Saturday, December 7, 2013

November 2013

     In 1972, 30-year-old Martin Scorsese had just completed his first mainstream movie, “Boxcar Bertha,” for Roger Corman’s company. Already a part of the New York movie scene, he asked the guru of independent filmmaking, John Cassavetes, what he thought of the film.

     “Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. It’s a good picture, but you’re better than the people who make this kind of picture,” Cassavetes told him, according to an interview included in the book “Scorsese on Scorsese.”  Cassavetes told him to follow the filmmaking instincts he showed in his low-budget feature debut “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?”

      So Scorsese passed on “I Escaped from Devil’s Island” and started reworking a script he had written with childhood friend Mardik Martin called “Season of the Witch.” Time magazine critic (and future screenwriter) Jay Cocks suggested naming it after this Raymond Chandler line: “Down these mean streets a man must go.”

     The first time I saw “Mean Streets” was on network television sometime in the mid 1970s. Though obviously cut to shreds by TV censors, the film immediately become one of my favorites—I had never seen any like it, except maybe “Five Easy Pieces,” which I also first watched on network TV in the same period. These characters were nothing like the ones in movies I watched with my parents. They didn’t follow rules, didn’t live in a traditionally accepted manner and they constantly questioned the very meaning of their existence. At that point, I didn’t understand the questions I should be asking, let alone how to get the answers.

     Watching Scorsese’s 40-year-old breakthrough film again last week—I’d probably seen it most recently 10 years ago—I was struck by the episodical nature of the movie. It’d be more accurate to re-title it “Scenes from Mean Streets.” But it’s pulled together by Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, who is always in the middle of everything, as he struggles with family loyalty, ambition, faith, living the “mean streets” life.

      Yet while Charlie’s internal struggles are what the film is all about, the unpredictable, frenetic, out-of-control psychopath Johnny Boy is the character who is burned into the memory of anyone who’s ever seen the movie.

       Robert De Niro, beginning his long association with Scorsese, manages to make this two-bit low-life hustler alluring and hilarious, idiotic and dangerous, hateful and hopeless. There are few sequences in the history of film as intoxicating as Johnny Boy’s entrance into the bar near the start of the film. In slow motion, to the blaring chords of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” with two girls by his side and his fedora balanced on his head, he grooves his way into the joint, down to the end of the bar where Charlie awaits to ask him about missing payments on gambling debt. Scorsese and the actors turn the scene into an Abbott and Costello routine, as they repair to a back room and the hyper Johnny leans forward and answers “Wha?” to every question Charlie asks.      

      Scorsese does things with the camera in “Mean Streets” that are as outrageous and revolutionary as Welles did in “Citizen Kane.” Most interestingly, he throws continuity out the window, creating an almost abstract mood with jump cuts and abrupt scene changes, energizing the film with a kind of hyper-reality that continues to make Scorsese films distinctive today. Using handheld cameras, most notably in the famous “mook” pool hall fight, and, borrowing from the French New Wave, shooting with long lens, documentary style, on the streets of Little Italy, the director establishes himself as a filmmaker who was searching for new ways to tell his stories while still connecting to classics of the studio era.

      Most of the hip, youth-oriented movies of the era were about characters who had been changed by the 1960s—drugs, Vietnam, Woodstock—and were out to make a better world. The guys of “Mean Streets,” even as the soundtrack plays the hits of the ‘60s, were still clinging to the world of the ‘40s and ‘50s, with their ties and hats, whisky sours and mob values. They are the kids of the underbosses from “The Godfather,” still trying to live out a dying lifestyle. These are the people Scorsese grew up around in Little Italy, ruled by the church and the mob, happy to carve out a little piece of the action while keeping their bar tab in check and their friends out of jail.

      In the next few years, Scorsese delivered his masterpieces, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” more rigorous and precisely executed films, yet the freewheeling, pistol-shot-into-the-night experience of “Mean Streets” remains a touchstone of ‘70s cinema; one of those films that, when seen at the right time, makes you feel more alive, energized to rush headfirst into whatever life brings on—damn the consequences.        

12 YEARS A SLAVE  (2013)
    One of the greatest shames in this country's history is the long, horrific institution of slavery, which lasted for nearly 250 years before the Civil War brought it to a bloody end. Yet the number of serious films that have addressed the issue can be counted on one hand—the silent “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1927), “Amistad” (1997), “Beloved” (1998) and last year’s “Django Unchained.”  Compare that record to the uncountable European movies detailing aspects of the Holocaust, which latest about a decade.

     It’s been on television where such acclaimed works as “Roots,” “North and South” and “A Woman Called Moses” have given voice to those who suffered for the sake of the greedy Southern plantation owners. In fact, a TV version of “12 Years a Slave” was made by legendary photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks in 1984 for “American Playhouse.”

     While one film can hardly rectify this gaping hole, "12 Years a Slave" proves itself a worthy start.  This thoughtful, fearless account of what a free black man had to endure for a dozen years after being sold into slavery might not be the typical story of this inhuman institution, yet it’s more relatable for modern audience because Solomon Northup is an educated, reflective everyman who refuses to accept his fate. That Northup wrote and published his account of his time in slavery makes him an even more impressive figure.

      Steve McQueen, a British independent filmmaker (who bravely kept his rather famous name) with just two other features to his name, doesn’t make any concessions for mainstream audiences, forcing viewers to feel a bit of the pain and humiliation of being considered property. While Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” showed horrendous treatment of African slaves, his main character stood apart, allowing audience to take comfort in the fantasy revenge against slave owners; in “12 Years,” the main character is both suffering the indignities and witnessing those even worse.

       Solomon, rigorously portrayed in all his complexities by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is living the rare, integrated life in the 1840s with his wife and two young children, accepted members of a small town in upstate New York, when he is duped by two con men, who hand him over to slave traders.

      Because of his education and resourcefulness, Solomon is able to win the admiration, and a modicum of favorable treatment, from plantation owners (impressively portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and McQueen regular Michael Fassbender) but also inevitably raised the anger of uneducated whites who are insulted that a black man can outwit them. Paul Dano plays the most vitriolic of slave bosses, a wild-eyed racist who nearly kills Solomon for standing up to him.

       British actor Ejiofor, whose first important film role was as an undocumented immigrant in Stephen Frears’ underrated “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), has been equally memorable as one of the leaders of the group that seems to want to save a young pregnant woman in the futuristic “Children of Men” (2006) and as the put-upon radio station manager in “Talk to Me” (2007).

       But he’s never had a role like Solomon Northup; while it’s unclear if Solomon had ever been a slave, even as a child, previous to his 12-year ordeal, he responds just like anyone would—outraged, confused and demanding justice. He soon realizes how to adapted, as best as anyone could, to this life of subjugation, unchecked hatred and hopelessness, surrounded by others who have numbed themselves to all emotions for the sake of survival. Ejiofor communicates much of these experiences through his large, sad eyes and the way he tries to give comfort to those around him.

