Monday, October 13, 2014

September 2014


GONE GIRL (2014)

       Director David Fincher’s latest attempt to decipher the evolving state of human relations is not a pleasant experience. If you go to the movies to be entertained rather than contemplate social criticism, then I would definitely skip this one.

      From the nauseating sweet dialogue between husband Nick (Ben Affleck) and wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) to the easily misled police investigation and the irresponsible TV media, the narrative of “Gone Girl” illuminates an artificiality that pervades American society; everyone has a role they feel obligated to play as if we are all starring in one long, commercial-free reality show.

     From “Fight Club” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to “Zodiac” and “The Social Network,” Fincher has been exploring the difficulties of finding one’s place in the world and the extent to which some individuals go to fit in. At times, the new film seems as contrived as its characters, but, of course, that’s Fincher’s way of hammering home his points.

      The plot, from Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel (she also wrote the script), provides the director with all the raw material to dig below the veneer of life as it follows the investigation and reactions, public and private, when Amy goes missing. The script captures all the contemporary trappings of a high-profile missing person: the teary news conferences with family; the rallying support from the community; the rumor mill of cable news shows; and, finally, the invasion of any sense of privacy the family once had.

     In this case Nick seems too cool, too level-headed for both the police and tabloid TV, especially once his version of his marriage begins to unravel. Again, image is everything, so to save himself he hires razzle-dazzle attorney Tanner Bolt (actor-filmmaker Tyler Perry, giving the film’s most entertaining performance) and starts using the media to put his own spin on the story.

     I am purposely being vague about the plot, because each of the twists, which start coming at you early and never let up, should be experienced without preparation. This is a violent, heartless and pretty frightening morality tale that will leave you wanting to take a very cold shower; its linage can be traced to David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” in which murder, sex and identity are all rolled into one psychotic nightmare.

     “Gone Girl” should be the star-making role for Pike, a British actress who is probably best known as Tom Cruise’s costar in “Jack Reacher,” but gave a better performance as the object of desire for Paul Giamatti in the little-seen “Barney’s Version.” As Amy in “Gone Girl,” she’s both damaged and fragile, calculating and dangerous; the alchemy of a woman asked to be more than she can possibly handle.

      Affleck’s blandness fits the role of Nick perfectly, as his reactions to the firestorm that rises around him fit the subdued tone of the picture. The supporting players are all superb, especially Perry as the blunt-talking lawyer, Kim Dickens as the dogged Det. Boney; Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister and real soul mate;  David Clennon and Lisa Banes as Amy’s manipulative parents and Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s naïve, obsessive ex-boyfriend.

     Fincher finds the perfect metaphor for the dysfunctional state of marriage and a society whose dirty laundry inevitable turns up on the 11 o’clock news when, at a crucial moment in the film, Amy agrees to talk truthfully to Nick only in the shower, guaranteeing he’s not wearing a wire. 

     It’s probably the only moment in the film where you can be sure you’re getting the naked truth.




       He’s the answer to one of the great Hollywood trivia questions, typically stumping all but dedicated movie buffs. Who is the credited director on both “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” probably the two most iconic films of the American cinema’s Golden Age.

      You’d think Victor Fleming would be lionized as one of Hollywood’s great filmmakers simply based on these two masterpieces of popular entertainment. Instead, he’s been marginalized by historians, his reputation dented by the fact that numerous directors had their hands on both films, leading to the oft-repeated theory that they are producer-driven pictures.

      Fleming’s standing was also undercut by his early death of a heart attack at age 59 in 1949. Others of his generation—those  who started in silents and toiled sometimes with little recognition in the studio system—were still working in the 1950s and early 60s, when film critics and historians started celebrating the filmmakers from the first half of the century. Fleming’s career, cut short by death and ending with a much publicized bomb, “Joan of Arc,” was never considered in the same league with contemporaries John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, William Wyler, George Cukor and Michael Curtiz—except during his own time.

    A superbly researched biography and reappraisal of the director by film critic Michael Sragow, “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master,” published in 2009, attempts to resurrect the filmmaker’s reputation.

     Fleming’s entry into the film industry came because he was skilled at working on motors and could drive a car—the idea that those skills were so highly prized in the 1910s is one of this biography’s many examples of how things have changed so dramatically in the past 100 years.

