Wednesday, December 16, 2009

November 2009

The original “Bad Lieutenant,” as unrelenting and unsettling a film as you’re likely to survive, earning an NC-17 rating and featuring a wild-eyed performance by Harvey Keitel that falls somewhere between early Scorsese and soft porn, unearthed the sleazy, corrupt underbelly of an out-of-control New York City cop.

The sequel/remake, repudiated in no uncertain terms by Abel Ferrara, the director of the 1992 version, smoothes out the veneer and offers more of a plot, but ends up being a bit too ordinary for its own good. That’s not what I would have expected from Werner Herzog, the obsessive, usually daring German director whose return to fiction filmmaking produced one of the most compelling films of 2007, “Rescue Dawn.” With his new film, he and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein (longtime TV writer/producer who’s worked on “L.A. Law” and “Law and Order”) create a showcase for another weirdly off-kilter and frustratingly inconsistent performance by Nicolas Cage. As Det. Terence McDonagh, who moves from vicodin to cocaine following a back injury rescuing a prisoner in a flooded jail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Cage believably captures a man who becomes a slave to his addiction.

Before you realize how bad off this guy is, he’s shaking down young couples for drugs and sex, stealing from the police evidence room and making deals with the city’s top drug dealer as a way to pay off a mobster he’s offended. But it’s not like he was squeaky clean before he turned into a coke head: his girlfriend is a high-class call girl (a sexy, but miscast Eva Mendes) and he gives most of his paycheck to his bookie (an unrecognizable Brad Dourif).

McDonagh is so messed up in so many ways and has his hands in so many illegal and unethical activities that it’s hard to get a handle on him or Cage’s performance. It’s bad lieutenant overload, yet Herzog keeps letting him off the hook, finding slices of light for McDonagh as he barrels down a dark tunnel. The director also allows Cage to reinvent his performance in nearly every scene—even his accent shifts in tone through the film. Maybe Herzog and Cage felt that approach worked because of the detective’s drug use, but it didn’t work for me.

The film is not without its frenzied moments as one would expect from such a lethal combination of director and actor, the best of which is when Cage takes advantage of a pair of young partiers. And Herzog offers up his own craziness (this is the man who made “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo”) by featuring some very expressive iguanas and a cartoonish alligator scene. But there’s just not enough New Orleans atmosphere and way too many secondary plots to call this film a success.

Ferrara was so upset when he learned they were redoing this story that he reportedly wished horrible deaths for Herzog and his cast; who says there’s no passion left in American filmmaking. That’s a bit excessive, but please, don’t turn this into a franchise. What would be next? Michael Mann’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call Miami?”

and BILLY BUDD (1962)
These emotionally charged, unapologetically symbolic dramas---one rooted firmly in the land, the other on the high seas---feature larger-than-life performances by Robert Ryan, arguably the most underappreciated great actor of the American cinema.

Ryan, who would have turned 100 on Nov. 11 if cancer hadn’t ended his life in 1973 at the age of 64, never scored leading man roles in major films, but instead became a mainstay of B-level crime and melodrama pictures and by the 1950s was among the most recognizable character actors in Hollywood. The lean, 6-foot 4-inch native of Chicago had the hardened, lived-in look of a man who’d spend time on the lam (he roamed the country doing odd jobs during the early years of the Great Depression) and wasn’t afraid to use his fists (he was a boxing champ at Dartmouth). Yet he could be gentle and caring in roles, in retrospect a more believable romantic figure than some of the slick, affected actors the studios preferred.

He studied acting in Hollywood and began working on stage in 1939, eventually reaching Broadway in the 1941 production of “Clash by Night” (he also starred in the 1952 film version). Ryan had small film roles before the war, but after serving as a drill sergeant in the Marines, he had his breakthrough role in “Crossfire” (1947), playing an anti-Semitic veteran suspected in a murder. The role earned Ryan a supporting actor Oscar nomination (the only of his career) but didn’t change his status as a B-movie player.