      One of the film’s most impressive performance is by Lupita Nyong'o as a hardened young slave girl who is “favored” by owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender), suffering unthinkable emotional and physical punishment.

     Fassbender was the star of McQueen’s previous films, “Hunger,” playing an IRA prisoner who leads a hunger strike, and “Shame,” in which he plays a sex addict. Yet, at least until now, he best known as the slick-talking American uncover agent in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” His Epps is a self-hating, unapologetic believer in slavery who you keep thinking will come to his senses but never does (his discussion with a Canadian house builder, played by Brad Pitt, is a preview of the Lincoln-Douglas debates).

     While “12 Years a Slave,” adapted by TV writer John Ridley, has its flaws—mostly due to McQueen’s unnecessary focus in the film’s second half on the relationship between Epps and his wife—it’s an astonishing story made credible by superb acting and the director’s unblinking presentation of the inhumanity of man.

    That this chronicle of historical perseverance isn’t taught along side of the contributions of Fredrick Douglass, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman is baffling. Sadder still is that it took a 21st Century British filmmaker to bring Solomon’s book to the big screen.

     Films with a political agenda rarely turn out very well; selling a message ends up being the guiding force of the movie rather than storytelling and character development. Yet this year’s “12 Years a Slave” and “Dallas Buyers Club” pull no punches in addressing serious social issues without sacrificing the essentials of smart commercial filmmaking.

     Anchoring “Dallas Buyers Club,” examining a subject usually reduced to righteous harangues, is Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-living electrician, holed up in a dilapidated trailer, who spends his free time hanging out and taking wagers at the rodeo. He defines white trash.

     An accident at the job site sends Ron to the hospital, where he’s told—but doesn’t believe—that he has AIDS. The doctor gives him a month to live, spurring Ron to tell the doctor that he’s no “faggot” and what he can do with his diagnosis.

      Despite his skepticism, he begins doing research in the still mysterious disease (it’s 1985 and Rock Hudson has just died) and soon discovers that the medical community has little to offer sufferers.

      After illegally buying AZT (the experimental drug being offered at the time) and overdosing his body with it, he makes a visit to a Mexico clinic dispensing unapproved drugs. A discredited U.S. doctor (an almost unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) brings Ron back to a semblance of health and together they cook up the idea to sell the various drugs across the border.

     The rest of the film focuses on Ron’s fight with both the FDA and IRS as he attempts to gives comfort to the growing number of AIDS victims in the Dallas area.

    This fascinating look at the painfully slow progress of the FDA to approve drugs that could relieve the suffering of the AIDS victims is propelled by a raw, in your face performance by the ever evolving McConaughey. After most critics, myself included, had written him off as eye candy for dumb comedies, he has turned his career around with his roles over the past two years. Considering this performance and the equally memorable one in “Mud,” McConaughey could easily end up with two acting nominations when the Academy Award selections are announced in January.

       As Ron, he goes from a homophobic, drug-abusing sleazeball to a hero of the gay community, a dying man with a purpose. Yet Ron doesn’t really change, he just faces his own reality and puts his energies into survival with the same passion he previous had for more hedonistic endeavors. McConaughey, physically reducing himself to, literally, skin and bones, makes this subtle transformation believable, bringing out Ron’s humor, inventiveness and incredible determination.

     Part of his altered focus comes when he becomes acquainted with Rayon (an astonishing Jared Leto, in only his second film in six years), a cross-dressing gay man who he befriends—or, maybe, just tolerates because he helps him make money—and partners with in the buyer’s club. It’s their relationship that is at the heart of the film and brings the issues down to a human level.

    Leto manages to portray Rayon as more than a cliché, creating a very troubled individual who sees the goodness in Ron (allowing the audience to see it also) beyond his hateful words and basic greed.

    Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (“The Young Victoria”) and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack don’t hold back their disgust with the medical and pharmaceutical industry, but they never forget that making the audience care about Ron and Rayon is most important. It’s what makes “Dallas Buyers Club” one of the year’s best.

     The great Italian director Luchino Visconti, best known in this country for his epic costume drama “The Leopard” starring Burt Lancaster and his contemplative take on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” might have done his best work in this simple, but moving love story.

     This contemporary film, based on Dostoevsky’s “White Nights,” is set in a picturesque quarter of an unnamed Italian city, marked by narrow cobblestone streets and a canal that winds through the middle of the neighborhood.

      Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), just back from an outing with his boss’ family, stops to comfort a young woman crying as she walks back and forth along a bridge. Natalie (Maria Schell), as she explains to Mario the next day (and is depicted in flashback), is anxiously waiting the return of an older man she fell in love with a year ago, when he was a boarder at her grandmother’s house.

     Three days in a row Mario and Natalie meet at night as she continues to pine for her dream man (played by French actor Jean Marais) while Mario falls hopelessly in love with her. The story reaches its dizzying peak when the couple takes part in a spontaneous group dance in a nightclub to Bill Haley’s “13 Women.”

    The unadorned story and dialogue is operatic in its emotional sweep—every line is steeped in meaning—enhanced by the evocative black and white cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (“Amarcord,” “All That Jazz”), using moody lighting and shadows more typical of crime films, and Nino Rota’s grand score. This trio of filmmakers turns this small set into a place of whispered secrets and unspoken desires, touching in its simplicity. 

     Before, and unlike, Mastroianni’s iconic performances for Fellini as Marcello in “La Dolce Vita” and Guido in “8 ½,” his Mario is a shy, unsure-of-himself man who never really understands this dreamy girl. It’s one of his best performances, in part because he’s supported so well by Austrian actress Schell (who learned Italian for the role), the emotional center of the picture. He’s just along for the ride as she deals with her school girl love she feels for this man she barely knows. Schell should have been a bigger star, yet she worked steadily in both the U.S. and Europe for 50 years.

      These two world-class performers, opposites in looks and demeanor, bring a passionate, timeless truth to “Le Notti Bianche,” brought to life by Visconti’s unmatched craftsmanship.      

PARKLAND  (2013)
   Focusing on the secondary figures of a major event can easily become pretentious and trite (see the very related “Bobby”), yet this look at those side characters who played a part in the events of Nov. 22, 1963 is a captivating view of what NBC’s David Brinkley called “one of the more horrible days in American history.”

     Watching this film on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy brought back the memories that all of us of a certain age will always share. First hearing of it, usually at school, and then digesting the enormity of it over the weekend and the following week; the confusing murder of Oswald, the epic funeral that mesmerized a stunned nation, the quickly noticed holes in the official story and the birth of the doomed savior, the first in a series of iconoclastic leaders who would be cut down by gunfire, “lone gunmen” forever altering a country’s history.

