Wednesday, April 1, 2009

March 2009

Following in the recent tradition of comedies by the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh and anyone named Anderson, writer-director Tony Gilroy’s new film features hyper-verbal characters saying very clever things, acting very badly and eliciting humor from the fact that they’re so alien to the real world.

I’ve grown tired of these so-called sophisticated comedies that go to great efforts to make you admire, piece by piece, the complex puzzle being constructed and the wry, unemotional bantering, yet offer little in the way of laughs. The audience I saw the film with didn’t laugh more than two or three times; I’ll bet many left the theater not realizing they’d just seen a comedy.

Putting categories aside, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, as Claire and Ray, a pair of cynical spies who join forces, romantically and professionally, are fun to watch as they attempt to make off with the top-secret new product apparently being developed by the firm they’re spying on. It takes awhile for the relationship between the couple to become clear and you’re never quite sure who’s playing for which side or if they’re just pretending to as Gilroy keeps flashing back to previous rendezvous between the globe-trotting couple.

If at points the film seems like another sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” it probably explains why the director cast Owen rather than George Clooney (the star of his superb 2007 film “Michael Clayton”). It’s a better film than any of the “Ocean’s,” but, at points, it shares the pretentious smugness that counters the fun of the Soderbergh franchise.

The acting in the movie is first rate across the board, with Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, as cartoonish corporate rivals bent on embarrassing each other, stealing every scene they’re in. While Roberts and Owen display believable chemistry, their performances often feel forced because, in fact, their characters aren’t behaving naturally. They’re as much actors as Roberts and Owen are in real life; they even have scripts for some of their duplicitous exchanges. Yes, it’s all about role playing and how it permeates life, I was just hoping for a few more laughs along the way.

WAY DOWN EAST (1920) and J’ACCUSE (1919)
D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, the directors of these silent epics, did more than any other filmmakers to advance the art of cinema before the advent of sound. Griffith, best known for his groundbreaking but unapologetic racist Civil War picture “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the more forward-thinking history lesson Intolerance” (1916), made over 400 silents between 1908 and 1929. During that time he codified the principals of filmmaking, including camera placement and movement, the use of close-ups, techniques of editing and lighting and styles of acting. Among his contributions was his role in establishing Lillian Gish as the pre-eminent screen performer of the era.

Gish, the star of “Way Down East,” brought subtlety and nuance to screen acting during a time when exaggerated expressions and overwrought pantomime were the norm. She gives another heartbreaking performance as Anna, an innocent country girl tricked by playboy Lennox (future director Lowell Sherman) into believing they are husband and wife. She’s abandoned once she becomes pregnant and finds herself an outcast, eventually discovering true love with a land owner’s humble son (Richard Barthelmess). It’s not one of Griffith’s better films---the grade school moralizing and melodramatic clichés must have seemed shopworn even in 1920. The film pales in comparison to his two previous productions starring Gish, “Hearts of the World” (1918) and “Broken Blossoms” (1919).

But the climatic scene of “Way Down East,” shot on an ice-filled river with Barthelmess leaping from ice chunk to ice chunk to save Gish’s Anna from the waterfalls ahead, is one of the great action sequences in film history. It’s not easy wading through two hours and 25 minutes to get to that remarkable set piece, but watching Gish’s sublime acting makes one forget the ridiculous storyline.

Parisian Gance became famous when his masterpiece “Napoleon” (1927) was reconstructed to its original length by film restorer extraordinaire Kevin Brownlow and its showing at Radio City Music Hall became the film event of 1981. The 92-year-old Gance died just weeks after attending the New York premiere. The film, with its extensive use of multiple images and ahead-of-its-time camera movement, is an artistic marvel and a fascinating study of the legendary general.

“J’accuse” is just as compelling, offering some of the most intense war footage you’re likely to see in a fictional film along with an emotionally complex story of two very different men in love with the same woman. Gance shot much of the battlefield scenes during real World War I warfare, returning to the frontlines after nearly dying at a poison gas factory. I can’t imagine what a powerful experience it must have been for audiences seeing this film just months after the war ended.

