s gay book editor who brings a transvestite to the book fare being held at Pitt. Also memorable are Rip Torn as an egotistical novelist, Frances McDormand as the dean of the English department and Prof. Tripp’s mistress, Richard Thomas as her husband and president of the school who’s obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and Katie Holmes as a student who keeps trying to seduce her professor.

I must admit that when I saw the film nine years ago, Douglas’ Tripp came off like a pitiful jackass----an old guy trying to be cool. Now that I’m older than the character, I find him more believable, entertaining and even sympathetic. What that means, I don’t think I want to know.

This entertaining, but forgettable movie intermingles a sweetly amusing valentine to the iconic cooking writer and TV personality Julia Child with an equally lightweight story of an unfulfilled 30-year-old woman who uses Child’s cookbook to regain a sense of herself.

Child, as impersonated by Meryl Streep, comes off exactly as she did in her popular cooking show: an unabashed, uninhibited eccentric who above all else loved food. Unfortunately, she seems about as real as an animated character. Writer-director Nora Ephron efforts to make Streep tower over others in the film (Child was 6 foot 2), shooting from odd angles and placing her in scaled-down sets, adds to the fairy-tale feeling of the film and the one-dimensional portrait of Child. Too often, Streep’s Child reminded me of Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Stanley Tucci, who, in a juicier role, was Streep’s able assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada,” here plays Child’s husband Paul, an American diplomat. He’s given little to do, but in an odd aside, his character is recalled to Washington at the height of McCarthyism and his loyalty questioned. The whole episode seems completely out of place in this story.

But for all its faults, Child’s part of the film----mostly set in Paris in the 1940s and ‘50s as she and a pair of friends toil away at the French cookbook that would make her famous----shines compared to the dreary, clichéd world of Julie Powell. This discontent New Yorker, circa 2004, working in a tedious government job, decides to cook through Child’s recipes in 365 days. And, of course, blog about it. The crazy project results in frustration and domestic problems, but mostly great food and an improved self worth. Amy Adams as Julie pulls out all her charm and pluckiness to win us over, but her tale is so predictable and artificially feel-good that I never could build up much interest in her.

At one point, Julie and husband Eric (Chris Messina) are seen enjoying Dan Aykroyd’s hilarious imitation of Child from “Saturday Night Live.” If only this film had gone beyond the insight of that comic moment and told us something about this famous and influential woman. At least, I wish Ephron had found a better way to explain Child’s importance in the world of food.

BAD GIRL (1931)
This simple story of a young couple who meet cute and then struggle to hold on to their love oozes with the bleak, sorrowful mood of the country during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, it’s more interesting as a time capsule than it is as a film.

Frank Borzage, who won the best director Oscar for this movie, starts out making an ahead-of-its-time statement about the mistreatment of women, as Dorothy insults every man who tries to make time with her. We see various men, including her supervisor, attempt to “date” her, but she’s not interested in guys who are just after “one thing.” But just when you think you’re about to watch the story of a liberated, Depression-era woman, she falls for Eddie and “Bad Girl” becomes a sentimental love story.

It takes an interesting turn when Dorothy’s brother throws her out of the house because she was at Eddie’s until 4 a.m., assuming she has ruined the family name. But moral issues are quickly dispensed with and the picture becomes a contrived melodrama. In a drawn-out, silly plotline, both Eddie and Dorothy believe the other doesn’t really want the baby they are about to have.

James Dunn, who 17 years later would win an Oscar as the alcoholic father in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” plays Eddie as a diffident, inexplicably bitter man, while Sally Eilers supplies the real energy to the proceedings as Dorothy. Both actors were career supporting players, but in “Bad Girls” they work well as sincere, sympathetic stars.

Not only did Borzage win an Oscar (over far superior work by King Vidor in “The Champ” and Josef von Sternberg in “Shanghai Express”) but the film was a best picture nominee (losing to “Grand Hotel”) and screenwriter Edwin Burke won for his adaptation.

This Belgian film doesn’t make for a pleasant evening at the cinema. But sometimes, believe it or not, movies are worth seeing because they illuminate a part of the world we don’t know much about. That remains the overriding concern of the best filmmakers of Europe, which includes brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, writer-directors best known for “Rosetta (1999) and “The Child” (2004). Their latest may be their most impressive, offering a look at the sleazy, dangerous world involving the buying and selling of residency papers. The film received the best screenplay award at the 2008 Cannes film festival.

