Saturday, July 7, 2012

June 2012


      Only through the very particular comic perspective of Wes Anderson could a story set in the 1960s about a pair of pre-teen runaways remain devoid of sentiment and have so much to say about contemporary relationships.

      Combining the determined silliness of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with the rapturous earnestness of “Rushmore,” the filmmaker’s latest takes its time, but eventually evolves into a more focused and coherent movie than his recent efforts, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Darjeeling Limited.”

     The writer-director begins with his usual claustrophobic communes of socially inept people, showing a series of still-life frames that typify the orderly craziness of their lives. The terrain and history of the island on which the film takes place is solemnly narrated by Bob Balaban, looking like a worn-out TV reporter offering dispatches from some remote outpost. Actually, that remote outpost is the world of Wes Anderson.

      The Bishop family compound, sitting on the tip of this sparsely populated island off the New England coast, is headed by a pair of detached, married lawyers (Anderson mainstay Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who manage their four children as if they’re boarders.

     On the other side of the island is the small campsite of the Khaki Scouts, led by the pitiful, insecure Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton, tapping into his inner goofball). Turns out that discontent scout Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), the Bishop’s eldest child, have been in communication and act on a plan to escape what they perceive as their unpleasant circumstances.

     The rest of the picture focuses on the whimsical adventures of these two 12-year-olds on the run, falling in some type of love and being pursued by rogue scouts, the Bishops and the island’s low-keyed sheriff (Bruce Willis).

     The script by Anderson and Roman Coppola (who also co-wrote “Darjeeling Limited”) is loaded with gently delivered irony and purposely unintentional insight and characters who spill out their emotions without showing any.

     While the film is crowded with sparkling moments of comedy from Murray, McDormand, Norton, Willis and, later in the film, Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman as a sympathetic Scoutmaster and the sharp-tongued Harvey Keitel, it’s the youngsters’ movie.

      Gilman, in his first professional acting job, offers an amazingly controlled and unpretentious performance as Sam, the young romantic with oversized ‘60s glasses and the resourcefulness to match Max Fischer from “Rushmore.” Haywood, also making her film debut, equals him with her cool detachment and confidence that young Sam (remember this is the ‘60s) will keep her safe. As their relationship grows, so do these young actors and their ability to communicate Anderson’s observations on the quirky obstacles finding and holding onto love.

     Much like last year’s “The Descendants,” “Moonrise Kingdom” finds humor in everyday family life and the different ways we all make connections.

ACROSS 110th STREET (1972)
      I’ve always been faintly aware of this Harlem-set police drama but assumed it was just another slipshod Hollywood depiction of black America. Between 1970 and 1975, dozens of films were released in the aftermath of the surprising (at least to the studios) box office success of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and “Shaft,” both set in the black community starring black actors. Though the interest in films featuring African Americans ended as quickly as it started, the trend resulted in some entertaining action pictures and introduced a more macho, street-wise black hero than Sidney Poitier ever played.

      “Across 110th Street” deserves mention with the best of the so-called blaxploitation films. Anthony Quinn stars as the racist cop who “understands” how to deal with the residents of Harlem –“I know these people”—but is shoved aside when a daring, high-profile robbery of the Italian mob leaves seven dead, including two police officers.

       Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto, who made a career of playing feisty cops), brought in to bring a more level-headed approach to the investigation, tries to work with Quinn’s Capt. Mattelli with mixed results. While these two work out their differences and their investigation sputters, the mob uses more persuasive methods and locates the three robber-murderers before the cops.

     The film parallels the investigations of the police and the mob, showing the corruption and self-interest that undermines both groups. Yet what makes this film memorable is its depiction of life in Harlem.

     Two of the three robbers are men who have been pushed to the limit, frustrated by a dead-end life (Harlem was devastated by drugs and crime in the ‘70s) that creates desperation. For a small taste of the good life, they don’t regret ripping off the mob and the repercussions. Paul Benjamin and Ed Bernard give touching, intense performances as first-time robbers who wait too late to leave town. The exception is Jackson (Antonio Fargus), the stereotypical black criminal who immediately buys flashy clothes, a trio of prostitutes, drugs and booze to celebrate his third of the take; guess who the mob finds first?

