Thursday, August 11, 2011

July 2011

HALLOWS: PART 1 (2010)/PART 2 (2011)
As disappointing as most of the movies have been in this epically successful franchise, the final chapter comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

The two-part film manages to be unrelentingly bleak and intense yet, at the right time, appropriately sentimental. The countless famous faces who filled the supporting roles in these adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s best sellers show up in the finale, if only for a second or two. More prominent are Ralph Fiennes, as the ghostly, noseless Lord Voldemort, determined to destroy Harry; Maggie Smith as the feisty Prof. McGonagall, who leads the Hogwarts “army” against the dark forces; Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, whose hate for Harry knows no bounds; and Alan Rickman as Prof. Snape, the most mysterious and complex character in Harry’s circle.

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) look grim and defeated as they face one incredible obstacle after another, all leading toward Harry’s destiny. Yet even after 10 years of inhabiting these characters, the threesome still seem like kids playing themselves. You’d think that Radcliffe, concluding his run as the star of the most popular series of films in cinematic history, would have at least a few impressive moments in this 4 ½-hour finale. He does not. He remains a purely reactive actor, who spends too much time staring emotionless into the camera. After all this time, when Radcliffe takes off his signature glasses, Harry Potter disappears.

In Part I (probably an hour too long), Harry, Hermione and Ron magically fling themselves across the British countryside in search of Horcruxes (objects that contain bits of Voldemort’s soul) one step ahead of the evil lord’s Death Eaters. This pitch-black adventure has an ominous end-of-time tone, but for the non-Harry Potter aficionados the purpose is a tad ambiguous.

The teens, as they are want to do, engage in petty arguments and then make up as the fate of the world or England or the witchcraft (not sure which) hangs in the balance. The film could have used a bit more of Voldemort and less of his faceless minions (excepting Bonham Carter).

Part II picks up without a break, but immediately improves on the first 2 1/2 hours by relocating the action to Hogswarts. This magical centerpiece of the previous six installments is now a gloomy, repressive, prison-like institute (I’m not sure why so many students and teachers even returned), but it remains a haven for Harry, bolstered by loyal friends and mentors, including the previously unknown brother of the recently deceased Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, still the boy’s guiding light), memorably portrayed by Ciarán Hinds.

Unlike Part I, the second half gets down to business quickly. Voldemort, slowly being diminished as Harry destroys his soul, makes a final assault on Hogswarts, in a battle fought by a seemingly endless number of wizards and witches, reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings.”

Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves do especially good work in Part II as they summarize Harry’s history, fill in the many, many holes of the series and give everyone in the huge cast some important bit of business while keeping the intensity level at full throttle.

In one of the film’s most spectacular effects, the trio escapes the vaults of a sinister bank by hitching a ride on a very angry, Grendel-like dragon. (It’s the one sequence I would have enjoyed seeing in 3-D, but overall I prefer a 2-D movie world.) Energetic scenes like this would have done wonders for “Goblet of Fire” (2005) and “Half-Blood Prince” (2009), two of the more forgettable volumes of this encyclopedic series.

While 2004’s “Prisoner of Azkaban” remains the gold standard of these eight movies, “Deathly Hallows” memorably brings this extraordinarily imaginative (if frustratingly laborious) fantasy to its logical conclusion, allowing Harry and Voldemort to settle their feud mano-a-mano. Now, I guess, all those wizards and witches can get back to whatever they usually do on a daily basis.

CARLOS (2010, TV)
Ilich Ramirez Sánchez, a Venezuelan who was educated in the Soviet Union, was the most wanted terrorist for 25 years before his capture in 1994. Known as Carlos, he organized cells to commit bombings and murders in the name of Palestinian liberation. Most famously, he led an assault on OPEC headquarters in Vienna and took the ministers and members of their delegations hostage.

This French-German produced three-part miniseries, first shown in the U.S. on Sundance Channel, uses available facts and screenwriters’ imagination to paint a behind-the-scenes chronicle of Carlos’ criminal career. Edgar Ramirez, whose U.S. film work has included roles in “Domino” (2005), “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) and “Vantage Point” (2008), gives a charismatic performance as Carlos, portraying him as a strutting, hedonistic revolutionary who seems as interest in promoting himself as he is in advancing the cause.

