Monday, May 10, 2010

April 2010

Two social outcasts, both loners but possessing wildly different points of view, who find a shared passion in a dingy, out-of-the-way bar make for a great platform for two memorable, truth-seeking performances and an unassuming, insightful character study.

The always compelling Scottish actor Brian Cox----he was the original Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter” (1986)----plays Jacques, an obscenity-spewing, self-centered force of nature with a failing heart who owns a rather unwelcoming New York City tavern. Paul Dano, the young actor who made his mark as the unhappy teen in “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and as the deranged frontier preacher in “There Will Be Blood” (2007), plays Lucas, a depressed homeless man.

They form a tentative bond when they meet in a hospital ward after Jacques suffers yet another heart attack and Lucas survives a suicide attempt. After they’re released, Jacques drags Lucas back to his bar, lets him sleep in an upstairs, jail-like room and offers him a chance to not only work at his bar but take it over when he dies. Lucas, a gentle, kind soul who can’t fathom Jacques seemingly blanket hatred of all mankind, reluctantly stays on. Soon, much to his boss’s disgust, Lucas is talking to the regulars (Jacques refuses to serve walk-ins, allowing in only the daily barflies who he regards with distain) and turning the joint into an entertaining refuge.

Typical of this film, more parable than drama, an Eastern European waif (Isild Le Besco) emerges from a rainy night seeking a place to sleep and ends up involved with Lucas and causing more consternation for Jacques. There’s also a duck purchased for a planned Christmas dinner that becomes part of the bar’s expanding, more cheery, world.

Writer-director Dagur Kari, an Icelandic filmmaker, finds the perfect measure of comedy, tragedy, insight and foolishness to mix up the perfect cocktail of quiet desperation on the rocks. In this, his first English-language feature, Kari smartly allows these two fine actors plenty of space to turn what could easily have become clichés into thoughtful characters with real dirt under their fingernails.

Dano, who I really disliked in “There Will Be Blood,” a bad combination of his blank stare and hysterical preaching, redeems himself as Lucas, a young man who thinks the best of everyone but finds himself without a purpose. It’s a quiet (especially in comparison to Cox), internalized performance that shines a light on those just too fragile for life’s harsh realities. Meanwhile, Cox turns Jacques into a one-man wrecking crew who, isolated in his dank, cloistered dive, has divined his own, inflexible rules on how to conduct oneself. It’s a remarkably controlled performance as a man who’s losing control of his orderly existence.

The 63-year-old actor, one of the stars of the British stage whose acclaimed work with the Royal Shakespearean Company has including “King Lear,” “Titus Andronicus” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” is also a mainstay of British TV, but he made few film appearance until the 1990s. He starred in Ken Loach’s underrated thriller “Hidden Agenda” (1990) and had supporting roles in two movies based on Scottish history, “Rob Roy” (1994) and “Braveheart” (1995).

The actor then started a run of first-rate films performances that raised his profile considerably, starting with his sympathetic prep school dean in “Rushmore” (1998); Big John, the charismatic child predator in the controversial “L.I.E.” (2001); the corrupt, murderous CIA bureaucrat Ward Abbott in “The Bourne Identity” (2002) and “The Borne Supremacy” (2004); the father of a man about to enter prison in Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” (2002); and, most memorably, his strident, assaulting turn as real-life writing guru Robert McKee in “Adaptation” (2002).

Cox now appears in two or three films a year, typically as a mad professor type or a heavy----he was particularly nutty as the psychologist who runs his home like an asylum in “Running With Scissors” (2006)----and never fails to enliven (or should I say steal) any scene he’s in. To say he’s the best character actor working in film just touches on the impressive range, intellect and energy he brings to every role and is reason enough to see “The Good Heart.”


and ONE MORE TIME (1970)
The “Rat Pack” films of the 1960s haven’t aged very well, but a Pack flick without Frank or Dino is like a Three Stooges picture without Moe and Curley. Pretty much pointless.

Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford play Charles Salt and Christopher Pepper, best buddies and hipster owners of a London nightclub. The plot has something to do with assassins and government conspiracies, but that’s just an excuse for the stars to drive sports cars around London and leer and flirt with scores of mini-skirted “birds.” But these playboys are all talk; they always end up hanging out with each other instead of one of these sexy women.

