Sunday, November 4, 2012

September/October 2012

ARGO  (2012)
    I distinctly remember the outrage—there’s no other word for it—during the Iranian hostage crisis when the Canadians were able to free six of their diplomats while 52 Americans remained prisoners of student revolutionaries.

     Canada? You’ve got to be kidding. Their success was America’s embarrassment and another dagger in the doomed Jimmy Carter Administration.

      But don’t always believe what your government tells you. When the operation was declassified in the 1990s, the truth turned out to be quite different, if a bit late for Carter. The six were American diplomats who escaped the country by way of a daring CIA plot (with the support of the Canadians).

      Actor-director Ben Affleck has fashioned this stranger-than-fiction secret slice of history into a terrific movie, alternating between outrageous humor and breathless suspense, lampooning Hollywood, the intelligence community and the White House while telling a truly heroic saga.

     Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the CIA expert in hostage extraction, who just barely convinces Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that his bizarre plan is worth undertaking. His boss, played with biting cynicism by Bryan Cranston, tells Vance: “This is the best bad idea we have.”  Mendez proposes, to the blank stares of his superiors, to mount a fake Hollywood movie production and then enter Iran under the premise of scouting for locations. When he leaves, his crew—the six embassy employees now hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s home—will fly out with him.

       Mendez knows that to fool the American educated Iranian security forces, this bogus project needs to look like the real thing. He first turns to an old ally, John Chambers (played by an enthusiastic John Goodman), a legendary Hollywood makeup artist—in real life he won an Oscar for his work on “Planet of the Apes” and created Spock’s ears—who guides Mendez to veteran producer Lester Siegel (a composite character). Alan Arkin plays Siegel as the ultimate done-it-all, seen-it-all Hollywood insider who makes it clear from the start that he’s taking his role seriously, demanding they go all out. “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” he says with a straight face.

    Reportedly, screenwriter Chris Terrio, working from a Wired magazine piece by Joshuah Bearman, doesn’t always adhere to the facts of the operation, but, more importantly, turns it into a smart, witty, suspenseful and thoughtful film.

      The scenes with Goodman, Arkin and Affleck as they search for a script (ending up with a “Star Wars” rip off called “Argo”), “develop” the project and even hold an outlandish press event and script reading are not only hilariously staged but filled with perfectly aimed zingers at an industry where exaggerations and cons are accepted as standard operating procedure.

     Affleck smoothly segues from this B-movie goofiness to gripping intensity when Mendez arrives in Iran and makes contact with the fearful Americans.

      As he did so well in “Gone Baby Gone” (2008) and “The Town” (2010), the director places genuinely ordinary people in believably extraordinary situations—even in the way he portrays Mendez makes this CIA operative seem like just a sincere, dedicated Everyman.

      Maybe the best work of his short, but impressive career is the opening sequence in which the director cuts adroitly between the angry mob storming the U.S. embassy and the panicked Americans inside. Since the film is focused on the six who avoid being taken hostage, it would have been easy to downplay the actual takeover, but he tackles the challenge like a veteran action director.

     Not only does he capture the chaotic insanity of the situation in Iran and the buffoonery of Hollywood, but also the division the crisis caused in the Carter Administration and the less than decisive way decisions are often made at even the highest levels. Not a bad accomplishment for an actor whose career just a few years ago seemed to be headed for the straight-to-DVD dustbin.

      Every 10 years, the British magazine Sight & Sound, among the most respected film journals in the world, polls hundreds of critics and filmmakers to determine the most admired movies ever made.

     The big news of this year’s list is the end of the half century reign of “Citizen Kane” as the undisputed champ of the world, displaced by Alfred Hitchcock’s chilly tale of obsession, “Vertigo.” In the 1952 poll, Orson Welles’ “Kane” failed to make the Top 10, then a decade later, was No. 1.  “Vertigo” didn’t made its first appearance in the Top 10 until 1982 (24 years after its 1958 release), but since has gradually closed in on “Kane,” coming within five votes of the No. 1 spot in 2002.

      This year’s poll, with a much larger voting pool (over 800), gave “Vertigo” a decisive, 45-vote win. I’m not sure what it all means, but, for comparison, the No. 1 film in 1952, Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic, “Bicycle Thieves,” finished 33rd in this year’s rankings. Two films from the 1952 Top 10, Luchino Visconti’s “La terra trema” and Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible,” have fallen out of the Top 100.  

      While most of the top films are the usual suspects of unquestionable world masterpieces (see the list below), one title caught me by surprise, “Man with a Movie Camera,” a Russian documentary I’d never heard of. If this was 20 years ago, I would have spent the next two years trying to seek out the video or hoping that it’d show up at some moldy revival theater on a day I was free. Instead, three days later, via Netflix, I was watching this obscure film.

       In the opening credits, the director describes his intentions:

      “This film represents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of inter-titles; without the aid of a scenario; without the aid of theater (sets, actors, etc.). This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of the cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.”

      You’ve got to love a film that announces its importance before the opening image. Depicting a typical day, from dawn to sunset, in the still hopeful Communist Soviet Union, this silent is framed with the making of the film you’re watching. Opening in a theater screening the film and often showing the film’s primary cameraman in action, “Man with a Movie Camera” offers a textbook example of the incredible cinematic beauty that was in vogue during the late silent era and a behind-the-scenes peek at how such images are captured.

      Director Denis Kaufman (who used the pseudonym Dziga Vertov—meaning “spinning top”) was the leading propaganda filmmaker in the early years of Soviet Russia, spending most of his career editing and directing newsreels. His theories on the use of the camera and capturing realistic images were revolutionary at the time and influential beyond his time; Vertov is often heralded as the father of cinema vérité.

      But the real star of “Man with a Movie Camera” is Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman, the cameraman who captures these seemingly random, but powerful images of everyday life and serves as the film’s linking presence. (Their younger brother, Boris Kaufman, shot such classics as “On the Waterfront” and “The Pawnbroker.”)

      And don’t think that just because this is Communist propaganda that there isn’t plenty of spice—the glory of the human form holds equal weight to the light and shadows of quaint Russian streets. The Kaufman brothers film a young woman awaking from a night’s sleep and putting on her clothes, preparing for work and then, later, find a spot for shots of topless women at a mud-bath spa. Near the end of the film, the camera lingers, using slow motion, over both male and female athletes as they exercise and perform track-and-field events.

      For the academics and high-minded critics who dominate the voters in the Sight & Sound poll, this documentary delivers on two favorite criteria for greatness: films about filmmaking and pictures stripped of all commercial conventions. For my taste, I love the common conventions—at least the ones that produced the unending string of great American films from the 1930s through the 1970s. As one loyal reader of this post commented after seeing the Sight & Sound list, “I'm suspicious of any movie list without “The Maltese Falcon” or “Dr. Strangelove.” As you can see from the Top 10 that I would have endorsed, I couldn’t agree more with those sentiments.

     I’m glad the list made me aware of this clearly important and influential Russian documentary, but to place it on any list of the best films ever made feels disingenuous, a one-and-done that will disappear from the list in 2022. 

