Monday, December 5, 2011

November 2011

      This dazzling, audacious and superbly textured examination of the sanity and very existence of life on Earth dives into the same daringly ambitious pool as “The Tree of Life.” But Lars von Trier’s film avoids the spacey vagueness of Terrence Malick’s movie and adds the seemingly ubiquitous doom and gloom of Nordic filmmakers.

     After an impressionistic preface that is part teasing trailer and part David Lynch-like hallucinatory trip, the narrative begins with Justine (Kirsten Dunst), still wearing her elaborate wedding dress, heading to her reception with husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård).  They arrive hours late at the palatial estate of her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) and sister Claire (intense British actress Charlotte Gainsbourg). The reception provides a short-hand chronicle of Justine’s life (and, seemingly, von Trier’s view of lives in general).

    She battles with her angry mother (Charlotte Rampling), irresponsible father (John Hurt), arrogant, single-minded boss (Stellen Skarsgård) and eventually cheats on and breaks up with her groom, all in the span of the evening’s reception.

     The writer-director, best known for “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” uses only a handheld camera as he follows the bipolar Justine trying to find something in “life” that will bring her a sliver of happiness. The film’s guiding theme reflects an old Woody Allen quote: “Life is miserable, painful, irrational, tortuous and over much too quickly.”

   The second half of the film also takes place at the sister’s home, beginning with Justine’s arrival looking as if she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In fact, the whole world—represented by the three adults and the sister’s young son—is a bit on edge as a previously unknown planet named Melancholia is on a path to just miss Earth in a few weeks.

     Claire grows less confident that Earth will survive this celestial event even as her husband and son anticipate it like a sporting event. Meanwhile, Justine's mental state seems to grow stronger as Melancholia moves toward Earth and she becomes content with her belief that life is about to end.

     I can't recall seeing a film that is so utterly consumed with debilitating depression, yet it soars in its uncompromising vision and unrelenting intensity. Von Trier’s films have never been known for outstanding performances (though Emily Watson was nominated for his “Breaking the Waves”), yet here Dunst and Gainsbourg, though unlikely sisters, creating complex, memorable characters. It’s a career-changing performance by Dunst, who previous had never impressed me as an actress capable of carrying a film of this seriousness and magnitude. She takes the character to the depths of depression before her catharsis.

    Adding to the epic sweep of the film (as if two planets near collision isn't enough) is the use of sections of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" on the soundtrack. One of the most stirring pieces of music ever penned, this orchestral thunderbolt provides the perfect background to this larger-than-life, unsettling movie experience.

       In some ways, the film reminded me of the surreal experience of "Apocalypse Now." Both films are set in unknowable worlds in which fear is always in the air and no one knows what to expect from one minute to the next.

      Von Trier has made a career of putting uncomfortable moments on screen; with “Melancholia,” he’s found the ultimate unthinkable event as these symbolic humans face the possibly end to everything that ever was and ever will be.

J. EDGAR  (2011)
    Over the past 10 years, no American filmmaker has delivered first-rate, often great, movies as consistently as Clint Eastwood. Yet, he was the wrong director to tackle the long, controversial career of J. Edgar Hoover.

     This bio-pic of the pugnacious FBI director—who served every president from Coolidge (when it was the Bureau of Investigation) to Nixon—utilizes every cliché of the genre without ever making a good case for devoting a major motion picture to his life. And while much screen time is spent on Hoover’s legendary secret files illegally complied on the 20th Century’s most influential figures (most famously, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedy family and Martin Luther King), the portrait never exposes the epic scope of this public servant’s venality.

     That problem is exasperated by the casting of a charismatic, popular actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, as this petty, vengeful tyrant who set the agenda for national crime fighting for more than 50 years. No matter how many of Hoover’s dirty deals Eastwood depicts, DiCaprio, on screen almost every second of the film, is hard to hate. I was never convinced that DiCaprio, who has some terrific moments as Hoover and convincingly looks twice his age, was that famously short and fat bully I remember from news reports from my childhood.

      Casting problems though can’t be blamed for the bland, stiff performances from the supporting actors, including Naomi Watts as his loyal secretary, Jeffrey Donovan as bitter enemy Robert Kennedy and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s devoted assistant Clyde Tolson, who may or may not have been his lover. Hammer also is forced to don what may be the worst old-man makeup in movie history; it looks like a Halloween mask.

      Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black used the tired device of Hoover dictating his memoirs to offer his version of events, while failing to provide enough moral indignation from other characters. It’s too much Hoover through Hoover’s eyes to earn even a semblence of credibility. Even his fiercest adversary, RFK, comes off as shrill and insignificant.

      Most disappointing is that while the film correctly plays up Hoover’s role in modernizing crime fighting (advocating for finger prints and other forensic evidence) it fails to even acknowledge Hoover’s cozy relationship with the Mafia (he denied its existence) and his role in thwarting the Civil Rights movement.

       About halfway through the picture, I tried to imagine what Oliver Stone might have done with this material. Subtlety would have been thrown out the window (along with DiCaprio), but it would have been a wild, entertaining ride, surely an improvement over this dull walk-in-the-park Eastwood has made.

FOUR SONS (1928) and PILGRIMAGE (1933)
      What makes John Ford one of the half dozen greatest filmmakers of the past 100 years is the versatility he displayed during in his legendary career. In his time, he was pigeonholed as a maker of Westerns, yet some of his best movies were social justice pictures—“The Informer,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Fugitive.”

      Ford also directed sentimental romantic comedies (“The Whole Town’s Talking” and “The Quiet Man”), a Shirley Temple hit (“Wee Willie Winkie”), an historic epic (“Mary of Scotland”), a disaster film (“Hurricane”), a political picture (“The Last Hurrah”), a war film (“They Were Expendable”) and a series of powerful documentaries capturing fighting during World War II.

     And even among aficionados, who thinks of Ford when important directors of silents are discussed? I’ve seen a handful of his more than 50 silent picture and they are all superbly told dramas, ahead of their time. “Four Sons,” recently refurbished, is Ford at his sentimental best, showing his understanding of the power of family bonds and the pain of warfare, foreshadowing many later works. The film was among the biggest hits of 1928.

    Opening in pre-World War I Germany, we’re introduced to the Bernle family, headed by Little Mother (Margaret Mann), who is devoted to her four sons, played by Francis X. Bushman, George Meeker, James Hall and Charles Morton. But this loving family is soon splintered, as one son (Hall, later one of the stars of “Hell’s Angels”) moves to America and finds success as a restaurant owner and two others find themselves on the Russian front as Germany goes to war. Only the youngest son (Meeker) remains with his mother, but only for awhile as he is soon forced into the military.

      The script by Phillip Klein doesn’t play out as expected and balances the tragedy of war with the amusing eccentrics of the family’s Bavarian hometown, along with the key role of the postman in a country at war. The acting reflects Ford’s understated touch that marked his films throughout his career, especially in the quiet, moving performance by Mann as the mother.

      Some critics would have you believe that camera movement began with Martin Scorsese (with a slight nod to Orson Welles). But Ford, in this 1928 film, tracks up and down streets, following characters through the village and generally creating a dynamic visual storytelling style, invigorating this Old World tale of a mother’s love for her sons with the magic of a movie camera.

     Along with enjoying the timeless tale of brothers divided by war, “Four Sons” is an insightful peek at a filmmaker on the verge of becoming one of the 20th Century’s most essential artists.

    Ford explored the American side of World War I five years later in “Pilgrimage,” a minor, but interesting picture that also focuses on a mother-son relationship and the devastating effects of war.

     Henrietta Crosman, a then-famous turn-of-the-century stage actress, plays Hannah Jessop, a tough, no-nonsense farm widow who is incredibly protective of her only son Jimmy (Norman Foster, who went on to a successful directing career). She’s especially displeased with his relationship with the daughter of a pitiful drunkard.

     In the ultimate act of selfishness, she waives her right to keep an only son on her farm and signs him up for war duty. The consequences are inevitable: Jimmy dies in Europe, his fiancée gives birth to his son and the mother hates the world.

   But she’s given a chance to redeem herself when she’s invited, along with other American mothers, to visit the graves of their sons in France. On the trip, she befriends a pipe-smoking Appalachian woman named Hatfield and then takes a young man not unlike her son under her wing.

     “Pilgrimage” is sentimental as all get out, but it gives now long-forgotten stage star Crosman a chance to shine in a rare leading role and allows Ford another opportunity to preach a favorite theme (best portrayed in “The Grapes of Wrath”): The eternal bond between a mother and a son.

QUINTET (1979)
    Robert Altman was responsible for some of the most interesting movies of the past 40 years, but he also directed some of the strangest pictures in that time. In fact, many of his films fit in both categories (“3 Women,” “Images,” “Secret Honor”); “Quintet” isn’t one of them.

