Tuesday, November 3, 2009

October 2009

Among the accomplishments of my year of unemployment was watching all 17 episodes of the cult television show “The Prisoner.” First aired on CBS during the summer of 1968, this one-of-a-kind hour-long series remains an intellectually challenging, dramatically daring examination of ominous government control and the loss of individualism in modern society.

In part because of its setting in the hermetically sealed world of “The Village,” but also because of its timeless themes, the series rarely (most notably the hair and dress of the women) shows its 40 plus age. It would clearly be the most inventive and best written show on contemporary TV. AMC is counting on that as it plans to unveil a remake of the series starting Nov. 15, starring Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.” I’m not sure how much updating the new series will do, but they are using at least some of the episode titles from the original.

For the uninitiated, Irish actor Patrick McGoohan, fresh from the spy series “Danger Man” (also known as “Secret Agent”), plays an unnamed British intelligence agent who, in the open credits, resigns the service and goes home to pack for an unknown destination. Before he can finish, he’s gassed and awakes in a quaint, resort-like community known as “The Village” and he’s now referred to as Number 6.

Filled with mostly older residents who go about their quiet, somnolent life as if they’re brainwash victims, the Village is ruled by a revolving series of Number 2s and a group of technocrats who operate a sophisticated surveillance system, control balloon-like trackers called rovers and subject residents to an array of futuristic psychological and hallucinogenic treatments. Number 6 quickly becomes Number 2’s main headache as he and others attempt to pry out of him the reason for his resignation. The assumption seems to be that they expected Number 6 to sell his secrets to the enemy.

So it goes for 17 bizarre, only superficially connected episodes as Number 6 ends up winning the psychological warfare even as he fails in his constant attempts to escape or, at least, confront the never seen Number 1. There are moments of humor and fun, most notably when Number 6 engages another villager in “Kosho,” a sporting contest played out on trampolines with contestants wearing dark orange jumpsuits and black helmets. It’s a bit like a pre-historic version of “American Gladiator.”

One of the “Prisoner’s” most intriguing shows, “Many Happy Returns,” has Number 6 waking up to a seemingly deserted Village and escaping by sea, eventually making his way back to London and contacting his former bosses. They seem to buy his story and set out to locate the Village. Unfortunately for Number 6, they succeed in finding it.

In another memorable episode, “Living in Harmony,” Number 6 finds himself in an American western town, circa 1880s, where he butts heads with everyone because he refuses to carry a weapon. It’s the one episode of the series banned by American censors during its original run.

Every episode manages to convey a sociological message as it comes up with a more difficult hurdle for Number 6 to overcome. Yet even the most bizarre episodes can’t compare with the final two shows. Not until “Twin Peaks” did anything come close to the feverish theater of the absurd atmosphere of “Once Upon a Time” and “Fall Out.”

Veteran British character actor Leo McKern plays Number 2 in these episodes (he had also played the role in the second episode), engaging Number 6 in a marathon, psychological fight-to-the-death therapy session in a room filled with over-sized children’s toys. Written and directed by McGoohan, as is the final, the episode is filled with overwrought emotions and clever wordplay as No. 2 digs into his rivals deepest memories. “Once Upon a Time” unfolds like a Pinteresque puzzle, reaching out into the darkness to understand the basic instincts of man.

“Fall Out” ends the series with a carnival-like courtroom scene in which Number 6 finally gets his day of judgment as the Village rulers preparing for Armageddon. Not to be too subtle, the soundtrack blares out the Beatles anthem, “All You Need Is Love.” A monk-like, mask-wearing jury decides to free Number 6 as “The Kid” (a manic Alexis Kanner) from the “Living in Harmony” episode returns to sing the spiritual “Dem Bones” over and over and over again. Don’t ask.

Number 6 and Number 2, along with his ever-present butler (Angelo Muscat), manage to simply drive out of the Village and into downtown London. They’re free, or so it seems.

McGoohan, along with producer David Tomblin and script supervisor George Markstein, created a remarkable, 17-part piece of experimental theater, as avant-garde as anything television has ever attempted, before or since.

AN EDUCATION (2009) and WHIP IT (2009)
The settings of these two films are basically opposites: the prep school world of early ‘60s England in “An Education” and the rowdy, sweaty Roller Derby arenas of Austin, Texas in “Whip It.” But they tell the same story. Both portray a teenage girl on the verge of adulthood who decides to take a different path than what has been planned for her. And the strength of both movies comes from insightful, luminous performances by young actresses who perfectly capture their times and the boundaries society has drawn for them.

Carey Mulligan’s Jenny is the brighter of the two, bound for Oxford and a first-class education when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard) a smooth, well-spoken, art-loving sophisticate who fancies much younger girls and knows all the tricks to seduce both them and their parents.

