Sunday, March 1, 2009

February 2009

TOO FAR TO GO (1979, TV)
Since the title of this blog is “Thoughts on Film,” I haven’t spent much space discussing the works of novelists. Yet I feel compelled to weigh in on John Updike, who died January 27 at age 76.

For reasons that are difficult to pinpoint, he’s the writer I’ve most admired and whose works I’ve most enjoyed since I began reading serous fiction in high school. Updike isn’t Joyce or Faulkner or Hemingway, and even among his contemporaries he probably falls in behind Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, yet he created characters who, more often than those other writers, spoke to me about the world I live in. His men (most notably Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom), who often come from or live in small Pennsylvania towns, struggle to find their place in the society, amidst unsettling relations with women and discontent with their chosen profession.

What I admired about Updike, in addition to his acrobatic sentences and seemingly unlimited insight into the human soul, was his old-fashioned, blue-collar approach to his art. This workaholic not only cranked out a novel every year or two for nearly a half of century, but he never stopped penning short stories and book reviews for the New Yorker. I’ve spent my entire adult life just trying to keep up with Updike’s oeuvre---he always stayed a novel or short story collection ahead of me.

Hollywood has not been kind to Updike. The 1970 film of his breakthrough novel “Rabbit, Run,” starring James Caan as Rabbit, is an unwatchable mess missing any of the poetic energy of Updike’s novel. “The Witches of Eastwick” (1984) comes closer to approximating the source material, but it’s far from Updike’s best work; it reads as if it was written with a movie (though probably not the overblown version that was made) in mind. No doubt the next Updike to hit the big screen will be the sequel “The Widows of Eastwick,” published last year.

“Too Far to Go” collects the stories he wrote about Richard and Joan Maple and their crumbling marriage over a 20-year period. Made for television---it was later released theatrically in 1983----it’s a fractured tale that occasionally captures the depth of Updike’s writing and his unmatched ability to burrow into the complex and often irrational ways a marriage works and the ways it falls apart.

Michael Moriarty, as the husband, seems out of his depth in portraying this adulterer who can’t let go of his wife (exceptionally played by Blythe Danner). Moriarty also has trouble maintaining his New England accent and listening to it go in and out becomes a distraction.

The movie really comes together emotionally when the couple finally tells their children they’re separating and the pair faces the inevitable end to their marriage. Updike’s prose, TV veteran Fielder Cook’s direction and the actors all merge beautifully in the final 20 minutes.

I’m hopeful that Updike’s death will inspire producers to take another look at his extensive library. A second attempt to put Rabbit’s story (this time including all four books) on film, or as a cable miniseries, could turn out to be something great. “Memories of the Ford Administration” (about President James Buchanan), “Villages” and “Terrorist,” just to name a few recent novels, all possess plots that could work on film.

As a movie fan, I’d love to see more of this great American writer on the screen, even knowing that it would take a miracle for a director and writer to capture the magic Updike created in his astonishing detailed descriptions of people and their view of the world. As well as anyone, he chronicled the seismic social changes of the last half of the 20th Century----surely that could be mined for a few interesting movies.

Michiko Kakutani, the esteemed book critic of the New York Times, put it best in her appreciation of Updike written the day of his death:

“Endowed with an art student’s pictorial imagination, a journalist’s sociological eye and a poet’s gift for metaphor, John Updike….was arguably this country’s one true all-around man of letters……In his most resonant work, Mr. Updike gave ‘the mundane its beautiful due,’ as he once put it, memorializing the everyday mysteries of love and faith and domesticity with extraordinary nuance and precision.”

It’s unusual for a movie released during January or February to be anything beyond a broad comedy (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”) or a cheap horror flick (“Friday the 13th”), so it’s a bit of a shock to come upon a thoughtful and superbly acted adult love story.

