Tuesday, December 6, 2016

October-November 2016


      As much as I love the cinema of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, it can’t be denied that nearly the entire canon of classic Hollywood filmmaking is built on fairy-tale lies: Love doesn’t conquer all, happiness isn’t always attainable, life isn’t always fair and sometimes problems just don’t go away.
      By the late ‘60s and into the 1970s, writer-directors took American films in a new direction, seeking to portray life in all its heartbreak, frustrations, compromises, injustices. But, like everything else in our entertainment culture, it was a trend that passed quickly.
       That’s why when a movie that cuts to the heart of emotional truthfulness arrives, almost like an alien into the fantasy factory of Twenty-First century cinema, it’s worth celebrating.
      Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film, only his second since his impressive 2000 debut, “You Can Count on Me,” offers a novelistic examination of the ways we deal with tragedy; an uncompromising study of a man who struggles to find a reason to keep going as life keeps piling on bad news, wrecking havoc on his soul.
      Casey Affleck, in the performance of his career, plays Lee Chandler, a temperamental loner who works as a maintenance man at a Boston apartment complex. His dead end existence is upended when his older brother, who lived with a heart condition, dies, drawing Lee back to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts, and the memories that still haunt him.
      The strength of the movie is the deliberate, piece-meal way that Lonergan metes out Lee’s back story, the events that made him the man he is today. Those slices of the past are seamlessly edited (Jennifer Lame) into the present, amplifying Lee’s relationship with his late brother’s exasperating teenage son (a spot-on Lucas Hedges), who insist on living as if nothing has happened.
      The sea plays a crucial role in the lives of these people as Lee’s brother earned his living with his fishing boat and the son insists on maintain it. Lee’s connection to the sea, his brother and Manchester itself all collide as he endures his burdens and faces decisions he’s not ready to make.
     Affleck, a standout in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and “Gone Baby Gone,” both from 2007, finds the perfect balance of determination and exhaustion in Lee as he just barely sustains his sanity as he copes with his past and his future. Through the insightful writing and Affleck’s measured performance, Lee evolves in a very deliberate way, almost unnoticeably, resembling real life, not most movie characters.
       Two women also play crucial roles in this story: the late brother’s alcoholic ex-wife (Gretchen Mol), long estranged from the family and now born-again; and Lee’s ex-wife (the extraordinary Michelle Williams), who, with more resilience than Lee, has found a path to a new life for herself.
    Near the end of the film, Lee and his ex run into each other in Manchester (she’s with her newborn). Their conversation, as she tries to reconnect with him, bristles with raw emotions rarely seen on screen today; his inarticulate attempts to push her away, her heartbreaking realization that she’ll never be able to reach him, made me feel like an intruder, as their mutual sadness resonated with gut-wrenching reality.
    While the film is superbly made and photographed, it is more of a literary achievement than cinematic. Like one of John Updike novels of a tragic everyman or the brothers and lovers that populate Sam Shepard’s plays, “Manchester by the Sea” gives voice to the irreconcilable nature of grief and the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of fate, cruelly delivered.

ARRIVAL (2016)
    If there’s a theme emerging from this new century of filmmaking, it’s that Earthlings should be paying more attention to what’s going on beyond our atmosphere.
    Among the most ambitious post-millennium films include “Melancholia,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian” and now “Arrival,” all thoughtful explorations of extra-terrestrial effects on humans. The latest entry has elements of “Interstellar” along with a bit of classic sci-fi, tapping into “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and all those ‘50s meet-the-aliens films.
     When a dozen oblong-shaped transports arrive at various points around the globe, the military pulls Louise Banks (the protean Amy Adams), a world-renowned linguist, into service to decipher the alien’s language. In an otherwise extremely measured film, the opening plays a bit too much like a Roland Emmerich popcorn space flick. But it quickly becomes clear “Arrival” is much, much more.
     The influence of Steve Spielberg’s epic is obvious when the film arrives at the compound that has rapidly been assembled around the Montana site of the alien ship. But 40 years of technology, in real life and on the screen, makes the science aspects of this film look and sound as if it’s part of a documentary; more convincing and, because of that, more ominous.
      The sense of impending doom among all the military and intelligence collective never wanes. Like in “Close Encounters,” this group of most anonymous experts (led by the always excellent Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg) displays the utmost in professionalism, but can’t offer the inspired heart that the film’s civilian protagonist brings.
      One of the film’s strengths comes from treating the audience as knowledgeable insiders rather than an open-mouth, frightened mass. By the time Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) arrive for “the show,” as they call it, contact has already been made with the visitors, here and around the world. It’s up to Louise to find out why they’ve come.  
     Adams, an actress who has been superb in so many films in her still young career that she’s easy to overlook, gives an extraordinary performance as the low-keyed college professor who finds herself in the middle of the defining event of mankind. The actress dominates virtually every frame of this picture; it’s a performance so internalized, solemn and thoughtful that a close-up of her awaking speaks like a page of dialogue. Not only does she serve as the conduit between “them” and “us,” but she ends up taking on an almost mystic aura.
      Director Denis Villeneuve’s previous work, including the kidnapping film “Prisoners” (2013) and “Sicario” (2015), about border drug enforcement, were briskly told, intense thrillers, but do not anticipate the complex structure and thoughtful introspection he brings to “Arrival.” Here he’s clearly influenced by recent Terrence Malick pictures: Louise, much like a Malick character, finds a new language to understand her world; while the director, though not quite to the extent of Malick, doesn’t do much explaining, leaving viewers to find the message.
     Each encounter with the aliens has a breathless power to it, while the detail devoted to decoding their inkblot–like written language offers the film’s central message: How we communicated determines everything.
      Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who has mostly written supernatural-horror films, expanding on a short story by Ted Chiang, take the film way beyond the typical “aliens arrive” scenario, daring to dig deep into what it means to be human and, like “Interstellar,” unleashing the whole time-space continuum mindbender.
    The director wisely keeps the action and the actors at an unusually low-energy level, allowing the last act, devoid of the usual hysteria, work in a subtle, mysterious manner, making you wonder: “What just happened?”
     Yet maybe the film’s most poignant message is that someone out of the classroom, a lonely intellectual, not some fantasy superhero, will save the world. 

KATYN (2007)
      Scant attention was paid in this country when, in October, one of the most important filmmakers of the second half of the 20th Century, Andrzej Wajda, died at age 90.
     Though his most memorable films were made from the late 1950s to the early ‘80s, this champion of the Polish people never stopped working; just three years ago directed a biopic of the towering figure of recent Polish history, Lech Walesa.
    Wajda quickly moved into the first-rank of European filmmakers with his trilogy of pictures depicting the oppressive life of Poles during World War II, starting with “A Generation”(1954) and followed by “Kanal” (1956), an intense, heartbreaking story of resistance fighters, and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), which looks at the immediate aftermath of the war.  “Kanal” won a special jury prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.
    Working despite the iron rule of the Soviets, Wajda captured the early rumblings of the Solidarity movement in his “Man of Marble” (1976) and “Man of Iron” (1980), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. In the early 1980s, he also made a couple of high-profile films in France, “A Love in Germany” (1983), starring the great German actress Hanna Schygulla as a woman who has an affair with a Polish POW, and “Danton” (1983), an epic telling of the legendary French revolutionary, played by Gerard Depardieu. The film won the Cesar award as the best French film of the year.
     Though he continued to direct, Wajda spent much of the late 1980s and 1990s as part of the new independent government of Poland.
     Earning Wajda an Oscar nomination for best foreign film in 2007, “Katyn” chronicles, though various characters, one of the most horrific tragedies in the sad history of Poland during World War II. Caught between the invading Germans and “friendly” Soviet troops, Police officers and enlisted men are murdered and tossed in a community grave by the Russian military.
     After the war, when the mass grave is uncovered, the Soviets (now in charge of the country) blame the Germans, but many of the families of the victims continue to push for the truth.
    It’s an episodical film that I found some difficulty keeping track of the characters, but there are some beautiful staged scenes that show the director retained his filmmaking prowess into his 80s. The film concludes with a reenactment of the officers’ final journey to their death, a sequence as powerful as anything Wajda has put on film.
    In receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscar ceremony in 2001, Wajda put his career in perspective: “I accept this great honor not as a personal tribute, but as a tribute to all of Polish cinema.” Few great filmmakers are so closely associated with the fate of their nation as Wajda was.  
    “Afterimage,” his final film, opening for Oscar consideration this month, chronicles the life of a famous Polish painter, who lived under post-WWII Communist oppression. Fitting, as this is the theme of Wajda life’s work.

