Wednesday, July 1, 2009

June 2009

Much will be made this year of the 70th anniversary of the so-called greatest year of movies. In large part, the mystique of 1939 rests on the unwavering devotion of movie fans to “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” They’ve become more than mere movies; they are national treasures.

Personally, I prefer the class of 1941 (“Citizen Kane,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “Sullivan’s Travels”) or 1946 (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Big Sleep,” “Notorious,” “The Best Years of Our Lives”) or even 1979 (“Apocalypse Now,” “Manhattan,” “All That Jazz,” “Being There”). But if we’re going to honor 1939, my favorite (as opposed to the best) film released that year has to be Howard Hawks’ fast-paced, aviation adventure “Only Angels Have Wings,” one of the smartest and least compromised examination of romantic relationships and the ways men and women deal with fear and death.

Atmospheric, funny, thrilling, sexy and populated with characters who seem as alive today as they did when Hawks shot the film, “Only Angels Have Wings” remains a perfect example of great art that occasionally emerged from the very controlling world of studio filmmaking. In many ways, it bears similarities to “Casablanca,” as both films are set in studio-created exotic locales featuring tough-talking American men who value personal integrity above all else. There’s a heightened level of danger that permeates the action in both films, creating an uneasy energy in nearly every scene that most films never come close to.

Hawks and screenwriter Jules Furthman introduce us to this fascinating world through two minor characters Les and Joe (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.), who latch on to Bonnie (the always vivacious Jean Arthur), a New York showgirl en route to some South American port who disembarks at Barranca, a Peru banana port, while the boat takes on cargo. Hawks artfully creates the port life: streets teeming with people, a vibrant nightlife scene and the general hectic world of a busy seaside city.

Despite all of Les and Joe’s flirting, their hopes are vanquished the minute Bonnie sets eyes on their boss Geoff (Cary Grant), who runs the local airfield. Wearing a large Panama that any other white man would look foolish in and a permanent look of distress, Grant personifies the tough, but beloved manager who has to make life and death decisions on an hourly basis, as they attempt to get the mail inland through all weather conditions.

The perfectly constructed opening act ends with Joe dying when he crashes his plane while Geoff, Bonnie and the other fliers look on. It’s the kind of downbeat scene (especially after we’d gotten to know the outgoing, high-spirited pilot) that most films could never recover from, but Hawks is all about his men being tough professionals who go on with life as if nothing has happened.

Romantic developments, abetted by the arrival of Geoff’s old flame (Rita Hayworth) and her cowardice husband (silent film star Richard Barthelmess) simmer in the background as the pressure mounts to get the mail through at all cost, over steep mountains and through impassable fog. But as thrilling as the aerial scenes are (Hawks was a WWI pilot), it’s the rich, fleshed out characters that make this one of the great films of the 1930s. Grant and Arthur, who worked together just once more in “The Talk of the Town” (1942), are a perfect match, as their characters do their best to hide their true feelings while maintaining a cynical front.

Thomas Mitchell had a pretty good year in 1939, with roles in “Gone With the Wind,” “Stagecoach,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Yet his most memorable performance of the year was as “The Kid,” Geoff’s best friend and a grounded pilot (because of his eyesight) who must work with Barthelmess’ MacPherson, a flier he blames for his younger brother’s death.

The only Oscar nominations the film received were for Joseph Walker’s beautiful black-and-white photography and the aerial special effects; in one of the most criminal oversights in Academy history, Grant and Arthur, between them, receive a total of just three acting nominations in their careers.

So before you re-watch “GWTW” or “Oz” for the umpteenth time, check out “Only Angels Have Wings”---maybe that year’s most modern picture----or some of the other 1939 gems that are often overlooked, such as “Midnight,” “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “Bachelor Mother” or “Son of Frankenstein.”

Despite the steady stream of hateful rants on the sorry state of humanity from Larry David’s Boris Yellnikoff, Woody Allen’s latest philosophical comedy could have been titled “People Do Change.” This amusing and insightful story of an unlikely mismatched relationship between a misanthrope, 60something New Yorker and a naïve, uneducated 21-year-old runaway from Mississippi, was written in the early 1970s and reflects the sensibilities of that era without losing its contemporary relevance.

While Boris and Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, displaying a surprisingly fine-tuned comic timing) are at the center of the first half of the picture, Patricia Clarkson as Melodie’s high-strung, God-fearing mother takes center stage when she arrives on the scene. At first, she there to save her daughter from the perversions of New York City (the script showing its age), but soon she’s part of the city’s avant-garde art scene and living with a pair of intellectuals (how 70s: ménage à trois). Clarkson gives one of her best performances, managing this character’s extreme metamorphosis without turning her into a totally different person.

