Thursday, October 1, 2009

September 2009

This is the rare American film that portrays deeply depressed, psychologically damaged people without trying to turn them into sympathetic characters cured by a few well-timed hugs.

Mexican writer-director Guillermo Arriaga, best known as the screenwriter of director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000) “21 Grams” (2003) and “Babel” (2006), has penned another interweaving, multi-character story, but without the over-reliance on coincidence that hampered those previous movies.

A Portland restaurant manager (Charlize Theron) who substitutes anonymous sex for a personal life, a New Mexico housewife (Kim Basinger) who feels trapped by her family and marriage and her confused, guilt-ridden teenaged daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) are the principal characters in this exploration into the effects of impulsive acts and misunderstandings.

Two incidents kick start the drama: the burning down of a trailer that leaves two lovers dead and a plane crash that critically injures a single father. But the focus of the movie never wavers far from these women’s state of mind, allowing Theron, Basinger and Lawrence to create vivid, if hard to watch, portraits of hopelessness.

The acting, as it was in his and Iñárritu’s “21 Grams,” is extraordinary. Sylvia, a lost soul drifting through life, is Theron’s most interesting and intense character since her Oscar-winning turn in “Monster” (2003), as she delivers a raw, tough, uncompromising study of sadness. Basinger’s role as a straying wife is less interesting but the actress leaves a strong impression, while 19-year-old Lawrence as the daughter shows a depth of understand of complex emotions that’s rare for an actress so young. This is her first major film role, having been a regular on the TBS sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show” for the past three years.

Joaquim de Almeida, the accomplished Portuguese actor who has had a long American film and TV career, including impressive work as a villain in the third season of “24,” is outstanding as Basinger’s partner in adultery.

Arriaga, who also wrote the powerful border drama “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005)---directed and starring Tommy Lee Jones----establishes himself with this debut behind the camera as a serious, introspective filmmaker who has a deeply felt understanding of women. Already his screenplays have helped three actresses score Oscar nominations (Naomi Watts in “21 Grams” and Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi in “Babel”) and if “The Burning Plain” can stick around in theaters for awhile, it should add to that number.

This is a dark, difficult film that requires patience and attention, but it more than redeems itself by its memorable conclusion.

Budd Schulberg, who died in August at the age of 95, wrote two of the best screenplays in film history----“On the Waterfront” (1954), winning an Oscar for it, and “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)----and what may be the finest novel ever written about Hollywood, “What Makes Sammy Run?” But he’ll always be remembered as one of the “friendly witnesses” who named names while testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

His reasons weren’t about saving his career---he’d already been blackballed by the studios after the 1941 publication of his novel, but continued to work in small projects and on TV----but because he had grown to hate what the Communists were doing in Hollywood. He broke with the party when leaders of the writer’s branch attempted to dictate the content of his novel. As un-American as it was to punish those who were simply members of the Communist Party, it was equally un-American that any political group was making a consorted effort to control the content of Hollywood pictures. Imagine the uproar today if a large contingent of television writers were members of a rightwing group whose leaders instructed them on how to insert pro-Republican themes into their scripts?

The issue isn’t as black and white as many like to paint it. Schulberg and his friend Elia Kazan, among others, were true believers in the 1930s, who wanted to end the Communist influence in Hollywood not out of the hysterical fear that fueled the politicians but because they saw first hand the party’s methods being used to influence American filmmaking.

That controversy aside, the two-part television dramatization of Schulberg’s sarcastic, cynical masterpiece, which aired on NBC’s Sunday Showcase, is one of the finest TV productions I’ve ever seen. If this script by Schulberg and his brother Stuart, has been made into a feature film, it would undoubtedly be considered one of the greatest of its era. The black-and-white kinescope version (it was originally aired in color), put together for the first time in 2005, has to be considered one of the great found treasures of the Golden Age of television.

Sammy Glick, played with an ingratiatingly self-assured energy by Larry Blyden (who had a long career in television until his death in 1975) represents a side of Hollywood rarely seen up until that point. Lacking in morals, ethics or even a semblance of humanity, Sammy refuses to let anything or anyone slow his path to the top.