    Like “Brewster McCloud,” “H.E.A.L.T.H.” and “O.C. and Stiggs,” this metaphor for a society growing more cutthroat and self-centered (I’m guessing that’s his point) makes you wonder how the director of “MASH” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Nashville” suddenly can turn into a hack.

   It’s not only that “Quintet” is ham-fisted hoo-ha, but it looks like a freshman film class project--filled with sets left over from ‘50s sci-fi cheapies and shot through fogged up lenses, the frames ringed with a fuzzy, iris effect.

     Paul Newman, who had one of his best roles in Altman’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” seems as baffled by what’s going on around him as I was. He plays Essex, a resident of a snow-bound, frozen futuristic world, who takes his pregnant partner to visit his brother in “the city.” He barely arrives when the girl along with his brother’s family are all massacred as part of a popular game played by some members of this mysterious society.

     Game players include Fernando Rey, Bibi Anderson, Vittorio Gassman and Nina van Pallandt, all of whom say a lot of words but communicate very little. Among all these international stars, the All-American Newman looks and sounds out of place; it’s as if Hud walked onto a Bergman set.

     The frost-bite Altman suffered in “Quintet” continued to send a glacier down on his career through the 1980s. (His best work in the era were the decidedly uncommercial “Fool for Love” and “Secret Honor.”) Not until “The Player” in 1992 did he resuscitate his reputation.

    I’m not sure why I avoided watching this popular film from 1950 (and Oscar best picture nominee), but it turns out to be more entertaining and less schmaltzy than I imagined.

     It’s better than your typical jungle adventure film—though I’m hardly endorsing its selection as a best picture candidate over such films as “The Third Man,” “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Harvey”—in large part because of the underplayed acting of Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr and the stunning cinematography of Robert Surtees. One of the cinema’s great cameramen, who went on to shoot “Ben-Hur,” “The Graduate” and “The Last Picture Show,” Surtees won a well-deserves Oscar for the color photography of “King Soloman’s Mines.”

   The plot goes down very familiar paths: the privileged wife of a lost adventurer arrives in Africa determine to hire the region’s top guide to search for her husband. Granger plays Allan Quatermain, the cynical, seen-it-all guide who agrees to take Kerr’s Elizabeth Curtis into uncharted territory along with her brother (Richard Carlson). After the film dispenses with all the city girl-in-the-jungle gags, the trio, along with a cadre of African hired men, face numerous obstacles—real footage of Africa is intercut with the controlled-atmosphere where the actors were filmed—highlighted by their arrival at a Tutsi village, the probable locale of the silver mines of the title.

    The tribe’s distinctive manner, dancing and rituals must have been stunning images for filmgoers in 1950, long before television brought every corner of the world into our living rooms.

    Granger never had a role that matched this one, but had a busy career playing swarthy, romantic adventurers in the 1950s and into the ‘60s.

     Kerr, of course, went on to one of the great careers in movie history, highlighted by memorable performances in “From Here to Eternity” (1953), “The King and I” (1956), “An Affair to Remember” (1957), “The Innocents” (1961) and “The Night of the Iguana” (1964). Here, she recognizes she’s playing a cliché, but manages to inject flesh and blood into the character, especially as she begins to fall for the macho Quatermain.

      The film was co-directed by Compton Bennett (best known for “The Seventh Veil” (1945) and veteran second-unit director Andrew Marton, who later made “Green Fire,” starring Granger and Grace Kelly.

     Considering the prominence of religious beliefs in the public discourse during the past 10 years, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films dealing with the issue. In a world seemingly breaking at the seams over the distrust and even hatred between Christians/Jews and Muslims, it’s about time filmmakers confront these difficult issues.

     This film uses the true story of a group of French monks, living in a remote Algerian mountain village, deciding how to deal with a growing threat of Muslim terrorism to explore what it means to live a life of faith and their responsibility to the community they serve. Director Xavier Beauvois, who directed the thoughtful cop drama “Le Petit Lieutenant,” and screenwriter Etienne Comar put the focus not on the violence of the terrorist (which is mostly spoken of rather than seen) but on how each of the nine monks react to pressure from the local government and military to desert their monastery and the ways they balance safety and principles.         

       On the surface, not much happens in the film, but the filmmakers and the actors (led by familiar French performers Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale) are able to project the gravity of the moral and practical decisions these monks face and communicate their doubts and fears. It makes for a quiet, understated yet powerful sign of the times.

     Though Westerns were just a decade away from become nearly extinct, in the 1960s they thrived and evolved like never before. While the legends of the genre, John Ford and Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, continued to produce quality films, Sergio Leone (and his protégé Clint Eastwood) and Sam Peckinpah were breathing new life into the venerable genre.

     While hardly groundbreaking, this Western, directed by Edward Dmytryk (more comfortable with war and its aftermath—“Crossfire,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Young Lions”), is a cross between the classic cattle drive tale of “Red River” and the off-beat, cynical characters that made the best of ‘60s films stand out.

     Elevating the Civil War-set picture is William Holden’s cool, commanding title performance, bringing to life a renowned Mexican-American cattleman who supplies the Union army.

      After driving the herd hundreds of miles to Kansas City, Kelly is forced by an arrogant Yankee colonel (Patrick O’Neal) to accompany the cattle as they’re transferred by rail to troops in Virginia. There, a rich Southern widow (stiff and chilly Janice Rule) arranges the kidnapping of Kelly by rebel troops, who demand that he help them steal the cattle from the Union army.

    Richard Widmark, sporting an eye patch and providing a loud, crass counterweight to the cool, sophisticated presence of Holden, plays Col. Rossiter, the Confederate platoon leader who forms an uneasy bond with Kelly.

     Beautiful wide-screen photography by Joseph MacDonald, especially of the very convincing stampedes, makes up for the rather static direction by veteran Dmytryck, who has too many scenes of three people standing in a room talking. But the real show here is Holden, one of film’s true naturals, whose soothing voice and casual manner always makes him stand out among those around him who are clearly “acting.” Holden’s impeccable enunciation raises the intelligence quotient of every line of dialogue.

     After becoming a major star in the 1950s in “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17” (winning the Oscar) and “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” his career sputtered through most of the 1960s. But three years after this film, he starred as Pike Bishop, a world-weary gunslinger, in the greatest of all Westerns, Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”

     The performance signaled a mature actor hitting his prime, confirmed when he gave his finest performances as Max Schumacher (the Pike Bishop of the TV age), fighting for a semblance of integrity, in Sidney Lumet’s “Network” (1975). Unfortunately, there were no more great roles for Holden before his tragic death at age 61 in 1981.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

October 2011

MEEK’S CUTOFF (2011) and BLACKTHORN  (2011)
    About the only connection between these two Westerns is that men on horses are traveling across dry, dusty deserts in search of a safe haven.
    "Meek's Cutoff" follows a ragtag group of mid-19th Century pioneers lost on the Oregon Trail in a story that offers minimal dialogue and the most basic of plots. "Blackthorn," set in Bolivia in the mid-20th Century, chronicles the late-in-life adventures of Butch Cassidy, who, in this reimagining of his life, survived the legendary shootout that killed both him and the Sundance Kid.
      Both rank among the better made, more interesting Westerns in recent years.

      Director Kelly Reichardt, best known for “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), brings indie sensibilities to “Meek’s”: long scenes with little camera movement; short, symbolic-laden dialogue; and introspective, dispirited characters. She also becomes one of the few women to have ever directed a Western.

      If you saw “Wendy and Lucy,” with its interminable takes of Wendy (played by Michelle Williams, who also stars in the new film) waiting in a small town for her car to be repaired, you’ll recognize Reichardt’s style.

       This small band of travelers roams the hardscape of an unsettled West (beautifully captured by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt) in search of a coastal paradise under the guidance of hired-man Meek. This boastful, pseudo tough guy is played by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, who gives the only energetic performance in the film. The dynamics of the journey change when they capture a lone Native-American and decide—against the warnings of the Indian-hating Meek—to follow him, assuming he knows where to find fresh water.

      “Meek’s” is a blank canvas that viewers can draw their own allegorical conclusions on. It’s not hard to extrapolate a suspicion of America’s leaders (the blustery, fascist guide) and a push for trusting those more in touch with nature and an understanding of basic needs (the misunderstood Indian).

     The acting (led by Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano and the fine young actress Zoe Kazan) captures the naïve yet determined spirit of those who deserted their life in the East to find something more in the West. 

      In “Blackthorn,” not unlike another of Sam Shepard’s recent leading roles—in “Don’t Come Knocking” as a rebellious movie star—the 67-year-old stars as a celebrity on the run. In the new film, Shepard’s Cassidy is living a quiet, secluded life in a mountain village somewhere in Bolivia, having taken the name James Blackthorn. If there was an actor born to play an aging Butch it’s Shepard, who looks and sounds like a man of another century who easily could have lived that infamous life.