    He soon was operating cameras, making his mark as Douglas Fairbank’s early cameraman, helping the acrobatic star become the medium’s first action hero. Fleming quickly became one of the silent era’s top filmmakers, making acclaimed (but now lost) films “The Rough Riders” and “The Way of All Flesh” before helping to define the film personas of Gary Cooper in “The Virginian” (1929) and Clark Gable in “Red Dust” (1931) and then making a star of Spencer Tracy in “Captains Courageous” (1937).

    As far as the two elephants in Fleming’s career, Sragow makes a strong case that Fleming spent the most time of any of the other directors on the films and did much to shape both the Rhett-Scarlett relationship and Judy Garland’s performance as Dorothy. Fleming wasn’t a sensitive, coddling director; he could be brusque and short tempered. But, most tellingly, he was much admired by contemporaries, an adventurer who raced cars with Hawks and was a pilot in the early days of aviation.

      He fell in love with Ingrid Bergman during the filming of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”—he was 25 years her senior—and that love affair ultimate led to his final failure, aiding her dream to bring “Joan of Arc” to the screen. Is there anything worse than leaving the stage after delivering your least satisfying work?

     My favorite Fleming film is his sarcastic tribute to the idiocy of his own industry, “Bombshell.” Jean Harlow, in what may be her most complex role, plays movie siren Lola Burns (a barely disguised version of Clara Bow, an ex-lover of the director), who is in constant battle with the studio’s fast-talking, cartoonishly named publicity man Space Hanlan (Lee Tracy).

     The screwball comedy is filled with inside jokes and references to actual events: Lola is starring in “Red Dust” opposite an unseen Clark Gable, directed by Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien), an obvious caricature of the director himself. Lampooning the nonstop fake publicity created by the studios at the time—Space actually hires a stalker to claim he’s Lola’s husband—and the rampant insincerity of nearly everyone, “Bombshell” is both chaotic fun and biting satire.  

       Hollywood priorities are made crystal clear by Hanlan when he assures reporters that Lola can’t be having a baby because “it’s not in her contract.”

     Though hailed after his twin successes of 1939 (including best director Oscar for “GWTW”), he made just one more first-rate picture, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941), before his death 10 years later. During the 1940s, he started many projects that never made it to the screen, including a version of “The Yearling” that was to star Spencer Tracy.

     Sragow, in his valid attempts to boost Fleming, sometimes overrates some of his films, turning pedestrian pictures such as “Test Pilot” and “A Guy Named Joe” into forgotten masterpieces. But overall, the film critic succeeds in shining a spotlight on a great filmmaker who somehow got lost in the shuffle of time.   




      Even when the self-styled arrogance of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, a pair of veteran British TV comics playing characters based on themselves, grows tiresome, the stunning travelogue of Italian coastal cities and amazing meals the actors consume is well worth the price of admission. Not to mention, the impressions.

      This second “road” picture—the first was “The Trip” (2011), which took them to the English countryside—is again mostly about Coogan’s and Brydon’s dueling egos, as both savor every putdown of the other’s career successes and failures as they go from one incredible hotel to another. Like an old married couple, they never stop chirping at one another over the tiniest of things.  

       Despite all the bickering, what makes these two such entertaining dinner guests for viewers is their extraordinary ability to mimic the voices of well known actors, mostly United Kingdom natives. Their go-to  impressions are Michael Caine—they have his vocals down pat from “Alfie” to his most recent work—and Al Pacino, who they turn into a raving clown. But the highlight is their extensive dissection of Christian Bale’s and Tom Hardy’s incomprehensible line readings in “The Dark Knight Rises.”  With astonishing precision and endless assurances that they greatly admire both actors, Coogan and Brydon nail the ridiculously mannered speaking voices the “Dark Knight” actors brought to that film.

       Writer-director Michael Winterbottom, who first introduced these two as “characters” in his 2005 film about a location filming, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” keeps the movie from becoming a series of skits (it’s based on a British TV series with the pair) by introducing small little dramas (women, family, career) along the way.  

     It helps, greatly I would think, that you know the difference between Richard Burton and James Mason and understand James Bond film history, but with that caveat, you won’t see many films this year as funny as “The Trip to Italy,” and probably none as visual pleasing.   





   Leave it to Hollywood to take a Leo Tolstoy novel about a 19th Century Russian soldier who falls for a girl while visiting the Caucasus region and turn it into a comic-adventure starring John Gilbert.

      Gilbert plays Lukashika, a young man of leisure who has no interest in the war parties his village sends out as part of the long conflict between Russia and Turkey, instead content on showing off his horse riding skills and flirting with girls. Only when he’s publicly ridiculed by Maryana (French actress Renée Adorée), the town’s beauty, does he prove himself an able soldier and leader, living up to his father’s expectations.