He gave what was probably his greatest performance two years later in “The Set-Up,” a film noir masterpiece directed by Robert Wise, one of the few movies to play out in real time. As Stocker, an aging, small-town boxer who defies mobsters who want him to throw a fight, Ryan gives a gritty, heartbreaking performance. With every facial expression, Ryan reveals this man as someone who never got the break he deserved. In large part because of Ryan’s background in prizefighting, “The Set-Up” is the most realistically brutal boxing picture made before “Raging Bull.”

Other must-see Ryan performances include his arrogant mobster in “The Racket” (1951); the unhappy, loner cop in “On Dangerous Ground” (1952); a wanted man in the James Stewart-starring Western “The Naked Spur” (1953); another racist in “Bad Day in Black Rock” (1955); and the cruel, heartless crime syndicate chief in “House of Bamboo” (1955).

In “God’s Little Acre,” the sex-soaked best seller by Erskine Caldwell, Ryan plays Ty Ty, the gold-obsessed patriarch of a loud, half-crazy rural Southern family who has dug dozens of holes all over his property in search of grandpa’s hidden treasure. Despite pleas from his family to plant cotton, Ty Ty has spent the past 15 years digging for a fortune he just knows God wants him to have. He’s also the moral center of the film, as he tries in vain to bring God back into a dysfunctional family. The cast is filled with performers who were on the brink of fame, including Buddy Hackett as a candidate for sheriff who longs for Ty Ty’s sexy, uninhibited daughter, Vic Morrow and Jack Lord as Ty Ty’s sons, Tina Louise as Lord’s unhappy wife who is really in love with Aldo Ray, playing the heavy-drinking, unemployed husband of another of Ty Ty’s daughters. And Michael Landon makes a bizarre appearance as an albino Ty Ty kidnaps to help him find the gold. The novel was tailor-made for a TV soap opera, and director Anthony Mann doesn’t shy away from the melodramatic aspects of the story.

The film offers both low-brow humor and moving insight as it portrays these men who stubbornly refuse to give up their dreams, no matter how far fetched, and the women who tolerate them. And while Ryan’s performance teeters on the verge of Southern gothic overload, he reins it in just enough. Maybe Ryan’s greatest strength as an actor was knowing exactly how far he could take a highly emotional character without letting him become a cliché. As much of a buffoon Ty Ty often comes off as, he also has the depth to tell his sons, when they complain about God’s silence, “All you boys seem to think about is the things you can see and touch. That ain’t living. It’s the things you feel down inside you. That’s what living’s for.”

In “Billy Budd,” Herman Melville’s novella of a British warship in the late 18th Century, Ryan plays Claggart, a smart, conniving and masochistic seaman in charge of the ship’s discipline. He takes special interest in Billy Budd (Terence Stamp in his debut), a seaman pressed into service off a merchant ship ironically named “Rights of Man.” There are few rights on the “H.M.S. Indomitable” under command of the by-the-book Captain Vere (subtly played by Peter Ustinov, who also directed the picture) and enforced with the lash by Master at Arms Claggart.

But he goes too far when he tries to frame the always upbeat Billy and disaster follows. There’s more than a hint of sexual attraction between Claggart and Billy, but what really gets under Claggart’s skin is that Billy understands him and isn’t afraid of him.

Few actors were better at creating a truly frightening, yet very human character as Ryan and here he’s at his best, smiling as the men he dislikes are repeatedly whipped and thriving on the fear he sees in the sailor’s eyes as he walks among them.

These two films show Ryan doing what he does so well: turn emotionally intense, often irrational characters that other actors would have played as caricatures into complex, fascinating people.

Ryan was just 53 in 1962, but he found few good roles after “Billy Budd,” instead focusing on stage work, including starring opposite Katharine Hepburn in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and as James Tyrone in a 1971 revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But he had two late-career film performances that stand with the best supporting work in film history. As Deke Thornton in “The Wild Bunch” (1969), he’s the cynical, disillusioned lawman after the Bunch who once road with Pike (William Holden) and wishes he still was. And he’s there at the end to mourn their valiant, bloody end.