     As settled as Blackthorn seems to be in Bolivia, he longs to see his son (or is it Sundance’s?) in the U.S. and sets out on the journey north. He’s barely started when a man hiding in the hills chases off Blackthorn’s horse along with the money packed on it. Turns out, Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega) is on the run, having stolen money from a local mining company. Blackthorn/Butch can’t help but admire this younger version of himself and they form an uneasy alliance.

     What makes “Blackthorn,” directed by Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar (“The Sea Inside”), more interesting than your typical Western is how it portrays the bad decisions and miscalculations of Butch. Shepard, in one of his better performers in a long career filled with excellent work, isn’t the slick operator of Butch’s youth, but an old man who occasionally shows flashes of his gun slinging early days. What on the surface seems like heroic actions leave this one-time criminal with deep regrets.

      For fans of Westerns, it is a rare bounty of discovering two thoughtful films (and neither of them remakes) in the same year—one for the traditionalists and one for those who like their movies, even Westerns, ambitious and edgy.

SKIDOO (1968)
    You really haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed Jackie Gleason playing a retired gangster on an LSD trip. Or Groucho Marx as “God,” the mob boss of all bosses, dressed in Hindu robes sharing a “pumpkin-flavored” joint.

    That’s just a small sampling of the semi-coherent, incongruent craziness, performed by a bizarre collection of 1960s personalities, stuffed into this Otto Preminger satire that compares and contrasts the peace-loving hippie movement and a cold-blooded mob organization. While “Skidoo” is breathtakingly stupid, cast as if it was a SCTV parody, and directed by the famous Austrian in a manner that makes one wonder if he was indulging in the same hallucinogen as the film’s characters, it’s so utterly campy, seen 43 years after its release, that I just couldn’t look away. Let’s face it: a really bad movie is a heckuva lot more entertaining than a mediocre picture.

     The film announces its insanity in the opening scene in which Gleason’s Tony and his wife Flo (played by the freakishly cartoonish Carol Channing), each armed with a TV remote, keep changing the channel. It continues for about five minutes longer than was necessary, but we do catch a few glimpses of a televised congressional hearing on organized crime, featuring old friends of the couple.

     While Tony is demanding to know what his daughter (Alexandra Hay) is doing with an ever-smiling hippie (John Phillip Law), he gets a visit from a pair of mob goons (Cesar Romero and Frankie Avalon) who have orders from God for Tony. He’s to be admitted to a federal prison for the purposes of killing “Blue Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney, you knew he had to be in this), who is planning to testify against the mob. 

     Channing’s Flo, whose outfits make any hippie garb look perfectly sensible, invites Law’s friends to their home, while she goes off to seduce Avalon in hopes of discovering her husband’s whereabouts. The film should have gotten an R-rating just for the scene in which the gangly, pale Channing strips to her underwear. No one should be subjected to that.

     Among the other has-beens/famous faces making appearances in this druggie version of “Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” are Peter Lawford, Frank Gorshin, George Raft, Burgess Meredith, Richard Kiel and Slim Pickens. I’m guessing Strother Martin and Dub Taylor were out of the country at the time.

     The most bizarre moments occur in prison, where Austin Pendleton (the one actor in this film still working) introduces Tony to mind-expanding drugs and, in a plan of pure genius, laces the prison’s food with LSD. It’s a seminal moment in American entertainment: Ralph Kramden on acid.

       In one sequence that looks like an outtake from a Ken Kesey Acid Test party, TV veteran Fred Clark, playing a prison guard, hallucinates a music video featuring the prison’s trash cans. Standing by his side during this trip, also playing a guard, is singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, the picture’s musical director.

      It all comes to an appropriate end on Groucho’s yacht, where hippies and mobsters alike end up in the bed of God’s mistress, the razor-thin model Luna, and Channing gets to sing and dance to Nilsson’s song “Skidoo.” Then, just in case things weren’t nutty enough for you, the closing credits, down to the studio trademark, are sung.

    It’s hard to believe that Preminger, director of two masterful crime pictures, “Laura” (1944) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) and screenwriter Doran William Cannon (whose next credit, not surprisingly, was on “Brewster McCloud”) didn’t set out to make a horribly imbecilic movie. Stupidity at this level, such as the short films of the Three Stooges or the Farrelly brothers’ efforts, doesn’t happen by mistake. Looking at it that way, I guess “Skidoo” is a masterpiece.  

     While offering insightful commentary on American politics and, specifically, the election process, George Clooney’s new film can’t overcome predictable plot devices, rather bland dialogue and a tightly buttoned performance by its leading man.

    I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing the film, if only for the excellent work by supporting performers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti (as rival campaign managers), Evan Rachel Wood as an ambitious campaign worker and Clooney as presidential candidate Gov. Mike Morris, the politician liberals can only dream about.

    Ryan Gosling, one of the best young actors in Hollywood, stars as Stephen Meyers, working as Hoffman’s No. 2 in Moore’s campaign as they maneuver to win a tough primary fight in Ohio. He’s a young man on the rise until he makes a couple of mistakes: he gets involved with Wood’s campaign worker and briefly meets with Giamatti, the opponent’s manager. While it seems like minor indiscretions, they are the tiny threads that lead to worse complications. It seems like a juicy role for Gosling, but I never got the impression that he had a handle on what Meyers was all about. Sometimes he’s a slick politico, sometimes he’s a naïve ideologue, but he never comes across as smart and accomplished as his character should be. 

     What writer-director Clooney and screenwriters Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (working from Willimon’s play) do best is show that for all the saturation coverage of politics today, the voters are seeing just the very tip of the iceberg; a very muddy iceberg, at that. Clooney’s stump speeches can be seen as scolding the actual Democratic Party and its candidates for failing to tell the truth and stand by one’s principles even when they aren’t positions voters want to hear.

    But when the conflicts become intense and personal, the acting and writing never provide the spark needed to communicate the importance of the stakes. The energy never rises to the level you’d expect from a story about the backroom deals that may decide who will be the president of the country.

    The final screenplay of two-time Oscar winner and legendary playwright Horton Foote, exploring the fate of a typical, rundown American town, probably should have remained unproduced.

     As interpreted by director John Doyle, who worked with Foote on Broadway, and a first-rate cast led by Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson and Colin Firth, the film begins with an interesting scenario then spins its wheels for the next hour. “Main Street” plays up its Southern atmosphere, but that can’t fix the half-developed, dead-end plotlines and inconsistent characterizations.

     Burstyn, at 79 still one of the great American actresses, plays Georgiana Carr, the last of a once-powerful tobacco family living out her days in a large, unsustainable home in Durham, N.C. When she rents out one of her family’s long-idle warehouses to a fast-talking Texan (Firth, overacting and struggling with his Southern accent), her talkative niece (Clarkson, channeling one of those lonely, offbeat Tennessee Williams’ spinsters) objects to his plan to store hazardous waste. Apparently, they weren’t bothered by the moral issues of producing cigarettes.

    Georgiana has two choices: lose the house and stand by her (or her niece’s) principles or take the Texan’s money and stay in her beloved house. But the controversy or the weight of her decision is never developed or explained enough to make it the least bit dramatic. The script gets very fuzzy when Clarkson’s Willa softens her stand on the storing of the waste when romantic sparks fly between her and Firth’s businessman.

     Despite good acting from Burstyn and Clarkson and a supporting cast that includes Orland Bloom as the town’s young sheriff, Amber Tamblyn as local woman considering leaving town and Andrew McCarthy as her repulsive boss, the film is frustratingly pointless, not even in the same league as Foote’s best screenplays. I’m guessing that respect for the late playwright (who died in 2009) kept the filmmakers from reworking the script, but the results don’t help anyone’s career or reputation.

      While primarily writing for the stage (winning a Pulitzer for “The Young Man from Atlanta” at age 79), Foote screenplays include “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), “Tender Mercies” (1983), “A Trip to Bountiful” (1985) and “Of Mice and Men” (1992). Yet Foote’s signature work on film is his World War I era trilogy “Courtship,” “1918” and “On Valentine’s Day” (from his nine-play cycle “Orphans’ Home” based on his family), a touching look at those turbulent times through a young couple and featuring a brilliant performance by Foote’s daughter Hallie.

    Foote’s understanding of the complexities of the human heart and the timeless importance of one’s hometown are essential to what made him a great playwright and screenwriter. Those issues are just passing fancies in the forgettable “Main Street.”  

KIPPS (1941)
   This quaint amusement, a Dickens knockoff from an H.G. Wells novel that was directed by the great Carol Reed, tells the ironic coming-of-age saga of Arthur Kipps.