Sammy, wearing a hairpiece that looks like a helmet and sporting Shirley Temple bangs, gets a chance to show off his extraordinary musical talents, singing, dancing and playing a collection of instruments, easily the highlight of the picture. Lawford floats through the film as if he’s walking from the casino to the lounge looking for a cocktail. It’s future above-the-title director Richard Donner’s second feature after having helmed episodes of nearly every major TV series in the 1960s, from “The Rifleman” and “The Twilight Zone” to “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Gilligan’s Island.” This slickly packaged mess most closely resembles the later and is a long way from Donner’s future franchise hits, “Superman” and “Lethal Weapon.”

More than 40 years later, it looks like a project that was made because Sinatra called in some favors, but someone enjoyed it; the picture apparently attracted enough moviegoers to spur a sequel. Donner smartly moved on to better projects (“The Banana Splits Adventure Hour”), opening the door, believe it or not, for Jerry Lewis to move into the director’s chair. And why not? Who else would want to helm another adventure of these cool cats?

Whether they liked it or not, Sammy and Peter found themselves in a Jerry Lewis film and involved in all the awful things that implies. “One More Time” may not be the worst Lewis-directed film (in part because it doesn’t star Lewis) but it’s pretty close.

In this silly scenario, Pepper’s twin brother, a very proper, wealthy government official, is assassinated and Pepper assumes his identity, even keeping it secret from his buddy Salt.

While Pepper tries to uncover the reasons his brother was killed, Salt wonders around the family castle, acting like he just arrived from Idaho. Suddenly, the hip London nightclub owner is dumbfounded by a house with a staircase and wood-paneled walls.

He plays a bumbling, wide-eyed idiot---in other words, Sammy gets the Jerry Lewis role. Davis isn’t much of an actor anyway, but forced to replicate Jerry’s exaggerated facial expressions and pratfalls it’s a performance unpleasant to watch. Occasionally, it slips into degrading “Stepin Fetchit” territory, for which Davis and Lewis both deserve blame.

Lewis’ direction makes it worse, shooting nearly every scene at such a distance it’s often unclear what’s going on. I think Lewis tries so hard to be innovative and unorthodox (for the ultimate example, see his “The Big Mouth”) that the results inevitably turn out to be distractingly amateurish.

I guess the one positive you can say about “One More Time” is that the director makes sure this isn’t just another sequel to a bad film. Lewis delivers a spectacular embarrassment for all involved.

The history behind this popular comedy remains far more interesting than this screwball tale of a pair of Ohio girls trying to make it in New York City.

Eileen McKenney, the subject of the stories written by her sister Ruth for the New Yorker, died in a car crash in 1940, just a few days before the Broadway play was to open. She and her husband of eight months, Nathanael West, author of “The Day of the Locust,” were both killed en route to the funeral for F. Scott Fitzgerald. She was just 26. A book chronicling their relationship, “Lonely Hearts” by Marion Meade, was just released this year.

Ruth McKenney had turned her original stories into a book, mostly about their childhood near Cleveland. But it was the stories about the sisters’ adventures in New York that were the basis of a stage play by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov. The comedy, starring Shirley Booth, ran on Broadway for over two years.

In addition to this 1942 film version, the playwrights turned the story into a musical, “Wonderful Town,” with lyrics by Betty Compton and Adolph Green (the team behind “Singin’ in the Rain”) and music by Leonard Bernstein. Opening in 1953, the musical featured Rosalind Russell reprising her role from the movie version.

Then Hollywood also turned the tale into a musical but didn’t use any of the music from “Wonderful Town.” Instead, “My Sister Eileen” (1955) featured songs by Jule Styne and Leo Robin and early choreography work by Bob Fosse (who also acts and dances in the film). Starring Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon, this 1955 version was directed by Richard Quine, who played one of Eileen’s many suitors in the 1942 version.

And if that wasn’t enough, “My Sister Eileen” became a television series, airing in the 1960-61 season and starred Broadway star Elaine Stritch as Ruth.

Now you know more about “My Sister Eileen” than you ever wanted to.

The 1942 film, snappily directed by Alexander Hall (“Here Comes Mr. Jordon”), is a series of set pieces in which the Sherwood sisters, Ruth (Rosalind Russell) and Eileen (Janet Blair), encounter every goofball in New York as they traipse through their one-room Greenwich Village basement apartment as if it’s part of the sidewalk. (All based on the real adventures of the McKenney sisters.)

Of course, these naïve, frustrated newcomers persevere and eventually, after Ruth sells her first story and lands a job, see their future in the city. It’s more sitcom than feature film.