      What I remember most clearly is carefully preserving the Weekly Reader cover photo of Kennedy in Saran wrap—it survived until well after I graduated from college. More than just hero worshipping by a second grader, it represented a newfound political awareness, an appreciation of history, and the unarticulated realization that life wasn’t even close to being fair.

      Somehow—and maybe I’m projecting here a bit—“Parkland” hits on all those points as it follows the events of the day from the perspective of the supporting players surrounding the president and his assassin.

      As the title indicates, most prominent are the doctors and nurses at Parkland Memorial, who suddenly find themselves attempting to save the life of the most important man in the world. Keeping everyone focused on the task is head nurse (superbly played by Marcia Gay Harden), who we see fighting her emotions to maintain the professionalism of the ER and keeping a passionate intern (Zac Efron) from succumbing to the pressure. Two days later, they are asked again to save a life: Lee Harvey Oswald.

       Of course, the hospital is jammed with Secret Service people dealing with what they see as their failure to protect "the man," followed by their realization that it is time to shift loyalties and turn their concern to getting Lyndon Johnson safely out of Dallas. Also, roaming the room is the sad, confused figure of Jackie, still poignantly holding a piece of her husband's skull.

      One of the film’s key figures is Abraham Zapruder, (a perfectly cast Paul Giamatti), the Dallas dress shop owner and JFK devotee, who shoots the famous 8mm movie of the motorcade, capturing in vivid color, with his Bell and Howell, the killing of a president. The film takes us through the process of Zapruder dealing with Secret Service chief Forrest Sorrels (a stern, businesslike Billy Bob Thornton), the frantic attempts to find someone to develop the film and then the tense negotiations for the rights.

      Less interestingly, but needed to give the full story of the tragic day, the film chronicles Robert Oswald, Lee’s brother, who must deal with his antagonistic brother after he's taken into police custody and his weirdly delusional mother. Also, the scenes of the Dallas police detectives, who realize they had Oswald in their grasp just days before the killing, never quite come together.

     Making his directing debut, novelist and screenwriter Peter Lanesman, working from Vincent Bugliosi’s book on the killing, uses fast cutting, shallow focus and a seemingly unstructured storyline to give the picture a documentary-like look. This film, unlike the more acclaimed "Captain Phillips," chronicles how people really react in a crisis, offering an emotionally truthful, heartbreaking view behind the scenes of a most public tragedy.

THE BIG YEAR  (2011)
     A few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science gave out its most prestigious awards, the honorary Oscar for a lifetime of contributions to the film industry. In the past few years, winners have included actors Peter O’Toole, Sidney Poitier, Eli Wallach, Lauren Bacall and James Earl Jones along with such filmmakers as Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Jean-Luc Godard.

    Added to that list of movie luminaries this year was Steve Martin. Seriously. No joke. Back in the day when Martin was actually funny, 30 or so years ago, it might have made for a biting SNL skit.

     While I’ve never been a big fan of the comic actor, I certainly appreciate the good work he’s done in film: “Pennies from Heaven” (1981), “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1983), “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987) and “Roxanne” (1987). But notice the years; at best, Martin is one of the top comic actors of the 1980s. Otherwise, his career has been filled with witless, one-joke comedies or attempts at straight acting that inevitable show Martin to be a rather uninteresting, stiff film presence.

      Just to check that I hadn’t missed some late-career resurgence of Martin, I watched “The Big Year,” an unsuccessful mix of comedy and sentiment about “birders,” those who live to spot another species of winged animals. Sounds like the perfect subject for a satirical comedy, but this isn’t it. But to the point, Martin doesn’t provide a single funny moment in the film and is completely upstaged by Jack Black and Owen Wilson. I can’t believe that the screenwriters saved their best lines for the young guys—I’m sure they were thrilled to death to be writing for the legendary Martin—yet Black and Wilson have some genuinely humorous moments and Martin is shutout.

     It typifies what I’ve seen in Martin’s films since the 1990s: a famous face who stands around while others provide the laughs. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but we’re talking about an honorary Oscar, and he’s not even 70.

      If the Academy felt the need to honor a contemporary comic actor, maybe they should have looked at the SNL alumni list a little closer and they would have found Mr. Bill Murray. Not only does Murray have more comedy classics to his name than Martin, but he’s actually funny—always; and he’s twenty times the actor, as evidenced in “Tootsie,” “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation.”

      But let’s get serious. I love Bill, but he’s a decade too young. Shouldn’t the Academy be looking at acting legends such as Joanne Woodward, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Doris Day and Gene Hackman, or groundbreaking filmmakers Alain Resnais, Agnés Varda, John Boorman, Robert Towne, Richard Lester and Nicolas Roeg?  

     I know what you’re thinking: who cares? But think of it as Hollywood’s version of the Hall of Fame. How can you enshrine Martin when a Michael Caine or a Robert Towne is waiting in the wings?

ALL IS LOST  (2013)
    This won’t take long: A rather old man sailing in the Indian Ocean finds himself off course and without radio communication after the boat smashes into a deserted cargo container and takes on water.

     Who is he? Why is he there? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? How long has he been away from civilization? Where is he bound for? Why am I watching a movie about him?

     None of these questions is answered by writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose previous film was the very verbal and insightful “Margin Call,” or by the unnamed character played by Robert Redford, who speaks about five lines in the movie. All that viewers are left with, lacking any knowledge about this guy, is the sometimes tense but often boring process of his attempts to be rescued.

     One cares to a point simply because he’s a person lost at sea—or maybe because the man is played by a famous movie star. The 77-year-old does well in this very physical and intense role, but it could have been played by any actor.

     I really don’t know why anyone would want to see this movie, unless you’re a yachtsman who is planning an ocean voyage. For that audience, and pretty much no one else, “All Is Lost” is essential.

Monday, November 4, 2013

October 2013

GRAVITY (2013)
      In an era when expectations for movies have sunk lower than ever, the hope of being truly awe-struck by a big-screen event is pretty slim. But when a larger-than-life yet seemingly possible story is told well—the last time for me was the apocalyptic “Melancholia”—the results are an exhilarating cinematic experience. Few films fit that description better than “Gravity,” the tense space thriller from master filmmaker Alfonzo Cuarón, director of the best “Harry Potter” (“Prisoner of Azkaban) and “Children of Men.”

     Along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his special effects team, Cuarón creates the most realistic movie depiction of outer space I’ve seen, making the vastness tangible and the emptiness frightening as three space station astronauts repair the Hubble Telescope.

      While Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the civilian scientist of the group, and Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) are doing repairs, veteran space walker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is swapping tales of romantic conquests with Mission Control in Houston. Walking about in space seems like nothing special, even with Earth looming thousands of miles below, until debris from a Soviet missile comes flying toward them.

     From that moment on, there isn’t a moment to breath as the film goes from terrifying to simply exhausting in its unrelenting intensity. The filmmaking is spectacular, exemplified by a long, riveting shot that slowly moves toward Ryan and her look of sheer fear until it seamlessly is inside her helmet and showing her point of view, the reality of her terror. It is a clip we will be watching for as long as they make movies and is unquestionably the finest moment in Bullock’s career. Wordlessly, she puts a face to the unimaginable: alone, in the middle of the nothingness of space, confronting almost certain death.

