Saturday, August 1, 2015

July 2015

Generally speaking, the past 60 years of European cinema have been about exploring the moral conflicts of modern man. At the same time, American cinema has focused on how that same man, unaware of any moral conflict, does whatever is necessary to defeat a one-dimensional bad guy.

So when an American filmmaker tackles the philosophical aspects of life in more than a superficial manner—as the Coen brothers and Terrence Malick often do—the results are always interesting even if the instinct to entertain dilutes the message.

Woody Allen, whose sensibilities have always leaned more toward European cinema than American (especially Hollywood filmmaking), has been integrating morals and philosophy into his films since “Love and Death” (1975). Most prominently, he’s sent characters into existential dilemmas in “Interiors,” “Stardust Memories,” “Another Woman,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.”

Now, in “Irrational Man,” the central character is a philosophy professor whose entire life is invested in exploring the meaning of life and his place in it. Abe Lucas (a properly distracted and disheveled Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at a small Eastern college with plenty of baggage. His reputation as a controversial author and thinker, along with being an alcoholic and ladies man precedes him, for better or worse.     

Two who are immediately drawn to this sullen, humorless, but very verbal professor are inquisitive student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone in her second Allen film) and Rita Richards (Parker Posey), another professor at Braylin, who desperately wants to change her life.

The film seems to chart a rather predictable course, with both women fixing their sites on the uninterested, near-suicidal Abe, until Jill and Abe overhear a woman discussing her child custody suit. The seemingly pointless event changes  Abe view of life overnight; he suddenly finds meaning in what had been a pointless, banal existence. 

For those who seek out Allen for comedy, they will find very little here. This is a serious exploration of the intellectual questions of what makes for a happy life and how other’s existence affects us. I can safely predict that this will be the only 2015 film in which characters will discuss Kierkegaard, Kant, Heidegger and Dostoyevsky.

What saves the film from suffocating pretention is the lived-in, thoughtful performances by the three principles. Actresses, whether it’s Allen’s writing or direction, have always come off better in his films, yet in “Irrational Man,” Phoenix is the real standout, giving a rich, believable performance as this unhappy intellectual. Both Posey and Stone are also quite good, creating women who are more than just conquests; each seek something different from Abe, ironically, the last person on Earth capable of helping them. 

As he approaches 80, later this year, Allen refuses to just sit back, dote on his children and accept lifetime achievement awards; he continues to seek answers to big questions, grasp at understanding what can’t be understood, re-examine theories about what it all means and offer some insight into how we live our irrational lives. 

At various times, I’ve labeled this film version of the landmark stage musical as plodding, painfully obvious and horribly acted. This best picture winner doesn’t even make my Top 10 for 1961.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t given it a fair shot, having seen only second-rate prints on old-style televisions. After watching a pristine print on my flat screen TV a few days ago, I need to revise my appraisal, slightly. It is a spectacular production with some of the most creative, superbly shot dance sequences in movie history.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, “West Side Story” borrows heavily from “Romeo and Juliet,” with the white gang (Jets) challenging the Puerto Rican gang (Sharks) to a rumble while a former Jet and the Shark leader’s sister have fallen in love. Between the singing and dancing, this clearly isn’t going to turn out well.

The direction of the dancers by choreographer and co-director Jerome Robbins, who conceived the idea for the socially conscience musical, remains breathtaking more than 40 years later, as cinematic as anything Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen or Gene Kelly created during the Golden Age of movie musical.  (Robert Wise directed the less-interesting dramatic scenes.)

Another aspect I underrated from previous viewings was the straight-ahead manner the story deals with racial issues. Well before Middle America was aware of, or had any sympathy for, civil rights movements, Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ play presents white gangs as the aggressors in the territorial turf fight with newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants. The idea that maybe it wasn’t the fault of the immigrants when a fight broke out was revolutionary in 1957, when the stage production debuted.

The film’s rich color (from cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp) and use of New York City streets as its backdrop make it worth watching even if you aren’t a fan of modern dance. I can only imagine the effect the look and energy of the film, especially in the first 30 minutes, had on audiences in 1961, not to mention Oscar voters.

The bad acting hasn’t improved; ironically the non-dancers are the worse. The only name in the cast, Natalie Wood, a Russian girl from San Francisco, tries her best to pass as Maria, the Puerto Rican Juliet, yet it’s hard to take her seriously, especially when her singing is dubbed (by Marni Nixon, who did the same for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”).

