Saturday, August 3, 2013

July 2013

     Sometimes it only takes a couple of well-written, expertly acted roles to turn a run-of-the-mill picture into a first-rate entertainment. In this coming-of-age film, about a young teen dealing with his divorced mother’s smug boyfriend during a summer vacation, veteran character actors Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney not only steal every scene they’re in but transform the film into one of the funniest of the year.

     Sam Rockwell’s Owen, the proverbial jokester with the gift of gab, who works as manager of the local water park, takes Duncan, our depressed, frustrated young man, under his wing, imbuing him with the confidence he needs to survive adolescence. With his off-centered hat, half-shaven face and a twinkle in his eye, Owen is the most incompetent manager the Water Wizz could possibly find, but also the most entertaining. He offers endless excuses for not working, or why someone else should do the work, while supplying a constant patter of sarcasm and stream-of-consciousness observations on the park, the world around him, and Duncan’s state of being. It’s the kind of role that Bill Murray virtually invented early in his career; here, Rockwell and writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (screenwriting Oscar winners for “The Descendents”) hone it to contemporary perfection.

     Rockwell, best known for playing the wild and crazy Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” has provided spot-on, memorable supporting work in two dozen films over the last 20 years, including “Safe Men,” “Heist,” “Matchstick Man,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Frost/Nixon.”

      Janney, who recently gave fine performances in “Juno” and “The Help” but remains most associated with her role in the TV series “The West Wing,” plays Betty, the slightly soused, uncomfortably blunt single mother whose vacation cottage is next to Trent’s (Steve Carell, excellent as the full-of-himself boyfriend). Her child rearing skills—she’s constantly reminding her young son of his floating eye—and permanent role of happy drunk puts her at the center of this group of dysfunctional adults who need to grow up as much as Duncan. But she never becomes a caricature of the middle-aged party girl; she sprinkles her comic observations with slivers of wisdom, displaying an understanding in her huge eyes well beyond her sometimes idiotic conversation.

      Toni Collette has the thankless role of Duncan’s mother, who is basically a sad figure who doesn’t know what to say to help her son, struggles to fit in with Trent’s crowd and fails to see him for the jackass he is.

     Liam James, from the AMC series “The Killing,” seems as if he’s play acting as the schlepy, mopey Duncan in the beginning of the film; once the character comes alive under the spell of the Water Wizz crew James becomes a more convincing teen.

      First time directors Faxon and Rash also succeeded in perfectly casting themselves: Faxon as the leering waterslide operator and Rash as the whinny nerd who works the souvenir stand. What you’ll remember about this film—what makes it worth seeing—is the priceless scenes inside the water park as Duncan somehow learns what it takes to grow up even as he’s surrounded by a bunch of adult kids.

     While it lacks even a pulse of originality, Guillermo del Toro’s dark vision of the future is as enjoyable as any sci-fi action adventure since “Batman Begins,” as it steals liberally from “Iron Man,” “War of the Worlds,” “Aliens,” all those Japanese monster movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, and even “Chinatown.” It’s all about how you package all that, and Del Toro does it with his usual flair. In some ways, the fact that it seems so familiar turns “Pacific Rim,” for all of its high-tech futurism, into a version of cinematic comfort food

     Best known for “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” series, the Mexican filmmaker and his screenwriting partner Travis Beacham don’t waste the viewer’s time with a laborious set-up, jumping right into the story. Giant monster emerge from the ocean, out of a portal from another dimension, and start destroying coastal cities around the globe. The world unites—remember, this is science fiction—to build giant robots called Jaegers, which are operated by two pilots, working as a single united after an induced mind meld (called neural bridging here). It’s the cleverest aspect of the picture.

      After years of successfully winning this war, the Jaeger program loses its luster as the Kaijus evolve into stronger, more skillful fighters. The downsized program, still run by Stacker (a stoic, rather stiff Idris Elba, set to play a young Nelson Mandela in the upcoming film bio) is moved to Hong Kong with just four Jaegers. Disgraced pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam, star of “Sons of Anarchy”) rejoins the team at Stacker’s insistence and then he reluctantly allows his young ward Mako (Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi) to partner up with Raleigh.

