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.