Sunday, May 3, 2009

April 2009

This murder mystery/political thriller easily could have become just one more entry in the burgeoning genre of corporate/government corruption melodramas. But beyond the occasionally heavy-handed plot twists, the real focus of director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and a screenwriting team that includes Tony Gilroy and Peter Morgan (adapting a British miniseries written by Paul Abbott) is the changing way newspapers cover the news as they struggle to survive as a business.

Cal McAffrey (a disheveled Russell Crowe) covers the crime beat for the Washington Globe, a paper under new management more concerned about the bottom line than breaking a big story. That’s the constant whine from editor Cameron Lynne (a brash, imperious Helen Mirren) as Cal begins connecting a pair of seeming drug-related murders with the death of a congressional aide. But Cal has multiple conflicts with this story: not only is Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), the congressman involved in what turns into a scandal, an old college chum, but Cal once had an affair with Collins’ wife (Robin Wright Penn).

In the real world, Cal would never have been allowed within 1000 feet of this story because of his friendship with the congressman, but here the connection is used to raise questions about the reporter’s ethics and loyalty, and examine government manipulation of the press.

The film also delves into the uneasy relationship between the print and internet side of the newspaper business. Rachel McAdams plays a hot-shot political blogger for the paper who ends up partnered with this Woodward and Bernstein style reporter as they chase the many loose ends of the story.

“State of Play” nails the combative teamwork that goes on in a newsroom between reporters and editors, reporters and reporters and reporters and their sources; plus the impossibly cluttered look of reporters’ work pods is spot on.

Crowe gives one of his best performances as this stuck-in-the-70s, pushy and irritating reporter who seems to have a source in every branch of law enforcement and government and the smarts to sort out a complicated story. There’s nothing glamorous or heroic about Cal---which is how too many movie reporters are portrayed---he’s a working class guy (of course, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan) who’s dedicated his life to the newspaper.

Mirren, who, in preparation for the role, spent time hanging out at the Los Angeles Times, fits her role like a glove. Comfortably in charge, self assured and colorfully profane, Lynne finds herself caught between the passion of the reporters and the cautious belt-tightening of management.

McAdams manages to be both brainy and naïve as she comes of age working with Cal, while Affleck uses his natural stiffness and mannered acting style to capture perfectly the typical on-the-rise politico.

While Penn’s role as the traditional political wife standing by her man---even as she’d prefer to rekindle the romance with Cal----often feels extraneous to the film, she gives an emotionally complex, intense performance, stealing every scene she’s in.

As Cal is putting the final touches to the story near the end of the film, the director shows a close-up of his computer screen and the words of his story, an obvious reference to the final moments in “All the President’s Men.” And while newspapers are still breaking important stories and unearthing corruption in all levels of society, the industry has changed dramatically in the 30 years since that movie glorified the profession. Papers are shrinking in size, in staff, in stature and the age-old model of advertising paying the cost of producing a daily paper is nearing extinction.

The movie makes the case that without those dedicated, experience reporters stories like the one in “State of Play” or even the Watergate scandal of “All the President’s Men” might never have seen the light of day. If watchdog journalism has a future, we need to hope that the internet develops into a more serious, responsible place than it is today.

The movie’s closing images, the paper on the press and being bundled in the mailroom, have the weight of a requiem; the last run of an institution that has seen its better days. Especially for those who have spent a good chunk of their lives toiling for newspapers---even those of us who have been unceremoniously shown the door in recent months----this film is both a first-rate tribute to the profession and a tolling of the final deadline.

THE KEY (1958)
A few months ago I wrote about Trevor Howard’s impressive performance in Carol Reed’s “Outcast of the Island” (1951), the director’s follow-up to his masterpiece “The Third Man” (1949), which also co-starred Howard. A few years later, the pair hooked up again in “The Key,” an odd but fascinating World War II drama about tugboat captains who ventured into the open sea off the English coast to rescue damaged battleships.

