Saturday, December 11, 2010

November 2010

HOWARDS END (1992)I’m convinced that the most popular gripe about movies isn’t that they stink; it’s that they aren’t as good as the book.
The impression comes from the fact that people are more discerning readers than they are moviegoers---paying for plenty of crappy movies but only taking the time to read books written by the best or most popular authors. Probably 80 percent of American films are based (many very loosely) on a book, yet out of those, most moviegoers have read maybe 10 percent of those books.

My point, if there is one, is that many movies are better or at least more entertaining than the book they’re based on, or at least do a good job of conveying the themes of the written word. Just like in the multiplexes, bookstores are filled with dumb, badly written books, sitting next to masterpieces.

Clearly, the more profound and complex the novel, the more difficult it becomes to whittle down its meaning to a two to three hour film. To me, the perfect examples of the screen version improving upon the novel are “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), the John Ford-directed adaptation of John Steinbeck’s book in which the visuals and powerful acting tell more than the author’s words and “The Godfather” (1972), for which author Mario Puzo and the film’s director Francis Coppola created a screenplay far superior to what’s on the page.

The film version of “Howards End,” written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for director James Ivory, shows that a novel filled with philosophy, social issues and hard to explain characters can successfully be brought to the screen. I recently watched the film for the first time since I saw it during its initial run in 1992. At the time, I ranked it as the year’s eighth best film. Now, having read E.M. Forster’s novel in the interim, I’m doubly impressed. It’s one of the great novels of the 20th Century, so I could hardly say the movie surpassed the book, but it certainly does it justice.

Ivory and Jhabvala follow Forster’s multilayered plot about the Schlegel sisters and how their lives become entangled with the more reserved and richer Wilcox family, owners of the picturesque home of the title. Along the way, the subtle, beautifully crafted screenplay touches on the social issues so crucial to the importance of the book---the growing feminist movement; the changing nature of the roles of men and women; the value of an inner life; the plight of the poor; changing class distinctions; and the crumbling of the pillars of 19th Century England.
It’s a credit to the filmmakers that this period piece never feels like a visit to an ancient world. The novel was contemporary, written in 1910 and set in the same era, and the movie reflects the immediacy of the social issues and the way they inform the characters and their actions.
The nearly perfect performances by the entire cast accounts for much of the reason this thoughtful novel translates so well to the screen. First and foremost is Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Wilcox, who loves Howards End beyond anything else in her life and attempts to convey her feelings along to her new friend, Margaret Schlegel. While Mrs. Wilcox dies early in the film, her spirit---in the form of Redgrave’s piercing, sad eyes and low whisper of a voice, creating a nearly ethereal presence---remains essential to the story and other characters.

Emma Thompson’s Margaret, in many ways, makes the novel’s most confusing, almost contradictory, character more understandable. At the heart of the movie is how Margaret finds a way to go from a free-thinking, literary, independent woman to devoted, forgiving wife of a proud, short-sighted businessman. It helps that he’s played by Anthony Hopkins, equally convincing while portraying both the dashing and the pigheaded side of Henry Wilcox.

While Helen, Margaret’s determined, principled younger sister, is a more static character, Helena Bonham Carter brings to life this feisty, articulate harbinger of the hippies of the 1960s. She refuses to abide by society’s rules and sees life simply as a choice between doing right and doing wrong.

Forster had earlier written “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (made into a 1991 film with Bonham Carter) and “A Room with a View” (filmed in 1984 by Ivory and also starring Bonham Carter) and then later wrote “A Passage to India” (becoming a David Lean film in 1985), and, “Maurice,” published posthumously and filmed by Ivory in 1987. If not for him and Jane Austen, British cinema would have been considerably less interesting in the 1980s and ‘90s.
I do think “Howards End” needed to be 10 or 15 minutes longer, which would have allowed Ivory to let some of the scenes play out a bit more leisurely; the editing more than once ends a scene frustratingly early and I have no doubt some the more off-the-plot, but fascinating dialogue was trimmed for time.

It seems appropriate that this masterful piece of literature, which ends with Howards End---representing the privilege and principles of the British upper class---ultimately going to the bastard son of a working class man, will end up best remembered as the source of a great motion picture, the entertainment of the masses.

LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (2010)This Pittsburgh-set romance misfires on so many levels that I barely know where to start. An uncomfortable, misguided mixture of raunchy sex, social critique of the pharmaceutical industry, sophomoric slapstick and weepy romance, the Edward Zwick-directed film tries to be both hip and tradition, risky and safe. Yet despite all these elements, the film isn’t even close to being ambitious.

The screenplay (by Zwick, his writing partner Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph from a novel by Jamie Reidy) establishes its dysfunctional credentials in the opening scenes, first with Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal in his most gregarious role) acting like an overgrown kid at his sales job at a electronics store (has a salesman ever danced with you?) and then at his parents’ home, where his more successful siblings and disappointed father (who else but George Segal) come off as self-satisfied pains.
Younger brother Josh (Josh Gad), who just sold his startup for millions, arranges a gig for Jamie as a Pfizer drug rep, one of those slick pill pushers who persuade physicians to prescribe their product. Since Jamie’s only obvious skill is his ability to seduce women, he uses his charisma and amorality to become a top salesman, especially once Pfizer brings out its little blue pill (the film is set in the mid-1990s).

But forget about all that: The main attraction of this film is Anne Hathaway’s Maggie, a reclusive artist (of indeterminate skill or success) who is well acquainted with the drug industry as she copes with Parkinson’s disease. They meet cute (when Jamie pretends to be a medical intern) during an examination and soon are ripping each other’s clothes off in a series of unbridled sex scenes, exuding the kind of heat (and nudity) rarely seen in a mainstream Hollywood release. (The pair previous were a less-than-perfect couple as husband and wife in “Brokeback Mountain.”)

Both actors have their moments of exceptional acting, but overall I struggled to find the humanity of these characters; too often they’re just a collection of personality quirks that pop up just when the plot demands conflict. Coming off better than the principles is Oliver Platt, as a crafty drug salesman who sees Jamie as his ticket out of Pittsburgh and back to Chicago, where his family lives. This veteran actor manages to brighten every film he’s in with his ever-expanding but very familiar face and ability to create quirky but reality-based characters.
Making her final screen appearance, Jill Clayburgh plays Jamie’s mother, getting a few funny lines in the opening dinner-table scene.

On the other hand, Gad, as the brother who moves in with Jamie when his wife throws him out of the house, does a weak imitation of Jack Black and is at the center of all the pointlessly crude Judd Apatow moments in the film. Ridiculously, this millionaire willingly sleeps on his brothers’ couch rather than finding his own place, moving in a hotel or, if he insists on clinging to his brother, finding them a bigger apartment. I think he can afford it: this is Pittsburgh not New York. But this isn’t about making sense; it’s about creating “Odd Couple” moments.

Zwick, who’s directed some exceptional films, including “Glory” (1989) and “Blood Diamond” (2006), stuffs his latest with something for everyone, and ends up failing to do much of anything well.

FAIR GAME (2010)Political conspiracy movies are among the few genres Hollywood does consistently well. Doug Liman, whose “The Bourne Identity” (2002) set the contemporary bar, delivers a more cerebral thriller with “Fair Game,” based on the Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby scandal.

If you’ve forgotten this particular Bush Administration criminal/ethical breach, this is the one where Dick Cheney and his minions decided to ruin the career of a longtime foreign operative of the CIA because her husband disputed the president’s claims of proof that Iraq was close to constructing a nuclear weapon.

Naomi Watts, as consistently impressive as any actress during the past decade (since her startling breakthrough in “Mulholland Dr.”) plays Plame as a daring agent venturing into the political hotspots of the globe. While in the midst of an undercover operation to convince an Iraqi nuclear worker to defect, Plame is blind-sided by the reaction following a Robert Novak column in the Washington Post that names her as a CIA agent, outing her to her friends and enemies.

Suddenly, after 18 years of devoted service, she’s cut off from all her field operatives and relegated to unimportant desk duties by the agency.

The movie, to its credit, is less about the investigation that leads to the indictment of Libby and more about the effect this political attack and knee-jerk reaction from Bush’s lieutenants has on these highly esteemed Beltway insiders. Also taking a deserved hit is the media, which willingly airs any dirt dished by the White House no matter how baseless, frivolous or simply false.
While Plame just wants it all to go away, holding fast to her Federal training by accepting the media onslaught and keeping silent, her husband (Sean Penn) believes the best defense is an unrelenting offense. Former ambassador and African expert Joseph Wilson, whose op/ed piece in the New York Times all but called the president a liar, shows up on every media outlet that will have him to assail the Bush Administration and dispute the claim printed by Novak and others that he was sent on the Niger fact-finding mission at his wife’s request.

Penn and Watts, who also played husband and wife in “21 Grams,” display genuine chemistry even as their relationship nears the breaking point under the pressure of the controversy. These great actors, simply by their screen presence, probably make Plame and Wilson more appealing people than they may be in real life, and, to a great extent, paint these bureaucrats as intellectual saints. But Liman makes no pretense about his sympathies. And he shouldn’t when peoples’ lives are forever altered by politicians whose only concern is covering up the lies manufactured to rationalize a war.

RAMONA (1910)This 17-minute silent short is basically the picture-book version of the Helen Jackson’s classic novel of early California. Without inter-title dialogue, the film pantomimes the story of Ramona, the love struck adopted daughter of a wealthy Spanish family who falls for Alessandro, a proud native Californian Indian who works for the family.
More complete versions of this tale of racism in the 1850s (it’s subtitled, “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian”) can be found in the 1936 movie starring Loretta Young and at the annual “Ramona Pageant” held in Hemet, Ca., each summer. The influence of this 1887 novel can’t be overstated: tourist flocked to the state to see any site associated with “Ramona” and the book all but invented the cultural identity of the region.

The short is worth a look because it was one of 98 shorts directed by D.W. Griffith that year (though he’s uncredited) and stars 17-year-old Mary Pickford, soon to be “America’s Sweetheart” and the biggest star in Hollywood. The picture is so short that there is hardly time for Pickford to do much except look distraught as Ramona, but at least she’s playing a character that is age appropriate. By her late 20s, she was mostly cast as young girls (she played Pollyanna in 1920).

The Griffith touch is evident in the way he frames his shots (a signature, used often in “Ramona,” is keeping all the actors on the right side of the frame) and his use of the rolling hills of Ventura County, Ca., photographed by Griffith’s pioneering cinematographer Billy Bitzer. Griffith shot scenes at the adobe and chapel at Camulos Rancho, believe to be Jackson’s inspiration for the Spanish ranch of the novel.

Pickford and Henry B. Walthall (as Alessandro) play out the tragedy---they are ousted from their community because of their forbidden love---with slightly more subtlety than the exaggerated acting style of the time.
What struck me, in a watching a complete film made 100 years ago, is how quickly the art form evolved. Just 25 years after this crude film, cinema had transformed itself into a form very close to what we experience at newly minted multiplexes every weekend. The leap from “Ramona” to, say, “It Happened Once Night” (1934) was astonishing; the advance to the latest “Harry Potter” much less so. In fact, many would argue that there’s been no progress in the art since the late 1920s.

THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1995)If not for its impressive quartet of stars, this cartoonish homage to the Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood would have gone straight to video.

Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio all play gunfighters who enter a dueling contest in the corrupt desert town controlled by Gene Hackman’s Herod (just for good measure some Biblical symbolism is thrown in). Stone rides into town on a mission of vengeance (a version of Clint’s Man With No Name), while Crowe and DiCaprio have scores to settle with Herod.

Sam Raimi, best known for helming the “Spider Man” franchise, steals liberally from the Spaghetti Western cycle, repeatedly showing close-ups of the characters’ eyes, utilizing a soundtrack that clearly was influenced by Ennio Morricone’s and filling the screen with an amusing collection of gnarly characters, each meaner than the previous.

Raimi shows off all the camera and editing tricks up his sleeve, but the story (by Simon Moore) has the depth of a Yosemite Sam short. You know you’re in the world of make believe when there’s a downpour nearly every night but there’s not a single tree, bush or blade of grass in sight.

Not surprisingly, Hackman gives the standout performance, savory every rotten thing he gets to say or do, not unlike his Lex Luther.

Pre-stardom Crowe---his breakthrough performance came two years later in “L.A. Confidential”---acquits himself well as the hired gun turned preacher who is dragged back in town by Herod just for the fun of it. The 21-year-old DiCaprio is still too much of a kid (in fact, that’s the character’s name) for his role as the town’s hot shot gunman. DiCaprio was in that uncomfortable in-between period that many actors experience: After his exceptional juvenile work in “This Boy’s Life” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and before hooking up with Martin Scorsese and developing into a mature actor.

Stone has the most complex role and it’s through her eyes the viewer enters this vicious community, but she can’t pull off the balance of being a shaky, over-her-head neophyte and a tough cowgirl/hero. A bit more of her “Basic Instinct” persona might have helped, but the screenplay doesn’t give her much to work with. Later in 1995, she was on screen again giving her finest performance to date, as the drug abusing, money-hungry Ginger in “Casino.”

There are plenty of familiar faces among the other gunmen (Lance Henriksen, Keith David) and Gary Sinise has a small role in flashback scenes as Stone’s father.

Raimi doesn’t do a bad job of keeping the numerous pistol duels interesting but when it comes to back story and character development, it’s just one cliché after another.

127 HOURS (2010)Considering that most everyone who sees this film knows how it ends, the level of tension and anxiety it conveys rarely flags. Dramatizing the experience of Aron Ralston, who was trapped in a deep, narrow crevice when a boulder lodged against his right arm while hiking in the Canyonlands National Park in Utah, this movie is mostly a one-man show for James Franco.

Franco, who made a name for himself on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks” and then as Peter Parker best friend and worst enemy in the “Spider Man” franchise, isn’t asked to turn Aron into someone more than just a regular guy trapped in an extraordinary circumstance. He’s an upbeat pleasure-seeker whose enthusiasm for life sustains him as he faces death and Franco pulls it off convincing. It looks like he’ll be a shoo-in for a best actor Oscar nomination.

But there’s just not enough to the story, most of which consists of Aron recording his reflections about his situation and life on his digital video camera. Once he’s trapped by the rock---not long after an encounter with two cute female hikers---the film treads water until he does what made him famous.

British director Danny Boyles, whose nonsensical, sentimental “Slumdog Millionaire” won the 2008 best picture and best director Oscars, tries to jazz up “127 Hours” with split screens, odd flashbacks and hallucinations, yet the devices feel very forced. Maybe if the film had offered more background on Aron or shown him interacting with others in his daily life, I would have been more engaged. Despite the incredible bravery and resilience this man displays, the movie has little to say about anything beyond the facts of the incident.

The actual amputation doesn’t last long but it is wrenchingly realistic and quite painful to watch (and hear). And because that moment is recreated so believable, feeling the exuberance of his freedom becomes difficult. I was still ruminating about how I would never have the nerve to do what he did when, not much later, the credits were rolling. Maybe Boyle needed to apply some of that sugar he used to excess in “Slumdog,” at least to induce a tear or two at the conclusion of those grueling “127 Hours.”

ME AND ORSON WELLES (2009)The idea, from a novel by Robert Paplow, to tell the backstage story of the creation of Orson Welles’ legendary 1937 staging of a modern version of “Julius Caesar” is inspired. Unfortunately, the resulting execution of that idea is rather ordinary, with its focus on a romantic triangle within the company and overblown portrayal of the great director.

Zac Efron, of “High School Musical” fame, plays Richard, a high school senior obsessed with the theater who stumbles his way into a role in Welles’ production despite his lack of experience. He becomes our eyes and ears during the confrontational rehearsals and backstage sniping insured by Welles’ already oversized ego and his obvious need for conflict. As someone tells the new recruit: “You’re not getting paid anything except for the opportunity to get sprayed by Orson’s spit.”

Christian McKay, a British stage actor, does an impressive impersonation of the large-than-life director, but there’s little effort---in the script, in Richard Linklater’s direction or the actor’s affects----to show the man behind the pretentious act. Too much of what Welles says sounds like lines from one of his own theatrical productions.

While there’s enough “Julius Caesar” to keep theater buffs entertained, the heart of the story revolves around Richard’s crush on Sonja (Claire Danes), the troupe’s ambitious “girl Friday.” Deceptively, the film presents Welles as much older and wiser than the 17-year-old, yet the director was just 22 in 1937. Essential, Welles comes off as a very gifted high school bully who has the power to get away with treating people like dirt.

The best scene in the picture isn’t on stage, but a recreation of a radio broadcast in which Welles shows up late and then adlibs most of his lines---he steals liberally from “The Magnificent Ambersons,” the book he tells Richard he’s going to turn into a movie---as rest of the cast watches with jaws dropped. The sequence reveals everything about this amazing artist: his genius for invention, his charismatic line reading and his bravado personality that dominated every room he entered.

Welles has been portrayed more than 30 times in film and on TV---including prominent portrayals by Vincent D’Onofrio in “Ed Wood” (1994), Liev Schreiber in “RKO 281” (1999) and Danny Huston in “Fade to Black,” (2006)---but there’s still no full-blown biopic of this cinematic wonder. His fascinating life---from child protégé to “Citizen Kane” to the unfinished films and lunches at Spagos---is ripe for a screen treatment, a five-course movie meal compared to the appetizer of “Me and Orson Welles.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

October 2010

While this relentlessly clever, hip and surprisingly humorous movie chronicles the creation and formative months of Facebook, it also offers a snapshot of contemporary college life.

It’s more than a comic aside that Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg (played to perfection by Jesse Eisenberg) creates his first web success---a site that allows students to select the “hotter” of two girls---during a long night of drinking after his girlfriend dumps him. If there is even a modicum of truth in “The Social Network,” the best and the brightest young men at our prestigious universities have less regard for women than ever before; it’s as if the 1960s and ‘70s never happened.

The atmosphere of college life as seen in this film resembles a high-class gentlemen’s club more than a dusty library. I’m hardly trying to preach here---I partied my way through four years of higher learning---but if I didn’t know better I’d think that Harvard was bringing in coeds on alcohol binging and stripping scholarships. At every phase of this film, while the boys are reinventing how the world sees itself and displaying their high-powered, never-at-rest creative instincts, the girls are shamelessly begging to be chosen by one of these future masters of the universe. I can only imagine what a parent of a high school girl headed for the Ivy League would make of this movie.

The smartest aspect of this David Fincher-directed picture is the framing of the story with the two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg not long after Facebook became a money-making machine. From the testimony and charges made across a law-firm conference table, the movie flashes back to the actual events, revealing how Zuckerberg screwed over the Winklevoss twins (a very funny Armie Hammer playing the pair), jocks who actually came up the germinating idea that led to Facebook, and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s original partner and one-time best friend.

Eisenberg, who played the older son in “The Squid and the Whale,” captures the speed-talking, flat affect, dead-eyed, anti-social persona that---whether or not it bears any resemblance to the real person---typifies the nerd geniuses of our time. Zuckerberg isn’t just unlikeable and petty; he’s a psychotic egomaniac who probably would have ended up doing drugs under a freeway overpass if he hadn’t come up with Facebook.

Few films have the nerve to make the lead character so thoroughly unworthy of the rewards he reaps. Yet he’s so hopelessly alone that you can’t help but feel sorry for him. And Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”), working from Ben Mazrich’s book, never turn away from the giant irony that the creator of the most popular resource for connecting people struggles to connect with anyone.

The picture loses some of its focus in the second half when Zuckerberg comes under the influence of hotshot party animal and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). There’s nothing interesting about this character; he’s pure ego and hot air and shallow as a Kleenex. Yet he pushes Zuckerberg out of the film’s spotlight for large chucks of the film. Amazingly, I wanted Zuckerberg’s hateful character back on the screen.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with the performers actually looking and sounding like students (at least the boys). The one female student who comes off believably is Erica, Zuckerberg’s straight-shooting girlfriend who breaks up with him in the opening scene. She’s played by Rooney Mara, the offspring of the families that founded NFL teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers (Rooneys) and the New York Giants (Maras), who will portray the title character in Fincher’s remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s the only coed who doesn’t exhibit the manners of an overpriced hooker.

This is probably Fincher’s best film since his breakthrough film, “Seven” (1995). Fast-paced and thoughtful, impeccably crafted and beautifully photographed (by Jeff Cronenweth), “The Social Network” is unquestionable a film for our times as it attempts to decipher human interaction in the 21th Century. Is it the truth? Who cares? I can’t imagine that the whole truth and nothing but the truth would be nearly as entertaining.

I’m not sure if this feeling is universal among men, but while I can absolutely adore and admire a performance by an actress, rarely do I connect with it in the way I do with an actor’s role. That bias made the way felt when I first saw Jill Clayburgh’s performance as Erica in “An Unmarried Woman” so memorable.

While she played a thirtysomething married woman living in luxury in Manhattan and I was a recent college grad living along in a small Pennsylvania burg, this singular character had an immediate and lasting effect on me.

It was more than just the independent spirit she displays when her marriage breaks up or her refusal to let another man control her life. Facing her trauma, Erica discovers her inner self, her artistic bent, her personality, all formerly buried in the roles life had assigned her. And she does it all in the incredible vibrant world of New York and the alluring energy the city exudes.

Coming on the heels of “Annie Hall” and a handful of weekend trips I’d made to the city, the film’s atmosphere was like catnip to me. I longed for this exotic world where I could leave my mark as an important writer and reinvent myself into something more glamorous than a reporter on a small-town paper.

