Friday, June 8, 2012

April-May 2012

BERNIE  (2012)
    This strange hybrid—part docudrama, part reality show, part Christopher Guest-style mockumentary—had me laughing out loud more often than any movie has in years.

     Richard Linklater previous best efforts were the mainstream comedy “School of Rock” and his thoughtful romances “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” Yet “Bernie” may be this Texan’s most assured, mature work, as he lets the real-life residents of Carthage, a small burg in East Texas (the state’s regions are eloquently defined in the opening moments of the film), tell the story of Bernie Tiede, the town’s gregarious, fastidious, upbeat and generous to a fault assistant funeral director. The script, by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose magazine article the film is based on, just supplements the off-the-cuff commentary from the locals.

     Bernie’s kindness to elderly widows leads him to court the richest and meanest woman in town, Marjorie Nugent. Unfortunately for both parties, after a few years, their giddy relationship hits a slight bump in the road.

    As portrayed by Jack Black and the indomitable Shirley MacLaine, they make the strangest couple anyone in town could have imagined and, luckily for moviegoers, they all have plenty to say about them. The talkative neighbors offer up small-town gossip, Bible-based philosophy and a catalogue of hilarious regional idioms. It all adds up to a collection of colloquial insight as rich as any Faulkner novel.

      While the Carthage citizens are the real stars, Black, sporting pitch-black hair and a perfectly-trimmed mustache, shows he can deliver a disciplined, buttoned-down performance, creating a comic character without turning Bernie into a buffoon. As Bernie’s nemesis, Matthew McConaughey, a Texan himself and longtime Linklater collaborator, contributes to the small-town landscape as a flamboyantly clueless local prosecutor, with oversized glasses and cowboy hat.

      For MacLaine, this continues her recent run of quirky, lively character roles, including as Endora in “Bewitched,” the thoughtful grandmother in “In Her Shoes,” and as the “Mrs. Robinson” in “Rumor Has It…”  Next year, she’ll join the cast of the hit British series, “Downton Abbey.” Few 78-year-olds have had a career resurgent like MacLaine. This week she became only the seventh woman to receive the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award.

      The less you know about the real life Bernie and Marjorie the more you’ll appreciate the story as it plays out, but in many ways the true enjoyment of the film has nothing to do with the couple; it’s all about life in a small town and the judgments and values that entails. Anyone who has lived in small-town American will recognize these folks and the perspective they bring to the table. For those from Texas, I’m guessing this may be the most essential film since “The Alamo.”

ISHTAR (1987)
    Twenty-five years ago, this big-budget disaster was instantly labeled as one of the worst movies ever made. That distinction had more to do with the expectations of a Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman comedy directed by critical darling Elaine May than what was on the screen.

    Revisiting this infamous picture a quarter century later, I found that the script’s central idea is pretty funny and the stars, playing against type, deliver surprisingly good comic performances. What sunk the movie was turning what should have been a small, quirky picture into an overblown, overwritten and misguided slapstick.

       The setup is superbly written and executed: two clueless losers are sincerely convinced they can make it as pop music songwriters. They are utterly talentless and their songs (by May and Paul Williams) are laughably awful. Yet they persist, unaware of how bad they are, and score a gig in a tourist-trap hotel in Morocco.

       Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke, sporting glittery headbands and too-tight blazers (ah, the ‘80s), actually hit it off with the crowd, but before they (and we) can enjoy their success, they are knee-deep in an idiotic spy-CIA plot. French actress Isabelle Adjani (Beatty’s paramour at the time) plays a revolutionary who uses these two American stooges to smuggle a map into the country, while Charles Grodin brings his sly sarcasm to this mess as a suspicious CIA agent.

      While every bit of stupidity from Lyle and Chuck is completely believable, owing to excellent performances by Beatty and Hoffman, I kept hoping the film would dispense with the adventure and get these two back on stage.