Edith (Maryse Dauvray) is married to the brutish Francois (Séverin-Mars), but continues to be drawn to Jean (Romould Joubé), a sensitive poet who lives nearby with his mother. (It’s never explained how she ended up marrying this man she doesn’t seem to care for.) When the men end up in the same platoon on the frontline, they come to understand one another’s love for Edith, which becomes magnified when she’s captured by German troops.

Both a doomed love triangle and a poignant cry for humanity in the midst of one of the bloodiest wars in history, “J’accuse” shows men broken---mentally, morally and physically---by the experience of warfare and challenges its 1919 audiences to explain why good men had to die. The film is filled with conflicted images of death and destruction and pastoral scenes of the beauty of France and concludes with a mystical sequence in which of dead soldiers rise up to confront loved ones left behind. It’s a boldly directed, superbly acted anti-war statement that remains an extraordinary film experience 90 years after its making.

Restored by a company called Flicker Alley and released on DVD last year (and then premiered on TCM), “J’accuse” makes one appreciate the daring artistic expression possible during the silent era that all but disappeared with the coming of sound.

It turns out that these two great filmmakers met: At a New York screening of “J’accuse,” Griffith expressed his admiration for the film to Gance, who had just returned from a visit to Hollywood.

As much as the idea of a film about a once famous entertainer reduced to playing one-night stands in small Midwest towns appeals to me, this slight comedy can’t quite pull it off.

John Malkovich finds just the right balance of demanding egotist and hardworking trooper in depicting mentalist Buck Howard, who never tires of telling people he appeared on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” 61 times. Now he travels from one civic auditorium to another repeating his act that features hypnotism, slight of hand, a few sentimental songs and, his grand finale, finding his night’s pay that has been hidden on an audience member. Even his ridiculous handshake is pretty funny.

Writer-director Sean McGinly, whose previous credits are mostly B-action movies, modeled the character after the Amazing Kreskin, a regular on TV talk shows in the 1970s and ‘80s.

We see Buck’s life on the road through the eyes of his newly recruited manager Troy, blandly played by Colin Hanks. His father (played by the actor’s real-life dad Tom---who has two amusing scenes) wants him to be a lawyer, while Troy wants to be a writer, yet somehow he ends up with the thankless job of catering to the whims of the flamboyant Buck Howard.

The problem is that you don’t care about Troy’s conflicts, even when it involves a cute publicist, played by Emily Blunt, in part because the role is just one cliché after another. Also Hanks is, at best, a sitcom actor and, at age 31, a bit old for the role.

The shabby side of show business has always been rich with ideas for great stories as seen in such films as “The Entertainer” (1960) with Laurence Olivier and Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984). But “The Great Buck Howard,” despite a memorable performance by Malkovich, doesn’t offer much in the way of either drama or comedy about the ways entertainers fight to hold on to a little piece of their glory days.


I’ve been catching up with past Oscar nominations I’ve never seen, which requires watching some pretty forgettable films.

Louis Calhern, a longtime character actor, best know for his roles in “The Asphalt Junge” (1950), “Executive Suite” (1954) and the title (though supporting) role in “Julius Caesar” (1953), had a rare lead role as Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in “The Magnificent Yankee.” Calhern had played the role to much acclaim and popularity on Broadway, which helps explain his Oscar nomination for the film version.

Calhern’s Holmes is a perpetually good-spirited, humble man, devoted to his wife (Ann Harding) and doting over a series of clerks. The film spends as much time on a nervous clerk revealing to Holmes that he’s to be married as it does on any of the legendary jurist’s legal decisions. The picture falls under the Hollywood tradition of rendering important figures as sunny, good-hearted pillars of society, meant to reassure the masses that our government/justice system is in safe hands. Calhern’s characterization would have been better suited for a screwball comedy.