As in the novel, Sammy is seen through the eyes of Al Manheim (John Forsythe), who first meets Sammy when they both work at a New York newspaper. Drama critic Manheim is, at first, bemused by the over-eager copy boy until Sammy maneuvers himself into the position of radio columnist and then pitches to an agent a script written by a co-worker.

After he cold-calls famous Hollywood agent Myron Selznick with his movie idea, Al asks him if he was scared. Sammy says he wasn’t, but kept thinking to himself during the call “Sammy Glick Sammy Glick Sammy Glick Sammy Glick.” Sammy is energized by his own ego.

Once in Hollywood, Sammy quickly finds that his ability to talk the talk with complete self assuredness more than makes up for his total lack of writing skills. Al follows Sammy to the West Coast when he sells his own screenplay, giving him a front row seat to the path of destruction left in the wake of his young friend’s sprint to the penthouse.

Sammy moves through the ranks of writers by taking credit for other’s scripts, stealing ideas from old movies and selling out those closest to him without a hint of regret. And he does it all by never writing a word or reading a single book or play.

The novel, published in 1941, cost Schulberg his job as a studio screenwriter and ended his father’s producing career. B.P. Schulberg had been one of the early executives for Paramount Pictures and, from the early 1930s, a successful independent producer. Louis B. Mayer famously suggested to B.P. that his son be deported because he dared write a book so critical of the movie studios. “Where the hell are you going to deport him,” the father of the American-born Budd asked, “Catalina Island?”

It clearly had no chance of being made into a film, but this version is actually the second television version; the first was made in 1949 with José Ferrer as Sammy and, amazingly, Paddy Chayefsky writing the screenplay. In the past 10 years, actor-director Ben Stiller has attempted, and failed, to bring the story to the big screen.

While the production values of the 1959 version, bare-bones sets shot in tight quarters, all indoors (I suspect the original color version looked even worse than the grainy kinescope) could easily be improved upon, the acting can’t be beat. Blyden, who had made a name for himself in “The Bachelor Party” (1957), directed by “Sammy” director Delbert Mann, was never better, showing Sammy as a repellent, but very convincing con man whose unlikely rise up the studio ladder seems all-too plausible.

Forsythe, a slick, bland actor whose biggest success was years later in “Dynasty” and, I guess, as the voice of Charlie on “Charlie’s Angels,” also gives the performance of his career as the voice of reason who keeps asking the unanswerable question: “What makes Sammy run?” But this script and its characters are so fresh and dynamic that any good actor couldn’t help but do great work.

Also outstanding in the show are Barbara Rush as a successful screenwriter who is equally fascinated by Sammy but falls in love with Al, and Dina Merrill as the dilettante daughter of the studio CEO who proves to be a perfect match for Sammy. In a single, heartbreaking scene, Sammy’s brother, played by Norman Fell (later Mr. Roper on “Three’s Company”), reveals his brother’s disregard, even hatred, for his past. This emotional highpoint is set during a chi chi cocktail party at a New York hotel (according to Sammy, “Toots says he’s bringing DiMaggio”) during which the brother barges in and pleads with Sammy to attend his uncle’s funeral.

Replacing a much longer sequence about Sammy’s family in the book, the scene is a brilliant example of what a great writer can accomplish in just a few minutes of screen time. Mann, who directed “Marty” on TV and on the big screen (winning an Oscar), and such first-rate films as “Separate Tables” (1958) and “Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1960), deserves a good share of the credit for not only getting the most out of his cast but keeping the dialogue- heavy script from feeling like a filmed play.

One of the most controversial plot lines of the novel was the characters’ involvement in the messy creation of the Writers’ Guild, which involved Red-influenced organizers and studio union busters. It is nowhere to be found in the TV play. In a fascinating 2008 interview included as an extra on the DVD, the then 94-year-old Schulberg explains that he eliminated that aspect of the book because he knew he didn’t have enough time to properly explore the complex issue. But I doubt that any TV or advertising executive in 1959 would have OK’d a script taking on the politics involved in the union movement in Hollywood.

Sammy’s and Al’s Jewish backgrounds are also downplayed in the TV drama compared to the book. Studio moguls of the time, most of whom were Jewish, didn’t want that fact advertised, while many in Hollywood felt that Schulberg’s Sammy was a negative Jewish stereotype.