      There is no point to dissect the plot further, except to say that the movie’s stunning 3-D images are matched by a thoughtful, nail-biting, yet down to earth script by the director and his brother Jonás.

      Clooney is entertaining as the cynical, quietly heroic space veteran, but this is Bullock’s film. Forget her cloying Oscar-winning performance in “The Blind Side” or all those cookie-cutter comedies, the acting chops she displays in “Gravity” have rarely been hinted at over her 20-year career. This is a complex, demanding role and she delivers a performance equal to the overwhelmingly emotional, thrill-ride of a movie. Simply put, “Gravity” is something special.

      Watching “The Story of Film,” which I wrote about at length last month, has reminded me that I should write more often about the films and filmmakers that modern cinema is built upon. Between the new releases and older offbeat pictures, I plan to re-watch an important, must-see film and find something new to say about it.

      No better place to start than with John Ford, the influential director who made at least one (usually more) great film in every decade from the 1920s to the ‘60s. His works had a major impact on virtually every filmmaker that followed him—from Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg. When Welles explained that to prepare for his film debut, “Citizen Kane,” he watched “Stagecoach” 40 times because he liked “the old masters…by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford,” he spoke for all of Hollywood.

     As much as I admire the morality tales of heroism and the glorious vistas of Monument Valley that marked his Westerns of the 1940s and ‘50s, it was his pre-war films that are most interesting. He turned out films of all genres, yet imbuing them all with his innovative style and emphasis on strong characters, often outcasts who are required to prove their worthiness.

       “The Long Voyage Home,” a magnificent, underappreciated Ford film, presents slice-of-life episodes about the seamen aboard the Glencairn, a vessel transporting goods during World War II. The rogue gallery aboard the ship are led by Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell), the hard-drinking, fun-loving tough guy who takes no guff from anyone and Yank (Ward Bond), the equally tough American in a crew of mostly Irishmen who has a steak of sentimentality in him. Both of these ubiquitous supporting players of the era do some of the best acting of their career in the film. (Ford often takes hits for allowing the occasional hammy, sentimental performance to creep into his films, but he’s also guided some of the most subtle work every put on screen.)

       Based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, the events are mostly small affairs—though at one point they are attacked by enemy planes—but all go to Ford’s and O’Neill’s concerns: the working class, the men at the bottom of the (in this case) boat who have few options in life yet find a way to enjoy themselves and take pride in their work. The film could be seen as a part of a Ford trilogy of working people: “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) tells of those working the land; “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), of coal miners below earth; and “Long Voyage Home” profiles men of the sea.

       Along with “Stagecoach,” this film is clearly one of the key building blocks of “Citizen Kane,” as it was the picture shot by Gregg Toland immediately before starting his collaboration with Welles. In “Long Voyage Home,” this innovative cinematographer does things that are equal to or surpass his landmark work in “Kane”; the use of deep focus, unusual camera placement,  continual shots that allow the action to unfold in the frame, shooting in cramped quarters; and slow, dramatic panning. More than once, Toland and Ford place the camera on the deck of the Glencairn, showing the men at the other end while the waves flood the deck during a vicious storm. Toland’s use of light and the fog makes “Long Voyage Home” look more like the 1930s work of France’s Jean Renoir or earlier masterpieces by German’s F.W. Murnau, but nothing like anything being done in 1940 Hollywood.

     Ford’s cast, in addition to Mitchell and Ward, is impeccable: newly minted star John Wayne plays Ole Olson, the Swedish farm boy anxious to return to the arms of his mother; Ian Hunter as a mysterious Englishman who is mistakenly accused by his mates of being a spy; John Qualen as the wide-eyed, talkative protector of Ole; and Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields, real life lookalike brothers, playing lifelong seamen who have accept their place in the world.        

       The weakest act of the film is its last. The overlong sequence takes place after they put into port at a tavern where schemers are trying to smuggle drunken men into service on another cargo ship. It gets repetitive and doesn’t have the poetry of the scenes at sea, but supplies the film with a poignant, sobering ending that is equal parts Ford and O’Neill.

      Filled with raw emotions and characters nursing the scars of difficult lives, “The Long Voyage Home” earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture in 1940, alongside Ford’s better remembered, more “American” film “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Whether Ford was turning out another popular classic or a less commercial personal film, he brought a combination of daring visual filmmaking and cinematic truth in his portrayals of humanity that few directors can lay claim to. 

     How can you beat this combination? This movie brings together Paul Greengrass, among the most skillful action directors in the world; Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars; and a script based on the high-profile 2009 kidnapping of a U.S. cargo ship captain by Somali pirates. Yet the results are far less stellar.

       Hanks plays Phillips, a no-nonsense captain whose unarmed ship is boarded by four armed Somalis while the boat is transporting goods down the East African coast. Slick maneuvers by Phillips and the crew nearly end the standoff, but instead leads to the pirates holding Phillips for ransom.

      The problems with the film begin with the surprisingly undramatic story it tells.  In part because the conflicting parties are limited by their language difference, but also because of a lackluster script that does go beyond the basic plot points, the film remains stuck in neutral for most of its two hours and 15 minutes.

     The second half of the picture focuses on the Navy battleship and a team of SEALs, who are charged with ending the international incident. In this section, Greengrass tries to replicate the style he perfected in “United 93,” his powerful, heartwrenching dramatization of the events of September 11. Detailing the process and decisions involved in a rescue operation worked brilliantly when the stakes were enormous in “United 93,” but seems like overkill when dealing with one incident of piracy with little political or social impact.

      Adding to the general flatness of the film is the casting of amateurs as the Somalis—understandable that it might be hard to find experience Somali-American actors—who mostly overact and never come off as dangerous as the film wants them to seem. Hanks is not given much to do as Phillips, essentially trying to assuage his kidnappers with the heartfelt sincerity over and over again.

    The final act takes at least 20 minutes longer than it should to resolve the incident and then keeps going with an unnecessary, somewhat uncomfortable coda.

      Loose ends, unsatisfying characterizations and lackluster dialogue mar the script (by Bill Ray, director of “Shattered Glass,” working from Phillips’ book) and leave us with a film that’s all potential and little substance.

OBLIVION (2013) and JACK REACHER (2012)
    Tom Cruise….didn’t he used to be a big star? I’m far from a Tom Cruise basher—I enjoy his adventures as Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise and admire his performances in “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and “Collateral” (2004)—yet he has come to define what’s wrong with Hollywood moviemaking.

     Like Hollywood, he no longer needs to make films that get much of a buzz in this country; any second-rate action movie with his name on it is a guaranteed international hit. Cruise remains a big star, just not in his homeland.