Beyond the usual quota of great one-liners, “Whatever Works” (a phrase taken from Boris’ cynical philosophy) offers a very subtle study of identity and how social conventions often block one’s most basic passions. It’s easy to get distracted by Boris’ blunt condemnation of everything and everyone he encounters, but Allen clearly sees this “genius”---even as he spouts ideas the writer repeated in many of his scripts over the past three decades---as a self-important idiot who has closed his mind to the wonders of life and the importance of love.

Allen didn’t do himself any favors by casting Larry David in a role the writer-director usually would play. Not only is David not much of an actor, but he’s already associated as a rude crank from his brilliant HBO sitcom, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” As appealing as the idea of these two comic masters working together seemed in theory, the film would have been more effective had a more affable actor (maybe Michael Caine or Tom Wilkinson) played Boris. He’s often very funny, but I never believed for a second he was a real person.

“Whatever Works” will appeal to Allen fans but I can’t see it having the broad appeal of “Match Point” (2005) or last year’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), probably his two best films of the decade. But judged by the quality of ideas Woody the writer attempts to express, this might be his most interesting offering since “Deconstructing Harry” (1997).

TETRO (2009)
There’s much to praise in Francis Coppola’s new film but first and foremost is Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s simply stunning black-and-white cinematography. The picture manages to be gritty and sensual, starkly realistic and dreamlike as Malaimare’s use of light and shadows brings to mind the landmark European films from the 1960s. Even when the plot comes to a standstill and the dialogue loses its steam, the images (including the home-movie like color flashbacks) are worth the price of admission. Malaimare also shot Coppola’s 2007 film, “Youth Without Youth.”

The story, Coppola’s first original, solo screenplay credit since “The Conversation” 25 years ago, examines the relationship between half-brothers who haven’t seen each other in years----there’s a 20 year difference in their ages----both having escaped their egotistical, domineering father, a world-renowned conductor.

Vincent Gallo plays Tetro, an intense, temperamental layabout who has given up his goal to write and instead lives in a humble section of Buenos Aires with his dancer girlfriend (Maribel Verdú). Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), the younger son of the great musician, arrives unexpectedly for a visit when the cruise ship he works on docks nearby for repairs.

After it has become clear that Tetro has little interest in spending much time with this naïve youngster who has long idolized him, the story becomes repetitive and loses its focus. It’s as if everyone is sitting around biding their time, waiting for something to happen that will move the plot forward.

Eventually, and rather implausibly, Bennie adopts Tetro’s early, abandoned writing about the family into a play, which wins the brothers a trip to a prestigious arts festival.

Gallo and Ehrenreich, a spitting image of the young Leonardo DiCaprio, are both fine as the brothers, while Klaus Maria Brandauer cuts an imposing figure as the father, but Verdú, who was so impressive in “Y tu Mamá También” (2001) and “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), gives film’s best performance. As the brothers’ go-between, she tries her best to keep Bennie from giving up on his prickly, hard-to-read brother, hoping somehow she can turn them into a real family.

Like “The Godfather” films, “Tetro” examines the destructive power of family rivalries and how unchecked ego ruins everything it touches.

While Coppola could have used a co-writer (the brothers seem to say the same thing to one another three or four times), his direction remains first rate, at times intimate and detail oriented, then sweeping and majestic. “Tetro” most closely resembles’ Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” (1983), not only for its silvery black-and-white photography but for its art-house European sensibilities. While it’s pointless to call “Tetro” Coppola’s best film in years (he’s only made four in the last 13 years), I can say it’s his most personal and ambitious since the concluding chapter of his masterpiece, “The Godfather, Part III” (1990).

Love them or hate them, there’s nothing quite like a Henry Jaglom film. Emotional talkathons that are episodical at best, in some cases virtually plotless, shot to look like well-made home movies, set in real life Los Angeles locales (mostly Santa Monica) and featuring the Los Angeles filmmaker’s friends and relatives, Jaglom’s films haven’t changed much since he started producing these truly independent works in early 1980s. And no filmmaker has tackled issues particular to women more often than Jaglom over the past three decades.

His latest features Tanna Frederick, who had her first leading role in Jaglom’s 2006 film, “Hollywood Dreams,” an odd and unfocused story of a wannabe actress just off the bus. In the new film, she plays Irene, an emotionally fragile singer who is obsessed with her late father. Her admiration for him (despite tales of his gambling, womanizing and general irresponsibility toward his family) is all she talks about and all but dooms her romantic life. Her devotion to her father has kept her a child.

