Monday, June 1, 2009
THE DESERT RATS (1953)
James Mason, born 100 years ago on May 15, only has a small role in this World War II film----reprising his portrayal of Field Marshal Rommel from “The Desert Fox” two years before----but he leaves an impression that lingers long after he’s off-screen.
He speaks a very convincing German in most of his short scenes and then in broken English in a riveting sequence trading barbs with captured Scottish officer MacRoberts, played by the film’s star Richard Burton. As the Brit has a bullet removed from his arm by the Nazi Army doctor, an injured Rommel is brought into the medical tent. Immediately, the personable Rommel begins to pepper MacRoberts with questions about his commending general’s tactics and then the pair debate the importance of Tobruk, the North African outpost at the center of a months-long Nazi assault (beautifully essayed in this film by director Robert Wise).
Mason shows Rommel to be an engaging but impatient man who struggles to hide the pain as he too has a bullet removed. In just five minutes, the actor creates the picture’s most fascinating character. But that’s something Mason did his entire career, using his deep, melodious voice, Cambridge-bred manners and commanding presence to infuse a sense of class and grounded reality to his films.
Whether he was playing Brutus in “Julius Caesar” (1953), the alcoholic actor Norman Maine in “A Star Is Born” (1954), the obsessed pedophile Humber Humbert in “Lolita” (1962), the accommodating angel in “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) or the arrogant Catholic Church attorney in “The Verdict” (1982), Mason brought subtlety, self-reflection and a clear vision to his roles.
By the early 1940s, Mason was a box-office star in Britain, but it was with “Odd Man Out” (1947), playing a resourceful, on-the-run Irish freedom fighter---under Carol Reed’s superb direction----that he first was noticed as an important actor. Moving to Hollywood after that success, he worked with some of the most interesting directors in American, making “Caught” (1949) and “Reckless Moment” (1949) for Max Ophuls, “Madame Bovary” (1949), as Flaubert, for Vincente Minnelli, as a Nazi spy in “Five Fingers” for Joseph L. Mankiewicz and as the villain in “North by Northwest” for Alfred Hitchcock. One of his best and most unsung roles was as a John Le Carré spy in Sidney Lumet’s “The Deadly Affair.”
Like so many British actors, he made an equal number of forgettable movies, working nonstop in the 1960s and ‘70s. And he wasn’t just stuck with stern, upper-class roles; he was wonderfully amusing as the rich man obsessed with a much younger woman in “Georgy Girl” (1966), playing an Asian mystic in the cult classic “The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go” (1970) and as the sharp-tongued Dr. Watson in “Murder by Decree” (1979).
While Burton, Laurence Olivier, Albert Finney and Michael Caine, among others, surpassed him in Hollywood stardom, Mason remained a constant and always welcomed presence in movies for 40 years, inevitably turning his character into the most interesting person in every scene he appeared. He never stopped working, dying at age 75 after a heart attack in 1984.
THE SOLOIST (2009)
British director Joe Wright, whose film “Atonement” earned an 2007 Oscar nomination for best picture, and screenwriter Susannah Grant took a beautifully chronicled heartbreaking relationship between a newspaper columnist and a homeless man and turned it into an unfocused, poorly structured and sadly disappointing movie.
Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez wrote a series of columns on Nathaniel Ayers, a middle-aged homeless man who was once a promising cellist. The writer’s efforts to get Nathaniel off the street and encourage his playing resulted in a book, which was adapted into this film.
My main problem with the picture is the way the filmmakers and Robert Downey Jr. present Lopez. While I doubt the screen version of Lopez is very similar to the real guy (I’m a former co-worker, but I never met him) that’s not my complaint. It’s that Downey’s Lopez isn’t believable as a high-profile, acclaimed writer for one of the largest papers in the country. From the opening scene of him crashing while bicycling, he’s portrayed as a stumbling, struggling novice, lacking in confidence or the experience to get much out of interviews. At points, the filmmakers turn Lopez into a comic figure---slipping on urine in a bathroom stall and then later spilling coyote urine on himself while trying to rid his yard of raccoons. What do raccoons and urine have to do with a newspaper reporter examining the homeless crisis in Los Angeles? Your guess is as good as mine. But it certainly doesn’t convinced viewers that this is a tough, fearless columnist who calls out state and local officials on a weekly basis.