      His latest, “Oblivion” is a better-oiled machine than most, but it moves at such a glacial pace that it’s best to plan a multi-tasking activity while watching.

      Set on a futuristic Earth that we're told has been ravished by a war with aliens, this introspective film follows Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as they patrol the planet for lingering alien insurrections. Since earthlings have all been relocated to a moon of Jupiter, I just barely understood why anyone cared what happened on their former home, now a desolate hunk of dirt.

The first sign that something isn't right is that the memories of both Jack and Victoria have been wiped as part of the relocation plan. But Jack keeps remembering snippets of a former life, which moves into overdrive when space capsules from a long-ago mission are brought back to Earth. Slowly, very slowly, Jack learns that he's being used in a big way and that nothing is what it seems.

Director Joseph Kosinski, who made his debut with “TRON: Legacy”—another film overloaded with ideas but confusingly constructed, is working from his own graphic novel in “Oblivion” yet fails to maintain any sense of pacing or tone. Still the plot, after it finally kicks in, is involving and there is plenty to like about Cruise's character, especially when he’s hanging out in his “old Earth” resort that he’s fashioned for himself.

  Touches of “Blade Runner” and old “Twilight Zone” episodes makes “Oblivion” worth the slugglish start, along with nice performances from Olga Kurylenko (”To the Wonder”) and the always reliable Morgan Freeman.

  “Jack Reacher,” on the other hand, feels like a product of the 1980s that should have starred Arnold or Sly. Based on one of the series of Reacher crime novels by Lee Childs, the film opens with a lone gunman shooting from a parking lot across the Allegheny River from PNC baseball park in Pittsburgh and killing five seemingly random people.

 Conveniently placed clues (wink, wink) lead the police to a mentally unstable former military sniper, but once Reacher joins the defense lawyer (Rosamund Pike, talking and acting as if it’s 1954 and she’s Doris Day) doubts arise. Reacher is the typical tough guy outsider (maybe the grandson of Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name”) who is both fearless and smart as a whip. Other than the always photogenic Steel City and the bizarre appearance of Werner Herzog as an evil construction mogul, the film is a waste of time.

  At 51, Cruise is at the crossroads of his career: he either holds on to his action cred until he’s an embarrassment or shifts into the kind of roles that have made Brad Pitt and George Clooney (both similar in age and acting ability to Cruise) so successful. But as long as he pines for those international dollars (Mission: Impossible 5” is in the works), he’ll become less and less relevant.

SIDE EFFECTS (2013) and
     The latest efforts from director Steven Soderbergh could have been packaged as “horror stories of prescription drugs.” While chronicling the final years of Liberace, “Behind the Candelabra” most pointedly explores the side effects of the drugs the pianist’s companion Scott Thorson takes as he goes from beloved to puppet. Meanwhile “Side Effects” goes straight at the issue, offering a critical appraisal of the psychiatric industry’s use of prescriptions.

      Mara Rooney plays Emily, who, while taking a new anti-depression drug prescribed by her psychologist Dr. Banks (Jude Law), stabs her husband (Channing Tatum, star of the director’s “Magic Mike”) to death. While she gets sent to a mental institute (rather than prison) because of the drug’s supposed “side effects,” Banks career is ruined as he becomes obsessed with understanding this woman and how the drug led to her unconsciously killing her husband. Complicating matters is Emily’s former psychologist (Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has dealt with depression of her own), who remains close to Emily.

     Rooney gives another complex, intense performance, proving she’s didn’t just luck into a great role in her Oscar-nominated “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s a live wire who, at age 28, can dominate the screen. Law, who seems to have lost his star-actor status in recent years, is solid as a sincere doctor who watches as his entire life collapses around him.

     Part social commentary, part old-fashioned mystery, “Side Effects” may have too many moving parts to be completely entertaining, but it’s well written (Scott Z. Burns), continuing to surprise right to the end.

     Soderbergh has proclaimed that “Side Effects,” his 24th feature, will be his final theatrical release. This pronouncement came around the same time as his failed attempt to sell “Beyond the Candelabra” to the studios, ending with it being released as an HBO movie, so I’m not sure how much credence to give his retirement. But I sympathize with his frustrations: “Candelabra” is more compelling and better acted than 80 percent of features. Were the studios fearful of releasing a film with two major stars as gay lovers? Surely, Sean Penn’s acclaim for “Milk” ended those doubts.

     Nevertheless, “Candelabra” is fascinating look at this popular entertainer, whose fan base (mostly middle-age women) remained blindly unaware of his lifestyle, even as he goes through a series of “protégés.” Scott is an unassuming farm boy, longing to be a veterinarian, who is introduced to the 50something Liberace after a show in Las Vegas. In no time flat, he goes from admiring fan to the famous man’s lover.

      I certainly can’t vouch for the authenticity of “Candelabra,” as it details Liberace’s extraordinary vanity, his unreasonable jealousy and the outlandish demands he makes on Scott (at one point, having him undergo plastic surgery to look more like a young Liberace). But I can say that Michael Douglas gives an extraordinary performance as Liberace, nailing the speech patterns and gestures (for those who grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s, the pianist was ubiquitous on television) and extending the on-stage indulgence to off-stage. Who knows what the real Lee, as he was known to him friends, was like—the story is based on Thorson’s book—yet Richard LaGravenese’s (“The Fisher King”) script rings true.  

      Douglas certainly would have scored an Oscar nomination if this had been released theatrical; he did take home the Emmy for his work. Yet Matt Damon has the tougher role. Scott is a pitiful figure but also a victim whose sincere love for Liberace is taken advantage of by the older, privileged man. 

     This is a blunt, sometimes ugly look at one of the most famous entertainers of the second half of the 20th century, yet it never feels unfair or one-sided (except, perhaps, when it deals with the drugs prescribed to Scott after his plastic surgery). Soderbergh treats their love as something real, even as it always feels minutes away from breaking.

     Let’s hope Soderbergh isn’t serious about stepping away from directing: he’s one of the few directors left in Hollywood who does exactly what he wants and possesses the skills to make films that are both serious and entertaining.

     Richard Linklater is a patient filmmaker. He waited nine years to continue the story of Jesse and Celine that he introduced in the 1995 film “Before Sunrise.” This unlikely romance is sealed in the 2004 sequel “Before Sunset” when the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) returns to Paris to promote the book he penned about the couple’s one-day romance years earlier and he reconnects with Céline (Julie Delpy).

      Now, after another nine-year hiatus, the couple is married with twin girls, having just spent a summer vacation on a Greek island with Jesse’s son from his first marriage. While their disagreements at first seem like typical married couple spats, they grow into real issues and emotional discussions about the strength of their commitment to the marriage.