     Here’s the Sight & Sound Top 10:
     1  Vertigo  (1958, Hitchcock)
     2  Citizen Kane  (1941, Welles)
     3  Tokyo Story  (1953, Ozu)
     4  Rules of the Game  (1939, Renoir)
     5  Sunrise  (1927, Murnau)
     6  2001: A Space Odyssey  (1968, Kubrick)
     7  The Searchers  (1956, Ford)
     8  Man with a Movie Camera  (1929, Vertov)
     9  The Passion of Joan of Arc  (1927, Dreyer)
    10  8 ½  (1963, Fellini)

    And mine, if I had a vote:
    1  Citizen Kane  (1941, Welles)
    2  The Third Man  (1950, Reed)
    3  Vertigo  (1958, Hitchcock)
    4  The Godfather Part II  (1974, Coppola)
    5  The Seventh Seal  (1956, Bergman)
    6  Casablanca  (1943, Curtiz)
    7  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop
        Worrying and Love the Bomb  (1964, Kubrick)
    8  8 ½  (1963, Fellini)
    9  The Maltese Falcon  (1941, Huston)
  10  Seven Samurai  (1954, Kurosawa)

     Amid all the articles commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of “The Godfather”—which, incidentally, finished 21st in the Sight & Sound poll, but 7th in the directors-only poll—another intelligent, brilliantly realized film from 1972 has yet to received its due.

      Director Bob Rafelson, fresh from the groundbreaking “Five Easy Pieces,” fashioned another classic American tragedy, with screenwriter Jacob Brackman, by placing Eugene O’Neill-style dramatics amidst the beachfront squalor of Atlantic City.

      The ironically titled “The King of Marvin Gardens” (a reference to the Monopoly streets of the New Jersey city) centers on two very different brothers, played by longtime friends and alumni from the Roger Corman bike movie entourage Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern.

      A moody, cerebral radio commentator, David Staebler (Nicholson) offers ruminations on life as he narrators his stories to late-night listeners. The character is based on the legendary radio broadcaster Jean Shepherd.

      Jason, his very different brother played with cartoonish, almost childlike energy by Bruce Dern, wants David to join him in an Atlantic City property scam, bringing them together for a weekend.

       This is Atlantic City long before the Trump and other casinos brought it back to life. A shadow of its 1940s glamour as a vacation destination, the city had become a rundown haven for swindlers and the hopeless. (See Louis Malle’s excellent “Atlantic City” for a decade-later update on the seaside resort.)

     In the middle of these bickering brothers, an odd pair of women adds to the tension. Ellen Burstyn, in the midst of a string of raw, moving performances, plays Sally, Jason’s on-again, off-again mistress and also the stepmother of the much younger Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), who is also sleeping with Jason. As this arrangement turns as soar as the real estate deal, David can only watch Jason’s world spiral out of control.

    Rafelson, who never matched these back-to-back masterpieces of American disillusionment (he’s made one barely released film in the past 15 years), is at his best when bringing out the deep-seated, uncensored emotions of these characters while distilling the story down to its basic tenant: the American dream is dead, so roll up your carpet and hunker down for a long winter.

      Nicholson, Dern and Burstyn are all at their best, creating an uncomfortable reality that’s as hard to watch as it is impossible to turn away from. The performance is one of Nicholson’s least appreciated; a quiet, interior study of a man whose neuroses are compounded by his intellect.

     Masterful cinematographer László Kovács, as he did in “Five Easy Pieces,” knows exactly how to bring out the dreary, worn-out mood of these spiritless characters and their cold, inhospitable environs. 

     Don’t ask me to explain, but my wife is a fan of the romantic melodramas that dominate the schedules of Lifetime and the Hallmark channels. Because of that, I half-watch a ton of ridiculously bad TV films, enduring dozens of stories about successful but unfulfilled women (more often than not played by Teri Polo or Melissa Gilbert) who return to their rural roots to find love and the real meaning of life. Yet even amidst a junk pile, something first rate occasionally emerges.

      “The Locket” stars a distressingly unexpressive Chad Willett as a medical student who takes a job at a nursing home and ends up on trial for murdering a patient. Beyond the ridiculous script and farfetched plotline, the movie is poorly editing and directed, exasperated by mostly tedious acting.

       Yet two mesmerizing performances elevate the production. The enduring Vanessa Redgrave plays Esther, a patient who wants little to do with anyone until the new attendant makes her his special project. As she emerges from her depressed state and reveals her heartbreaking life story, which should have been the focus of the script, the movie comes alive.

     While it’s hardly a surprise that Redgrave, among the great film performers of the past 40 years, gives a memorable performance even in a forgettable TV film, the intense turn by Terry O’Quinn, as the young man’s alcoholic father, was an eye-opener. This mainstay of a half dozen major TV series, including “Alias,” “The West Wing” and “Lost,” who has worked relentlessly since the early 1980s, is both touching and irascible, offering an achingly real portrayal of a man forever damaged by the loss of his wife. It’s the kind of turn that delivered in a major motion picture would have scored O’Quinn an Oscar nomination.

      That’s the great thing about art; even in trash, you sometimes find a sliver or two of brilliance.

     It’s easy to forget as contemporary Hollywood spews out terrible films week after week, that a rather high percentage of American movies have always been pretty awful.

     Many of the most forgettable pictures of the past 30 years can be seen every day on the oddball cable chancel THiS. But even knowing the channel’s track record for showing bombs, inevitably I’m drawn by an interesting plot description or unusual cast. And, just as inevitably, I’m disappointed.

     Few films I’ve seen in recent years are as idiotic as “Lily in Love,” especially considering the picture pairs two of the great actors of our time, Maggie Smith and Christopher Plummer. Not only does it feature two acting legends, but its plot, about the making of a movie, is hard to resist. Smith plays a successful screenwriter married to a pompous Broadway star (Plummer) who secretly pines for a shot at big-screen stardom.

     Lily and Fitzroy have a typical showbiz marriage in that they often leave social gatherings separately—her with long suffering agent Jerry (played by veteran screenwriter Adolph Green), he with an admiring starlet.

      But when Fitzroy reads Lily’s latest script he’s suddenly very attentive to his wife, determined to play the romantic lead role despite her insistence that he’s wrong for the part.  

      At that point the film could have gone in dozens of directions, but director Karoly Makk and screenwriter Frank Cucci picked the least believable, most ludicrous plotline. First, the audience is asked to buy the fact that Lily, the screenwriter, not only makes casting choices but is basically in charge of every important aspect of the production. If there is anything you can count on from Hollywood, it’s that screenwriters have the smallest share of power in any film production.

      Suspending belief beyond all reason, Jack disguises himself as an Italian actor—with an accent and a bit of putty—fooling his wife and scoring an audition. She’s so impressed with “Roberto,” this “wonderful actor” who she’s never heard of, that she cast him in the role and they all head to Budapest to shoot the film. (Coincidentally, director Makk is Hungarian).

     It’s ironic, I guess, that the film they are shooting looks and sounds even worse than “Lily in Love,” featuring the production values of a grade school play. And Plummer’s acting is beyond bad, chewing scenery as if he’s dying of hunger.  Maybe that’s all meant to be funny, but the results are just insufferable. It’s never made clear when Lily actually figures out that Roberto is her husband as Smith plays her as eternally sunny even in the worst of circumstances. It is just another hole in a preposterous script.

      For Smith, this was just an unpleasant bump in her long and distinguished career; the next year she earned an Oscar nomination for “A Room with a View.” Most recently, she’s shined in the British TV series “Downton Abbey” and the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (see below).

     As for Plummer, it was yet another failed attempt to regain the movie fame he had after the success of “The Sound of Music” (1965). It wouldn’t be until his impressive 1999 performance as Mike Wallace in “The Insider” that Plummer became an in-demand Hollywood actor. Now, he’s seems to be in every other major film, culminating last year with his Oscar-winning performance as a late-blooming gay man in “Beginners.”

     For a week after watching “Lily in Love,” I swore off all “THiS” movies, but then there was this film about Vegas in the ‘60s……I’ll write about that next month.

ROBOT & FRANK (2012)
      This deceptively sweet futuristic tale of a house burglar dealing with dementia offers the kind of insight into aging and friendship that rarely shows up in American films.

     Frank Langella has long been an admired stage actor, but has only occasionally had success on screen. Best known for his dashing turn as Count Dracula in the 1979 remake, Langella has had a recent run of first-rate film roles, including as CBS chairman William Paley in “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), as a veteran novelist in “Starting Out in the Evening” (2007) and, simply stunning, as a feisty Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008).

     At 74, his late career spurt continues with his most complex and emotionally rich performance playing Frank Weld, who, because of his memory problems, is forced by his son to accept a robot companion. Now common in society, robots can hold conversations and handle most domestic chores. After rebelling against the idea for awhile, this career thief starts to rely on the mechanical friend and even involves him in his latest crime operation.

          As voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, this unnamed, generic robot may be the most interesting mechanical device since the soft-spoken Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Equally laid back, Susan Sarandon’s lonely librarian confides in the flirty Frank that new owners plan to make the library totally digital, spurring him into action. Without making much of it, the film offers a warning about losing the tradition of the printed word in the name of new technology.

     At numerous points in the film, Frank is simply not very nice, a man not worthy of our sympathy. It’s a tribute to Langella’s nuanced acting that he keeps winning you back to his side, as he creates an authentic, complicated, very uncertain senior you won’t soon forget.     

     Among the strengths of “Robot & Frank”—an impressive debut for director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford—is the manner in which it depicts the indignities of aging, both the minor and the life-altering changes that keep piling on as the end approaches. The film glows with a quiet intelligence.    

    There are few things better than when a film you’ve never heard of turns out to be something special. That was the case with this low-keyed, surprisingly serious British film about a boy’s fascination with horse racing.

     “Rocking Horse Winner,” based on a D.H. Lawrence story, starts out like so my genteel English movies, with an inquisitive young boy (an engaging John Howard Davies, best known for playing the title character in David Lean’s “Oliver Twist”) befriending the household’s new hire, handyman Bassett (John Mills, who also served as producer).

     Gradually it becomes clear that young Paul’s parents (played by Hugh Sinclair and Valerie Hobson) are facing financial problems even as the wife refuses to accept the reality of it. While the adults, the parents and Uncle Oscar (Ronald Squire), who  serves as the voice of reason, bicker over the cost of their lifestyle and the father’s card game loses, Bassett and Paul are placing horse racing bets and collecting quite a sum.

    Turns out the boy believes that a wooden, rocking horse can tell him the winner of each week’s derby. The film naturally evolves from a boyhood adventure into a powerful psychological cautionary tale of greed and misguided priorities.

      Davies gives a very impressive performance—equal to his Oliver Twist—making his breakdown very believable and affecting. After his short juvenile acting career (he appeared in just two more features), he became a television producer, a longtime BBC mainstay whose credits include the classic comedy shows “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Fawlty Towers.”

     Mills, one of the great character actors in film history, won an Oscar two decades later for his mute, mentally disabled Irishman in “Ryan’s Daughter,” but is equally masterful in this quieter, less showy role. He appeared in over 100 films before his death in 2005 at 97.

      Writer-director Anthony Pelissier, whose handful of features include adaptations of works by H.G. Welles, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, turns what could have been a middling domestic drama into a memorable gem by subtly alternating perspectives between the parents and the boy and bringing out the emotional darkness just below the surface of this seemingly model post-war family.

     I was convinced by the trailers that this English comedy about a diverse collection of retirees who travel to a struggling Indian resort was the last summer movie I wanted to see.

     Despite the presence of consistently superb actors Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy and a pair of Dames, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, the picture seemed destined to be yet another litany of predictable old-people jokes leading to a heartwarming ending.

     Either I’m getting soft in my old age or “Exotic” is a step above the usual “Grand Hotel” offspring, but I enjoyed it in spite of its formulaic structure.

      What these Brits find in Jaipur is not quite what was on the website (oldies duped yet again); instead Sonny (Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire”) is an inexperienced youngster who is determined to turn his inheritance into the resort of his father’s dreams.

     Quickly the roles are defined: Dame Maggie, there for hip replacement surgery is the dismissive accidental tourist; Dench plays the recent widow who wants to escape her dull life; Wilkinson is an unfulfilled judge who is returning to his boyhood home to find a long-lost friend; Nighy plays a quirky, gentle soul in an unpleasant marriage; Ron Pickup plays a randy senior looking for one last fling; and Celia Imrie is his female counterpart seeking a soul mate.

      Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt”) and screenwriter Ol Parker (working from Deborah Moggach’s novel) waste too much screen time on the rather plodding romantic woes of Sonny, but when the camera turns to Dench, Nighy and Wilkinson this picture comes alive.

     Each of those veterans makes the most of these well-drawn characters, each searching for the life they deserve. These characters feel very real and alive, even as they exist in a script bloated with clichés.  

      And then there’s Smith, who, though playing a stereotype, never ceases to entertaining as the cranky, snobbish Brit (not much different from her “Downton Abbey” role), delivering sarcasm in proper English like nobody else.

    You’d think that at nearly four hours a documentary on a man who was a household name since he was a teenager would cover every important aspect of his life. Yet this Martin Scorsese-directed compilation of rarely seen clips and new and archival interviews gives short shrift to the music career of George Harrison.

     Certainly, the guitarist and songwriter was not your typical rock star; his glittery start as a member of the most famous band in the world—he was “the quiet one”—contrasted with his later spirituality, diverse interests and rather disappointing solo career. Yet so much screen time is spent on his Beatle years and the relationship between him and his three band mates, along with his later connection to Ravi Shankar, Indiana music and spirituality that everything else gets squeeze out.