But even without those aspects, this production offers a revealing peek inside at the ruthless way the studios did (and, in many ways, still do) business: the low opinion in which actors, writers and especially audiences were held, the exploitative treatment of women, the rampant backstabbing and, topping it off, the truly scary prototype of Hollywood success: Sammy Glick.

PONYO (2009)
I’m not a big fan of modern animation---if you can even call what Disney and Pixar do animation----but it’s impossible to deny the startling imagination that flows out of the mind of Hayao Miyazaki.

His “Spirited Away,” a scarier version of “Alice in Wonderland,” won the 2002 Oscar for best animation and earning a spot on many critics’ Top 10 lists. I was more impressed with his next project, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), another story of a young girl forced to empower herself to survive a treacherous adventure. Magical powers, worlds within our world and characters who look more frightening than they turn out to be are among the hallmarks of Miyazaki’s films.

His new film follows the very normal life of Sosuke, the young son of a feisty nursing home worker and a hard-working sailor, who befriends an odd-looking fish he pulls out of the sea. The creature, which he names Ponyo, is actually one of a school of big-eyed fish, the daughters of a former human who is now king of the ocean. He comes looking for his lost child but the little one is determined to stay with Sosuke and, like “Pinocchio,” become a real human.

It was a relief to see a sweet, old-fashioned animated tale, minus all those clever asides and comedy club-style voiceovers. The most distinctive voices in the England-language version of “Ponyo” are Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cloris Leachman as residents of the nursing home.

Ang Lee’s latest picture explores the coming of age of the gay son of a Jewish couple who run a dumpy hotel in upstate New York. Elliot, a nerdy interior designer and wannabe painter is helping out his parents for the summer as they face foreclosure. Then he reads about a concert promoter desperately looking for a site for a rock ‘n’ roll festival. Elliot meets with Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the main force behind the concert that became known as “Woodstock” and his life changes forever.

This episodical, scattershot movie, based on the real-life Elliot’s book, attempts to humanize the famous event by focusing on Elliot, the organizers of the festival who make his parent’s’ El Monaco motel their headquarters and the oddball characters of White Lake, N.Y. It works for awhile but once the concert begins, this approach runs out of steam---as an audience you feel cheated that after all the build up you don’t get to experience the show.

Demetri Martin, a standup and comedy writer, isn’t much of an actor but he brings a clumsy, wide-eyed innocence to the role and turns out to be about the only believable character in the movie. Otherwise, Lee and longtime screenwriter James Schamus populate “Taking Woodstock” with stock characters, including a wacked-out Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch), hippie-hating locals and overbearing, clueless parents. (Elloit’s mother, played by British actress Imelda Staunton, is downright evil in her attempt to control the life of her son and husband.) The film also milks some easy laughs out of a cross-dressing ex-Marine (Liv Schreiber) who takes charge of security.

The film’s best moments come when Elliot attempts to get to the show, just over the hill at the dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur (amusingly played by Eugene Levy). He drops acid with a laid-back couple from the West Coast, slides in the mud with the Vietnam vet and gives us a ground level view of the mass of youth people streaming into the festival. In the background, Richard Havens, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin and others can be heard, but neither Elliot nor filmgoers ever see the show.

It’s a disappointingly slight film from one of the smartest and most successful directors in Hollywood. If you long to recall the festival during its 40th anniversary year, catch the new documentary directed by two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA,” “American Dream”) in which she interviews those who were there----on stage, in the audience and behind the scenes. “Woodstock: Then and Now,” which aired recently on PBS, offers an interesting retrospective on this landmark event and comes much closer to the heart of the matter than Ang Lee’s film ever does.

I’ve extolled the underrated directing skills of Anthony Mann many times in this space, but with each film of his I see I’m impressed all over again. Here he takes what could have been a forgettable B-western and turns it into a tough-minded, clear-eyed study of how pettiness and racism shaped the way the West was “won.”

The well-worn scenario (by Philip Yordan and Russell S. Hughes from Richard Emery Roberts’ novel) focuses on a vigilant, self-righteous colonel (Robert Preston) determined to annihilate the Indians remaining in the Oregon territory, ignoring the more measured approached urged by Jed (Victor Mature at his scene-chewing best), an experienced, savvy but ill-mannered and undisciplined scout.