Then, just months before his death, he played the world-weary, broken drunk Larry Slade, one of the barflies who endure the endless rantings of Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh” (1973). Ryan stands out in the great cast assembled by director John Frankenheimer, led by Lee Marvin, Fredric March (also his last film as he died two years later) and a very young Jeff Bridges. Ryan’s Larry looks and sounds like a man near his end, done in by a life filled with disappointments and failures.

In his own life, Ryan was a dedicated liberal, involved in the Civil Rights movement, anti-nuclear protests and other issues of the day. He and his wife, children’s novelist Jessica Cadwalader, started an elementary school in North Hollywood that remains a respected private school.

While Ryan isn’t a forgotten actor, he continues to be underrated, in large part because he never had that signature role in a blockbuster film. But much like his fellow RKO contract player Robert Mitchum, Ryan was instrumental in injecting a tough, unvarnished realism to post-war American films, while bringing both brainy instincts and a sadistic obsession with violence to society’s miscreants. That’s certainly a legacy worth honoring.

It’s not a bit surprising that the U.S. military brass would green-light a program to train a special force in New Age-inspired mind-control warfare. What’s baffling is that George Clooney and his writing-producing partner Grant Haslov (making his directing debut) couldn’t turn that idea into a decent comedy.

The film’s structure doesn’t help matters. Ewan McGregor, playing an annoying, mealy mouthed journalist desperate to make his name covering the war in Iraq, hooks up with the unpredictable, amusingly cracked Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a one-time member of this psychic-enhanced unit. The tale of this farcical program, told in flashback, and its inspirational gung-ho leader Bill Django (Jeff Bridges in full “Dude” mode) might have made a hilarious 20-minute subplot in a better film---there isn’t much that’s funnier than an Army officer attempting to walk through a wall. Unfortunately, it’s stretched beyond its limits and somewhat buried under the McGregor-Clooney road-trip routine.

Bridges’ patiently outrageous character, another goofy gem in his recently unpredictable career, makes “Goats” a must-see rental for fans of this versatile actor. As the guru of the New Earth Army, Bridges gives an impressive, nuanced performance, locating the perfect balance between sincere conviction and doped-up mysticism.

As Cassady, Clooney brings his smooth, unflappable persona to the film; the character’s insistence that this psychobabble is real (he does kill a goat by staring at it or at least makes the poor animal faint) drives what plot there is, but it’s far from enough.

Peter Bogdanovich, despite directing one of the true masterpieces of the American cinema, the dark look at a dying small town and its desperate residents, “The Last Picture Show” (1971), has become better known as an occasional actor, full-time personality and chronicler of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

His continued high profile (he turns 70 this year) disguises the fact that his film career has been one of the great disappointments of the past 40 years. Instead of more great films, he helmed “At Long Last Love” (1975), “They All Laughed” (1981), “Illegally Yours” (1988) and too many TV movies, knocked off track by his obsession with two voluptuous blondes, Cybill Shepherd and Dorothy Stratten. In the sad case of Stratten, Bogdanovich went so far as to marry her younger sister after the Playboy centerfold model was murdered.

Along the way, he made the occasional interesting film, including “Paper Moon” (1973), “Saint Jack” (1979), “Mask” (1985) and “Texasville” (1990), but nothing that came close to his early masterpiece. Finally seeing “Nickelodeon,” his homage to the early days of filmmaking, I’d add it to the above list. It’s Bogdanovich’s best comedy.

Most interesting is the parallel plotting structure he and co-writer D.W. Richter use to characterize a group of movie pioneers as the pratfalls and corny plots of their lives are turned into the basis for their films.

Ryan O’Neal, the director’s actor of choice during the 1970s (“What’s Up Doc? “Paper Moon”) plays a lawyer who hooks up with H.H. Cobb, an egotistical loudmouth who runs an independent production company. Cobb, hilariously played by Brian Keith, recruits (bullies) O’Neal’s Leo for his roguish troupe, first as a scenario writer and later as a director.