     While it’s not the groundbreaking film that early commentaries promised, this response, over 100 years later, to D.W. Griffith’s racist silent epic, tells a powerful story of a slave who led a short-lived revolt in 1831.
     There’s nothing subtle about this film, but then the institution of slavery was hardly subtle. For director, star and co-writer Nathan Parker, a little-known supporting player over the past decade, the movie provides an auspicious entry into the world of major Hollywood filmmaking.
     This story of Nat Turner begins when he’s given the chance to study the Bible by the lady (Penelope Ann Miller) of the plantation where he serves as a slave. The precocious child takes to reading and preaching, soon leading service for other slaves.
     Life seems to remain relatively unchanged for Turner as he becomes an adult and his white boyhood friend (Armie Hammer) becomes master of the Virginia cotton ranch. At least until Hammer’s Turner (remember, slaves were given their master’s name) decides to make some extra money off of Nat’s preaching skills, “renting” him out to other slave owners. Finally, Nat realizes that his words telling of a better life in God’s kingdom are actually aiding the subservience of the African-Americans.
      This awakening, along with the rape of both his wife and his best friend’s wife by whites who face no consequences, spurs him to revolt, a move as hopeless as it is admirable and brave.
   The thin story isn’t aided by either the script or the supporting performance. No character other than Turner is written as a three-dimension character, a fault of both the underwritten script and the unimpressive supporting cast. I kept waiting for a memorable scene that didn’t include Turner to provide some depth to the story, but that never happened.
     But Parker is excellent as Turner, a complex character who is caught between serving his god and those suffering around him. Turner, as imagined by Parker, never doubts his decision to take up arms.
     But not addressed by the film is the aftermath of the short-lived revolt. After he was captured, tried and hanged, the education of both free blacks and slaves was banned across the South along with other restrictions.
     This film was once considered a prime candidate for multiple Academy Award nominations, but fell out of favor not because of what’s on the screen but because of Parker was charged, and acquitted, with rape when he was in college.
     Should that affect my opinion of this film? I don’t think so; while I am a doubter of the fairness of our criminal justice system, especially when it deals with college sexual assaults, how can I second guess a case I know nothing about?
    What I do question are the production companies that put money into this Parker project from the start. Did they think his past would be ignored? Not surprisingly, the film opened and closed within a few weeks. That’s a shame, since this is a story that all Americans should know about. But, clearly, many questioned whether Parker was the right person to tell it.

    I usually applaud any film that dares to be complex and densely plotted, but this sporadically entertaining story of a man suffering from a variety of social disorders plays like six different version of the same life. Watching it was like channel surfing from movie to movie.
     Ben Affleck, who appears in at least four films this year, portrays Christian Wolff (at least that’s one of his names), a mysterious loner but brilliant accountant who splits his time between dull, run-of-the-mill jobs and working for a series of international criminal organizations, where the big bucks, but major risks, are found. One day he’s offering tax advice to local farmers, the next he’s helping an arms dealer look legitimate.
     His mental condition is amplified by a stressful upbringing, including his mother deserting the family and an intimidating, rigid father who pushes Christian and his brother to become hand-to-hand combat experts.
      Things get confusing when he takes a job for a large corporation in Chicago after the firm’s accountant (a very shaky Anna Kendrick) questions the company’s books. Turns out, the company (and its CEO played by John Lithgow) didn’t really want to know what happened to their money, at least I don’t think so. Quickly, Wolff and Kendrick’s Dana are on the run and the lives of everyone they know are in danger.
    There’s also a federal investigator, Ray King, (J.K. Simmons), who has been after Wolff for years. Needlessly, King blackmails a Treasury Department analysis to help him unearth Wolff, but then seems to know everything she discovers. Does that sound idiotic? It is. The film would have improved greatly by eliminating these characters.
     The film also tries to address the treatment and care of people with autism, adds a bit of romance and then ends it all with an over-the-top shoot’ em up, more suitable for a Nicolas Cage straight-to-DVD movie. At its best, the film focuses on Wolff’s “Beautiful Mind”-like genius for numbers, but director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”) and writer Bill Dubuque keep trying to tell the wrong story.
     It’s almost a “Batman”-like role (see below) for Affleck in that he’s a humble, isolated professional by day and a justice-serving killing-machine by night.
     In parts, the film is a superbly made, sharply written profile of an outsider whose single-purpose life frees him from all moral and ethical restraints. Or maybe I’m just projecting what it could have been. 

    After a half dozen films, starring an endless number of actors who have wedged themselves into these iconic costumes, we’ve reached some kind of nadir. This pointless, laughably serious superhero battle royale makes the old George Reeves television series look like Shakespeare.
    Bruce Wayne nee Batman (a joyless Ben Affleck) joins a growing chorus in Gotham (or its is Metropolis?) that blame Superman (a more engaged Henry Cavill) for opening up the planet to extra-terrestrial evil, at the same time that Batman takes heat for his one-man justice system. Of course, Lex Luthor (a weasel-like Jesse Eisenberg) takes advantage of the plunging popularity of these two celebs to plan some mischief of his own.
    Essentially, this is a continuation of the reboot of Superman, “Man of Steel” (2013), with Batman serving as a confused supporting player. From “Man of Steel,” Amy Adams returns as Lois, Larry Fishburne as Daily Planet editor (and Superman hater) Perry White and Diane Lane as Clark Kent’s mother back in Kansas. Zack Snyder, who directed the compelling 2013 reboot, remains behind the camera for this sequel, trying, it seems to out noir Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”
    I can’t image fans of either of these comic book legends, the core audience for the film, being very happy with the way this story plays out. For the rest of humanity, it’s a very long 151 minutes.

    I’m not going to write more than a few sentences on this colossal waste of my time. What bothers me most about this loud, pretentiously serious “Avengers” installment is that the popularity of these cartoons-on-steroids seems to be growing exponentially. 
     All I want is this unpleasant comic-book hero trend to end so these actors can get back to the business of making movies about life.
     “Civil War” basically has the same plot of “Superman v. Batman”: blowback from superheroes doing their job. I will admit that it’s invented that after all these years, Marvel and DC are addressing the death and destruction caused in the wake of their heroes battling the bad guys.

      Here they mostly battle each other and it comes off as senseless as the Superman-Batman bout. And is it just me, or is Capt. America (Chris Evans) the dullest dude to ever be granted superpower status? 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

September 2016

SULLY (2016)
    While the landing on the Hudson River of a passenger jet just after take-off from LaGuardia Airport after a bird encounter disabled both engines makes for an incredibly dramatic moment, the event hardly offers enough grist for a feature-length film.
    Yet in the hands of master storyteller Clint Eastwood and the dependable, spot-on acting of Tom Hanks—both Hollywood royalty if that still exists—a fine piece of historical drama, a tribute to American professionalism and a jab at over-reaching government oversight has been crafted, with an essential assist from the startlingly convincing special effects.
    The film skips around the incident of Jan. 15, 2009, showing the workaday mentality of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger before and after the incident, eventually flawlessly recreating the audacious landing on the river and the Coast Guard rescue of the 155 passengers and crew.
    The only drama of the film centers on the FAA post-incident investigation that after studying simulated recreations, doubts the decision of Sully and his copilot (played by Aaron Eckhart) to scuttle suggestions to return to LaGuardia or land at the nearby Teterboro Airport. While the world is hailing Sully as an authentic American hero, the FAA officials, at least as depicted here, are looking to scapegoat Sully.
      Even weaker is the script’s (by Tom Komarnicki, based on Sully’s book) attempts to show Sully’s relationship with his wife (Laura Linney), which comes off as forced and pointless.
      Trimmed down to its essentials, this could have been an amazing 60-minute film; but that wouldn’t have given Hanks time to stretch the character out, reveal his doubts in the aftermath and show Sully as a real human. Hanks makes him even more heroic for his humble questioning of himself even as he offers a convincing defense of his decisions.
     In many ways, this is a better performance than Hanks’ recent, showier roles, including “Captain Phillips” and “Bridge of Spies.” There is a cleansing of pretense that occurs with actors when they reach their mid 50s or early 60s that can open a whole new door of performances. At 60, Hanks may be about to reach a level beyond his earlier peak in the 1990s in films dramas as “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan” and comedies “You’ve Got Mail” and the “Toy Story” movies.
       As for Eastwood, it grows more difficult each year to come up with stronger adjective to describe his post-65 career, now covering 20 years of some of the best filmmaking anyone has ever done. While “Sully” isn’t a great film, coming right after the equally impressive “American Sniper” (2014) erased any doubts I had after the disappointment of “Hereafter,” “J. Edgar” and “The Jersey Boys,” about this director’s continued relevance.
    No one in the history of American film has ever been entrusted with so many high-profile, major studio films at this stage of life. At 86, Eastwood has more leverage in Hollywood than almost any director in town.
      As much as I may find his political and social commentary offensively dated, Eastwood, with six great films (half in the past 13 years) and another 10 first-rate efforts, continues to climb the pantheon of filmmakers, more than 55 years after he became a television star on “Rawhide.”