     Turning the tough-mob cliché on its head, the film paints the gangster assigned to track down the robbers (well played by Anthony Franciosa) as an insecure coward who turns into an over-the-top masochist to hide his weakness. Also well-drawn is the complex relationship between the uptown Mafia and the black criminals who run the mob’s operation in Harlem. Veteran screenwriter Luther Davis (“The Hucksters,” “Lady in a Cage”), working from Wally Ferris’ novel, finds the perfect balance between the crowd-pleasing violence and introspective social commentary, creating more than a half dozen memorable, flesh-and-blood characters.

     Longtime television director Barry Shear (“Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Ironside” among dozens of others), making his feature debut, doesn’t bring much style to the picture, yet he never lets the film slip into parody or easy clichés that mark most films about race relations in this era.

    I never thought I’d still be discovering gems from the 1970s a dozen years into the 21st Century, but “Across 110th Street” is definitely an essential movie of the era.

   I know, I know. It’s just a silly musical cashing in on the continued (and unexplainable) popularity of 1980s stadium rock. Yet this stage hit turned movie is such a bowdlerized version of the Los Angeles rock scene of the era that I couldn’t take it seriously even as a mindless entertainment.

    A group of third graders could have pieced together a more original plot: Wannabe singer (Julianne Hough) arrives in Hollywood after a bus ride from Oklahoma, immediate has her suitcase full of albums stolen, meets and falls for an employee (Diego Boneta) of a famous rock nightclub and is given a job at the club. Piling on the clichés, the club is facing financial problems and counting on a free performance by an unpredictable rock star, all while the new Los Angeles mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is leading a campaign to shutter the club. She wants to “return” family values to the Sunset strip, as if the area was ever anything other than a street of vice.

      Before dissecting this sad excuse for a musical, I must admit that the hilarious, unhinged performances by Tom Cruise, as a spacey, comically hedonistic rock god, and Alec Baldwin, as the aging hippie who owns the Bourbon Club (a barely disguised Whiskey a Go Go) nearly make the film worth seeing. They have all the clever lines and offer the only sense of edge to the otherwise bland, PG-13 remembrance of decadence.

     Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx, proudly displaying his tattooed chest and long, stringy hair (he resembles Iggy Pop on steroids), not only has a very angry baboon as his traveling companion but seems unaware of anything other than the next bottle of whiskey and the nearest willing female. As for Baldwin, few actors can deliver sarcasm as effectively; he seems alone in realizing what a ridiculous film he’s in.

     Yet surrounding these two authentic characters is utter nonsense.

     The filmmakers—director Adam Shankman and a trio of screenwriters reworking the stage musical—make no attempt to capture the environs of Sunset Boulevard circa 1987, instead relying on stagy recreations (including the late, lamented Tower Records) that make the strip seem bright and clean, as if it was a hip mall. What’s worse is that they’ve made a movie about the LA rock scene of the ‘80s without mentioning or showing or even hinting at the extensive drug use.

    The drug and music scenes were so intertwined in that era that separating them is like cutting apart Siamese twins. Plenty of booze is dispensed, but the high of choice is nowhere to be seen; it’s almost as if Zeta-Jones’ character wrote the script.

     And then there are the songs. Hearing so many of the hits from that era, poorly sung by amateurs, offers a stark reminder of just how bad the music of the ‘80s was. Bloated, self-indulgent shadows of the great rock of the 1960s and ‘70s, that era’s music was what put the final dagger in rock ‘n’ roll. The only first-rate songs on the soundtrack are Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.”

     Maybe my favorite dumb plot point in “Rock of Ages” is that while the church ladies are enthusiastically protesting a rock club, a few blocks over on Hollywood Boulevard there’s high-end strip joint with women dancing in display windows. (Not in real life, but in the movie’s version of Hollywood.) My only guess is that the protesters share my feeling about the music of Def Leppard, Foreigner and Journey.