Burt Reynolds, at his impulsively nutty best---even his clothes are comical---ends up hiring on as an enforcer for a coalition of major filmmakers, paid to sabotage the production of minor players like Cobb.

First these two goofballs end up with each others suitcases when they both attempt to woo a wannabe actress----magazine cover model Jane Hitchcock makes her debut in a role written for Shepherd (coming off two box office bombs, she was rejected by the studio)---then they become filmmaking partners. With Reynolds and Hitchcock as the romantic stars and O’Neal the director, they make a series of action silents in the California desert years that become box office sensations.

What Bogdanovich does best here is capture the seat of your pants philosophy of these early filmmakers and how inventive people took a blank canvas and created the template for the next 100 years of moviemaking.

As a director, Bogdanovich never stopped trying to recapture the style and spirit of those early filmmakers he so admired---DeMille, Walsh, Dwan, Hawks, Ford and Hitchcock, all of whom started in the silent era. It was his strength as a director, but also his limitation. He was never going to be the innovator his fellow Roger Corman grads Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese were. Doing it the old fashioned way only worked to a point, but for “Last Picture Show,” “Nickelodeon,” “Paper Moon” and a few others, Bogdanovich’s traditional style perfectly matched the material.

RED CLIFF (2009)
John Woo, after establishing himself as one of the most accomplished directors of action films in his native Hong Kong, the filmmaker relocated to Hollywood, where he made tons of money and second-rate movies.

“Face/Off” (1997) and “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000) represent the height of Hollywood junk food----brainless, pretentious, characterless action. No matter what the results, his return to the Chinese cinema would be welcomed, but with “Red Cliff” he has made a stirring historical epic that succeeds as an exciting battlefield adventure and a smart, insightful study of men struggling for power. It’s also the most expensive and, already, the most popular film in Chinese history.

The battle of the Three Kingdoms, a 3rd Century event that changed the face of China, comes alive in Woo’s film (released in China as a two-film, five-hour event) as he combines computer graphics, thousands of extras, hundreds of horses and first-rate portrayals of the legendary figures involved.

It all starts with Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), an egotistical warmonger in the ruling Han Dynasty, who bullies the weak emperor into agreeing to attack two rebel warlords, the aging Liu Bei (You Yong) and a younger insurgent Sun Quan (Chang Chen). But the more interesting characters are Liu Bei’s soft spoken, but brilliant military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Sun Quan’s intellectual, music-loving general Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, who gives the film’s most memorable performance). Leung, one of the most accomplished Asian actors who’s best known in the West for Woo’s “hard Boiled” (1992) and “In the Mood for Love” (2000), turns Zhou Yu into a compelling hero who personalizes the colorful, wide-screen warfare.

What makes this better than an imitation of the jaw-dropping Kurosawa war epics is the care Woo and his writers take to turn these dusty names from history books into very real, fascinating characters, integrating their personal stories with the impressively stages arrow battles. Most memorable are the battles on the Yangtze River in which Zhuge’s military genius, along with his meteorology skills, wins the day.

As in all Chinese period pieces, the ravishing palaces, brightly-colored outfits and, best of all, the fantastic array of hat wear add to the pageantry. Woo’s film is jam-packed with everything you’d want from this kind of old-fashioned historical adventure.

The consistently unpredictable Coen brothers, coming off their 2007 Oscar-winning picture “No Country for Old Men” and a way too hip 2008 black comedy “Burn After Reading,” have written and directed a Woody Allen movie. This dry, unassuming comedy, filled with hilarious one-liners and wonderfully wacky characters and set among the Jewish community of Minneapolis of the 1960s, brings back memories of the comic master’s best work of the 1970s and ‘80s.

The Coens’ protagonist, the nerdy, nervous, overwhelmed Larry Gopnik could easily be the younger brother or second cousin of Alvy Singer from “Annie Hall,” Miles Monroe from “Sleeper” or even Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, as he bungles one crisis after another. Even his name seems like an invention of Allen.