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is an Albanian immigrant barely tolerating her drug-addicted Belgium husband (Jérémie Renier), who was paid to marry her so she could secure legal status in the country. Her taxi-driving partner has already arranged for her to marry a Russian man, so he can become eligible for residency and is anxious for a quick ending to her current marriage. This plan starts to fall apart when Lorna develops sympathy for her temporary husband after he shows determination to break his habit.

The characters of “Lorna’s Silence” aren’t very sympathetic, but their plights as they grind out joyless livings with one foot in the crime world, has become a universal problem that can’t be ignored. As Lorna, Dobroshi, an inexperienced Albanian actress, gives a tough, unsettling performance revealing the humanity beneath her criminal, callous surface. Nearly as impressive is Renier, who also played a druggie in “In Bruges,” as the razor-thin heroin addict who desperately wants a new life.

I’m unaware of the politics of the Dardenne brothers, but one of the strengths of this film is that it doesn’t ask you to feel one way or another on the immigration policies that have created this underworld. Without any adornment, it offers a glimpse at the desperate lives millions across Europe are living.

Writer-director, and former journalist, Rod Lurie has taken the basic outline of the Judith Miller-Valerie Plame imbroglio----turning up the melodramatic volume a bit----and fashioned an uncompromising study of the on-going threat to the First Amendment.

This being a Hollywood film, the issues become less subtle than their real life counterparts, especially when it comes to the picture’s hero, political journalist Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale). Unlike the New York Times’ Miller, Rachel is presented as a writer without an agenda or questionable connections to the administration. And unlike the real-life controversy, the film’s reporter actually writes the story that lands her in jail. In the movie, Rachel reports that an uncover CIA agent’s report on Venezuela was ignored before the president ordered air strikes and, citing an unnamed source, names the agent.

Beckinsale, the slight British actress who has become an unlikely sci-fi action star (the “Underworld” series), convincingly portrays this ambitious newspaper reporter who finds herself in the middle of a political power play, and pays a high price to maintain her journalistic integrity. By refusing to reveal her source she’s doing the right thing, but archaic laws are utilized to punish her.

Alan Alda plays her attorney, an upscale First Amendment specialist who at first seems more concerned with her wardrobe than the case but ends up becoming her staunchest ally.

The Plame character, Erica Van Doren, played by Vera Farmiga (the girlfriend in “The Departed”) with her usual clenched intensity, also is very easy to hate at first but ultimately gains sympathy as she faces untenable choices.

Movie critic turned filmmaker Lurie has made some heavy-handed political movies (“The Contender” and the polemic “Deterrence”) but here he’s written sympathetic, believable characters and put them in very real, stressful circumstances. There’s no need to fabricate crazy scenarios (as in his previous films) to examine the corruption of American politics and government---just turn on the evening news.

While lacking both the thriller energy of “Body of Lies” and that film’s big-picture interest in the future of journalism, “Nothing But the Truth” offers a very personal and poignant look at the costs journalists often pay to stand up to a power-abusing government.

Don’t be fooled by the title or the fact that the movie stars Robin Williams: This is an unpleasant, irrational picture about a sexually perverted teen and his inept father who lies his way to fame. Not exactly the family film the title implies. And all attempts at dark humor or sarcasm fall victim to the jackhammer-like touch of writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait, longtime standup and friend of Williams.

A miscast Williams plays Lance Clayton, the single parent of a pornography-obsessed, hate-spewing, ignorant son who ends up accidentally killing himself (trust me, you really don’t want to know the details). His father, a high-school English teacher, attempts to give his son some dignity he never had when alive and composes a suicide note for him, painting a picture of a depressed, poetic, lost soul who was misunderstood by everyone. The rest of the film plays out accordingly: the vile boy becomes beloved by his former classmates and teachers as Lance fabricates a journal and encourages the fake image of his dead son he’s created.

Some critics have applauded the film as a comedic indictment of the culture of over-praising those who die young. But the son is depicted as so repulsive (Hitler was better liked than this kid) that Bobcat’s points are lost in the sheer ridiculousness of the situation.

