Wednesday, June 1, 2011

May 2011

In a rare pre-credit prologue, Woody Allen and cinematographers Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas take viewers on a seductive picture postcard tour of Paris, from sunlit landmarks to rain-swept narrow streets and the spectacular nighttime illumination, with jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s evocative music as the soundtrack. It sets the stage perfectly for a fairytale adventure into the city’s artistic past and romance present.

Allen’s alter ego in the film is Gil Pender (played with scruffy innocence by Owen Wilson), a successfully Hollywood screenwriter who, while visiting Paris with fiancé Inez (a blonde Rachel McAdams) and her haughty “tea party” parents, considers giving it all up to become a starving artist in Paris and finish his novel. Nothing could be more ridiculous to Inez, a practical, material-oriented woman who seems to find Gil more of a bother than companion.

The picture starts out in familiar Allen territory with Gil tossing out asides as the bozos around him play narrow-minded straight men; the thoughtful romantic stuck in a world of pompous realists (most amusingly, Michael Sheen’s know-it-all professor). The weakest aspect of the script turns out to be the inexplicable relationship between Gil and Inez. She treats him like a child, seemingly only interested in his Hollywood paychecks, while Gil doesn’t show any signs that he ever listens to what his pretentious girlfriend is saying. It’s obvious from their first scene that they’ll never last.

But “Midnight in Paris” isn’t about their relationship. Allen’s focus is exploring how Gil comes to grip with his attachment to the past as a way to avoid tough choices of the present and his realization that everyone is responsible for creating their own golden age.

The picture becomes something special when a drunken Gil gets lost walking back to his hotel and accepts a ride from a group of revelers riding in an antique automobile. He soon finds himself at what looks to be a fancy costume party with a 1920s theme. He’s amused when a couple introduces themselves as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and a familiar looking piano player croons Cole Porter tunes. But when Scott, Zelda and Cole take him to the famous nightclub Bricktop’s (where Bechet performed regularly) and then to a café where Ernest Hemingway to holding forth, Gil starts to believe that he’s actually been transported to his favorite era.

Allen finds the perfect balance of awe-inspired homage and comic caricature in his recreation of the oh-so-serious artists of the ‘20s and their interactions with Gil. You don’t necessarily need to be a scholar of the arts and literary world of the Paris café set, but the comedy quotient rises considerable if you are familiar with Hemingway’s prose, Zelda’s mental history, Dail’s paintings, T.S. Eliot’s poetry, Luis Bunuel’s films and the general disposition of the surrealists. Anyone acquainted with Allen’s short stories won’t be surprised by how he turns these legends into comic relief; he’s been poking fun at these folks since the ‘60s. But he’s also making light of his own nostalgic glorification of the writers and visual artists of the early 20th Century.

Much credit must be extended to the marvelous collection of actors who make these characters believable at the same time they are serving Allen’s wild imagination. First and foremost is Corey Stoll (a homicide detective on “Law and Order: LA”) as a self-indulgent, talkative Hemingway, who hilariously speaks in the same short, dramatic sentences found in his prose.

Bringing a serious, humane tone to the film is French actress Marion Cotillard (Oscar-winner for “La Vie en Rose” and the most interesting character in “Inception”), as Adriana, a lover of Picasso and other painters, who shares Gil’s longing for a simpler, more meaningful past. Then, among many others, there’s Adrien Brody as a flamboyant Dali, Alison Pill’s hysterical Zelda and Kathy Bates as the tough-talking, but kindhearted Gertrude Stein, who finds time to advise Gil on his novel. And, adding to the Parisian scenery, Carla Bruni, the wife of French president Sarkozy, plays a helpful tour guide.

The 75-year-old Allen continues to be the most productive filmmaker in American even as his fan base, both moviegoers and critics, shrinks. Even his biggest supporters recognize that he’s made some bad films in the past two decades (led by “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Anything Else”) but if a young director named Allan Konigsberg had made “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “You Will Met a Tall, Dark Stranger” over the past five years, he’d be the toast of Hollywood and in talks for the new Angelina Jolie comic caper.

But even considering the undervalued work he’s done recently, “Midnight in Paris” is probably his best film since “Bullets over Broadway” (1994). This magical romantic comedy, which taps the artistic giants of the last century for both wisdom and buffoonery, just may convinced his doubters that the old man still has a good joke or two up his sleeve.

Unlike the other great actresses of the 1930s—Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert—Barbara Stanwyck spent that first decade of sound working in films that are now barely remembered. The family dramas “Stella Dallas” (1937) and “Golden Boy” (1939) are the best-known pictures of the era; hardly the Oscar-winning classic her contemporaries were starring in.

