Thursday, July 3, 2014

June 2014



BABY DOLL  (1956)

      I’ve probably written this before, but, for me, one of the biggest differences between films of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s and the past couple decades of often disappointing movies is the lack of familiar faces, who were also pitch-perfect actors, in supporting roles. It bears repeating following the death of one of the best character actors America cinema has ever produced, Eli Wallach.

     Starting in the 1950s and continuing, for some, into the 1990s, movies regularly featured such indispensable performers as Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Thelma Ritter, Jason Robards, Julie Harris, Arthur Hiller, Robert Webber, Richard Jordan, David Clennon, Charles Durning, Rip Torn, M. Emmet Walsh, Denholm Elliott, Cloris Leachman, Wilford Brimley and (I have to stop somewhere) William Devane (currently the president on the TV show “24”). Though some of these actors were occasionally leads, they spent most of their film and TV careers supporting the stars and made going to the movies a more enjoyable experience; enlivening even mediocre films,

      Wallach, who died last week at age 98—his last film appearance was in 2010’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”—didn’t work in as many top flight pictures as many of those mentioned above, favoring instead TV and the stage. But more often than not he portrayed a smarter-than-he looked but rough-around-the-edges antagonist who savored giving the good guy a hard time.

     I was surprised when checking his filmography to see that he appeared in just two films in the 1950s, “Baby Doll” and the little-seen crime picture “The Lineup.” But he worked steadily in TV and then hit it big with his scenery-chewing performance as the toothy bandit Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven” (1960). Good roles followed in such films as “The Misfits,” “Lord Jim,” “How to Steal a Million” and, his most famous, as Tuco in Sergio Leone’s comic Western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” But, to me, nothing he did on film ever surpassed his impressive film debut, under director Elia Kazan (both veterans of the Actor’s Studio) in the still outrageous “Baby Doll.”

      Wallach’s Silva Vacarro (this Brooklyn-born Polish Jew played a lot of Italians and Latinos for some reason) is clearly the outsider, looking dashing in a suit and tie, when he first appears in this Tennessee Williams story of white trash cotton farmers. Silva is putting on the dog for the area farmers, most of whom he’s put out of work with his giant cotton gin plant. Then the saddest example of humanity in this Mississippi backwater town, Arthur (played by the magnificent Karl Malden—add his name to the above list please) sets Vacarro’s cotton gin ablaze.

     Vacarro knows who burned his plant and sets upon his unusual revenge by bringing the fumbling Arthur his cotton to be processed in his dilapidated gin mill. There he meets “Baby Doll” (blonde sensation Carroll Baker), Arthur’s teen bride, who is one day away from her 20th birthday and the agreed upon consummation of their two-year marriage.

    The rest of the movie is Wallach’s, as he brings out both the game-playing fun and devious plotter in this insidious character, one of Williams’ most vivid. Wallach is a busy actor; his hands and face are always in movement, but in delicate, precise mannerisms, a subtlety in creating characters that ensured his longevity in the business.

      This being the 1950s, instead of the pair sleeping together, Vacarro falls asleep in Baby Doll’s crib, (the film is an overdose of symbolism) but when Arthur returns, he, of course, assumes Vacarro has had what he’s still waiting on. The true intent is made clear when Baby Doll suddenly seems to be an adult, remarking, “I feel cool and rested for the first time in my life.”

     Earlier, Wallach delivers the key line in Williams’ screenplay: “….people come into this world without instructions of where to go, what to do, so they wander a little…then go away.” The final act begins with this unlikely trio sitting down for dinner in a comical, but equally harrowing, version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which is followed by gunfire.

     Fifty years later (seriously), Wallach, then 91, was still giving memorable performances, including a career-capping turn as a veteran Hollywood screenwriter in the otherwise pedestrian “Holiday.” He’s befriended by Kate Winslet’s Iris, a British writer, who is vacationing in his neighbor’s house. Not only does Arthur Abbott regale her with wonderful anecdotes from the Golden Era, but he offers Iris some needed life lessons. It’s the most touching and believable relationship in this second-rate romcom.

     But these great performances just touch the surface of this Method actor’s career and what he, as one of the last of his generation, brought to the movies.




    I am second to none in my admiration of Clint Eastwood, especially his work as a director in the past 10 years, but this might not have been the right project for him. And I’m not talking about the fact that this is a musical; few contemporary directors are more musical attuned—his “Bird” is one of the best musical bios ever made.