Even worse is Tony/Romeo, Richard Beymer, a wooden performer who never amounted to more than an OK TV actor. There is nothing about his character that makes you believe that the stunningly beautiful Maria would fall for him.

Supporting Oscars went to Rita Moreno, who gives the film’s only memorable performance as Maria’s best friend, and George Chakiris, more of a dancer than an actor playing the leader of the Sharks, who sports the worst makeup job you’ll ever see on an Oscar winner and his acting isn’t much better.

But if there’s a movie where poor acting is secondary to the overall production, it’s “West Side Story,” and I haven’t even mentioned the music. Considered by many as the greatest Broadway score, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the songs, including classics like “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria” and “Somewhere” (the most heartbreaking song about impossible love ever written), and the orchestration behind the dancing remain a living soundtrack to inner-city life of that era. And then there are the innovative opening and, etched as graffiti, closing credits by Saul Bass (“Vertigo,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Casino”).

Despite its many flaws, I found much more to appreciate about “West Side Story” during this viewing. Also, in the past 20 years, the film versions of many great Broadway shows (“Chicago,” “Dreamgirls,” “Rent,” “Jersey Boys”) have stumbled on their way to the big screen, making the accomplishment of “West Side Story” more impressive.  

I’m glad I waited to see this movie until all the hurly burly surrounding it cleared. After reading way too much about it (mostly negative) I was surprised to find a rather smart satire on TV journalism, American intelligent agencies and a certain evil dictator.

If you can get past the sophomoric sex jokes and embarrassing racist and homophobic asides, as one has come to expect from Seth Rogan-Evan Goldberg-James Franco cabal, this movie is more amusing and clever than most of the recent comedies aimed at the under-25 crowd. And you have to give these goofball filmmakers credit: They could have played it safe and made up some Third World country and a fictional cartoonish dictator, but they went for the kill (so to speak), featuring a character named Kim Jong-un and dealing with real North Korean issues. 

If you slept through 2014, the plot sends celebrity interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco nails the unctuous, talentless talking heads who dominate early evening television) to North Korean to interview the crazy Kim because the Exulted Leader is a big fan of Skylark. But as they nail down the arrangements, the FBI intervenes, enlisting Skylark and his trusted producer Aaron (Rogan) to assassinate Kim while they are there.

Randall Park (the father on TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) is very funny as Kim, playing him a lonely little boy who just wants to have fun…and loves Katy Perry. Skylark, after hanging out with Kim for a few days, develops a man crush, making the assassination plan more difficult.

Popular comedies have always been a bit messy, stupid and crude; what’s changed is how far you have to go to raise eyebrows. “The Interview,” shamelessly, is all of the above yet it is smart enough to focus on the relationships (Skylark and Aaron, Aaron and a sexy Korean attaché, Skylark and Kim) to keep one foot (or maybe just a toe) planted in reality.

As the stars of the 1970s and ‘80s go gray, filmmakers are utilizing their name recognition in a growing roster of movies that do little else than make fun of aging.

Among the recent films that revive the clueless senior citizen characters that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau trademarked (“Grumpy Old Men”) include “The Bucket List,” with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman; “Second Hand Lions,” with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine; “An Unfinished Life,” with Freeman and Robert Redford; “Grudge Match,” with Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone; “Stand Up Guys,” with Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken; and the upcoming remake of “Going in Style” with Arkin, Freeman and Caine.

“Last Vegas” doesn’t even try to be much of a movie, just offers up four first-rate actors, all with an Oscar on their shelves, who seem to be having fun hanging out with one another. Michael Douglas (69 at the time), Kevin Kline (66) De Niro (70) and Freeman (76) play childhood friends from the Brooklyn who have remained close through the years. Now Douglas’ Billy, a lifelong bachelor, has asked a woman half his age to become his wife and his three friends converge on Las Vegas to celebrate. It quickly becomes a quartet when they are entranced by a lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen, a youngster at 60) at Binion’s, the legendary downtown casino.

The group’s plans for a low-keyed, Fremont Street weekend are hijacked when Archie (Freeman) bets his retirement fund at the craps table…and wins big. Suddenly, they are upgraded to an Aria suite, party at a velvet rope nightclub and are surrounded by voluptuous young ladies. The film implies that if you are rich enough, Vegas hotels offer free pimping services—but, hey, it’s a comedy, right?