Clayburgh, who died last week from complications of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, never came close to matching the fever-pitched gestalt of “An Unmarried Woman,” but who could have? Writer-director Paul Mazursky fashioned for Clayburgh one of the iconic female characters of an era when feminism was being discussed at cocktail parties and at the PTA.

There’s a scene early in the film when, after learning of her husband’s indiscretion, Erica, confused and stunned, walks aimlessly along the sidewalk until she vomits in the street. It’s an incredibly uncensored moment of truth, punctuated by Bill Conti’s energetic theme, signaling that this portrait of a woman wasn’t going to be like anything I’d seen before.

Clayburgh, in part no doubt because of her illness that she dealt with for over 20 years, never had that great late-career role that would have bookend her early successes. It’s easy to forget that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, she was among the biggest stars in Hollywood: “Silver Streak” (1976), “Semi-Tough” (1977), “Starting Over” (1979) and “First Monday in October” (1981) were among her hit films.

More recently, she displayed her clear understanding of eccentricity as the happily nutty wife of a psychotic therapist in “Running with Scissors” (2006). Later this month, she’ll be seen as Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother in the romantic comedy “Love and Other Drugs.”

But what Clayburgh’s career shows is that if an artist (of any stripe) can achieve something transcendent even once, they have done more than their fair share for the world. Watching Erica struggle through New York carrying an oversized painting at the end of “An Unmarried Woman” all those years ago---on her own, struggling, but moving forward----it was inspiring and liberating and helped me understand myself and what I wanted out of life. And, maybe even more lasting, it kept me going back to the movies, in hopes of being swept away by the kind of uncompromised, emotionally rich performance Jill Clayburgh delivered 32 years ago.

I was a bit apprehensive going into Clint Eastwood’s new move about the connection between the living and the dead. Not only don’t I believe in the concept, but attempts to deal seriously with details of the afterlife have resulted in such misfires as the Robin Williams film “What Dreams May Come” (1998) and last year’s “The Lovely Bones.” Yet this extraordinary filmmaker makes you care about and root for the film’s characters to such a degree that what they believe becomes believable.

It turns out that this Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) script isn’t so much about the “Hereafter,” as it is about characters who heal themselves through their belief in “the other side.”

Matt Damon gives his usual, seemingly effortless, convincing performance, here playing George Lonegan, a very ordinary man who was once a world renowned, apparently authentic, psychic. Since a childhood operation, George has been able to connect with the dead just by touching a family members’ hands. But the burden of the gift has made a normal life difficult, so he’s given up doing readings.

On the other side of the world, in an amazing special effects creation, a French TV journalist is nearly killed during the tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004 and remains haunted by her near-death experience.

Meanwhile, in England, a young boy is left traumatized when his twin brother dies when he’s struck by a car. The boy’s determination to connect with his deceased sibling and the journalist’s insistence on understanding what she has experienced and sharing that with the world, plus a bit of coincidence (supplied by the master of that device, Charles Dickens) bring these three plotlines together.

Cécile De France, a Belgian actress virtually unknown in the U.S., makes the TV reporter a compelling figure as she leaves her job and puts her reputation on the line to pursue evidence that proves the existence of an afterlife. And as the young twins, Frankie and George McLaren are stoic and intense as they deal with an alcoholic mother and then their own separation. In a smaller, but crucial role, Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s daughter) deserves Oscar consideration as George’s surprisingly complex cooking partner.

The exception to the film’s spot-on casting is comedian Jay Mohr’s performance as George’s brother; he seems to have walked in from a different, more ordinary movie.

“Hereafter” isn’t a great film---the pacing, at points, is painfully slow and too much of the dialogue is redundant---yet it may be Eastwood’s most tender picture. For all its heady discussions about life after death, the movie is really about how we go about making sense of our lives down here on the terra firma.

Arthur Penn, who died last month at the age of 88, was so closely linked with “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) that you could get the impression that he never directed another memorable film.

While nothing in his career tops the landmark success of the film that, for all intense purposes, launched the second golden age of American cinema, my favorite movie of Penn’s career is the seriously cynical detective tale, “Night Moves.”

Gene Hackman plays private detective Harry Moseby, a former professional football player who hides from his unhappy personal life by taking his cases, at least according to his dissatisfied wife, much too seriously. His latest client is a slutty, washed-up actress (Janet Ward) who hires Moseby to locate her precocious 16-year-old stepdaughter (Melanie Griffith in her film debut) and bring her home. The trail leads the detective to a New Mexico movie shoot where Griffith’s Delly had gone with her mechanic boyfriend (James Wood in an early role) and ended up in the bed of a reckless stunt pilot. She’s since moved on, but Mosby hangs out with the stunt crew, including stunt director Joey (Edward Binns), digging up enough dirt to determine that Lola plans to sleep with all her mother’s ex-lovers.

That clue sends Moseby to the Florida Keys where Lola’s former stepfather Tom (John Crawford) and his coy, mysterious girlfriend Paula (Jennifer Warren) raise dolphins and run boats and drink heavily. And staying with them is Lola, who immediately attempts to seduce Harry.

The film proceeds to pick away at Harry psyche while disillusioned, amoral characters swirl around him. The script by Alan Sharp is one of the smartest and darkest of the ‘70s while Hackman conveys both the off-the-cuff sarcasm and deep-seated demons of Moseby. Griffith is also impressive as she brings out the troubled little girl just beneath the surface of Delly’s flirty confidence.

Hackman delivers the film’s most quoted line when his wife (Susan Clark) asks him if he wants to attend an Eric Rohmer film with her. “I saw a Rohmer film once; kinda like watching paint dry.” Ironically, “Night Moves” is among the most French of the era’s films, marked by ambivalent dialogue, little action and sharp, jolting editing—Penn could have been considered an honorary member of the French New Wave.
Moseby sums up the film when he says near the end, “I didn’t solve anything---it just fell in on top of me.”

Penn, who started directing on stage and TV in the early 1950s, was behind the camera for just 13 features, including the brilliantly acted version of “The Miracle Worker” (1962), which he had also done on TV and Broadway, the offbeat, cult-favorite “Mickey One” (1965) starring Warren Beatty as a comedian in trouble with the mob and “Little Big Man” (1970), an epic Western with Dustin Hoffman as a white man raised by Indians. His later work was solid---“The Missouri Break” (1976), “Four Friends” (1981), “Targets” (1985)---but never achieved the greatness of his best films from the 1960s and ‘70s.

After the acclaim of “Bonnie and Clyde,” there was really nowhere to go but down, yet Penn held his own before his approach to filmmaking went out of style. As Beatty once said of him, “His intelligence is the factor that resonates most strongly, his intelligence and a lack of interest in pandering.”

No director has populated their films with as many fascinating, multi-faceted female characters as Woody Allen has over the past 40 years.

In addition to the many incarnations of flighty females played by Diane Keaton and the vulnerable waifs portrayed by Mia Farrow, the prolific screenwriter has written memorable characters for Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton in “Interiors”; Diane Wiest in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Radio Days,” “September” and “Bullets Over Broadway”; Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters”; Elaine Stritch in “September”; Gena Rowlands in “Another Woman”; Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives” and “Celebrity”; Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite”; Samantha Morton in “Sweet and Lowdown”; Tracey Ullman in “Small Town Crooks”; and Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” And that’s just the cream of the crop.

You can add Gemma Jones to this astonishing list. The 68-year-old British actress, best known as the mother in both “Sense and Sensibility” (1985) and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001), plays Helena, a recently discarded wife of the ironically named Alfie (a rather tense Anthony Hopkins), who is determined to deny his mortality.
When Helena falls under the influence of Cristal, a smooth-talking fortune teller (Pauline Collins, in a subtle, funny performance), she finds a new lease on life in the hopeful predictions, even as she becomes a constant irritant to her daughter (Naomi Watts) and son-in-law (Josh Brolin).

As Brolin struggles to finish and peddle his latest novel and his marriage teeters, Helena regular drops in to tell them the latest inane fortunes foretold by Cristal. Meanwhile, while both Watts and Brolin have their eyes on prospective new lovers, they are shocked when their father introduces his fiancée, Charmaine, a high-priced, amusingly dumb call girl.

Needless to say, bad decisions result in disasters as the cruelty of fate looms just beyond the frame. After 40 films, Allen has made it pretty clear that he believes most people, especially when it comes to romance, inevitable make foolish choices.
“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is one of Allen’s better recent efforts as it explores the capricious way we make important life decisions and the lengths many are willing to go for the nebulous idea of success.

I also liked the film’s European style. It resembles the talky, insightful French films of Rohmer and Resnais, in the way it drops into these characters lives at a crucial moment and then ends without a clear resolution to all their problems or new flirtations.

While it seems counterintuitive to say after listing all the exceptional performances above, I think Allen is often hamstrung by having the availability to cast nearly any star-actor in his movies. A fresh face of unknown quality can be an invigorating aspect to a picture and, in this case, the most interesting characters are played by Jones, Lucy Punch as unabashed Charmaine (replacing the originally cast Nicole Kidman) and Freida Pinto (the star of “Slumdog Millionaire”). Pinto portrays a brainy music student, first spotted by Brolin from his office window as she practices in her apartment, who brings a quiet sensibility to a story that tends to ramble.

But it’s Jones’ Helena that you’ll remember. Not unlike Patricia Clarkson’s character in Allen’s “Whatever Works,” Helena, at first, is a basket case as she tries to understand the end of her longtime marriage. But as she accepts the new direction of her life, she embraces it and becomes a quirky, unlikely affirmation of what humans do best: adapt and make the best of what’s given to them.

and THE SNAKE PIT (1948)
Watching Olivia de Havilland’s performances in these two films back to back during one of TCM’s actor-themed evenings, along with parts of “The Heiress,” offered a mesmerizing lesson in unpretentious, supremely focused acting overflowing with heart-tugging, but truthful emotions.

It’s hard to call de Havilland underrated considering she won two best actress Oscars and was nominated another three times, yet she never reached the level of stardom achieved by Better Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn or Claudette Colbert. At her peak, in the late 1940s, she was as accomplished an actress as any of them and might have had a more distinguished career if Warner Bros. hadn’t kept her in undemanding supporting roles for so long. She finally gained her freedom from the studio in a landmark suit, but it cost her two years in the prime of her career.

Famously discovered while a freshman at San Francisco’s Mills College by theatrical legend Max Reinhardt, she was cast by the German producer as Hermia in a 1934 staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl and also in his 1935 movie of the comedy.

That same year, at age 19, she played Errol Flynn’s love interest in the romantic adventure “Captain Blood.” In 1938, de Havilland was Maid Marion to Flynn’s Robin Hood, but it took David O. Selznick (casting her on-load from Warner’s) to provide the role that changed her career.

As Melanie, the kind, sensible rival of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” de Havilland showed the calm demeanor and emotional range that would mark her best performances.