     The script, again by Linklater and the two actors, is filled with smart, insightful observations on married life, relationships with children and the nature of men and women, yet it never sounds like something you’d say. Neither Hawke nor Delpy, both perfect as these characters in the earlier films, convinced me that they were anything more than actors reciting lines. Maybe the script is just a bit too didactic to be authentic or possibly the actors have lost interest in these people, but the arguments and less shrill discussions never felt real to me. It was all just an act.

      If you haven’t seen, “Before Sunset,” rent it, but skip the latest installment. In another nine years, I’m counting on this trio to resuscitate this fascinating project.     

      Nothing appeals to film critics more than a big-budget Hollywood director who goes slumming into the world of independent filmmaking. The previously mentioned Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater are prime examples of successfully going back and forth between these two very different approaches to moviemaking. Josh Whedon, veteran TV and film writer turned action director for the megahit “The Avengers,” has countered expectations by directing a black-and-white, unadorned production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

      The results are little more than a high-end home movie featuring contemporary dress and settings (it was shot at his home) while retaining the original verse of the Bard. This comedy of errors tells the story of two couples who come together during a long weekend at the grand estate of the region’s governor. Here the men are decked out in expensive suits and seem to be rival businessmen, while the women are ill-defined objects of desire and little else.

       In my sophomore English classes, I've had students make 10-minutes videos doing scenes from "Julius Caesar" and the acting wasn't much worse than in this version of "Much Ado." The film features slightly familiar faces Clark Gregg (Leonato), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Amy Aker (Beatrice) and Fran Kranz (Claudio), who all seem uncomfortable with Shakespeare's words. Only Jillian Morgese, in her first major role, gives the impression of understanding her character. Hero, the desperately-in-love young maiden, is at the center of the play’s plot, the story’s “Juliet.”

        Under Whedon’s direction, the action plods along until the final act of clever revenge against those who break up Hero and Claudio impending marriage. For much of the movie, I felt as if I was watching a gathering of soap opera actors making their first attempt at Shakespeare. “Ouch” is all I can say.

      For a much more amusing and accomplished version of the play, rent Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version starring Denzel Washington and Emma Thompson.  


Saturday, October 5, 2013

September 2013


DON JON  (2013)
    Boldly stylish, sarcastically funny and unabashedly crude, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer-director is a surprisingly unflinching look at how the proliferation of sexual images has altered romantic expectations. Starting at the same place as a typical Judd Apatow comedy—young men reducing sex and women to sport—“Don Jon” presents a character who has put thought into his life, living an orderly, disciplined existence, yet has chosen to make online pornography the center of it.

     Title character Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) keeps his apartment immaculately clean, screams obscenities at bad drivers, works out religiously at the gym, goes to confessional every Sunday and spends most weeknights with his “boys” at nightclubs scouting for “dimes”—women rating a 10 deemed worthy of one-night stands. Yet whenever he has a free moment, even after sex while his partner slips off to sleep, Jon is in front of his computer enjoying porn videos.

      His exactingly planned life is upended when the ultimate beauty, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, sporting a hot, slutty New Jersey look) enters his life. But before she’s staying over, Barbara wants Jon to enroll in night classes, attend a baby-dominated party at her mother’s and have the obligatory dinner his parents (funny clichés played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) who, of course, just love her.

     Then she discovers his “hobby” and while he talks his way out of it at first, you just know this is going to be a problem. At the same time, in class he meets an emotionally fragile, talkative “older” woman (Julianne Moore, spot-on in this small but crucial role). She quickly sees problems he didn’t know he had, causing him to rethink his entire life.

      What impressed me about filmmaker Gordon-Levitt is the manner in which he matched the film’s visual style with the content, reflecting Jon’s narrow viewpoint of life with the repetitive scenes of his weekly routines and making the numerous sex scenes as mundane as his gym workouts. This is a very accomplished debut behind the camera for the 32-year-old actor, along with a fearless performance in front of it. Interestingly, his grandfather, Michael Gordon, was a Hollywood director from the 1940s to the ‘60s, helming such hits as “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950) and “Pillow Talk” (1959).

      If you are uncomfortable watching images of pornography—so many that I am amazed the film didn’t earn an NC-17—you probably should avoid “Don Jon.” For everyone else, this is the rare American film that addresses sex, in the age of hookups and the internet, as more than the opportunity for sophomoric jokes and attractive skin; “Shampoo” for the cellphone generation.   

      It’s rare that I write about a television series, or any work that I haven’t seen to the end. But this British documentary, showing in one-hour segments on TCM each Monday into December, is a must see for anyone who loves movies.

     Directed and narrated by Irish film historian and TV host Mark Cousins, “The Story of Film,” by focusing on filmmakers who moved the medium forward, offers a fresh look at a well-travelled road. Cousins, with his superb use of clips, an extensive knowledge of the entire century plus of movies, and a world-view that doesn’t always center on Hollywood, is able to establish the who, what, when and how of the advancement of narrative film.

    In an early episode of the 15-hour documentary, Cousins shows the first time a film offered multiple views of the same action: an apartment fire seen from the street and then a shot of those trying to escape from the inside. It is easy to forget that the idea of seeing action in this way is purely cinematic; we don’t experience that in real life or even in live theater. For turn of the century audiences, it was a revelation.

    Unlike most film histories, “The Story of Film” uses Hollywood moviemaking not as the centerpiece but as a comparison to the artistic developments taking place around the globe, where filmmakers, not producers and major corporations, were deciding what made it to the screen. Even as someone who has spent a good portion of my life reading about film history, I have already been introduced to films and filmmakers I was either unfamiliar with or only knew their name. To support the documentary, TCM is showing three or four films each Monday that are highlighted in Cousins’ narrative.

      I watched “The Goddess” the other night, a 1934 Chinese silent featuring Lingyu Ruan, a huge star in that country whose suicide (at age 24) and funeral was front page news in the New York Times. It’s to these types of lost figures that Cousins clearly hopes to bring new recognition, along with the works of such masters as Abel Gance, Marcel Carné, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Vigo, Carl Dreyer and Dziga Vertov, who he discusses along side of Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, Busby Berkeley and Howard Hawks. This documentary reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s two exceptional film histories, “My Voyage to Italy” and “A Personal Journey.” Like Scorsese, Cousins is making a very personal survey of film history.

        Cousins sometimes stretches believability as he attempts to connect filmmaking styles and influences through the years, but, overall, this chronology offers a fresh view of the medium’s fascinating evolution. In last week’s episode he points out the dream world vs. reality theme of three 1939 pictures, “Ninotchka,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.” In the final line of the show, he states in his self-assured, dramatic manner, “Ninotchka, Dorothy and Scarlett show that escapism was the main melody in 1939, but listen carefully and you can hear the distant drums: war, realism and Orson Welles.”

      If you don’t get TCM, or want to watch it from the start, “The Story of Film” is available on Netflix.

     Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance makes it clear right from the start that this movie, no matter what transpires in the course of the story, is about Luke, played by a blonde and tattoo-covered Ryan Gosling. In a dazzling opening shot, the director’s handheld camera follows the cool, confident Luke from his dressing room, through a busy carnival and into the tent where he performs as a motorcycle daredevil. He’s James Dean reincarnated; at least until he discovers that a fling he had with a local waitress (Eva Mendes) resulted in a baby boy.

     Quitting his carnival gig, Luke tries to settle down in Schenectady, New York, in hopes of being a real father to his young son and win over his ex-girlfriend, even though Romina is with another man.

    Frustrated by his meager earnings as a mechanic, he joins his employer in a series of local bank robberies, which, at first, pay off handsomely.

    Then, unlike any other film in recent memory, the focus shifts and the main character of the film becomes police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper), who takes advantage of a high-profile police action to promote his ambitious goals. His decisions, Luke’s decisions and those made by others around them collide in the film’s final act, set 15 years after the main action and focusing on the two men’s sons.

     Cianfrance, along with co-screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, offers a deeply cynical view of life and the way one’s fate can ultimately be determined based on decisions we have no control over. While this multi-generational, almost epic, drama seems a bit too pat, with so many life-changing events affecting this small group of people that you can see the puppet strings, it still resonates in the way it shows how lives are shaped by offhanded, often hasty choices.

      The director’s equally intense film “Blue Valentine” was among the best films of 2010 and earned Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination. Gosling, who should have been nominated for “Blue Valentine,” richly deserves a nod for “Pines,” a complex role that shows how different two sides of a man can be. The performance has the theatrical bravado and brooding undercurrents of the brilliant film work of Al Pacino in the ‘70s.

    Cooper and Mendes, along with Ray Liotta as a very scary, very corrupt cop are also terrific, but the performance that really jumped out at me was Ben Mendelsohn’s as Luke’s robbery partner Robin, who quickly becomes devoted to his friend but gets little back in return. Unlike Luke, Robin has no moral compass, but he recognizes when a good thing has run its course. In the world of “The Place Beyond the Pines” that’s a very valuable asset.

BREEZY  (1973)
     It seems strange to me now, but when I first saw this cross-generational romance on television when I was in my early 20s I just loved it. Somehow, even 35 years ago, I could relate to a middle-age man finding some kind of love with a much younger girl. Seeing it again, now a few years older than William Holden was when he played Frank, a cynical, divorced Los Angeles real estate agent, (as I write this I really can’t believe it—how can I be older than Bill Holden?) he’s easy to understand; in many ways, he’s every middle-age man, whether we’re married, divorced or single.

      Frank’s life changes one day when he walks out of his rustic Laurel Canyon home to find a talkative teenage hippie who insists he drive her down the hill. Turns out that Breezy (Kay Lenz) has just arrived in L.A. from the Midwest with the kind of youthful optimism that died sometime around the arrival of MTV. Soon she’s spending most of her time at Frank’s, making herself at home despite his rather-unconvincing protests. Before you know it, this fiftysomething World War II generation suit-and-tie man is walking hand-in-hand down the beach with a free-spirited girl just out of high school. It may be the most romantic film ever directed by Clint Eastwood (at least before “The Bridges of Madison County”)—it was just his third effort behind the camera.

     Of course, there are plenty of obstacles to make this love to work and who would you rather carry you through them than Holden? He was always a great actor—see his work in the 1950s in “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17” and “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”—but his performances in the late ‘60s and 1970s I find even more interesting. By then, he’d grown into his cynicism, looking like a man who had lived a life, who had endured the disappointments and losses inevitable as the years pile up.

      And that voice: a skillfully modulated tenor with impeccable diction; few actors of the era could deliver a meaningful soliloquy with as much conviction. The obvious examples are his Pike Bishop in “The Wild Bunch” and Max Schumacher in “Network”—two of the smartest and self-aware characters in modern film. Like his Frank in “Breezy,” the characters are dinosaurs in a world they can’t quite understand yet are determined to make a stand for dignity’s sake. 

        Maybe when I was 20, I just wished I could grown into the confident, smart dude that Holden’s Frank was, yet I was naively unaware of how to get there. Or maybe it was the idea of having an uninhibited, sexy girl fall for you, whether you’re 20 or 50. Some things never change.

ON THE ROAD  (2012)
     Few novels as well known and influential as Jack Kerouac’s audacious temperature-taking of mid-century America have taken longer to arrive on the big screen.

    For what must have been 20 years, it was mentioned as Francis Coppola’s “next project” (he’s an executive producer on the finished film) but it never made it to the screen until last year, with Coppola as an executive producer and Brazilian Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries” “Central Station”) directing. While I didn’t anticipate a great film—rarely do novels as iconic as “On the Road” lead to brilliant cinema, this bland, tame and conventional movie is so forgettable that it seems a crime that this legendary title is attached to it.

     The story, published in 1957, begins with Sal Paradise (Kerouac alter-ego), a struggling writer living in New York, finally meeting the much-talked about Dean Moriarty (a fictionalize Neal Cassady) by way of his poet friend Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg in real life). Dean, described as having spent one-third of his life in prison, one-third in bars and one-third in the library, is the ultimate free-living bohemian, embodying the Beat-generation that this trio is on the verge of inventing or, at least, bringing into the mainstream.

    There are various trips, with Sal alone or with Dean and his teenage wife Mary Lou and other assorted friends, from New York to Denver to San Francisco to Louisiana and, eventually, to Mexico. The road and the charismatic, adventure-loving Dean are at the center of everything.

      The book offers Kerouac’s observations of the places and people he meets on his cross-country treks, along with his tales of the hard-living Dean. But the film spends too much of its time on the soap opera of the trio of Mary Lou, Dean and Sal, all but eliminating the writer’s sublime insight into the America he discovers.

      None of the principle actors do much to elevate the picture. Sam Riley as Sal, Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Kristen Steward as Mary Lou don’t give bad performances, but don’t come close to matching the richness these characters have on the pages of the book. Hedlund, best known as young Sam Flynn in the “Tron” sequel, is an especially disappointing Dean, whose real life counterpart Cassady was one of the most memorable characters of the counter-culture movement—he went on to drive the bus for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as the mid-1960s LSD movement hit the road. Nick Nolte made a much more interesting Cassady in the underrated gem “Heartbeat” (1980), about the real life events behind the novel.

     An all-star lineup of supporting characters show up throughout the film: Terrence Howard as a cool jazz musician; Viggo Mortensen as the fictionalize version of beat writer William S. Burroughs and Amy Adams as his insane wife; Kirsten Dunst as Camille, Dean’s second wife; and Steve Buscemi as some weird dude. But they enlivened things up only for a scene or two.

     What makes the novel so memorable are passages like this:

    “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plane till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

     Not a moment in the film comes close to matching the poetic vividness of those lines.

     Sofia Coppola’s film about a group of over-indulged rich kids from a suburban Los Angeles high school who break into and rob celebrity homes could not have been more sympathetic if it had been written and directed by the actual criminals.