      In an amusing reversal to their real life images, Beatty’s Lyle struggles to converse with women, playing a stumbling, uncouth hick while Hoffman’s Chuck is the ever-confident man about town. Challenging these two for the film’s best performance is the blind camel who accompanies these goofballs into the Moroccan desert. Beatty, Hoffman and a blind camel—what else could you want?

     “Ishtar” turns out to be the perfect example of the long-held showbiz adage: tragedy plus time equals comedy.

WAR HORSE (2011) and
     The boy wonder of Hollywood, who changed, for better or worse, the course of American film at 28 when his “Jaws” reinvented the genre of summer blockbuster, is now eligible for senior discount tickets.

      Steven Spielberg turned 65 last December. He’s not much younger than the legendary John Ford was when he gave advice to the aspiring filmmaker about the importance of properly framing the horizon. Not only are there gorgeous horizon shots in “War Horse,” but it is Spielberg’s most Fordian picture—it could and probably should have been made in 1943. Which means it contains masterful visual storytelling; sentimental, didactic dialogue; and a storyline that might as well have included every 20 minutes or so, the subtitle “Audience Tears Up Now.”

     Like so many of Ford films, “War Horse” begins in the innocent years before World War I set on the English countryside, where a struggling sharecropper (Peter Mullan) overpays at auction for a magnificent-looking horse. Albert, the man’s teen son (Jeremy Irvine), falls instantly in love with the large chestnut stallion, determined to turn him into a workhorse, a role the animal is clearly ill suited for.

      Though separated when the Great War does come, both Albert and his horse Joey end up on the front lines in Europe, experiencing the living hell that the costly conflict created across the French countryside. In the film’s most riveting sequence, a British soldier and his German counterpart work together in the midst of “no-man’s land” to cut Joey out of the tangle of barbed wire he has trapped himself in. If you thought Spielberg had lost his ability to create cinematic magic, this visually and emotional powerful scene will erase any doubts. 

     Adapted from the novel and later stage play written by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” earned a best picture nomination but didn’t do well at the box office. Why?

      Though great films are often referred to as timeless, they really aren’t. Even a period piece reflects the ideas and style of the times when it was made: a 2011 film about the 1920s is very different from a 1950s film about the 1920s. In some ways, it is a tribute to the writers’ and Spielberg’s rigorous focus that this picture feels so much like a work from the 1930s or ‘40s, with only CGI touches hinting at a 21st Century production. Yet to make a movie relevant to the audience, to convert the past to the present, filmmakers need to inject those slivers of today into even the grandest tale from what is now, for most of the filmgoing public, ancient history. (If it wasn’t for the numeral designations, young Americans would struggle to differentiate between the two world wars.)

     Yet this flawed, often ridiculously clichéd tearjerker—flawless photographed by Janusz Kaminski and heavy-handedly scored by John Williams—is somehow  irresistible for its pure-hearted morals, salt-of-the-earth characters and the filmmaker’s uncanny ability in channel the spirit of John Ford.

      Less successful was Spielberg’s other 2011 release, “Tintin,” yet another old-fashioned picture that, sans the technology, seems like a product of the 1940s or ‘50s.

      Using motion-capture technology that utilizes real actors’ facial expressions to create animated characters—to me it’s “Avatar” meets “Toy Story”—the film is neither fowl nor beast, but some emotionally detached version of humanity. Other than allowing the characters to do astonishing things that would be more costly if human performers were involved, it seems to be a pointless technology. Reading stories about this and other tech-heavy film projects (from 3-D to that odd plasmatic reality that Robert Zemeckis is into), I’m left with the impression that filmmakers, like teens with short attention spans, are tired of making “movies” and would rather experiment with the latest technical advances.

     No matter the method of delivery, “Tintin” doesn’t add up to much. Based on a series of 1920s Belgian comic books written by Hergé that have remained popular throughout Europe, this rather inert adventure follows Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), a young reporter with distinction red hair and unbound curiosity, as he chases down a secret “buried” treasure after innocently purchasing a model of a famous 19th Century ship at a flea market.