In the four years after that breakthrough (earning her a supporting actress nomination) she was stuck in more mediocre Warner Bros. fare, while Davis was given all the studio’s plum roles. Post “GWTW,” a time period that overflowed with fascinating female roles, she had one, “Hold Back the Dawn,” playing a wide-eyed schoolteacher visiting Mexico, before she took Jack Warner and his accountants to court. No doubt, she was inspired to seek independence, at least in part, after seeing her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, cast in plumb roles in “Rebecca” (1940) and “Suspicion” (1941), which earned her a best actress Oscar.

From 1946 to 1949, de Havilland made six films, earning nominations for half of them and Oscars for two.

In “To Each His Own,” she’s a small-town girl who finds herself pregnant as her boyfriend heads off to World War I. Though she becomes a successful businesswoman in New York, starting a cosmetic company with her bootlegger friend, she never gets over the loss of her son, who is raised by a high-school boyfriend and his wife.

Though the picture, directed by the underrated Leisen Mitchell (he previously worked with the actress in “Hold Back the Dawn”) and scripted by Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder’s writing partner), is just one stop up from a soap opera, de Havilland’s performance never becomes melodramatic as she deftly shows the intense, all-encompassing devotion she feels toward the son.

Though she won the Oscar for “To Each His Own,” the actress was equally impressive in Robert Siodmak’s mysterious “The Dark Mirror” (1946), playing very different twins.

Her next role was one of the most challenging and ground-breaking of the era, playing a woman institutionalized following a mental breakdown. Her Virginia struggles to understand where she is or who she is as she faces the still-crude methods of mental health practices. “The Snake Pit” doesn’t sugar-coat the realities of mental illness and avoids turning the inmates into cartoon freaks. Director Anatole Litvak and screenwriters Frank Partos and Millen Brand have turned a social-issue picture into a strong drama, in large part because de Havilland creates a real woman whose roller-coaster ride with sanity rings powerfully true.

This memorable run of intense roles peaked with her portrayal of Catherine Sloper, the love starved New York City heiress in William Wyler’s superbly realized, thoughtful adaptation of Henry James’ “Washington Square,” retitled “The Heiress.”

Made up to look plain and severe, de Havilland bring to life this complex character who lives under the oppressive thumb of her cold-hearted father (a brilliant Ralph Richardson) and then is seduced by a smooth-talking fortune seeker (an impossibly young Montgomery Clift). This tragic, stubborn 19th-Century woman is one of the most memorable in modern literature and de Havilland’s performance matches the emotional arc of her heartbreaking story. It earned her a second best actress Oscar, but also was the end of her career as a major film actress.

Maybe freedom from the studio wasn’t as appealing as she imagined, but, whatever the reason, the actress took leave of Hollywood. She appeared on Broadway and then moved to Paris after marrying a French magazine editor. From the mid-50s, she acted in just a few pictures each decade, her most substantial work coming in the lavish soap opera “The Light in the Piazza” (1962) as a overprotective mother and supporting Bette Davis in “Hush Hush….Sweet Charlotte” (1965). In the 1980s, she appeared in a handful of TV movies and the 1986 miniseries “North and South, Book II.”

De Havilland remains one of the few surviving stars from the 1930s; she received the National Medal for the Arts in 2008 and earlier this year, at age 94, she was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government.

Friday, October 1, 2010

September 2010

I’m still struggling with the concept that 1960 was a half century ago. In film history terms, that means that a movie from 1960 is now as ancient as a silent picture was when I was in college in the ‘70s. That just doesn’t seem possible.

Looking back at that year’s top movies shows a decisive break from the conservative ‘50s and themes that foreshadow the revolution that was to hit Hollywood later in the decade. The Oscar-winning best picture, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” depicts corporate executives borrowing an underling’s downtown digs for sexual rendezvous and both Oscar-winning actresses, Elizabeth Taylor in “Butterfield 8” and Shirley Jones in “Elmer Gantry” portray prostitutes. In the same film, best actor winner Burt Lancaster plays an evangelist who practices all the sins he preaches against.

More shocking than this overt sexuality in mainstream movies was the groundbreaking violence of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the picture that created the template for every horror film since.

These movies was released the same year Jack Kennedy was elected president, teens started dancing “The Twist” and Pittsburgh won its first World Series in 33 years---maybe 1960 is a long time ago…..

More old-fashioned but still centered on illicit sex, is the year’s most underappreciated prestige film, “Home from the Hill.” Impeccably directed by Vincente Minnelli, one of the cinema’s great visionaries of the 1940s and ‘50s (“Meet Me in St. Louis,” “An American in Paris,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Lust for Life,” just for starters), this gorgeous wide-screen, high-class soap opera chronicles the dysfunctional Hunnicutt family, a Southern version of O’Neill’s Tyrone clan.

Dominating the 2 ½ hour film is Robert Mitchum’s commanding, emotionally complex performance as patriarch Captain Wade Hunnicutt, outdoorsman, womanizer and the most feared man in this small Texas town. Though he’s used to having his own way, his wife Hannah (a miscast Eleanor Parker) sleeps in a separate room to punish him for his constant philandering and he’s had little to do with the raising of his son Theron (George Hamilton). While Wade has never acknowledged him as his (bastard) son, Rafe (George Peppard, holding his own with Mitchum) is more like the old man than Theron could ever be.

Even when Theron takes up hunting and chases down a wild boar that is terrorizing the area ranchers he’s a fish out of water; a sensitive soul trying to be a man’s man. The relationship of these half brothers and how they deal with their father and his expectations gives the film a timeless, almost Shakespearean, breadth.

But what really separates Minnelli’s picture from the domestic dramas of Douglas Sirk or “Peyton Place” are its long, exquisitely photographed (Milton Krasner) scenes in the woods outside of town. It’s in the forest, among the wildlife, with their dogs at their sides and their rifles on their shoulders that these men feel most at home. The boar chase may be the most thrilling and frightening hunting sequence ever filmed for a feature, but most of the outdoor sequences create a magical, serene escape for these troubled characters.

Considering that Minnelli’s “Gigi” had won Oscars for best picture and director just two years earlier, it’s odd that “Home from the Hill” didn’t receive a single nomination. Seen a half-century later, with its emotionally searing story---written by the great screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch (who recently passed away) and his wife Harriet Frank Jr. from a novel by William Humphrey---and its stunning, richly colored visuals, the film deserves to be remembered as one of the most insightful movies about family of its time.

THE TOWN (2010)
The plot points of this Boston-set crime film have been used and re-used since moving pictures were invented: neighborhood crime gang led by friends who were “raised as brothers”; the sensitive one wants out of the business; the more violent one sees him as a traitor and blames his new “outsider” girlfriend. Yet all these clichés are made fresh by three superb performances, a thoughtful, reflective script by director Ben Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (from Chuck Hogan’s novel) and the breakneck direction of three audacious heists.

This is Affleck’s second effort behind the camera and, for my money, a vast improvement over his 2007 debut, “Gone Baby Gone.” Less reliant on plot twists and featuring a more interesting lead character, “The Town” shows Affleck to be a confident director capable of handing intense, fast-paced action and eliciting remarkable acting from his entire cast (as he proved in “Gone Baby Gone”).

One of these performances is by Affleck himself, playing Doug MacRay, a one-time local hockey phenom who is the brains behind a quartet of bank robbers working for veteran Charlestown (an Irish neighborhood) crime boss Fergie, played by an intimidating Pete Postlethwaite.

The bulldog of the group is Doug’s boyhood friend Jem (Jeremy Renner), who is becoming increasingly out of control, which leads to his taking a hostage (Rebecca Hall) after their latest bank job. They release her but later worry that she might help the FBI identify them (despite wearing rubber masks during the robbery). Doug, attracted to Claire during the heist, volunteers to keep an eye on her and before you can consult your “How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days” handbook they are meeting cute in a laundromat.

Hall, who sparkled as the adventurous tourist in Woody Allen’s “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” plays the one innocent in the picture, the only unarmed character who offers Doug the hope for a normal life. She’s such an unpretentious, naturalistic actress that her presence goes a long way to make the calculated plot believable.

Renner, nominated last year for his similar performance in the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” exudes Cagney-like zeal as a man in constant turmoil, simmering below the surface while enjoying delivering punishment to those he sees as disrespectful. His small, animated face tells you more about this character than any dialogue. This performance should earn Renner yet another Oscar nod.

Affleck, who has been the poster boy for vacuous acting since he became a star in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), gives his best performance of his career in “The Town.” He finds just the right amount of grit and romantic hopefulness as his character struggles to escape the life of crime.

As a director, he does a great job of casting the smaller roles, including Postlethwaite as the hateful crime boss, TV actors Jon Hamm and Titus Welliver as the determined FBI agents, Blake Lively as Jem’s slutty sister, and, in one memorable scene, Chris Cooper as Doug’s bitter father who is serving time in prison.

Considering his devotion to the Red Sox, it’s not surprising that Affleck stages the final shootout/standoff at Fenway Park, but even as the bullets fly, it’s the small, actorly moments that make this a film worth seeing.

This British version of “The Right Stuff” features astonishing aerial photography along with a compelling story of test pilots obsessed with going faster and faster. While not the kind of picture you’d except to see David Lean’s name on, it’s the great director’s sense of character development and eye for spectacular images that elevate “Sound Barrier” above the standard-issue flyboy movies.

Ralph Richardson, one of England’s most acclaimed stage actors who later portrayed Alexander in Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago,” plays single-minded aeronautics engineer John Ridgefield, whose experimental jet propulsion planes push man closer to the unknown barrier of the speed of sound. Driven by his love of flying, which he expects all who are around him to share, pushes his son (Denholm Elliott) to become a pilot, leading to the young man’s death. But Ridgefield barely blinks and immediately recruits his new son-in-law (Nigel Patrick), a war-hero pilot, to become his top test pilot.

While the film has plenty of thrilling and intense aerial sequences, the heart of the story is back on the ground, where Ridgefield’s daughter (Ann Todd, Lean’s real-life wife) tries to dissuade both her husband and her father from pursuing this dangerous dream of the sound barrier. The script, by playwright Terence Rattigan (“The Browning Version,” “Separate Tables”), is smart and adult as it confronts both the positive and negative aspects of these men’s obsession.

This film represents the finest achievement of Lean’s somewhat undefined middle period, after his brilliant Charles Dickens’ adaptations (“Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist”) and before his signature epics (“The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”).

Richardson, despite affecting an off-putting accent, dominates the film as this father who struggles to show affection to his children but has unbridled passion for his profession. One-third of the trio of larger-than-life British stage actors (along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud), Richardson also had an impressive, underrated film career.

For director Carol Reed, he was simply brilliant as the suspicion butler in “The Fallen Idol” (1949) and then played a savvy South Seas trader in “Outcast of the Islands” (1952). In William Wyler’s “The Heiress,” he has a similar role to “Sound Barrier,” the emotionally vacant father who, in trying to control his daughter’s life, ends up destroying her chance at happiness. It earned Richardson a supporting actor Oscar nomination. In “Richard III” (1955), he upstages his longtime stage rival in their scenes together, playing the Duke of Buckingham to star-director Olivier’s Richard.