Not that anyone is going to see this fine James Gray-directed movie. If it wasn’t bad enough that it was dumped into theaters now (also competing with all the Oscar-nominated films), the movie’s star Joaquin Phoenix came off as a mixture of Howard Hughes and Marlon Brando in his bizarre appearance on David Letterman to “promote” the film, which he clearly hadn’t seen. The weirdness of the moment was memorialized when Ben Stiller parodied him during the Academy Awards show.

But that should be beside the point: Phoenix gives a beautifully nuanced and intense performance as Leonard, the troubled, aimless son of Russian Jewish immigrants (played by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) living in Brighton Beach, New York. Gray, whose best film, “Little Odessa” (1994), was also set in this neighborhood, had previously directed Phoenix in the underrated “The Yards” (2000) and the less interesting “We Own the Night” (2007). He’s the rare American writer-director who invests more in his characters than in spectacle and seems truly interested in understanding the decisions people make that forever alter their lives. He co-wrote “Two Lovers” with Ric Menello.

Two women come into this depressed man’s life at the same time: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the sensible and safe daughter of the man who’s buying out the family dry cleaning business and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a charming but confused and self-obsessed beauty involved with a rich, married lawyer.

While Sandra is clearly the kind of dependable, mothering woman Leonard needs, he’s entranced by the unstable and unreliable Michelle----who lives in the same apartment building, allowing them to see one another from their windows. But he’s fighting a losing battle as she views him as more of a “brother” she can consult with about her affair.

Gray and cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay emphasize the dark, almost antique feeling of Leonard’s parents’ apartment and the suffocating atmosphere this man-child desperately needs to escape. Unlike in most American movie, these characters are clearly products of their environment.

Phoenix’s performance is one of his best: he takes the sullen, brooding side of his Johnny Cash portrayal, while dropping the swagger and confidence from that role. If this really is his final screen role (not that anyone buys that), he has gone out in style.

Paltrow has played this type before (“Running With Scissors,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”) but never with the raw emotional intensity and deep-seated sadness she displays as Michelle. Rossellini, Moshonov and Shaw give beautifully detailed performances in smaller roles as does Elias Koteas as Michelle’s slick lover.

“Two Lovers,” if 2008 is any indicator, should end up as one of this year’s best films, once again proving that the worst evaluators of movies are the executives running the studios. Not only did they think so little of the film that they didn’t even hold it for spring, but they also allowed the cable channel Flix to air it the same week it opened in theaters. For the good of this excellent film, they should have used their influence to keep Phoenix away from talk shows.

MAN ON WIRE (2008)
In 1974, a very determined aerialist and a handful of cohorts pulled off one of the most spectacular stunt in recent history. After sneaking up, with their equipment, to the roof of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, Frenchman Philippe Petit and his team attached a cable between the towers, including support wires, over 1300 feet above the New York sidewalk. At dawn, Petit proceeded to walk back and forth on the wire, performing until police convinced him to give himself up.

Petit’s fifteen minutes of fame is the subject of this fascinating yet irritating Oscar-winning documentary by James Marsh. As compelling as the event and this single-minded, arrogant man are, the filmmaker lost me at points by not letting the tale unfold chronologically. Through interviews, some archival footage and way too many dramatizations, the director jumps from discussions of transferring equipment up the Twin Towers to plans for other, earlier high-wire walks. The interviews are overlapping and repetitive and the recreations of scenes from Petit’s life are just dumb. Someone needs to explain to documentarians (Errol Morris was the guy who popularized it) that recreating a scene with actors is what they do in fiction films and has no business in a documentary. But I guess if the Academy voters weren’t bothered, what do I know.

I would have enjoyed “Man on Wire” much more if it has been told more as a news report and less as a tribute to Petit’s accomplishment. The idea that it was necessary to dramatize Petit having sex with a groupie he picked up soon after his Twin Towers walk really made me wonder what the filmmakers thought this documentary was all about.

While this unrelenting Italian crime film holds nothing back in depicting the out-of-control violence that pervades life in and around Naples, it lacks the basic exposition needed to make sense of it all.