Lance is a childish, scared rabbit of a man who struggles to carry on a conversation with fellow teachers. He’s such a sad excuse for an adult that it’s pretty clear why his son turned out to be such a social outcast. But it’s more than the character’s flaws that sink this film and performance. Half the time, Williams looks totally confused, expressing emotions that are out of place and unconnected to what the other characters are saying. Motivations change drastically from scene to scene and no one seems to be listening to what anyone else is saying.

“World’s Greatest Dad” makes most straight-to-DVD films, or even recent Williams bombs such as “Patch Adams,” “Bicentennial Man” and “Jakob the Liar,” play like Oscar contenders, so I have no idea how it rated a theatrical release. In fact, I can’t understand why Williams didn’t have all the prints destroyed. It’s really that bad.

Unlike Sofia Coppola, whose films bear little resemblance to her father’s, Jennifer Lynch is clearly a disciple of her strange, brilliant father.

Her second movie comes 16 years after her controversial debut “Boxing Helena,” which gained more fame in court than on the screen because of a legal battle between the studio and Kim Basinger, the film’s original star. The picture told the bizarre story of a surgeon who amputates the limbs of the woman he’s in love with. Considering the high-profile critical and box office failure of “Boxing Helena,” it’s not surprising that it took her this long to get a second chance behind the camera (though she also was hampered by physical problems after a car accident).

This bloody, amoral tale filled with psychotic policemen, spaced-out druggies, an irritating family on vacation and two very odd FBI agents unfolds as the survivors of a murder rampage are interrogated. The family’s quiet but intuitive young daughter, who notices details the adults around her are too distracted to see, offers the only respite from the picture’s parade of unpleasant people.

But this being a Lynch film, everything isn’t as it seems on the surface and when secrets are revealed, it makes everything that happened before more interesting. While the picture never achieves the nightmarish, disjoined hyper-reality of her father’s best works, it lives in that world, especially in the twisted performance of the cops and the federal agents played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond.

Both of these fine actors, who haven’t had good roles in years (Pullman in 1998’s “Zero Effect” as a wonderfully bizarre detective; Ormond since she burst on the scene as the title character of the 1995 remake of “Sabrina”) re-establish their acting chops with these puzzling, off-kilter characters and are the best reasons to see the film.

The seemingly pointless bloodletting can be hard to endure, but “Surveillance” has much more going on. While the film can’t be called a success, it certainly indicates that Lynch (who co-wrote the film with Kent Harper) has the potential to be more than just a famous filmmaker’s daughter.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

July 2009

Unless I missed something in the last few years, this harrowing new film from veteran filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow is the first feature to capture the sweaty intensity and death-defying existence of being an American soldier in Iraq. Breathtaking and disturbing, the uncomplicated story follows a three-man bomb squad as they are sent out into the street to disarm powerful munitions as less-than-hospitable Iraqi citizens look on.

The 57-year-old Bigelow, best known for cult favorites “Point Break” (1991) and “Strange Days” (1995), doesn’t rush anything; each frightening, unpredictable assignment the squad is sent to plays out in what seems like real time, shot with hand-held cameras that get right in the face of these men. One lengthy sequence has the trio of soldiers stopping to help a British unit in the middle of the desert and finding themselves the target of sniper fire. The film depicts long periods of waiting, in this case under the burning tropic sun, followed by sudden violence that seems---from everything I’ve ever read or heard from those who’ve experience warfare---closer to reality than what most action-filled war pictures offer. This film isn’t about battlefield strategy, military goals or political motivations; it’s about doing a job and surviving to see another day.

While each set piece plays out with teeth-grinding intensity, the film wouldn’t have the impact if the director and screenwriter Mark Boal (who was an imbedded reporter with a bomb unit) hadn’t emphasized the volatile relationship between the three members of the squad.

Sgt. J.T. Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie (he was the smart-mouthed boxer trained by Clint Eastwood in “Million Dollar Baby”), is a no-nonsense kind of soldier who’s counting down the days remaining before he can go home. Sanborn prefers to get in and out of hot zones as quickly as possible, which becomes a point of conflict with the new squad leader, Staff Sgt. William James. This cocky, self-styled wild man who savors the chance to don the protective body suit and untangle the detonator wires of these home-made explosives could care less that his unorthodox methods unnecessarily put his team at risk. Jeremy Renner, who has never had a role this prominent (though he did play Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 indie “Dahmer”), plays Sgt. James, who, while totally nuts in his refusal to take precautions and wound too tight to function normally, proves to be superbly skilled at his job. He gives an amazingly focused performance; in many ways it reminded me of Christopher Walken’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Deer Hunter” (1978). Both characters have remade themselves into the warriors their wars required.