Jenny’s “education” happens in a few exciting, whirlwind months when David, along with his dilettante friends bring her into their world. In addition to an appreciation of art and music and glamorous nightlife, Peter and his friends are amateur cons who target the elderly to score easy paydays.

What elevates this story (based on the memoirs of writer Lynn Barber) beyond the usual coming of age tale comes from a smart, morally ambivalent script from novelist Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”), who leaves all the usually clichés at the door. A mixture of humor and tragedy, the film isn’t afraid to say that Jenny really is getting a valuable education from David, despite the inevitable heartbreak. This is a 16-year-old who understands life better than many of the adults around her. And even though David turns out to be a despicable cad, as portrayed by the charismatic Sarsgaard, he’s hard not to like.

Danish director Lone Scherfig, making her English-language debut, guides Mulligan (she’s actually 25, but still looks like a teen) to a star-making performance. The actress has mostly worked in British TV, but did have a role in this summer’s “Public Enemies” and will play Michael Douglas’ daughter in the sequel to “Wall Street.” In addition to first-rate work by Mulligan and Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina shines as her naïve father. Molina has turned into one of the top character actors in the business, having recently given impressive performances in “Frida” (2002), “The Da Vinci Code” (2006) and “The Hoax” (2006).

Maybe the most poignant scenes in the movie come when Jenny, having committed to a life with David, questions her teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmaster (Emma Thompson) about the few options available to a woman, even with an Oxford education. This is a story about questioning accepted truths and morals and how sometimes teens deserve to be heard.

“Whip It,” Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, produces some emotional heat when it deals with the incompatible goals of a mother and daughter and how they both find ways to compromise. But Barrymore and writer Shauna Cross (from her novel) rely too much on repetitive, cliché Roller Derby action and easy sports symbolism----it’s colorful but not very enlightening beyond creating some simplistic dramatics.

Ellen Page, nominated for best actress for “Juno” (2006), portrays Bliss, a small-town teen seeking her identity, when, almost by chance, she joins a Roller Derby squad, keeping it secret from her parents. Without the over-wrought cleverness and crutch of pregnancy that marked Page’s work in “Juno,” her performance here shows she’s a skillful actor who can create a complex, emotionally truthful character. While she learns toughness and self-esteem from the eclectic group of toughs on the Roller Derby team, not much happens of interest after she settles in. Comic relief is provided by Barrymore, who plays the dumbest member of the squad, and Juliette Lewis, as the aging diva of the sport who sees Page as a rival to her crown. Both over-act in their roles, pointlessly drawing screen time away from Page’s Bliss and her development.

Director Barrymore does her best work in the scenes between Bliss and her mother, superbly played by Marcia Gay Harden, who has pushed her daughter into beauty pageant shows. The frustrations of both mother and daughter come out in their uncomfortably real arguments. It’s clearly an area Barrymore knows well from her own experience as a deeply troubled youth.

While “Whip It” doesn’t have the pedigree or depth of “An Education,” this entertaining picture explores the same crucial teen theme: the difficulty in finding the right path of life and convincing others to support the decision to take that often unpaved road.

This film demonstrates how difficult it was to depict violence before the movie rating system was in place. To truthfully show the frightening atmosphere that was inflicted by a crime syndicate on this small Alabama town, producers of the picture had to include a 13-minute news report, with interviews of a local newspaper reporter and residents of Phenix City, as a prologue to the feature.

The artless, rather uninformative news report does little more than what a “based on a true story” title would have done, but it satisfied the era’s censors. That allowed the movie that follows to tell the incredible “Phenix City Story” by graphically dramatizing the horrific, ruthless actions of the crime bosses who controlled the town’s gambling and prostitution.

The movie dates itself with its high-toned moralizing on the evils of sins, but the core of the story, written by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur, focuses on intimidation and gang rule.

John Patterson (Richard Kiley), just out of the military and the son of the town’s most respected lawyer (John McIntire) gets drawn into the citizens’ fight against the corruption in red-light district, which has prospered serving the solider from the nearby military base. McIntire, a solid character actor in film noir and Westerns throughout the 1950s who became a familiar face on episodical TV from the ‘60s through the 1980s, has one of his juiciest roles as this outspoken, serious-minded lawyer.

His son’s determination to fight back takes on a new level of vigilance when the mob murders a young black girl, the daughter of a friend of his, and then tosses her body on his yard as a warning.

With the corrupt local police offering no help, the only hope they have relies on getting a sympathetic ear in the state capitol. Reluctantly, John’s father runs for attorney general.