Yet Stanwyck’s performances in the first few years of her career, in pictures such as “The Miracle Woman” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932), “The Purchase Price” (1932), “Baby Face” (1933), “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933) and “Annie Oakley” (1935), reveal an actress who had already mastered the subtlety and naturalism she needed to craft emotionally truthful, understated characters. Whether she played a cynical evangelist, an ambitious prostitute or a farmer’s wife, Stanwyck found the simple humanity within these women.

Her screen-filling vibrancy in on display in this underrated World War I romance in which she plays a New England debutant who falls for and marries a German-born college professor. Their lives seem perfect until war breaks out in Europe and Germany becomes the hated enemy. Suddenly, their friends and neighbors, previously portrayed as warm, supportive people, turn on them, displaying fearful racism that strains their marriage and costs him his job. Otto Kruger, a veteran character actor who usually played unassuming doctors and lawyers, gives a solid performance as the husband as does Ralph Bellamy as the couple’s best friend.

Eventually, the war separates the couple and takes the film in surprising, emotionally complex directions.

In just 68 minutes of film, director Archie Mayo (“The Petrified Forest”) and screenwriters Bertram Millhauser and Beulah Marie Dix aren’t given enough time to fully explore this intriguing story of a couple divided by prejudice. “Ever in My Heart” plays like an outline of a better movie surrounding Stanwyck’s rich portrait of this naïve Yankee awakened to a cruel, often confusing world.

In previous generations, the role of Mick Haller, an ethically challenged Los Angeles lawyer who works out of the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car, would have been played by Paul Newman or Jack Nicholson. In 2011, the colorful character is portrayed by goofball comedy star Matthew McConaughey. In other words, I wasn’t expecting much.

Turns out McConaughey offers just the right amount of smirking sarcasm and righteous determination as Haller defends a well-heeled young playboy (Ryan Phillippe) charged with the brutal beating of a prostitute.

Haller and his trusted investigator Frank (William H. Macy) utilize their resourceful, often legally questionable methods to undermine the prosecutor’s case, but end up finding out more about their client than they counted on.

The story, based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel, like so many detective/crime plots, is cleverly entertaining and chock full of energy until it comes time to wrap up all the loose ends. Having not read Connelly’s novel, I don’t know if he handles it any better than director Brad Furman (whose only previous feature was the action flick “The Take”) and screenwriter John Romano. The film stumbles to its end with a series of plot turns that grow less and less believable and a denouncement that goes on forever.

The strength of “Lincoln Lawyer” clearly isn’t its story, but the thoroughly engaging Haller and the fine-turned attitude McConaughey brings to the role. Unfortunately, the supporting characters, despite the fine cast, aren’t nearly as interesting.

There’s the tough-talking, sexy and still supportive ex-wife who’s also a prosecutor (the ubiquitous Marisa Tomei); the annoying, spoiled rich kid (Phillippe), the street-wise sidekick (Macy); a sleazy, underhanded bail bondsman (John Leguizamo); the jack-of-all-things-illegal driver (Laurence Mason); the cloying family attorney (Bob Gunton); and the snobbish and supportive mother (Frances Fisher). It’s a virtual encyclopedia of stock crime-picture characters.

Yet despite the shortcomings, it’s hard not to enjoy “Lincoln Lawyer” and hope that McConaughey’s Haller returns to the screen.

TOWER OF LONDON (1939/1962)
For reasons that are unidentifiable to me now, the 1939 treatment of this semi-historical royal bloodbath was one of my favorite films when I was a teenager. Maybe it was the scenes of the club-footed executioner, menacingly played by Boris Karloff, torturing various enemies of Richard III that impressed me; or the little dolls, Richard keeps in a diorama depicting those in line to the throne.

Watching it forty years later, this version of the 15th Century battle for the British crown that, most famously, inspired William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” turns out to be an over-plotted, poorly acted melodrama that manages to turn the maniacal Richard into something of a bore.

More entertaining, or something close to that, is Roger Corman’s low-budget drive-in treatment that stars his best collaborator Vincent Price as the steely eyed Duke of Gloucester who, in this version, does his own killing.

Price’s Richard, complete with the hump and page-boy hairdo, not only wastes little time offing everyone between him and the crown, but is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. He lurches around the minimal sets in his oversized capes, planning his next move as the late King’s widow and her supporters huddle in another part of the castle.

Price plays the role as half comic, half Shakespearean (something he did more successfully in “Theatre of Blood”) as his Richard splits his time between being an evil genius and teetering on the brink of insanity, shouting at his otherworldly visitors.