    Set in the early 1950s, with the Korean War and the draft looming in the background, this adaptation of a slim, but memorable Philip Roth novel explores the disastrous, often ironic, results of choices by a young man, ones that seem perfectly reasonable at the time.
    Logan Lerman, who starred as an anxious high school freshman in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), one of most insightful coming-of-age film ever made, has matriculated to college here, playing Marcus Messner, who escapes the stifling life in New Jersey under the thumb of his butcher father only to find equal frustration at the white-bred Winesburg University in Ohio.  
     Even a date with blonde dream-girl Olivia (Sarah Gadon, who manages to be both vulnerable and icy) leaves him confused, but it’s that relationship, along with his hatred of the requirement to attend chapel each week, that seals his fate.
    At the center of this exceptional film is a long scene between Marcus and his pompous dean (a memorable Tracy Letts) as they discuss what the dean sees as Marcus’ refusal to acclimate to life at Winesburg (starting with the dean’s reference to Marcus’ father as a “kosher” butcher).
     Writer-director James Schamus, best known as Ang Lee’s producer on such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain,” achieves a rare feat: He brings a thoughtful piece of literature to the screen without losing the author’s purpose and vision. Schamus doesn’t give in to recent Hollywood conventions—there’s no big-name in the cast, the tone remains far from upbeat and the protagonist is a contentious loner (there are similarities to “The Graduate”).    
     While Lerman dominates the film, expertly portraying the conflicting desires of an ambitious, yet tragically naive youth, Linda Emond, a veteran character actress in films, on TV and the stage, deserves Oscar consideration for her searing performance as the boy’s mother, whose visit to the campus changes everyone’s world.
    Roth, one of the most acclaimed novelists of the post-World War II era, has suddenly become popular among filmmakers, with five of his books adapted for the big screen in the past 15 years.
     Before “Indignation” were the less successful “The Human Stain,” “Elegy” and “The Humbling;” in a few weeks, “American Pastoral,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1997 about ‘60s radicalism, will open in theaters, directed by and starring Ewan McGregor.

    There is something astonishing about watching a motion picture (in this case re-watching) that was made 100 years ago. While in comparison to other arts, the cinema remains an infant, or maybe a tween, now we have more than a century of works to consider.
     This D.W. Griffith epic, it clocks in at three hours (but, being a silent seems twice as long), is the most important picture of 1916, considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films of the silent era. It was the only pre-1920 film to make the prestigious Sight and Sound list of greatest films (No. 93) in 2012.
     The movie is divided into four separate stories, constantly shifting back and forth between each, all telling a tragic tale of human intolerance through the ages. The film, for all its faults, remains one of the most ambitious projects in American film history, possibly surpassed only by Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” David O. Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind” and Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
    Of the chapters—ancient Babylon armies fighting off invaders, the story of Jesus Christ, 16th Century France and a modern story of social reformers—the contemporary story of a laid off worker who finds himself mixed up in crime and the tragedy that brings to his young bride (a brilliant Mae Marsh) is most effective.
      While the Babylon sequences, with their mammoth, surreal sets and thousands of extra, remain eye popping, it’s more pageant than story, much like the Biblical tale. Surprisingly, all these stories lack of the visual storytelling that made this pioneering director so important. Take away the inter-titles and I would have been clueless as to what was going on.
    Just a year earlier, Griffith’s most infamous picture was released. “The Birth of a Nation” remains the most controversial movie ever made: reviled for Griffith’s depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes saving the South from the violence and corrupting effect of freed slaves on the innocent white citizens; admired for advancing the art of filmmaking, utilizing the tools of visual storytelling as no movie before it had and, also maybe a first, striving for some kind of artistic greatness.
      In many ways, Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” encapsulate the history of this country; brilliant innovation and audacious ambition flourishing side by side with hatred and fear. Is it any wonder his next major picture was titled “Intolerance”?
     At this point, watching this 100-year-old movie is too much like a homework assignment. Unquestionable, Griffith was exploring the kind of serious themes few moviemakers of the time were touching (but would in the next decade) and displaying filmmaking acumen years ahead of others, yet “Intolerance” is as plodding as “Birth of a Nation” is racist.      

     Updating the Jesse James legend (the working poor vs. the bankers), this taunt, superbly acted modern Western manages to be both an entertaining crime picture and a thoughtful character study.
      And just in case that’s not enough, the film features another priceless turn by Jeff Bridges, this time as a been-there, done-that lawman on the verge of retirement, a more slovenly, talkative version of Tommy Lee Jones’ character from “No Country for Old Men.”
      Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard are your classic good guy-bad guy brothers who unite to save the farm, literally, as they are close to losing their late mother’s seemingly worthless home and land to back taxes.
      Their solution involves a series of low-key bank robberies, all branches of a small West Texas bank that has no working closed circuit cameras.
      The robberies draw the attention of a pair of Texas Rangers, Marcus (Bridges) and his partner (and butt of his racist jokes) Alberto (Gil Birmingham). While the Howard brothers are at each other’s throats as their plan seems to fall apart—mostly from Tanner unpredictability—the Rangers bicker back and forth like an old married couple.
      British director David Mackenzie (best known for “Young Adam”) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who wrote last year’s fast-paced drug agent film “Sicario”) display a sharp ear for the way men communication and the manner they deal with one another. There is nothing “Hollywood” about this picture. 
      Pine, who has made Capt. Kirk his signature role, is a solid actor with an intense, world-worn look, which fits perfectly into this film, while Foster has quietly become one of the best supporting players in the business. Before this he shined in the fine remake of “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), “The Messenger” (2009) and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013).
       I’ve spend many an entry in this blog describing the masterful acting of Bridges. While this role won’t bring him any awards, it is another of the countless soulful performances he’s delivered in the past 45 years. With so many of the important actors of the 1970s retired or wasting time in throwaway comedies, it’s a pleasure that Bridges continues to find substantial roles. He makes any film he’s in that much better.

MAX ROSE (2016)
     I just couldn’t resist. Jerry Lewis, a 90-year-old showbiz legend, plays a retired jazz pianist who must deal with the loss of his wife of 65 years. Could this be the final, career-topping performance for this irascible star who burst on the national stage as a nightclub sensation with singer-comedian Dean Martin in 1946? It seemed to be the perfect role, like his kidnapped TV comic in “The King of Comedy” or as the overbearing father of a young comic in “Funny Bones.”
      Almost immediately, my hopes were dashed, as the film begins at such a slow, dreary pace that I struggled to stay awake. The first 30 minutes of the film consists of Max’s granddaughter (a game Kerry Bishe) trying to rustle him out of his funk and referee angry exchanges between her father (Kevin Pollack) and the unpleasant old man. The complexities of the relationships are mostly left unsaid as Max (or is it Lewis?) sits in his chair moping about his life.
       I wasn’t sure if it was just a bad script or that Lewis lacked the energy to give a real performance. Yet the film (and Max) picks up when the family moves Max to a nursing home and he begins in earnest his search for a mystery man who seems to have had an affair with Max’s wife 50 years ago. But he remains the least interesting character in the film; for someone who worked as a musician all his life, he displays little charisma.
      While Max grows more and more obsessed with tracking down the scoundrel who has ruined Max’s memory of his wife, the flashbacks—the great Claire Bloom plays Mrs. Rose—don’t reveal much of a loving relationship.
       Writer-director Daniel Noah’s script is filled with enough conventional wisdom and homilies for a half-dozen Hallmark TV movies. Even when Max finally meets his rival (though a coincidence that stretches believability to its breaking point), the film has nothing of interest to say.
       And even worse, the director never even has Max to sit down at his piano and remember his music; disappointing, to say the least.