Even a worse directorial choice than the raccoon scenes are a series of cliché flashbacks of the young Nathaniel, all devoid of anything insightful. And then there’s the psychedelic lightshow---right out of a Fillmore West concert circa 1968---that is used to reflect Nathaniel’s mind as he listens to the Los Angeles Philharmonic live. Wright never seems to get a grip on what kind of movie he’s making.
On the bright side, Jamie Foxx complete inhabits Nathaniel, this deeply disturbed man who still possess a sliver of the musical brilliance of his youth. This rich, memorable character deserved a better film. And while I didn’t buy his character, Downey has some great acting moments, most when he’s interacting with homeless people portraying themselves.
Catherine Keener plays Lopez’s ex-wife and current editor (now that’s believable), a movie invention that offers nothing but an unearned TV-movie ending.
While I’m pleased that Lopez’s extraordinary work was rewarded with big-screen treatment---along with the chance to immortalize on film the cluttered, filthy Times newsroom----I’m more disappointed that his great story was treated so shabbily.
LET’S ROCK (1958) and
ROCK ROCK ROCK! (1956)
No matter how bad they are, I’m a sucker for rock ‘n’ roll movies from the 1950s and early ‘60s, when Hollywood still saw this new musical genre as exotic, dangerous and simply kooky.
“Let’s Rock” stars singing legend Julius LaRosa, a Sinatra-like performer who after some success in the early 1950s had his career sidetracked by a very public feud over his on-air firing from Arthur Godfrey’s popular radio show. He basically plays himself (renamed Tommy Adane), a classic ballad singer who refuses to cross over to rock ‘n’ roll. Phyllis Newman, who became a mainstay of 1960s talk shows and TV dramas, plays a budding songwriter who falls for him.
It’s stiffly acted and shot like it was made in a week, but in a long segment depicting a TV music show hosted by Wink Martindale, such acts as Paul Anka, Danny and the Juniors, the Royal Teens and the very velvety-voiced LaRosa make up for the silly plot.
Fifty years later, the rock ‘n’ roll song that LaRosa finally agrees to sing is about as close to rock ‘n’ roll as a Barry Manilow tune. In those days, if teenagers were screaming, it was rock ‘n’ roll.
LaRosa, at age 79, continues to tour, currently in a revue called Big Band Musical Extravaganza.
Slightly better is “Rock Rock Rock!” starring legendary DJ Alan Freed as himself and Tuesday Weld, making her film debut at age 13, as a high school girl trying to earn enough money to buy a dress for the prom.
The throw-away plot is just filler between the performances, including Chuck Berry doing “You Can’t Catch Me,” Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers doing the title track, Johnny Burnett, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, along with the Moonglows and the Flamingoes (vocal groups that somehow got lumped in with real rockers).
The bubbly Weld gives a very assured performance as Dori, sounding great when she sings because Connie Stevens’ voice is dubbed for hers. Jack Collins as her befuddled, pipe-smoking father gives a funny performance as he learns to grove to this crazy music. If her conservative ‘Pops” can rock out to Chuck Berry, I guess that means it’s safe for all of us.
WALLANDER (2009, TV)
When Kenneth Branagh burst on the cinematic scene in 1989 as the star-director of “Henry V,” he was pegged as the second coming of Laurence Olivier, who had made his own version of Shakespeare’s heroic drama in 1944. Seven years later, he mounted an impressive “Hamlet,” again starring and directing and mirroring Lord Olivier’s career. Unfortunately, Branagh never made much of a mark in contemporary films, disappointing as the lead in “Dead Again” and “Gingerbread Man.”
But as Det. Kurt Wallander, the protagonist of three British TV movies based on a series of novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell (made into a Swedish TV series in 2005), the 48-year-old actor has found his best non-Shakespearian role. This emotionally fragile workaholic, who struggles to maintain a relationship with his daughter and father, is also a tenacious cop who makes up in deductive thinking what he lacks in social decorum. In need of a shave, a good night’s rest and a suitable wardrobe, Wallander is a bit of a cliché, but Branagh breathes life into this complex loner.