      His saint-like loyalty and philanthropy is testified to over and over in new interviews with his widow Olivia (also executive producer), son Dhani, Eric Clapton, Shankar, race car driver Jackie Stewart, Phil Spector, Eric Idle, Klaus Voormann and, of course, Paul and Ringo. And I have no reason to doubt it.

     But what did he think of the Lennon-McCartney songs that defined the Beatles and kept his compositions, for the most part, off the albums? And why, after spilling out a masterful three-record set “All Things Must Pass,” was his subsequent work mostly forgettable? I wanted a objective voice, maybe a respected music critic or Beatle expert, to definite his contributions to this monumental group and weigh in on his later music.

     Also ignored is one of the most prominent events of his post-Beatle career: when Harrison was forced to defend himself against plagiarism changes. A jury ultimately decided that he had unintentionally swiped the melody from the 1963 Chiffon’s hit “He’s So Fine” when writing “My Sweet Lord,” Harrison’s most popular song and a No. 1 hit in 1970. Unquestionably, it had a detrimental effect on his songwriting from that point on.

   Overall, the film lacks a strong focus. It’s a surprising complaint to make about a Scorsese picture, especially since the director did such a superb job profiling Bob Dylan in “No Direction Home.” Yet too much of this documentary plays like those strung together, theme-less biographies once popular on cable television. I’m far from being a Beatle fanatic, yet I learned very little about Harrison from “Living in the Material World;” I was left with more questions than answers.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

August 2012

         For the detailed-obsessed fans of the best-selling trilogy, the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” was a disappointment. Like “Harry Potter” devotees, the young readers of this dystopian novel wanted every phrase, every description recreated on screen. The filmmakers tried too hard to do that in most of the “Harry Potter” films, and it created bloated, unnecessarily complex scripts.

     To me, "The Hunger Games" improves upon its overwritten, often tedious source by focusing in on the book’s most fascinating aspects: its determined, intense, taciturn hero and its cartoonish satire of the growing chasm between the haves and have nots in American society.

     Carrying the film from beginning to end is Jennifer Lawrence’s solemn, unglamorous performance as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who puts her life on the line for her family and region in a masochistic, made-for-TV fight to the death. Lawrence forges a true survivor; harden by a difficult, nearly hopeless upbringing, she refuses to give in despite overwhelming odds. Katniss proves to be the perfect joyless acolyte for a society that finds entertainment in the murder of children.

     Set in what seems to be a futuristic United States, “Hunger Games” chronicles the process of choosing and training 24 tributes, teenagers chosen from each district of the country to compete in a deadly survivor game. In this view of the “future,” these districts are essentially outdoor prisons for the working poor, who toil for little reward, in service of the well-to-do residents of the capital. Two teens selected from each district for the “Hunger Games” have a chance to enrich their district or die in the process (a punishment enacted by the government for a long-ago revolt).

      When Katniss’ younger sister is selected, the older girl volunteers to take her place. Possessing survival skills from her time hunting in the woods and a tough-girl attitude, she emerges as a surprise favorite as the competition begins.

     The film is less violent than I expected having read the book—clearly writer- director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) along with screenwriters Suzanne Collins (the novel’s author) and Billy Ray worked to score a PG-13 rating for the film. The picture also improves upon the book by giving a behind-the-game look inside “Hunger Games” control center.

     The film is loaded with solid supporting work, including Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the other District 12 tribute; Elizabeth Banks as the overdressed district overseer Effie; singer Lenny Kravitz as the sympathetic costume designer; Stanley Tucci as “Hunger Games” talk show host; and Amandla Stenberg as tiny Rue, the most memorable of the other competitors. Best of all is Woody Harrelson as the sarcastic, heavy-drinking Haymitch, the last winner from District 12 who mentors, in his own tough-love way, Katniss and Peeta.

     Lawrence, whose Oscars nominated performance in "Winter’s Bone” (2010) was not that dissimilar to this role, is superb in showing how this young woman can play the game as well as anyone while, at the same time, rebelling against it (and the rest of this disturbed society).

      As much as I enjoyed this HBO docudrama, featuring superbly calculated performances by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, it can only be considered as supplemental material to the mesmerizing, hilarious and sad original documentary.

     If you haven’t seen it, the 1975 “Gray Gardens” chronicles a few weeks in the absurdly crazy and irrational lives of 79-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale (known as “Big Edie”) and her 58-year-old daughter, who goes by “Little Edie.”

     Like characters out of a nutty Preston Sturges comedy, the two Edies, relatives of Jackie Kennedy (old Edie was her aunt), roam around their unkempt, antiquated Long Island mansion, dreamily recalling their rather uneventful past.

    As pitiful as they are, especially the daughter who still hopes for her big break in showbiz, you can’t help but laugh at their antics and the utterly wasted lives of people who had advantages most of us just dream of. (Despite being born of great wealth, Big Edie was left in dire straits in her 30s after her father cut her out of his will and her husband divorced her.)

    Filmed by documentary legends Albert and David Maysles (“Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter”) “Grey Garden” is easily the most entertaining nonfiction film I’ve ever seen. Few films of any genre capture the deep scars of a life filled with disappointments and unfulfilled ambition. It is a film experience not to be missed.

    The most interesting aspect of the TV movie version is the filling in of the gaps—we see the two Edies early in their lives and the unfortunate circumstances that lead to the state we see them in during the Maysles documentary.  Director Michael Sucsy does an astonishing job in replicating the look and spirit of what’s seen in the documentary.

    Barrymore is especially effecting as the young Edie, proud of her ridiculous outfits and comical dancing skills. Clearly she could have used 20 or 30 years of intensive therapy.

     There is an unforgettable moment in the TV drama when Jackie (nicely played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) is visiting her cousins in the 1970s and arranging to bring their home up to local code so they can continue to live there. Edie, clearly uncomfortable around Jackie, gets in the famous woman’s face and tells her that if she had married Joe Kennedy and he hadn’t died in World War II, she, and not Jackie, would have been First Lady. Jackie looks at her sadly and tells her crazy cousin, “I wish you had been.” In that moment, I had more sympathy for the real Jackie and what she had to go through in her marriage, in the White House, with the killing of her husband than I ever did during her very public life.

     Old Edie died not long after the documentary was completed but young Edie lived to age 84 in 2002. In the late 1970s, she attempted to make a go of it as a cabaret performer in New York. It lasted eight (apparently disastrous) shows. Yet, ironically, as herself in the documentary, she unintentionally gives one of the funniest and most unforgettable performances ever put on film.
   This isn’t a bad film; how could it be with the pairing of old pros Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as long-time married couple? Their marriage has gone flat and the complacent Kay finally pushes the taciturn Arnold to do something about it; a week long Maine retreat under the guidance of a glib, highly successful therapist Dr. Feld (an underutilized Steven Carell).

     The problem with “Hope Springs” is that it can’t decide if it’s a farce or a serious examination of a troubled marriage. The film tries to be a little of both, but it doesn’t hit the mark in either category.

