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.   

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