The third member of the squad is Spc. Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown; tentative and unsure of his abilities, he admits he’s just waiting to die.

How these three relate, work out their differences and, in the face of danger, trust one another as emotional brothers explains what war is about----at least the war that’s fought on the ground day after day after day----in ways that no civilian or politician can grasp.

I’m not crazy about the title, but, if I read it correctly, its meaning captures this war. “The Hurt Locker” is the place where soldier put all their demons and fears, where they can shove aside all the normal emotional responses they might have to the horrific experiences of war, allowing them to continue to function and survive and do the job their country has asked them to do.

Director Richard Donner, after “Superman” became a smash hit in 1979, expected to return to London to finish up the sequel, having shot most of the footage planned for Part II at the same time he was making the original. Instead, he was fired by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and replaced by Richard Lester, best known as the director of “A Hard Days Night” and “Help!”

The Salkinds, who battled with Donner during the filming, didn’t think they needed him once the picture was a box-office success and brought in Lester, whom they had worked with on “The Three Musketeers” films. Just as shortsighted, they decided they didn’t need any of the footage of Marlon Brando (who played Superman’s father Jor-El) in the sequel---avoiding what would have been a hefty payday for the actor---and substituted Susannah York as Superman’s mother.

If the No. 1 priority is the bottom line---as it almost always is in big-budget filmmaking----then it’s hard to argue with the producers. “Superman II,” minus Brando and Donner, was the second most popular movie of 1981. But if the goal was to make a worthy follow-up to the impressive original, they failed. And that failure becomes more obvious after seeing the re-edited version of the film, which represents Donner’s vision (at least, as close as possible) for the sequel.

Producer and editor Michael Thau (who had supervised a 2000 restoration of “Superman”), with the support of the director and the encouragement of the loyal fans of the series, utilizes the Donner footage that Lester had discarded and reshot (so he could claim directing credit) and the structure that Donner and script consultant Tom Mankiewicz intended to piece together this alternative to the disappointing sequel. (A minute chronicle of the changes can be found on the film’s Wikipedia site.)

While this 2006 version can’t help being choppy and occasionally jolting in its editing (put together nearly 30 years after it was filmed) it greatly benefits from the disembodied image of Brando, which shifts the focus of the film from the impossible relationship between Superman (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to the soul-searching, intense confrontations between father and son.

What was the strength of the 1981 version remains the best thing about the 2006 version: Gene Hackman’s performance as Lex Luthor (all directed by Donner). Part standup comic, part silent film evil doer, Lex never stops cracking wise or spotting an angle he can use to his advantage. It’s a crime he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for either “Superman” or “Superman II.”

Thau brings back Donner’s opening sequence in which Lois throws herself out the window of the Daily Planet newsroom to test her suspicion that Clark Kent is Superman. Her stunt fails but later she tricks Clark to admit his dual identity by firing a gun (loaded with blanks) at him. That sequence is pieced together from Reeve’s and Kidder’s filmed auditions. Two Daily Planet mainstays from the original, editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) and photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) are underutilized in “Superman II;” instead the film (both versions) spends too much time with the evil trio from Krypton and their campy takeover of the United States---another miscalculation by Lester.

Visually, there’s nothing in “Superman II” that can compare to the brilliant photography by Geoffrey Unsworth in the first film. There’s an unforgettable, deep-focus shot of Clark walking in the wheat field after his father dies, photographed through the kitchen window at dawn from his mother perspective as she places a box of Cheerios on the table. This painterly still life is followed by the magnificent blue of the glaciers and water of Superman’s newly formed home away from home. (The two-time Oscar winning Unsworth is responsible for most of the 2006 version of Part II since he shot all the Donner footage before he died in October 1978.)

One problem with the structure of “Superman II” is that it doesn’t step back from the plot and offer the thoughtful moments that enriched the first film. Maybe if Donner and Mankiewicz had been able to finish Part II, some of that magic might have been added. (The pair’s commentary on the DVD is well worth a listen.)
The film ends disappointingly as it repeats Superman’s stunt of turning back time to erase everything bad that happened during the movie. It seemed like a cop-out in the first film and really seems lame to do it again.