     Played with a bumbling, boyish naivety by the impeccable Michael Redgrave, Kipps is sold into indentured servitude at age 12 to a bustling London department store and stays there into adulthood. It was a horrid life—working all day under the unforgiving thumb of the owner and then boarding with other employees in a communal room behind the store. Here it’s played for laughs but it’s a stark reminder of what life was like for the underprivileged before labor laws. Kipps gets fired when he misses curfew, but hours later he finds out he’s inherited a princely sum from a grandfather he scarcely knew.

      It is no surprise that almost immediately Kipps is taken advantage of, struggling to remain in control of his own life. Turns out bring rich isn’t all it seems to be or, at least, not as easy as one would guess to hold on to your money.

     If it wasn’t for the way Redgrave turns Kipps into a character you can’t help but be protective of, I would have tuned out the film early on. Needless to say, the Redgrave family has yet to produce a bad actor and Michael was one of England’s most underappreciated mid-century performers. Making his debuted in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (1939), Redgrave’s best performances were in the World War II fantasy “Thunder Rock” (1942), as the twisted ventriloquist in “Dead of Night” (1945), as part of the dysfunctional family in “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1947) and as a scandalize professor in “The Browning Version” (1951).

     As Kipps, he reminded me of a young Gary Cooper, though Redgrave’s acting skills are way beyond what the American star ever displayed. 

     Reed’s finest works were still ahead, with “Odd Man Out” (1947), “The Fallen Idol” (1948), “The Third Man” (1949) and “Outcast of the Islands” (1951) establishing him as a world-class filmmaker. He later earned an Oscar (for best picture and directing) with the musical “Oliver!” (1968). With “Kipps,” he brings an artist’s eye to the composition of the scenes, especially in the fast-paced craziness at the clothing store. Reed was always looking to shoot from some unusual angle or with the primary action shot over someone’s shoulder or from behind a piece of furniture.

    In addition to Redgrave, the standouts in the cast are Phyllis Calvert as Kipps’ loyal boyhood sweetheart, Diana Wynyard as the “high-class” lady he’s taken in by, Max Adrian as her confidant who does his best to separate Kipps and his fortune, and Arthur Riscoe as a flamboyant eccentric who has theatrical ambitions. While not quite the collection of characters from “David Copperfield” or “Great Expectations,” Wells’ prose and Reed’s cinematic storytelling elevate “Kipps” into an amusing slice of a early 20th Century life. 

BIUTIFUL  (2010)
     Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director responsible for “Amores Perros” and “Babel,” again taps into the multiculturalism of the 21st Century, finding it this time in Spain. While I’ve been underwhelmed by his previous efforts (though parts of “21 Grams” were interesting), there is no denying that Iñárritu is a superb filmmaker who constructs complex, intellectually rich and adroitly composed pictures.   

      While Uxbal (the extraordinary Javier Bardem) is at the center of “Biutiful,” the theme speaks to Spanish diversity and how lives are intertwined in ways we can’t anticipate.

     Uxbal, struggling to raise his two young children without their mentally unstable mother (a superb Maricel Alvarez), works as a middle man between a family of Chinese importers of knockoff products and the young African immigrants who sell the illegal stuff on the streets. He also places a group of illegal Chinese workers with a building contractor. For better or worse, in the midst of Barcelona, these divergent groups are all working together for survival as they hang onto different rungs of the ladder. Though he’s repeatedly warned, Uxbal becomes too close to the illegal workers he’s helping to exploit; a black marketer with a conscious.

  Though he can be cruel and foolish and makes his living in dubious ways (he also claims to hear the thoughts of the recent dead and gets paid for it), Uxbal is determined to do right by his children.

    In a short amount of time—his first performance that earned notices in the U.S. was as persecuted Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in “Before Night Falls” (2000) —Bardem has established himself as one of the world’s most remarkably expressive, heartbreakingly truthful actors, digging intense emotions out of every character he inhabits. From his paralyzed man desperate to die in “The Sea Inside” (2004) to his talkative killer in “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and his smooth-talking painter in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), the Spanish-born actor seems incapable of giving anything less than an Oscar-worthy performance.

     “Biutiful,” which earned him his first best actor nomination, sometimes teeters on being too damn sad to enjoy, but Uxbal’s unlikely humanity and the far from perfect world he inhabits make this Iñárritu’s best film and well worth the emotional roller coaster.

      There’s so much right about this film adaptation of Peter Høag’s best seller that even when the plot turns into an over-arching James Bond scenario, I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

     Julia Ormond plays Smilla, a reclusive, possibly troubled Greenland native living in Copenhagen who takes up the case of a young boy (also of Greenland heritage) who dies in a fall from her apartment building’s roof. Ormond is an actress of impressive depth and subtlety, who, after Hollywood tried to turn her into a star—“Legends of the Fall” (1994), “Sabrina” (1995)—has fashioned a low-profile but interesting career. After the box office failure of “Smilla’s,” the British actress has shined in David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” his daughter Jennifer’s “Surveillance,” David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and in the cable movie “Temple Grandin.”  In the upcoming “My Week With Marilyn,” she portrays Vivien Leigh opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Laurence Oliver.

     The frigid beauty of the Denmark winter becomes an important character in “Smilla’s,” especially for these Greenlanders who have an understanding of snow way beyond what we warm weather folks can comprehend.

     Sweden’s Bille August (“Pelle the Conqueror,” “The Best Intentions”) is the perfect director to capture the cold, isolative mystery of the white stuff, impressively photographed by veteran cinematographer Jörgen Persson.

    The supporting cast is another reason to see the film with Gabriel Byrne as a neighbor who Smilla puts her trust in, Tom Wilkinson as a corrupt medical examiner, Ona Fletcher as the dead boy’s alcoholic mother, Vanessa Redgrave as a reticent bookkeeper with a chilly secret, and Richard Harris as a wild-eyed bad guy.

    Don’t get too involved in the too-numerous plot twists because you’ll be disappointed by the end, but for fine acting and an unusually gorgeous setting, “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” is worth a look.   

Saturday, October 1, 2011

September 2011

Adapting a book that primarily deals with the methods utilized by a baseball team to evaluate athletes to fit the needs of a mainstream Hollywood movie is quite an accomplishment. Director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) and two of Hollywood’s busiest screenwriters, Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) have taken Michael Lewis’ best seller, “Moneyball,” and fashioned a story of a complex man determined to revolutionize the business of assembling a baseball team.

More so than in the book, the film puts the focus directly on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the thoughtful, outspoken general manager of the Oakland A’s, a team whose payroll is among the lowest in baseball, and his Yale educated assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill of “Superbad” fame), who convinces Beane that he can use statistics pioneered by writer Bill James to build a cheap, winning team.

On the surface, “Moneyball” is the move I was born to love. But there’s plenty here to bother baseball fans, especially in the manner it telescopes events. Oakland’s emphasis on exotic stats actually began under Beane’s predecessor Sandy Alderson, and the Peter Brand character (in reality, Paul DePodesta, future Dodger GM) started with the A’s three years earlier than depicted in the film.

These aren’t just nitpicks. Fudging the time frame on these events goes to the heart of many of the film’s dramatic scenes. In addition, the script conveniently ignores the on-field contributions of the team’s returning star Miguel Tejada and its trio of pitching aces to give the impression that the collection of unwanted players that Beane adds to the team are the real keys to Oakland’s winning ways in 2002.

The film also has more than a few uncomfortably fake and clunky scenes, including Beane visiting his ex-wife, showing up at a free agent’s home and meeting with the Cleveland GM and his scouts. The first two are just badly stage moments, but the visit to another team’s office to discuss trades is something that would rarely, if ever, happen. In addition, the overall pacing of the picture is ragged and disconcerting; it never feels like a coherent movie flowing toward a conclusion.

Yet I have a soft spot for a script that manages to dramatize debate among scouts on player evaluations and the frantic, phone negotiations that go on at the league’s trading deadline in July. The juggling of calls by Beane in trying to obtain a relief pitcher, playing one GM against the other, is superbly reenacted. I just wish the filmmakers would have also shown his attempt (chronicled in the book) to convince another GM to include him in a trade with Boston so that the A’s could get their favorite player: Kevin Youkilis, whom they’ve labeled “the Greek god of walks.”

The relationship between Pitt’s Beane, a one-time high school phenomenon who turned out to be a bust as a profession player, and Hill’s Brand makes the film worth putting up with its flaws. Both actors turn these very singular men into fascinating characters, quite unlike the usual sports film clichés. Hill, cowered by the scouts, the players and Beane, is the ultimate nerd who has somehow sneaked into the locker room, while Beane is a baseball lifer (he remains the GM of the A’s) who invests his body and soul into their statistical revolution.

Miscast in a supporting role is Philip Seymour Hoffman (who Bennett directed to an Oscar in “Capote”) as the team’s manager Art Howe, an old-school baseball man who fights against Beane’s idea of how to run a ballclub. It’s a case of too much actor in too minor a role.