      Then Prince Olenin Stieshneff arrives from Moscow with a message from the Tsar: peace has been reach with the Turks. That news spurs some of the movies best lines, including “Peace is for old women and sheep” and “We can’t stop fighting the Turks, we have nothing else to do.”

      But the Prince has something else on his mind. To forge an alliance between Moscow and the Cossacks, he is to marry a local girl. Immediately, he sets his sights on Maryana, who, as he tells his aide, “is the least unsightly of her tribe.”

    Any resemblance to Tolstoy or history is pure coincidental, but the film is a well-made late silent that satirizes the nobility’s “concern” for villagers, while paying homage to the uneducated masses whose loyalty to the crown enabled these long, pointless wars to continue.

    Director George Hill, a cinematographer, from 1913, before becoming a director, best known for two 1930 hits, “The Big House” and “Min and Bill,” is the credited director, though Clarence Brown also shot some of the film. Whoever is responsible, “The Cossacks” features the kind of fluid camera movement and  naturalistic acting that marked silent pictures at their maturity. 

    Gilbert was among the top stars of the time, with a string of hits including “The Big Parade” (1925), “La Bohéme” (1926), “Flesh and the Devil” (1926) and “Love” (1927), the last two with his off-screen lover, Greta Garbo.

     Adorée, who also played Gilbert’s love interest in “The Big Parade,” had a very short run of fame in the mid 1920s before she was forced to retire when she was stricken with tuberculosis, an illness that killed her a few years later at age 35.




     It makes perfect sense that Jim Jarmusch would direct a vampire movie. His characters, from those clueless layabouts in “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law” to the cold robotic people of “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and “The Limits of Control” have always been less than human, creatures of the night who speak in special code, a hipster Jarmuschian cool.

     His latest focuses on two eternal souls, symbolically named Adam and Eve.

Eve (Tilda Swinton, always a little less than human) is a brilliant, haughty woman ensconced in Algiers while Adam (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in the “Thor” films and Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris”—match that for range) is on the other side of the planet; he’s a hermit musician living in a dilapidated house in Detroit. The strength of the movie is the mini-worlds these depressed, aimless character, once lovers, inhabit and how they interact with their enablers.

     Eve relies on a sympathetic cafe owner and another vampire played by John Hurt, while Adam has Ian (Anton Yelchin), an eager sycophant willing to locate whatever strange request Adam makes.

    Yet the film goes nowhere, lacking in any recognizable plot or substantial dramatics. The most interesting thing they do is acquire their needed blood supply, not from sucking necks, but from blood banks and through bribery.

      At one point, while Eve is visiting Adam, her sister (a decadent L.A. party girl played by Mia Wasikowska) shows up and adds some unruliness into the proceedings, but not enough to save the movie. As much as I appreciate the somnolent mood—especially effective is the car trip they make through the sad, deserted streets of Detroit—Jarmusch’s stylish touches don’t add up to much without a story.

     Gorgeously shot by French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (“Swimming Pool,” “Arbitrage”) and well acted by Swinton and Hiddleston, “Only Lovers Left Alive” should have been something more than just another Jarmusch oddity.




     It’s been more than 30 years since this epic Western became shorthand for over-indulgent directors, financially out-of-control productions and box office disasters.

    A damning review by esteemed New York Times critic Vincent Canby sunk the much-anticipated film before it ever reached the rest of the country. Director Michael Cimino, whose “The Deer Hunter” won him best picture and best director Oscars in 1978, went from Hollywood’s latest boy wonder to pariah. In the three decades since the fiasco, he has directed just four features, none in the past 18 years. Few Oscar-winning filmmakers have faded into such deep obscurity as Cimino, who is 75.

    In 1982, when it finally reached theaters in the hinterlands, United Artists, the company that was all-but destroyed by the $30-million film’s failure, had sliced an hour out of its 3 hours and 39 minutes. Despite all the critical horror stories, I was pleasantly surprised by “Heaven’s Gate”; it was filled with beautiful composed and photographed praire scenes, memorable acting and contained a compelling story of the racist, land-grabbing history of late 19th Century America. It was no “Deer Hunter”—despite its flaws, a great film—but I found the shortened “Heaven’s Gate” to be among the better films of 1982.

    When I finally saw the uncut version of a few years later, it made me question what I had originally seen. And, watching it against at its full length recently confirmed its deserved spots on the list of movie disasters, along with “Cleopatra” (1963), “Howard the Duck” (1986) and “Cutthroat Island” (1995).