Howard plays a veteran of this dangerous duty---Nazi subs often would lie in wait for these vessels that had little fire power---who mentors newcomer David (William Holden), an American who joined the Canadian navy (the film is mostly set before Pearl Harbor) for a chance to serve. While the truly exciting, superbly orchestrated sea battles are the real highlights of the picture, the drama centers on a beautiful, but emotionally scarred Swiss woman (Sophia Loren) whose husband was a tugboat caption killed in action. Since then, she’s shared her apartment with a succession of captains, though her relationship with them is unclear. The current resident of the notorious apartment is Howard, who, following tradition, offers Holden a key to the place as the next in line if he were to die.

What Reed always brings to his films is an uncensored, adult perspective of life and characters who react with familiar, real-life emotions, not in sanitized, politically correct ways. The brutality of war is revealed not only under fire in battle, but in the stress of living under the constant threat of death. It changes everything.

All three stars give fine performances as this unusual triangle plays out, especially Howard, whose Captain Ford seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Reed and Howard reteamed, briefly, for “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962), with Howard cast as the belligerent Capt. Bligh. But not long into the film, Reed was fired and replaced by Lewis Milestone.

Though Budd Boetticher will always be remembered for the stark, low-budget Westerns he made with Randolph Scott, the director’s finest achievement was this romantic, heroic but uncompromisingly realistic drama based on the time he spend in Mexico learning the art of bullfighting.

Boetticher, injured while playing football at Ohio State, left college to recuperate and ended up in Mexico City. Over the next few years, he trained with the country’s leading matadors and earned his chance to fight bulls. His experience, and his parents’ connections, earned him a chance to serve as technical advisor on the 1941 bullfighting film, “Blood and Sand.” That eventually led to a chance to direct, starting with B-level crime pictures.

John Wayne gave Boetticher a chance to bring his bullfighting story to the screen but the pair didn’t get along during filming. Disagreements resulted in Wayne bringing in John Ford to slice the picture from 129 minutes to 87, cutting the atmosphere and emotional complexity of Boetticher’s dream project. The film still earned the writer-director an Oscar nomination (with Ray Nazarro) for Motion Picture Story, but it didn’t do much for his career as he returned to working on B movies.

Not until 1987 was “Bullfighter and the Lady” restored to Boetticher’s original cut, revealing an unsparingly brutal, intense psychological study of a headstrong American (Robert Stack in his best performance) determined to become part of the Mexican bullfighting world.

Stack’s Johnny manages to befriend a legendary bullfighter (Hollywood veteran Gilbert Roland) by teaching him skeet shooting (which, in fact, was Stack’s real life entry into Hollywood) in exchange for lessons in the ring.

While Johnny learns the technical aspects of bullfighting, he never can totally grasp the integrity and dedication to the formalities that play such a large part in this national passion. His obsession with bullfighting gets mixed in with his love for a beautiful Mexican woman (American actress Joy Page), who, as part of the bullfighting crowd, is reluctant to trust this outsider.

As Boetticher’s stand-in, Stack (his hair dyed blonde to resemble the director’s) impressively portrays this complicated man who decides in a moment to put his life aside and become a matador. But the film’s standout performance comes from Roland, as the proud, smart and generous Manolo, who comes to admire this sometimes arrogant young American. If the picture hadn’t been chopped up for its original release, there’s no doubt this complex, unforgettable performance would have earned an Oscar nomination.

Also memorable are Katy Jurado as Manolo’s devoted but fearful wife and Page, who, going by this film, should have had a much better career. Her movie debut was as the newlywed who Claude Rains pressures to sleep with him in exchange for letters of transport in “Casablanca,” a role she scored because her step-father was Jack Warner. She mostly worked in television before retiring in 1959.

Five years later, Boetticher again went to work for Wayne, this time directing “Seven Men From Now,” the first of the seven Westerns he did with Scott.

Later in his career, the director returned to his first love, spending the early 1960s in Mexico filming a documentary on his mentor, bullfighter Carlos Arruza. But it ended in tragedy in 1966 when Arruza and film crew members were killed in a car crash.

In the Los Angeles Times obituary following the director’s death in 2001, his friend and admirer, Kevin Thomas, longtime film critic for the Times, had this to say about Boetticher: “He generally did not draw neutral responses from other people….He just looked you in the eye and told you the truth according to the way he saw it.” Boetticher does that in every frame of “Bullfighter and the Lady,” one of the finest and most underrated movies of the 1950s.