    Since Shakespeare, one of the tried and true comedic devices has been mistaken identity. Even at its most unbelievable, the device provides a dramatic irony that is hard to resist—there is great pleasure in knowing what a character in the film doesn’t.
     In this vehicle for two of the era’s most attractive stars, Tyrone Power plays the preposterously named Thomas Jefferson Tyler, who has written a series of unflattering newspaper profiles of socialite and heiress Sara Farley (Gene Tierney). In hopes of obtaining quotes for his next story, he heads to a Colorado resort where Sara is vacationing and, pretending to be a reporter for a local paper, quickly becomes very cozy with her. (Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to meet people in movies?)
     When the ruse is exposed, she has an unusual response: She tells all the rival New York papers that she and Tyler were secretly married. Without a convenient way to disprove her claim, Tyler finds life difficult, losing his job (for getting scooped and involved with the story’s subject), straining his relationship with his real fiancée and, ironically, chaffing under the harassment of fellow reporters and photographers.
     While he comes up with inventive ways to make her deny the marriage, including moving into her house, getting free groceries at her family’s store and crashing high-society parties, the audience knows there is only one way this amusing tale can end.
    Both stars were at the peak of careers destined to be short lived.
    Power was coming off his two best performances, “The Razor’s Edge” (1946), co-starring Tierney, and “Nightmare Alley” (1947), but his roles in the 1950s were less interesting until two 1957 films, “The Sun Also Rises” and “Witness for the Prosecution.” The next year, at age 44, he died of a heart attack.
    Tierney had a few more good roles (“Night and the City,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”) before she stopped acting in the mid 1950s, suffering from depression while in her 30s. She didn’t work for about seven years. After her 1962 comeback in “Advise and Consent,” Tierney gave only a handful of performances, mostly on TV, as her star had dimmed. She died at age 70 in 1991.
      For director Robert Sinclair, it was the last feature he ever made, moving to TV where he directed on such series as “Johnny Staccato,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “Lawman.” In 1970, at age 64, he was stabbed to death by a UC Santa Barbara graduate student, apparently attempting to rob Sinclair’s home.

      This poetically named movie, based on a 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, might have been more appropriately set in the 1820s rather than the 1920s.
     The tragic romanticism, at least as transferred to the screen, seems ill suited to the Twentieth Century, even given its setting on a small island off the coast of West Australia. Somehow it’d be easier to accept the coincidences, the themes of fate, guilt and self-sacrifice if it took place in the Nineteenth or Eighteenth centuries.
      Tom (played by a very solemn Michael Fassbender), deeply affect by his service in World War I, accepts a position as a lighthouse keeper, where he finds a slice of happiness, especially after his marriage to local girl Isabel (last year’s breakthrough star Alicia Vikander).
      But after two miscarriages, a gloomy mood hangs over the marriage, as Isabel desperately seeks motherhood. Then, taking a page out of a Dickens or Hardy novel, a boat drifts ashore containing an infant girl and a dead man.
      Isabel convinces her husband not to report their discovery, instead burying the man and pretending the baby is their own, as they live far from any doctors or neighbors. He reluctantly agrees, but his guilt lies heavily over his life, especially once he learns of the circumstances that lead to them receiving the child.
     Both actors are fine, with the chemistry that apparently bloomed in real life on the set evident on screen; maybe too much. I grew tired of the long, prettily photographed scenes of the couple playing with the baby, running through open fields, living their simple but loving life.
      It seems so obviously the setup for the inevitable, as Tom begins to question their decision and Isabel becomes more psychotic, more obsessed to retain the child, now two or three,
      Along with the stars, Aussie veteran Jack Thomson (“Breaker Morant”) gives a fine turn as a trusted friend of the couple, as does Rachel Weisz, playing a woman whose tragedy sends the plot in motion.
     Like his previous efforts, two intense Ryan Gosling vehicles, “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” director Derek Cianfrance tackles the effects of a difficult, sometimes destructive relationship, this time letting in much more light and burdening the characters with plot twists that double-back on themselves. “The Light Between Oceans” is a tragedy that doesn’t seem tragic enough; a romance that doesn’t have the emotional sweep it deserves.

ELVIS & NIXON (2016)
     One of the iconic images of the 1970s captures a visit Elvis Presley made to the White House in 1970 to discuss the drug problems of America’s youth with President Nixon. As insane as the idea of such a meeting sounds, the summit of these two famous men actually happened. 
     From a script by husband and wife Joey and Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes, this film offers the buildup to the events, the negotiations within the White House and the sheer nuttiness of Elvis’ life. (He shows up at the White House with two concealed weapons and a commemorative World War II pistol he wants to present to Nixon.)
     Liza Johnson, who directed the well-reviewed “Hateship Loveship,” pads the film out with a back story of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a confident of “E,” who went on to become an unofficial curator of the Elvis legacy. In this story, he’s caught between helping Presley arrange the Nixon meeting and flying back to L.A. for a dinner with his fiancée—as if anyone cares. But he’s also listed as an executive producer on the film and, I suspect, the source for the script.  
     Needless to say, there’s not much to this film and it’s not especially funny, yet it benefits greatly from a very quirky performance by Michael Shannon as Elvis. Though he looks like a really bad impersonator, Shannon captures the naïveté and sincerity of the King as he uses his privileged status to attempt to secure a position as an undercover DEA agent.
      The actor, who seems to thrive in smaller, offbeat films, has hypnotic glare and the ability to bring a mysterious, slightly dangerous edge to his characters.
    Kevin Spacey, a comfortable figure in the Oval Office from his role in the television series “House of Cards,” offers a believable impersonation of Nixon, but he’s never more than a supporting player as Shannon’s Elvis dominates every scene, especially in the White House.
      A pair of Nixon flunkies, Dwight Chapin and Bud Krogh (Evan Peters and Colin Hanks), later key players in the Watergate scandal, have more interesting roles, lobbying for the Presley meeting, originally rejected by Nixon, to help with the “youth vote.”
     While the film is forgettable, the actual event remains a fascinating tidbit of history; a classic case of the truth being so much stranger than fiction.




Monday, August 8, 2016

July 2016


     As much as audiences love to see familiar characters on the screen, the more we know about them the fewer surprises a film can offer. Case in point: No longer am I impressed when Jason Bourne finds a way to escape the most inescapable situations. It’s like worrying about a bullet fired at Superman.
     After three of the best chase films ever made, we all know “they” will never catch him, yet when it comes to summer movie entertainment, I’ll take another Paul Greengrass-directed “Bourne” over anything Hollywood’s cookie-cutter machine has to offer.
    Almost 10 year ago, when we last saw Bourne (an especially stoic Matt Damon), he had discovered that he had been brainwashed/conditioned as part of a secret CIA operation to serve as a government-controlled killing machine.
    He’s brought back into the game by his old ally and ex-CIA operative Nicky (Julia Stiles), who brings him additional classified info on his background and the black-ops program.
     This computer breach is quickly spotted by the agency’s young tech specialist Heather Lee (a steely Alicia Vikander, last year’s breakthrough star) and the new Langley chief Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, as pissed off as ever) who fear Bourne will destroy their latest scheme. The chase is on.
    Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse bring it all together in a car-slamming finale in Las Vegas, which seems more suited for the “Fast and Furious” franchise in its nihilistic excess.
     The director, utilizing hand-held cameras almost exclusively and an editing style that renders a walk down a hallway into a thrilling action sequence, never lets up on the accelerator, showing his best work in orchestrating a chase in the midst of a political protest in Athens.  
       More interesting than the machinations to track down Bourne are the underlying reasons why he’s so feared: The documents stolen by Nicky detail plans for unprecedented government access to users’ personal information aggregated by a social media firm’s latest upgrade.
      While the American intelligence community has always been the bad guys in this series, “Jason Bourne” ups the villainy a notch—it’s not just that there a few out-of-control, overly patriotic types ignoring the Constitution, but the entire high-tech government machinery of the Twenty-first Century (sorry to sound like Snowden) have stripped all of us of any semblance of privacy. The ease in which they track down the movements of even a pro like Bourne (I assume it can’t be far from reality) is more disturbing than the most ominous dystopian fiction.