As much as I enjoyed most of “Moneyball,” I’m not sure why anyone who isn’t a longtime baseball fan would spend their money on this film. Yet it’s doing amazingly well at the box office. I’m hoping it’s a trend: Maybe some smart Hollywood screenwriter will find a way to make a movie about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 19-year losing streak.

If you have a lingering cough or runny nose, I would advise avoiding any screenings of this very realistic, cautionary tale of a virus gone viral. You may send your fellow filmgoers fleeing from the theater.

Steven Soderbergh’s fast-paced, expertly directed movie chronicles a deadly infection that kills a Minnesota businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) after she returns from Hong Kong while quickly spreading across the globe, taking millions of lives before health officials can get a handle on it.

The plot is that simple, with a few personalized stories thrown in to increase the immediacy of the emergency, yet screenwriter Scott Z. Burns invests the actions of workers with the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization with the urgent intensity of a spy thriller or war picture. What makes the film most convincing is the characters’ rapid-fire use of the language of microbiologists and other scientific jargon; at points I felt like the script was channeling the great Paddy Chayefsky’s use of the lingo of professionals in “The Hospital” and “Network.”

Along with the smart script, the film boasts a starry cast, led by three best actress Oscar winners (a rare occurrence), Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Paltrow, along with Matt Damon, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne.

While Winslet and Cotillard, playing government health investigators, race the clock to uncover the source of the easily transmitted virus, CDC lead scientist Dr. Hextall (played by the scene-stealing Jennifer Ehle) attempts to understand its properties.

Ehle, an American actress who I had wrongly assumed was English, is best known for her spunky and touching performance as Elizabeth Bennet opposite Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in the exceptional 1995 British miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice.” Since then she’s mostly appeared in small roles; she played Geoffrey Rush’s wife in “The King’s Speech” and has a supporting role in the upcoming George Clooney’s film “The Ides of March.” Here she rips through Hextall’s lines as if she’s been a researcher all her life, displaying the flat, low-keyed cool of a scientist, yet bringing out the urgency of her assignment in every scene. She outshines the stars.

As with most disaster films—and despite its intellectualism, this is a disaster film—“Contagion” loses some of its steam, growing repetitive and sentimental in the last half.

But Soderbergh’s crisp direction and photography (he does his own under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and the flawless cast keep the film from ever being less than thoroughly entertaining and frightfully believable.

There’s little evidence beyond the opening credits that John Huston directed this slow-moving, uninvolving spy adventure. The great director of “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The Asphalt Jungle” fails to bring much logic or energy to this far-fetched plot populated by an odd collection of Cold War warriors.

The filmmaker’s first mistake was casting Patrick O’Neal, a solid but decidedly uncharismatic television actor, as Charles Rone, chosen to lead a special-forces undercover unit sent into the Soviet Union to retrieve the title missive.

At age 43, O’Neal plays the young buck of a group—which also includes Dean Jagger and George Sanders (first seen dressed in drag, playing piano in a gay bar)—who immediate hooks up the gang’s naïve young safecracker (Barbara Perkins).

Giving a completely inappropriate, nearly comical, performance is Richard Boone as the architect of this plan to recover a foolhardy agreement between the Soviets and the U.S. With his hair dyed blond and scars disfiguring his face, Boone’s Ward barks his lines as if he’s calling out football plays and is oddly amused at the most inappropriate moments, including when most of the team is either killed or capture by the Soviets. The only logical explanation for this performance is that both Boone and Huston were in their cups during the shoot.

Faring better are those playing Russians: Orson Welles as an intimidating, corrupt (is there any other kind?) bureaucrat; Max von Sydow as the spymaster the Americans hope to turn; and Bibi Andersson (Max’s costar in numerous Bergman classics) as his unhappy, vulnerable wife.

Luckily, this turned out to be just a slight blip in Huston’s amazing career; over the next five years, he made his gritty boxing picture “Fat City,” the comic Western “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and the epic buddy adventure “The Man Who Would be King.” He turned 70 in 1976, but some of his greatest accomplishments were still to come.

More than 40 years after his directing debut, Huston helmed three of the best films of the 1980s, “Under the Volcano” (1984), “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) and “The Dead” (1987), which was released a few months after his death.

THE DEBT (2011)
Like any movie that recounts a dangerous undercover operation, this story of Israeli agents attempting to capture a one-time Nazi is filled with edge-of-your-seat dramatics and exciting daring-do. Yet the manner in which the filmmakers integrate the contemporary aspects of the plot with the historic scenes shortchanges both parts of the story and, not unlike “Sarah’s Key,” weakens what could have been a very compelling tale.

As the picture opens, a 1966 Mossad plot to bring an infamously evil concentration camp physician to justice is back in the news, 40 years later, because the daughter of two of the agents involved in the operation has written a book about it. The agents are hailed as heroes, yet are very reluctant to discuss the details. Adding to that mystery, the third person in their group commits suicide. Clearly, the two survivors are harboring secrets about this long-ago mission.

Director John Madden (best known for “Shakespeare in Love”) does his best work on the 1966 scenes, in which these young, dedicated Israelis (played with studied seriousness by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) carry out a slickly designed plan to kidnap Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen)—practicing genecology under an assumed name in East Berlin—and transport him back to Israel for trial. The actors create an involving love-hate triangle that grows more intense as the characters are challenged, morally and physically, when things don’t go as planned.

Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkerson and Ciaron Hinds play much less subtly observed versions of these character 40 years later, acting in ways that are both reckless and thoughtless to preserve their legacy. If there were any doubts about what the film has to say, the unsightly facial scar Mirren’s Rachel still bears from the assignment (did she ever consider cosmetic surgery?) offers a heavy-handed symbol. Unfortunately, the older versions of these characters feel like dim shadows of their younger selves and never engaged my sympathy.

The way these early relationships evolve is the one improvement this U.S. version makes on the original Israeli film (made in 2007 but never released in this country). The earlier version offers a more straightforward, less melodramatic telling of the story, putting its focus on the older Rachel’s attempt to clean up loose ends.

The 2011 script never gets a handle on who exactly these characters have become, instead turning the story into a long-winded, repetitive debate on the value of truth.
Christensen gives the most energetic, memorable performance in the film, painting Dr. Vogel as a vile but cunning anti-Semitic who has no regret for even his most heinous acts. This veteran of the Danish stage and television makes the most of his screen time, turning a Nazi cliché into a very believable, and even more threatening, human.

Chastain, in her third major film of the year, after “Tree of Life” and “The Help,” carries the film, equally charismatic as a romantic interest for her two fellow agents and a daring spy who is the most crucial element of the plot. The most riveting moments of the film are between the young Rachel and Vogel.

This 30-year-old stage actress, who made her film debut just three years ago, is clearly the find of the year. Her upcoming movies include the title role in the Al Pacino’s docudrama “Wild Salome” (from Oscar Wilde’s play) and the untitled Terrence Malick film scheduled for next year.

This attempt to recreate the absurd antics of screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s rarely rises about jaw-dropping stupidity even as star Barbra Streisand huffs and puffs her way through the agonizing plot.

Usually reliable British director Peter Yates is unable to deliver laughs even with such time-honored shtick as the hiding of an unconscious man in a closet and the obnoxious, interfering in-laws.

In the clueless-husband role is Michael Sarrazin, who scored major roles in the late 1960s and early ‘70s in such films as “The Flim-Flam Man” (1967), “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) and “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1971), playing a cabbie determine to get his degree while wife Henrietta (Streisand) works at home as a cold-call telephone salesperson. Though the couple can barely afford groceries, they have a maid clean their apartment every day. Such incongruities, even in a dumb comedy, needed some explanation.

Acting as if he’s Ralph Kramden, Sarrazin’s Pete decides amid this financial crisis that he has to invest $3000 in pork bellies, based on a co-worker’s tip. So, his devoted wife enables his dreams by secretly borrowing the money from a loan shark, who ends up selling her loan to a madam who then sells it to a pair of low-life junkyard owners who then…..well, you get the idea. As the price of the loan escalates so do the crazy, illegal stunts Streisand is required to do (and, inevitably, fails at) by those she owes money to.

Stealing the picture is Molly Picon as Mrs. Cherry, a tiny, impeccable dressed silver-haired woman who contracts housewives to work as call girls. She deals with Streisand’s inability to satisfy her customers, turning both of her “assignments” in major disasters.

Other than Picon’s brief appearance, there’s nothing much to recommend this comedy unless you’re curious as to what passed for comedy 35 years ago.

Yates, who died earlier this year at age 81, was a versatile filmmaker who had hits with “Bullitt” (1968), “The Deep” (1977) and “Breaking Away” (1979), but was capable of handing more subtle, thoughtful material such as “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), “Eyewitness” (1981), “The Dresser” (1983) and Eleni” (1985).