While Ramirez’ performance is the main reason to devote six-hour to this production, it also exposes the extent that the Soviets and their satellite states were supporting terrorism against the West before the Cold War ended. At one point, the Soviet leaders offer support to anyone who takes out Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Kadafi gives Carlos millions for the same purpose.

Without the protection he received from Eastern European (and Arab) countries, Carlos would have been killed or brought to justice long before the ‘90s. Yet, the West’s willingness (especially in the ‘70s and early ‘80s) to negotiate with Carlos seems extraordinarily naïve today.

The problem with “Carlos” is that by the middle of Part II, the trappings of his life become so repetitive that it often sounds like the actors are repeating lines from previous scenes. You can only watch him mistreat women, speechify about the importance of the cause, plan bombings and make deals to acquire weapons so many times. This would have been a first-rate three hour movie.

In fact, many film critics last year were insistence about treating it as a feature film, ignoring that it was first shown on television, lured into including it on end-of-the-year Top 10 lists (both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times) by its screening at Cannes. The New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society named “Carlos” the year’s best foreign film.

French director Olivier Assayas, best known for “Irma Vep” (1996) and “Clean” (2004), impressively integrates TV clips from the actual events with the drama to create a mixture of truth and fiction that many people often object to but, in this case, makes for entertaining television. While “Carlos” isn’t the masterpiece many critics claimed, it offers an unforgettable portrayal of this prototypical terrorist, a forerunner of those who have become all too familiar in the 21st Century.

Frank Lloyd, who went on to direct Oscar-winning best pictures, “Cavalcade” (1933) and “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), won the best director Oscar in the second year of the Academy Awards for this version of the Lady Hamilton-Lord Nelson romance. (His films “Weary River” and “Drag” from that year were also cited.)

What was unusual about Lloyd’s win—it hasn’t happened since—at the ceremony covering 1928-29 was that “Divine Lady” (nor his other films) wasn’t among the movies considered for best picture. Though the Academy didn’t announce official nominations in the early days (the process became standardized by 1930), Lloyd won over Harry Beaumont who directed the year’s best-picture winner “Broadway Melody” and Ernst Lubitsch for “The Patriot” among others.

The story’s legendary romance takes place in the late 18th Century, when Emma, in a loveless marriage to a British ambassador, falls for a young naval officer, who goes on to become one of the most famous military heroes of the Empire. As the affair becomes a well-known secret among the British upper class, Horatio Nelson earns his legendary status in sea battles with Napoleon.

Later sound versions of this story include “That Lady Hamilton” (1941) starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and “The Nelson Affair” (1973) with Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson as the famous adulterers. But, in fact, words don’t do much to improve this simple love story.

In “Divine Lady,” Victor Varconi plays Nelson in the feminized style of silent-era sensitive heroes while Corinne Griffith dominates the film as Emma, who rises from uneducated domestic to behind-the-scenes powerbroker. It earned this popular actress her only Academy Award nomination.

As well constructed and fast-paced the first half of the film is, the second half, with its elaborately staged sea battles, clearly earned Lloyd his Oscar.

Why the film wasn’t among the best picture selections probably had something to do with studio politics because it’s both technically and dramatically a far superior film than the eventually Oscar winner, “Broadway Melody.” Voters were just being trendy: they thought this faddish idea of talking pictures was actually going to change the business.

It’s not hard to differentiate a theatrical film (even a badly made one) from a TV movie. What determines which documentaries I pay $8 to see compared to those I watch for free on PBS or A&E is not nearly as clear. It doesn’t seem to be about the quality of filmmaking or depth of content or subject matter. I’m guessing that it’s just a matter of getting the right company behind a project.