But his crowning achievement on film was as the talkative, hammy retired actor James Tyrone who refused to face up to the fate of his crumbling family in Sidney Lumet’s nearly perfect film treatment of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962). It’s simply one of the great performances ever put on film as his Tyrone insists on arguing about everything with everyone all day long. His long scene with Jason Robards, playing his alcoholic son Jamie, ranks as one of the acting high points of the American cinema.

Through the 1960s and ‘70s, on both stage and screen, Richardson embraced experimental, existential drama, with film roles in Richard Lester’s absurd “The Bed Sitting Room” (1969) and Lindsay Andersen’s “O Lucky Man!” (1973) and, with his old pal Gielgud, repeating their stage success in a TV version of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” (1978). He and Gielgud even showed up in a skit on “SCTV” not long before Richardson’s 1983 death.

Richardson earned a posthumous Oscar nomination (that he was ignored for “Long Days Journey” is a crime) for his role as Tarzan’s wealthy grandfather in the overblown “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984).

What made him such a compelling screen presence in a long, varied career was his somewhat off-kilter looks and everyman disposition; he always seemed like a safe, familiar face. Yet he inevitably turned every character he played into the most interesting man in the room.

The entire script for this chilly, detached character study of a nihilistic professional assassin must have been all of a dozen pages. George Clooney, who stars as Jack, an American hiding out in a small Italian village after an attempt on his life, has had more lines in the opening scene of any of his Coen brothers’ pictures than he does in the entire film of “The American.”

While holed up in this quaint, hillside town, he spends his time pretending to be a photographer, sharing wine with the local priest and getting familiar with a cute prostitute. Meanwhile, his Rome controller sets him up with a female assassin who requires a tailor-made rifle for her assignment. It turns out that Jack is also a master gunsmith. In fact, the most interesting scenes in the film are of him turning out a perfect killing machine out of bits and pieces from a local garage.

Directed by Dutch filmmaker Aton Corbijan, a veteran of music videos, and written by Rowan Joffe, the picture offers few real surprises as it proceeds down an existential trail toward the unattainable; this is Antonioni without anything memorable to say.

Clooney’s Jack isn’t without interest---he’s a darker, more troubled Michael Clayton----but there’s just not much there there. Other than Clooney’s star power and the beautiful Italian scenery, “The American” is so elliptical it nearly disappears.

A PROPHET (2010)
Convict Malik El Djebena barely has time to figure out where his bunk is before he’s recruited by a Corsican mobster to kill a man set to testify against the mob. After much agonizing and hesitation, Malik (an impressive Tahar Rahim) commits the murder, beginning an association with the prison mob and opening the door to all kinds of illegal opportunities.

This French film, one of last year’s best foreign-language nominees, ranks with the best prison films ever made, a violent but reflective study of a relative innocent’s indoctrination into organized crime and a damning examination of the French penal system. A less-glamorous “GoodFellas,” this picture adds into the usual criminal apprenticeship plot line the aspect of ethnic/religious distrust between the Corsican and Islamic inmates. It’s reminiscent of the much chronicled uneasy relationship between Italian and Jewish mobsters in this country or the Latino/African-American prison gang rivalries.

Veteran French actor Niels Arestrup plays the smug, imperious Cesar Luciani, with a stare that can kill, who has the run of the prison but is having a hard time keeping the reins on his criminal enterprise outside the prison. Arranging for day-long furloughs for Malik, Cesar uses him to negotiate deals and take care of outside business, while Malik sets up some money-making operations for himself.

This unusual alliance changes through the years as Malik matures (he’s in for six years) and the Arab inmate population grows. The political dynamics of France, and all of Europe, is reflected in this prison drama.

Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard (with Thomas Bidegain) has created a world so ferociously real that the episodical nature of the film never feels artificial or jarring. The movie manages to be both rich in detail and fast paced as it focuses on the bond between Malik and Cesar. Yet it’s the perfectly measured performances that drive the story.

The 29-year-old Rahim, in his first substantial film role, and Arestrup, best known in this country as the violent, controlling father in Audiard’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” play characters that mostly likely would never glance at one another outside the prison gates, but inside the Big House they end up essential to one another as they evolve from master/slave to something much different.

Sluggishly paced and saddled with two badly miscast stars, this story of the rise of the modern tobacco industry is both fascinating and frustrating. Clearly, veteran filmmaker Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) and screenwriter Randal McDougall saw this as better than the typical star-vehicle melodrama and attempt to bring an epic, tragic hero arc to the story. Unfortunately, it falls short of this ambitious vision.

At the heart of the problem is Gary Cooper’s performance as Brant Royle, the son of farmer, who returns to his North Carolina home town years after his family had been run out of town by the dominate tobacco baron Major Singleton (Donald Crisps). From the opening scenes, when Royale comes back to town and encounters his old flame, Singleton’s daughter Margaret (a cool, distant Patricia Neal), Cooper plays the role as if he’s a bitter old man, not an angry young man. At age 49, Cooper had lost his roguish youthfulness that made him so convincing in roles such as “Meet John Doe” (1941), “Ball of Fire” (1941) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943).

Royle’s chance to take revenge on Singleton comes in the form of an automated cigarette-making machine invented by a nervous, talkative Northern (Jeff Corey). Securing financing from his old gal pal Sonia (Lauren Bacall), who runs the town’s (obvious but never mentioned) house of ill repute, Royle and a traveling show con man (the always energetic Jack Carson) take the industry by storm when their pre-rolled, manufactured cigarettes spread across the nation in the 1890s. Little do they know that they have not only created one of the most successful consumer products ever invented, but started the most lethal habit in human history. (This being 1950, nary a word is mentioned about the possible health hazards of tobacco.)

The story is a fictionalized telling (from a novel by Foster Fitzsimmons) of the rivalry between Washington Duke and George McElwee, scions of the industry. In 2003, documentarian Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March”) made “Bright Leaves,” which references the 1950 film in connection with his great-grandfather’s battles with the legendary Duke and examined the tarnished legacy of the cigarette industry. In real life, Duke cheated his one-time partner McElwee out of his tobacco fortune, but Cooper’s character seems to be a bit of both men.

Near the start of “Bright Leaf,” this group of upstarts is easy to cheer for as their success surprises the big boys, who had scoffed at pre-made cigarettes as a viable money-maker. But then the true nature of Royle (even as Cooper struggles to portray it) comes out. Not only is he obsessed with destroying Singleton but he’s determined to marry Margaret, an uninteresting, manipulative woman, and begins to ignore the business as he focuses on these goals. He quickly alienates Sonia, who long has held out hope that Royle will come to his senses and marry her, and then turns against his partners. Much like in “Citizen Kane,” an obvious influence on this film, the rebellious innovator turns into a ruthless megalomaniac and loses all sense of what’s important.

Cooper lacks the acting chops to make the changing nature of Royle believable; it’s as if one day he wakes up a different person. His idea of showing the emotional turmoil of the character is to grimace as if he just took a bullet to the stomach. It’s also clear that Cooper’s inability to handle large chunks of dialogue is partially responsible for the sluggishness of the film. Especially in the last half, there are long pauses after either Carson or Bacall spill their guts to Cooper and then he responds with two or three words.

Countless actors of the time (I can imagine James Stewart, Gregory Peck, John Garfield or Kirk Douglas) could have turned this rich role into a career highlight. Equally miscast is Neal, who at the time was having an affair with the married Cooper, which started when they starred together in “The Fountainhead” (1949). Their on-screen chemistry is nonexistent; you’d never guess they were involved. The usually reliable Neal recites her lines as if she’s working in a foreign language.

The supporting crew---Bacall, Carson and Crisp---are all first-rate, but they can’t make up for the vacuum in the center of the picture.

Antoine Fuqua looked to be poised for a major directing career after the success of “Training Day,” his 2001 movie about a brazenly corrupt cop starring Denzel Washington. It earned Washington a best actor Oscar and Fuqua entry into Hollywood’s A team. Since then, Fuqua has made three star-driven films----“Tears of the Sun” with Bruce Willis, “King Arthur” with Clive Owen and “Shooter” with Mark Wahlberg---and all have been box-office duds and his latest didn’t do much better, disappearing quickly after its March release.

There’s plenty to like about “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a thorough condemnation of the ethics of that borough’s police force that follows three very different detectives as their fates’ collide. Richard Gere plays Dugan, a burnt-out case days away from retirement, who seems to have little to live for other than his occasional visits to his favorite prostitute; Don Cheadle is frustrated with his deep-cover role in the midst of drug dealers; while Ethan Hawke, burdened with a young, growing family is continually tempted to make off with some of the cash he handles regularly during drug busts.

Each of their stories is compelling at the start, but the details of their lives become repetitive as the script tries to dig deeper into their characters and then manipulates the plot so that the bloody ending of all three tales culminates at the same housing project.

Supporting the trio of stars is the always efficient Will Patton as Cheadle’s manipulative lieutenant; Ellen Barkin, way over the top as a vile, racist federal agent; Lili Taylor as Hawke’s sympathetic wife; and Wesley Snipes, in his first major role since his tax problems, as the charismatic drug lord Cheadle is trying to protect.

The film is well directed and includes moving scenes for each of the stars, but too much of the guts of “Brooklyn’s Finest” plays out night after night on television in the countless police procedurals. In the era of “Law and Order” and “CSI,” the bar has been raised for cop movies and this one doesn’t make the grade.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

August 2010

There’s something irresistible about low-budget sci-fi movies. How can you not smile at a cast of intensely serious characters surrounded by “special effects” that look as if they were purchased at the local toy store? These two dubbed Italian productions also offer a preview of the costumes, sets and character interaction that became the staples of “Star Trek,” which debuted the following year. The influences are undeniable.

“Wild, Wild Planet” is the loopier of the two, a strong contender for the worst sci-fi film of all time. It takes the entire film before space station commander (played by the lone U.S. actor Tony Russell) figures out the connection between a rash of missing people on the base planet (it looks like Earth but is never identified) and Mr. Nurmi, the scientist running organ transplanting experiments. This madman (Massimo Serato) has gone to the effort of creating a collection of odd-looking bald men, outfitted in too small fedoras and oversized trench coats that hide a smaller, second set of arms, to do the kidnapping. They approach their victims with an attractive, brain-washed girl at their side (she does the talking) and then quickly sweep the target under the trench coat, injecting them with the potion that shrinks them to about a foot high. The why of all this is left to the imagination.

More humorous are the shots of the space station, which looks like the plastic space set I played with when I was 10, and the transportation device, which whirls around the space station over and over again no matter where it’s going.

Inside the station, there are the usual boards of unmarked flashing lights, sliding panels and even a nightclub, a sort of international NASA a Go-Go. And then there’s the very off-Broadway dance troupe, which seems to be a popular entertainment. Apparently, television has been eliminated in this version of the future.