In “Sidetracked,” he’s faced with a serial killer who seems to be avenging some crime, but exactly how the victims are connected is a mystery. Filmed with directorial (Philip Martin) flourishes and showy camerawork (by “Slumdog Millionaire” Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle), this moody, David Lynch-influenced thriller is a bit over-stylized, but looks impressive for a TV movie.
It also features an extraordinary performance by British acting veteran David Warner as Wallander’s cantankerous, landscape-painting father. Warner, who made his film debut in 1962, has appeared in over 100 features, including “The Omen” (1976), “Cross of Iron” (1977) and “Time After Time” (1979). Yet I’ve never been more impressed with his acting as I was in the handful of scenes he has here with Branagh. He cuts a larger-than-life figure and helps explain both his son’s insecurities and his strengths. He’s missed in the series’ next two films.
“Firewall” is the best of the three, a crackling story (adapted by Richard Cottan and Richard O’Brien) that starts with a teenage girl stabbing to death a cab driver and a seemingly unrelated heart attack victim and then is complicated by a woman Wallander meets on the internet. Once again, the detective takes the burden of the world on his shoulders as the case takes on more ominous aspects and the bodies start piling up. While it’s a bit hard to imagine all this murder and mayhem taking place in the Swedish seaside town of Ystad, director Naill MacCormack makes excellent use of the quaint surroundings while keeping the focus on the intense Wallander.
In “One Step Behind,” Wallander really does have that collapse that seemed inevitable during the first two films when he finds out he has Type II Diabetes, a few days after Svedberg (played by Tom Beard), one of the detectives who works for him, is shot to death. If Wallander wasn’t already an emotional wreck, his discovery that he was unknowingly central to this detective’s life adds the burden of guilt. Following clues the dead man left behind, Wallander becomes obsessed with solving a string of murders that revolve around secret lives and unquenchable vengeance. Like “Sidetracked,” Cottan wrote the script and Martin directed.
All three of these 90-minute TV films, with a little tinkering, could have been released as feature films; the quality of writing and filmmaking are first rate along with the acting, even the smallest of roles. But what really makes these films special is Branagh’s performance as this flawed, nearly cracked character. The actor takes the well-oiled role of the discontented detective to an entirely new, unforgettable level.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (2009)
I have no idea who would be interested in this stupefying dull documentary-like profile of a high-priced New York escort and her “dates” with self-centered, over-paid junior executives. One of Steven Soderbergh’s offbeat, low-budget ventures (joining “Full Frontal,” “Bubble” and “Che”), and shown on the cable station HDNet a few days before its theatrical opening, this pretentious film has reaped tons of publicity because Sasha Grey, who plays this bored call girl, is a porn actress.
I’m not sure what Soderbergh’s point was in casting an adult film star other than cheap publicity; there isn’t a single sex scene in the film and Grey remains fully clothed for 95% of the picture. And she clearly wasn’t hired for her acting. She’s incapable of showing any expression and speaks in a hushed monotone that would make “Hamlet” sound like an episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” But no one could have done much with this script (by David Levien and Brian Koppelman). In fact, there isn’t an episode of “Gilligan’s Island” that doesn’t offer a more interesting story and more appealing characters.
Soderbergh and Grey, maybe on purpose, go out of their way to make Chelsea as uninteresting as possible. This woman is so shallow that the journal she keeps on her dates includes the brands of clothes and shoes she wore.
Making a bad film worse, Soderbergh cast amateurs in all the roles, creating the feeling that you’re watching a beautifully photographed reality show. Except there’s no point and no one wins anything. If there’s a story to be told here, it’s why these young masters of the universe feel compelled to spend thousand of dollars for a night’s companionship. I can only assume they’re too busy gutting our 401(k) accounts to hang out at pick-up bars.
After enduring this trite, shallow epic, I’m convinced that stars Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman could have improvised a more interesting dialogue than the words the film’s team of screenwriters wrote for them. There’s not a single plot turn or conversation that hasn’t been a cliché since the invention of sound film.
Director Baz Luhrmann, like the stars, an Aussie native, clearly put his efforts into capturing magnificent vistas and re-creating the atmosphere of World War II-era Australia rather than focusing on the story he was telling. He needed to be reminded that a drama, especially one two hours and 45 minutes long, needs a plot more engaging than a high-tech musical (his last film was “Moulin Rouge.”)