      In fact, I would rather have seen that film than Coppola’s slow-moving, repetitive and exploitive movie. In the long pointless scenes inside the celebrity homes, as the teens ooh and aah over the clothes and bags and jewelry of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Audrina Patridge, Coppola seems to be asking the viewers to share in this admiration of unchecked materialism. If there was a hint of condemnation, I missed it.

     The kids, led by new best friends Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard), and also including students played by Emma Watson and Claire Julien, are portrayed as the coolest in the school and their criminal adventures admired by everyone—even after they’re caught.

    I don’t write this often, but there is absolutely nothing in this picture for me to recommend it; unless you’re fascinated by Coppola’s train-wreck of a career.

      What has become clear recently is that the only reason she continues to receive backing for her projects is her last name. After a very impressive debut with “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), in which she captures the same type of morally ambiguous teens yet in a much truer fashion, she moved into the big time with the overrated “Lost in Translation” (2003). Lacking in energy and plot, her breakthrough film benefitted greatly from charismatic performers Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who make you believe their unlikely relationship can work.

      Since then, Coppola has made three box office and critical failures, with “Marie Antoinette” (2006), “Somewhere” (2010) and this latest dud.

     “The Bling Ring” could have been a very funny, sarcastic look at the misguided admiration of celebrity and wealth that is an epidemic among the youth; instead it’s a dull docudrama of spoiled brats.

    It has almost become an official movie genre in Great Britain: old friends who haven’t seen each other in years, usually because of some ugly incident, are brought together by the one member of the group who refuses to grow up.

   Inevitably, drinking, women, confessionals and overcoming an outside threat are involved and, along the way, each one of the group is provided with a moment to reveal his deepest fears and regrets about life.

     For good measure, this version of the cliché throws in blue-blooded aliens who have taken over the gang’s hometown.

     Idiotic? Beyond words. But Edgar Wright, who also directed many of these actors in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” keeps it entertaining by giving plenty of rope to his cast, which includes some of the UK’s best character actors. They’ve come together, most reluctantly, to complete the town’s legendary 12-bar pub crawl that they failed to finish 20 years ago after high school.

     The instigator of this slightly juvenile adventure is Gary King (Simon Pegg), who we first see in a group therapy session; he’s a rootless alcoholic still telling the same jokes he thought were cool in high school. Gary convinces (in some cases, deceives) his more successful friends (played by Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan) to head back to Newton Haven for an epic night of imbibing. But before they can get close to the final tavern (appropriately named The World’s End), they discover that their beloved town has been appropriated by robot-like aliens.

   The main joke, played to death, is that Gary is a childish bore who stopped being funny for the other guys at least a decade ago. It takes the evil invaders to rouse their school spirit again, as they refused to give up the pub crawl. Adding to the nonstop, sophomoric humor is Rosamund Pike, as a crush from the old days, and Pierce Brosnan as their ageless teacher.

      Sober, “The World’s End” was a mindless amusement; more appropriately, the film should be enjoyed after three or four stops on your own pub crawl.

GET SHORTY  (1995)
    I won’t pretend to be a big fan of crime writer Elmore Leonard now that he’s dead. While I could never warm up to his prose, I have to admit that Leonard’s stories were the source of more first-rate movies than almost any writer of the  20th Century. You’d have to include him with literary giants Graham Greene, E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway—nice company—among those whose books made for excellent cinema.

    Two of the best Westerns of the 1950s—when cowboys ruled the screen—were based on his short stories, “The Tall T” and “3:10 to Yuma,” both released in 1957.  “The Tall T” is one of director Budd Boetticher lean, smart and tough actioners starring Randolph Scott as the saddle-worn loner who never strays  from his moral compass, while “3:10 to Yuma” has bad guy Glenn Ford (in one of his best performances) in a battle of wits with solid-citizen Van Heflin. Even the 2007 remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale was pretty good.

     In the same vein as these films—a standoff between outlaws and ordinary folks—is “Hombre,” an underrated Western released in 1967 starring Paul Newman.  

     The next Leonard-sourced film that stands out for me is John Frankenheimer’s “52 Pick-Up” (1986), the story of a respected businessman (Roy Scheider) who heads into Detroit’s slimy underbelly to take on blackmailers. Dismissed at the time, the film captures the era’s inner-city hopelessness as well as any picture of the 1980s.

     Then there’s “Get Shorty” (1995), a smorgasbord of sarcasm and cool that eviscerates Hollywood like few other films ever have. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Scott Frank maintain the perfect temperature for a crowded parade of marvelous characters all trying to make sense of loan shark turned producer Chili Palmer. As this slick, fearless made-man, who also is an obsessed movie lover, John Travolta gives one of his best performances (along with his work in the Leonard-influenced “Pulp Fiction”), completely believable as a discontent mobster who fits right in with the Hollywood crowd.

    In addition to the film forming a fine stage to remember Leonard’s film contributions, it’s also a good place to honor Dennis Farina, who died earlier this summer.  Sporting a pink jacket that looks as dumb as he is, Farina’s Ray “Bones” Barboni, another Florida mobster and the bane of Chili’s existence, provides many of the film’s funniest moments, include a fascinating debate on the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”   The movie also includes one of Gene Hackman’s best comic roles, playing Harry Zimm, a heavily in debt horror-film producer who first brings Chili into the biz.

       Filling out the superb supporting cast are Rene Russo as Zimm’s unhappy girlfriend, a second-rate actress tired of the Hollywood game; Delroy Lindo and James Gandolfini as unlikely drug runners also looking to invest in movies; Bette Midler as Zimm’s bossy mistresses; David Paymer as a nerdy dry cleaner living the high life on someone else’s money and Danny DeVito, absolutely priceless as the typically egotistical movie star who everyone wants to star in their latest project.  

      It’s Leonard’s keen ear for sparkling dialogue that makes “Get Shorty” such an entertaining picture, e.g.: “You think we watch any of your movies, Harry? I’ve seen better film on teeth” and “I spent all day crawling out of a grave. The director said I was incapable of reaching the emotional core of the character” and “What is the point of living in L.A. if you’re not in the movie business.” The movie also features loving tributes to Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” to secure its film buff bona fides.

       Hollywood cashed in twice more with major Leonard-sourced hits: “Out of Sight” (also scripted by Frank) with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and “Jackie Brown” (from “Rum Punch”), indulgent in ways only Tarantino can achieve but filled with great performances and characters.

       Another, barely released, film from a Leonard novel “Killshot” (2008) doesn’t completely hold together, but is well worth catching. Mickey Rourke is very effective as a low-keyed hit man after a family under witness protection. The well-made film by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) also stars Diane Lane and, as a psychotic killer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

     No doubt, this is hardly the end of the Elmore Leonard-Hollywood story; in fact, later this year there’s a version of the writer’s “Life of Crime,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins.