Tuesday, September 3, 2013

August 2013


    Robert De Niro recently celebrated his 70th birthday, dining with Christopher Walken (“The Deer Hunter”), Harvey Keitel (“Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver”) and Samuel L. Jackson (“Jackie Brown”). If only De Niro’s recent films were as entertaining as this get together undoubtedly was.

    From the moment I watched his Johnny Boy amble into the bar to Keith Richards’ riff “Jumping Jack Flash,” in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973), De Niro became my favorite actor. That was solidified two years later when in February 1975 I first saw “The Godfather Part II.”  The 31-year-old actor had transformed himself from the fun-loving, irresponsible punk from “Mean Streets” into the soft-spoken, commanding Vito Corleone. It was hard to believe it was the same actor; Vito’s cool dignity, gaunt, Old World face, and unstoppable resolve to make something of himself is everything the cocky mook Johnny Boy wasn’t.

    Then came Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (1976), still one of the scariest characters in film history; jazz romantic Jimmy Doyle, one of the best film portrayals of a World War II-era musician, in “New York New York” (1977); Michael in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), the stoic, exacting survivor of the horrors of Vietnam; and, in the definitive statement of Method acting, low-life boxing champ Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull” (1980), arguably the finest film performance by an actor in the last 40 years.

      Capping a 10-year stretch that probably has never been matched by an American actor was his Father Des in “True Confessions” (1981), a heartbreaking tale of faith and loyalty and, completely shifting gears, his hilarious, outrageous Rupert Pupkin, prophetic in his obsession with TV celebrity, in “The King of Comedy” (1982).

    But that was 30 years ago. Since he turned 40, career highlights have been few and far between: the sympathetic bounty hunter in “Midnight Run” (1988), the second level mobster in “Goodfellas” (1990), an overbearing alcoholic in “This Boy’s Life” (1993), Sam Rothstein, the legendary Vegas bookmaker, in “Casino” (1995), as the cynical mercenary in the thriller “Ronin” (1998) and the football fanatic and dysfunctional father in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012). For most actors that’d be a great three-decade run, but it was a surprising comedown for De Niro.

       I’m not going to go through De Niro’s questionable choice of roles since the turn of the century, except to state that he’s appeared in 29 films in 13 years. Like many British actors, his philosophy seems to be that he’d rather be working (and getting paid) than wait for a great role. Hard to argue with the finances of that approach to the business, but it makes it hard for longtime fans, who remember the years when every role was complex, challenging, unforgettable, to keep the faith. The second half of his career has seen him turn into one of two clichés: the stern, dangerous tough guy or the stern, dangerous funny guy. His range, once the hallmark of his talent, has narrowed to A through B.

    I’ve stopped trying to catch up with all his films, especially the cookie-cutter actioners and one-joke comedies, but to celebrate the great man’s birth I decided to check out “Killer Elite,” allured by co-stars Jason Statham and Clive Owen, both solid action actors. My mistake.

    The film never rises above the standard-issue thriller, with Statham’s Danny, a veteran mercenary, forced out of retirement when a sheik in exile kidnaps his mentor Hunter (De Niro) and demands that he assassinate three men who killed his sons.

   Of course, it’s never that easy and Owen turns out to be the obstacle as the enforcer for a group of retired British intelligence agents who go after Statham’s team. There are no real good guys—Statham is sympathetic because he has a conscious and a cute girlfriend back in Australia and you root for De Niro because, well, he’s Bob De Niro, still looking cool firing an automatic weapon and sporting a full beard and shaggy hair. The last 40 minutes of “Killer Elite” (no relation to the Sam Peckinpah film of the same name) drags on for what seems like hours as opposing sides trade blows without any clear-cut winner.

       As a result, I really have no desire to see “Stone” or “Limitless” or “Red Lights” or “The Big Wedding” or “Killing Season,” just a few of the movies De Niro has appeared in during the last few years that I’ve skipped. If someone had told me even 20 years ago that I would have no interesting in seeing a film featuring De Niro, I would have shouted back, “You talkin’ to me?”