While he’ll primarily be remembered for the tense car chase through San Francisco’s impossibly hilly streets in “Bullitt,” he also elicited first-rate performances in nearly all his films. Robert Mitchum gives his best late-career performance as small-time Boston crook Eddie Coyle for Yates while Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay offer a virtual acting seminar as a needy Shakespearean actor and his valet in “The Dresser.” Little-known actress Kate Nelligan gives a superb performance as the title character in “Eleni” as does Barbara Barrie as the mother in “Breaking Away.”

The director had a knack for shining the camera on smaller roles, with memorable results from James Woods in “Eyewitness,” Paul Dooley in “Breaking Away,” Eli Wallach in “The Deep,” Richard Jordan in “Eddie Coyle,” the previously mentioned Picon in “For Pete’s Sake” and the wonderfully catty Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as a long-dead theatrical couple in Yates’ final feature, “Curtain Call” (1998).

While the idea that a group of well-dressed, fedora-wearing men roam the Earth making sure people’s destinies are fulfilled is beyond ridiculous, this romantic thriller grounds itself with two sincere, emotionally truthful performances.

David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) have an instant attraction for one another after they meet “cute” in the men’s room of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. This causes the boys with the hats to go into action—apparently it’s not in the interest of either that they remain together—to make sure these two never meet again. Unlike most movie couples, David, a New York politician on the rise, and Elise, a ballerina on the rise, really do seems like they’ve found true love, with Damon and Blunt giving heartfelt, charismatic performances that, sadly, are overshadowed by the plot machinations.

John Slattery (from “Mad Men”), Anthony Mackie (from “The Hurt Locker”) and veteran British actor Terrence Stamp play the humorless, angel-like gentlemen who can go from downtown to the Bronx by walking through the right doorway, yet struggle to know exactly what they can and cannot interfere with. The rules in this fantasy world are never clear and way too flexible; the film hedges its bets too often.

Writer-director George Nolfi (adapter of “The Bourne Ultimatum”) working from a story by sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick, exploits many of the same themes he did in “Bourne.” Both films involved a mysterious, very powerful organization that wants to control the main character (Damon, of course) while he just wants to live a normal life with the woman he’s met during a very stressful time. And in both pictures, it is the individual’s moral integrity that wins the day over the machine-like institution.

While “Adjustment Bureau” isn’t in the same league as the “Bourne” pictures, Damon and Blunt turn this outlandish thriller into a satisfying entertainment.

and THE PROWLER (1951)
Believe it or not, movies about corrupt cops didn’t begin with “Serpico.” These minor, but intense and very watchable ‘50s crime films star popular actors Fred MacMurray and Van Heflin as Los Angeles policemen who break more than a few laws under the spell of attractive women.

“Pushover,” directed by Richard Quine, is best known as the debut of Kim Novak, then a 21-year-old model, who plays Leona, the girlfriend of a wanted bank robber. Undercover detective Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) pretends to be a suitor in hopes of trapping her boyfriend, but before the police can establish their surveillance, he’s involved with her well beyond department regulations.

Leona, like so many of Novak’s characters to come (within two years she was one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws), uses her smoldering sexuality to get what she wants. She convinces Paul to kill her boyfriend before the cops get to him and make off with the loot from the robbery.

MacMurray, who always seems like a heart-of-gold type even when playing unsavory characters, makes the transition from smart, respected cop to greedy, ruthless killer believable; you can’t help rooting for him even as he turns into the bad guy.

Officer Webb Garwood, played by Heflin in “The Prowler” is a more disturbed, conniving character who stalks the wife of a radio personality after she reports a prowler. The lonely Susan (played by Evelyn Keyes) sits in her perfectly furnished living room most nights, listening to her husband’s radio show. When Webb comes back to her house to “check” on her, they discover they are both from the same small town in Indiana.

A few weeks later, they’re in each other’s arms and we’re slinking toward “Postman Always Rings Twice” territory. At some points, the film dissolves into a tired story of on-again, off-again infidelity, but the pace picks up in the last half with surprising plot turns and complex character development.

This was the final Hollywood film made by director Joseph Losey before he was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He relocated to England and continued making films, emerging as one of the top British directors of the 1960s and early ‘70s with “The Servant” (1963), “King and Country” (1964), “Accident” (1967) and “The Go-Between” (1971).

The director brings a creepy, repressed atmosphere to the film, especially in the scenes of Webb after he quits the force and holes up in his tiny apartment, playing psychological games with Susan as he plots his next move.

By the end, the pair is living in the desert ghost town of Calico (long before it was re-imagined as a tourist attraction) in a bleak, anti-social existence that reflects the twisted reality of Webb’s mind.

You just can’t beat the 1950s for interesting and entertaining crime pictures, an art sadly lost in the past half century. Every time the cast or the director of a contemporary low-budget crime picture allures me into watching, I feel like a fool before it’s half over. Part of the problem goes back to the manner in which color film turns crime into a painfully real experience and, except in very deft hands (for an example, see below), drains a story of it dark, psychological shadows.

Currently, British filmmakers seem to be more in tune with the B-movie tradition with such films as last year’s “Red Riding” trilogy, “In Bruges” (2008), “The Bank Job” (2008) and this year’s “The Guard.”

If the Coen brothers moved to Copenhagen, this film could easily pass as their latest release. But writer-director Henrik Ruben Genz, best known as the director of the Danish TV series “The Killing” (Americanized for AMC), who also earned an Oscar nomination for his 1999 short film “Theis and Nico,” beat them to it, creating this offbeat crime picture about a deputy sheriff who steps into a very particular small town.

The laconic Robert (Jakob Cedergren), exiled to this tiny burg after getting in trouble in the capital, is immediately urged to stay clear of the town’s tough guy Jørgen (a furiously menacing Kim Bodnia), yet his mentally unstable and very flirtatious wife (Lene Maria Christensen) has other ideas. While Robert deflects her advances and timidly avoids dealing with the seemingly abusive husband, the townfolks prod him toward bad decisions. The motives of the storekeeper, doctor and a gossipy set of barflies is never quite clear, but nothing good will come of it.

I’m a sucker for movies that burst the balloon of all those kinder-and-safer clichés about small towns and “Terribly Happy,” despite its rather bland English-language title, does it in spades. These simple folks are more cunning and deceitful than any Wall Street banker or big city lawyer

For anyone who appreciates the Coens’ eclectic view of the world or the sudden and cruel violence of Jim Thompson’s stories (also filled with small-town evil), this jaundiced tale is worth seeking out.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

August 2011

      What makes Nicholas Ray a filmmaker worth remembering—August marked the 100th  anniversary of his birth—was his keen interest in those who lived on the edge of society at a time when America was all about conforming. An inordinate number of his characters were just one crisis away from committing some heinous crime or walking away from their responsibilities.

     From his directing debut, “They Live by Night” (1949), through his best known film, “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), Ray was among the most interesting filmmakers in Hollywood, delivering a series of tough-minded, noirishly intense films. “Knock on Any Door” (1949), “A Women’s Secret” (1949), “In a Lonely Place” (1950), “Born to be Bad” (1951), “On Dangerous Ground” (1951), “The Lusty Men” (1952) and “Johnny Guitar” (1954) show a director who is a master of the moods and themes of film noir and unafraid of difficult, unusual stories.  

     First and foremost in Ray’s career is “Rebel;” it’s not so much a film as a manifesto announcing the arrival of a new human species—the brooding, emotionally volatile teenager.  The title is a misnomer because Jim Stack certainly has a cause even if he doesn’t know it. In fact, his cause became the defining goal of all teenagers since: breaking from family and environment to find one’s own identity.

     In James Dean, Ray found the perfect collaborator to bring this prototype character to the screen. Though Dean was 24, he possessed that hangdog, youthful sullenness and communicated a simmering internal struggle that turned Jim into the teenage icon, Xeroxed by actors from “Beach Blanket Bingo” to “Twilight.”

     “Johnny Guitar,” my personal favorite among Ray’s pictures, is a bizarre, off-centered Western, filmed in gaudy, vivid color, starring a wild-eyed, frantic Mercedes McCambridge determined to uphold community standards and rid the town of Joan Crawford’s roadhouse saloon. It remains one of the most forceful condemnations of those righteous few who claim to know what’s best for all of us. Stylistically, it’s closer to the surrealistic work of David Lynch than the cowboy pictures of the 1950s.

      Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart in “In a Lonely Place,” might easily be the adult version of Jim Stark, another of Ray’s loners who refuse to abide by society’s rules. A short-tempered Hollywood screenwriter who has hit a dry period, Steele is offered a shot to redeem his career by adapting a best seller. After meeting with the producers, he invites an attractive hatcheck girl who was reading the book when he came into the restaurant back to his apartment to tell him the novel’s plot.