     Where Eastwood seems a fish out of water is recreating the Sinatra-loving, mob-protected second generation Italian-American community that bred the Four Seasons, the subject of this bittersweet rags-to-riches pop music tale. While he’s no doubt hampered by the trappings of the highly successful stage musical, the dramatic scenes in the film come off as Scorsese-lite, a very safe, clean-cut version of the streets where doo-wop singing and breaking and entering were happening side by side. The director isn’t helped by performances that rarely rise above caricature and a script built on clichés.

       For those of you who aren’t familiar with the pop scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Four Seasons were one of the most successful and important groups in that strange period between Elvis and the Beatles. The incredibly high-pitched voice of Frances Castelluccio (aka Frankie Valli), along with tough guy and group founder Tommy DeVito, bassist Nick Massi and songwriter extraordinary Bob Gaudio, produced hit after hit starting in 1962 with “Sherry.” Songs such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and later “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” are part of the soundtrack of our lives for anyone over 50. 

      How they made it out of Newark makes for a much more colorful story than the image they presented back in the day; four clean cut Italian-American kids made good. John Lloyd Young (who played the role on Broadway) portrays Frankie, a naïve, supremely talented vocalist who never seems to be enjoying his success. At 39, Young looks way too old to play the teenage Frankie and his voice, while seeming to hit the same notes as Valli, has a grating tone that I had a hard time ignoring.

     DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is the film’s most interesting character, a flashy, amoral weasel always looking out for No. 1 who threatens anyone who might disrupt his position as group leader. His character and the groups’ “godfather,” played by Christopher Walken, show the continuing influence that organized crime had in popular music well into the 1960s. The funniest performance in the film is by Joseph Russo, playing Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci), who, as part of the doo-wop scene in Jersey, plays a key role in the formation of the Four Seasons.

     I liked that Eastwood only uses music when the group is performing, saving the film’s only classic-musical production number for the final credits. But what I didn’t like was his clumsy use of first-person narrative; letting each of the “Seasons” tell a bit of the story from their point of view, speaking directing into the camera. Not only was it diverting and abrupt, but it did little to illuminate the story. It takes an exceptional actor, usually a comedian, who can talk to the camera and make it work. (Coincidentally, one of the screenwriters is Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote “Annie Hall,” a film that brilliantly utilizes direct to the audience dialogue, as delivered by Woody Allen.)

      Eastwood does his best work when the boys are on stage, recreating the magic that this astonishing vocal quartet brought to the music scene in their day. If only he could have extended the urgency of those musical moments to the rest of the film.




    It seems like decades since Tom Cruise has starred in a film that didn’t involve gunfire, which, for someone on the other side of 50, makes one question his career choices. But, in this case, he’s landed in a winner.

     This near-future sci-fi movie, directed by Doug Liman, who guided the first “Bourne” and “Fair Game,” might be the best of its genre that I’ve seen since the 2009 reboot of “Star Trek.” The script, written by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) along with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel, presents Cruise’s character, Major William Cage, as a reluctant warrior/hero, a military desk jockey suddenly tossed into battle. And not just any battle, but a D-Day-styled assault on Europe to stop the whirling-dervish, octopus-like aliens called Mimics.

       Cage is killed within minutes of landing on the beach, but in a “Groundhog’s Day” scenario, he immediately goes back 24 hours to relive it all over again. Not only does he improve his combat skills (learning where each Mimic will attack him from) as he keeps repeating the battle, but he get to know the war’s hero, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (a steely Emily Blunt) when she realizes he could be the key to defeating the aliens.

       Cruise delivers just the right amount of arrogance and confusing as Cage slowly tries to understand his predicament. But he’s a quick learner as he methodically advances, with Vrataski at his side, closer to finding the source of the Mimics’ power. Liman shows just enough of each scene to give us the sense of how Cage is progressing as he goes through the day over and over again. Yet the director and his writers don’t spell things out too clearly, forcing viewers to think it all through.

    “Edge of Tomorrow” isn’t without its leaps of reality (especially in the manner in which Cage and Vrataski survive incredible mayhem), and snippets of predictable sarcastic humor that have become required in this genre, but the picture also features two believable heroes and a plot gimmick that works like a finely calibrated timepiece.



TWIXT  (2011)

     I believe I recently griped about the high profile projects Sofia Coppola continues to attract despite her poor track record, while her legendary father struggles to get films made. Never mind.

