Friday, October 1, 2010

September 2010

HOME FROM THE HILL (1960)
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 clich├ęs 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.


BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER (1952)
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 AMERICAN (2010)
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.


BRIGHT LEAF (1950)
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.


BROOKLYN’S FINEST (2010)
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.