One of the first sound films shot outside a studio, this Western remains entertaining if only for the humorous Spanish accents and cartoonish characters.

The hero of the picture is “The Cisco Kid,” a sort-of Robin Hood of the Southwest, created by short-story master O. Henry. Here he’s pursued by a wise-cracking soldier, Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), who longs to return to his native New York. (“You ain’t seen nothin’ til you’ve seen the Bowery,” he offers at one point.)

Warner Baxter, a longtime silent star who went on to a successful career as a supporting player in the sound era, won the 1928-29 Academy Award for best actor for his dashing, happy-go-lucky “Kid.” It’s hard to believe this is an Oscar-winning performance as he delivers his lines in a fractured Spanish accent you’d expect to hear at a school play somewhere in Ohio.

“The Kid” spends most of the film flirting with his seductive paramour Tonia Maria (an over-the-top Dorothy Burgess, making her film debut), who struts around with her hands seemingly permanently attached to her hips and dramatically throwing her head and shoulders back. Costello should have trademarked this cliché performance because it served as the template for “South of the Border” hot dames for the next 30 years.

But the funniest performance is offered by Lowe, who has the rugged looks of John Wayne but the vocal mannerisms of Groucho Marx (if only either of those two would have been cast!). He tosses out one liners and rolls his eyes like Groucho in the thickest New Yawk accent this side of Leo Gorcey. (Girl becomes “goyle.”)

For all the joking around as the Cisco Kid stays one step ahead of Sgt. Dunn, the film ends tragically. But 1928 audiences didn’t come for the story; it’s the innovative outdoor sound recording---horse, cows, farm animals can be heard throughout and everyone seems to be singing to themselves---that made this a landmark picture and earned it a best picture Oscar nomination. (It lost to the much less interesting “Broadway Melody.”)

“In Old Arizona,” shot around Utah’s Zion National Park, originally was to star and be directed by Raoul Walsh, until a car accident while leaving the set left him blind in his right eye. Irving Cummings was brought in to direct and Baxter to play “The Cisco Kid.” Walsh, who from then on wore an eye patch, received co-director credit on the print of the film I saw, but only Cummings received an Oscar nomination for directing the film. Ironically, Walsh, who went on to direct another 80 films over the next 40 years, including “The Big Trail” (1930), “High Sierra” (1941) and White Heat (1949), never received an Oscar nomination.

This early independent movie, written and directed by Morris Engel, an acclaimed still photographer and his wife, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley, offers one of the most endearing depictions of childhood ever put on film. Engel made two other low-budget pictures in the 1950s, but never pursued a career in Hollywood.

The simple story takes place in a New York City tenement when the mother of two boys has to visit a relative and leaves the teenaged Lennie in charge of his younger brother, Joey. But Lennie and his bored friends play a trick on Joey and he runs off believing he’s killed his brother. With just a few dollars, he takes the train to Coney Island---it’s his idea of escaping the law. There he plays carnival games, eats junk food and keeps away from the police, who he assumes are on his trail.

Clearly shot among the real weekend crowd at the beach resort area, the picture has the feel of a documentary even as it captures Joey doing the bottle throw, trying to grab the ring as he rides the Merry-Go-Round and returning over and over again to ride the ponies.

The most touching sequence of the film follows Joey helping out another boy collect empty soda bottles on the beach, returning them to the vendor for change. Joey eventually does it on his own, grabbing even half-filled bottles from unaware sun bathers, allowing him to collect enough money to buy another pony ride.

Seemingly every frame shot by the directors (Engel served as the film’s cinematographer), especially those on the beach and boardwalk of Coney Island, have the evocative, painterly quality of a Life magazine photo essay.

Despite poor sound quality and mostly amateurish performances, “Little Fugitive” shouldn’t be missed. You won’t forget Richie Andrusco’s unaffected, wide-eyed performance as Joey, who seems to have a great time despite thinking he shot his brother.

Andrusco made an appearance on a 1955 TV show called “I Spy,” but otherwise never acted for film or TV again.

McKinley Morganfield, Marion Jacobs and Chester Burnett, poor Southern transplants, recording for a startup label in Chicago during the 1950s, created the blueprint for the course of popular music over the next half century.