     I guess I should be please that, occasionally, he gets the chance to deliver a sparkling performance as he did in last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” And maybe I need to spend more time rewatching those classics from the 1970s and early ‘80s when he reigned as the best actor in the world.

      Next week, he’s back on screen as a mob-connected dad who moves with his family to France. “The Family” is meant to be a comedy; I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

    This uncomfortable mix of historical events and fictional characters might have worked as a weeklong television miniseries, but on the big screen it comes off as little more than highlights of both a man’s life and the Civil Right movement. Forest Whitaker, a great actor in the right role, plays Cecil Gaines, who spends 30 years as a White House butler, standing in the Oval Office as the great issues of the day are being discussed yet living in a world where he is always a second-class citizen.

     There is a heck of a movie in there somewhere but it’s not in director Lee Daniel’s version, in large part because Gaines is such a passive, blank slate of a character, seemingly blind to the important changes taking place in the 1960s and too timid to utilize his close relationship with a half-dozen presidents. While “inspired” by the true story of butler Eugene Allen and the article about him written by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, the film doesn’t hew to Allen’s life, instead inventing a son who, while the father is obediently serving in the White House, is involved in every aspect of the Civil Right movement. In the way it places its characters at every important event concerning blacks gaining equal rights, it’s hard not to see “The Butler” as a black version of “Forrest Gump.” And like Gump, Gaines doesn’t provide much insight or even reaction to what’s happening around him.

    Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong also give Gaines a feisty, occasional alcoholic and cheating wife played in a very by-the-numbers performance by Oprah Winfrey. But the script doesn’t give anyone much of a chance to shine. David Oyelowo, the fine British actor who spent a few seasons on the TV series “MI-5” and also co-starred in Daniel’s “The Paperboy,” plays Gaines rebellious son, who displays the attitude but never the conviction of a true believer in the cause. It was also a stretch to have the 37-year-old Oyelowo portraying a college student.

   And then there’s the presidents: Robin Williams as Eisenhower; John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Shreiber as LBJ and Alan Rickman as Reagan, all coming off as comic characters, like the caricatures of FDR in World War II vintage Warner Bros. cartoons. More believable is Jane Fonda, in the unlikely role of Nancy Reagan.

      The liveliest performances are given by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as a pair of Cecil’s co-workers, who unlike the title character actually have some blood flowing through their veins.

     Daniels, who earned a best director nod for “Precious” (2009) and then helmed the over-the-top white-trash fest “The Paperboy,” clearly prefers to tell his stories using a 12-gauge shotgun rather than a can opener. Every plot point, every character is presented as if he’s making a TV sitcom, determined to ensure that everyone in the audience will understand immediately. That’s probably why “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” (the clumsy title was required because Warner Bros. refused to give up rights to the title “The Butler,” a little known 1916 silent) topped the box office rankings its first three weeks in theaters.

    There’s a good movie that occasionally peeks through in “Blue Jasmine,” but mostly it is kept at bay by choppy writing and editing and Woody Allen’s inability to transform a handful of fantastic scenes into a coherent piece of drama.

     But it’s easy to ignore the film’s flaws—as many critics have—because at its center is an astonishing portrayal of a delusional, desperate, depressed woman by Cate Blanchett, playing the title character who haplessly tries to restart her life after the death of her cheating, crooked and very wealthy husband. Blanchett has proven to be excellent in almost everything she’s been in since her breakthrough role in “Elizabeth” (1998), as the 17th Century English queen. She played a resistance fighter in “Charlotte Gray” (2001), a vengeful wife in “Heaven” (2002), gave an Oscar-winning performance as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” (2004), was the sick wife in “Babel” (2006), chewed the scenery as a lesbian teacher in “Notes on a Scandal” (2006), offered up a version of Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” (2007), played a feisty Marion in “Robin Hood” (2010) and starred as the elegant Galadriel in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

      But nothing the 44-year-old Australian has done in the past equals her work here, as she mixes Allen’s trademark jittery delivery with an intensely emotional slide into the abyss of hopelessness. She and Allen have created a modern day Blanche DuBois (a role Blanchett played in a stage revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 2008), a delicate, pampered woman unprepared for the ugly reality of life among the working class. After she moves in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her two boys in a cramped San Francisco apartment, she faces the ire of two versions of Stanley Kowalski—Ginger’s ex-husband (a very convincing Andrew Dice Clay), who was a financial victim of Jasmine’s late husband (Alex Baldwin), and Chili (Bobby Cannavale), the sister’s tactless mechanic boyfriend. 