     The convoluted plot centers on the real-life Johnson County War, which took place in Wyoming in 1890, when government-backed cattle owners had to fight off the immigrant homesteaders who claimed the land the syndicate desired.

     Kris Kristofferson plays a lawman of some ilk—everything about this film is purposely vague—who returns to the area and takes up for the harassed farmers. He’s backed by a colorful but rather pointless character played by Jeff Bridges.

    Kristofferson’s James Averill shares a girlfriend (a miscast Isabelle Huppert as the local madam) with Nathan (Christopher Walken), a gunman employed by the land barons, who have decided to just kill all these pesky immigrants.

     Lingering off to the side is a cynical, perpetually drunk Irvine, played by John Hurt, who was a Harvard classmate of Averill.

     The film never properly explains how these Harvard grads end up in these dusty, far-from-anywhere environs or why everything moves at a snail’s pace. Even after the plan of the rich men is made public, everyone sits around waiting for the massacre to happen.

     What really kills the move are the interminable set pieces that needlessly go on long after their point has been made. The same criticism has been made about “The Deer Hunter,” but I would argue that the intense emotions of that film are augmented by the pacing. Not so in “Heaven’s Gate;” if anything, if my memory of the trimmed version is accurate, it seems to dissipate the energy level, exasperating one’s attempt to understand the character and follow the story.

   The opening scene at Averill’s Harvard graduation day goes on for at least 30 minutes without adding much to the upcoming plot. By the end, I was tired of these characters and had little interest in their fate. Only Vilmos Zsigmond should be proud to list the film on his resume; the exception cinematography should have earned him an Oscar nomination.

      Cimino made a somewhat interesting crime picture, “Year of the Dragon” (1985) that was notable for its excessive violence (it was scripted by Oliver Stone) and the moody performance of Mickey Rourke, who had a small role in “Heaven’s Gate.” More unremarkable were “The Sicilian” (1987), from a Mario Puzo novel, and “The “Sunchasers” (1996), starring Woody Harrelson as a kidnapped doctor. The director’s best film since “Heaven’s Gate” was a remake of the 1950s thriller “Desperate Hours” (1990), a great vehicle for acting, with Rourke in the Humphrey Bogart role and Anthony Hopkins in the role originated by Fredric March.

     Since 1996, his only credit is for directing a segment of a 2007 French documentary on filmmaking, “To Each His Own Cinema.”

     Thirty years ago, newspapers and magazine were filled with stories on how studios were going to pull back on big-budget films, that a conservative approach to movie making would be ruling the day. That lasted about a year and the coffers opened up again.

     No one’s looked back since. Movies cost so much now (averaging more than $70 million) that no one, outside the studio gates, even pays attention. Turns out, “Heaven’s Gate” was even successful as a warning sign.



HOWL  (2010)

     This impossible to classify homage to Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem isn’t much of a film, but it will be a pleasure to anyone who admires the screed that is “Howl” and the iconoclastic author.

     Shot as if it were a documentary, the picture only uses words from the poem, Ginsberg’s interviews and the transcripts of the obscenity trail that followed its publishing by City Light’s founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As Ginsberg, James Franco mostly speaks directly to the camera or during the recreation of the poet’s first public reading of the epic piece of social criticism in a San Francisco coffeehouse. The film also features stark, impressionistic animation that offers a visual interpretation of Ginsberg’s words.

      The only real drama is the trial, in which the state brought obscenity charges against Ferlinghetti, which is nearly comical almost 60 years later. David Strathairn plays the prosecuting attorney who, uncomfortably, reads passages from Ginsberg’s often explicit verse and asks university professors to explain their meaning. Jon Hamm gives a nicely measured performance as Ferlinghetti’s lawyer.

      Because the film has limited itself to only words from Ginsberg and the trial, scenes with actors portraying Ginsberg brothers-in-arms, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and his life partner Peter Orlovsky have no lines. It’s very odd; a bit too disciplined for its own good. The film is written and directed by well-known documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have made the gay-themed films, “The Celluloid Closet” and “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

      Franco is quite good in delivering “Howl” even though I was a bit taken aback when stanzas were skipped or the order changed to fit in the film’s narrative. If you’re making a film about a poem (which may be a first), at least give me the entire piece, start to finish. Yet, I’ll admit, the trims don’t diminish the power of Ginsberg’s message. This angry cry for inclusion and its unflinching profile of those living outside the restrictive box of mainstream society remains timeless.

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