     More interesting and underutilized are Geiszler and Gottlieb (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), a pair of crazed, high strung researchers, and Hannibal Chau (Del Toro veteran Ron Perlman, channeling Lee Marvin) who runs the black market for Kaiju remains. The scenes with Day and Perlman, acting as if they are in another, more lively, movie, are what you’ll remember when you leave the theater.

     The CGI is impressively realistic—I never felt as if I was watching a big-screen video game—and makes for intense battles, many of them underwater, as the monsters and robots face off for the future of civilization. Every moviegoer has seen a version of this scenario yet Del Toro plays with the formula and the visuals to keep “Pacific Rim” energized, creating a very entertaining retread.

L’ATALANTE  (1934)
     Jean Vigo directed just four films in his short life—he died of tuberculosis at age 29—yet he’s considered by many as one of the great filmmakers of the French cinema. His reputation rests with just two works, his short film “Zero for Conduct,” about harsh conditions at a boarding school, and “L’Atalante,” his only feature.

      This touching, comical slice-of-life picture stands up as one of the masterpieces of the 1930s, a surprisingly honest and complex look at newlyweds trying to survive their first few days of marriage aboard a river barge.

       Jean (Jean Dasté) makes his living as captain of the barge and lives there as well, so when he takes a bride, Juliette (Dita Parlo), she joins him there. Not exactly a new bride’s dream home, but the mundane life of the boat is countered by the news that they’ll be docking in Paris soon.

       Life on the barge is made more entertaining (or more irritating if you’re Juliette) by the antics of Jules, the older ship hand (Michel Simon) who is devoted to his captain and his collection of wild cats. It’s Jules that brings the barge alive, always attempting, often clumsily, to amuse the new resident and make her feel at home. It’s one of Simon’s signature roles in a film career that spanned from 1925 to his death in 1975.

      This bear-like character never failed to dominate any scene he was in and was always in demand by France’s greatest filmmakers. His most memorable roles were in two 1931 Jean Renoir films, “Boudu Saved from Drowning” (1931), as the suicidal title character, and “La Chienne,” as an unhappily married man, and in Marcel Carne’s “Port of Shadows” (1938), playing a young girl’s devious uncle.  Simon’s best known role in an American film was as a defiant train engineer in John Frankenheimer’s “The Train” (1964).

     Like Renoir, Vigo makes the most of the natural surroundings; by shooting on an actual barge on the Seine, he creates a living metaphor of newlyweds floating down a river isolated from a world just out of touch on the shore. Once in Paris, tension increases and Juliette strikes out on her own, leaving it to the gentle Jules to reunite them. 

      This sweetly romantic but hardly naive look at young love, brought to earth by the salty presence of Simon’s unforgettable Jules, deserves repeated viewings, an essential work of the French cinema.

    I’m a sucker for rock ‘n’ roll movies, especial when it involves washed up musicians trying to recapture the magic of their youth. While members of rock bands have a bit more colorful (and destructive) history than most of us, the theme applies to anyone who attempts to hold onto (or recapture) the glories of their past.

     In this entertaining British version, Strange Fruit was a cultish band of the 1980s that first lost their lead singer to drugs and then their founder and lead guitarist dropped out of sight.

    Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail and Bill Nighy make up the remaining band members, along with Billy Connelly as the engineer-producer, collected from their less-than-perfect lives by manager Karen (Juliet Aubrey) for a reunion tour. After recruiting a young, hot-shot guitarist, the band hits the road and immediately all the old grudges and resentments re-emerge, mostly focusing on Nighy’s Ray, a sensitive, egotistical lead singer (a clear victim of what Keith Richards describes as “Lead Singer Syndrome”).

     There is nothing surprising about the film; the jokes, the infighting, it’s all predictable, yet the quality of acting elevates what in lesser hands would have quickly become maudlin. The film’s best moments are with the band on the bus, evaluating the previous night’s gig or bonding with games like “bands with body parts in their name.”