     Much like director David Frankel’s previous Streep vehicle—“The Devil Wears Prada”—this film doesn’t do subtlety, making it hard to pull off the comedic scenes. (Even these two veterans are obviously uncomfortable with some of the poorly staged and conceived physical humor.) And the script by Vanessa Taylor falls short on the needed insight to fashion a strong drama.

     Then there’s the baffling casting of comedy star Carell; the role is written, and he plays it, as straight as an arrow. It’s almost as if the producers felt that if they cast Carell, it would make up for the fact that the script contained few laughs.

    While Streep is a bit out of her comfort zone, playing an old-fashioned, emotionally fragile woman, she pulls it off. For Jones, this is right up his alley—stolid, uncooperative and stuck in his ways. Yet so often you can see these two great actors are swimming upstream: it’s a juicy premise that the script fails to deliver on.

    There are a couple of ways you can look at this story of a young girl’s life on a backwoods Louisiana swampland island. Either it is a spirited tale of a gritty, resourceful child who is surviving in difficult circumstances or a horror story of egregious child abuse and the tragic hopelessness of small enclaves of people who refuse to join modern society.

     The filmmakers, it seems clear, want you to see this as a life affirming, inspirational tale of Americans living outside of society, resisting the corruption of the contemporary world. For some reason, this collection of angry, falling-down drunkards who seem unconcerned about the health, education, safety and future of their children are the iconoclast heroes of the film.

      Film critics across the country have embraced the message. This is what A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote: “Viewers inclined to see things through the lens of ideology will find plenty to work with. From the left, you can embrace a vision of multicultural community bound by indifference to the pursuit of wealth and an ethic of solidarity and inclusion. From the right, you can admire the libertarian virtues of a band of local heroes who hold fast to their traditions and who flourish in defiance of the meddling good intentions of big government.”

     Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey wrote that the filmmakers “have created characters that are wondrously indelible, distinctive of voice, and set them inside a story that will unleash a devastating hurricane, and a flood of emotions, before it is done.”

      Adding to the heartfelt nature of the project is the use of amateurs in the main roles (cue the laudatory amazement from the critics), led by Quvenzhané Wallis as the spunky Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry, a local bakery owner, as her irresponsible father, Wink.

     From my viewpoint, first-time director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar ask the audience to sympathize with a group of people who purposely put themselves and their children in the path of danger, refusing the help that is viewed as outside interference. We’re led to believe that because these people are so much a part of the surrounding bayou that they are to be admired for recklessly living in squalor alongside animals.  

     Yet if you are willing to put aside the intellectual dishonest of the story, “Beasts” offers an entertaining fantasy of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old living in the mud and filth of Bathtub, a slice of swampland cut off from civilization by the levee system.

      Her father, who treats her slightly better than the animals (she lives in her own trailer on their property) shouts and rails against everyone and everything while consuming a large assortment of alcohols (apparently, booze is free down in bayou country because no one does anything to earn money—these folks are as far off the grid as you can get).

     A powerful rainstorm forces Wink, Hushpuppy and their neighbors out of their homes and, eventually, into an evacuation center. There, evil people with medical degrees try to help these backwoods refugees (the horrors of Obamacare, no doubt).

    The film is filled with oddball magical realism moments, including the reoccurring appearance of giant boar-like animals and a strange trip by Hushpuppy and her school friends to a dance hall in the middle of the river. Even the sleazy bar and the aging prostitutes that work there are romanticized as something wondrously life affirming.

     Maybe I’m just an old cynic (why did I write “maybe”?) but I found this film a disturbing, but clearly effective, attempt to turn a group of desperately poor and disenfranchised isolationists into some kind of shamans, with an understand of life that us folks with running water and access to hospitals and education can’t fully appreciate.

    If you’re looking for action-adventure on a grand scale featuring incredible special effects, resourceful heroes and near-invisible bad guys, forget about “Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” and check out this astonishing Hong Kong epic.

      Spinning off a kernel of historical truth about Wu Ze-tain, the first female Chinese ruler, circa 680, and her protector Di Renjie, this Hark Tsui (“The Swordsman,” “Once Upon a Time in China”) film has Dee investigating the spontaneous combustion of two high-ranking officials.

     It’s all somehow connected to a shadowy minister, poisonous beetles and the construction of a 1000-foot high Buddha to celebrate the empress’s coronation. Dee, superbly played by Hong Kong star Andy Lau (“Infernal Affairs,” “House of Flying Daggers”) is aided by the empress’ trusted consort (Li Bing Bing) and another member of the Supreme Court (a white-haired Chao Deng).

    Though set in the 7th Century, the special effects and CGI make it feel as contemporary as “Iron Man.” No doubt China was well ahead of Europe at the time, but some of the whirling and intricate mechanical and structural creations in the film seem a millennium ahead of reality.

    Yet the strength of “Detective Dee”—what’s made Tsui one of the world’s most admired directors over the past decade—is the way the filmmaker never loses track of the characters’ humanity. The eye-popping effects never reduced the main characters into flying fighting machines.

      If most filmgoers weren’t so adverse to foreign films, this thoroughly entertaining actioner, with the right marketing, could have been a huge box-office hit.

    This British crime film has its moments but cannot quite live up to its impressive pedigree. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, England’s most accomplished man of letters since Dickens, the story of gang life in this seaside tourist town was turned into a much-admired 1947 film featuring an acclaimed performance by Richard Attenborough.

     This new adaptation from writer-director Rowan Joffe (screenwriter of “28 Weeks Later” and “The American” and the son of “The Killing Fields” director Roland Joffe) falters by turning the lead character, Pinkie Brown, into a completely unappealing, feckless young man who displays no sign of inner life or complexity. As played by Sam Riley, who will portray Sal Paradise, the Jack Kerouac character, in the upcoming “On the Road,” Pinkie is pure soulless evil—not exactly the kind of character you expect to find as the focus of a movie. 

     As two local gangs battle for control of Brighton Rock, Pinkie is just a lowly soldier until he’s assigned to secure an incriminating photo taken on the pier of an innocent girl and a rival murdered by the gang. Gradually, Pinkie leads Rose (Andrea Riseborough) into believing he’s interested in her when all he cares about is maintaining her silence. The relationship is the centerpiece of the film, yet neither performer helped me understand why she went along with this unpleasant brute or why he went to the trouble.

     Other gang members, Spicer (Philip Davis), the nominal chief, and Dallow (Nonso Anozie), the tough-guy enforcer, are not well defined and their trust of Pinkie is a bit baffling.

    Helen Mirren plays the most interesting character in the picture: a well-connected owner of a seaside restaurant with connections to the gang battling against Pinkie.


Friday, August 3, 2012

July 2012

     No one will ever accused writer-director Christopher Nolan of making standard-issue action pictures. From “Memento” to “Inception” and especially “Batman Begins,” he has heaped his adventures with enough psychological introspective and Freudian insecurity that to hold their own at a Eugene O’Neill seminar.