Based on the daring nonfiction book by journalist Roberto Saviano (who now lives under threat of death from the mobs he wrote about), “Gomorrah” puts you smack in the middle of gang wars, drug dealing, corrupt businesses and pointless killings, while it focuses on baby-faced teenagers adapting to the criminal lifestyle. The picture, directed by Matteo Garrone, is most compelling when following Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), young friends who idolize Tony Montana from “Scarface”---but more closely resemble Johnny Boy from “Mean Streets”----and believe they can play by their own rules. If the film had been spent more time on Ciro and Marco and how they grew to be so cynical and ruthless, it could have been something special.

But Carrone and Saviano have bigger fish to fry, hoping to show the ways the crime organization (known as the Camorra) controls all aspects of society through a series of interconnected and often confusing episodes of murder and intimidation. A major segment of the story is given to a mobster/businessman operating a toxic disposal business. I never had a grasp on what was going on or why this character, and a young man he brings into the fold, was worth so much screen time.

While superbly acted----Salvatore Cantalupo is especially memorable as a successful high-end dressmaker who foolishly tries to make some money on the side---too many of the character drift in and out of the film before you learn much about them other than that they’re doing very bad things.

I longed for a few establishing scenes in which law enforcement officials or even someone playing the book’s author offer an overview of how the Camorra gained their all-encompassing power and to what extent they use it.

But if all the parts don’t add up to what they should, “Gomorrah” still packs a devastating punch and is a sad critique of an uncontained criminal state.

This strange amalgamation of documentary interviews, dream-like flashbacks and rudimentary animation was among the most critically acclaimed films of 2008 and the favorite for the foreign-film Oscar (though it ultimately lost to the Japanese entry “Departures,” a film that has yet to be released in the U.S.).

The voices on this film remember bloody and bizarre events that occurred during the Israeli-Palestinian war in the early 1980s, as Israeli Ari Folman, the film’s director and narrator (thought we see him as an animated character), tracks down others he served with in the conflict in hopes of jogging his memory about what he saw and did in battle. It all leads up to what happened during the horrific massacre of Palestinian families by Lebanese Christians as their Israeli allies maintained the perimeter of the Beirut refugee camps.

As powerful and compelling as what these men have to say, it’s a film, not a talk show. The visuals consist of what looks like grade-school drawings of people, cut out and placed against equally simplistic backgrounds. In a story less gruesome or serious, this presentation might have worked fine, but, for me, it totally undercut the depiction of the horrors of a war and the mass murder of civilians. It reminded me of “South Park,” where every horrific act is played for laughs and characters are easily put back together. Seeing a paper cutout do terrible acts or being brutally murdered doesn’t have the same impact as seeing an actor re-enact the same event.

I’m not arguing that animation can’t be utilized to present serious subjects, but it didn’t work for me in “Waltz With Bashir,” in part because the visuals are so static and uninteresting. As much as there is to admire about the message and ambitions of this anti-war film, I left the theater regretting that this important story wasn’t told with the emotional impact actors could have brought to it. As a documentary, animated or not, it relies (as I criticized “Man on Wire” for) too much on reenactments. All this mingling----fiction, documentary, animation----is very clever but not very enlightening.

For pure entertainment, you can’t top a well-plotted bank heist movie. This British robbery tale, a fictionalized story based on a set of bizarre, real-life events from 1971, did little business when it opened in theaters, hampered by its lack of a name cast. I’m guessing the film will find the audience it deserves on DVD, because it turns out to be among the better releases of 2008.

Jason Statham stars as Terry Leather, a tough guy eking out a living in his car repair business, recruited to pull off the robbery by an old flame, Martine Love (Saffron Burrows). He enlists a gang of small-time crooks and Martine lays out the plan: tunnel into a bank’s vault room containing the security boxes and plunder them for money and jewelry.

What the robbers don’t know is that she’s acting in the service of a British intelligent agency, which hopes to recover embarrassing photos of Princess Margaret being used by a drug-dealing, pseudo revolutionary to avoid prosecution. And that’s just the beginning of the political intrigue and double- dealing, which also includes police corruption, a ruthless strip-club owner, a brothel for the rich and famous and competing spy agencies.