    Both director Brian Gibson, whose best know film is the Ike and Tina Turner story “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (“Across the Universe”) understand the world of music, the road and the complicated love-hate relationships that develop between these childlike men. “Still Crazy” was Gibson’s last film; he died at age 59 in 2004.

     The straightforward manner used by this film to recreate the final day of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s life ends up producing a surprisingly powerful emotional effect. In the case of this story, nothing burns like the simple truth.

     The film, by opening with the actual phone footage taken by a witness of Oscar being fatally shot by a San Francisco subway police officer, forces viewers to continually think about the doom Oscar will soon face as he proceeds through his day and makes decisions about his “future.” Filmmaker Ryan Coogler, making his feature debut at age 27, doesn’t attempt to paint Oscar as a saint—he’s lost his grocery store job by coming in late; he’s cheated on his girlfriend, the mother of his young daughter; he’s supplementing his income by selling dope and recently did a prison stretch—but he’s far from a dangerous gang member.

     Michael B. Jordan, a veteran of television who is probably best known as the star quarterback in the TV series “Friday Night Lights,” paints Oscar as sincere, thoughtful yet frustrated by life’s turns; of course, only his friends and family know what Oscar was actually like, but Jordan has created a very believable fictional version. Also first rate is Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend and Octavia Spencer, Oscar nominated for “The Help,” as his mother, whose birthday celebration is the focus of the day. Even in the smallest parts, the acting is convincingly real. For once, a film presents African-Americans as just people living out their lives, neither beset by violence nor the source of special wisdom; writer-director Coogler understands the power of simplicity.

     The Trayvon Martin case makes this film’s theme even more relevant: if you’re young and black and display some attitude, authorities assume you pose a threat and should be treated as a criminal. Even as society in general retreats from this tired stereotype, it seems our law enforcement continues to judge based on the color of one’s skin.

     The tragedy of Oscar Grant isn’t that he was killed just as he was trying to put his life back on track—that makes for a moving drama, but it’s secondary to the “Fruitvale Station” point. To me, the horror of this story, and the Martin case, is how easily we accept and excuse the taking of a life with so little provocation; that the use—by law enforcement and others—of lethal force has become the first response, not the last.

     This poignant story of a 19th Century Irish waiter who has lived her entire adult life as a man is undermined by the character’s lack of personality, a less interesting Chauncey Gardner.

    Glenn Close, made up to look not so much like a man but a cartoon character or maybe a distraught silent film actor, offers few clues as to what makes the painfully shy Albert Nobbs tick, keeping the viewer at arm’s length throughout the film. I wanted to care about this woman who felt that her only hope for survival was to hide her sexuality and live a lie, but the film offers nothing to encourage my sympathy; instead making Nobbs an object of pity.

      Working in an upscale hotel-restaurant in Dublin, Nobbs is dutifully saving her money in hopes of striking out on her own, but it’s clearly a pipe dream. Nobbs’ life (and hopes for the future) is altered dramatically when Hubert, a house painter working at the hotel reveals, literally, himself to be a woman also. (It’s either an astonishing coincidence or a previously unexplored social trend of the era). The lively, engaging Hubert (a superb Janet McTeer) is a sharp contrast to Nobbs and brightens the film whenever she’s on screen. In fact, Hubert’s story might have made for a more compelling screenplay.

      The film, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, a television director who is the son of Colombian literary giant Gabriel Garcia Marquez, steals liberally (Close is among the credited writers) from the “Upstairs, Downstairs” formula, especially when a roguish young man joins the staff. He stirs the soap-opera subplot that includes encouraging a young maid to take advantage of the delusional Nobbs.

      Surprisingly, this strange little film scored Oscar nominations for both Close and McTeer. While McTeer, who also was nominated for her work in the offbeat mother-daughter drama “Tumbleweeds” (1999), gives a memorable performance, well deserving of Oscar consideration, I think Close scored a nod simply because of the oddness of the role. Yet whether she’s a woman playing a man or a woman playing a woman, it’s all about creating a character worth caring about, believing in. Using that measure, Close failed.