The stories of these musicians---better know as Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf---and the Chess Record label that distributed their electric blues is told in this entertaining and marvelously acted film, which doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good tale.

Just for the record, Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) was just one half of the company’s founders, along with brother Phil, Polish immigrants who started their studio to record songs that were at the time ghettoized as “race music.” Clearly, it is more dramatic to have a single figure who starts the studio, nurtures the artists and helps integrate American music, but did the filmmakers have to reduce Phil Chess to a bit player (an actor is listed in the credits as playing him, but I never heard his name mentioned.)

It’s a flaw in a film that otherwise doesn’t pull many punches, from radio payola, the cheating of artists out of royalties, racist police and gun-toting, womanizing musicians dealing with drug and alcohol addictions.

At the center of the film is the unlikely friendship and partnership (of a sort) between Chess and Waters. In an electrifying, but under-stated portrayal of the legendary Muddy, Jeffrey Wright (see “Quantum of Solace” below ) brings dignity and gravitas to this one-time sharecropper who became one of the most accomplished and important musical figures of the 20th Century.

The picture loses much of its energy in the last 40 minutes as Muddy’s star fades (left behind by the rock ‘n’ roll he helped create) and Chess puts his efforts (and passion) into making Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) a crossover star.

Also giving memorable performances are Columbus Short as the troubled but brilliant harmonica player Little Walter, a sideman to Muddy who becomes a star himself before self destructing; Eamonn Walker as Wolf, the gravel-voiced rival to Muddy; and Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, the great bass player who wrote many of the biggest hits for these musicians and narrates the film.

Brody is fine as Chess, but he can’t match the charisma the actors playing the musicians bring to both the dramatic and musical scenes.

The details of “Cadillac Records”---the title taken from Chess’ habit of giving his artists new Caddies rather than the royalties they deserved---may be more myth than truth but writer-director Darnell Martin still manages to capture the society-changing importance of these artists and their records, which remain vital and inspiring 60 years later.


and DAISY KENYON (1947)
After reading “The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger,” it’s hard to watch one of the producer-director’s films and not feel sympathy for the actors. As detailed by author Chris Fujiwara, the mood on the set of a Preminger film could be tense, to say the least. While many of the director’s films turned out to be superb and featured first-rate performances, he clearly wasn’t an “actor’s director.” Preminger’s idea of directing actors was to scream at them take after take until they played the scene the way he had imagined it.

The subject of Preminger’s ire on “The Cardinal” was Tom Tryon, the little-known actor cast by the director as the title character of this epic about an American priest and his experiences in Europe. Tryon is out of his league as Steven Fermoyle, a highly educated Boston priest who, after some distressing experiences, begins to question his commitment to the church and takes a leave to reconsider his future. The performance sinks what is already a lumbering and tiresome picture.

But it’s hard to blame Tryon---Preminger passed on Cliff Robertson and Bradford Dillman in casting the role and then treated Tryon like a child. “He was a tyrant who ruled by terror,” said Tryon later. “He tied me up in knots. He screamed at me. He called me names…..Preminger [while Tryon’s parents were visiting the set] told me I was stupid and unprofessional.” Four years later, Tryon quit acting and became a successful novelist, writing the best-sellers “The Other” and “Crowned Heads,” among others.

The most interesting chapter of this episodical film is Fermoyle’s efforts to help a black priest from a small Southern town standup to the Klan-dominated community leaders. The film, and Henry Morton Robinson’s popular novel that it’s based on, doesn’t shy away from criticizing the Vatican, in this case showing how reluctant Rome was to support black churches in America. But the viewpoint of the film is all over the place: while church leaders are portrayed as inflexible and contradictory, Fermoyle’s elevation to cardinal is presented as an awe-inspiring event.

A few performers shine in this long, dreary film, including John Huston as a mentor to Fermoyle; Burgess Meredith as a dying, Father Flanagan-type priest; and Bill Hayes (who went on to star in daytime soaps) as Fermoyle’s happy-go-lucky brother. Huston, whose acting career took off after this performance, earned a surprising Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

A much better Preminger picture is “Daisy Kenyon,” a dark, complex tale of a dysfunctional love triangle starring Joan Crawford at her most introspective and Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda as her suitors.

