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.