Veteran New Zealand filmmaker Roger Donaldson, who became an A-list director in the 1980s after hits “No Way Out” (1987) and “Cocktail” (1988), keeps this complicated plot from becoming muddled and finds just the right balance of story and character. After resurrecting the New Zealand film industry with his 1981 movie “Smash Palace,” Donaldson directed the underrated remake “The Bounty” (1984) with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins and the Sissy Spacek vehicle “Marie” (1985). After his box-office hits, he drifted off course and didn’t make another worthwhile film until 2000’s “Thirteen Days,” a chronicle of President Kennedy’s dealing with the Cuban missile crisis. “The Bank Job” easily ranks among his best films.

What makes “The Bank Job” a step up from the typical crime flick is the way the script, by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, invests in the characters, especially the relationship between Terry, his wife and Martine. Statham, star of the “Transporter” film series, shows he’s more than just an action figure, convincing as both a no-nonsense, determined criminal and a sensitive husband and father. The striking Burrows has made a career in independent films, most memorably as the title character in Mike Figgis’ version of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” Here she’s the linchpin of the film, playing both sides of the law and lying to everyone.

Among the supporting cast, be sure not to miss the non-speaking performance by the bank vault guard.

Most movie trailers do exactly what they’re supposed to do: make the film look better than it is. The trailer for “Valkyrie” did the opposite. Seeing clips of Tom Cruise wearing an eye patch and a Nazi uniform convinced me the film was nothing but an ill-conceived star vehicle. In fact, this is a cracker-jack of a war espionage picture and Cruise, in spite of that pretentious eye patch, brings his “Mission: Impossible” intensity and focus to his role of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a real-life Nazi commander who led a team of military and civilian conspirators plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

It’s 1943 and despite constant bad news from the front, Hitler and his inner circle continue to wage war as if they’re on the verge of victory. The conspirators believe that once the Fuhrer is out of the way, Germany can negotiate a peace with the Allies and end the war. Yet a failed attempt has left the group splintered and without a plan. That’s when Stauffenberg, well known for his criticisms of military commanders, takes over, recruited after losing his eye and hand in battle.

Entrusted with a position that allows him access to Hitler, Stauffenberg constructs an intricate but plausible plot to end the Third Reich.

Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects” and “X-Men”) directs the film with military precision, turning dusty history into an exciting, tense thriller guided by soldiers who know failure will mean their deaths. One could question the decision to let the actors speak English (sans German accent) as if it’s German, but once established it works.

Among the fine collection of British actors playing the conspirators are Kenneth Branagh (who oddly disappears halfway through the film), Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard. Cruise fits right in with this group, providing the movie star charisma that makes you believe, despite the historical facts, that this plot may actually succeed.

WAR, INC. (2008)
Satire is a tricky business and when it fails, it’s not pretty. This John Cusack guided movie is about as subtle as a mortar attack, and about as entertaining.

Cusack (who also co-wrote and produced the film) stars as a futuristic (I think) hit man, sent by the former vice president of the United States (Dan Aykroyd) to kill an Arab sheik. Cusack poses as the organizer of a trade show in the Iraqi-like country of Turaqistan, now essentially run by Tamerlane, a Blackwater-like company that the U.S. has outsourced the war to. OK, I get it. After the set-up, it’s an endurance test as Cusack struggles with his conscious as he placates a sexed-up pop diva (Hilary Duff) and romances a cynical (shocking!) television reporter (Marisa Tomei) who just wants to get out of the green zone and see the “real” war.

“War, Inc.,” directed by Joshua Seftel, has some amusing takes on imbedded reporters, the commercialization of occupation and the utter lack of accountability “war company” employees face. But overall, the film just piles it on too thick (including a homage to “Dr. Strangelove,” its clear inspiration), unloading two dozen clips of bullets when a couple of well-placed shots would have been more effective.