Price had one of his earliest film roles in the 1939 version, playing Richard’s weak, greedy brother, Duke of Clarence, who famously dies in a vat of Malmsey wine.

Basil Rathbone doesn’t bring much sizzle to this 1939 Richard and he doesn’t have much of a hump either (compared to either Price’s or Laurence Olivier’s in the Shakespearean version released in 1956), but the real problem is the over-plotted script. It tries to cover all the complicated maneuverings of this messy ruling family and by the end, a score card is needed to know who is left standing.

If it wasn’t for Karloff, who was born to play an enthusiastic executioner, the film would be completely forgettable. The tale of Richard III loses its teeth without Shakespeare’s verse; the magnificent “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech and the warrior-king’s battlefield plea, “A horse, A horse. My kingdom for a horse.”

13 ASSASSINS (2011)
I’ve never been much of a fan of martial arts action pictures, but this slice of bloody Japanese history is filled with very human, but amazingly skilled, sword-wielding warriors and some of the most thrilling, intense hand-to-hand battle scenes I’ve seen in awhile.

Lord Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), a young, sadistic warlord-in-the-making, considers it an obligation of rulers to occasionally kill and torture (so much more fun) the local peasants so they appreciate their status. When a respected leader’s son and daughter-in-law are slaughtered, he enlists retired samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho, best known outside Japan for “Shall We Dance?” and U.S. films “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Babel”) to take revenge on Matsudaira.

Like “Seven Samurai” and its remake “The Magnificent Seven,” a motley crew of loyal fighters is recruited and plans are made to ambush the heavily guarded evildoer.

With just 12 samurai (plus Koyata, a talkative goofball they find en route to the battle), they prepare to take on a well-trained, well-equipped militia of about 200 by jury-rigging an entire village (in a sort of 19th Century version of “Mission: Impossible) and luring the target into their trap. In the final 40 minutes, the combatants wage an unrelentingly intense, complex and ridiculously entertaining fight to the death that makes everything that came before it in the film child’s play.

Veteran director Takashi Miike, remaking a 1963 Japanese film, in addition to choreographing the amazing set pieces, brings out the personality of the various samurai, especially Shinzaemon, his young cousin and Koyata, the hyper dude who leads them out of the forest.

For aficionados of this genre, this is a must see and even for those who find much of this stuff laughable, this is crazy action and great fun.

If this dreary, heavy-handed critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam hadn’t been directed by Elia Kazan, it would have long been forgotten.

The film ranks as the legendary director’s most disappointing, both in its didactic script (written by the director’s son Chris) and oppressively dim look. The added cachet of the movie being James Woods’ starring debut is a nice bit of trivia, but it’s a thankless role that’s more about talking points than creating real character.

Woods plays Bill, a vet who serves as caretaker on a rambling, rural property owned by his girlfriend’s reclusive novelist father.

The unfriendly father (veteran TV actor Patrick McVey) spends his days drinking and writing in the guest house, while his daughter (Patricia Joyce) and Woods tend to the property and their newborn.

Their routine is disrupted when a pair of Bill’s war buddies show up unannounced, immediately putting him on edge. Steve Railsback, who later played a very convincing Charles Manson in the 1976 TV movie “Helter Skelter” and starred in the cult favorite “The Stunt Man” (1980), and Chico Martinez play the mysterious visitors who, we eventually learn, spent time in military prison because Bill reported their rape and murder of a Vietnamese civilian. Despite their assurances to the contrary, they are clearly out for payback and Bill and the audience sit around waiting for it.

The low point of the picture is a long, insufferable, testosterone-fueled discussion of war experience between the alcoholic writer (a WWII vet) and the visiting Vietnam vets, which ends with the killing of a neighbor’s dog. (Just in case you didn’t get Kazan’s point of view.)

There are elements of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971) and the 1955 melodrama “The Desperate Hours,” but while Kazan’s movie contains the same tense threat of danger, it offers no insight into the issues of violence in modern society, the nature of passivism and the dead end of blind loyalty and retribution. The film just lets those fascinating issues remain bottled up in this frustrating set of characters.

If the film accomplishes anything, it’s to perpetuate the ridiculous belief that all Vietnam vets are either sensitive souls who regret their role in the conflict or twisted psychopaths destined to commit some heinous crime once they returned stateside. Unfortunately, that became the fall-back position for too many Hollywood depictions.

The director took one more chance behind the camera and the results were exceedingly better: the 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” starring Robert De Niro and an all-star supporting cast. But it wasn’t enough to earn Kazan, then 67, another directing gig. He spent the remaining 25 years of his life writing novels and his memoirs, while maintaining his position as both a mentor to young acting and directing talent and a pariah to those who never forgave his testimony during the blacklist era.