The Dan Fogelman script (see “Danny Collins” below for his other offense) offers a weak attempt at conflict with a lingering grudge held by De Niro against Douglas, but mostly the film paints a bleak view of retirement in which a wild weekend in Vegas is about all that stands between them and jumping off a bridge. But the worst of it comes when the film turns sentimental and everyone’s problems are solved.

Also bothersome was the fact that not a word (that I caught) was said about what these guys did for their entire lives; there was barley any mention of families and not a word on their professions. I guess that would have taken any from another “where are my reading glasses” moment. 

I would have much rather have seen these guys playing themselves or version of the real thing. Four old actors who can’t find worthwhile roles are reduced to playing pity-worthy retirees getting together in Vegas to lament the sad state of American movies.

What really scares me is that in a few years, will Clooney, Pitt, Penn and Denzel be in “Last Vegas 2”? I’m getting too old for this…

TED 2 (2015)
It’s easy to be offended by this goofball sequel but much harder not to laugh out loud, often. This film, much like the better-made original, holds nothing back as its racist, sexist, excessively profane, supremely stupid and usually high protagonists show that modern-day Neanderthals are alive and oblivious to 20 years of political correctness.

I’m not sure what makes the over-the-top dialogue less offensive than the typical Judd Apatow comedy, but it doesn’t hurt that most of the more shocking lines are uttered by a cute little teddy bear. Even Ted’s best bud John (Mark Wahlberg), an unthreatening, soft-spoken stoner, comes off as an innocent even as they break into a celebrity’s home to steal a semen sample. (Ted and his white-trash bride, fellow grocery store clerk Tami-Lynn, want to have a baby and the stuffed bear lacks the proper anatomy.) Somehow writer, director and vocal star of this franchise, Seth MacFarlane, has made the film so utterly ridiculous that he can pretty much get away with saying anything.

The plot, for what that’s worth, involves Ted trying to legally prove he’s a free human rather than a possession. But what it’s really about is smoking dope and talking about sex. When they first meet their lawyer (a very game Amanda Seyfried), she is smoking from a bong under her desk and later, when they come across a large field of marijuana plants, they act as if they’ve arrived at Shangri-La.

The antics of Ted and John are supplemented by a handful of very amusing bits by familiar faces, plus the return from the first film of cult actor Sam Jones, Patrick Warburton and Giovanni Ribisi as the psychotic Donny. MacFarland saves his best work for last, when he sets the wildly ridiculous climatic action sequence in the perfect world for this film—a Comic Con. He stuffs the screen with the crazies of those events while his laughably stupid plot plays out.

The “Ted” films are what Mel Brooks would be making if he was 50 years younger and collaborated with Cheech and Chong. No, they aren’t quite “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein”—subtlety, it seems, has been genetically removed from comedy—but the films go to uncomfortable lengths and dip incredibly low for what remains a precious commodity: a good laugh.  

This is one of the most surprising films I’ve ever seen: a seemingly typical 1950s scientist-encounters-aliens B-movie that suddenly turns into a story of worldwide spiritual awakening.

Usually, when an American film deals with religious devotion, it focuses on an individual who is helped through a crisis by a religious figure or their faith. Other than the Biblical epics of the 1950s and the occasional bio-pics of Jesus, big-picture spirituality is rarely dealt with on film, especially in a sci-fi flick.

That’s why I was taken aback when faith becomes so central to “Red Planet Mars.” Peter Graves (the future Mr. Phelps of “Mission: Impossible”) plays Chris Cronyn, who, with his wife, has found a way to communicate with someone (it’s never clear who) on Mars. I was never sure how they knew that they were reaching Mars (as opposed to the Moon or Venus or Newark), yet soon Mars starts messaging back, responding to questions about power sources (Really? That’s what we want to know?) Mars communicates that they no longer need coal and have moved past fossil fuel.

Interesting, I guess, but in the film, coal mines all over the world close down, as do steel mills and soon world-wide industry has collapsed and there are runs on the banks. It’s as if a voice from space tells us that Facebook is outdated and the next day Zuckerberg declares bankruptcy. 