The other women in the film, friends and relatives of Irene----though why all these people are hanging around this house where she rents a room is never clarified----also talk of their relationships, good and bad, with their fathers and the inevitable effect it has had on their relationships with men. While their insights on the issue aren’t very deep, it’s an interesting subject that rarely gets discussed outside a therapist’s office. Singer-songwriter Harriet Schock’s thoughtful music brings a sense of joy to what otherwise is a pretty depressing tale.

The plot gets interesting when Irene discovers a hidden hat box left for her by her father that’s filled with pictures of a woman (elegant cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci) she’s never seen before. It leads her to a new understanding of her father, herself and what he means in her life.

Frederick, who seemed miscast in “Hollywood Dreams,” completely inhabits the role of Irene, displaying the nervous energy of a young Jill Clayburgh or Goldie Hawn, the type of uninhibited, natural approach to acting I haven’t seen much of since the early 1980s.

Victoria Tennant, who has mostly worked in television since the early ‘90s, offers a strong presence as Irene’s mother who has her own issues with her late husband, which arise as she’s moving out of the house he bought for them. Jaglom regulars, for better or worse, Zack Norman and Karen Black have small roles, but are hard to miss.

While “Irene in Time,” doesn’t rank with Jaglom’s best films---“Someone to Love,” “Venice/Venice,” “Festival in Cannes”---it’s a smart piece of filmmaking that, like so many of his films, hovers so close to real life that it’s sometimes hard to watch.

This strident anti-war picture might have been remembered as a classic of the era if it wasn’t for the overwrought, histrionic lead performance by Phillips Holmes.

Holmes, who was coming off his best known role as the callous youth in “An American Tragedy” (1931), plays Paul Renaud, a French soldier who remains distraught, a year after the armistice that ended World War I, over the German soldier he killed in battle.

Desperate to somehow make amends, he seeks out the dead German’s parents with plans to reveal himself as the soldier who took their son’s life.

I’ve never seen a film that displays the postwar hatred the German people felt toward France---Lionel Barrymore is compelling as the father who curses every Frenchman and the other men in the town are just a vengeful. It eerily anticipates the ease that Hitler would have in gaining support for another war.

Paul ends up making up a tale about a friendship between himself and the dead soldier (who had spent time in Paris before the war) and quickly becomes the surrogate son to this grieving family.

While Paul never backs off his over-the-top, wide-eyed silent film style performance, everyone else is quite good, including Barrymore, Louise Carter as his sweet-natured wife and Nancy Carroll as the dead boy’s fiancée.

This rare drama by romantic comedy master Ernst Lubitsch was a commercial failure and all-but forgotten entry in his legendary career. The same year this was released, Lubitsch also directed one of his classics, “Trouble in Paradise” with Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall as jewel thieves, and the popular Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musical-comedy “One Hour With You.” But the same seamless, character-driven filmmaking that made those movies classics is on display in “Broken Lullaby.”

The heartbreaking screenplay, by regular Lubitsch collaborator Samson Raphaelson and Reginald Berkeley, includes a memorable scene in which Barrymore rips into his friends’ anti-French stance (once he gets to know Paul his own feelings mellow), pointing out that it was old men like them on both sides who sent their sons out to kill one another. Each side celebrated the deaths of someone’s son, Barrymore lectures them.

Lubitsch deserves equal credit for Holmes’ distracting performance; ultimately the director has to answer for what ends up on the screen. Holmes had a fairly successful career before he died during military training in 1941, but it’s hard to see it from this film. Replace him with Spencer Tracy or Fredric March or even Paul Muni and “Broken Lullaby” would be more than a forgotten gem of the early sound era.

Maybe this is part of his appeal, but Will Ferrell has always struck me as someone very uncomfortable in front of the camera. Whether playing broad skit-comedy characters like Ricky Bobby in this film, more realistic roles in “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006) and Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” (2004) or chatting with David Letterman on “Late Night,” Ferrell comes off as a nervous novice who can hardly wait for his time on screen to end.

It’s especially evident when he’s surrounded by actors who are clearly at ease in front of the camera. The first-rate cast of “Talladega Nights,” includes John C. Reilly as Ricky’s incredibly stupid racing teammate, Jane Lynch (a veteran of Christopher Guest’s satires) as his non-nonsense mother and Amy Adams, one of the appealing young actresses in Hollywood, as his loyal assistant. None of them force their lines or bits; they manage to be both believable and funny. Ferrell seems to strain for every laugh; his best moments as Ricky Bobby are lifted from the comic’s George W. Bush imitation.