     Watching Francis Coppola’s sad attempt to piece together a supernatural mystery—a mixture of David Lynch and Guy Maddin but not as interesting or other worldly as either of those directors’ works—made it clear why producers might be reluctant to put their money behind the man who made the iconic “Godfather” films along with “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.”  

     Actually, “Twixt,” apparently referring to being “betwixt” dreams and reality, starts off promising, with Tom Waits, longtime Coppola favorite, narrating the background about the setting of the story, Swann Valley. Waits offbeat, sarcastic tone promises something interesting that never happens.

      Val Kilmer plays third-rate writer Hall Baltimore, whose series of witch books are losing their popularity, evidenced by his arrival on a “book tour” in this tiny burg. He finds he’ll be autographing books at the local hardware store, which features a small space for selling books. No one knows him except the enthusiastic sheriff (Bruce Dern), who has a great idea for a story that he hopes to collaborate on with Baltimore. Oh, and by the way, there’s a teenage girl’s body impaled with a stake lying unclaimed at the morgue.

       Baltimore would rather get the hell out of town, until he has a dream in which a ghostly figure (Elle Fanning) leads him to a deserted hotel, where, decades ago, a father killed all his children before they turned into vampires. Now this hack writer is interested. Later, he’s guided through this dream world by none other than Edgar Allan Poe, who once stayed in the hotel.

     Coppola’s script—from an idea, he has said, that came to him in a dream—is filled with slight, but amusing literary references and even some inside Hollywood winks (Kilmer, drinking while attempt to start the story of this town, does perfect, unexplained, imitations of Marlon Brando and James Mason while his ex-wife Joanne Whalley plays his wife), but they can’t make up for the dreary, repetitive story.

      It’s not as if the filmmaker/winemaker has been on the skids for years; his last two pictures, “Tetro” (2009) and “Youth Without Youth” (2007), were superbly made and fascinating; “Tetro” made my Top 10 for 2009. But it’s all about box-office and none of his last three pictures have done much business. I just hope the 76-year-old gets a few more chances: like few other filmmakers in my lifetime, any time he steps behind the camera a masterpiece is possible.




     For the most part, this low-keyed British film is a very familiar examination of a solider dealing with wartime trauma and the frustrations of those around him trying to help. What distinguishes this entry in post-war life, especially through its first half, are the quiet, perfectly measured performances of Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, the former World War II POW; Nicole Kidman as Patti, the woman he meets years later and marries, and Stellan Skarsgård as Eric’s wartime buddy Finley, who sees himself as his brother’s keeper

      Both Patti and Finley do their best to pull Eric out of his funk, which isn’t clearly explained as far as how it has impacted his life. Though we see he is already stuck in his memories as a young, returning solider, the film never explains how he’s survived through the years: did he hold down a job, ever have relationships, seeks out profession help? When the film introduces him, he’s already in his forties and, most of the time, just a bit quirky.

     The movie, directed by independent filmmaker Jonathan Teplitzky from a script based on a book by the real Lomax, picks up steam when it flashes back to the war and a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma where Eric endures torture.

     As much I enjoyed the acting of the three principals—it’s one of Oscar-winner Firth’s finest performances—I think I would rather have seen a documentary on Eric Lomax and gotten a more fleshed-out story of his fascinating life. “Railway Man” offers the highlights and feels too much like a sketch when the story deserves a broader canvas.




    If you didn’t know any better, this sci-fi adventure, with its guileless acting, cheesy primary-colored sets and disjointed direction, could pass for a straight-to-video dud. Yet this adaptation of Alex Raymond’s 1930s comic books—and the movie series that followed—was a high-profile Dino De Laurentiis production, directed by highly regarded British filmmaker Mike Hodges (“Get Carter,” “Pulp” and, more recently “Croupier”) and written by one of the 1970s top screenwriters Lorenzo Semple Jr., who worked on “Papillion,” “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor.” And the supporting roles are filled by a roster of first-rate international actors.

      Despite its status as a cult favorite, there’s really nothing very memorable about “Flash Gordon”—it’s not as amusing as the clunky 50s sci-fi B-movies and looks as ancient as a horse and buggy alongside of “The Empire Strikes Back,” released the same year.