“A Song to Remember” has more substance, but the best actor nomination for Cornel Wilde is hard to understand. As Frédéric Chopin, the great 19th Century Polish composer who becomes the toast of Paris, he’s reserved and bland, far less interesting than his devoted teacher (an especially hammy Paul Muni) and his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt (Stephen Bekassy).

What’s interesting about the film is the depiction of Chopin’s bizarre relationship with Georg Sands (Merle Oberon), the cross-dressing novelist who convinces him to follow her philosophy that an artist should live only for himself. She forces him to abandon his mentor, discontinue performing live and disavowing his support of the peasants struggle in Poland. A better actor could have made this Chopin a fascinating character. It’s the rare movie from the ‘40s that portrays a man (especially a famous, talented one) giving up his ideals for a woman he isn’t married to and for that director Charles Vidor and writers Sidney Buchman and Ernst Marischka deserve credit.

Wilde lost the 1945 best actor competition to Ray Milland’s performance as an alcoholic in “The Lost Weekend,” while Calhern was topped by another performance transferred from the stage, José Ferrer in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

When filmmakers try something new, I believe they deserve a little slack. So I usually go out of my way to give films that dare to be different the benefit of the doubt. But there’s no doubt about this murder mystery filmed in “Duo-Vision”: It’s a laughable disaster.

This badly directed and amateurishly acted picture utilizes a split screen for nearly the entire one hour and 35 minute running time, the brain child of veteran director Richard L. Bare, best known for his “So You Want to Be” movie shorts of the ‘40s and ‘50s and as a TV director of many shows including “Green Acres.”

Unfortunately, the effect ends up making the lumbering, silly plot even less interesting, with the “second screen” rarely offering anything that adds much to the story. If anything, it just doubles the dullness.

When two female guests at a luxury hotel (the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego) disappear, the house detective (David Bailey), a disgraced ex-cop, is convinced they were murdered and attempts to trap the killer. The bait he uses is his ex-wife (Tiffany Bolling) who happens to be singing (displaying a voice that’s a cross between Cher’s and Bill Murray’s) in the hotel’s lounge during the crime spree.

While the detective walks the halls of the hotel looking for the murderer, the other side of the screen shows the killer in another part of the hotel, hiding or preparing for another killing. The device completely nullifies any tension usually created by editing. Even worse is when Bare uses the other screen to show a flashback as the character describes the memory on the other side of the screen. And when Bare doesn’t have anything to fill the second screen he shows a woman playing the organ music written for the silent version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Multiple screens can be effective when used in moderation (the previously mentioned “Napoleon,” “Woodstock” or the current TV show “24”), but for an entire movie, this effect sucks any energy or pretense of art right out of the picture.

The acting is generally awful and Bare’s script isn’t as interesting as any episode of “Mannix” or “Ironside.” In Bare’s autobiography, “Confessions of a Hollywood Director,” he reports that MGM executive Danny Melnick, after reading the script, asked, “You don’t expect a major studio like MGM to release this pile of [manure], do you?” He was right, but the studio financed it anyway. Bare blames its box-office failure on the lack of advertising budget. Right.

“Wicked Wicked” is painfully bad (and not even in a campy, Ed Wood way) and deserves a spot on any list of the worst movies of all time.

The experiences of black army units on the battlefield during World War II must have produced hundreds of stories of heroism and heartbreak. Yet this Spike Lee film about a group of these men, known as Buffalo Soldiers, does little more than mirror the clichés from hundreds of “white” WWII movies in a story that grows less interesting as more and more subplots are added in.

At the center of the film are four soldiers, the only survivors of a confrontation with the German army who take shelter in a small Italian town. One of these soldiers, Sam (Omar Benson Miller), the big dumb, cuddly one, has saved a young Italian boy left on his own and they become inseparable. And among the Italians who help them is Renata (Valentina Cervi), an attractive young woman who enjoys the attention she receives from Bishop (Michael Ealy), the group’s egotistical playboy and Stamps (Derek Luke), the even-tempered reliable leader. Hector (Laz Alonso) mostly plays peacemaker for his bickering fellow soldiers.