     Woody Allen’s forty-sixth feature, mining similar ground he explored 30 years ago in “Radio Days,” is one of his most inconsistent, containing pages of clichés alongside of insightful, touchingly humorous scenes.
     Like “Radio Days,” a highly verbal, combative Jewish family from Depression-era Brooklyn serves as its center, but this time the youngest son (a miscast Jesse Eisenberg) heads to Hollywood. He has no real plans, except that he expects his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell, trying way too hard), a high-powered movie agent, will find him a job.
      The character of Phil all but sinks the entire Hollywood section of the film as he does nothing but name drop (“I’m having lunch with Ginger; does Bill Powell want the role?” kind of lines), which is amusing for about five minutes and then grows tiresome, especially when it seems to be legit; he’s not just a blowhard. Then there’s his relationship with his nephew. For the first two weeks Bobby is in town, his uncle ignores him—can’t find five minutes to shake his hand and say welcome to L.A.—then, suddenly, he treats him as a protégé and before long he’s promoting him in his office.
     If it wasn’t for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, so real that you think she walked in from another movie), Phil’s assistant who shows Bobby around town as he falls hard for her, the first half of the film would be nearly unwatchable. As their relationship grows, the audience, but not Bobby, can see it’s doomed as she clings to the hope that her older, married lover will divorce.
    Allen narrates the film, offering short sketches of various characters as the camera moves through its many party scenes (cinematography legend Vittorio Storaro, working on his first mainstream film in 18 years, makes them sparkle) and then fills in the narrative gaps, making the story seems as if it’s lifted right from the pages of a short story collection.
     And while I hope Allen continues to direct films until he’s well into his 90s, I’m not sure if his somewhat shaky 81-year-old voice is right for movie narration; a younger, smoother voice would have been more effective.
      The film comes alive when Bobby finds great success back in New York managing the nightclub owned by his mobster brother (the always fine Corey Stoll). It’s in the nightclub that the director’s narration works best as he describes the characters that populate this hip nightspot. Back in New York, the script comes alive and feels real, especially when the parents (‘70s star Jeannie Berlin and Scottish actor Ken Stott) and the older daughter (Sari Lennick) are given their moments to shine.
     Despite the inconsistencies, there are enough interesting elements, especially Stewart’s unforced seductiveness and the reimaging of 1930s high society, to make the film worth seeing. Of course, I wish Allen would stop his lead actors from imitating his mannerisms; mediocre actor Eisenberg fumbles badly. Yet clearly this is Woody’s life story: flirting with Hollywood and its exquisite beauty, but ultimately feeling more comfortable in the hothouse atmosphere of a darker, grimier New York.
      While “Café Society” could have used a rewrite as he struggles to balance the satire and straight-up romantic comedy, Allen nails the ending, poignantly reminding that even the best of lives are marked by painful regret.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
     Was there something in the water last year that inspired both Allen and the Coen brothers to tap into Hollywood history? While the glamour of the movies are a backdrop for “Café Society,” the most recent film from Joel and Ethan puts it front and center, setting the film inside the world of a fictional movie studio (in the 1950s) and devoting nearly half the picture’s screen time to scenes of various genre movies being shot by Capitol Studios. 
     Even for someone interested in how things worked in studio-run Hollywood, these “recreations” become tedious quickly. Brief moments of a B-Western, a shore-leave musical, an Esther Williams-like extravaganza, a Biblical epic and theatrical adaptation would have sufficed instead of the long scenes the Coens depict. But without those time fillers they would have had to invent an actual plot, rather than the flimsy idea of a witless movie star (George Clooney) kidnapped by a gang of screenwriters.
      Last year, the only laugh-out-loud moments I experience at the movies were the dozen or so times I saw the trailer for this film. I laughed every time I saw it. Then, finally, watching the actual film I didn’t laugh once. It wasn’t that I knew the punch lines were coming; it was that in the full cut of the scenes, they had no punch.
     Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a real guy who worked as a “fixer” for MGM for four decades, but who, in the Coen’s world, runs Capitol, overseeing every detail of the student’s business, from keeping productions on schedule to arranging for a star to secretly have her baby. Brolin’s role is as the straight man to all the lunacy around him, but the script never provides any laughs. Clooney comes closest, just being his goofy self, while Scarlett Johansson is perfect as the swimming star whose off-screen life isn’t as innocent as her on-screen image.
     Yet in scene after scene, I waited for some great bit of screwball comedy, but it never showed up.

      Like so many post-war crime pictures, “Tight Spot” opens in such dramatic fashion that the rest of the film is inevitably disappointing. Usually it’s a robbery gone wrong or the sullen anti-hero arriving in town; here it’s a car ride to the courthouse, with the gangster witness squeezed between two feds in the backseat.
    Director Phil Karlson and his impeccable director of photography Burnett Guffey (“From Here to Eternity,” “Bonnie and Clyde”), shoot the trio in tight close-up, in glorious black-and-white, on their early morning ride. Then, shooting wide from across the street, the filmmakers show the men walking up the long, empty steps of the courthouse until…a shot rings out and the witness is dead.
     The next scene opens in the laundry room of a women prison, where Ginger Rodgers plays Sherry Conley, a gum-smacking party girl serving time for helping out the wrong guy at the wrong time. She’s suddenly escorted by lawman Vince Striker (Brian Keith) from the prison to a downtown hotel to meet District Attorney Lloyd Hallett (no less than Edward G. Robinson) who wants her to testify against the mobster who just had the other witness killed.
      It’s the best cast Karlson (or almost any B-director) ever had to work with, but the story, even with plenty of rounds fired at Sherry and a surprising turn in the last act, never matches the energy of the director’s “Kansas City Confidential” (1952), “99 River Street” (1953) or “The Phenix City Story” (1955).
      Keith and Robinson are fine in roles they could pull off in their sleep, but Rogers struggles portraying the low-class tough girl; she tries so hard it shows. Noir veterans Audrey Totter or Gloria Grahame would have been better bets for the role, but they wouldn’t have generated equal box office. Rogers, though well past her days as a megastar, dancing with Fred Astaire or starring opposite James Stewart or Katharine Hepburn, was still a giant name in Hollywood.
    Keith’s a fascinating actor, who went from playing sour tough guys in the 1950s to gaining bigger fame as the cloyingly sweet uncle in “Family Affair” on television starting in 1966. He never rose to the top ranks of film actors, but could be effective, notably in “Nightfall” (1956), “Run of the Arrow” (1957) and “The Deadly Companions” (1961), Sam Peckinpah’s film debut that Keith, who had starred in the director’s TV series. “The Westerner,” orchestrated.
     While never reclaiming the intensity of the opening, “Tight Spot” is a fast-paced, well-acted minor crime movie with an unusually star-studded cast. 

      For those who aren’t jazz aficionados, Miles Davis, trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader, soared for 40 years as one of the most influential musicians of the Twentieth Century. While this challenging movie—co-written, directed and starring Don Cheadle—makes attempts to show his musical brilliance, it primarily focuses on Davis’ drug-fueled, gun-waving, chaotic period in the 1980s, near the end of a long stretch of unproductive years for the trumpeter.
       While the accuracy of some of the film’s specific incidences may be in doubt, there is no question that Cheadle, both as an actor and director, truthfully captures Miles, a self-destructive, egotistical, profane, paranoid misogynistic bully who treated everyone as an unwanted intruder. The wild adventure at the center of the film—a stolen tape of Davis’ latest work—is abated by a freelance journalist (a breathless Ewan McGregor) looking for a story who ends up serving as the driver on a two-day rampage through the streets of Manhattan.
      The first-time director utilizes some interesting devices—at one point Miles opens the back of the elevator at Columbia Records—to flash back to the prime of the musician’s career in the 1960s, when he met and married dancer Frances Taylor. Though younger and well-groomed, Cheadle’s Davis shows the seeds of his destructive personality that grew out-of-control 20 years later.
      Cheadle offers a chillingly realistic performance as Davis, looking like him (especially in the later years) but, more importantly, mimicking his distinctive voice and gait and replicating his omnipresence piercing stare, reflecting his seemingly unceasing anger.
     While I was quite aware of Davis’ childish lifestyle in the ‘80s (the autobiography he wrote with Quincy Troupe is shockingly revealing), but seeing it played out on screen was simply sad. A man who stands with Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Gillespie and Coltrane as the most innovative performers in jazz history lives life in his middle age as a if he was an unstable street junkie.
    I have nothing against drug use; just don’t let it define your entire life. For Davis, his troubled life is best left to the historians—I don’t think there’s even much of a moral lesson to be gained. 
     I prefer to enjoy his timeless music, as beautiful and emotionally revealing as the day it was recorded, and remember the searing performer I saw on stage near the end of his life (he was only 65 when he died in 1991). Give a listen to “So What,” “Milestones” or his version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” and you’ll hear American music at its finest. That’s worth remembering.