More visually interesting and thoughtful despite its campy title, “Planet of the Vampires” follows two space ships, exploring under the flag of a united solar system group, as they crash land on a mysterious planet. After landing, the crew awakes with the powerful desire to kill each other, but return to normal after being roused from their semi-conscious state. While the crew led by Captain Markary (American TV veteran Barry Sullivan) survives the hypnotic assault, they find a few dead crew members from their sister ship while the rest are nowhere to be found. Not unlike “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” it soon becomes clear that some life form is taking over the dead bodies and won’t stop until every Earthling is a vampire/zombie.

Artfully directed by Maria Bava (who later did the cult classic “Dr. Goodfoot and the Girl Bombs”) and shot in a popish color scheme by Antonio Rinaldi, “Planet of the Vampires” is not unlike an episode of “Star Trek” and also shares plot similarities to the 1979 sci-fi classic “Alien.” If it wasn’t for the bizarre space suits and the diverting voice dubbings, this film might be remembered as an important link between the preachy sci-fi morality tales of the 1950s and the great leap forward in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

The black leather outfits----zipped up to the chin and featuring high, flaring collars, and topped with a skull cap----make the women look like Catwoman and the men leaders of some medieval crusade. As if battling an alien life form isn’t hard enough, doing it in these outfits should have been a union violation.

Between the Dick Tracy video phones and the all-important meteor rejecter, the film displays, with no fanfare, something nearly unseen in most movies of the era: men and women working side-by-side as equals. While mainstream films were still portraying career women as either wasting time before they find the right man or a complete aberration, once movies went into space, women were accepted as equal parts of the team, just as smart and capable as the men. For filmmakers, it was the only way to get a female presence in these space-bound movies, but it also made a (unintended?) pro-feminist statement.

In “Planet of the Vampires,” the female crew members scream more often than the men, but their professional skills and knowledge are never questioned.

The film, despite its many flaws, most due to its miniscule budget, stands with the best of the 1950 cycle of sci-fi pictures, and if only for its ominous ending, is worth seeking out. As for “Wild, Wild Planet,” with its miniaturized humans and four-armed killers, only those who savor bad cinema will truly appreciate it.

In the first two adaptations of the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s mystery trilogy Noomi Rapace inhabits “The Girl” with a fearless intensity that few actresses could match. Lisbeth Salander is an expert computer hacker with a troubled past who has the survival instincts of a wild animal trapped in a corner. As her sexually abusive court-appointed conservator discovers, she knows how to enact punishing revenge.

In “Dragon Tattoo,” she takes a sympathetic interest in Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), an investigative journalist who is hired by a retired industrialist to unlock the unexplained disappearance of his niece nearly 30 years ago. Eventually Lisbeth agrees to work with him as he unravels a trail of murders that began in the 1940s and may involve Nazi sympathizers, religious cultists and family secrets. Because so much of the investigation involves studying old photographs and digging into dusty company records, these two strong characters are essential to maintaining interest.

The film is as much about their past and how they bond during the investigation as it is about the solving of the mystery. Lisbeth, a lean, dark bundle of nerves, trusts no one and is always ready to bolt if anyone treads too close to her messy past, while Blomkvist is too trusting, even after being tricked into committing libel.

Director Niels Arden Oplev and his screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel have taken a dense, overflowing plot (reportedly the novel is even more complex) and distilled it into a fast-paced two and a half hour movie in which the plot turns never seem forced or unrealistic. There’s no shortage of violent, disturbing sequences in this film, but as guided by actors Rapace and Nyqvist, it never feels exploitive or over-the-top.

“Fire” finds the anti-social Lisbeth wanted on double murder charges, when one of Blomkvist’s writers, working on a story about the Eastern European sex trade, is killed by the same gun used to end the life of Lisbeth’s repulsive conservator. Bodies start to pile up as a blond killing machine named Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) takes out anyone keeping him from finding Lisbeth.

In this film, Blomkvist is one step behind Lisbeth, as he reinterprets clues left to incriminate her while attempting to intercept her before the bad guys do.

A new director (Daniel Alfredson) and screenwriter (Jonas Frykberg) manage to maintain the style and look of the first adventure while filling in the details that were left ambiguous in “Dragon.”

Maybe because of the length (each are nearly 2 ½ hours) and the episodical nature of the multi-character stories, they seems more like well-made television than feature films, but that doesn’t diminish the edge-of-your-seat drama and superbly drawn characters.

While “Fire” feels a bit more conventional than “Tattoo,” Rapace’s Lisbeth remains one of those rare movie characters whose intriguing back story and emotional resolve make her unforgettable. The final chapter, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” is due in October.

S.O.B. (1981)
In the past three decades only Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992) has matched this Blake Edwards’ comedy in capturing the surreal insanity of the movie business. The good news is that “S.O.B,” a free-wheeling, darkly cynical screwball, remains both hilarious and insightful a generation later.

The film within the film is a sweet-natured musical starring Sally Miles (Julie Andrews) and directed by her husband (Richard Mulligan) called “Night Wind,” which bombs in spectacular fashion. The failure sends the self-obsessed director into a suicidal funk and the equally egotistical star into career damage control.

Felix’s failed attempts to end his life---driving through his garage wall and into the Pacific Ocean below his Malibu home---brings three old friends to his side: pessimistic studio executive Culley (William Holden), pill-dispensing Dr. Irving Finegarten (Robert Preston) and his simpering agent Coogan (Robert Webber). While the frenetic story follows the director’s battle with the surly, heartless studio chief (Robert Vaughn) to reclaim control of the film and rework it into an erotic spectacular, the heart of “S.O.B.” is the Greek chorus of Holden, Preston and Webber ruminating on the industry and the disturbing priorities of the film community.

This was Holden’s final performance and a worthy curtain call for this versatile, charismatic star. He died just months after the release of the film when, drunk, he fell and cut his head in his home. For Preston, whose star had waned since his popular turn as “The Music Man” (1962), “S.O.B” led to one of his best roles, as the transvestite nightclub performer in “Victor/Victoria” (1982), also directed by Edwards. It earned Preston an Oscar nomination.

Webber, one of the busiest supporting players of the 1960s and ‘70s, usually played fast-talking, corrupt businessmen, which makes his over-the-top childish agent even funnier. As the three of them drink to their pal, Webber’s Coogan puts Hollywood tradition in perspective: “Standard Operational Bullshit. They kill the poor, sweet SOB and then they give him a sendoff like he’s some kind of saint.”

But “S.O.B.” is overflowing with these types of perfectly measured Hollywood caricatures, including Vaughn, Larry Hagman as a studio yes-man, Loretta Swit as an obnoxious gossip columnist, Larry Storch as a industry-savvy spiritual guru, Stuart Margolin as the ultimate sycophant who as the personal assistant to Sally really wants to be a producer, and Andrews as the bitchy prima donna, essentially satirizing her own squeaky clean imagine. (The Edwards-Andrews clunky 1970 musical “Darling Lili” became one of the signature death-knells of the studio era.)

“S.O.B.” was the second in a trio of hit comedies for Edwards, breaking his run of “Pink Panther” retreads. His mid-career surge began with “10” (1979), which made Dudley Moore a star and Bo Derek an icon, and ended with “Victor/Victoria” (1982), a thoroughly entertaining movie with Andrews as a stage performer pretending to be a man so she can pretend to be a woman on stage. The 88-year-old writer-director hasn’t made a film since his last stab at “Panther” magic with Italian goofball Roberto Benigni as the sleuth in “Son of Pink Panther” (1993).

It’s so rare to see a sophisticated, adult comic drama from Hollywood that it’s tempting to overlook its faults and over-praise it. That seems to be what happened with this film, which suffers from a flabby, unfocused script that isn’t helped by director Lisa Cholodenko’s inability to create any sense of narrative flow.

Cholodenko, as she showed in the equally inconsistenant “High Art” (1998) and “Laurel Canyon” (2002), is more than capable of creating memorable scenes and emotionally powerful acting moments, but falls short in pulling the bits and pieces together into a cohesive narrative.

That said, there is plenty to enjoy and appreciate about “The Kids Are All Right.” The set-up is packed with possibilities.

Nic (Annette Bening), a controlling wife-mother-surgeon is sent spinning into a midlife crisis when her two teenage children with her longtime lesbian partner, Jules (Julianne Moore), seek out the man who donated the sperm used to create them. When he turns out to be an organic-restaurant owner who everyone but Nic immediately likes it just increases her anxiety.

Nic and Jules are already going through a bit of a rough patch and things in the bedroom aren’t perfect when Paul (a jittery, talkative Mark Ruffalo) is brought into their world and upsets a teetering apple basket.

Unfortunately, the plot goes in a dozen different directions at once as Paul sincerely attempts to get to know his biological offspring, Jules agrees to landscape Paul’s backyard and the teens (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) try to establish their own personas. All of these threads feel like retreads from less serious films.

The most off-putting aspect of the screenplay involves Jules’ time spent at Paul’s home, working on his backyard. She becomes less likeable, less sympathetic as her relationship with Paul deepens, especially in her treatment of the Latino worker she’s hired to help her.

It was never clear if I should be laughing at Jules’ irresponsible and flaky approach to life or questioning her loyalty to her partner and family.

Yet Bening’s performance as Nic is worth the price of admission. Even as Cholodenko and co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg are painting her as a party-pooper who is overly fearful of outside influence on her family, Nic is facing a future of an empty nest and a less-than-committed partner. Bening does an impressive job of capturing both her real fears and her imagined ones.

Her performance culminates memorably during a dinner at Paul’s house. Things are a bit tense and everyone is waiting for Nic is lash out when she comments on his record collection. She’s impressed that he’s a fan of Joni Mitchell, joking that she meets so few straight men who like the singer-songwriter. Then, together, she and Paul spontaneously sing Mitchell’s sad, soulful “Blue.” Bening, who has given her fair share of fine performances in a career than includes a best actress Oscar for “American Beauty” (1999), has never created such a true and telling moment on screen. In this simple celebration of a great songwriter, Bening shows her age, her longing for the past, her inner trepidations about the future and her fragile emotions coloring her relationship with Jules.

Few films could sustain that kind of beautifully realized open window to hard realities, but this picture doesn’t come close. Instead, Cholodenko falls back on easy bromides, and, just like the cookie-cutter Hollywood movies she is trying so hard to distance this film from, puts the blame for problems on the outside intruder rather than facing the enemy within.

This unusual Western, Sidney Pollack’s third feature, expertly mixes comedy, action, social commentary and plenty of scene-chewing acting. Leading the charge is Burt Lancaster as Joe Bass, a quick-witted, cock-sure fur trader who forms an uneasy bound with Joseph Lee, a runaway slave played by Ossie Davis.

Bass heads after a gang of Indian scalphunters (apparently, a money-making endeavor) after they ambush a party of warriors who had just robbed Bass of his pelts. The scalphunters are led by Howie (Telly Savalas), a ruthless killer and racist whose leadership is continually undercut by his imperious wife Katie (a perfectly cast Shelley Winters). It’s a testimony to Pollack and screenwriter William W. Norton that they are able to milk so much comedy out the Savalas-Winters relationship, especially after they capture Joseph Lee and he plays them off one another, considering the serious issues being addressed.