In 2009, a superbly made, well-written documentary chronicling the Chandler family’s stewardship of the Los Angeles Times aired on the local PBS station. “Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times,” written and directed by veteran documentarian Peter Jones (he’s filmed bios of Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Edward G. Robinson among others), offered an insightful portrayal of one of Southern California’s most influential families, with a special focus on game-changing publisher Otis Chandler, and the financial rise and fall of the newspaper.

Comparatively, “Page One” offers a narrow, scattershot look at the New York Times and various media issues (Judith Miller, WikiLeaks, Tribune bankruptcy, mergers, layoffs, internet startups) from the past few years. Writer-director Andrew Rossi’s (co-written with Kate Novak) laundry-list approach to the subject ends up short-changing nearly every issue raised, yet the filmmaker does offer a pinhole peek behind the curtains of this legendary institution.

Despite its deficiencies, I thoroughly enjoyed “Page One” as it follows the Times’ media desk reporters covering stories that nearly all revolve around the demise of the traditional media and how newspapers are dealing with the fallout.

Having spent most of my life in a newsroom, it was déjà vu watching and listening to the Times reporters working the phones, interacting with their editors and those editors pushing those stories to their bosses. For the rest of the movie-going public, I’m not sure anyone will much care. The only aspect of “Page One” that makes it of interest to non-journalists is the presence of David Carr, an outspoken, erudite reporter who arrived at the Times late in his career (after bouts of drug addiction, time spent homeless and stops at weeklies and magazines) but is the perfect spokesperson for traditional media. His quick wit and eagerness to offer an opinion, along with his disheveled, rickety appearance, bring a reality-show craziness to what otherwise is a film short on sympathetic characters.

In what may be the most insightful moment in the film, Carr holds up a printout of a page from a website whose owner has just been preaching the worthlessness of newspapers during a panel discussion. Carr has cut out all the stories that were produced by mainstream media and then asks what the site would offer without aggregating the work of reporters getting paid by newspapers.

It was satisfying (as someone who lost his job because of these fools’ mismanagement) to see Carr working on his devastating piece that exposed Tribune executives a bunch of roguish, sexist egotists, leading to the resignation of the company’s No. 2 clown, Randy Michaels (Sam Zell’s right-hand man).

The film offers only glimpses of soon-to-be executive editor Jill Abramson and managing editor Dean Baquet (former L.A. Times editor) but the current top man, corporate-slick Bill Keller, gets plenty of screen time, mostly trying to justify things the Times did wrong.

In my ways, the documentary already feels dated, never rising above a 101 guide to the world of 21st Century newspapering as it shifts and crumbles on a weekly basis. The film would have benefitted from examining the ways the industry has gone back to its roots in a desperate bid to increase profit margins. Returning from the early days of journalism are multiple editions (now on web sites), emphasis on the sensational (once crime now celebrity) and promotion of an ideology (now found in blogs and twittering).

Many critics have ripped “Page One” as being too kind to the Times, which the leftwing still blames for promoting the Iraqi war and missing the mortgage collapse story. Yet it remains the bastion of liberalism (and I use that term as meaning giving voice to those remain underfoot of the ruling elite) and the scourge of the rightwing. When both sides hate your guts, it probably means you’re doing a reasonably fair job.

Of course, the dead-tree media makes mistakes and screws up on stories but it hasn’t been replaced—not by TV, the internet, bloggers, tweeters or any other half-ass media mode that becomes the flavor of the year. Find me a web site that can pay hundreds of reporters an average of about $100,000 a year each to dig into the corruption that permeates the government, business and most other aspects of society and I’ll admit that print is done.

As media executives like to say: we’re still working on that business model. The replacement isn’t in the wings and I’m guessing it won’t be even after the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and this country’s other major newspapers have run their last roll of newsprint. That’s the documentary I’d be willing to pay full price for.

Twelve years after “Tom Jones” launched the sex-comedy-adventure genre, this deviation on the theme slipped in and out of theaters virtually unnoticed.

Despite a cast filled with British stars under the direction of Richard Lester (who had just finished his very similar “Musketeers” pictures), this late 19th Century tale of a bogus war hero (the irritatingly cocky Malcolm McDowell) manipulated by Col. Bismarck (a snarling Oliver Reed) to destabilized Germany isn’t much fun.