The sequel to “Superman,” no matter who directed, was bound to be a disappointment: it’s hard to recapture that feeling of awe when audiences first saw Superman fly. But Lester’s emphasis on silliness rather than classic storytelling set a tone for the series that was carried on in the next two entries. Donner’s version, at the least, gives a taste of how the Superman legend would have been continued under his guidance.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like my movie gangsters with at least a hint of psychological underpinnings (Freudian or otherwise) to help explain who or what made them turn to crime. Michael Mann’s thoroughly entertaining chronicle of the last two years of John Dillinger’s life, when the FBI made catching the dashing bank robber their No. 1 priority, spills over with superbly orchestrated shootouts, escapes and robberies and captures the deep disparity between the haves and have nots during the Great Depression, but never digs very deep into its subject.

Johnny Depp’s Dillinger resembles, a bit too closely, Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow from “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), another carefree romantic who robbed banks, to less notoriety, during the Depression. But Dillinger doesn’t display anything close to the quirks of that film’s Clyde; he’s just a smart, good-looking criminal. An equally one-note character is his pursuer Melvin Purvis (a tightly-wound Christian Bale) but that’s to be expected----he’s the good guy, the ultimate professional who, while never as interesting as the outlaw, will always prevail at the end.

Mann, shooting in many of the original locales of Dillinger’s exploits, directs believable action as well as anyone in the business, starting here with a brazen escape by Dillinger and his gang from the Indiana State Prison before Dillinger is even issued prison garb. A later escape from a city jail is even more spectacular as Mann’s camera follows the escapees through the narrow stairwells and hallways of the ancient facility. There’s also an explosive night shootout at a rural motel followed by a chase through the woods, showing off Mann’s directional dexterity and Dante Spinotti’s first-rate cinematography.

The film’s best performance is given by Marion Cotillard, the French actress who won the 2007 Oscar for “La Vie en Rose,” here playing Dillinger’s last girlfriend. She reluctantly gets involved with this dangerous man, but ends up caring deeply for him. Also quite good are Jason Clarke as Dillinger’s right-hand man Red Hamilton and Billy Crudup as a ruthless, conniving J. Edgar Hoover.

Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman (from Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction book) go to great lengths to show Hoover’s FBI as just as brutal and unfeeling as the criminals they’re after, but they also never allow Dillinger to become a sympathetic character. For all his cool, half-smiling cleverness, Depp’s machine gun-wielding crime boss is presented as a bad man who led a very exciting life. Yet Mann and Depp never let us peek very far under the facade for signs of what made Dillinger Dillinger.

While “Public Enemies” is a much stronger effort than Mann’s slick, forgettable big-screen version of “Miami Vice,” or his overly solicitous biopic “Ali” (2001), it falls short of his best films, “Heat” (1995) and “The Insider” (1999). “Thief” (1981), his first feature film, does what Mann’s new film should have: offer a thoughtful and thorough character study of a career criminal.

James Caan plays Frank, a safe cracker specializing in jewelry, who has a good thing going until he throws in with crime boss Leo (a memorable Robert Prosky, best known as the desk sergeant on “Hill Street Blues”). He ends up paying a price for trying to go big-time.

Not only does Mann show the step-by-step procedures of the break-ins, but he explores Frank’s anxieties and frustrations even as he makes bundles of money. The supporting cast is first-rate: Tuesday Weld plays Jessie, the fragile, needy restaurant hostess who sees beyond Frank’s brash exterior; Willie Nelson as Frank’s criminal mentor; and Jim Belushi, in his first film, plays Caan’s partner, an expert in alarm systems. Dennis Farina, who later starred in Mann’s acclaimed TV series “Crime Story,” also makes his debut in a small role as a gunman for Leo.

TOOTS (2006)
Has there ever been a more exciting, vibrant and glamorous than New York City in the years after the war? The city was the center of the sports world, the television and music industry, organized crime and the bustling world of newspapers. And they all came together in Manhattan’s taverns and restaurants nearly every evening. Not only was this before the famous became too rich to mingle with the hoi polloi, but before drinking to excess on a nightly basis---while the wife and kids were safely tucked in back home----was frowned upon. It was also a time when these celebs had no fear of reading about their after-hour indulgences in the paper the next morning. The reporters and columnists who were hanging out in the same joints respected their privacy; maintain the image of family values and All-American lifestyles.