      Some films defy explanation of how talented people spent so much time and effort to create what turns out to be rubbish. Director Nicolas Roeg and then wife Theresa Russell, two of the most interesting figures of film in the 1970s and early ‘80s, hit bottom with this astonishingly amateurish and misguided collaboration, a confusing story of a bad marriage.

     British filmmaker Roeg, a cinematographer in the 1960s (he worked as second unit cameraman for “Lawrence of Arabia”), made an immediate splash as co-director of the cult crime picture “Performance” (1970), going on to make the masterful, Venice-set thriller “Don’t Look Now” (1973), the David Bowie-starring sci-fi film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), the hallucinatory love story “Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession” (1980) and the quirky chamber drama “Insignificance” (1984), the last two starring Russell. The director seemed to be lurching toward the deep end with “Castaway” (1986) and, especially, “Track 29” (1988), in which his camera uncomfortably leers as Russell’s body from all angles.

     Russell was discovered by film legend Elia Kazan, who cast her opposite Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum in “The Last Tycoon” (1976). Quickly establishing herself as an enigmatic sex object for the times, Russell gave riveting performances in “Bad Timing,” “Eureka” (1983), “The Razor’s Edge” (1984), as the Monroe-like figure in “Insignificance” and “Black Widow” (1987), her biggest mainstream hit, battling wits with Debra Winger. The same year that “Cold Heaven” was released, she starred in an even more embarrassing fiasco, “Whore,” directed by Ken Russell. The director was attempting to be daring, but the film is simply unpleasant and degrading; it became a punch line that all-but ended the actress’ short-lived stardom at age 34.

     And if it hadn’t, “Cold Heaven” would have. It’s as amateurish and misguided as any film ever made by a first-rate director. Starting out as a simple mystery, it evolves into something quite different, off kilter even for Roeg.

     Russell’s Marie is on vacation in Mexico with husband Alex (a clearly baffled Mark Harmon) trying to work up the nerve to tell him she’s leaving him for a fellow physician (James Russo). Before she can spring the bad news on him, he’s killed in a boating accident—at least that’s what the doctors at the local hospital tell Marie. But the next morning, the body is gone and, she discovers, so is his passport and return air ticket. At this point, the movie makes a sharp left.

     Playing like a lame parody of a Catholic-themed “miracle” drama, the script sends Marie to a Carmel monastery where years ago she had a vision of the Virgin Mary. At least, I think so. This is all explained, without much success, in a scene between Russell and Richard Bradford, playing an unexplainably suspicious monsignor. If this was the best take of this long, incoherent scene, I can’t even imagine how bad the rejects were.

     All the religious shenanigans (done a 1000 times better in “Don’t Look Back”) are apparently related, at least Marie thinks so, to Alex’s refusal to die—he goes back and forth between being deathly ill to walking and talking normally. Even the doctors can’t explain how he rose from the morgue or what’s wrong with him now. The point of the script, by Allan Scott (based on a book by popular novelist Brian Moore), I have to assume, is to keep the audience as confused as the actors seem to be. By the end of the film, Harmon looks like he’s ready to flail himself off the nearest cliff while Russell seems to be completely exhausted from all the overacting.

     Just to make sure the film doesn’t slip into the mundane, a fanatical nun (Talia Shire) and a nosey priest (Will Patton)—both acting as if they think they’re in a horror film in search of zombies—become entangled in this bizarre plot. I fully expected Max von Sydow to walk into the scene (any scene) with Bible and cross in hand.

     You can see Russell struggling with the lines, the lack of motivations, the idiocy of the religious connections as she gives one of the worst performances of her career. Though she’s mostly done anonymous-type roles in TV movies in the past 20 years, she’s never stopped working; she’s now divorced from Roeg.

     After “Cold Heaven,” Roeg made one more quality movie, a television adaptation of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” At age 85, this inscrutable director seems to be retired.