      Bryan Cranston has carved out a nice little niche as the “everyman” put in extraordinary situations, from his “Breaking Bad” television series to last year’s “Trumbo,” which earned him an Oscar nomination, and this new film, in which he plays a real-life federal agent.
    While the movie is a messy collection of often hard-to-connect incidents in a U.S. operation to disrupt Pablo Escobar’s massive drug business in the 1980s, Cranston and the supporting cast turn it into an entertaining picture.
    Set in the Reagan administration, when cocaine was the era’s Starbucks, abetted by American and international bankers, gangs in every city and, in some case, local and federal law enforcement, “Infiltrator” details DEA agent Bob Mazur (Cranston) maneuvers to win the trust of various players in the Colombian drug mob. With the help of street-wise agent Emir Abreu (an edgy John Leguizamo), he convinces the syndicate that he’s a Mafia-backed money launderer who will keep their money away from suspicious feds.
    Early in his posing, he uses the excuse of having a “fiancé” to avoid having sex with a drug-lord-provided call girl. That turns out to be a crucial turn in the operation as Mazur and agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), as his fiancé, quickly become close friends with Escobar lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (played to perfection by Benjamin Bratt) and his wife.  
     With a better director (Brad Furman, best known for “The Lincoln Lawyer,” never finds a tone) and a better structured screenplay (by Ellen Brown Furman, from Mazur’s book)—though the dialogue is sharp and believable—this could have been a really good film.
    As much as I admired Cranston’s and Leguizamo’s nonstop bickering as they create characters who are regular guys doing a job, not fearless superheroes, Bratt gives the film’s outstanding performance. He became a TV star as Jerry Orbach’s partner in “Law and Order” from 1995 to 1999, when it was the best drama on television. But before this film, his best movie role was as Sandra Bullock’s keeper in “Miss Congeniality” (2000). In “Infiltrator,” Bratt is a smooth charmer whose ruthlessness lies just beneath the surface.
      Also not to be missed is veteran Olympia Dukakis’ turn as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, who has the smarmy presence of an aged Connie Corleone. 

    While I was never much of a Hugh Grant fan, I was surprised by his sudden disappearance from major film roles over the past dozen years. “Rewrite,” which barely opened in this country early last year, didn’t do anything to revive his dormant career, but it’s an enjoyable, well-written romantic comedy that even I found amusing.
     Grant plays Keith Michaels, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the beloved hit film “Paradise Misplaced,” which, from descriptions, sounds simply awful—angels that get lost seeking heaven. Yet he’s never duplicated that success (a common ailment of screenwriters) and his career is sputtering.
     His indulgent agent (a feisty Caroline Aaron) suggests he take a position in the upstate New York college of University of Binghamton, teaching, of course, screenwriting. Though he firmly believes that noting of values, especially writing, can be taught, his dire situation forces him to accept the position.
     In case it wasn’t clear that Keith is totally unsuited for academic life, during his first night in the college town he meets a student, the seductive Karen (Bella Heathcote), who has applied for his class, and spends the night with her.
     Continuing his clueless, Hollywood-privileged ways, he insults, at a staff reception for him, the uptight professor (Allison Janney) whose life is devoted to the work of Jane Austen, ridiculing Austen’s novels as trite and without merit. While this confrontation is necessary to create an antagonist for Keith, it plays out in ridiculous fashion, even for a comedy. Not even someone in showbiz could be that insensitive.
      But Keith doesn’t take anything too seriously; in fact, rather than reading the scripts submitted by the students seeking to take his class, he looks up their student profile online and selects the cutest girls (including Karen, who he continues to sleep with) and a couple of nerdy guys. Then, on the first day of class, he instructs them to work on their script and reassemble for class in a month. End of class. Did he really think he could get away with that? He’s getting paid; of course, in Hollywood many people get paid very well for doing nothing.
       A persistent older student (Marisa Tomei) persuades Keith to actually read her script and allow her in the class, giving him an age-appropriate female to banter with and, eventually, fall for.
     The film has many of the elements of Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man,” also released last year, about a new professor who becomes involved with both a student and a woman closer to his age. In both films, and in most Hollywood pictures, middle-class morals prevail and the May-September romance implodes. Though Allen receives constant criticism for his portrayals of romantic matches, rarely do the older man-younger woman involvements turn out well in his (or any other’s) films. Yet Allen is the perfect example: he’s been married for almost 20 years to a woman 40 years his junior. 
     Needless to say, Keith eventually takes to teaching, becoming involved (in the right way) with his students and sees the appeal of Tomei’s Holly. He even considers writing a sequel to his hit, something he labeled creative suicide in the past (“that was when I was young and believed in myself”).
     Despite all the ridiculous, overly convenient plot developments, the fine cast—clearly someone thought this could be a hit—carries the film.
     Grant, now looking more like a man who has faced some rough spots in his life, still can deliver low-key sarcasm with ease while evoking the character’s overarching depression.
    The supporting cast is first rate, led by J.K. Simmons as the ex-Marine department chair who tears up at any mention of his family; Janney, who makes her cliché-based character somewhat real; newcomers Heathcote as the dangerous Karen, Annie Qian as the class’ cool chick and Steven Kaplan, as the most talented of the students; along with Chris Elliott (David Letterman’s long-time stooge), who plays a lonely Shakespearean professor who lives next door to Keith.
     Writer-director Marc Lawrence, who directed Grant in “Two Weeks Notice” and “Music and Lyrics,” seems content to let the actors carry the show and, up to a point, they do. Grant’s next comeback attempt will begin this week in a supporting role in the Meryl Streep vehicle, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”