Crawford is the title character, a magazine illustrator involved in a longtime affair with Dan O’Mara (Andrews), a high-profile attorney with a wife and two young daughters. But with little hope for marriage, Daisy has tired of the demanding, controlling Dan. When she is wooed by a strange but gentle veteran (Fonda), she marries him despite her still strong feelings for Dan.

As in most of Preminger’s projects, the studio had to fight with Hollywood’s official censors, the Production Code Administration, which objected to the film’s cynical view of marriage, not to mention the extensive drinking by the characters. To satisfy the censors, Preminger had some of the characters drink milk instead of alcohol and never indicates that Daisy and Dan are involved sexually. (Yet only a child would be confused by their relationship.)

Despite the restrictions, David Hertz, with uncredited help from Ring Lardner Jr., produced a first-rate script, adapting a popular novel by Elizabeth Janeway. As in the best of the director’s films, “Daisy Kenyon” features serious, believably flawed adults struggling in their search for happiness. Crawford gives one of her better performances as Daisy, as close to a feminist as you’re going to find in a 1940s film, and Andrews is perfect as the self-assured Dan. Fonda, on the other hand, seems out of place and ill suited for the role---he’s a major star playing an odd character role and it just doesn’t work.

Preminger, who started his career as a stage actor and director in Austria, was never known as a flashy director, but in this film he and his favorite cameraman Leon Shamroy, heightens the drama with extensive use of camera movement and intense close-ups. It also includes what may be the most impressive visual sequence in any of his films. Near the end of the picture, Crawford drives her car wildly along a snowy, tree-lined country road, eventually running the car off the road and walking away, in heels and her fur coat, up a snow bank. It perfectly captures Daisy’s failed attempts to run away from her problems.

Preminger was a high-profile director because of his occasional acting roles (most prominently as a Nazi in “Stalag 17”) and his willingness to defy the censors, making headlines for the extended discussions of sex in “The Moon Is Blue” (1953), middle-class drug use in “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955), a court case involving a rape in “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), homosexual blackmail in “Advice and Consent” (1962) and making the all-black films “Carmen Jones” (1954) and “Porgy and Bess” (1959).

While his uncontrollable temper and dictatorial approach to moviemaking are legendary, Preminger’s legacy for filmgoers remains his distinctive bald head and piercing eyes and a resume of films from World War II to the 1970s that attempted to bring serious, adult subjects to the screen.

For better or worse, one of the distinctive characteristics of the Bond franchise has been that the indestructible British agent started each film with a clean slate. No emotional attachments (even an out-of-character marriage was quickly dispatched), personal histories or evil doers survived the closed credits---until now. More than a sequel to “Casino Royale,” Daniel Craig’s debut as 007, this film is essential Part II, picking up just minutes after the 2006 film ends.

In “Quantum,” Craig’s Bond moves further away from the slick, debonair spymaster carved into film history by Sean Connery and Roger Moore. This pumped-up version of Bond is a laser-focused, unstoppable killer who ignores every order from his superiors (Judi Dench is back as the Queen mother-like “M”) as he purses those responsible for blackmailing the doomed Vesper, who Bond had fallen for in “Casino Royale.”

Under the unlikely direction of Marc Forster, best know for “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” the chases are as breathtaking as ever, the politics timely---Americans enabling a third-world country’s regime change in hopes of oil revenue---and the dialogue, by a team that includes Paul Haggis, director of “Crash,” sarcastically witty.

One of the disappointments of the picture is the under-use of Jeffrey Wright, returning from the last film as Felix Leiter, a CIA operative who admires Bond. This amazing actor (more on him next month) mostly lingers in the background, but leaves a stronger impression than actors with 10 times the screen time or dialogue.

In the big picture of the Bond franchise, “Quantum” is a good, but mostly forgettable entry that doesn’t press many new buttons. But it does reaffirm Craig’s standing as a compelling tough guy who has the muscle and stoic bearing to hold his own as a 21st Century James Bond. Craig just needs an adversary and a storyline equal to the unstoppable force of nature he’s created.