Actually, with a more commanding lead actor (Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Sean Connery) and played straight, this might have been a half-way interesting picture. In addition to Reed, playing the future chancellor as the epitome of German arrogance, the film features Alan Bates as his somewhat loyal assistant, Britt Ekland as the icy princess McDowell’s Harry Flashman is forced to wed, Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan as Bavarian royalty into kinky sex, and, briefly, Bob Hoskins as a British cop.

Flashman, a coward who enjoys the fruits of being mistaken for a hero during the British engagement in Afghanistan, takes pleasure in humiliating Bismarck during the German’s visit to England. But he pays the price later when he’s tricked into visiting Germany and then required to impersonate the future king by Bismarck and his minions. It’s all rather silly, made more so by McDowell, a mediocre actor whose entire career is based on his performance in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”

Lester’s career caught fire when he hooked up with the Beatles to make the quintessential pop music movie, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and its follow-up “Help” (1965). He also made the superb chronicle of a disintegrating marriage, “Petulia” (1968), with great performances by Julie Christie and George C. Scott and two interesting Sean Connery films “Robin and Marian” (1976) and “Cuba” (1979). He later managed to turn the “Superman” sequels into overblown comedies, much to the chagrin of fans of Richard Donner’s original.

I also recently caught his 1962 feature debut, “It’s Trad, Dad!” (later renamed “Ring-a-Ding Rhythm!), the calling card that earned him the career-making Beatles film.

It’s less a film than a series of musical performances, featuring early 1960s artists Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Vincent, Chubby Checkers and various British Dixieland bands (popular in England at the time and called “trad” by hipsters).

The cartoonish plot involves a small town’s mayor (a Winston Churchill lookalike), who wants to ban the playing of this corrupt music that the local teens are enamored of; no one mentions that this is 40-year-old music. His campaign sends Helen and Craig (minor pop singers Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas) to a nearby radio station/recording studio to recruit acts for a protest concert.

The offbeat humor—the narrator interacts with the actors and, repeatedly, the third wall is broken—the poking fun of government and business leaders and a kinetic filming style paved Lester’s path to becoming the go-to-guy for youth-oriented pictures of the era.

The title of this Sofia Coppola exasperating trifle is as vague and insubstantial as the picture itself.

While critics (and Oscar voters) went gaga over the writer-director’s “Lost in Translation,” it would have been just as incoherently arty if it wasn’t for the charismatic performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Coppola’s other movies, “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006), contain a few nice moments, but without Hollywood’s love of nepotism, she’d be making cheeky commercials for a beer company.

The first 20 minutes of “Somewhere,” the least interesting of her four films, consists of two scenes showing bored movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) watching pole-dancing twins perform in his Chateau Marmon hotel room and then watching his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) ice skate. If this sounds like the beginning of something disturbing, you’ve already imagined a better screenplay than Coppola produced.

Instead, the film aimlessly follows Johnny and Cleo as they spend time together after the girl’s mother dumps her on this diffident, emotionally remote actor. They drive around Los Angeles, travel to Italy for a movie promotion and then spend a weekend in Vegas before Cleo heads to summer camp. Nothing much happens or is said as Johnny drags himself through his shallow existence (the struggle being rich and famous it such a burden) while Cleo looks past her father’s flaws and tries to forge a normal relationship. The film is filled with long takes of characters’ sitting around staring off in the distance, substituting, I guess, for actual meaningful dialogue. It also features the most insipid soundtrack you’ll ever endure.

It would be easy to dismiss this film if it hadn’t been given an end-of-the-year, for your consideration release—like her equally unpopular “Marie Antoinette”—while her father’s recent movies (beautifully made, thought-provoking “Tetro” and “Youth Without Youth”) were barely released. More than ever, Hollywood, like the music industry, is only interested in the work of the young and the hip, even when audiences reject their inferior work.