     His impressively ambitious conclusion to his take on the Batman legend is no exception—even the brutish Bane, looking like a slasher-movie escapee, spends most of his screen time offering insights into society’s inequities. This tightly paced (even at nearly 3 hours) apocalyptic entertainment is a very fitting, occasionally stirring, final movement of the “Dark Knight” trilogy. Yet it isn’t without it problems, starting with the sound.

      The gravelly voice of Christian Bale’s Batman has always been a struggle to decipher but here he’s a model of diction compared to Tom Hardy’s Bane. Because Bane wears an unearthly facial contraption, his voice is a nearly animalistic growl; I understood about half of what he said (not that I think I missed anything important). Yet it further dehumanizes the film’s primary bad guy—as seemingly indestructible as he is, I never found him a real threat because he was render as more machine than man.

      Though I wasn’t a fan of Heath Ledger’s demented Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008), he was a much scarier, immediate threat, as was Liam Neeson’s Ducard in the first, and best, installment, “Batman Begins” (2005).

     Saving the film and, more than once, the Caped Crusader, is a sexy and resourceful cat burglar (Anne Hathaway), who not only looks great in the cat suit, but never says anything predictable while staying cool as a feline. Unlike the window-dressing character of the previous “Dark Knight girls”—Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both playing Rachel—Hathaway’s Selina offers Wayne/Batman an edgy, unpredictable equal who is unapologetically looking out for No. 1.

     But, of course, the point of the film is to complete the story arc of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, again played with stern detachment by Bale. The actor is most successful as we witness Wayne’s transformation from a depressed, fragile, old-before-his-time former crime fighter into a lean, mean and determined Batman machine.

       The film picks up eight years after the end of “Dark Knight,” which, if you’ve forgotten, ended with the police assigning the blame for the death of false hero district attorney Harry Dent on the Batman (with his consent) and Wayne blaming himself for the death of his true love Rachel.

      Now he’s a reclusive, the subject of Howard Hughes-like rumors (Nolan once hoped to make a Hughes bio-pic; unfortunately, Scorsese’s mediocre version got there first) who has let Wayne Enterprises stagnant. Then Bane, setting up shop in Gotham City’s sewage system and with the support of the usual lineup of rich and influential businessmen, draws Batman back into the light. This calculating terrorist plans the total annihilation of the city (all the Gotham bad guys make al-Qaeda look like grade school pranksters).

      Beyond the “Dark Knight” regulars (Michael Caine as father-figure Alfred, Morgan Freeman as tech guru Fox and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon), Nolan adds “Inception” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a crusading cop with a connection to Batman/Wayne and Marion Cotillard as a wealthy do-gooder who helps bring Bruce back into society and the business world. All in all, it’s a very impressive cast with Hathaway and Oldman, as Batman’s unwavering supporter, giving the standout performances.

      The film makes good use of the impressive old buildings and brick house-lined streets of Pittsburgh. In one of the movie’s centerpiece special effects scenes, the city’s relatively new Heinz Field is ground zero for Bane’s evil machinations. (Steelers stars Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward and former coach Bill Cowher are shown briefly before the game begins.)

       This extremely dark and dank picture—newly half the action takes place below ground level—delivers extravagant action sequences, many featuring an impressive Transformer-like flying machine dubbed the Bat, while relying on old-fashioned fist-to-face fighting for the important battles.

   While the screenplay for “The Dark Knight Rises” often plays out like a hodge-podge of plot strands and unclear character motivations, by the last act its focus narrows down to the basics: Bruce Wayne’s dark journey into his soul. Without much fanfare, Nolan finds just the right pieces to complete the Batman puzzle, making everything this moody superhero has gone through both understandable and necessary.  

PARK ROW (1952)
     Sam Fuller, reporter, soldier, screenwriter, director, occasional actor and mentor to a generation of independent filmmakers, brought a tough-minded passion to his pictures, imbuing them with a vibrancy and immediacy that has helped them improve with age. At his peak, in the 1950s, he was considered no more than a maker of solid genre B-movies, yet, in retrospect, Fuller’s work stands with the best of that rich cinematic era. A Fuller film is unlike anyone else’s work: they hit you like a punch in the face you’re not expecting. No filmmaker has ever had the ability to grab viewers by the collar and drag them into the world’s he’s created. 

      August 12 will mark the 100th anniversary of this cigar-smoking, colorful writer-director’s birth, as good a time as any to remember one of the cinema’s true iconoclasts. (For years, Fuller’s birth year was listed as 1911, but most sources have since corrected it to 1912.)

     I recently re-watched his valentine to the early, entrepreneur days of New York journalism, when dozens of paper located on the city’s Park Row battled each other for scoops and circulation. Coming right after his two brutal, uncompromising “reports” from the Korean War, “The Steel Helmet” and “Fixed Bayonets,” the newspaper movie is equally violent as publishers resort to the lowest of tactics to cripple rival papers and editors are just as handy with their fists as they are with their typewriters.

      Gene Evans, who was the stern, commanding Sgt. Zack in “Steel Helmet,” plays the stern, commanding Phineas Mitchell in “Park Row.” This ink-in-his-blood reporter, fired in the opening scene of the film after telling off the publisher of his paper, spends the rest of the film attempting to keep his own startup paper alive while introducing the era’s advances in the industry.

      In Fuller’s version of late 19th Century journalism, this editor invents the idea of a copy desk, bylines, columns, obituaries and is the first to use the linotype machine, which greatly decreased the time it took to set type (previously done by hand), making larger papers with multiple editions possible.

    Though the movie is occasionally over-the-top corny, Fuller brings out the excitement and intensity of the time’s competi­tion; the director’s love of the business of journalism shines through every frame.  The characters, especially Phineas and veteran reporter Mr. Davenport (Herbert Heyes), don’t speak normal dialogue as much as they give inspirational speeches about the importance of journalism and the legacy of Franklin and Greely.

Fuller’s romance with newspapers began with his first job at age 12 as a copy boy on the New York Journal. From there he worked as a crime reporter and occasional editorial cartoonist for a variety of newspapers during the late 1920s and 1930s. He also began writing fiction and in 1935 published a crime novel. The next year he contributed to the script for “Hats Off.” He continued to sell stories to Hollywood until he enlisted in the Army, at age 31.

     As part of the First Infantry Division, Fuller fought in North Africa and Europe, earning a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

     Upon his return to civilian life, he wrote the newspa­per novel “The Dark Page” (later filmed, but not by Fuller, as “Scandal Sheet”) and was given the chance to direct his own screenplay on the life of Robert Ford, “I Shot Jesse James” (1949).

      He followed “Park Row” with his finest achievement, “Pickup on South Street” (1953), an intense crime thriller about a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) who finds himself mixed up with Communist spies.

     Fuller combined war and crime and tough guys (led by Robert Ryan and Robert Stack) in “House of Bamboo” (1955), an exciting, violent mob film set in post-war Japan.

In the 1960s, Fuller’s movies dug deeper into the seamy underbelly of society: “Underworld USA” (1961) examines the brutality of the mob and the pointlessness of vengeance; “Shock Corridor” (1963) grapples with sanity as a reporter goes nuts after spending time in an insane asylum; while “Naked Kiss” (1964) takes on the world of twisted sexuality. The last two are among the strangest movies ever made, one-of-a-kind shoestring masterpieces that manage to be both amazing and ri­diculous at the same time.