     The next morning he’s visited by the police and questioned about the young woman. She was found dead along a nearby road. Though the police have no material evidence, they suspect Steele because of his reputation for engaging in fistfights and his unusually cold, nonchalant reaction to the news of the murder.

    Even after he returns to writing and falls in love with his neighbor Laurel (the director’s wife Gloria Grahame, giving a brilliant performance), it takes very little to send Steele into a violent rage. Even in the postwar era, when film noir had introduced American audiences to dark, depressed lead characters, Steele is jolting. And I doubt it’s a coincidence that Steele—probably bipolar, with a distinctively existential view of life that precludes interest in anyone but himself—works in Hollywood.

     Ray, who studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, became involved in the Group Theater in the early 1930s, acting in Elia Kazan’s early plays. Along with Kazan, he was also mentored by producer John Houseman, who secured him his first directing job, “They Live by Night.”

      Though Ray continued to work steadily through 1963, when years of drinking and abusing drugs caught up with him and he suffered a heart attack, his films after “Rebel” rarely caught that dark urgency of his 1949-55 output. It seemed as if something of Ray died along with his young star in that car crash just weeks before “Rebel Without a Cause” was released in theaters. 

     After his last feature, “55 Days in Peking” (1963), Ray taught at New York University (and attempted to make a film with his students) and had a small role in Wim Wender’s “The American Friend” (1977), in which he mimics Dean’s acting mannerisms from a scene in “Giant.” Then, as he dying from cancer, Ray attempted to collaborate with Wenders on a feature film about an elderly painter. Instead, “Lightning Over Water” is a-hard-to-watch, home movie-like documentary that depicts a skin-and-bones Ray drifting between incoherence and senility. It’s not a pretty sight. He died soon after filming was finished in 1979.         

      Like with so many mid-century Hollywood figures—Welles, Brando, Dean, Cliff, Monroe, Grace Kelly, Ben Gazzara (see below)—it’s easy to focus on what Ray could (and should) have been rather than what he did accomplish. It’s just a fact that some artists have long, productive careers (often with spans of mediocre work), while others spill out everything they have in a burst of inspiration. Ray’s impressive, seven-year burst was enough to earn him an important place in American cinema and sustain a legacy that still influences filmmakers more than 50 years later.

THE HELP (2011)
      Critics have been debating the relative importance of a movie’s message and its artistic merit for a century. If a film tells a memorable story or illuminates an important idea does it matter if the writing is pedestrian, the direction lifeless and the characters just stand-ins for points of view? Conversely, how does one respond to a superbly made motion picture filled with memorable characters and sparkly dialogue that either has nothing to say or offers a viewpoint you don’t adhere to?

     This became a major issue in the post World War II era when so-called “message” movies—“Gentleman’s Agreement,” “The Snake Pit,” “The Defiant Ones” among many others—divided critics as to what constituted a quality motion picture.

     Recently, the division plays out in the reactions to such issue-oriented popular films such as “Crash,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Blind Side,” which were dismissed by most critics but box-office success earned them Oscar attention.

     “The Help” is the latest example of this quandary. It’s hard not to get swept up in this heartfelt portrait of life for domestic servants in 1960s Jackson, Miss. and the determination of a young Ole Miss grad to tell their stories.

     Skeeter (a spirited Emma Stone) returns home to find that the black housekeeper who was integral to her childhood is no longer employed by her parents. While they are vague about what happened (a continuing problem with this script), it spurs the journalism major to ask Aibileen (an unforgettable Viola Davis), the domestic for one of her longtime friends, to secretly and anonymously relate her experiences for a book Skeeter hopes to publish.

    The picture is at its best when we see, through the eyes of Aibileen and Minny (another domestic played with just the right amount of righteous indignation and cynicism by Octavia Spencer), the ignorant, hateful and simply thoughtless way their white employers treat them, all the while believing they are being kind and generous.

     But like many adaptations of popular novels (Kathryn Stockett wrote the best seller of the same name), “The Help” gets sidetrack with too many peripheral characters and stories. The travails of Celia (nicely portrayed by “Tree of Life” star Jessica Chastain), an outsider desperate to be accepted into the Junior League, seem to take over the movie at some points, as does Skeeter’s date woes and the growing senility of an aging matriarch (Sissy Spacek).

     Writer-director Tate Taylor does a sloppy job of integrating these stories with the central relationship between Skeeter and Aibileen and, too often, undermines serious issues by including lighthearted and comic scenes. That’s typically a problem with filmmakers tackling a controversial subject, while still fashioning the film to be No. 1 at the box office. Filmgoers want to feel good when they leave the theater, even while shedding tears.

       The reason to see “The Help” is for the extraordinary performances of Davis and Spencer, who bring to life the devotion, loyalty and unspoken pain of these dirt poor women who are essentially born into servitude. Davis, so memorable as the parent who complains to Meryl Street in “Doubt,” turns Aibileen into an anonymous hero of the Civil Right movement, a lonely, fearful woman who puts her personal security aside to expose what black domestics must face day in and day out.

     Spencer, who earned raves for her performance as a nurse in the Will Smith vehicle “Seven Pounds” and is a familiar face on TV sitcoms, knows how to communicate insolence and frustration with the subtlety of a woman who knows exactly how far she can push her employers. Spencer and Davis should be top candidates when Oscar nomination talk gets serious.

    Also memorable is Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, an over-the-top young racist who believes that separate but equal is a fair proposition. She pushes for a state law requiring all homes with domestics to provide separate toilet facilities—because everyone knows “they” carry different diseases than “we” do. With the subtlety of a Confederate flag, Hilly makes hating her and sympathizing with the black women easy. Sadly, if it was really that simplistic, this institutionalized serfdom would not have continued more than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

THE GUARD  (2011)
     We’ve all seen too many movies about a gang of ruthless drug runners, corrupt police and the outsider who sweeps in to bring law and order to the situation. “The Guard” contains all those elements, but counters them by plunking Brendan Gleeson down in the center of the clichéd plot.

     As Sgt. Gerry Boyle, Gleeson perfects the low-keyed, self-satisfied cynic, a small-town Gaelic cop who is blasé even when he and his fresh-behind-the-ears partner discover a murder victim. He’s a thorn in the side of his superiors and spends as much time in the bar as he does investigating crimes, yet may represent one of the more accurate film portraits of small-town law enforcement.

    The international cocaine smugglers, who have somehow found safe haven in Connemara, draw interest from the FBI, which brings an American agent into the mix. Wendell Everett (the always excellent Don Cheadle) is both a fish-out-of-water and the smart guy dealing with morons. He and Boyle make an understated odd couple as Boyle offers a political incorrect view of life (“I thought all drug dealers were blacks or Mexicans”) and a very different set of priorities (he doesn’t let the investigation interfere with his planned day off with a pair of Dublin hookers) while Wendell discovers that this oversized Irishman is a bit smarter than he acts.

     While the interplay, much of it hilarious and profane, between Gleeson and Cheadle is the highlight of the picture, the quick-witted leader of the smugglers is nearly as entertaining. Mark Strong, quietly becoming one of the best character actors in film—with memorable turns in “Body of Lies” (2008), “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) and “The Way Back” (2010)—portrays a weird combination of intellectual (he and his fellow smugglers discuss philosophy during their down time) and tough-guy criminal. 

      Gleeson, best known for his kind-hearted hit man in “In Bruges” (2008), Professor MadEye Moody in three “Harry Potter” films and the real-life Dublin mobster Martin Cahill in “The General” (1998), has become the Irish actor of choice with his wide, fleshy face and towering presence. But “The Guard” and “In Bruges” show he’s more than a colorful Irishman.

     First time writer-director John Michael McDonald, brother of “In Bruges” director Martin McDonald, finds the heart and soul of this character through Gleeson, turning this quirky little Irish picture into one of the year’s most entertaining.

     Few Americans have started their acting careers more impressively than Ben Gazzara. After acclaimed performances on Broadway in “A Hatful of Rain” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (but passed over for the movie versions), the 27-year-old New Yorker made his film debut in 1957 as a twisted, military academy bully in “The Strange One” (another of his stage hits), followed by an equally striking performance as an accused murderer in “Anatomy of a Murder.”

     He should have been one of the most important actors of the next 20 years, possessing some of the same intensity and screen presence that made Marlon Brando a star. Possibly Gazzara was a bit too ethnic for his time (more than a decade before Robert De Niro and Al Pacino made Italian leading men acceptable), but, for whatever reason, he ended up working primarily in television, notably in the 1960s series “Arrest and Trial” and “Run for Your Life.”