      After struggling to learn computers and working as a lecherous dentist’s receptionist, she meets a well-heeled, good-looking man (Peter Sarsgaard) with political ambitions. It seems to be her ticket out of Palookaville, but this isn’t a Hollywood movie, and Allen, for the first time in awhile, has created a truly tragic character.

      Writing about the film makes it seem much better than it plays, as so many of the scenes come off as clumsy, poorly structured, uncomfortably long. As fine as both Blanchett and Hawkins are, the men come off as hackneyed clichés who add nothing but the obvious to the story. While I enjoyed every scene with one-time foul-mouthed comedian Clay, the performances of the usually reliable Cannavale, Sarsgaard and Baldwin plus the talented standup Louis C.K. never go beyond the words. Even worse, the jokes fall so flat you won’t even recognize them as attempts at comedy. 

     Of course, it’s worth seeing; for my money every movie that bears those magical words “Written and Directed by Woody Allen” is a must see. Just don’t go in expecting much, except a truly unforgettable, devastating performance by Blanchett.

CHANDLER  (1971)
    Few actors ever maintained a more nonchalant manner on screen than Warren Oates. Not only did he never give the impression that he was “acting,” Oates, most of the time, seemed to barely notice that he was in a motion picture; and that, of course, was his appeal.

    Primarily a supporting player in television series (mostly Westerns) from the mid 1950s, Oates had an occasional film role, including in Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” (1965) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969), with Jack Nicholson in Monte Hellman’s cult classic “The Shooting” (1966), and as a racist cop in the best picture winner “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), before his breakthrough in 1971.

      In “Two-Lane Blacktop,” Oates plays G.T.O., a talkative driver who challenges a couple of hippies to a cross country drag race. It’s one of the great allegorical road trip pictures, with Oates giving the performances of his life, Oscar worthy in a perfect world. Then, in the same year, he’s in this strange, very forgettable crime picture, but, in a coup for Oates, in the lead role.

      He plays an underemployed private detective (is there any other kind, really?) ironically named Chandler, who is fired from his security guard job as the film opens. An old friend, who works for the government, tracks down Chandler and offers him a too-easy-to-be-true job, keeping tabs on the girlfriend of an East Coast mob boss.

     It’s all a setup with Chandler pegged as the fall guy, which he figures that out soon enough, but, just like his namesake’s Marlowe, keeps playing along because he falls for the dame (a badly miscast Leslie Caron). While the plot doesn’t make as much sense as a Three Stooges short, watching Oates stare with that eternal smirk of his as others huff and puff in seriousness is very entertaining.

    I also found it interesting to see how undeveloped the pier area of Monterey, Calif., now packed with fish restaurants and bars, was as recently as the 1970s. It is also amusing how the film shifts locales from Los Angeles to Monterey as if it was across town, instead of a five-hour drive up the coast.

    Like most films of the ‘70s, “Chandler” is filled with interesting supporting players, including 1950s noir regulars Charles McGraw and Gloria Grahame along with Richard Loo, Scatman Crothers and John Mitchum.

   After the film’s release, writer-director Paul Magwood, the rare director who made just one film, took out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter apologizing for the film, claiming it was butchered by MGM studio chief James T. Aubrey. Just maybe that’s why he never got another chance to direct. 

     Better film roles followed for Oates, scoring lead roles in “Dillinger” (1973), “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974) and “China 9, Liberty 37” (1978) along with key supporting roles in such quirky pictures as “The Hired Hand” (1971), “Kid Blue” (1973), “Badlands” (1973) and “92 in the Shade” (1975). He was memorable as Bill Murray’s put-upon sergeant in “Stripes” (1981) and in the Roy Scheider action picture “Blue Thunder” (1983), released the year after his death from a heart attack at age 53.