It begins for Gopnik, perfectly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, when his wife casually informs him that she’s retained a divorce attorney and has fallen for the recently widowed Sy Ableman (an imposing, intense Fred Melamed). His two children also have complaints: His son, days away from his bar mitzvah, wants the TV antenna adjusted so he can watch “F-Troop,” while his daughter wants Uncle Arthur (the marvelous Richard Kind), constantly lancing his neck cyst, out of the bathroom so she can wash her hair.

On top of that, the committee considering his teaching tenure---he’s a physics professor--- has been receiving anonymous hate mail about him. And one of his students has offered him a bribe to improve his grade. Also his gentile neighbor keeps encroaching on his property line----Gopnik, understandably, feels like the weigh of the world is crashing down on him.

Behind his thick glasses, the constantly squinting Stuhlbarg turns Gopnik into a classic wimp, a passive, nearly invisible man who gets pushed around by everyone around him.

But the most memorable performance comes from George Wyner, best known for playing an assistant DA on “Hill Street Blues,” as a rabbi counseling Gopnik relating an uproarious tale of a dentist who discovered a message written in Hebrew on a gentile patient’s teeth. It’s a beautifully written and performed set piece, emblematic of the film’s adept mixture of sarcasm about and insight into the Jewish character, utilizing the same kind of cultural stereotypes the filmmakers worked with in “Fargo.”

Nearly every member of the cast has a memorable moment of two, including Sari Lennick as his uncomfortably blunt wife, Adam Arkin as a continually stunned divorce lawyer, Kind as Gopnik’s loyal but burdensome brother, and Melamed as the insufferably understanding Sy.

Joel and Ethan Coen won’t be winning Oscars or might not even score a writing nomination for “A Serious Man,” but it’s one of their best pictures, the funniest and smartest they’ve made since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000).

OUT OF TIME (2003)
After winning the 2001 best actor Oscar for his full-throttle performance as a corrupt cop in “Training Day,” Denzel Washington has had a disappointing decade. The actor never gives a bad performance, but, as of late, he’s picking heavily plotted movies rather than the character-oriented pictures he excelled in during the 1990s.

Instead of “Malcolm X” (1992), “Philadelphia” (1993), “Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), “He Got Game” (1998) and “Hurricane” (1999), Washington chose action-driven films such as “Man on Fire” (2004), “Inside Man” (2006), Déjà vu (2006), “The Taking of Pelham 123” (2009) and “Out of Time,” the kind of movies that don’t lend themselves to complex performances. In Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” the actor turned what could have been a cardboard character into an interesting and entertaining role, but it’s still a long ways from the depth he brought to his ‘90s films.

His best chance for great performances this decade were in Jonathan Demme’s disappointing remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004) as a war veteran who uncovers a political conspiracy, and in Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” (2007) as a smart, quick-tempered New York City drug king. Whether it’s the fault of the directors, writers or Washington himself, neither role turned out to be memorable; other than a few emotionally charged scenes, the films offer little chance for the actor to stretch beyond his comfort level. Probably his best performance this decade was in a supporting role as a military psychologist in “Antwone Fisher” (2000), his debut as a director.

He plays an idiot in “Out of Time.” As the sheriff of a small Florida town, he finds himself in the middle of a murder-fraud scam, attempting to get to the bottom of the crime while misleading the county murder detectives (led, if you can believe this, by his ex-wife). He commits about a dozen crimes and breaks another dozen ethical standards en route to the heroic finale. And he gets away with it.

“Out of Time” is a surprisingly dumb picture from filmmaker Carl Franklin, who has done excellent work in the past, including “Devil in a Blue Dress” starring Washington as private detective Easy Rawlins and “One False Move” (1992), the fast-paced crime picture co-written by Billy Bob Thornton.

At 55, Washington remains a viable box office attraction and one of Hollywood’s most talented actors. Yet he’s so much more than an action star and needs to take advantage of his star-power while it lasts and find some dramatic powerhouses he can sink his teeth into. He’s too great a talent to be standing around while cars blow up.