At the center of it all was Bernard “Toots” Shor, a Philadelphian who came to New York in 1930 and gained a following among the city’s rich and famous as a bouncer at many of the most popular speakeasies in Manhattan. Encouraged by the friends he’d made, he opened his self-named restaurant and bar at 51 West 51st Street in 1939. For the next 20 years, the circular bar at “Toots” was the hippest place in the city and Shor, treating everyone as both a friend (he called everyone “crum-bums,” from Supreme Court justices to young sport writers) and a special guest, became the town’s top saloonkeeper. He moved around the corner in 1959, but by the end of the 1960s, the world of celebrity had changed. No longer were the top athletes and actors hanging out in bars night after night.

This documentary, made by Shor’s granddaughter Kristi Jacobson, lets those who were there tell Toots’ story, including writers Pete Hamill, Murray Allen and Gay Talese; TV personalities Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace; and athletes Joe Garagiola, Whitey Ford and, most poignantly, Frank Gifford. Toots was a very important part of Gifford’s life; he clearly sees the barkeep as a second father and he doesn’t hide his feelings in the interviews.

The filmmaker also includes some archival footage of two of Toots’ most loyal customers, Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra, talking about the man they so admired. Unfortunately, it was too later to hear from two of Toots’ favorites, the great Yankees, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

Toots Shor, who died in 1977, was a bigger-than-life character who was a big part of creating the legendary Manhattan nightlife at mid-century, and he did it simply by being a great friend to everyone who mattered. This documentary is a worthy memorial to his fascinating life.

The latest entry in this fantasy series does little to advance the epic tale of young wizard Harry Potter and his battle with the much-feared high priest of the dark side, Lord Voldemort. Also treading water is the character development of the movie’s maturing hero and his cohorts, Ron and Hermione. Yet it still runs 2 hours and 33 minutes.

Putting aside the “Harry Potter” fanatics, who, savoring every word J.K. Rowling has ever written, would be happy if every film was six hours long, I can’t imagine the average movie fan will find much of interest in “Half-Blood Prince,” in large part because so little happens. It easily could have been combined with 2007’s “Order of the Phoenix,” turning two placeholder films into one really good one. But this series isn’t about making first-rate, standalone films; most important is remaining doggedly faithful to the original novels.

The last 40 minutes of “Half-Blood Prince” brings the characters and action to life as Harry and Dumbledore plunge headfirst into an adventure to unlock the very soul of the dark world. Visually and emotionally, it’s the only memorable episode of this plodding picture.

I never really took notice in the previous five films, but at least in this one, the acting, with few exceptions, is either drearily bland or over-the-top flamboyant. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron struggle with any scene that requires them to be anything more than spunky and determined, while the older actors either ham it up (Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent and Helena Bonham Carter) or are given little to do (Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane). The great exception is Michael Gambon, the deep-voiced, elegant acting legend who took over the role of Dumbledore when Richard Harris died after the second Harry Potter film.

Gambon, who made his film debut with a small role in the Laurence Olivier-starring “Othello” (1965), emerged as one of Britain’s top stage actors in the 1980s and ‘90s after being a mainstay of British TV productions since the 1970s, highlighted by his starring role in Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective” (1986). He began appearing in American films regularly in the 1990s, including key roles in “The Insider” (1999), “Gosford Park” (2001) and “Open Range” (2003). He also gave a mesmerizing performance as Lyndon Johnson in the HBO movie “Path to War” (2002). But much like fellow acting giant Ian McKellen, who will forever be remembered as Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings,” Gambon has a place in film history for his calm, thoughtful and witty Dumbledore, who understands Harry, and his destiny, better than anyone. In “Half-Blood Prince,” he’s especially key to the plot and more than ever deserves recognition for the role. Maybe even an Oscar nomination?

Director David Yates, who also helmed “Order of the Phoenix” and will do the two-part conclusion, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (along with veteran series scripter Steve Kloves), seems content to keep the faithful happy, biding time until finally putting the finishing touches on Harry’s destiny and his endless stay at Hogwarts.