But the secret weapon of this picture is Lancaster, who for me is the acting version of comfort food. Just watching this nimble, energetic performance at work, whether he’s jumping from rock to rock as he avoids gunfire or reacting with his darting eyes and toothy grin to a putdown from Joseph Lee is a reminder of what a larger-than-life screen persona brings to the cinema.

The film is loaded---maybe overloaded----with contemporary issues about the relationship between European and Native Americans and the ever-changing status of blacks, all played out on the rocky, desert foothills of Texas.

Davis’ dances the fine line between playing the obedient “Negro” and outmaneuvering the thick-headed whites. Ironically, at the height of the civil rights movement, Hollywood did a better job of dealing with the issue of race and the country’s racism than they do now. In large part, that’s a reflection of an era in which directors and writers had unprecedented freedom to address issues they felt strong about. Today, the central issue is how to make the film more audience friendly.

The next year, Pollack helmed his breakthrough film, the Depression-era drama “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” starting a two-decade run that included the popular romance “The Way We Were” (1973), the comic masterpiece “Tootsie” and the Oscar-winning “Out of Africa” (1985).

While there are few obvious similarities between “The Scalphunters” and “Tootsie”---except the presence of Dabney Coleman in the cast---they were the director’s only comedies and, in both, Pollack found a way to deal with serious issues between the laughs.

Few would have predicted that Kevin Kline’s days as a comic star would end with “In & Out” (1997), a finely measured portrayal of a man who, days away from his wedding, is forced to confront his sexuality.

During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Kline was the subtle, smart alternative to Steve Martin and Robin Williams, with memorable comic turns in “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988), “Soapdish” (1991) and “Dave” (1993).

Lately, he’s turned cloyingly serious with “Life as a House” (2001) and “De-Lovely” (2004), as a dreary Cole Porter, misfired in a goofy role in “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) and, a true low, co-starred with Martin in a 2006 “Pink Panther” remake.

“The Extra Man” is a return to character-based comedy, but it didn’t last long in theaters and Kline’s role is more of an over-written, one-note supporting part. He plays Henry Harrison, a professional curmudgeon who scratches out a living by escorting well-to-do elderly women to dinners and openings around Manhattan.

It’s one of those characters who at first seems amusingly quirky but quickly turns irritating and, eventually, tiresome.

His co-star is the naturally quirky Paul Dano (“The Good Heart” and “There Will Be Blood”), playing a fired English professor who moves to New York City to become a novelist and, for no good reason, agrees to rent a tiny little room from Henry. Dano’s Louis spends his time agonizing over his attraction to a co-worker (a stiff, rather dull Katie Holmes) and his secret desire to become a transvestite, but he’s so confused he fails to commit to either.

Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (working from a novel by Jonathan Ames) have loaded the film with so many oddball characters----there’s also John C. Reilly playing a very hairy neighbor who speaking with a Mickey Mouse-like voice----that they just cancel each other out.

The best scenes in the picture are those featuring Marian Seldes, one of Kline’s elderly “dates” who struggles to stay awake as a strange collection of men vie for her attention. Otherwise, this menagerie of hopeless, pitiful characters ends up being more tragic than funny.

CORRECTION: In last month’s review of “Flame & Citron,” I incorrectly placed the World War II actioner in Amsterdam. The film is set in and around the Denmark capital, Copenhagen.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

July 2010

In Christopher Nolan’s latest cerebral action picture, the characters never stop explaining the numerous metaphysical miracles the film presents. Whether they are in a dream, constructing a future dream or planning a dream caper, the talk is all about the process. Unlike most sci-fi thrillers, where the setup is established and then the characters experience the adventure, this film is all about making the audience buy into the setup---if and when and why they’re in a dream and whose dream it is and why the dream must end soon and how they’re going to escape the dream. I didn’t mind being confused, but all the talking about it drove me nuts.

By the final act, or should I say dream, set in a Bond film-like snow-bound complex, I was so worn down by all the dialogue required to make a semblance of sense out of this plot that I slipped into a dream myself. Seriously. I’m not making this up. I nodded off for just a few seconds and then awoke remembering being in a Las Vegas casino. The “Inception” characters are not that lucky.

These dreams turn out to be way too much like a typical Hollywood action film. In fact, these really aren’t dreams in the way we’ve been trained to experience them in movies (see Hitchcock, Bergman, David Lynch for more realistic cinematic dreaming), where strange characters say strange things and logic rarely makes an appearance. In this film, the word “dream” is used as an excuse to play around with the laws of gravity and relativity.

An especially intense and anguished Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an extractor who specializes in slipping into other’s dreams and stealing secrets from their subconscious. Taking on “one last job”---as all sincere cinematic criminals must do---with a promise that he’ll be reunited with his young children in the U.S., Cobb agrees to plant the idea in the mind of the heir to an energy conglomerate (Cillian Murphy) that he should break up the firm, a move that will benefit his competitor (Ken Watanabe). Immediately, for better or worse, the film puts the viewer in the position of rooting for the success of an operation designed to enrich a greedy corporation.

Cobb and his scientific team lay out a complex plot that includes deceptive play acting at three levels of dreaming, all taking place simultaneously while they and the target take a private jet on an intercontinental flight.

I never quite understood, despite lengthy explanations by Cobb and trusted sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), how the three different dream states were connected or who was picking the environment for these alternative realities. It also turns out that these dream weavers are equally skilled at handling weapons. Apparently, in this world of dream invaders, there are also dream security teams. The lesson to be learned is that you should never go to sleep without your team in place and a pistol in your belt.

To appreciate this film, I’d advise forgetting about trying to make sense of it and just enjoy the ride, letting the entire experience wash over you. Not that I could do that. Even putting the pesky details aside, you’re still stuck with the unending discussions of what the characters can and cannot do while in a dream. And, unlike most dream experiences, not a single long-forgotten high school classmate shows up.

The most promising plotline of the film involves Cobb’s late wife (played by the always interesting Marion Cotillard), who keeps popping up in the most inopportune times in these dreams. The movie is most alive when Cobb and his wife are engaging one another, a love-hate relationship that brings out the best in the actors. Their once and current relationship keeps “Inception” from being “Mission: Impossible, Part IV.”

Ellen Page, a 2007 Oscar nominee for “Juno,” as the dream architect with a very free-flowing imagination and Gordon-Levitt, best known for last year’s “(500) Days of Summer,” have the cool, unflappable attitudes down pat but never get a chance to evolve into individuals. The two rival businessmen turn out to be the most interesting characters in the picture, slyly played by Watanabe, who earned an Oscar nomination for “The Last Samurai” (2003), and Murphy, who was a bad guy in Nolan’s “Batman Begins” (2005).

Much like his Teddy Daniels in “Shelter Island,” DiCaprio’s Cobb is a hopeless, drifting soul whose life has lost its meaning after the death of his wife. Also in both films, the characters must emerge from dream-like states to gain any semblance of a normal life. DiCaprio seems to be trying too hard in both pictures, never coming down to earth as he did so well in “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed.”

Writer-director Nolan, who became Warner Bros. favorite son after megahits “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (2008), creates some mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind visual in “Inception,” most of which can be seen in the trailer. Yet he never made me care enough about his dream world that I wanted to figure it out. When the good guys and the bad guys are indistinguishable, it’s hard to work up much emotional investment in the story. And when the rules of the game are impossible to follow, who wins or loses hardly seems to matter.

There’s been a ton of World War II resistance movies in the past decade, but not many feature a story as compelling or well told as the one in this Danish picture. Based on the experiences of a pair of real heroes, the film chronicles the efforts of a young hotshot assassin nicknamed Flame and his equally impassioned partner, a crumpled, unassuming Citron to disrupt the Nazi occupation of Denmark.

Thure Lindhardt as Flame and Mads Mikkelsen (the bad guy in “Casino Royale”) as Citron draw you into this story immediate as they seek out Danish collaborators and the occasional German. Ironically, the head of their resistance cell, the imperious Winther (Perer Mygind) keeps telling them to not kill Nazis, especially Hoffmann, the region’s Gestapo chief superbly portrayed by Christian Berkel (he played the barkeep in the brilliant tavern scene in “Inglorious Basterds”). But the moral clarity becomes much grayer as who and why they are killing changes and Flame starts getting conflicting information from a mysterious older woman (Stine Stengade) he takes up with.

Director Ole Christian Madsen, who co-wrote the film with Lars Andersen, never lets the action or the intrigue flag and constantly slips in foreshadowing clues as to the shifting moral dilemmas and confusing loyalties these passionate fighters face. Turns out, the politics of the resistance can be just as misguided and ambivalent as those of the enemy. In that way, and the manner in which he uses its locale (Copenhagen), it reminded me of “The Third Man” and how inseparable that film is from Vienna.

But even if you’re not into WWII actioners, the portrait of these two brave men, who sacrifice their personal lives and any hope of escaping, to make the Nazi occupation as unpleasant as possible for the Germans and their collaborators, is not to be missed. These complex, strong-willed nationalists are memorably brought to life by great performances by Lindhardt and Mikkelsen. “Flame & Citron” takes an old genre and breathes new life into it, bringing to the screen two of the most interesting resistance fighters of the war.

TOY STORY 3 (2010)
I’ve been thoroughly disappointed by so many acclaimed, highly recommended (friends with children clearly can’t be trusted) animated pictures in the past 10 years that I held out little hope for the latest Pixar “masterpiece.” My thinking was: Shouldn’t part threes of animated features go directly to DVD? Beyond appreciating the clever characters of the original, I hadn’t though much of the first two “Toy Story” films.

Yet right from the opening sequence, there was something different about Part 3. In a flashback fantasy, the imagination of a young Andy is working at full tilt, as he utilizes all his toys to provide a wondrous remembrance of childhood playtime. (Not to mention an appearance by the fondly remembered Troll dolls from the 1960s).

But those happy days for Andy’s classic toy collection are long in the past. Now, as he prepares for college, the toys sit idle in a toy chest soon to be abandoned. On the way to the attic, the garbage bag filled with the toys (save for Andy’s favorite, Woody) nearly lands in the garbage and ends up as donations to the Sunnyside Daycare Center.

The family of toys, led by spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), are welcomed into the daycare center by a deceptively comforting teddy bear (Ned Beatty) and a naïve, upbeat Ken doll (Michael Keaton), who immediately has eyes for Barbie (Jodi Benson). Who would have guessed? The back-and-forth flirtation between Ken and Barbie offers more out-loud laughs than 90% of contemporary Hollywood comedies.

The film shifts into high gear when the toys are stuck in the infants’ room and find themselves not so much played with, but abused in ever-expanding creative ways. When they complain to the boss bear, it turns out he’s more Mafia don than lovable scout leader. Just in the nick of time, Woody (Tom Hanks) shows up to help them escape the Sunnyside “prison.”