As they clash over the colonel’s plans to send all the fort’s troops out to confront the Indian nation on the frontier, Jed is putting the moves on the commander’s discontented wife (a startling young and blonde Anne Bancroft). Also in the fine supporting cast is Guy Madison as the young sergeant who is amused by Jed and supports him against the egomaniacal colonel, and James Whitmore as Jed’s loyal sidekick.

Not only is the pictured filled with fascinating characters with all sorts of psychological problems, but Mann and his cinematographer, William Mellor, capture the unspoiled beauty of the heavily wooded terrain and find ways to keep things visual interesting inside the confines of the fort, all in gorgeous CinemaScope. When Jed and the colonel’s right-hand man engaged in an epic fistfight, Mann shoots most of it from the ceiling of the room (a trick I don’t think I’ve ever seen) and then from the rooftops once the brawl continues outdoors.

“The Last Frontier” is a smart, entertaining little Western, in a large part because a master filmmaker was at the helm.

This low-key character study is exactly the kind of anti-Hollywood movie I should love. The introspective, rather depressing story finds a young woman (Michelle Williams) and her dog midway through their road trip to Alaska, a journey interrupted when her car breaks down in a small, bleak Oregon town. Then, while Wendy deals with a shoplifting charge, Lucy the dog runs off.

That’s about as complicated as this film gets. Not much else happens beyond Wendy’s repeated calls to the pound and her discussions with a kind, elderly Walgreen’s security guard.

With the pacing of a slow-melting glacier, the movie digs into Wendy’s state of mind as she faces one crisis after another (turns out her car is busted beyond repair) as she attempts to restart her life. Willliams, best know as the frustrated wife of Heath Ledger’s character in “Brokeback Mountain,” does her best to wring the most out of this rather flat character, but director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond (they teamed for another recent indie favorite “Old Joy”) has given her little to work with.

Too often, indie filmmaking style consists of interminable shots of inanimate objects or characters walking in the distance and an adherence to the mundane rituals of life. At some points, “Wendy and Lucy” plays like a parody of this type of movie, insisting on rejecting all conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But, on the other hand, there’s not a single special effect, car chase or character with super powers, so why am I complaining.

Someone once said, I’m sure, that casting is 90 percent of making a good movie. It’s certainly true in this cockeyed comedy telling of the true story of an Archer Daniels Midland executive turned FBI informant. While Matt Damon has the Midwest chirpy niceness down pat as his Mark Whitacre attempts to be the best spy the bureau has ever recruited, he plays the deadpan reading of the role way too close to the vest. It’s all played as farce as the seemingly naïve, goodhearted Whitacre turns out to be a pathological liar. But as his story slowly deconstructs to the frustration of two trusting FBI agents, the film never builds up enough energy to be much more than mildly amusing.

Director Steven Soderbergh clearly wanted the corn-fed, boyish looks that Damon brings to the role, but other Soderbergh regulars Brad Pitt or George Clooney (or maybe Sam Rockwell) would have been better fits for the film. It desperately needs their quirkiness to hot wire the straightforward script and offer some contrast to the equally flat performance by Scott Bakula (star of the early ‘90s TV series, “Quantum Leap”) as Whitacre’s FBI handler. I could see Robert De Niro or Alec Baldwin bringing this character to life and offering a real comic jolt to the film.

Somewhere there’s a funny movie in this true story of an unlikely whistle blower and equally unlikely blue-collar thief who ends up making both his bosses at the powerful conglomerate and the FBI looking like fools.

Beyond the casting, Soderbergh worst decision was utilizing a voice-over throughout the film in which the audience is subjected to Whitacre’s inane observations and mundane thoughts. At first it’s slightly amusing to hear how dorky this successful businessman is, but it quickly becomes diverting and unnecessarily cruel.

For Soderbergh, this is the sixth film he’s directed in less than three years (including the two-part, four-hour plus “Che”) but nothing in that period approaches the quality of work he did at the turn of the century. No filmmaker in recent years has matched his three-year output of “Out of Sight” (1998), “Limey” (1999), “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and “Traffic” (2000). But even if he’s making misfires such as “Informant!” I prefer a director who keeps cranking them out, much like Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, to the “artistes” who take years between projects. A failure by a first-rate director is much preferred to silence.