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.