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.