    His rival for the treasure is Sakharine, voiced by Daniel Craig but looking suspiciously like the director, who is a slightly more dignified and thoughtful version of “The Simpson’s” Mr. Burns. (Why are maniacal bad guys always incredibly rich who hardly need more treasure?) “Tintin” struck me as nothing more than an extended version of a “Scooby-Doo” episode. Amazingly, two more films are in the works.

     Journalist Tintin has a bit more spunk than most animated protagonists, yet I never saw him take any notes nor was it clear who was paying him for his reporting. The picture’s only character with any real bite to him is Captain Haddock (the omnipresent Andy Serkis), a hopeless drunk whose life is given new purpose when he joins Tintin’s adventure.

     But I have to give Spielberg credit for his impressive productivity; unlike so many of his contemporaries, he continues to crank them out (nine films as a director this century along with his countless producing credits). While I’m not sure this consummate showman has any more “Close Encounters,” “E.T.” or “Raiders” left in him—meaning great films not sequels—his work in the past 10 years has included smart and entertaining adult fare such as “Minority Report” (2002), “Catch Me If You Can” (2002) and “Munich” (2005). And next year will see the arrival of his anticipated biopic “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

     Though this fourth edition of the incredibly successful series is far from the best—I thought the first film was the best action picture of the 1990s—it features enough breathtaking stunts and perfectly timed con jobs to make it worth renting. Especially for those, like me, who prefer their action films to be populated by humans rather than superheroes.

    Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, about as close to a superhero as a normal human can be, is stuck in a Russian prison as the film opens, but is sprung by a pair of IMF operatives—the nerdish Benji (Simon Pegg) and Carter (Paula Patton), the requisite hot female spy. Their mission—should they decide to accept it—is to track down Russian nuclear codes and keep them out of the hands of a rogue scientist.

     After Jeremy Renner joins the team (he claims he’s a government analyst) and they are cut off from any support from the Washington, they go from the Kremlin to Dubai. There, Hunt rappels up and down the glass-surfaced tallest building in the world. It’s hard to tell how much of the stunt is actually done by Cruise, but even pretending to do these stunts is pretty astonishing for an actor who turns 50 next month.

     Taking over the director’s chair for the franchise is Brad Bird, best known for the animated films “The Iron Giant” and “Ratatouille.” In his live-action debut, he keeps the plot moving at a brisk pace without glossing over plot details and never allows the action to become too cartoonish.

      But these films are all about the star. Hunt has become Cruise’s signature role with a fifth film already in the works. But I still hope he learns a lesson from Harrison Ford’s mistake and retires from action before it becomes ludicrous and, instead, takes advantage of the next 10 years, essentially his last chance for interesting dramatic roles.    

THE IRON LADY   (2011)
    This is a movie that is hard to take seriously. Without the presence of Meryl Streep, who ridiculously won her third Oscar for her performance as Margaret Thatcher, this film would have gone straight to DVD and would be selling for $3 in Big Lot’s bargain bin.

     The problem with the movie is that it never lands long enough on any one thing about this influential and controversial British prime minister to make any impact. The film plays as if it’s one long trailer for an upcoming, and more coherent, movie about Thatcher. The excuse for this method is that the years of her rise to power and time in office in the 1980s are played out as the one-time world leader’s memories as she meanders around her house, occasionally confused and speaking with her late husband.

     Streep creates an interesting elderly Thatcher (she’s 86), bringing out her humanity as a doting wife, but in the career of this masterful screen actress, it’s not even close to one of her best roles. Playing the PM in her prime, Streep is never allowed to break free of the script’s paint-by-numbers history lesson. Actually, the best Thatcher in the movie is Alexandra Roach, who plays her when she was a young, ambitious politician.

     The always reliable Jim Broadbent plays her deceased husband Denis, strangely aware that he’s not really there. This oddly structured approach to such a serious figure is the work of British theatrical director Phyllida Lloyd, whose only previous feature was the giddy musical “Mamma Mia!” also starring Streep, and screenwriter Abi Morgan, who also wrote last year’s controversial “Shame.”