     The lazy cool demeanor of Oates, even in a waste of time like “Chandler,” made every film he appeared in more believable, more entertaining. Every time I see him in a film reminds me of how effect a performer this unorthodox actor was.

    Iconoclastic director Terrence Malick uses the language of cinema like no other American filmmaker, telling his stories through his immaculately composed images rather than with words, especially since his comeback, after 20 years of silence, with his masterful “The Thin Red Line” (1998).

      The reclusive Texan has always examined his characters and the events of their lives in terms of their place in the universe, their connection to the physical earth and beyond. Two years ago, in “The Tree of Life,” he and his equally adventurous cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (back for “To the Wonder”) not only offered a short history, literally, of the Universe, but imagined a version of heaven and the place that dream holds in many people’s lives.

       Malick’s latest, released in April, takes his consideration of the presence of God’s hand in the world to the forefront, cutting the dialogue (too human?) to the minimum and allowing the actors’ expressions and movement to tell this story of an exasperating love affair. And while it is nearly impossible not to admire the stunning images of wind-swept wheat fields; the flat, endless landscape of Oklahoma; characters in constant motion, away and toward one another—even a gas station at dusk looks gorgeous in a Malick movie—the film fails because it lacks a compelling story or even a character worth caring about.

     The picture opens with scenes of a man and woman falling in love in Paris, followed by his seemingly reluctant decision to bring her and her young daughter back to his home in Oklahoma. Neil (played with a strange detachment by Ben Affleck) is a serious-minded environmental scientist who studies workplaces and communities for dangerous pollutants while emotionally fragile Marina (Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko of “Quantum of Solace” and “Oblivion”) wonders through the streets and field of the farming community contemplating life and her relationship.

     At least that’s what I think is going on in “To the Wonder.” The only attempt at traditional storytelling is Marina’s occasional narration of her esoteric thoughts and snippets of conversation. Affleck’s Neil has about five lines in the entire film even though he’s in nearly every scene. No one but Malick could pull this off so effectively, yet it still didn’t work for me.

      There’s an underdeveloped subplot concerning the town’s priest (Javier Bardem) who, we learn through his narration, is questioning his faith, struggling to find God as he tends to the poor and afflicted. As a realist and nonbeliever, I wanted these characters to face the world as it is and stop looking for guidance from above; start seeking their spiritual salvation from their heads not their hearts.

       Neil and Marina’s relationship has its ups and downs before visa problems force her and her daughter to return to France. Meanwhile, Neil has a brief affair with a local woman (Rachel McAdams), who seems to make him happier than Marina does. But it’s hard to tell—he’s such a dour, unexpressive and frankly uninteresting character.

       Marina eventually returns and they marry, but continue to struggle with their relationship because, it seems clear to me, Neil doesn’t really love her. But in Malick’s big-picture view, this is barely about whether or not these two survive as a couple, but about the choices we make and why we make them as we strive for something we believe to be happiness.

     To me, “To the Wonder” is a muddle of faith, transcendental philosophy and sketchily drawn characters who take themselves way too seriously. At one point, probably while she’s roaming through a wheat field looking back at the camera, Marina asks, “Where are we…when we’re there?” That’s exactly how I felt watching this film.

STOKER  (2013)
     I have to give South Korean director Chan-wook Park props for not compromising his vision, such as it is, in his first Hollywood film. His theme of complex, bloody revenge, brilliantly constructed in his acclaimed “Oldboy” (2003) and “Lady Vengeance” (2005), is repeated in this American film about the aftermath of a family tragedy.     

     It’s hard to break through the icy wall of “Stoker”; there are no characters to root for, to care about; only three rather cold, calculating and essentially corrupt individuals in an odd battle of wits. At least in “Oldboy,” also filled with unpleasant, self-serving characters, there is one person—a young girl who is tricked into playing a role in the revenge plot—who you can feel sympathy for.

    His new film opens at the funeral of the husband of Evelyn Stoker, who was found burned to death in his car. At the reception after the burial, the dead man’s brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), presents himself out of the blue. Neither Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) nor her teenage daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska), have ever seen or heard of the brother, at least it seems that way.