Lee introduces the story with a more contemporary sequence in which one of the soldiers (which one isn’t revealed until the end) now a postal worker, shoots and kills an elderly Italian man buying stamps. In a jailhouse interview, the old solider remembers the events that led him to commit murder.

While the film does a solid job of depicting the battlefield and the uneasy alliance between the soldiers and the Italians who shelter them, it takes on too much when a Nazi massacre, a group of Italian partisan fighters, a turncoat German soldier and an Italian traitor are thrown in.

At one point, Lee brings the plot to a complete stop by flashing back to a sequence set during the soldiers’ stateside training and their encounter with a racist diner owner. This might have been an excellent 90-minute film, but instead it’s a tiresome 2 hour and 40 minute would-be epic.

Luke and Ealy both give standout performance and Matteo Sciabordi is appealing as the Italian boy, but most of the Italian and German characters are just a collection of clichés.

Lee’s career, once so promising, remains stuck in neutral. While he rarely makes bad films (2006’s “Inside Man” was a solid heist picture), his recent work hasn’t come close to the intense energy and original perspective he brought to American cinema with “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Malcolm X” (1992) and “Crooklyn” (1994). At age 52, I don’t know if he can recapture the edge he once commanded; his next two projects seem more of the same: a sequel to “Inside Man” and a documentary on Michael Jordan.

STARSTRUCK (1982) and PROOF (1992)
From the late 1970s until the early ‘90s, the Australian cinema produced many of the era’s freshest films and finest performances.

Starting with George Miller’s “Mad Max” (1979), Gillian Armstrong’s “My Brilliant Career” (1980) and Bruce Bereford’s “Breaker Morant” (1980) to Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (1993) and Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), movies from Australia and its neighbor New Zealand were making directors and actors from that part of the world the new darlings of movie critics.

It didn’t last. Hollywood absorbed the best from Down Under and their home-grown cinema declined in importance (Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy being the exception). But for a time there seemed to be no end to fascinating movies from that part of the world.

Among the lesser-known gems from that period are “Starstuck” and “Proof.”

“Starstruck,” a quirky punk musical, written by Stephen MacLean and directed by Gillian Armstrong, features a spunky, spirited performance by 20-year-old Jo Kennedy, who since then has mostly worked in Australian television. She did win a best actress award at the 1985 Berlin Film Festival for her work in the film “Wrong World.”

Her Jackie is determined to be a pop singer, encouraged by her younger cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan), who fashions himself as a music promoter and songwriter. This easily could have turned into a cliché filled, coming-of-age tale but all the characters---especially Jackie’s crazy, tavern-owning family---are written as if they’re part of a serious drama while the songs actually sound as if they might be written by novices.
Armstrong captures the chaotic energy of punk in the concert scenes and offers a theme ahead of its time: that nearly anyone, with the right amount of publicity, can become a pop star.

The director made her American debut two years later with “Mrs. Soffel,” starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson, but has gone back and forth between Australia and the U.S. since. In the last 10 years, she’s made just two features, “Charlotte Gray” (2001), a World War II thriller with Cate Blanchette, and last year’s “Death Defying Acts” about Harry Houdini (starring Guy Pierce).

While “Starstuck” was among the early works of the “Australian New Wave,” “Proof” came out at the end of this period. The feature directing debut of screenwriter Jocelyn Moorhouse, this drama is a deceptively simple character study of an angry, anti-social blind man (Hugo Weaving of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) who befriends an outgoing dishwasher (a very thin Russell Crowe). At first, Martin just wants his new friend to describe the snapshots he takes, but quickly they bond over a wild night at the drive-in.

Their sincere friendship is complicated by Martin’s jealous, disturbed housekeeper (Genevieve Picot) who is determined to have Martin all to herself and Martin’s constant fear of being taken advantage of. These are three vivid, well-written and acted characters of the type that rarely show up in American movies.

Since that film, Moorhouse has made just two films, both in the U.S. and both forgettable: “How to Make an American Quilt” (1995) and “A Thousand Acres” (1997).