      Not only does “The Iron Lady” fail to offer any real insight into this polarizing leader, but it never takes a stand as to whether her stridently conservative policies were good or bad for England. In other words, what was the point?  

      This spare, home-movie like rendition of William Golding’s allegoric story has some frighteningly powerful moments but never captures the nightmarish atmosphere of the novel’s paradise lost.

     Forced by producers to squeeze this famous tale of English schoolboys attempting to survive on a desert island into 92 black-and-white minutes, director Peter Brook loses much of the subtleties of Golding’s prose, reducing the story to its basic good vs. evil theme. The boys, ranging in age from six to 12, are the only survivors after a plane, evacuating them from war-torn England, is shot down.

      By virtue of finding a large shell on the beach and blowing on it, Ralph is elected chief, much to the irritation of Jack, the tough-talking leader of a group of choir boys (dressed in concert wear). They appease Jack by giving him and his followers the role of hunters and keepers of the all-important signal fire.

     Ralph and his trusted helper Piggy assign jobs and attempt to keep order, but it’s hopeless and soon the island is divided between those loyal to Ralph and his rules and those standing with Jack and his rebellious spirit.

    In a matter of months, these proper English schoolboys have become undisciplined, heartless, cruel and much worse. For Golding, the horrors of two European wars had changed his view of what mankind was capable of.

   The film, like the novel, ends rather abruptly, but the last act offers a chaotic glimpse of the ugly reality this desert paradise had become. The young actors were all amateurs, but James Aubrey, who is quite good as the thoughtful Ralph, went on to a long career on British television before his death two years ago, while Tom Chapin (Jack) and Hugh Edwards (Piggy) never worked in the business again. One of the young performers, Nicholas Hammond, played one of the von Trapp children two years later in “A Sound of Music.”

     Brook, the leader of Britain’s avant-garde theater in the 1960s, only dabbled in film, but with some impressive results, including the remarkable inventive “Marat/Sade” (1967) and a memorable “King Lear” (1971) with Paul Scofield.

     Who would have ever guessed that David Cronenberg, the director of such startling films as “Dead Ringers,” “Crash” and “Eastern Promises,” could make a ponderous, overly talky movie?  His latest, about early experiments in psychotherapy by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, is interesting only in an historical scene; the treatment of mental illnesses offered new insights into the human mind, a realization that affected all aspects of the 20th Century.

     But as a film, there isn’t much going on beyond the back-and-forth discussions between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor Freud (Viggo Mortensen and an affair Jung has with his star patient (Keira Knightley). 

     Fassbender, best known for his performance as the English spy in “Inglourious Basterds,” had a very busy 2011, playing Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” Magneto in “X Men: First Class” and a sex obsessed New Yorker  in the NC-17 rated  “Shame.” Here, his Jung is properly fussy and career-obsessed but he never creates a very distinctive character, probably more of a script (Christopher Hampton from his play) problem than anything else.

     Mortensen, a Cronenberg regular (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises”) plays Freud as a confident, super cool professor who is very guarded about his legacy. One of the most interesting aspects of the film, which isn’t fully explored, is the concern Freud has that his theories will be ignored because most of his Viennese followers, unlike Jung, are Jewish.

     Knightley does her best to portray an abused young woman who is “cured” by Jung but is never quite up to the task. She always seems to be giving a performance; especially in the unconvincing romantic scenes with Fassbender.

    The highlight of this rather monotonous picture is the performance by Vincent Cassel (he was strident choreographer in “Black Swan) as Otto Gross, a brilliant colleague of Freud, who is treated by Jung. His calm, almost otherworldly, demeanor as he talks Jung into acting with his heart rather than his head, and the intensity he brings to stories he tells of his life, made me wish the film was about him.

     Cronenberg’s next project seems equally high-minded: “Cosmopolis,” the story of a young Wall Street financier from acclaimed novelist Don DeLillo. It’s due in theaters later this year.

    Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, on the basis of “Tropical Malady” (2004), “Syndromes and a Century” (2006) and this picture, has become an international film festival darling. “Syndromes” won the top prize at Venice and “Uncle Boonme” was the Palme d’Or winner at the 2010 Cannes. But please don’t ask me to explain why.

      “Syndromes,” a confusing and, to me, rather pointless drama (told in parallel stories), and “Tropical Malady,” which I have yet to endure, both landed in last decade’s Top 10 as voted on by critics for Film Comment. “Uncle Boonme” is slightly more attuned to Western audiences, but I doubt Weerasethakul will ever need to work on an Oscar acceptance speech.

     Boonme, played by first time movie actor Thanapat Saisaymar, is a farmer living near the Thailand-Laos border who is dying of kidney failure.

     While Boonme is having dinner with his visiting sister-in-law and her son, his wife, who died years ago, materializes at the table and begins interacting with everyone. A bit later, Boonme’s son arrives looking like the wolf man, after having disappeared into the woods year ago.

      While the sister-in-law, the nephew and Boonme’s nurse are left speechless, Boonme takes it all in stride. Knowing that he has little time left on Earth, he accepts these unexpected dinner guests as part of the process. The filmmaker’s meditative pacing matches both the solemn story and the character’s reverent approach to life and death.

       Weerasethakul almost had me won over (yes, even with the Wolfman son) when he cut away from Uncle Boonme and introduces a story of a lonely, aging princess traveling in the countryside. She’s lured into a picturesque pond by a talking catfish and, eventually, they engage in inter-species relationship. Seriously.

    This movie first (I hope), along with the son turning into a wolf after taking some mythical forest creature as a mate, makes this the most radical “get in touch with nature” film of all time.

      Despite his acclaim, I’m guessing that this director isn’t the James Cameron of Thailand; he’s probably closer to Wes Anderson or Steven Soderbergh. But even those guys can’t hold a candle to the strangeness that seems inevitable in Weerasethakul’s pictures.

    Connecting three of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century—Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and John Lennon—was the high-profile, almost domineering role of their mothers in their lives and art. This unpretentious British movie offers a small slice of the life of Lennon and the emotionally confusing family life he faced as a teenager.

    Director Sam Taylor-Wood (a visual artist making her feature debut), screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh and stage and TV actor Aaron Johnson combine to find just the right balance of rude boy John and the sensitive artist-in-the-making as he gets tossed between his mother, Julia, who was more interested in her boyfriends, and his Aunt Mimi, who raised him as her own.

     What elevates this film beyond TV biopic level are the dynamic, intense performances of Kristin Scott Thomas as Mimi, the stern, rather cold disciplinarian determined to see John stay on the straight and narrow, and Anne-Marie Duff as Julia, the flighty, devil-may-care girl on the make (including flirting with her son’s mates).

     It’s Julia who introduces John to rock ‘n’ roll when they dance in a diner to “Rocket 88,” the Ike Turner disc that many credit as the first rock record, and later as they watch Elvis perform on a newsreel at the movies. The overarching sadness of their reconnection is the knowing of how it ends—with her senseless death in a car accident when John was just 17. (His conflicting emotions about his mother fueled his masterpiece as a solo artist, “Plastic Ono Band.”)

      “Nowhere Boy” is less about the music and how the Beatles evolved and more about the evolution of young John’s character. This portrayal of the artist as a young man clearly takes advantage of hindsight, especially in the way it shows the McCartney-Lennon relationship. Even early on, John is shown resenting the attention Paul, the superior musician, receives, but appreciating his sensitivity and insight into his life (Paul’s mother died when he was 14).

       For anyone who loves the Beatles and is interested in the personal dynamics that turned a couple of lads from Liverpool into songwriting icons, “Nowhere Man” is a must-see. Yet even if the film was about John Smith, it would be smart, successful study of the struggles every teen goes through to discover who they really are and who they want to be.

      As an aside, the production caused a slight scandal in British filmmaking circles as the first-time feature director and her star began a relationship. Now, three years later, Sam (nee Samantha) Taylor-Wood, 45, and Johnson, 22, have two children together.