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.”