    After more than a decade of floundering, Fuller finally was able to make his long-planned World War II memoir, “The Big Red One” (1980), an episodical, unsentimental war chronicle through the eyes of infantry soldiers and their charis­matic sergeant played by Lee Marvin. The slick produc­tion values make “The Big Red One” seem less a Fuller film that his low-budget black-and-white pictures, but under the gloss is the same gritty reality and sudden violence that mark the director’s best work. (A recent reconstructed version that comes closer to matching Fuller’s vision than the film released to films is worth seeking out.)

 Strangely, “The Big Red One” was Fuller’s last hurrah; he struggled to find backing for  projects, yet, when he did get a film made, it was far below the standards he had set in his younger days (as his 1989 film “Street of No Return” convincingly proves). The director died in 1997 at age 85.

 His intensely personal work in the 1950s and early ‘60s, plus “The Big Red One,” are ample evi­dence to include Fuller among the finest postwar Ameri­can directors. He once labeled his films “cheap program fill­ers,” but the best of them offer a clear personal vision, fascinating characters and an urgency that makes them both signposts of their era and dramatically timeless.

     One of the most compelling and emotionally draining films released last year was written and directed by an actress best known as a paparazzi-seeking mother of six.

    Angelina Jolie’s acting career thus far (except for her fine work in “A Mighty Heart”) has been negligible, yet her feature directing debut is about as sure-handed and ambitious as you’re likely to see from a first-time filmmaker.

     Taking on the harrowing and complex Bosnian civil war of the mid-1990s, Jolie frames the wide-ranging tale with an unlikely relationship between a Muslim woman and a Serbian man. Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) are on what seems to be a first date when a bomb rips through the nightclub; in an instant, a happy Saturday night is turned into a war zone.

     Before long, Ajla is sent to a detention camp run by the Serbs, including Danijel, where, for better and worse, she comes under his protection. While this relationship moves from captive-jailer to a more equitable understanding, it essentially is an extension of Danijel’s conflicted feelings about the Serbian army’s actions and his role in the death of innocents.

    Jolie doesn’t pull any punches and, it must be stated, is clearly sympathetic to the Bosnian Muslims, not hesitating to label the Serbs as barbarian mass murderers. I think most agreed by war’s end that both side were at fault in this horrendous conflict for the heart of the former Yugoslavia, but it is hard to excuse the repellant actions by the Serb army, especially against women and children.

    Considering the power she wields in Hollywood, Jolie could have gotten a film made about any topic she chose and probably attracted big name actors to star. Instead, she chose to make a mostly sub-titled film about a war few Americans care, or even know, about. That on its own is admirable, but she’s also made a terrific film with two unforgettable performances.

     Marjanovic plays Ajla as the modern face of Muslim women—a independent, artistic woman (she doesn’t wear a hijab) who finds herself facing the impossible choice of being raped by brutal guards like the rest of the interned women or giving herself to a man who cares for her, but who is a leader of an army massacring her people.

     Equaling her performance is Kostic as a man whose father is a top Serbian general (an advocate of genocide against the Muslims) yet realizes that his side is morally wrong. His internal struggles lead to the inevitable heartbreaking conclusion.

     Rade Serbedziju, one of the great European actors of the past 30 years, gives a powerful performance as the unflinching father/general, who in one unforgettable scene, sits for a portrait by Ajla as he explains his hatred for her people. The actor is best known as the star of the Oscar-nominated Bosnian film “Before the Rain” and as the spooky shop owner who rents Tom Cruise his mask in “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999).

     I don’t know if this qualifies as an American film or a foreign film (the lines are getting blurrier—Woody’s latest is primarily in Italian), but “In the Land of Blood and Honey” is  definitely among the most intense war films of recent years and should not be missed just because its high-profile director is a somewhat pretentious Hollywood actress.

    When it was released, this stylish, well-written mystery was dismissed as “geezer noir,” referring to stars Paul Newman (then 73), James Garner (70) and Gene Hackman (68). Unfortunately for filmgoers, there aren’t very many younger replacements who could have brought the kind of world-weary cynicism and off-handed humor these veterans bring to their roles, old geezers or not.

    Co-written and directed by Robert Benson (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Places in the Heart”) this Los Angeles detective tale owes much to the 1970s films “The Drowning Pool” (starring Newman), “Night Moves” (starring Hackman) and Benson’s own “The Late Show” as it explores the tentative bonds and unresolved relationships even into the stage of life when everything should be clear.

     Harry Ross (Newman), a retired private detective, having once done a big favor for one-time movie stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Hackman and Susan Sarandon), now lives in their guest room and does odd jobs for the couple. When Jack asks Harry to deliver an envelope of money and he nearly gets killed, it reinvigorating his investigative instincts. Soon he’s knee-deep in a blackmail scheme connected to the death of a movie actor who was Catherine’s husband at the time.

    All is complicated by Harry’s attraction to Catherine and Jack’s cancer. Hanging in the shadows is Garner, an ex-cop and former studio security man who also has close ties to the Ames.

     Having not re-watched this film since it opened in theaters 14 years ago, I am happy to report that it has improved with age. There have been few detective pictures in the last decade that were populated with even half this many interesting characters. A young, fetching Reese Witherspoon plays the couple’s rebellious daughter and Liev Schreiber is her on-again, off-again boyfriend. Stockard Channing plays Harry’s former police partner while the always amusing Giancarlo Esposito is Harry’s self-appointed “backup.”

    If the same script had been shot in the 1950s—with, say, Robert Mitchum, Van Heflin and Rita Hayworth—it’d be considered a film noir classic. Half a century later, even with four star actors, it’s a dismissed, forgotten picture.

     The story, co-written by novelist Richard Russo (who also collaborated with Benson and Newman on “Nobody’s Fool”) lifts all the tropes of Chandler and Hammett and the entire history of these veteran performers. While it’s not the most original of mysteries, “Twilight” puts Hackman and Newman together for the first time and Newman and Garner together for the first time, which, for my money, is more than enough to recommend any movie.

KEYHOLE  (2012)
    Compared to most of Guy Maddin’s movies, his latest seems almost contemporary and mainstream. While filled with absurd plotlines and surrealistic occurrences, the film at its core is a simpe, mythical story (from “The Odyssey”) of a returning husband seeking his wife and the domestic life he left behind.

    Ulysses (Jason Patric) is a small-time crime boss who has instructed his gang to meet him in what seems to be an abandoned house. You know you’re in Maddin country when the gangsters have to shoot their way into the house and then Ulysses’ underboss asks everyone to line up against the wall, instructing anyone dead to face the wall.

     Ulysses shows up at the house looking like James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, but instead of making plans for a robbery, he had his guys dispose of their guns and then proceed to roam the old house, with a young blind girl, in search of his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini, who starred in Maddin’s “The Saddest Song in the World”).