Russell’s high-energy, fast-talking sarcasm, earning her a best actress Oscar nomination, offers some relief from the film’s unrelenting sentimental parade of quirky characters. Blair, in one of her first roles in a long career in film and TV, is appropriately spirited as Eileen.

But nothing in the film can compare to the fascinating history of this story and the people behind it.

Roger Ebert beat me to the punch. The hardest working writer in America opined recently in Newsweek that 3-D, Hollywood’s latest golden goose, won’t last and the fact that it adds little to the entertainment value of most movies will eventually don on filmgoers. I hope he’s right, because Tim Burton’s uninspired rehash of the Lewis Carroll novels, will most likely be the last 3-D picture I attend if theaters insist on charging an extra $4 or $5 to enter that extra dimension. But, let’s face it, most any film shown in 3-D isn’t the kind of film I would have much interest in anyway. At least, up to this point.

What concerns me is when you hear that every director in town is changing their latest production so it can be filmed in 3-D (even, my heart shutters, Martin Scorsese). I know, it’s all about the money, but can’t these filmmakers see that 3-D is perfectly fine for a Universal Studios attraction, but does nothing to improve the artistic value of a motion picture.

Burton’s “Alice” would have been just as good (or, more precisely, just as average) without the 3-D effects, with its colorfully cartoonish characters and otherworldly setting. In this version of the tale, Alice (well played by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 and about to be pushed into an arranged marriage she has no interest in. To escape, at least temporarily, she once again goes down the rabbit hole and runs into the same obstacles and hard to fathom characters. While she remembers the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) from her childhood dreams, they seem uncertain if this is the “real” Alice.

In fact, Alice is back in Wonderland to defeat the evil Red Queen (the real star of the picture, Helena Bonham Carter) and restore the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to her rightful place in the kingdom.

It all sounds like great fun and opportunities for clever wordplay (Carroll’s specialty), but other than Bonham Carter’s marvelous turn as the royally entitled Red Queen and the endless jokes about her giant head, it’s all rather tedious.

Depp, made up as if he’s headed to Mardi Gras, plays the Mad Hatter as more absent minded than mad. He becomes Alice’s co-conspirator, but ends up being more of a burden than a partner. If Burton had been brave, he would have spiced the story up adding some Wonderland romance for Alice. But instead we’re expected to be entertained by the effect of tea cups and butterflies seeming flying by our heads. This “Alice,” is for the kiddies only.

BEOWULF (2007)
Director Robert Zemeckis has long been fascinated with the integration of special effects and classic cinematic storytelling, but the innocent days of “Back to the Future” (1985), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and “Forrest Gump” (1994) are long gone.

This action-packed, fast-paced retelling of the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” is an obvious harbinger of “Avatar” in its use of computer-generated versions of flesh-and-blood actors.

The process is called motion capture and requires actors to wear tights covered with digital sensor dots as they act out the scene in a studio. Later the scene is filled out in the computer and the actor costumed to fit the setting, yet his physical and facial movements remain his own. Or, at least, that’s the theory.

The results in this case end up somewhere between “Shrek” and “The Lord of the Rings,” an unsteady netherworld that’s as believable as a 1930s outdoor adventure filmed in a Burbank studio. But my main objection to the process, at least how it looks in “Beowulf,” is the way it turns the actors’ faces into unexpressive masks.

Aussie actor Ray Winstone stars as the heroic but flawed 6th Century warrior Beowulf, but if I hadn’t know that ahead of time, I never would have recognized him. I had no idea that Robin Wright Penn “plays” (or maybe we should say “voices”) the role of the queen. It was 20 minutes into the film before I recognized Anthony Hopkins as the Danish king who solicits Beowulf’s services in ridding the kingdom of the monster Grendel (appropriately, Crispin Glover).

Only John Malkovich as the conniving Unferth and the impressively rendered Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s evil, seductive mother are immediate recognizable. Maybe because Malkovich’s and Jolie’s faces are so faithfully recreated, their dialogue sounds convincing and their performances seem real. Everyone else comes off as badly dubbed foreign actors.

The gory action sequences are masterfully visualized---I can only imagine how much better they were in 3-D on a big screen (sorry, just joking)---with the imaginary camera sweeping from close-ups of combatants on the ground to a bird’s eye view hundreds of feet above the group in mere seconds. It’s startling and impressive, but I never stopped thinking that I was watching an over-plotted video game.