In the 1950s, when 4-year-old Temple Grandin was first diagnosed with autism, doctors believed the condition was caused by a lack of affection from the child’s mother. Just as ridiculous and scientifically unsound, today many believe vaccinations are the cause. It remains a devastating neurological disability, leaving many sufferers with limited communication skills, an inability to show affection to others or interact in society and unusual cognitive processing methods.

Grandin’s parents were advised to place her in an institution (remember “Rain Man”?), but instead her mother dedicated herself to teaching the girl to speak and function in the world. This thoughtful, inventive bio-pic made for HBO follows Temple (played to perfection by Claire Danes) from college to her success as an expert in the humane treatment of cattle.

Grandin’s interest in cows begins when she spends a summer at her aunt and uncle’s Arizona ranch and observes the cattle being herded into a squeeze machine used to settle them before they receive an inoculation shot. She constructs her own “hug” machine (substituting for human contact) that calms her enough to allow her to survive college and then graduate school. Soon she’s writing articles about the treatment of livestock and designing ways to improve the slaughtering process.

Along the way she encounters the usual array of obstacles, mostly in the form of old-fashioned ignorance and prejudice. It’s pretty hard to avoid these types of clichés when filming a bio-pic, but director Mick Jackson (a veteran British filmmaker best known for his early ‘90s hits “The Bodyguard” and “L.A. Story”) does a superb job of not trying to do too much or turn the picture into highlight clips. The idea to visually show how Temple thinks---she remembers every image she’s ever seen---gives the film the skewed perspective of its subject, while offering fascinating insight into the autistic world.

Jackson has assembled an impressive cast---cable movies are attracting better supporting actors than feature films these days---including Catherine O’Hara in a rare non-comic role as Temple’s aunt, Julia Ormond as her devoted mother and the always memorable David Straithairn as her high school science teacher who first taps Temple’s potential.

But this is Danes’ show, fulfilling the promise she’s shown since her acclaimed work on the TV series “My So-Called Life” at age 15. She’s given good performances (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Shopgirl”) but this is a career-making role, winning an Emmy and Golden Globe. Had this been a feature film, it surely would have earned her an Oscar nomination. The way she modulates her voice, distorts her rubbery face and utilizes an unbound energy to create a character both frustrated and distinguished by her autism is mesmerizing.

Grandin, now 64 and a professor at Colorado State University, is an exceptional and inspirational person; the movie matches her on both counts.

I guess this James L. Brooks film must be considered a romantic comedy, despite lacking in much romance and devoid of comedy. As excruciatingly painful to sit through as any movie in recent memory, the writer-director of “Terms of Endearment” (1983), “Broadcast News” (1987) and “As Good as It Gets” (1997), fails to produce a single line of dialogue that should not have been rewritten or create a single character that rises above the level of serviceable.

In addition to the sophomoric, pointless and leaden script, the acting is nearly unwatchable. I had no memory of ever seeing Paul Rudd in a film (in checking his filmography, he’s appeared in a handful of movies I’ve seen, including “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin”), so I hate to damn an actor for one role, but in “How Do You Know” he exudes the energy of a 2 by 4. I kept waiting for his character to display a glint of personality and then the film was over. His performance would barely be acceptable in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

His opposite is Reese Witherspoon, who seems to be under a spell here, unable to connect to her character—a Team USA softball player who becomes disoriented and vulnerable after she’s cut from the team—to anything close to reality. She jumps in and out of the bed of an obnoxious chauvinist (Owen Wilson as a dumber-than-a-rock professional baseball player) while George (Rudd) keeps running into her in typical romantic-comedy plotting.

I guess we are suppose to feel for George because he’s been indicted by the government for stock manipulation, which he clearly is clueless about. Actually, his character would have been more interesting if he had committed the crime.
The poor acting in this picture extends to Jack Nicholson, who has been guided to two Oscars by Brooks (supporting actor in “Terms of Endearment”; best actor for “As Good as it Gets”) and has appeared in four of the director’s six films. Here he plays George’s frantic father and conniving boss who shouts his lines without much conviction and, worst of all, is never once funny. He gives better performances at Laker games.

It’s clear that Brooks was attempting to create another offbeat female character struggling to find her way in the world (following Holly Hunter in “Broadcast News” and Helen Hunt in “As Good as It Gets”), but Witherspoon’s Lisa is a cipher who doesn’t seem capable of sticking to a decision. Brooks’ writing and direction has left this fine, energetic actress all made up with nowhere to go.
Most critics ripped the director’s last film, “Spanglish” (2004) for its clunky writing and strained performances, but that was a masterpiece compared to this mess.

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