This parody of NASCAR doesn’t get much beyond lampooning the sports’ penchant for an endless array of sponsors and the stereotype of drivers as white trash. The most interesting point made (but never explored) by the script by Ferrell and director Adam McKay is that despite the fact that Ricky’s rival Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a jazz-loving, openly gay Frenchman, he becomes a fan favorite as soon as he starts winning.

At the center of the picture is the father-son relationship that develops after Ricky suffers a breakdown and loses his nerve to get behind the wheel. Gary Cole, memorable as the irritating boss in “Office Space” (1999), is the only good reason to see this film. Reese Bobby is a drug-dealing alcoholic who has a natural aversion to any type of conformity and deserted his family decades ago, yet he helps (in his own twisted way) his son get back on the track. Cole totally captures this oddly appealing misfit, something Ferrell doesn’t come close to accomplishing.

Wendy Hiller’s film appearances were always secondary to her stage work, but she still managed to pick up three Oscar nominations. Her best known early movie roles were reprising her stage performances in George Bernard Shaw plays: as Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion” (1938)----long before Lerner and Loewe turned it into “My Fair Lady”----and as the title character in Major Barbara (1941), the Salvation Army devote who discovers love.

She’s just as memorable in this charming romance set on the Scottish coast. Playing a smart, confident girl-about-town, she announces to her father in the perfect conceived opening scenes (including one of the most inventive credit sequences) that she’s engaged to one of the richest men in Great Britain.

Hiller’s Joan is off to the Scottish island of Kiloran to be married---all arranged to the minute by her fiancé. Except, he can’t control the weather and she ends up stuck in the quaint fishing village with Torquil MacNeil (Roger Lively), a handsome Naval officer on leave who is a native of the island. MacNeil schools Joan in the history and tradition of the island and the Gaelic people. Between the fog, the bag-pipes and the legend of a cursed castle, romance seems inevitable.

While one of the more humble efforts of master filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger---certainly when compared to “Black Narcissus” or “The Red Shoes” or “Stairway to Heaven”----it has to rank as one of their best; a simple, sweet story with an ethereal mood of a fairy tale. And much of that comes from the large eyes and distinctive cheek bones of Hiller at the peak of her acting brilliance. She was among the most celebrated English stage actresses of the 1940s and ‘50s.

Because Hiller didn’t work in films often, she seems to jump from romantic roles to spinsters overnight. She won a supporting actress Oscar for her intense, no-nonsense performance as the inn keeper in love with Burt Lancaster in “Separate Tables” (1958) and then, in 1966, earned her third nomination (her first was for “Pygmalion”) playing Sir Thomas Moore’s wife in “A Man for All Seasons.” Hiller was also impressive as the long-suffering wife of Trevor Howard in “Sons and Lovers” (1960), as Russian nobility in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) and as an asylum nurse in “The Elephant Man” (1980).

In 1975, she became Dame Wendy, in honor of her accomplished acting career; she continued working until 1993 and died 10 years later at age 92.

Harvey Shine, a composer of advertising jingles who struggles to put two coherent sentences together and seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown is the type of character you’d expect Steve Martin or Alan Arkin to play. Instead, he’s portrayed by a miscast and too-old Dustin Hoffman, who tries his best to make this irritating, divorced father sympathetic.

After he arrives in London for his daughter’s wedding and acts like a fool at the rehearsal dinner, he finds out his daughter has selected her step-father (James Brolin), not Harvey, to give her away. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s clearly had little involvement in her life for many years and they have little emotional connection. It’s one of those movies that asks you to root for the main character without offering any good reason to side with him. I’m sure writer-director Joel Hopkins assumed that he didn’t need to create a likeable character since he had Rain Man/Tootsie playing the role.

What saves the film from complete drudgery is Emma Thompson’s performance as a guarded single woman who Harvey latches on to after skipping out on the wedding reception. She’s brings a whiff of reality to the film as the fortysomething Kate, who is forging ahead with her life despite many disappointments and an extremely bothersome mother (Eileen Atkins).

With a little research, you could probably find the movie source for nearly every scene in this picture; it’s a patchwork of clichés that together are nothing but window dressing for a star-driven vehicle. But in this case, a 72-year-old acting legend turned out to be the wrong star.

CORRECTION----In the May edition of “Thoughts on Film,” lazy editing resulted in a nonsensical word being used to describe James Mason’s voice. The word I was going for was melodious.