Five years ago, Paul Haggis was the flavor of the year in Hollywood. After writing the screenplay for the 2004 Oscar-winning best picture, “Million Dollar Baby,” for Clint Eastwood, Haggis made his directorial debut with “Crash,” which promptly won the 2005 best picture Oscar. No one had ever been the credited screenwriter of back-to-back best pictures.

Since then he’s scripted two outstanding Bond flicks, “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace,” helped write two 2006 Eastwood pictures, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and wrote and directed the underappreciated home-front war picture “In the Valley of Elah.” I’m sorry to report that his batting streak has abruptly ended with this overwrought, improbable action picture.

Russell Crowe, who had his own back to back glory starring in best picture winners “Gladiator” (2000) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), plays as a college professor, happily married and father to a little boy. Then, one morning, police bust into their Pittsburgh home and before you can say “Hey, this doesn’t make sense,” his wife (Elizabeth Banks) is sentenced to life in prison for the beating death of her boss.

Crowe’s intense John Brennan then does what any good husband would do: plan a prison break to free her. In the best scene in the picture, John meets with an ex-con (Liam Neeson memorable in a five-minute appearance) who has written a how-to on escaping prison. He offers the basic tenants of planning an escape and John takes it from there, utilizing his vast experience (he taught English) to commit a federal crime.

The attempt to break her out and avoid capture is cleverly plotted and creates intense action, but it never feels like anything more than an outlandish movie conceit. If you can’t buy the premise, everything that follows is just a waste of time.

With rare exceptions, Hollywood no longer serves as the refuge for rogues, charlatans and itinerant tough guys---essentially the backbone of the industry from the 1920s through the ‘60s.

When you read stories of the Golden Era of Hollywood, they are filled with filmmakers who lived wild, adventurous lives, landing in the movie business because they knew how to tell a good story. Now, the model director is Steven Spielberg, a smart, extraordinary talented but rather colorless character who will never be found drunk on a set or wake up in a Mexican jail.

It turns out that movies fueled by whiskey sours (and later cocaine) were much more interesting and inventive than those boosted by Starbucks cappuccinos.

I once held out hope that James Toback was one of those old-fashioned characters (in his own rather erudite way). A Harvard grad, obsessive gambler, one-time NYU English professor who is a born contrarian, he wrote and directed some indulgent but fascinating pictures in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Toback made his name with his screenplay for “The Gambler” (1974), a semi-autobiographical story about the dark side of wagering and then made his directing debut with “Fingers” (1978), with Harvey Keitel as a concert pianist who works as a collector for his loan-shark father. In the ‘80s, he wrote and directed “Exposed” (1983), an eccentric New York romance with Nastassja Kinski, Keitel and dance legend Rudolph Nureyev, and the documentary “The Big Bang” (1989), an exploration of life and other assorted issues.

His famed peaked when he scored an Oscar nomination for writing “Bugsy” (1991) for Warren Beatty. Since then, Toback’s work has been an odd collection of barely released pictures focusing on sex, race and those living on the margins of life.

“Harvard Man,” easily his most incoherent and amateurish effort, attempts to capture the current pulse of the student body at American’s most prestigious university and Toback’s alma mater.

Adrian Grenier, who went on to play the movie star in “Entourage,” is Alan, an irresponsible student athlete and unlikely ladies’ man who arranges to throw a Harvard basketball game (he’s on the team) for the bookie father of his girlfriend (Sarah Michelle Geller) in exchange for quick cash to help his parents. Problems ensue when two uncover CIA agents, who just happen to be involved in a kinky sex arrangement with one of Alan’s professors, set their sights on bringing down this gambling syndicate.

It’s more than just bad acting (though there is no shortage of that) that turns this simplistic story into a muddled, disjointed embarrassment. Toback’s script is more intent on deflating Harvard’s standards---its teachers, students---and, for good measure, the CIA than telling anything resembling an interesting story.

Since this disaster, Toback directed the equally dumb “When Will I Be Loved” (2004), starring Neve Campbell as a promiscuous woman who is offered a large sum of money to sleep with an elderly man, and the documentary “Tyson” (2008), in which the ex-champ tries to explain his dysfunctional life.