Since every other release is either a sci-fi or fantasy tale, computer-generated filmmaking, complete with an added dimension, seems inevitable to dominate screens for at least a few years. No doubt, it’s everything the video game generation ever dreamed of. For me, from the Hula-Hoop generation, I prefer my actors walking around in real sets and locations, delivering performances for the camera, not the computer.

I’m not really sure what universe Jim Jarmusch was living in while he constructed this purposely vague, silly film about a solitary contract killer.

Isaach De Bankolé, a distinctively stern looking actor from Ivory Coast who has had smaller roles in previous Jarmusch films and played the corrupt African president in last year’s season of “24,” portrays the hit man who travels across Europe, mostly indulging in two cups of coffee (he makes a fuss over that request) at outdoor cafés. There he makes contact with some bizarre characters (a motley crew that includes Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal) who, after absurd conversations, leave him his latest instructions in a match box. About the only break in this monotonous story is the arrival of a naked woman (Paz de la Huerta) in his hotel room. Makes perfect sense to me. The hit man tells her he doesn’t have sex while he’s on the job, so the pair spend a lot of time lying in bed; he fully dressed, her naked.

When our hero (or whatever he is) finally gets to the target of his quest---a well-fortified compound where some type of high-level meeting is ongoing----he manages to find a way inside and to the office of the business man (who else but Bill Murray) he’s assigned to kill, a seemingly impossible feat. But, this being a Jarmusch film, we never see how he manages to get by the guards or determines where the target can be found.

While I applaud the filmmaker for staking out his own artistic path, please give me something to chew on here; an idea, a character, an adventure. This, as Gene Hackman’s character in “Night Moves” says of an Eric Rohmer film, is like watching paint dry.

Since Jarmusch became a critical favorite in 1984 with “Stranger Than Paradise,” a wonderfully oddball black-and-white comedy that holds up as one of the best films of the 1980s, he’s directed just nine films. Among those, only “Down by Law” (1986), “Dead Man” (1995) and “Broken Flowers” (2005) are worth a second look. And this latest rumination isn’t worth a first look.

After making just a single film during the 1970s (the jokey thriller “Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street”), legendary filmmaking iconoclast Sam Fuller returned to prominence with “The Big Red One,” his sprawling epic remembrance of his service in World War II. This masterful battlefield drama, along with “The Steel Helmet” (1951), a stark, intense Korean War movie, and “Pickup on South Street” (1953), his Cold War film noir, are the jewels in the career of this soldier/reporter turned filmmaker.

But after the box office disappointment of “The Big Red One” left Fuller struggling for financial backing, he managed to make just two more features. His controversial 1982 film “White Dog” never received a proper U.S. release after rumors spread that it was racist; in fact it’s about the retraining of a canine taught to attack African Americans. “Street of No Return,” which also focuses on problems between white and blacks, with less subtlety, was treated just as poorly, barely released two years after it was finished and still hard to find on DVD.

Disjointed and badly acted, this overwrought drama stars Keith Carradine as Michael, a David Bowie-like glitter rock star (despite crooning like an aging folkie) who falls for a sexy dancer (a very dull Valentina Vargas) over the objections of his possessive manager.

There’s little explanation or motivation for anything that happens in this picture. When Michael insists on pursing a relationship with the dancer, henchmen working with the real estate developer (her sugar daddy) and Michael’s manager slit the singer’s throat and he ends up homeless, sporting long, unkempt white hair. How Michael goes from being a major pop star to living on the streets is never explained or even how a pop star’s manager and a low-life real estate developer end up in cahoots. Considering Fuller’s history, I can only assume studio cuts created the holes in the plot. Not that the screenplay, by Fuller and Jacques Bral, does anything to help matters.

Meanwhile, the local police try to understand the cause of a series of race riots, which, frankly, are laughable. They look about as believable as the TV newsmen rumble in “Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story.” The now mute, homeless Michael gets to the bottom of the conspiracy and then leads a very hands-on police chief (Bill Duke) to the bad guys and into a blood-bath finish.

Fuller isn’t the first great director to end his career with such a dud. Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Charlie Chaplin, all, to one degree or another, left the business on a sour note. For every John Huston, Sidney Lumet and Clint Eastwood, there are a dozen aging filmmakers who made one or two movies too many. And often, like the cases of Orson Welles and Fuller, financial backing dries up and the filmmakers end up working on low-budget, second-rate projects. In the art of filmmaking, the guys with the money almost always hold all the cards.