The film’s team of screenwriters is impressive---John Lasseter, director and co-writer of the first two “Toy Story” pictures; Andrew Stanton, co-writer of the first two; Lee Unkrich, who also directed, and Michael Arndt, an Oscar winner for “Little Miss Sunshine”----and their efforts top anything any of them has produced in the past. The script reminded me of the classic screwballs from the 1930s or ‘40s, so filled with funny one-liners and hilarious physical comic bits (Mrs. Potato Head’s missing eye, a giant baby doll, the Spanish mode of Buzz) that details of the plot are completely secondary. While Buzz and Woody remain the stars, the writers use every toy in the box and get laughs with all of them. Wallace Shawn’s Rex the dinosaur, John Ratzenberger’s Hamm the piggybank and, of course, Don Rickles’ Mr. Potato Head each have priceless moments and bring a world-weary cynicism to this fast-paced cartoon.

I wouldn’t categorize “Toy Story 3” as a dark film, but it’s not quite the usual buoyant amusement one expects from Pixar/Disney, which, for me, made all the difference. How could I resist a film featuring a despondent, traumatized clown toy, a pretentious hedgehog thespian and an all-seeing, evil clapping monkey?

I finally got around to experiencing this dark, over-amped David Fincher film and I’m perplexed. Not so much by the controversial film itself, which amounts to sophomoric pop psychology mixed with a Robert Bly lecture, but at its cult following among young men. I assume they are enamored of Brad Pitt’s macho, impossibly persuasive anarchist Tyler, but are they buying into the movie’s view that American males have become spineless sheep or its unrelenting assault on American consumerism and our work ethic? Or did they even notice.

“Fight Club” is a grungy, muddy looking picture, appropriately released near the eve of the new millennium, in which society is presented as a series of support groups filled with somnolent souls in bad need of receiving a right hook to the face. The film does offer some irony, as these men seeking to invigorate their mundane lives end up becoming robotic followers in Tyler’s army of malcontents.

I can’t imagine that there are many of you who have yet to see “Fight Club,” but still plan to at some future date. For those who still have it at No. 134 on their Netflix queue, I offer a warning that important plot turns will be revealed in the following paragraphs.

The set-up is promising as the nameless narrator (Edward Norton) becomes addicted to attending support groups, mostly for those who are ill or have lost loved ones, and meets the like-minded Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Though they are clearly meant for one another---she’s a cynical bohemian seemingly living hand to mouth, he’s an insurance adjuster who is obsessed with accessorizing his condo---Norton’s character sees her as an intruder and attempts to chase for out of “his” groups. Then, returning from a business trip, he meets Tyler. Under mysterious circumstances, he crashes at Tyler’s dilapidated, off-the-grid house and together they create fight club, a secretive bare-knuckles amateur boxing group in which the goal is to get the crap beat out of you on a weekly basis.

As the spiritual leader of this group (and other groups that spring up all over the country), Tyler starts pushing members to engage in various dirty tricks in their jobs, a vision that quickly escalates into creating mayhem and violence. When Norton’s narrator begins to question the growing criminality and danger of the group, Tyler disappears.

This feverish nightmare keeps descending down the rabbit hole until it hits pay dirt: Tyler doesn’t exist; he’s but an alternate personality of Norton’s character, capable of realizing and saying everything the less aggressive part of him can only imagine. After this was revealed I went back and fast-forwarded through the previous two hours and, overall, the film holds together even knowing that Pitt’s Tyler is a figment of an imagination. Of course, it doesn’t explain how he has pulled off all these extraordinary, technically intricate scenarios (sophisticated explosives come into play) or how much of what we see him doing is just part of his imagination. Rarely has a director and screenwriter (Jim Uhles working from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) asked viewers to take such a ridiculous leap.

I disliked this film as much as I admired and enjoyed Fincher’s “Seven” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007), both among the best film’s of their years. In many ways it reminded me of the director’s most recent and celebrated film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) in that he stuffed so much into the picture that there’s no room for the characters or the story itself to breathe. Pitt, Norton and Bonham Carter are sufficiently believable, but they aren’t real characters anyway, just symbols for all of us who have been crushed by a materialistic, self-centered society.

Maybe the only real human in “Fight Club” is the sad, desperate Bob (played by, of all people, the pop singer Meatloaf), who is Tyler’s most obvious victim in this misguided therapeutic session.

There’s a great movie to be made about the legendary offshore British radio station “Radio Caroline,” which challenged the dominance of BBC radio during the mid-1960s, but this isn’t it.

Writer-director Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually”) does a nice job of capturing the rebellious enthusiasm and uncompromising devotion to the music that fueled this illegal endeavor and inspired its listening audience. But the by-the-numbers battle with the British government (personified---actually caricatured---by Kenneth Branagh’s vindictive Sir Alistair Dormandy) and the soap opera entanglements of the boat-bound disc jockeys, the two main threads of the plot, are cliché throwaways, undermining the energy of the period music.

What entertainment “Pirate Radio” provides comes from the scenes of the DJs doing their shows, recalling those great early days of rock ‘n’ roll radio when the DJ’s musical taste, political commentary and ability to turn a phrase was just as important as the latest single from the Beatles, the Who or the Doors.

A slumming Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Count, a hot-shot American jock who is the unofficial leader of this ragtag group, and Rhys Ifans, who played the witless roommate in Curtis’ “Notting Hill,” as the mysterious, pretentious Gavin, keep this boat afloat while the central tale of Carl (Tom Sturridge), the godson of the station manager unflappable manager (Bill Nighy), sputters. Too much time is wasted on Carl’s coming-of-age search for a girlfriend and a father figure, but the script doesn’t have much else to offer in terms of plot.

Sad to say, but “Pirate Radio” most closely resembles a very long episode of “The Monkees.” Luckily it does have all that glorious music---over 50 cuts from the best of ‘60s rock (except for the Beatles, a catalog nearly impossible to license)---which probably saved it from going straight to DVD..

Another era’s music fuels this very familiar tale of disillusioned youths seeking salvation through rock ‘n’ roll fame. This pioneering all-girl punk band, thrown together by Los Angeles record producer Kim Fowley, launched the careers of rockers Joan Jett and Lita Ford and wannabe model/actress Cherie Currie before disbanding just three years after signing a record deal.

Michael Shannon, a 2008 Oscar nominee for “Revolutionary Road,” dominates the first half of the film as the profane, unpleasantly arrogant Fowley, who recognizes that pop music’s future is marketing not talent. He hooks up guitarist Jett (a brooding Kristen Stewart) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and then assembles a band around them that eventually evolves into the Runaways. Fowley’s most calculated move is to “cast” troubled teen Currie (veteran child actress Dakota Fanning, now 16) as the group’s lead singer simply because he likes her look.

Fowley bullies her into a semblance of a punk shouter but also creates a self-indulgent drug addict who can’t handle her or the band’s overnight success.
The picture, based on Currie’s memoirs, never properly communicates how hugely popular the Runaways were in the late ‘70s. With hits “Cherry Bomb” and “Queens of Noise,” and selling overt sexuality on stage, the band headlined U.S. and world tours. If I didn’t know better, from watching the film, I’d have thought they were but a minor success. The film certainly doesn’t show anyone getting rich.

Instead writer-director Flora Sigismondi, whose background is in music videos, offers repetitive rehearsal scenes and rather tepid band behavior on the road, during which the soft-spoken Fanny struggles to make Currie’s downfall convincing. It’s also jolting when the soundtrack switches from the actresses performing the music in rehearsal to the actual recordings used during the film’s recreation of their live performances. That’s why most films about performers keep rehearsal scenes to a minimum.

I was impressed with Stewart, star of the “Twilight” franchise, who I had never seen act before. Her Jett, even as she becomes a rock celebrity, never loses that look of a damaged little girl. It’s a surprisingly low-keyed performance in the middle of a loud, disjointed movie. Also offering an interesting performance in a small role is former child star Tatum O’Neal, as Currie’s hopelessly irresponsible mother.

In real life, Jett went on to front another band, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who’s first hit, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” spent seven weeks at No. 1 during 1982. Currie’s solo singing career sputtered and she didn’t do much better as an actress, playing one of the wild girls in “Foxes” (1980) and then taking a handful of smaller roles in films and TV into the early ‘90s. Ford, played in the film by Scout Taylor-Compton, doesn’t have much to do in the movie, but after the band broke up she had a successful solo career as one of the few female heavy metal rockers, and, 30 years later, still tours.

On paper, showbiz stories always seem as if they could make compelling drama, but, like Westerns, it is crucial the filmmakers find what makes their latest version special. The clichés are essential to the genre’s appeal----humble beginnings, demanding manager, sudden fame, jealousy, drugs, booze and sex----but the successful ones (recently, “Walk the Line,” “Ray,” “Cadillac Records”) find something new in the emotions and motivations behind the performer’s success. “The Runaways” has none of that and remains mired in mediocrity, not even a one-hit wonder.

I AM LOVE (2010)
This operatic, occasionally bombastic picture portrays the mostly ordinary comings and going of a wealthy Italian family living in grand style in Milan.
The film opens impressively with an elaborately dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the family’s patriarch. This set-piece seems to go on forever as director Luca Guadagnino details every aspects of the evening---from the preparation of the food to the old man’s announcement that he’s handing over control of the family textile company to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbonno) and grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti).

Despite some offhanded displays of emotion, the Recchis seem more like a corporation than a family. Echoing that feeling is Tancredi’s Russian-born wife and perfect hostess Emma (Tilda Swinton), whose icy, careful demeanor hides her concerns for her children and the family status. Yet she’s clearly bored with her life, struggling to stay focused doing the endless series of dinner parties, lunches and shopping trips. A thread of a plot begins to develop when she shows an unexpected interest in the young chef who is planning to open a restaurant with her son.

This very calculated film goes from remote to passionate very quickly but I never could work up much emotional connection to these characters.
Swinton, who won an Oscar for her role as the ruthless business executive in “Michael Clayton” (2007), is impression in this Italian film, mastering both the language (at least well enough for someone who is a Russian transplant) and this introspective, complex character. If it wasn’t her fascinating portrayal of a woman in full midlife crisis, this would have been an extraordinary tedious film. Most of the other characters are just well-tailored suits.

An exception is the still-striking Marisa Berenson, best known as the female lead in “Barry Lyndon” (1975), who plays Emma’s elegant mother-in-law. I actually would have been more intrigued by her story rather than the one Guadagnino and his collection of screenwriters decided to tell.

The director clearly saw this tale as something sprawling and important (you can see the influence of “The Godfather” films in more than one scene) and the heavy-handed score by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams (his best-known operas are “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic”) just adds to the melodramatic bluster. At too many important moments of the film, the grave score drowns out the actors and, unintentionally, punctuates how flimsy the story really is.