Saturday, July 9, 2016

June 2016


     While spy novelist John le Carré has long been a favorite of filmmakers—over 15 movies and TV series since 1965—the last few years have been particularly rich for fans of the British writer.
     The new film, based on his 2010 book, comes on the heels of the superb AMC miniseries “The Night Manager” and two excellent feature films “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) and “A Most Wanted Man” (2014).
    The traitor of the title is Dima (a perfectly cast Stellan Skarsgard), an accountant in the Russian mob who is reluctantly helping legitimize the criminal organization’s move into international banking. But he knows his value is decreasing, putting his life and his family’s in jeopardy.
    So he befriends Perry (Ewan McGregor), a young British professor, while on vacation in Morocco, asking him to pass along a flashdrive of inside information to British intelligence.
    But that was the easy part. Now Perry and his reluctant wife, Gail (Naomie Harris, an excellent actress deserving of better roles), must met up with Dima and his family again to help bring them in from the cold. Doing his best to facilitate all this is Hector (the underrated Damian Lewis), a mid-level agent who must fight unconvinced, and/or compromised, superiors (a staple of le Carré’s plots going back to the Cold War novels).
     What makes this film better than your average spy yarn is the relationship le Carré (and screenwriter Hossein Amini) weave between this profane, boisterous mobster and a mild-mannered, rather boring poetry teacher. I’m not much of a fan of the jittery acting of McGregor, but he does well in capturing this accidental hero, an “honorable man,” to use le Carré’s most precious compliment.
      Director Susanna White, a veteran of British television, struggles with the film’s pacing at the beginning, but once the story picks back up in Paris and then moves for the finale in Bern, she finds the right mix of thriller urgency and character-driven sentimentality.
     Keane, so good in everything he’s done, mostly on TV (including “Homeland,” “Wolf Hall” and “Billions”) over the past 15 years, fits perfectly into the British intelligence world; in one crucial scene he wears a George Smiley-like 1960s raincoat. But it’s hard to take one’s eyes off Skarsgard’s Dima, crazed and brilliant all at once.
     The actor fully embraces this larger than life character, one of le Carré most intriguing in recent years.  Though a star of stage and film in Sweden for years, the actor didn’t become known to American audiences until his mid-40s when he played a paralyzed oil worker in “Breaking the Waves” (1996). He’s had dozens of memorable performances since then, notably as Bootstrap Bill in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and a very frighten businessman in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” but “Our Kind of Traitor” is the highlight of his English-language screen work.
     A breakout performance is also at the center of the mini-series “The “Night Manager.” Tom Hiddleston, best known as the unstoppably evil Loki in “Thor” and “The Avengers,” is cool personified as Jonathan Pine, a Brit working as a hotel manager in Egypt when he ends up in the middle of some ugly business.
     This globe-hopping, Bond-like thriller, one of the most impressive productions I’ve ever seen on television, follows the revenge-based mission of Jonathan (he actually goes by many different names) after he finagles his way into the inner-circle of international arms dealers Roger Roper (an equally impressive Hugh Laurie).
      Pine is unofficially working for a rogue branch of British intelligence, led by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, recently in “The Lobster”), a whip-smart pregnant woman who refuses to hear the word “no,” even when it comes from 10 Downing Street.  
     The 1993 novel is one of le Carré more literary works (and his first post-Cold War tale), with its non-professional protagonist and his non-political motives to bring down the bad guys. There’s a hint of a Graham Greene character in Pine, a repressed, damaged drifter who finds meaning in his new-found role as a British spy. Hiddleston could end up being the next Bond, but seems destined for more serious fare. He has both a strong cinematic presence and the acting chops honed on the British stage.
     Director Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker best known for her Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding” and “In a Better World,” which won the 2010 foreign film Oscar, maintains an intense, edge-of-your-seat mood throughout the six-part series, even as it globetrots from Egypt to Switzerland to  Spain and Morocco (all stunningly shot by Michael Snyman).
     The supporting cast is just as impressive as the scenery, with Elizabeth Debicki as Roger’s seek, blonde companion, who, of course, falls for Pine and Tom Hollander as Roger’s bulldog right-hand man who, from the start, is both jealous and suspicious of Pine.
     Of course, this being television, the ending gives the viewers a greater sense of justice than the author, who knows that the bad guys almost always get away with it, ever would in his novel. But that doesn’t diminish the cat-and-mouse games and father-and-son like relationship between Pine and Roper that kept me glued to the screen for more than six hours.   

GENIUS (2016)
    There’s probably a great film to be made about the American literary scene of the 1920s and ‘30s, but until then, this will do. Instead of focusing on the era’s stars—Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (they play supporting roles in “Genius”)—the film fleshes out the relationship between legendary book editor Max Perkins and the nearly forgotten, comet-like novelist Thomas Wolfe.
    Perkins (played by Colin Firth as a circumspect workaholic) served as the principle editor at Scribner’s, guiding the early novels of the great writers of the time and then spotting the potential in Wolfe’s epic, unwieldy first novel after others had rejected it.
    Wolfe (Jude Law, at 43, more than a decade too old for the role) goes from excitable and eccentric to overbearing and egotistical, especially after “Look Homeward, Angel,” his autobiographical debut novel, is hailed by critics and readers. Yet somehow, Perkins takes to him (while they cut nearly 100,000 words from his draft) and Wolfe becomes an unlikely family friend, a constant amusement to Perkins’ five daughters.
    Even if you know nothing of Wolfe, the screenplay by three-time Oscar nominee John Logan leaves little doubt that this brilliant yet tormented writer has but a short time to shine, destined for a downfall. I guess no one wants to see a film about a relatively stable person who happens to also be a great writer.
     I wish director Michael Grandage, making his film debut after great success as a British stage director, could have toned down the performance of Law by a level or two. The performance might have worked on stage, but on the big screen it comes off a way too broad.
    The director isn’t afraid of spending screen time showing the editing process; in fact, Perkins and Wolfe culling the first novel and its follow-up “Of Time and the River” are the best parts of the film.
    Otherwise, there isn’t much to this mismatched pair, with too much time spent on the men’s domestic situations (both put work ahead of family). Most curious is the role of Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s married mistress, who fluctuates between shrew and victim. Strange indeed, is seeing Kidman, who just a few years ago was the most acclaimed Hollywood actress, playing a supporting role.
    Maybe it was the topic; it seems as though the pre-war literary world is a favorite topic of hers. Before “Genius,” she won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (2002) and played Hemingway’s mistress in an HBO film in 2012.
     Based on A. Scot Berg’s well-received 1978 biography of Perkins, “Genius” shines a light on a writer who more should be aware of and the complex relationship between editor and writer—at one point, Perkins worries that he’ll be accused of gutting a genius’ work. Despite its excesses and clichés, I’ll take a film like “Genius” over another movie about a preposterous superhero.

PURPLE RAIN (1984) and THE HUNGER (1983)
     This year, the music world has lost two of its most creative and influential artists, both of whom having left their mark on the cinema as well.
    With its mix of live performance and melodrama, Prince’s “Purple Rain” was the perfect film for the MTV ‘80s, as shallow and as addictive as the best of music videos. The film, and the album of the same name, confirmed the Minneapolis rocker as the most ambitious and innovative pop musician of his generation and the only person on Earth who could be taken seriously while wearing purple Louis XIV garb.
    The movie never gets any better than its scorching eight-minute opening performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince (here “The Kid”) and the Revolution on stage at Minneapolis nightclub, First Avenue, the actually venue he first performed at. The song typifies the best of Prince, as it combines the heavy beats and soaring vocals of R&B, the guitar-jamming of classic rock, 80s synthesizer and the songwriter’s uncensored thoughts on romance.
      Cutting back and forth from the stage, filmmaker Albert Magnoli sets up the film, showing the arrival of wannabe singer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) and introducing The Kid’s musical rival, the comically egotistical Morris Day (another Minneapolis musician, playing himself).   
    A recent viewing of the film reveals, not surprisingly, that Prince’s musical performances are as dynamic as they were when the film premiered more than 30 years ago, capturing, as movies rarely do, the emotional sweep of a live show. In sharp contrast, the plot and dialogue of “Purple Rain” are so clogged with cob webs that they can’t be taken seriously. I’ve seen silent films that are less dated than this story of dysfunctional family, showbiz double-dealing and musical jealousy.
     Smartly, Prince speaks as little as possible but generally comes off as sincere, sounding like a knighted actor compared to Apollonia, a hopelessly unprepared last-minute substitute for Vanity (who had a pretty good career as a femme fatale in the 1980s and 90s). And the comic interplay between Day and his sidekick Jerome is slightly amusing—they do a clever rift on “Who’s on First.”
    But it’s the music that drives the film, with Prince simply soaring on “The Beautiful Ones,” “When Doves Cry” and the title track.  
    Unfortunately, Prince starred in two more films, “Under the Cherry Moon” (1986) and “Graffiti Bridge” (1990), both unwatchable blemishes on this great artist’s legacy.
    David Bowie never starred in a film like “Purple Rain”—imagine a cinematic version of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”—but he had one of the better movie careers among rock ‘n’ roll stars. In fact, the only pop artists of the post-Elvis era who can compare on film are Barbra Streisand, Cher, Jennifer Lopez and singers-turned-actors (really a different category) Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube.
     His debut, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” plays off Bowie’s otherworldly looks. He’s an alien who takes the shape of a human, calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton, who becomes a multi-millionaire businessman. But the rest of the plot, involving a college professor played by Rip Torn, is almost incomprehensible. The ambiguous film, directed by Nicolas Roeg in his usual time-and-space challenged rhythms, has not aged well.
    “The Hunger,” the debut feature film by director Tony Scott (who went on to do “Top Gun” and “Enemy of the State”) has actually improved with age, or at least my appreciation of it has.
   Bowie plays John Blaylock, the companion of Miriam, an ageless vampire (played with a regal perfection by Catherine Deneuve), who wakes up after a night of devouring a couple (picked up at a disco) to find himself rapidly aging.
   Despite no background information about him or how he fell under Miriam’s spell, (the film seductively offers more questions than answers), his Blaylock seems to anticipate the AIDS crisis that was just beginning to become known to the public in 1983. He is especially compelling as an ancient-looking man, just days after looking like he was in his 30s, though one assumes he is, in fact, hundreds of years old.
   Susan Sarandon plays a clinical scientist studying aging in baboons who, at first, ignores Blaylock’s complaints about aging and then tries to seek him out, instead falling into the alluring clutches of Miriam.
    While it’s easy to dismiss “The Hunger” as nothing more than a stylish vampire flick, the performances of Bowie, Deneuve and Sarandon elevate the film.   
     That was really the start of the cinema side of Bowie’s career. That same year he played a British officer held prisoner in Japan in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) and then, three years later, he was the non-Muppet wizard in the popular sci-fi film “Labyrinth.”
     Over the years, he’s mostly had small  but high profile roles such as Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Andy Warhol in “Basquiat,” Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige” and an oddball character in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Surprisingly, he had the lead role in a screwy 1991 comedy, “The Linguini Incident.”
      While what Bowie or Prince did on screen can’t compare to their musical artistry, they both recognized the cinema as another way to express themselves and, in Bowie case, sustain a profile after music popularity has faded.