      Charlie immediately makes himself at home, clearly intent on taking the place of his brother (played in flashback by Dermot Mulroney) with both Evelyn and India. As the mother-daughter is already tense, treating each other as irritating strangers, it is easy for Charlie to split them further and turn the household into a tinderbox. On top of that, India, through whose viewpoint the plot unfolds, starts to discover that her soft-spoken uncle doesn’t mind killing anyone who crosses him.

     Park brings an overly polished, exacting style to his films—every shot is perfect composed and elaborately staged, with the actors’ movement carefully choreographed. It creates a reality that is chilly, claustrophobic, unbending; a bit Kubrick like, but without the freedom the late filmmaker gave his actors. But in both “Stoker” and “Oldboy,” the style fits the films, turning them into sad commentaries on the state of human relations.

     I could never get over the fact that these three characters all accept the strange, frankly unacceptable, behavior of each other as if it was completely normal. 

    James M. Cain’s story of a divorced mother reinventing herself as a restaurateur only to be done in by her devotion to her self-centered daughter is one of the great novels about the 1930s; ahead of its time—it was published in 1941—in its frank depiction of female empowerment and sexuality and showing how the generous nature of mothering women can easily be taken advantage of.

    Mildred Pierce is such a hard working, sincere individual that she trusts that those around her have the same ethics, never seeing their ulterior motives. In Cain’s world—he is also responsible for “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity”—money, sex and the desire for prestige inevitably brings out the worst in human nature.

    In 1945, Warner Bros. and its stable of screenwriters (including William Faulkner) retooled the novel into a film noir crime picture that earned Joan Crawford an Oscar for best actress, but used little but the main plot points from the novel.

   This HBO miniseries is an extraordinarily faithful adaption, providing Kate Winslet with one of her greatest roles in an already illustrious career. Because the story is told here completely from Mildred’s point of view, the actress is in every scene of this five-hour plus drama.

    The series begins when Mildred’s husband walks out on the Glendale, Calif., housewife, forcing her to find work in a Depression-ravaged job market. She lucks into a waitressing job (but hides it from her proud daughter) and gains a reputation as a first-class pie maker. It’s not long before she takes a shot on opening her own restaurant—a chicken and waffle dinner—with the help of the family’s lawyer and her husband’s former real estate partner Wally (James Le Gros).

    Even as her fortunes are on the rise, she meets the source of her downfall, the dashing Pasadena playboy Monty (Guy Pearce), who introduces her and her daughter Veda (Morgan Turner as a pre-teen; later Evan Rachel Wood) into the upper class world of polo, parties and, for Veda, a more prestigious piano tutor. Her daughter’s dreams of becoming a concert pianist consume Mildred, even as the girl despises her mother’s commonness. The ruthlessly Veda sets her sights on a world far beyond her mother’s reach and beware to anyone who stands in her way.

    Winslet, a six-time Oscar nominee and the 2008 best-actress winner for her role as a mysterious woman hiding her Nazi past in “The Reader,” creates a Mildred who is just as believable as a naïve, put-upon 1930s housewife as she is when she’s working herself ragged to make her restaurant a success or showing her passion for sex. But she’s never manipulative, never taking advantage of others even as they are scheming to use her.

    Like all miniseries, there are slow sections and repetition, but overall this five-part drama captures Cain’s roller-coaster plot and the flavor of Southern California of the 1930s. The movie becomes increasingly fascinating as Veda moves into her late teens, becoming openly rebellious, heartlessly mocking her mother’s sacrifices.

     The outstanding supporting cast also includes Melissa Leo as Mildred’s sympathetic neighbor who helps her into the liquor business after Prohibition ends and Mare Winningham as a fellow waitress who shows her the ropes of running a restaurant and eventually becomes her partner. Like Winslet, they are very convincing Depression era women—tough, resilient and resourceful—and completely comfortable slinging around Cain’s hard-boiled, snappy dialogue.

    “Mildred Pierce” was nominated for 22 Emmys, with Winslet and Pearce both going home winners. For anyone who is a fan of Cain or Winslet, this is a must see.