    You’d be hard pressed to find two films with less in common as far as story, setting, style and mood. Yet French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who directed both of these, finds the connecting thread: a morally unwavering elder attempting to guide a young protégé. He utilized this device often in his long, illustrious career, including in “Coup de Torchon” (1981), “’Round Midnight” (1986), “Life and Nothing But” (1989) and “Daddy Nostalgia” (1990).

    “The Princess of Montpensier,” his latest, follows the romantic calamities of a young 16th-Century French beauty set amidst the blood war between Catholics and Protestants reformers. Though based on a 1662 short story, the film features characters imbued with a 20th Century independent spirit and intellectual curiosity even as they suffer through the religious and political intolerance of the time.

    Wilson Lambert, the distinguished French actor who was superb in last year “Of Gods and Men,” plays Chabannes, a veteran soldier who throws down his bloody sword after killing a pregnant woman in the heat of battle. Wanted by both sides, he finds protection in the castle of the Prince of Montpensier, who in a political arrangement concocted by his father, marries the beautiful, flirty Marie against her wishes.     

     Chabannes becomes Marie’s teacher and advisor and, like everyone else in the film—including the reckless soldier Henri de Guise (a memorable Gaspard Ulliel) and the effeminate son (Raphael Personnaz) of the French queen—falls in love with her.

     Unfortunately, the prince turns out to be the least interesting and most petulant character in the film, which, since the plot revolves around his actions, sucks a good bit of the energy out of the picture. But the other performances and Tavernier’s attention to detail make this a fascinating, if overly long, period piece.

      “In the Electric Mist” is only the second big screen adaptation of a book by Robert Lee Burke, one of American’s finest crime novelists, (The first was the straight-to-DVD “Heaven’s Prisoners.”) His Louisiana police detective, Dave Robicheaux, is a no-nonsense, occasionally violent investigator who displays a keen understanding of people, while constantly reminding everyone that he’s a recovering alcoholic.

    Tommy Lee Jones constructs a bull-headed, persistent-to-a-fault Robicheaux, who in this story investigates the death of a local stripper and the discovery of the remains of a black man killed decades ago.

    Intertwined in these mysteries is an obnoxious crime boss (John Goodman at his slimiest) and Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard), an alcoholic movie star and his devoted, long-suffering girlfriend (the superb Kelly Macdonald, as memorable here as she was as Josh Brolin’s wife in “No Country for Old Men”).

    While the film’s characters bring out the local flavor, the slick, bright cinematograph seems a bad choice for a story that wallows in the gritty underbelly of rural life. Also, like so many English-language pictures made by foreign directors, the occasional clumsy, overly talky scenes undercut the script sense of reality. Yet the film deserved more than the limited release it received in 2009, considering the cast, the director and Burke’s reputation.

     There’s an oddly fascinating magical realism aspect to the story in which Robicheaux communicates with either a Civil War re-enactor or the ghost of a real general. In other words, this isn’t your by-the-book detective yarn. (Burke’s book is titled “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.”)

     The lively supporting cast is thoroughly entertaining, including Goodman’s “Baby Feet” Balboni, Mary Steenburgen playing Robicheaux patient wife, the gravelly voiced James Gammon as retired racist cop, Levon Helm as a Civil War general, guitar legend Buddy Guy as a knowledgeable local source and John Sayles as the arrogant, impatient director of the film within the film. The key relationship though is between the alcoholics. Just by being himself, Robicheaux is able to offer Elrod a new lease on life.

CQ  (2001)
     This amusingly insightful and technically sure-handed homage to the French New Wave and experimental filmmaking of the late 1960s might not have made a dent at the box office but is smarter and better acted than most Hollywood films. I’m not sure why this directing debut by Francis Coppola’s son Roman, who has spent his film career primary as a second-unit director (for his father, his sister or Wes Anderson) and screenwriter (the above mentioned “Moonrise Kingdom”), wasn’t the beginning of a productive directing career. (The 47-year-old’s second film is due out this year.)

    In “CQ,” Jeremy Davies plays Paul, a soft-spoken but ambitious American living in Paris with his disgruntled French girlfriend while working on a first-person experimental film and serving as an editor on a cheesy sci-fi flick.