DON JUAN (1926)
This silent version of the legend of the infamous Latin lover starts off impressively, with Don Juan’s father, an important Spanish nobleman, discovering his wife’s indiscretion and instilling his young son with a lifelong distrust of women. John Barrymore, as both the father and, as an adult, the son, captures equally well the bitterness of the father and the dashing, carefree manner of the son. We first see Don Juan cavorting in his Italian estate in an amusing scene in which he shuffles his various mistresses from room to room as word comes that the husband/lover of two of the women is on his way there.

But once Juan spots a young woman (Mary Astor) in the court of the wicked Borgia family, the film becomes a very familiar tale of royal intrigue and Don Juan’s playboy legend is all but forgotten. Suddenly, he’s an heroic figure out to save the naïve girl and her oppressed family.

The cast, especially those in the Borgia clan, including Warner Oland as the evil father, Estelle Taylor as the conniving Lucrezia and Myrna Loy as a lady in waiting, keeps things interesting and Barrymore’s enthusiastic performance never flags. But it’s really a sin that his character carries the name of history’s greatest lover. The picture should have been sued for false advertising.

CHERI (2009)
More than 20 years ago director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Michelle Pfeiffer teamed for the witty, sexy costume soap opera “Dangerous Liaisons.” Their new collaboration shares the look and gossipy intrigue of that 1988 success, but is sadly lacking in characters you care enough about to either love or hate.

The filmmakers have adapted a pair of Colette stories about Lea (Pfeiffer), a high-class prostitute in pre-World War I France who, approaching 50, realizes she’s near the end of her run. Then her longtime friend (Kathy Bates, another aging woman of ill repute) encourages Lea to take up with her 19-year-old son, Cheri (Rupert Friend), who seems to have no interest in anything other than getting drunk or high. Despite the queasy nature of the relationship (Lea has known the boy since he was born), and Cheri’s nearly total lack of personality, the pair bond and end up together for six years.

Despite her history of short-lived affairs (with the men paying the bills), Lea has settled into her life with the freeloading Cheri and is surprisingly unprepared when his mother announces that a marriage to a young woman has been arranged and the wedding is just months away. How Lea accepts this new reality makes up the second half of the slow-moving picture.

Pfeiffer gives an admirable performance as this conflicted woman who finds all her toughness and practical approach to life useless after losing her heart to Cheri. But there is something remote, out-of-time about her character; Lea seems way too modern (and way too thin) for this early 20th Century world. While the 51-year-old actress looks ten years younger, still retaining the beauty that would attract young clients, her character never displays the sparkling personality you’d expect from a woman who has made her living alluring rich, famous and handsome men. Hampton’s script goes out of its way to make all these frivolous people not just dull, but quickly forgettable.

This odd, stagy philosophical study of an individual’s responsibility to do what they can to improve society goes off on too many tangents and attempts to tackle too many issues yet it remains fascinating throughout.

Set during the run-up to World War II, the picture uses the rise of Adolf Hitler as the launching pad for its examination of ignorance and cruel foolishness. Michael Redgrave, an underrated British actor who was drawn to difficult roles, plays David Charleston, a former foreign correspondent whose cynicism turns to hopelessness as world events turn ugly. Escaping into his own world, he works as a lighthouse caretaker on Thunder Rock, an isolated outpost on Lake Michigan.

Using a highly theatrical device, David imagines he can interact with the long dead captain and passengers of a ship that crashed near the lighthouse in 1849. Among those he gets to know is a doctor condemned for experimenting with an early form of anesthesia and a before-her-time suffragette. His intellectual debates with these characters on their responsibility to continue to fight against accepted beliefs are like scenes out of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and a rare cinematic plunge into larger issues of how one lives life.

British writer-director Roy Bolting does an impressive job of presenting David’s background, the passengers’ lives and the odd interactions between this 1930s man and these characters who have been dead for 90 years. The director and cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum make the most of the cramped lighthouse setting.

Redgrave, the father of Vanessa and Lynn, gives one of his most compelling performances as this self-analyzing, short tempered intellectual who is constantly searching for answers. It ranks with his best work, including his hypnotic turn as the ventriloquist in “Dead of Night” (1945), as the disturbed brother in “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1947), the introspective, retiring teacher in “The Browning Affair” (1951) and as the disillusioned foreign consul stationed in Vietnam in “The Quiet American” (1958).

James Mason creates an intellectual presence as David’s friend and boss who visits at the start of this film as part of an inspection team. Their heated discussion of each man’s place in the world sets the tone for this thoughtful, introspective drama.