HARPER (1966)
     This private eye picture wasn’t in the running for the best film of 1966; that honor would fall to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” the adaptation of Edward Albee’s explosive stage play; “Alfie,” the chronicle of a London playboy that made Michael Caine a star; or “A Man for All Seasons,” the Henry VIII-Thomas More historical pageant. But this Paul Newman vehicle remains an entertaining, well-acted entry in the crime-mystery genre, worthy of revisiting 50 years after its release.
       Maybe the finest practitioner of the PI novel of the post-Chandler era was Ross Macdonald, whose detective, Lew Archer, usually sought missing persons up and down the California coast, finding corruption and discontent not far from the pristine beaches along the Pacific. For this film, based on his novel “Moving Target,” the protagonist’s name was changed to Harper, supposedly at the insistence of Newman, who had already had hits with “The Hustler” and “Hud.” I never quite believed that story, but crazy demands have always been a hallmark of stars.
      Under whatever name, this detective is a worthy successor to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe with Newman capturing the laconic, sarcastic and highly efficient manner of Harper.
      After rolling out of his pull-out couch bed—he lives out of his office as he goes through a divorce—Harper drives up the coast to investigate the disappearance of a multi-millionaire, meeting the barely interested wife (Lauren Bacall), his laid-back driver (Robert Wagner) and his flirty daughter (Pamela Tiffin). As the case progresses, Harper deals with a washed up movie star (Shelley Winters), her tough-guy husband (Robert Webber), a drug-addict pianist (Julie Harris), a loony religious leader (Strother Martin) and the missing man’s lawyer (Arthur Hiller), who lusts after the much-younger daughter. And just in case he’s not diverted enough, Harper keeps trying to win back his estranged wife (Janet Leigh).
       This all-star cast of supporting players, along with the crisp Macdonald dialogue (as transferred to the screen by William Goldman) makes up for the sometimes clunky plot turns. Jack Smight, by 1966 one of the most respected directors in television but just starting to work on the big screen, is hardly a stylist but he makes good use of the half-dozen or so bars and restaurants where most of the action takes place. The great cinematographer Conrad Hall brings a noirish tint to the California locales.
     Newman’s gum-chewing, evasive Harper seems happiest when he’s creating characters and doing accents on the spot to elicit information from unwitting sources. He certainly amuses himself, if no one else. I can imagine a very different film had the actor originally cast—Frank Sinatra—taken the role.  
      Newman revisited the character almost a decade later in the equally entertaining “The Drowning Pool” (1975) and then returned to the genre when he was 73, playing a retired detective taking on one last case in “Twilight” (1998).
       Needless to say, Newman was both a great star and a great actor, who combined realistic Method style of acting with the likable presence of a classic Hollywood leading man throughout his long, interesting acting career.

    As regular readers of this post know well, I’m a sucker for movies about anything to do with the film industry. While I’m usually disappointed, I don’t think I’ve seen any “movie” movie quite as ridiculous and pointless as this slice of the pioneering Russian filmmaker’s life.
      British director Peter Greenaway, best known for “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Love” (1989), doesn’t show any interest in depicting Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt, in the early 1930s, to make a film in Mexico, instead focusing on the director’s affair with the Mexican guide assigned to aid him during the shoot. I don’t have a clue if Eisenstein was gay or if this part of the story is true (and I don’t really care), but I am interested in the film he tried but failed to make and what went on during filming.
     Greenaway doesn’t show a single frame of any filmmaking, instead filling the picture with long, indecipherable rants by the wild-haired Russian. He’s played by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck, who reminded me of a less-thoughtful Larry Fine (of  Three Stooges fame), though I doubt Larry would have played so many scenes without his pants.
    Just as foolish is Greenaway’s use of split screen; when Eisenstein name drops (nearly every other sentence), a photo of the famous person is shown (James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Upton Sinclair, Charlie Chaplin, among many others). Is Greenaway giving us a social history lesson of the early Twentieth Century? Maybe I’m naïve, but I think most moviegoers know what Einsten and Chaplin looked like.
     There are plenty of clips of Eisenstein’s pro-revolution films—“Battleship Potemkin,” “Ten Days That Shook the World,” “Strike”—which kept teasing me into thinking I was going to see something (anything!) of the legendary, unfinished Mexican project. Nada.

    The reputation of Max Ophüls as one of the finest filmmakers of the first half of the Twentieth Century rests almost solely on his output in the last 10 years of his life. Starting in 1948, first in Hollywood and then back in Paris, this German-born, France-based director made six films examining romantic complications and compromises with a clear-eyed honest that was new to the cinema.
     In America, he made “Letter from an Unknown Woman” (with Joan Fontaine), “Caught” (with Barbara Bel Geddes) and “The Reckless Moment” (Joan Bennett), three of the best films about women made in the era.
    “Le Plaisir” is the least known of the final four films he made in France before dying of heart disease at age 54, with “La Ronde,” “The Earrings of Madame de...” and “Lola Montés” all acclaimed as masterpieces of a type. While these three florid, women-centered extravaganzas are all admirable, the more down-to-earth “Le Plaisir” (shown recently on TCM under the coarser English title “House of Pleasure”) tops them for pure entertainment and filmmaking acumen.
    The film consists of three unrelated stories (from Nineteenth Century French writer Guy de Maupassant), all of which beautifully dissect the unfathomable desires of the human heart and the inevitable pain that follows passion.  
      The opening segment, “Le Masque,” begins with Ophüls’ usual directorial flourishes, as the camera takes us inside a crowded, opulently decorated Nineteenth Century French nightclub, moving from groups of partiers to the dance floor where a strange-looking man joins the can-can girls. After a few minutes of wild gyrations, Senior Ambrose (Jean Galland, an Ophüls regular) collapses to the floor. 
     The management acts quickly, finding a doctor among the attendees to care for the club regular. The camera work and direction in this seemingly simple sequence—Ambrose entering the club, dancing, collapsing, the doctor summoned and then taking the unconscious man to an upstairs room—is breathtaking, filled with asides, chaos, overlapping dialogue, offbeat angles and uncut movement back and forth across the club’s walkways. It unravels with an energy rarely seen outside an Orson Welles production.
    The segment ends with a poignant discussion between the doctor and Ambrose’s put-upon wife about the struggles we all face in accepting the realities of aging. Standing alone, I would rank “Le Masque” as one of the most affecting short films I’ve ever seen.
    The middle story, “La Maison Tellier,” which takes up the most of the film’s 97 minutes, follows a weekend visit by a group of prostitutes to the country, where the confirmation of a niece of one of the women is being celebrated. But first Ophüls establishes the central role the women and the house of ill repute where they work play in the life of many of the town’s men. (When they are out of town, the men are forced to talk to one another, creating nothing but disputes.)
    The filmmaker, playing both peeping Tom and discrete outsider, shoots the brothel from the outside, through windows and open doors as the women flirt with the patrons and the madam (legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux) runs the operation. Ophüls is a filmmaker who always manages to find a different, more interesting way to tell a story.
    Ironically, the sophistication of the prostitutes trumps their scandalous profession, making them welcome visitors to the farming village
    In the finale segment, “Le Modéle,” a painter (Daniel Gélin) falls for a model (Simone Simon, star of the horror classic “Cat People”) but soon tires of her, after she has become devoted to him. The story’s ironic conclusion is rife with the layers of love and hate that mark relationships, summarized by a bystander’s observation: “But, my friend, there’s no joy in happiness.”