Phil Karlson, best known for his B-level noirs such as “Kansas City Confidential” (1952) and his late career cult hit, “Walking Tall” (1973), captures the pure terror of the situation and how law-abiding citizens are pushed to the edge of vigilantism. Shot by B-movie veteran Harry Neumann, the drama rarely moves out of the shadows; even the interiors are underlit to emphasize the dark evil that has enveloped the city. While individual scenes are more memorable than the film as a whole, “The Phenix City Story” paints a disturbing picture of a community under siege.

I know very little about soccer and have even less interest, yet this story about a rivalry between two managers of English soccer teams in the 1970s held me riveted from start to finish.

Peter Morgan, the screenwriter responsible for “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” turns another real person, Brian Clough, into an egocentric, larger-than-life movie character who never fails to entertain. Working from a book by David Peace, Morgan fashions an intriguing study---again using TV appearances as key moments----of how hubris can destroy even the most talented.

Michael Sheen, who had key roles in Morgan’s other works (Tony Blair in “The Queen”; David Frost in “Frost/Nixon”) brings an irrepressible energy to Clough, who becomes a coaching legend when he turns second division Derby County into national champions. But his obsession with Leeds United team (the New York Yankees of English football) and their tough, old-fashioned manager (the always convincing Colm Meany, wearing a simply awful toupee) leads to his alienating Derby’s exasperated owner (Jim Broadbent) and his loyal assistant coach, Peter Taylor. Timothy Spall, the plump, rubber-faced character actor, who has enlivened numerous Mike Leigh dramas, gives the performance of his career as Taylor, a simple, sincere sport who is loyal to a fault to the younger, ambitious Clough.

Tom Hooper, who directed the multi-Emmy winning HBO series, “John Adams,” smartly doesn’t let the film get bogged down in on-the-field scenes. Maybe the most dramatic moment and most visually arresting scene of the film comes when Clough refused to watch an important contest and awaits the results in his office. Because the office is built under the stands, he can watch the ebb and flow of the game, seeing the shadows of the crowd rise from their seats when the home team does well. It’s subtle, smart filmmaking steeped in classic cinematic storytelling.

Great writing, great acting, an authentic setting---the rainy, muddy English countryside becomes another character----and a pitch-perfect recreation of the era make “The Damned United” one of the year’s most thoughtful and enjoyable pictures.


Read enough film critics and you’d think every movie released in the 1970s was either a ground-breaking masterpiece or an underappreciated gem falling just shy of greatness. I’m just a culpable; but let’s face it, compared to the past 20 years of movies, the 1970s are easy to aggrandize. But these two high-profile pictures, both statements, of a sort, in the emerging feminist movement, haven’t aged well, In fact, I can’t imagine why anyone ever though much of these movies.

“The Owl and the Pussycat,” adapted by the usually reliable Buck Henry from the stage hit by Bill Manhoff and directed by Herb Ross, is offensively stupid and unrelentingly loud. If the rest of the country had a negative image of New Yorkers at the time, this just played right into those prejudices. Barbra Streisand’s Doris, a part-time model and wannabe actress, and George Segal’s Felix, a boorish, struggling writer, scream at each other for 95 minutes in a pointless and shrill battling of wits.

They’re thrown together after Felix spies Doris---she lives in the same building across the courtyard----having sex and then accepting money, which he reports to the building’s super. She’s immediately evicted (without, no one ever mentions, any real evidence) and shows up at Felix’s door demanding a place to stay. But first she starts calling him a “queer” and berates him, as if she’s in junior high, for not “liking” girls. I’m not sure how the writer made the leap from a man spying on a woman having sex to the assumption that he’s gay, but it’s a running theme----later she’s shocked that Felix’s friend has a girlfriend (fleetingly, porn star Marilyn Chambers!) I guess gays weren’t expected to have straight friends in 1970.

The unlikely couple experience a hellish night together as they attempt to find a place to sleep---but it’s not near as bad as the suffering viewers endure watching this shouting match. Yet it was a huge hit, no doubt in large part because of Streisand’s popularity.

“The Stepford Wives” became one of those films that everyone knew about even if they never saw it. It became a punch line for comedians and a talking point in any discussion about suburban living. Certainly its central idea is fascinating---that a group of men would want to replace their wives with lookalike robots----but the film takes way too long to get to its point and spends too little time on the motivations of the husbands. The ugly reality that these men are murdering their wives is never thoroughly addressed.

Katherine Ross, stars as Joanna, whose husband (Peter Masterson) insists on relocating the family in the suburban community of Stepford, Conn. Immediately she notices that the other wives only talk about cooking, cleaning and pleasing their husbands---and they dress as if they’re going to a church social circa 1956.

Ross finds an ally when the feisty Paula Prentiss moves into the community and they pair up to get to the bottom of the weirdness. Their sarcastic chit-chat is the only saving grace in this misguided assault on couples who gave up on city life in the 1960s and ‘70s. Otherwise, the women keep discovering more evidence that something’s not right in their community instead of just getting the hell out of there. Yet, to me it was the husband’s story I wanted to know more about. How did that conversation go when they were first told their wives were going to be disposed of and an obedient, subservient duplicate (with, in most cases, enhanced breasts) would become their new partner.

Bryan Forbes, the skillful British filmmaker who directed “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964) and “The Whisperers” (1967) and screenwriting legend William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” among many others) clearly struggle to extend the underdeveloped idea from Ira Levin’s novel into a full-length movie. The revamped version with Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler, released in 2004, was just as dumb but at least had a brisk, humorous pace.

The 1970s were a fertile time for the cinema, but the era wasn’t short of turkeys, including the musical version of “Lost Horizon,” the “Death Wish” series and all the “Planet of the Apes” sequels. These two don’t reach those depths, but are very disappointing attempts to address the feminist movement, dulled further by the passage of time.

There’s a deep, underlying sadness that can be seen on the faces of nearly every character in this unassuming film; people struggling in low paying jobs, complicated relationships and paying heavily for foolish decisions. Christine Jeffs, who directed the underrated “Sylvia” (2003), the story of one of the 20th Century’s most famous depressed women, poet Sylvia Plath, again paints a dark picture of disappointment, this time disguised as an amusing slice of life. First-time screenwriter Megan Holley finds just the right balance of lightweight humor and unflinching character study.

At the center of the picture is yet another poignant, thoughtful performance by Amy Adams, this time playing a former prom queen who, as she approaches thirty, finds herself a struggling, dissatisfied single mother working as a house cleaner. Her Rose Lorkowski has also appointed herself guardian of her hopelessly confused and anti-social younger sister (Emily Blunt) and her feisty but unreliable father (Alan Arkin), both, as she is, forever damaged by the long-ago suicide of the girls’ mother. On top of all that, her son gets tossed out of grade school for his disruptive antics.

Rose finds a semblance of salvation when she follows a suggestion by her police detective lover (Steve Zahn)---her ex-boyfriend from high school now married---to start a crime scene cleanup business. Sequences of Rose and her sister cleaning up after suicides, murders and the death of elderly are played for comedy and pathos, but as with everything in her life, it seems bound to go wrong at some point.

Adams manages to create a character who remains hopeful in the face of one disappointment after another but never seems like a fool. She’s exactly like dozens of classmates you knew from high school who seemed destined for picture perfect lives but got stuck in that hometown rut that’s often hard to escape.

Beside Adams, the outstanding performance of the film is given by Clifton Collins Jr., playing the one-armed owner of a cleaning products store, who helps Rose out as she starts her business and ends up becoming something of a father figure for her young son. If you saw “Capote” (2004), you’ll remember Collins, who gave a heartbreaking, Oscar-worthy performance as Perry Smith, the jailed killer who becomes Truman Capote’s special project. He’s nearly as good as Winston in “Sunshine Cleaning.” Between these two first-rate roles he’s mostly worked in television, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t become a regular player in major films in the next couple of years.

The great movie stars of the 1930s and ‘40s who survived to work in the 1960s found good roles few and far between. The studios had shifted their focus to a youth market that had little interest in seeing movies starring 60 year olds, which explains the sad sight of the great Barbara Stanwyck in this brainless, forgettable Elvis Presley vehicle.

Stanwyck, her hair white though she was just 57, acquits herself well as the no-nonsense tough-talking owner of a traveling carnival who takes Elvis’ Charlie Rogers under her wing. The role is similar to her starring performance in the memorable TV series “The Big Valley,” which ran from 1965 to 1969. But in this picture, nothing she does can improve Presley’s acting skills or save the nonsensical script.

Charlie, an up-and-coming guitar-playing singer (a real stretch for the King), ends up jailed---and fired from his roadhouse gig---for defending himself against three smart-ass college dudes. It’s just the beginning of plot points that make no sense.

As a roustabout for Stanwyck’s carnival, he makes inane jokes about the performers and carny life, delivered with the stiffness of a non-actor. After 16 films in 9 years, he’s no better an actor than he was in his debut, “Love Me Tender.” In fact, I think Elvis became a worse actor as his career went on, no doubt in large part because he simply lost interest. Not even the songs in “Roustabout” are very good and Elvis’s singing performances are mostly lackluster.

Other than Stanwyck, the highlight of the watching the movie was spotting 17-year-old Teri Garr as a scantly clad carny dancer, in her fourth (!) Elvis flick. Leonard Maltin points out in his summary of the movie in his “TV Movie” annual that Rachel Welsh also has a bit role, but I didn’t notice her. I was probably too focused on the jaw-dropping dramatic acting of Elvis. Fifteen films and five years later, this unfortunate interruption of his ground-breaking, unparalleled singing career came to a thankful end.