      Not sure what happened: certainly hiring the inexperienced Sam J. Jones, who has worked steadily, if without distinction, on television since this film, didn’t help. As Hodges later explained, “Flash Gordon” was “the only improvised $27-million movie ever made.”  Badly improvised, I would add.

     Jones, plays Flash, the quarterback for the New York Jets, who finds himself being hijacked to the planet Mongo along with a TV actress (a pretty but dull Melody Anderson) and a misunderstood scientist (Topol, looking very different than he did in “Fiddler on the Roof.”) There they somehow manage (not very convincingly) to avoid the evil clutches of Ming the Merciless (a slumming Max von Sydow), mostly because of the efforts of his vixen daughter (Ornella Muti), who immediately has eyes for hunky Flash.

    Eventually, Flash’s never-give-up spirit convinces rival tribe leaders, played by British stage actors Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed to join him in the battle to overthrow Ming. Blessed gives the film’s most entertaining performance as the constantly amused, Viking-like Prince Vultan, who is always ready for a fight.

    I was reminded of this plodding mess after seeing “Ted” a few years ago. The characters John and Ted are obsessed with “Flash Gordon” and Jones’ appearance at a party makes for one of the film’s hilarious centerpieces. But the actual film is never as funny or clever as anything in “Ted.”




     This story of the arrival of a Polish woman and her sister at Ellis Island in the 1920s is as predictable as a bad sitcom. Screenwriters, since before movies had sound, have been penning heartbreaking stories of pretty immigrants putting their faith in seemingly helpful men who eventually use them as income sources. “The Immigrant” doesn’t do much to expand on the cliché.

     Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who manages a low-rent burlesque show, “rescues” Ewa (Marion Cotillard) from being deported and thus separated from her ill sister, only to put her in his show and, while falling for her, coerces her into working as a prostitute.

     After writer-director James Gray’s first, and most impressive film, “Little Odessa” (1994), about the Russian-Jewish community of New York starring Tim Roth, he has hitched his wagon, for better or worse, to Phoenix. The unpredictable actor, costarring with Mark Wahlberg, in Gray’s “The Yards” (2000) and “We Own the Night” (2007), was miscast in both, though “The Yards” was a good, if minor, picture. Gray returned to the quiet intensity of his first film in the underrated “Two Lovers” (2008), with Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow as mismatched neighbors.

      While Gray brings an authentic look and feel to this new film, as he has in all his movies, the story is just too shopworn. If it wasn’t for yet another astonishingly intense, emotionally rich performance by Cotillard there would be no reason to watch at all. This moving performance follows her memorable work in “Inception” (2010), “Midnight in Paris” (2011), “Contagion” (2011), “Rust and Bone” (2012) and her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” (2007).

    Mid-film, Bruno’s magician cousin (Jeremy Renner) shows up to create the film’s triangle (like magic?), but it never feels genuine—just an overused screenwriting device, like too much of this film.



     One of the many aviation films of the era, this story of cargo pilots in South America, despite its all-star cast and dramatic subject, never manages to develop the characters or the situation's urgency to make it very compelling.

     Another story of gutsy, wisecracking pilots was turned into one of the great adventure movies by director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Jules Furthman six years later in "Only Angels Have Wings." In this David O. Selznick production starring John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery and Lionel Barrymore, polio serum for a dying child must be transported ASAP from Chile to Rio de Janeiro and, of course, a wicked storm in sweeping across the continent.

     John Barrymore, bellowing orders at the top of his lungs and stalking around his office imperiously, plays Riviere, the manager of the transport company. He spends most of the movie standing in front of a very impressive floor to ceiling relief map of South America, tracking the progress of his pilots and philosophizing on the importance of their mission.

     Gable is the fearless pilot battling the elements as his distraught wife (Hayes) prepares for bad news. The one scene between Barrymore and Hayes (at the time, America’s most acclaimed thespians) is a battle of overacting, but it’s the only time the two legends appeared together on screen.

     Coming off best is Montgomery, playing a devil-may-care pilot who ignores orders to return to the airport and instead finds company in a local brothel. (Such nonsense would soon end when Hollywood started enforcing its Production Code.) 

      Director Clarence Brown, who went on to direct such classics as “Anna Karenina” (1935), “The Yearling” (1944) and “Intruder in the Dust” (1949), keeps the action moving, shifting the point of view from the pilots to Barrymore’s driven taskmaster to the hand-wringing wives, yet few of the characters and little of the  dialogue ever seem more than just make believe.