     There’s also a kidnapped young man who Ulysses fails to recognize as his son and an elderly man who is chained naked to a bed.

     Patric plays his role in this bizarre tale with a seriousness that allows the film to get away with all types of strangeness without seeming stupid. At one point, Ulysses instructs half of his gang to redecorate part of the house—and they do.

     The Winnipeg director—part Lynch, part Eisenstein—offers more plot and character development in “Keyhole” than he has in previous efforts. And, for once, the film stock doesn’t look like a pieced-together print from 1917; it’s shot in crisp, classic black and white.

    I’m not sure what appeals to me about Maddin’s pictures, except that he usually finds the most bizarre method to show how strangely unpredictable the world actually is. I never thought about his similarities to the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel (“Belle de Jour,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) until this film, but both seem to have come to the same conclusion that the only way to explain an irrational world is by making absurdly illogical movies.

    The career of Morgan Freeman is the ultimate proof that talent, and persistence, will eventually be rewarded. No one has been a virtually unknown until the age of 50 and ended up with an American Film Institute lifetime achievement award.

    Starting with his charismatic performance as pimp Fast Black in “Street Smart” (1987), Freeman has evolved into one of the most consistent and believable actors of the past 25 years, giving masterful performance in “Driving Miss Daisey” (1989), “Glory” (1989), “Unforgiven” (1992), “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “Seven” (1995), “Nurse Betty” (2000), “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and “Invictus” (2009). He’s earned five Oscar nominations, including a win for “Million Dollar Baby,” and, he possesses the most in-demand voice in the business. The 75-year-old has made 30 features in the past 12 years.

    In this quiet, reflective indie, Freeman plays Monte Wildhorn, a cynical, heavy-drinking writer who is wheelchair bound and without much hope for his future. He arrives in the picturesque Belle Isle to housesit for a friend and soon his tough-guy act is cracked by Finn (Emma Fuhrman, in an impressive feature debut), the pre-teen, precocious daughter of his newly single neighbor (Virginia Madsen).

     The plot quickly turns cute and sentimental as his relationship with the neighbors grows and he is inspired to get back into writing. There is even a hint at a romantic spark between Freeman and Madsen—has Freeman ever had a romantic interest in any of his films?—but never is developed.

     Rob Reiner, one of Hollywood’s most successful directors in the 1980s and ‘90s (“Stand by Me,” “When Harry Met Sally...,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President”), had his only hit in the past 15 year with Freeman in “The Bucket List” (2007) and in “Belle Isle” the actor saves him again. Reiner, who wrote the film with Guy Thomas and Andrew Scheinman, doesn’t make much of an effort to bring any real edge or reality to the film, but succeeds in creating a memorable relationship between Monte and Finn.

     Woody Allen’s annual release (his 43th feature in the past 46 years) resembles a collection of his absurdist short stories rather than a coherently thought-out motion picture.

     He’s taken four dizzy scenarios that all connect to the allure and disappointment of celebrity as it plays out in the Eternal City and cobbled them together in a way that is both distracting and entertaining. Since the filmmaker cuts back and forth among the four segments, I kept waiting for some connection between them beyond the obvious setting and focus on celebrity. None occurs. I think a better choice would have been to present each story from start to finish and then move on to the next.

     I also, selfishly, wish Woody had titled each of the stories to make them easier to write about, so I’ll do it for him.

    The most memorable of the tales, I’ll call it “The Singing Undertaker,” stars Allen and Judy Davis as parents of a daughter who has fallen in love with an Italian. They fly to Rome to meet Michelangelo and his family, including Giancarlo (opera singer Fabio Armiliato), the father who runs a mortuary and sings like an angel in the shower. Even if you’re tired of Woody as a frightened air passenger, an uncomfortable tourist, a critical guest, you won’t be able to resist the humor he finds playing a retired opera director attempting to make Giancarlo a star.

      It’s a wondrously ridiculous idea that is typical of the occasional Allen story that shows up in the New Yorker; the filmmaker and the charismatic Armiliato bring it to life superbly.

     Another sharp commentary on the vulgarities of star worshiping is the section I’ll call “The Unsuspecting Celebrity.”

     “Life Is Beautiful” Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni gives his funniest and most convincing performance as Leopoldo, a dull office worker and family man who one day, as he’s leaving for work, finds himself the center of paparazzi attention. For no reason, the press wants to know what he had for breakfast and whether he wears briefs or boxers.

    Soon, he and his wife are attending premieres and beautiful women are throwing themselves at him. He hates every minute of it, until, well, he starts to enjoy it.

    Expanded, this segment might have been a great film on its own; Allen just touches on the changes that hit Leopoldo’s life and personality when faced with instant fame.

     Much less successful is “The Wandering Newlyweds,” a story about a couple (Italian performers Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi—cast, no doubt, for their perfect names) from a small town who arrive in Rome to honeymoon and meet his rich relatives.

    Searching for a beauty shop, she gets lost in the bustle of the city and ends up stumbling into a movie set. Meanwhile, a room mix up results in a vivacious call girl (Penélope Cruz) having to pose as the young man’s bride in the real wife’s absence, along with offering him some needed lessons in the ways of love. 

    Shot entirely in Italian, the segment has some cute moments but is overly predictable (even in its impossibility) and not very funny.

    I’ve saved the worst for last: badly acted, directed and written is “The Architect’s Regret,” starring a dazed and confused Alec Baldwin. He’s a well-to-do designer of malls who revisits the Rome neighborhood he lived in his younger, more hopeful days. There he finds a younger version of himself (a nervous, bumbling Jesse Eisenberg) facing a dilemma when a friend (a miscast Ellen Page) of his girlfriend arrives for a visit. Monica, an actress, is embarrassingly honest and flirty and Eisenberg’s Jack is immediately smitten.

    Baldwin’s character sticks around even after he really should be gone as Jack’s invisible advisor (remember the Bogey character in “Play It Again, Sam”?), which is fine if the rules of his existence were properly followed. Sometimes he’s really there; sometimes he’s only in Jack’s mind. (To me, it seems clear that the entire episode is actually just a daydream of Baldwin’s character, but that’s never clarified.)

     Beyond the clumsy plotting, the advice offered by Baldwin is so simplistically obvious and the characters are so shamelessly stock that I mostly thought about the other stories while this one was on screen. The dialogue would have been more believable if the actors had been improvising.

     As has been the case during Woody’s decade-long European vacation, the scenery is magnificent (Darius Khondji, who shot “Midnight in Paris,” is back as director of photography) and most of the characters offer a relief from the usual ensemble of an America film. For those who have long considered Allen akin to a foreign director, this film clinches it. There are enough subtitles in this picture to nearly qualify it as a foreign film.

     Celebrity has always been a focus for Allen (“Stardust Memories,” “Zelig,” “Celebrity” “Hollywood Ending”) and if he had stuck with the two well-imagined segments—and maybe found a way to connect them—this might have ranked with his best comedies. Unfortunately, it only gets halfway there.