The U.S. government becomes involved and is just about to shut down Cronyn’s lab (by the president, who sits in an office not worthy of a middle manager at an insurance agency) when they receive a Mars message urging earthlings to following the words of Jesus. Suddenly, because of this anonymous message, the entire world hits their knees; within days the Soviet Union collapses and the Russian Orthodox Church takes the reins of Russia. This seems to be the main point of the film: if we can just bring the people of the Soviet Union back to Jesus, the evil politburos of Communism will crumble. 

At one point, the film presents the possibility that the entire thing is a hoax (which would have made the film much more interesting) but the film leaves that angle in doubt.

Actually, more interesting than the film is its director, Harry Horner. As both an actor and a production assistant for the famed Max Reinhardt Theater Company in Germany, he traveled to America on its 1936 tour and started working on Broadway as a designer and actor. In Hollywood, he worked with the legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies.

Horner eventually scored an Academy Award for his design work on “The Heiress” (1949), leading to a chance to direct this film and the much better “Beware, My Lovely” (1952), with Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. He then spent the next 30 years as a well-respective designer, creating the look for such films as “Separate Tables,” “The Hustler” (his second Oscar), “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” and, in 1980, the remake of “The Jazz Singer.”

His better-known son, James Horner, won two Oscars for his work as a composer of the music for “Titanic” and was nominated another six times, died in a plane crash in June.

Like so many movies, this Al Pacino vehicle starts out with a kernel of good idea and an intriguing character. Then the film starts: Not only does writer-director Dan Fogelman (he wrote the aforementioned “Last Vegas”) rehash plot devices that have been clichés for half a century, but he doesn’t even attempt to do something creative with these shopworn devices.

Danny (Pacino, as a 70 year old trying to look 60) is a one-hit wonder pop star from the 1970s who is still touring the world, living high (in all ways) on his 40-year-old success. Then, at a birthday party, his longtime manager Frank (the ageless Christopher Plummer) presents him with a treasure from his past—a letter from John Lennon, which he never received, urging the young Danny Collins to ignore the trappings of fame and focus on songwriting.

Seeing this long-lost letter flips a switch in Danny and overnight he resolves to put aside his fame (cancelling his tour, leaving his young fiancé and gaudy Los Angeles mansion) to concentrate on his songwriting.

Typical of bad Hollywood movies, instead of focusing on Collins’ inner struggles as he puts aside his hedonistic life and tries to recapture the creativity of his youth, the script introduces another aspect of his bad behavior legacy. He has a son he’s never seen and decides to fix that too. Tom (Bobby Cannavale in a thankless role) is a working stiff with a wonderful wife (Jennifer Garner) and a young daughter with ADHD. Yes, granddad sweeps in—even though his son hates him—to make everything right.

Just as I was settling in for a film about a washed up singer attempting to re-channel his one-time talent (praised by the exulted Mr. Lennon), I discovered it’s actually a Lifetime movie with bad language.  

Just as ridiculous, Danny gets a room at a Holiday Inn near his son’s home (no mention is made as to how he located them) and has a grand piano moved into the standard-sized hotel room. This is a guy who throws money around like he’s never worked a day in his life yet he doesn’t rent a house or reserve a suite of rooms. (While he’s staying at the local hotel, he allows his ex-fiancé and her lover to stay in his LA house!).

The reason to put Danny in this small hotel, movie-plot wise, is so he can meet no-nonsense manager Mary (Annette Bening) and attempt to woo her with a running banter that never feels earned. The only trope Fogelman didn’t pull out of his hat was having her get all dolled up and have a dumbstruck Danny take her in his arms. (Seeing Bening in this role made me wonder if the film was written to lure Warren Beatty out of retirement—it would have suited him.)

Not to pile on, but for all the talk about Collins as this beloved singer, he sings—if one is willing to greatly expanding the definition of “singing”—a single song, the truly awful “Hey, Baby Doll,” when he’s shown in concert. While he spends hours at his piano “composing,” he manages to sing a single verse of the new song.

If you’re going to make a film about a pop star, at least find someone who can carry a tune or appears comfortable on stage. Pacino looks no more at home on stage as someone called out of the audience to sing at a company party, nothing like a veteran of four decades of performing would be. Yet the actor does seem to be enjoying himself in the role, and is effortlessly charming. That and the fine work by Plummer and Bening save the film from being a complete dud.

I still think the basic story has possibilities (it’s based on a real incident in which the ex-Beatle wrote to folk singer Steve Tilston, who never received it until decades later)—is it too soon for a remake?