      On the big screen, his friend John Cassavetes’ provided Gazzara with his juiciest roles, as the hard-drinking Harry in “Husbands” (1970) and as a small-time gambler in trouble with the mob in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976). His gave his best film performance as Jack Flowers in “Saint Jack,” Peter Bogdanovich’s film about an American lay-about working the system in Singapore. He also had the title role in a B-movie version of “Capone” (1975) and co-starred in the landmark 1974 TV miniseries “QB VII.”

     Though he never stopped working, in the U.S. or Europe, he had a comeback of sorts in the late 1990s, when he had prominent supporting roles in “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997), “Buffalo ‘66” (1998), “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “Summer of Sam” (1999).

     “Looking for Palladin,” which had a short theatrical run in 2008, is the biggest role the actor has had in decades. He plays Jack Palladin, a retired American movie star working as a cook (and hiding) in Antigua, Guatemala amid a community of expatriates, including writers, wannabe filmmakers and other shady characters.

    Enter Joshua, a self-obsessed junior studio executive (played with a mixture of self-confidence and naivety by David Moscow) sent to Guatemala to offer Palladin a small role in a major film for big money. The arrogant stranger in a foreign country clichés get old, but the picture becomes more interesting as Palladin’s and Joshua’s past is revealed after they finally meet.

     Though Gazzara’s gravelly voice (the result of throat cancer) makes him sometimes difficult to understand, his unpretentious coolness and his connection with this character turn Palladin into an entertaining end-of-career role for the 81-year-old. If it wasn’t for Gazzara, “Looking for Palladin” never would have seen the light of day; sometimes the presence of a great actor is all a picture needs to make it memorable.

    No one makes films quite like Guy Maddin. Usually shot in black and white, purposely made to look ancient, featuring performers who are more line readers than actors, with silent-era intertitles and little sense of continuity, his pictures are, to say the least, an acquired taste.

    While most of his output has been short films (he’s made 13 since 2000), his two most recent features, “The Saddest Music in the World” (2003) and “Brand Upon the Brain!” (2006), are among his most accessible and plot-driven works. Though far from mainstream Hollywood (and looking like they were discovered in an attic in Estonia), both films are strangely amusing and reasonably understandable for moviegoers who enjoy a challenge. 

    “My Winnipeg,” a documentary (of sorts) about Maddin’s hometown, has all the hallmarks of his fiction films; he even casts actors to play his family, reenacting crucial confrontations in his early life to, as the narrator says, better understand them in hindsight. But, I assume, some of the film is based on facts. Do more people sleepwalk in Winnipeg than anywhere in the world? And who, other than Maddin, is keeping track?

    There’s some offbeat history about the rivers that have an underground counterpart that somehow haunts the city, and a long segment on the city’s former hockey team and an assortment of trivia about their original arena.

     Maddin even imagines a team of long-retired players skating once again in a half-demolished arena, a sequence that is as bafflingly odd as it sounds.

    It’s hard to tell if Maddin really does lament the Winnipeg of old (he’s 55) or if he is just making fun of the systemic nostalgia that permeates our society (see “Paris at Midnight”).

     In some ways, “My Winnipeg” is like a collage thrown together the night before it’s due, filled with both relevant, heartfelt images and those that make little sense at all. At one point, Maddin’s narrator talks about growing up above the beauty shop his mother operated and taking in “the smells of female vanity and desperation.”

    Like all Maddin films, you never know when wonderfully observed moments such as that will pop up as you struggle to absorb the nonstop impressionistic visuals the filmmaker collects into this one-of-a-kind picture.

SARAH’S KEY  (2011)
    This French Holocaust movie should have been one of the year’s most memorable, but uninspired writing and directing prevent the story’s emotional intensity to gain the steam it deserves.

    Based on a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, the script (by Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner) follows the 1942 internment of a young girl, along with her mother and father, in a French concentration camp. What’s unusual about this part of Holocaust history is that the officials taking these Jews from their homes, treating them like animals and relocating them to camps where they will be murdered aren’t Nazi henchmen, but fellow Frenchmen, acting to please their German occupiers. It would be decades later before France admit to taking part in these atrocities.

     Mélusine Mayance gives a gut wrenching performance as Sarah, who is determined to escape the camp and return home to release her younger brother from the closet she locked him in when police arrived. The historical scenes are all well done, but only make up about one-fifth of the picture. The script primarily focuses on a present-day magazine reporter (Kristin Scott Thomas), who, while researching a story about this little known part of French history, uncovers a link between this roundup of Jews and her in-laws.

      Scott Thomas, who has given superb performances in recent French films “Tell No One” and “I Loved You So Long,and last year, in English, as John Lennon’s aunt in “Nowhere Boy,” never seems comfortable in her role as the character juggles her research and her family life.

    By the time the script works its way through too many strange turns, which all end up neatly tied up, the dramatic impact of Sarah’s story feels like an afterthought. The modern section comes off as trite when compared to the horrors of 1942.

    There’s much to admire about “Sarah’s Key,” especially young Mayance’s performance, but the film really needed at least one more rewrite and a better structure to do justice to a heartbreaking story.

     This comic drama about a Canadian television writer’s obsession with a woman he meets at his wedding reception has some amusing, well-written scenes, but spends too much time treading water.

     Paul Giamatti creates yet another befuddled, frustrated and sarcastic character with Barney Panofsky, a very successful producer of a soap opera who, at the same time, is failing miserable in his personal life.

      After a doomed first marriage to a hippie girlfriend, he’s matched up with a talkative Jewish princess (Minnie Driver) who he’s clearly ill suited for. He’s already unhappy and quite drunk when he spots Miriam (the regal British actress Rosamund Pike), a New York City radio DJ. The film seems to be headed in the right direction as Barney makes a valiant attempt to win over Miriam on his wedding night. She tells him that she doesn’t want to hear from him as long as he’s married.

       So begins his years-long pursuit of Miriam while his marriage falls, tediously, apart. It’s during this period that the film loses much of its humor and, except for some nice moments between Barney and his tough-guy father (an out-of-character but effective Dustin Hoffman), starts sounding like a TV movie. Not surprisingly, the director, Richard J. Lewis, has worked almost exclusively on the small screen.

      There’s even a half-hearted attempt to add a murder-mystery subplot, and a bothersome detective, to the picture. There’s hardly a relationship cliché left out.

       The script (by Michael Konyves), based on Mordecai Richler’s novel, is in bad need of a major rewrite: Too many diversions away from the focus of the story turn what should have been a quirky character study into an over-plotted tearjerker about a man whose is extremely hard to like. Worst of all, I never detected any real chemistry between Barney and Miriam, despite nice efforts by Giamatti and Pike. Like so many romantic comedies, once the lovers are united, the film has nowhere to go.

     I’m as old-school as they come, but who exactly was clamoring for new versions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s multitalented detective or the arrow-wielding medieval good guy? Hollywood studios are so obsessed with brand names, be it a comic book character, an old television show, over-worked literature figures or “old” movies, that it is shocking an original screenplay ever gets produced.

     The latest remake trend is the “reboot,” with “Batman” being the most successful of the type; but do moviegoers want to see another set of “Spiderman” films? The industry has reached the point that a movie series which began in 2002 is viewed as a dusty classic in need of an update. If Woody Allen had any marketing sense, instead of wasting his time with new scripts, he’d just remake “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” with Leo and Scarlett.

    As for these two overproduced star vehicles—Robert Downey Jr. is Holmes, Russell Crowe is Robin—neither are bad films and, occasionally, actually entertaining, but mostly just loud time killers.

   Guy Ritchie, the cutting-edge British action director (“Snatch”), brings to “Holmes” a stop-action, slam-bang energy and contemporary attitudes, yet keeps the astonishing intuitive crime fighter in the 19th Century. The film proves that it takes more than set and costume designers to create a period piece.

    Ridley Scott, occasionally a great director (see “Alien” or “Black Hawk Down”), who has become Crowe’s personal helmsman (this is number four) tells the story of Robin Hood before his Sherwood Forest days. Following Robin’s return from the crusades, in the service of Richard the Lionhearted, he joins a rebellion to save the kingdom from the corrupt King John and French invaders. Cate Blanchett co-stars as a feisty Maid Marion while 82-year-old Max von Sydow steals the picture as her father-in-law, a defiant, proud farmer who takes Robin under his wing.

     Crowe gives another unsmiling, stoically heroic performance; sadly, he’s becoming Harrison Ford with an accent.

     Downey, at least, seems to be having more fun, reprising his smirking, winking-at-the-audience persona from the “Iron Man” films.  Jude Law (didn’t he used to be a serious actor?) slums as sidekick Dr. John Watson and Rachel McAdams plays the hottest female in an otherwise grungy 19th Century London.

     Both stars and directors were clearly seeking a big payday and a long-term franchise. “Holmes” was a success at the box office thus Part II opens later this year, but “Robin Hood” was a major disappointment. Just maybe that means that Scott and Crowe will actually seek out an interesting, original script rather than relying on safe, uninspired material.