     The sci-fi film’s loud, pretentious director (Gerard Depardieu), who can’t come up with a decent ending, is replaced by a younger, beret-wearing, even more pretentious hot shot (a perfectly cast Jason Schwartzman) whose main interest is to bed Valentine (Angela Lindvall), the sexy star of the picture. He lands the girl but a car accident removes him from the director’s chair.

     The flamboyantly idiotic producer Enzio (Giancarlo Giannini at his best) offers Paul his big break, if he can come up with a decent ending.

    The film meshes a collection of hip 1960s movies, including “Barbarella”

(Lindvall wears the same form-fitting jumpsuit as Jane Fonda and Fonda’s co-star John Phillip Law has a role in “CQ”), the psychedelic female spy film “Modesty Blaise,” Fellini’s “8 ½” and Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” borrowing from those pictures’ style while making light of them. The futuristic film Paul is working on captures the primitive, but flashy effects and bland acting that defined most of that era’s “coolest” movies.

      Davies, a familiar supporting actor on TV and in films (he was the confused son in “Spanking the Monkey), is believable as a talented, inventive filmmaker who is also lacking in any sense of self-worth. At points, Paul loses his grip on reality and imagines himself in the sci-fi film as he falls hard for Valentine.

      Lindvall, in her only substantial role, fills the bill as the cool blonde beauty that was so prominent during the era (Catherine Deneuve, Julie Christie, Faye Dunaway). The scene-stealing Dean Stockwell shows up for about three minutes playing Paul’s easily distracted father.

      Coppola, whose more successful sister Sofia has a cameo as the producer’s mistress, manages to have fun with the oh-so-serious characters of the ‘60s European cinema while exploring the timeless frustrations of a young filmmaker trying to get his vision on film. Clearly, a story about a filmmaking era more than 40 years ago has limited appeal and Coppola hurts himself by throwing everything in but the kitchen sink, but “CQ” (Morris code for “seek you”) is an impressive directing debut.

    Coppola’s second film, “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III,” starring Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray, is set to be released later this year.

     After making two short documentaries, a 25-year-old former Look magazine photographer secured the financing, wrote, directed, photographed and edited this low-budget allegorical anti-war feature. Poorly acted, slow moving and heavy-handed, “Fear and Desire” offers few clues of what an accomplished and innovative filmmaker Stanley Kubrick would become. (Just three years later he would directed the critically acclaimed heist film “The Killing.”)

      Yet this debut feature established a running theme of the director’s career: the absurdity of war. He would expand on the idea in three of his greatest works, “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and “Full Metal Jacket” (1987).

      This low-budget, black and white film (at 68 minutes and its minimal sets make it seem more like a TV episode) opens abruptly with four soldiers, lone survivors of a skirmish, stuck behind enemy lines. While the men seem American, there are no countries or a specific war mentioned, making it hard to miss the film’s attempt to represent all war, all nations.

    Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), an uninspiring leader who gets no respect from his troops, decided they will slip by the front line by travelling down a river that cut through the enemy stronghold. Their plan is somewhat altered when they spot a desolate airstrip and an enemy general bunkered in a small house. While Corby could care less about attempting to kill the general and just wants to escape to safety, Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera) convinced him that they can’t ignore their duty to defeat the enemy.

     Probably the most interesting aspect of the picture is Kubrick’s decision to cast two of the actors as combatants on both sides of the war. Also of note is the nutty performance of future film director Paul Mazursky (“An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”) as Pvt. Sidney, who flips out under the stress of the situation, deserting what’s left of his platoon. 

      In later years, Kubrick did all he could to keep the film out of circulation, apparently ashamed of this nascent effort. As far as I know, this recent TCM showing was the first television airing of the filmmaker’s debut.

     If “Fear and Desire” had been made by almost any other director, every print would have turned to dust by now. It’s a pretty bad film—even compared to Kubrick’s next cheaply made picture, “Killer’s Kiss”—yet it’s fascinating to see how quickly he transformed himself from a struggling filmmaker to one of the true masters of the cinema.