I’m sure you’ve never seen this one before: the spoiled wife (Kidman) of a cattle rancher arrives in the outback (filling in for the Old West) to find the husband dead and the business threatened by a ruthless rival (played by the under-utilized Aussie veteran Bryan Brown.)
But she’s determined to make a go of it (why exactly we’re never told) and enlists the help of a great-looking, lone-wolf type (Jackman) who has to teach her to appreciate the great outdoors. She also learns the ways of the native people (in this case, the aborigines) and becomes the protector of an unwanted mixed-race boy.
Actually, Luhrmann does add something different to this well-worn tale: the aborigines have magical powers and use them to help out the good white people.
Mandy Walker’s cinematography is impressive, but there’s little else to recommend this simple-mined picture that fails as a romance, as a history and as an adventure.
The 1971 original of this film stands as an important advancement in the portrayal of strong African-American movie characters. John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) was a tough, hip cop who didn’t take any…well, you know, from either whites or blacks.
This remake, in which Roundtree (not looking much older) plays Shaft’s uncle and mentor, pits a contemporary Shaft (the equally cool Samuel L. Jackson) against the low-life but well-healed playboy (pre “Superman” Christian Bale) and a flamboyant Puerto Rican drug dealer (Jeffrey Wright). Once-promising filmmaker John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”) directs.
The story is about as complex as a picture book and the characters as realistic as the cast of a rap video, but the performance of Wright as Peoples Hernandez is nothing short of mesmerizing. Humiliated by Shaft at the beginning of the film, this cartoonish but sly “businessman” sets out to bring the cop down. Peoples could have been portrayed as a by-the-numbers street punk but Wright turns him into an entertainer, with razor-cut sideburns and a lisping accent. Unlike most of Wright’s film work, there’s nothing subtle about this performance but he manages to make Peoples a funny, satirical figure at the same time that he’s the most frightening and believable character in the film.
Wright received good reviews for his performance as a controversial New York artist in “Basquiat” (1996), but really had his breakthrough playing a talkative nurse assigned to a dying Roy Cohn in the HBO film “Angels in America” (2003). He was the best thing about Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), playing a disturbed Korean War veteran, and stole all his scenes opposite Bill Murray in “Broken Flowers” (2005) as an amateur detective. He also had interesting roles in “Syriana” (2005) and in the last two Bond pictures.
Wright is one of those actors who disappears so completely into his roles---he has a special affinity for altering his voice---that it’s easy to fail to connect him from one film to another. In other words, he’s a bit too complex to be a leading man in most films, but he sparkles in character roles, such as his low-keyed Colin Powell in “W.” and his rambunctious Muddy Waters in “Cadillac Records,” both from last year.
It’s the rare actor who can create something memorable in every role, but Wright seems to be one of those performers and nothing proves it more clearly than his outrageous turn in this otherwise forgettable “Shaft.”
IN COLD BLOOD (1967)
I hadn’t seen this uncompromising study of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the ruthless Kansas murders who Truman Capote made famous, in decades. Richard Brooks’ fast-paced, stylized direction and Conrad Hall’s dark, crisp camerawork make this film feel more contemporary than color movies from the same era. But it’s the performances of Robert Blake (as Smith) and Scott Wilson (as Hickock) that keep this bleak film entertaining.
Blake finds just the right balance for Perry, who can’t exorcise the demons of his youth even though he’s smart enough to articulate them. The actor made the most of this high-profile role, becoming a TV star and talk-show celebrity before he was accused of murder himself.
Wilson is equally compelling in the movie, turning Hickock into a wild-eyed, self-assured conman who deludes himself into believing he’ll never be caught. But the actor was never able to rise out of the supporting actor pool, despite some high-profile roles through the 1970s, in Sidney Pollack’s “Castle Keep” (1969), John Frankenheimer’s “The Gypsy Moths” (1969) and “The Great Gatsby” (1974).
In 1981, he scored a Golden Globe supporting actor nomination for his role in the bizarre film about disturbed AWOL soldiers in “The Ninth Configuration” and received excellent reviews for his performance in the 1984 Polish film, “A Year in the Quiet Sun.” Wilson continues to work steadily---he had six movie roles in 2006 alone.